Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
Propulsion & Frontal Drag
There are two fundamental laws or forces that govern our ability to swim fast that often don’t agree on what position we should assume. The two forces are those that move us down the pool, propulsion, and those that slow us down, frontal drag. A good example of this disagreement is head position.
In order to assume the position of least frontal drag, the head should be in alignment with the body. That means the line of sight needs to be straight down toward the bottom of the pool. Not only does this head position straighten the body, creating the best position to reduce our drag coefficient, it also allows the water on the surface to pass over the tops of our heads, reducing wave or surface drag.
Most swimmers swim freestyle or backstroke with their heads positioned too high, looking forward slightly as they swim through the water, or in the case of backstroke, with the head perched up.
One of the reasons that they do this is defensive swimming. When the head is positioned properly for the least amount of frontal drag, looking down, one cannot see where one is going and must rely on the black line on the bottom of the pool, or the T at the end, to determine one’s position. When there are several swimmers in a lane churning up and down in a circle pattern, it only takes one bop on the head to make one swim like Tarzan with the head looking forward, avoiding potential collisions.
There is another reason why swimmers like to hold their heads up and that is propulsion. When a swimmer initiates the underwater pull, he or she is stronger with the back slightly arched and the head up, as opposed to a straight body position. If one considers doing a pull up, the initiation of the lift of the body is always done with the back arched, creating more power, rather than with a straight back. The same is true of the underwater pulling motion.
The Fastest Body Speed of the Cycle
Fortunately, the ideal times in the pulling cycle to create the least amount of frontal drag and the maximum propulsion are different. The fastest body speed of the cycle, when the hand of the recovering arm first strikes the water, is the best time to have the least amount of drag, since frontal drag is related to the speed squared. At that point, the head should be down and the body straight. The bow wave should pass over the top of the head.
The propulsion of the arms/hands begins with the hand about one foot in front of the shoulder. At this point the back should arch slightly, lifting the head somewhat to maximize the force as the hand moves backwards in the water.
One can achieve both of these positions, but it requires a steady movement of the spine from the straight position to the arched position as the hand moves through the cycle. In backstroke, the head is lifted slightly to initiate the pull and drops back at hand entry, allowing a small stream of water to pass over the goggles. By doing so, one can reach the best compromise between these opposing forces in order to maximize body speed.
At The Race Club camps, we teach our swimmers how to change their body positions during the stroke cycle in freestyle and backstroke in order to swim the fastest. Some great drills for learning to position the head down are shown in this video: http://www.theraceclub.com/videos/secret-tip-head-position-1of2/
Yours in Swimming,
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