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So You Want to Swim Fast? Your Introduction to Drag

By Karen Allen-Turner | April 09, 2018, 10:38 p.m. (ET)

Intensity and duration of swim workouts are definitely important when trying to swim fast. As these components increase, fitness will improve and speed will get faster, but only to a point. Training harder and longer has its limits. For most of us, there is only so much time we all have available to swim and there is only so much intensity that the body can cope with. At some point, increasing intensity and duration will not be enough to recognize gains in swimming.
This leads to the other key aspect to swimming fast, which is technique. Specifically, the two facets of this are:
1. Decreasing drag in the water
2. Increasing propulsion in the water
Water is denser than air. Drag in the water increases by the square of the speed that we swim. This means, as we swim faster, the effects of drag will become more noticeable. Since reducing drag requires skill as opposed to applying a force to increase propulsion, it means there is more room for improvement. With this in mind, here are my five key principles and my top 10 drills to help reduce drag.

5 Principles for Reducing Drag

No. 1: Work on Balance
Improving balance in the water is the first and foremost way to decrease drag. The more horizontal you can remain in the water, the less water is displaced, and therefore, the better your balance. If the head is positioned too high in the water or is lifted when breathing, the resultant effect is that the hips and legs drop. The streamlined position is compromised and more drag is created. 
No. 2: Swim Tall
Making yourself as “long” as possible in the water is akin to a tapered racing kayak moving through the water as opposed to a small rounded recreational kayak. The racing kayak creates less turbulence as it moves through the water than the compact vessel. Less turbulence equates to less water displacement and once again, decreased drag. Swimming taller requires that upon hand entry into the water, you continue to reach forward, even as you rotate to take a breath.
No. 3: Neutral Head
Keeping the head in an aligned and neutral position (i.e. in line with your body, with just your face in the water) will help with streamlining. Focus on the hips to lead the rotation and then let the head follow. Minimizing head movement will result in less water displacement.
No. 4: Compact and Efficient Kick
Research indicates that even the best Olympic swimmers only generate approximately 10 percent of their speed from the kick. While kick efficiency is important for swimming fast, especially for those competing in 100-meter sprint freestyle events (to help create the propulsion), a compact kick is more important for triathletes with a goal being to reduce drag. This means the kick should not move too low below the body line or break the surface.
No. 5: Exhale 
Holding the breath when the face is submerged creates additional buoyancy. While this may seem like a good thing, the problem is the increased buoyancy happens in the top half of the body. The resultant effect is it causes the legs to sink. When the face is in the water you should be continuously exhaling through your mouth, nose or combination of both — whichever is most comfortable for you. This will also help to ensure that the lungs are ready to receive a full inhalation of breath.
Here are my top ten drills that will help you focus on applying these five principles into practice. These drills should be done with long fins on to maximize their effect. Aim to perform each drill slowly.

10 Drills to Swim Faster

1. Kicking on Back: Hands and arms outstretched above the head. Focus on keeping the hips high in the water and your head in a neutral position. Relax your breathing.

2. Vertical Kicking: From a vertical position in the deep end of the pool and your arms at your sides, use a flutter kick to keep your head above the water. Aim to keep the legs straight and toes pointed. As you get stronger you can start to add a 90-degree rotation to each side with a pause in the center. Aim to initiate the rotation from the hips and legs and not the upper body with a goal to rotate the body as one unit. For a more advanced version, try to raise your arms for 10 second intervals.


3. Kicking on back with rotation: This drill helps focus on good body position and working on your long axis rotation. In a horizontal position on the back with arms by the sides, rotate your body to the side 90 degrees. Hold the position momentarily (3-5 seconds) before rotating on to your back and on to the opposite side. Let the hips lead the rotation and focus on keeping the head in a neutral position. Take your time and relax the breathing.


4. Underwater push-off wall: This drill helps you focus on being streamlined in the water. On your stomach, take a deep breath, bob under water and push hard off the wall. Staying underwater and with hands in an outstretched and torpedo position, kick until you need to come up for air before repeating the drill. Don’t hold your breath; rather, slowly let the air out through your nose and mouth.


5. Kicking on stomach with hands outstretched: Start in the same position as the above drill with your hands in a torpedo position (hands clasped above your head, elbows straight). Complete this drill on the surface of the water, aiming to kick slightly below the surface. Keep your head aligned so that your ears are between your shoulders. Focus on exhaling continuously when the head is in the water. Lift head to breath.


6. Kicking on stomach with hands by sides: Start face down in the water, head in neutral position aligned with your spine and hands by your sides. Complete small compact kicks. Rotate to breathe to the side. Lead with the hips and focus on rotating as one unit. Aim to keep the lower goggle in the water and exhaling throughout the rotation.


7. Extended side balance: Begin on your side with lower arm stretched out and reaching forward. It should be just below the surface of the water. Aim to press the ear on to your shoulder. Head can be in a neutral and aligned position in the water with eyes looking slightly toward the lead hand. Belly button should be facing the side wall. Exhale while the head is in the water and then when turning the head to breathe, aim to have one goggle in and one goggle out of the water (since this is the ideal position for your head when you are rotating to breathe). Top arm is by your side. Use a regular kick while paying attention to keep the legs straight and not bending at the knee. Do one length of the pool on one side and then switch to the opposite side.


8. Side balance: This drill is performed the same as the previous drill; however, both arms are placed at the sides. Perform this drill initially with fins. Rotation can be added to this drill, whereby you start in a side position and then slowly rotate to the opposite side. Aim to keep the body long and aligned as you rotate. Hold the position on each side before repeating the rotation.

9. Shark Fin: Begin this drill in the extended side balance position (drill No. 7). Slowly slide your upper arm to a shark fin position as illustrated below and then return it to your side. This drill can also be practiced in the side balance position (drill No. 8). The shark fin position will challenge your balance and will also help you become comfortable with the high elbow recovery that will set you up for your hand entry.


10. Torpedo kick off the wall: This is similar to the underwater push off the wall (drill No. 4). However, this drill is performed on the surface of the water. Push off from the wall with your arms outstretched and hands together and your face in the water. Kick vigorously until you need to take a breath. Stop and swim slowly back to the wall. The focus should be on pointing your toes — and pointing them slightly inward so that the big toes almost brush together — and on kicking from the hip. Keep your knees relaxed (but not bent) and drive from the hip. You should feel your gluteus (bottom) muscles being engaged.


Next month we will look at the second component of swimming fast: propulsion. Until then, work hard at mastering these drills. The benefits may just surprise you.
Karen Allen Turner is a coach for QT2 Systems for both the QT2 and OutRival Racing brands and has been involved in the sport of triathlon as both a participant and a coach since 1986. As a regular national presenter for the USA Triathlon Coaching Certification Program, Karen's ability to draw on her many years of coaching experience and ongoing quest to expand her understanding of the sport provides a valuable resource to new and experienced coaches alike. For her athletes, the combination of her analytical approach, teaching methods and her ability to look at each athlete as an individual with unique needs has led to her success as a coach. 

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.