Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
Feeling the Water
Sculling with the hands is one of the best ways to teach a swimmer to feel the water. For years I have heard coaches teach their swimmers to feel the water and have been trying to figure out exactly what that means. Holding water is another commonly used expression that needs explanation, although it has a slightly different meaning than feeling the water.
Downward and Backward Forces
The two most important forces that the hands and feet can generate in order to swim fast are downward forces (lifting the body upward) and backward forces (providing propulsion). Forces to the side can also produce lift, but unless they occur bilaterally and counter oppose one other, such as in fly or breaststroke, they will also produce an undesirable side-to-side motion of the body. What determines the forces of the lift or propulsion are the effective surface area and the speed or the acceleration of that surface area moving in the desired direction.
Because of flow dynamics, the effective surface area of the hand is different from the actual surface area. When the fingers are separated slightly, as the hand moves through water, the flow through the narrow spaces between the fingers becomes turbulent. A turbulent flow slows down and doesn’t allow the water behind it to get through. In other words, it makes the hand with the separated fingers act as if it is a larger solid hand, increasing the effective surface area compared to a hand with the fingers squeezed together.
Not only that, but a hand with fingers separated is more relaxed than a hand with the fingers squeezed together. For both of those reasons, separating the fingers slightly is desirable.
Being able to produce a maximum amount of force with the hand is what I believe coaches refer to as feeling the water. Holding the water refers to not only maximizing the propulsive forces, but also the ability of a swimmer to couple those forces with other motions, such as the body’s rotation or the arm recovery, in order to increase distance per stroke.
There are two really great sculling drills that help enable the swimmer to feel and hold the water better. The first is the high-elbow scull and the second is the snap-paddle scull seen on the links below. Both can be done with or without the snorkel.
Yours in swimming,
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