Why Head Position Matters Swimming Freestyle

by SwimSwam 13

May 05th, 2017 Masters, Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

While swimming freestyle, the positions of least frontal drag do not necessarily correlate with the positions of maximum propulsive power.

Head position is just one example of this conflict. When the head is in alignment with the body and the spine is straighter, the least frontal drag is encountered. Yet, to maximize the power of the underwater pull, the lower back should be arched some, which results in an elevation of the head.

With some of our freestyle swimming motions, such as the underwater pull, we need to choose between more powerful force and lesser drag positions and often compromise between them. Not so with the head position.

Because of the exponential relationship between frontal drag and speed, the most important time to have the lowest drag coefficient is when our body is moving the fastest within the cycle. That occurs precisely when one hand first enters the water. It is at that point that it is most critical to have the head down.

Two beneficial events happen when we tuck the head down at the hand entry. First, the bow wave goes over the top of our head, essentially putting the head underwater for a brief moment. There is less drag underwater than on the surface. Second, our body straightens out more, creating a better shape to surge forward.

Elite freestylers, such as Michael Phelps, Sun Yang or Katie Ledecky, create a noticeable surge in speed with the head down right after the breath, accompanied by a strong propulsive kick. It is easier to do this with the slower stroke rates of the hip-driven or hybrid freestyle, than with the faster stroke rate of the shoulder-driven freestyle. Yet it works with any freestyle technique.

Once the hand is under water, about one foot in front of the shoulder, initiating the propulsive phase of the pull (when the hand starts moving backward), the body must change its shape slightly in order to increase power. One cannot maximize the force of the underwater pulling motion without arching the lower back, which also causes a small lift of the head, similar to initiating a pull up from a bar.

If one were to be able to see the movement of the spine as an elite freestyler propels down the pool, one would see a shift from a relatively straight spine to a slightly arched lower back with each stroke cycle, over and over again. This movement enables the swimmer to take advantage of both the power position and the least frontal drag position.

The real question is, if swimming with the head down is conducive to faster swimming, why is everyone swimming with the head up? The answer is defensive swimming.

Within the environment of a crowded workout lane or a frenzied swim at the beginning of a triathlon, swimmers are watching out for themselves, looking forward, hoping to avoid an unnecessary collision. In a crowded pool, lead the lane or go 10 seconds behind, stay to the right and pray, but keep your head down. Once you are in a race, where you are given your own lane, or after finding your space in an open water swim, you have no excuse. Get the head down when the hand enters the water and enjoy the surge.

Watch Freestyle Head Position Swimisode:

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

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6 years ago

Take a look at ryan lochte, probably the elite swimmer with a worse head position than ian thorpe. on all strokes! he looks straight forward, this applies to all of the distances he swims 100-400. Although he manages to make it work by making up for his slow freestyle with a fast underwater dolphin kick I believe this costs him as well since he always dies on the last quarter of all of his races. Look at the best 200 freestyler of all time(200 free is where technique counts the most, 50-100 you can make up for with strength, 400-1500 you can make up for with endurance) Agnel always keeps his face looking down and never forward and look at… Read more »

6 years ago

Do i dare say this, those 3 swimmers swim far, ( 200 or higher)to me when we talk about the fastest, i go to sprinters. I am a sprinter lol. So i would look at Nathan Adrain(notably the most powerful swimmer) Anthony Irvin, Simone Manuel and Caleb Dressel. We call it neutral spine, head in line with your normal body position unless you slouch. Their heads appear to be lifted, but i think this is just an attribute of their power and propulsion forward, which causes them to ride higher in the water, much like a speed boat. Completely agree with arch in lower back!

Pieter van den hoogenband
8 years ago

actually ian torphe body position doesnt depend on his head as you can clearly see that he is pushing his chest downward wich cause the lift of his legs (sorry for my band english i am from netherlands )

9 years ago

Mirror. Wow 🙂 Impressive solution 🙂
We’ve been told that during our dolphin kick we keep our heads too much upwards, but it’s because we have to be able to see the game and other players.
Ian Thorpe looks so fast I could even see his head position being intentional trying to use the same discipline as ground effect vehicles.

9 years ago

This is exactly why I put mirrors on snorkels. Gary is so right — in practice we have to pray the swimmer coming at us or the swimming front of us doesn’t hammer us. Most people aren’t quite that faithful as evinced in the side underwater view we videotape when using our EyeCart. We see even great swimmers out of line most the time even with snorkels on. But they immediately align when we bend the snorkel mirror so that they can ONLY see forward when their heads are down. This also improves the last stroke going into the turn and the first stroke breaking out of the streamline. Most people do a good job off the starts and walls… Read more »

9 years ago

Even Thorpe, for a very brief moment after the breath, tucked his chin close to the chest. You can see it on the video above. One could argue whether he elevated the head too soon or too much, but one cannot argue with his greatness. He was powerful, with perhaps the strongest flutter kick ever, and that enabled him to move through the water quickly, even with a bit more frontal drag.

9 years ago

The rumor is that Thorpe looked forward on purpose because when his head was down he would kick air instead of water. He was known for his powerful kick.

9 years ago

A forward looking head position will, for most swimmers, result in a drop in the hips and legs. This is the drag I would be concerned about with respect to choosing an effective head position. If I had been Thorpe’s coach I’d have experimented with head position, primarily for how it affects horizontal balance from front to back. He doesn’t appear to have significant issues in that regard. As a guiding principle I would value drag reduction over force production, particularly as swimming distance increases.