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So You Want to Swim Fast? Your Introduction to Propulsion

By Karen Allen-Turner | May 15, 2018, 3:32 p.m. (ET)


Two key aspects of swimming fast are decreasing drag and increasing propulsion in the water. Once you have worked on the specific techniques to help reduce drag [read Part 1: “Your Introduction to Drag” here] and improve streamlining, it’s time to tackle propulsion. Propulsion is improved first and foremost by working on stroke mechanics and then becoming efficient in applying a force to the water. The combined effects of body balance, streamlining and good stroke mechanics are what lead to faster swimming. Here are the top four principles for increasing propulsion and six drills to add to your swim training.

Principles for Increasing Propulsion

No. 1: High Elbow
The high elbow position refers to two phases of the freestyle stroke: The high elbow during the recovery phase (when the arm is out of the water) and during the catch phase (the first third of the underwater pull phase) of the stroke.

A high elbow position during the recovery phase of the stroke where the lower arm hangs perpendicularly from the upper arm is the preferred method because it requires less effort and helps maintain body alignment. A high elbow generally helps set the athlete up with a good hand entry that enters the water directly in line with the shoulder. When the elbow position is not high there is an increased chance of the hand entering the water either too close to the head or coming across midline of the body.

During the catch phase of the stroke, the early elbow bend underwater provides a large pulling surface and initiates the recruitment of the large muscles of the back, providing increased power. The high elbow is key for the pull phase of the stroke, whereby the forearm and hand are directed backward toward the back wall. When the elbow is dropped, forces are pushed downward (since the forearm and hand are facing the bottom of the pool). As a result, balance and power are negatively affected.

No. 2: Engage the Core
When the high elbow catch is achieved with the pulling arm that is in the water, it provides an anchor point from which the core can then initiate the propulsive drive. Engaging the muscles of the back, hip and torso in synergy with the arm muscles enable more force to be applied to each stroke and also results in less arm fatigue. The more force applied, the greater the speed. When the core muscles are not engaged, the body loses its ability to move through the water in a straight line in a torpedo-like fashion. The question then becomes, how do you engage the core muscles? Tall posture in the water, stretching through the middle between your rib cage and pelvis, holding in your belly button and lightly squeezing the gluteus (bottom) muscles will all help to make sure you are conscious of using the necessary muscles.

No. 3: Hip Rotation and Drive
The hips are part of the core and they are the forward driving force in freestyle rather than just being the part of the body that rotates. The key is the connection that incorporates the core, hips and shoulders to varying degrees throughout the stroke. The body should pivot around the long vertical or imaginary axis that runs from the feet to the head. When this whole-body connection happens from fingertips to the toes, they work to drive the body forward.

The timing of the hip rotation should be slightly ahead of the shoulder rotation so that as the body rotates to the left, the left arm recovery is occurring. This timing will also be the same with the right side. As the speed of the rotation increases, momentum is gained and energy transfer results, helping to create a strong rhythm and power to the stroke. This is not dissimilar to a football player throwing a ball. The powerful throw is initiated as the energy gained from hip rotation and drive is transferred into the shoulder before the ball is released. Keeping in mind that the arm and hand are an extension of the interconnected body movement that is taking place.

Many athletes have a preferred side on which they breathe. Becoming comfortable breathing on both sides will help to develop good rotation symmetry and long-axis rotation. It is not uncommon for swimmers to struggle with adequate body roll on their weak side. Inadequate rotation results in swimming flat in the water, increasing frontal drag and ultimately restricting the length of the stroke. A swimmer that rotates well about their long axis will be able to incorporate the necessary shoulder rotation important for the recovery and reach phase (when the lead hand is reaching forward underwater) of the stroke. Being able to reach further in the water, helps with an early catch and an increased volume of water that can be displaced during the pull phase. [Read more on “Are you Gliding or Reaching” here.]

