Why Triathletes Should Learn to Streamline
In order for triathletes to swim fast, whether in a pool or in open water, one must learn the ways of a good swimmer, and those include streamlining off every wall and doing flip turns. Doing both of these well in practice will shave seconds off each 100 repeat you swim and that will give you more confidence in your swimming ability.
Streamlining helps teach you the importance of reducing frontal drag, whether during the push off the wall or during the swim itself. As long as you are moving, frontal drag is slowing you down — and you should learn how to swim with less frontal drag. Doing flip turns are not only much faster, but an important part of hypoxic and core training.
The Best Swimming Streamline
Phelps would place his chin on or very near his chest, extend (arch) his lower back, place his arms behind his head, squeeze his elbows as closely together as possible and pull the arms forward as far as possible in the shoulder joint. Sound uncomfortable? It is, and if you are not uncomfortable doing this, you are not in the Phelps-type streamline; what we refer to as the hyper streamline.
The other streamline that is commonly taught is with the head straight in alignment with the body, biceps placed over the ears, with little or no extension of the lower back. With either streamline, the hands should be stacked together wrist over wrist, secured by the top thumb, with the fingers squeezed together and pointing forward, in alignment with the forearms.
While teaching technique at The Race Club, we hate being wrong. It has bothered us for years that we didn’t have the data to support this hypothesis. Now we do. Recently, we began using technology called Ben Hur Digital, which measures frontal drag with great accuracy. One of the first tests we did with this new technology was to compare the various streamline positions done well with some commonly seen mistakes. Here is what we found.
The swimmer (me) was towed at a speed of 2 meters per second, less than the speed of a swimmer leaving a wall (around 2.8-3.3 m/sec) and considerably slower than a swimmer that enters the pool from a starting block (5.5-6.5 m/sec). The differences in frontal drag forces we noted would have been even greater had we been able to test at these higher speeds. The forces and speed were measured in newtons for five seconds during the middle of the tow, when we were most certain of being precisely in the intended positions.
The hyper streamline position showed the lowest frontal drag force at an average of 167.1 newtons of frontal drag. With the other commonly used streamline, with biceps over the ears, the average frontal drag was 181.5 newtons, an increase of 8.6 percent over the hyper streamline. When we separated the arms in front, the so-called Superman pose, we found the average frontal drag to be 182.2 newtons, 9 percent more than hyper streamline. Surprisingly, there was very little added frontal drag from separating the arms.
We also tested two other commonly seen mistakes on streamlines, separating the fingers with a thumb sticking out (with toes pointed backward) and with the feet hanging (with a hyper streamlined front), instead of pointed backward. With the fingers separated and thumb sticking out, the average frontal drag was 197.5 newtons, representing an 18.2 percent increase over the hyper streamline! Of all the positions we tested, the feet hanging was the worst. The average frontal drag in this position was 222.4 newtons, a whopping 33 percent increase in frontal drag!
We also helped to confirm our hypothesis using Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Feigen on the velocity meter. We had Jimmy push off of the wall hard using three different streamline positions and measured the distance he traveled under water in exactly six seconds after his peak velocity (toes leaving the wall). In the first streamline position, with biceps over the ears, he traveled 6.8 meters in 6 seconds. With the second streamline, he tucked his chin down a bit, but not completely down to the chest. With this streamline, he traveled 7.07 meters in 6 seconds. With the hyper streamline position, chin on the chest, he traveled 7.15 meters in the same 6 seconds.
The results of these comparative studies not only confirmed that Phelps did have it right, it also confirms what we have always suspected. In swimming, details matter. At The Race Club, we pay attention to the details and insist that our swimmers do also. If you don’t, you will never swim as fast as you could have.
Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.
Gary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.
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.