Why Swimming Downhill in Open Water Won’t Work

Courtesy: Eney Jones

In 1936, Popular Science Monthly described Ralph Flanagan’s secret to swimming success as lying low in the water with his head and shoulders level with the surface. But that is the opposite of what Sakamoto saw.

“Flanagan kept his shoulders and head high in the water, almost as high as Johnny Weissmuller used to do. Flanagan looked like a hydroplane, his upper body rising like the hull of a boat and then moving faster and higher and gaining momentum until his body skimmed over the obstacles of the waves he himself created as he moved and over the bow wave in front of him, seemingly without effort. In fact, Flanagan was so high in the water, it appeared as though he might take off in the air, although he never did.” Excerpt from The Three Year Swim Club, by Julie Checkoway

Very often on pool decks around the world you hear the phrase SWIM DOWNHILL. While I think this is to denote ease, quite the opposite is true. I had always wondered where this catch phrase originated. At my job in the swim flume at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Human Performance Laboratory, a client came in and asked me to teach him Navy Seal Swimming (Sea, Air, Land). I replied that I did not know how, to which he instructed me to watch the following video. At 2 minutes and 38 seconds into this video, I got my answer on swimming downhill. This is where the phrase, the teaching, the misnomer, had been coming from. The man continues to say that if you lift your chest, your legs sink. The last I checked my legs were connected to my core so if I wanted to lift them I could engage my core. Navy Seals are in the water a long time, they are trying not to be seen, and not to get shot.

In open water, we want to SEE and be SEEN; we want to swim fast, easily (at least I do). We want to sight. We want to be aware of our surroundings. Water is much denser than air.  You can swim low but it  is harder. Eight hundred times harder in fact. In open water I want the following:

  • A proud lifted super hero chest (which will naturally make head and back higher)
  • Stretching the chest to make breathing easier
  • An engaged taut core
  • A neutral neck
  • Eyes 45 degrees forward
  • Swim high on the surface of the water

Dryland exercises to get more out of you core that would allow lift:

  • Planking
  • Lying on your stomach, hands behind your head, lifting upper back
  • Lying on your stomach lifting both up – Locust in yoga (Shalabhasana)

At the World Cup 10k swim in Rosario, Argentina, last February where this next video was taken, check out the swimmers’ body positions. Video courtesy of German Vache.

IV Juegos Suramericanos de Playa Rosario 201910 km #OpenWaterSwimming

Posted by Germán Vaché on Sunday, March 17, 2019

There is so much we can learn from the Navy Seals. Their training is probably the toughest in the world. We can admire their stamina, their leadership skills and their ability to work as a team; but swimming downhill is not one of them.

About 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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Lost In The Sauce
2 years ago

How does this apply in a pool? Can maybe see this being advantageous in a relay when the waves are pretty wild

2 years ago

terrible advice for the pool. Not sure why navy seals are relevant. Any decent pool swimmer could crush a seal.

Swimmer A
Reply to  dude
2 years ago

I’ve known two people from my club swimming days that have gone on to be navy seals. Both were D1 swimmers. Obviously pretty fast, but only competitive at the conference level. I would naturally guess they’re towards the upper bound of seal swimmers.

pete kennedy
2 years ago

Although I agree with what the author is attempting to state he is overlooking the fact that Flanagan had
tremendous what I will call “floatability” or you might term buoyancy. That becomes the reason Flanagan
swam on top of the water. (I have had swimmers that had that trait).

Kiphuth (pg 140 book) He emphasized the importance of buoyancy and flexibility in swimming:
To quote:
” I mean flexibility of ankles, knees, arms and shoulder girdle.” On of Kiphuth’s most astute observations involved an analysis of Japan’s Flying Fish (in part pg 141 book)”but like many great competitors he establishes his own style, which is based finally on his superb condition and balance and power in… Read more »

Seth Huston
2 years ago

This is not pool swimming advice. Eney is saying that downhill swimming (hips high in a horizontal line) is not advantageous in Open Water Swimming. An open water swimmer frequently sights and thus lowers hips with each peak forward. A strong core and shoulders/neck will minimize dropping hips and legs. The only pool advantage, I can see, would be the out of season high school football linebacker sighting for the wall at the local summer league champs.

pete kennedy
Reply to  Seth Huston
2 years ago

I swam both the Bridgeport Harbor 2 mile swim (set the record) 39min 30 and the New Haven
Harbor 3 mile swim one hour 18 – won both 2 years in a row.
I did not lift my head and peak forward. Those were different days.