No. 4: The Kick
Remembering that rotation occurs through the long axis that runs through the entire length of the body, an efficient and well-timed kick will help to enhance the body's rotation to drive both the pulling and recovery arms. Although the very best swimmers in the world will only generate approximately 10 percent of their speed from the kick, the kinetic chain connection, rhythm and consistent propulsion that results from an efficient kick is what is important. An inefficient kick will result in the legs and body sinking and the swimmer struggling to maintain a streamlined position.

6 Propulsion Drills to Swim Faster

Here are the top drills that will help you focus on applying these principles into practice. I recommend that all the drills with the exception of the fist drill (No. 6) be completed both with long fins and without.

1. Kicking on Side with Rotation (6-1-6 and 6-3-6 drill): The 6-1-6 drill starts off in the extended side balance position with the lower arm stretched out and reaching forward. Every three kicks (or 4-5 seconds), you take the top arm that is by your side and you complete one stroke. As you enter the hand into the water and reach forward, the opposite hand (which was the lead hand) is used to pull and rotate you onto the opposite side. Hold the position on the side before completing the next single rotation. The 6-3-6 drill is the same as the 6-1-6 drill; however, instead of completing one stroke, you complete three strokes prior to rotating onto the opposite side. Focus on a smooth rotation and keeping the body in alignment. This drill should be performed very slowly and with purpose.

kicking on side with rotation  kicking on side with rotation  kicking on side with rotation

2. Catch-up Drill with Kickboard: This drill starts to focus more on the freestyle stroke. However, it also forces the body to be in a longer position before starting the underwater pull phase of the stroke. Using a kickboard, start with both arms outstretched and holding it in front. Starting with the left arm, complete one stroke cycle before returning it to the board. Once it reaches the board, complete the cycle with the opposite arm. This pause in the stroke helps give you time to focus on a good catch, pull and the rotation required as you commence the recovery, while still keeping the opposite arm outstretched and reaching.

catch up drill  catch up drill  catch up drill

3. Single-Arm Drill: With one arm outstretched, complete single-arm cycles. While this drill is a great drill for focusing on all aspects of the stroke (recovery, entry, catch, pull, push phases), for the purposes of using it to help with body balance and alignment, focus on the high-elbow recovery. This will help set you up with a good entry and underwater phase. To achieve this, adequate rotation is necessary and the body needs to act as a single unit. Once you have completed either a half or full length with one arm, then switch to the alternate arm. This will also provide good awareness on whether a weakness exists on either your left or right side.

single arm drill  single arm drill  single arm drill

4. Fingertip Drag Drill: This drill can be completed as either a catch-up drill or as a slowly controlled freestyle drill. The focus is on a relaxed recovery and correct entry, as it forces the swimmer to keep their elbow high while their fingers stay close to the water. With the recovery arm, slowly drag your fingertips slightly below the water’s surface, keeping them there until the hand enters the water. If this drill is performed correctly, you will receive immediate feedback on whether your fingers are relaxed and can feel the water.

fingertip drag drill

5. Tarzan/Polo Drill: This freestyle drill is completed with the head held out of the water and held in a neutral position, looking directly straight ahead. The focus on this drill is the high-elbow recovery, good entry and efficient catch. It helps to build upper body strength and build a faster, more powerful turnover.

tarzan  tarzan

6. Fist Drill: This is an advanced drill that when performed correctly helps a swimmer to get the feel of the water pressure on the forearm during the catch phase of the stroke. It encourages an early, high elbow during the catch. Put simply, the freestyle is performed very slowly with the hands clenched into a fist position throughout the entire stroke. If the stroke is rushed, you will not get the feel that you are looking for. This is the only drill that I would recommend doing without fins as you want to be conscious of the feedback you are receiving (the pressure on the forearms) as you alter your catch position during the drill. This drill is also best done when combined with regular freestyle (example: 25 yards fists/25 yards free) as it allows you to feel the added power from the opening of the hands and the higher elbow

Note: It is recommended that this drill initially be performed under the watchful eye of a coach to ensure that the thumbs are not entering the water first. This will place excessive internal rotation on the shoulder which can lead to shoulder issues.

fist drill

Did you miss part 1 on decreasing drag in the water? Read it here.

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.