I have been doing swim clinics with the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour for 5 years now. I’ve probably traveled to over 100 teams to help thousands of swimmers work on their stroke technique and their mental strength. Recently, I’ve begun working at Swim Labs where I get to use state of the art technology to analyze swimmers’ strokes. I’m beginning to understand why my coaches would get frustrated with constantly correcting my mistakes. I feel like a broken record constantly telling swimmers to fix the same things over and over! Here are the top 3 common mistakes in freestyle that I see that pretty much everyone can work on.
One of the first things I do at Swim Labs when I look at a swimmer’s stroke is I measure the exact degree that a swimmer laterally rotates. Over-rotation can be the cause of many other issues in the stroke. When the rotation is more than 45°, the swimmer has to compensate to correct the issue. This is what mainly causes inward and outward sweeping motions through the catch and power-phase of the stroke. This also can cause a wiggle with the body and an inconsistent kick. Ultimately the swimmer has to dedicate energy laterally on the rotation and compensation when they should be focusing all of their energy into moving forward.
The correction for this issue is to concentrate on rotating forward instead of side to side and to think about angling the body downward. The degree of rotation should be between 25° and 35° ideally. The rotation should also be driven from the core and not caused by the kick or the pull.
The drill progression that I use allows for a focus on driving the rotation from the core, stabilizing the rotation, and then testing it and enforcing it:
1. Rotisserie: The swimmer is in a tight streamline position with a moderate kick behind them. As the swimmer progresses down the pool, they rotate slowly around their center axis focusing on driving the rotation from the core and keeping the kick consistent and small. The slower and more controlled the rotation, the better. This also teaches swimmers proper body line. If they release connection at any point or if anything is out of line, they will struggle with this drill.
2. One-arm freestyle with stabilizer: Here, the swimmer does one-arm freestyle while the arm that is not pulling placed on a kick board. This is best done with a snorkel. The swimmer focuses on feeling the stability and the hands tracing along the sides of the body without any lateral sweeping. This forces balance in the stroke by not allowing them to rotate as much.
3. One-arm freestyle: One arm is pulling while the other arm is at their side. This challenges the swimmer to maintain balance while only using the one arm. The focus should be on the core and hands pulling straight back. I play around with breathing pattern starting with alternate breathing and moving to breathing only to the opposite side of the arm that they’re using. This drill should be done slow with very controlled rotation and a tight core feeling the connection through the body.
Russell mark has a great article on USA Swimming about rotation here.
Improper Head Position
The head leads the way while your swimming. If it’s in an improper position, the rest of the body is going to follow. When the head is too high in the water the rest of the body sinks causing the swimmer to have to drag their hips through the water and over kick to compensate. They also have to push down on the water in the catch to maintain that awkward body position which is wasted effort and movement. When the head is too low, the swimmer has to plow their way across the pool, which takes a lot of energy.
The breath is another area that I see swimmers struggling with head position. Swimmers with improper head position either lift their head so that both of their goggles come out and their head is tilted upward. This means that the swimmer has to waste energy to push their head up and every time they breathe, their hips drop. The other poor position is that they breathe in their armpit looking behind them. After they get into this position with their chin tucked, they have to push back against the water pressure with their head to get it back down. Any time that the head comes out of neutral position there is energy spent and compensation from somewhere.
The proper position at all times is a neutral spine. Posture counts in swimming just as much as in beauty pageants. You want the spine to be straight and long. While I swim, I look out the top of my goggles. I feel that that forces my spine to straighten and it helped me to find the right head position.
The drills that I do for these kinds of corrections are another progression.
1. Float: The float is the ultimate reset button for bodyline issues. Not everybody will be able to float, but at least they’ll feel the muscles that need to be active to stay on the surface. Have the swimmer lie in the water face down with arms straight at shoulder width and the legs straight at hip width with toes pointed. The whole body should be engaged with the center of gravity as close to chest as possible since that’s where the air is, thus where you float best. The head should be with eyes looking slightly forward (maybe 6” in front) and pulled slightly back. The swimmer can pretend that someone is pulling on his or her ponytail or back of the head. The back should be retracted so that there isn’t a hump at the shoulder blades. Hold the position for a comfortable amount of time before getting a breath, taking a moment, and resetting.
