I’m all about optimization… especially in swimming. It’s great when swimmers get the biggest returns possible on the efforts they put into swimming. As such, the first two technical articles I’ve written as the Co-Coaches Chair, have focused on two of the most common and fairly easily fixed technical issues seen with swimmers: streamline and rotation.
To continue along those lines, this installment addresses another very common and fairly easily remedied issue: keeping the head still and in the correct position. Last month we addressed body rotation and how it relates to power generation in one’s stroke. So, body rotation is a good thing. However, a common error is to allow the head to follow the rotation of the body, and/or have the head in a less-than-ideal position, both of which will result in slower swimming.
The ideal head position in freestyle is achieved when the line of sight is straight down and head is in alignment with the body, as it would be if you were standing upright and looking in the eyes of someone of the same height. This head position achieves the least amount of frontal drag, which is always a goal in swimming. Many swimmers swim freestyle and backstroke with their heads positioned too high. This causes the hips and legs to drop from near the surface and dramatically increases frontal drag. To make matters worse, swimmers will often additionally move their head side to side with their stroke. Doing so further breaks streamline, which results in even greater frontal drag, and often causes the hips to shift in the opposite direction of the head, creating a snake-like swim pattern through the water. And we all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line! To move the fastest that we can through the water, we need to swim straight and eliminate any movements that do not aid us in moving from one end of the pool to the other, especially those that increase drag and make the work harder.
To swim as fast as we can, we would ideally never move our heads from the correct position. However, we humans, of course, can’t breathe with our faces in the water, so when swimming freestyle we have to turn our heads out of the water to get oxygen, thereby creating drag. Although we can’t avoid this, we can minimize the amount of that drag. A common mistake is when swimmers rotate too far when breathing. Even just a bit too much head rotation can create a drag issue, especially when the body follows the head rotation.
Breathing while swimming should be quick and with minimal movement. A good rule of thumb is to keep one goggle below water level when breathing, and the smaller the turn of the head, the better. Exhaling should be done entirely under water so that when the mouth clears the water, air can be quickly taken in and the head returned to the ideal position and locked in to being perfectly still again until the next breath is needed.
Elite level swimmers know how critically important it is to keep one’s head perfectly still after entering the water from a start or coming off a turn at the wall, all the way through the breakout and into the stroke cycle. Remember, the goal of the start or a turn is to take the speed from the breakouts off of the blocks or wall and maintain that speed as you transition into swimming strokes. Maintaining speed requires far less effort than gaining speed. And since the breakouts are the fastest you will ever be moving, it is especially important to keep your head still and eyes down during these times so that you don’t waste any energy trying to regain lost speed. That said, a still head and proper head position should be a priority throughout the entirety of a swim. You’ll minimize drag and maximize speed. And be happy that you did!