Too Much Distortion: Noise & Turbulence in Freestyle

By Bryan Mineo | June 21, 2016, 2:52 p.m. (ET)

The older swimmer effortlessly cruises past you lap after lap. As you slog through each set you can’t help but wonder how someone with considerably less fitness than yourself is able to make you feel like a snail in the water. Your fast run pace and power you generate on the bike are nothing to scoff at, but your fitness just isn’t translating in the water.

swimmingEfficiency is everything. Knowing how to move your body most effectively on land can be quite intuitive; however, when it comes to swimming, knowing how to move smoothly through the water requires precise calculation. You first must learn how to work with the water, rather than against it. Regardless of the amount of force you can apply on the water each stroke, without proper posturing, stability and sync of movements, you’re unable to transfer the power you’re outputting. Take a look below at two common sources of “distortion” in your stroke. These two focuses will help you properly set up and finish your stroke, thus discovering greater efficiency.

Kerplunk

A loud, splashing stroke certainly looks powerful, but it is a clear sign of inefficiency — a stroke that isn't performing at its highest level. A textbook case of this is a swimmer who has a big splash off of their elbow each time they enter their hand/arm in the water up front. It can be hard to self-diagnose this issue, but the audible cue of the “kerplunk” sound the elbow splash makes is a dead giveaway. What this is indicative of is an over-extended arm recovery.

During the arm recovery phase over top of the water, the goal is to slice the hand in about 1 foot in front of the head, with upper/lower arm angle at 120-150 degrees. As you slice into the water, visualize the profile of your arm maintaining a slight slope of fingertips below your wrists, below your elbow. Often, in an effort to maximize the length of their stroke, swimmers reach fully over top of the water and subsequently land their upper arm/elbow in the water first, causing the “kerplunk” and splash. Unfortunately this additionally causes a dropped arm position during the catch, unstable arm posturing in the hyper-extended reaching position and a loss of propulsive power and body balance.

With fins on, practice swimming a one-arm freestyle drill in which the arm opposite of your breathing side is lengthened and stable the entire lap. The other arm is the focal point and the only arm pulling. Commit to exclusively focusing your attention on the angle of approach your hand makes into the water each stroke. Remember, aim to slice the hand in about 1 foot in front of the head, fingertips below wrist, below elbow. This will allow you to cleanly enter the water and set up for an effective catch and pull. Follow the drill with a lap of freestyle to directly integrate this focus into your full stroke and then repeat the drill with the opposite arm pulling.

Flick

The fancy flick of the wrist at the back of the stroke is deceptive, in the sense that it actually has little to no function. What does flicking a small amount of water up into the air actually do? Not much. Rather, this is consistently suggestive of a swimmer who doesn't fully complete their pull or push phase of the stroke.

Knowing that the pull totals about 90 percent of your propulsion in the water, it’s clear that maximizing this effort and range of motion is imperative in finding your top speed. For an open water swimmer, maintaining a quick tempo is critical to keep momentum moving forward through the dynamic nature of the waves. In an effort to do so, swimmers unconsciously cut the range of motion of their stroke short to easily employ a higher cadence. Not only does this create a false sense of tempo, but leaves tons of untapped power without the end of their pull, the push.

Let your arm hang naturally to your side with a flexed wrist so that your palm faces the ground. Recruit a slight bend to the elbow so that your arm isn't fully locked out, in which the side of your hand/thumb lands at the bottom of where your pant pocket would be. This is precisely where you should be finishing your stroke each and every pull. Now lets go back to the one-arm freestyle drill, using it for the sole function of recognizing and maximizing your stroke’s range of motion. Take the stroke as slow as you need to during the drill in order to isolate the feel of your hand finishing the stroke at your pocket. Be sure to keep your palm facing backward at all times during the pull, with fingers pointing down and palm perpendicular to the water line. Break at the wrist for the push to allow your hand to continue to face and push water backward, opposed to flicking the wrist and hand up and out of the water early. Again, follow the drill with freestyle to immediately implement and feel the change in your full freestyle. 

Expect these mechanical tweaks to feel a bit funky at first. In fact, you often have to over-exaggerate these changes to make even a slight adjustment to the bad habits you have engrained. Scaling back where you enter your hand to only a foot in front of the head may feel super short at first, because you’re used to over reaching for literally tens of thousands of strokes. Removing the flick of your wrist and pushing until your pocket may feel slightly more tiring at first, only because you’re recruiting more muscular engagement than normal to finish your stroke. Over two to three weeks of discerned focus on these particulars, the mechanics will be in place and you’ll be handsomely rewarded with newfound power and a cleaner stroke cycle. Ditch the loud, crashing stroke and get hip with the clean, purposeful approach to swimming that is necessary to raise your performance ceiling higher.

The Swim Mechanic, Bryan Mineo, is an open water swim mechanics coach based in Los Angeles. His methodology is uniquely specific to the needs of triathletes. Bryan teaches an 'order of operations' by educating athletes on the cause and effect of their stroke inefficiencies. The Swim Mechanic holds clinics around the country, as well as writes monthly articles on swimming mechanics for several national publications.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.