Order of Operations

By Bryan Mineo | May 18, 2016, 4:13 p.m. (ET)

SwimmingThe daunting task of correcting stroke mechanics tends to be a frustrating effort for many. With the accessibility of free articles and videos all over the web, you can easily overload on content. How do you know what mechanics you should be working on? How do you know which elements take precedence over others? Just as you wouldn't approach calculus without a mastery of basic math, there are some foundational elements of freestyle to have dialed in before visiting some of the more technical aspects of your stroke. To help simplify the equation, I’ve created an “Order of Operations,” a hierarchy of swimming focuses to guide you through the process.

The following focuses will lay the groundwork for a successful freestyle stroke by addressing posture and breath. Through these concentrated efforts, you will be able to increase lift forces while reducing resistive drag.

Breathe Easy

The single non-negotiable element of life, yet one of the least intuitive elements in swimming, our breath, dictates everything we do. Breathing is largely an unconscious effort during any activity on land, so when thrown in a resistive, dense medium such as water, concerted effort and timing are required.

The two most common breathing errors I see in triathletes are holding of the breath during the exhalation phase and/or ventilating the lungs with too much air. Both of these errors create excess buoyancy in the lungs, popping up the chest and creating drop in the hips and legs and subsequent drag. Our goal is to create a smooth, seamless rise and fall to the breath with minimal effort. A small sip of air during the inhalation and a relaxed, sighing breath during the exhalation is best.

To assure you’re not holding your breath during the exhalation phase, try mentally assigning each breath to your arm strokes. For a left-sided breath, say in your head “inhale” as your right arm comes to full extension during your inhale. Just the same, say to yourself “exhale” as your left arm recovers forward into full extension while your face returns to the water. This neuromuscular connection is elementary but will easily hold you accountable when trying to sync your breath to the cadence of your freestyle. Your breath will become synonymous with the tempo of your stroke.

Objectively looking at your stroke as left side and right side is important in understanding the value of implementing a breathing pattern of every two strokes (once per stroke cycle). This allows for a 1:1 balanced ratio of inhale/exhale, opposed to someone breathing less frequently, every third or fourth stroke, and having a longer period of time during the exhalation phase. Unquestionably this causes the swimmer to hold their breath for a portion of the exhale and often also take in too great a volume of air.

Aim to work with only half of your lung capacity, never fully filling the lungs nor fully emptying the lungs. Because your body is being fed small sips of oxygen every two seconds with this breathing pattern, you're able to keep the breath easy and relaxed opposed to forceful and tense. Naturally, you would never fill up your lungs to capacity and empty completely each breath while running or cycling. That would be exhausting! Swimming is no exception to this aerobic efficiency.

Align Your Spine

The aches and pains you endure from long hours sitting hunched over a computer are your body’s signals urging you to adjust your posture and oftentimes move. These easy to identify pain responses quickly remind us when we need to re-posture our body. When swimming, it’s not always so clear when were positioning our body inefficiently, but the negative affect is still significantly present. The result is excess drag and greater effort required to attempt to keep the body lifted, opposed to sinking.

From an early age you were consistently taught how to stand tall and sit erect. The same conditioning must be instilled for swimming freestyle. Considering spinal alignment, our goal is to create a neutral position that is consistent throughout all phases of the stroke cycle. This helps to create a stable, connected stroke from top to bottom, floating your body high in the water.

First, lets take a closer look at the position of your head. For each inch your head is too high, or conversely too low, a foot of drop can occur at the hips and legs. This is suggestive of the direct relationship your head position has with how you float in the water. There is a sweet spot that we want to ingrain, in which the waterline breaks at the top third of your head just behind your hairline. With this, a bow wave forms off the front of the head and creates a subsequent trough, or pocket of air, next to your face to easily breathe into. This will eliminate the unconscious urge to lift the head as your body turns for an inhale.

Try using the black line below you in the pool as a visual reference point. As you return your face to the water for each exhale, fix your gaze 2-4 ft in front of you on the line. Focus on maintaining a fixed position throughout the entire stroke, meaning no deviation or lift or drop of the head. It can also be helpful to imagine the crown of your head pointing towards the wall ahead as you fix your gaze 2-4ft below you on the lane line. Taking notes of what you feel when making these changes is important, as it will allow you to translate these sensations to your mechanics in the open water just the same.

Finally, lets discuss how to cultivate proper length and alignment from your head down to your legs. Similar to the fixed head position we developed above, our goal is to create a stable, controlled posture throughout the torso. The complex series of muscles that make up your core tend to get ignored when swimming, resulting in excess lateral movement and a squirrely course. More importantly, power transfer is lost without purposeful core engagement.

Imagine you’re doing a plank on the ground, equally firing off the supportive muscles of the low back, your sides and your abdominals. Now, visualize the same active engagement while swimming freestyle. In can be easy to over-engage your core, so to help quantify this lets aim to actively load your core with around 10lbs of tension. Conceptually you want to lengthen through your spine to maximize postural length at all times. Another way to look at this is to pretend your spine is a power cable providing power to your entire body. We want to be sure this cable doesn’t have any kinks in it, by actively lengthening through this cable at all times. This stabilization of your spine/cable helps to keep your torso in a long, taut posture, connecting your shoulders to your hips on the same plane.

A simple exercise to isolate this is swimming an easy 50 with a pull buoy, followed by an easy 50 full stroke. The pull buoy takes the legs out of the equation for a minute before integrating this focus into your freestyle. The reward here is a more solid, long line connecting your head to pelvis, increasing lift and reducing drag.

These few cornerstone elements will build the framework for an effective and efficient freestyle. Luckily, with this efficiency comes the byproduct of speed. Before stressing the more intricate mechanics of your catch, pull, etc., invest some time to establish a solid foundation to build from.

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.