2. Side kick with one arm extended: The swimmer should simply kick on their side (body still angled down) with one arm extended above them. While maintaining a steady kick, swimmer will breathe to the side keeping one goggle in the water and the water evenly cutting the face in half. After a quick breath (emphasis on quick), the head goes back into the water in the proper position. Again, proper position is neutral spine looking slightly in front and head pulled back as if someone was pulling on his or her ponytail.
3. 6 kick switch with 3 strokes: The swimmer does the same drill as listed above, but this time after a breath, the swimmer takes 3 strokes to alternate to the other side. They should not breathe during the 3 strokes and focus on having the proper head position while swimming without having to think about the breath. They can think about the breath on the 6-kick by once getting into the extended position, then slightly turning their head and taking a sip of air before placing it back. Then they can take their 3 strokes. It is important to maintain balance on the 6-kick by keeping the core engaged and not over rotating.
Katie Arnold has an article on head position at USA Swimming here.
I went from having all of my coaches and all of the coaches at the Olympic Training Center constantly on me about getting a high elbow catch (or EVF: Early Vertical Forearm) and now I’m the one who emphasizes it with every single swimmer I teach. Getting your hand and forearm angled so that you’re pulling water behind you is the key to swimming fast and pretty much everyone can improve on it.
Most people waste time when they enter the water letting their hand move downwards with a straight arm (from shoulder to fingertips) until their arm is directly under their body. That’s when they finally begin to pull water because that’s when they finally begin to pull water behind them instead of just pushing it down. By getting the forearm vertical and fingertips down and slightly to the side as soon as possible while the elbow and upper arm stay closer to the surface, you’re able to generate a lot more power.
The other mistake is allowing the elbow to rotate down so that it’s lower than the wrist. A lot of swimmers who are beginning to master the EVF will have a moment on the entry where the elbow rotates down before rotating the elbow on top again and beginning the catch.. As soon as the elbow rotates town, the connection through the body is released and they must then regain that connection. This expends a lot of energy. On the entry, just before beginning the catch, the swimmer must focus on keeping the elbow on top and the core engaged so that the connection stays strong.
I love progressions of drills, if you haven’t noticed. The swimmer must first realize what that position feels like (this also usually involves me physically moving their arm for them on land), then realize the importance of increasing the surface area of the pull by using their forearm, and then implementing the movement into the stroke.
1. Alternating Hinge: This drill is similar to a scull but the arm movement is not for propulsion. The swimmer lies in the water with arms extended in a superman position (proper entry position – just inside shoulder width) and with a gentle kick going behind them, simply moves the forearm unit (fingertips to elbow) so that the fingertips are directly facing down and elbow is on top. Then, return the forearm unit back to superman position. Alternate arms slowly and deliberately. This is just to feel the angle and movement emphasized in the drill.
2. Fist Swim: This is a common drill that is great to feel the importance of using as much surface area to pull through the water as possible. So many swimmers think that you only pull with your hand when you have so much more surface area available to create propulsion! In this drill, you simply close your hands into tight fists (no cheating!) and swim normal freestyle. Focus on EVF and feeling your whole arm pull water.
3. Catch-up: This drill can be done really poorly and quickly thus eliminating all benefit. In this drill, in order to do it properly, you start in superman position and begin taking a stroke by pointing one forearm unit straight down and then pulling back straight through the rest of the stroke and then through the recovery. Again this helps you to feel that EVF position and the power you can get from achieving a proper catch.
My final piece of advice is to take the time to work on technique and be patient. It’s so hard to slow down and work on small movements in a sport that’s all about speed. Find those moments in warm up, warm down, drill sets, or even in your own free time to work on fine-tuning your stroke. I promise it will help you get faster.
Contact me if you have any questions or visit the Swim Labs or Fitter and Faster pages in the appearance section of my website to see how you could learn technique directly from me!
As always, keep your elbows high, but your dreams higher!
Chloe Sutton - Sharing my experience of 20 years of competitive swimming including 8 years on the National Team and 2 Olympic Games.