Swim High or Swim Low, Which is the Best Way to Go?

by SwimSwam 7

May 29th, 2018 Training

Stay low. Go fast. Kill first. Die Last. One shot, One kill. No luck, all skill.

– U.S. Navy Seals

See? That’s all swimming is. It was floating, he said, but faster. He called it ‘speed-floating,” and for the rest of 1933 that’s what he had the ditch kids practice.Soichi Sakamoto in The Three Year Swim Club

(To float- verb- To rest or move on or near the surface of a liquid without sinking)

There are many ways to swim and it is important to know what you want in an end result. Do you want speed? Do you want to use less energy? Do you want to use less of your body? Do you want to remain unseen?

If you are worried about being shot in combat, like a Navy Seal, stay low. If the air is freezing and the water warm, stay low.

In the last week the outdoor pools opened in Boulder and more than one coach at  Masters’ practices gave the advice “Look down. Stay low”. Water is 800 times denser than air, so by staying low you need to be much much stronger. I just really want fast, easier. I want to be high not low.

Two weeks ago I watched Katie Ledecky swim and set a new World Record of 15:20 in the 1500. I watched it here.

I couldn’t believe how high she was in the water, I could see her head, and her back and read the name on her cap. Her body position looks so much higher than that of her competitors. Last night I ate dinner with a triathlete that I have worked with and I have always told her to stretch and lift her chest ,the T (shoulders and sternum)  lifts you higher in the water and makes breathing easier. She replied, “my boyfriend/coach told me to look down and press and stay down. If I lift and stretch thru my chest my feet sink and my back hurts ”

“ They do,” I said, “If you swim like you have had an epidural from the waist down. But if you engage your core, navel swivel, hip hike, ( I call it salsa) you can actually get relief in the lower lumbar and added power a hip driven’ freestyle. (Hip driven is a term developed by Mike Bottom.) Movement releases pressure.

In one of the best books about swimming ever written, The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway, the great Japanese swim coach Soichi Sakamoto talks about Duke Kahanamoku as a “speed demon and an innovator. Duke transformed what was previously known as the Australian crawl- low in the water  technique derided by critics as a keep-your-head-in-the-sand stroke– into something faster and definitely American.”

Sakamoto was a great observer not only of nature but of strokes. In March of 1936, Popular Science Monthly, described swimmer Ralph Flanagan stroke secret as “lying low in the water, head and shoulders level with the surface. “ But Sakamoto felt perplexed. It is the opposite of what he saw. “ Flanagan kept his shoulders and head high above the water, and looked like a hydroplane.” Sakamoto keep watching Flanagan, “ His upper body rising like a hull of a boat and then moving faster and higher and gaining momentum until his body skimmed over the obstacles of the waves that he himself created as he moved over the bow wave in front of him, seemingly without effort”

It seems surreal that 82 years after this initial disagreement, this discussion continues.  I feel as perplexed as Sakamoto. I hope I will never find myself swimming in combat, thru the surf zone carrying 60 pounds of equipment on my back, swimming low, trying not to be seen.  When in doubt, I rely on science and nature for answers.Until then I will swim high and I think I’ll go watch Katie Ledecky again.

Courtesy: Eney Jones

Eney Jones has achieved remarkably diverse success as a leading pool, open water and Ironman triathlon swimmer.

  • Masters National Champion 100-200-400-500-1500-1650 5k freestyle 2009
  • Open Water 5k Champion Perth Australia, May 2008.
  • National Masters Champion 200-400-1500 freestyle Champion, Portland Oregon, August, 2008.
  • Overall Champion Aumakua 2.4k Maui Hawaii, September 2008
  • Waikiki Rough Water Swim 3rd place 2006, second place Overall 2009, 3rd place 2012
  • European Record Holder and Masters Swimming Champion, 2005. Records included 200, 400, 800, 1500 m freestyle
  • Over twenty time finalist in U.S. Swimming Nationals, including Olympic Trials 1980
  • Gold medal NCAA 800 yd freestyle relay 1979, silver Medalist 200 yd freestyle 1979. United States National Team 1979-1980.
  • Professional Triathlete 1983-1991. First woman out of the water in every Hawaiian Ironman participated (6).

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Jay ryan
2 years ago

What does Gary Hall Sr think about all this?

2 years ago

Ledecky is high in the water for part of her stroke cycle but her head is down right after breathing, during the power phase of her pull with her non-breathing arm. Sun Yang does this in a more pronounced way. After the breath, his head completely submerges so there is no bow wave over it. Phelps did a version of it too, really connecting his head turn to his catch. I think Gary Hall Sr. acknowledges that this involves a tradeoff between drag and power. By lifting the head, you increase drag but also increase power in the front of your stroke. Over distance, it’s more important to reduce drag. For shorter races, I think it depends on the swimmer… Read more »

Steve Nolan
2 years ago

Lol, I like that “ditch kids” in that quote went completely unremarked upon.

Sakamoto’s kids literally swam in a ditch. From what I remember from the book, it was basically a narrow cement channel with like, run-off in it, or something. I never pictured anything very fun to swim in, hahah.

A decent book! Worth checking out for swim fans.

And that concludes another segment of – “didya know Steve reads books!?”