By Jonathan Cain of SwimLabs

Additional contributions by Dustin Bakkie

My daughter loves playing with a wind up duck toy at bath time. You know the kind—wind the spring, put it in the water, and its “flippers” quickly spin around as it loses energy.  This flipper action is “supposed” to make the duck move forward, but it never does. If the duck moves at all, it’s next to impossible to tell where it’s going to go, much less how far.

This illustrates a simple truth about moving through the water: moving fast doesn’t necessarily translate to traveling fast. It does, however, require a high level of energy (posing a problem if one is engaged in a triathlon). This is counterintuitive, because in sports that require running, traveling faster correlates to moving faster. In swimming, traveling faster requires a maximizing both the length and force of each stroke you take.

The term “stroke” in swimming generally means “the movement of the arm”.  This is not the most useful way to think about a stroke. It’s much better to consider your stroke as the “Force Production Phase” of your arm movement, or the phase of movement when your arm is in a vertical position, actively producing force under the water.

Maximizing your force production during the stroke of your arm plays a key role in how far you can move forward with every stroke.  In our previous swimming 101 articles, we have covered a number of concepts and drills designed to help a swimmer put their body in the best position to do this. Balancing your body, coordinating your arm movement, catching the water, and stabilizing your body position all put your body into the best position to move forward.

Once you get your body and arm into the perfect position to create force, the next step is to maximize how much force you create with your stroking movement. The physical concept ruling how this is done is fairly simple: when I push backwards against the water, the water resists the movement of my arm. This resistance is what separates us from my daughters wind up duck- it allows a swimmer to “anchor” their arm into position, so that they can drive their body first towards and then past the point of their arm, instead of just “spinning”.

This resistance is known as “Form Drag”, and it occurs anytime a body moves through a fluid. The larger the surface area of the body (my arm) moving through the fluid, the larger the drag force that resists its movement, and the bigger the opposing force it creates.

It’s not always easy to imagine how the simple “resistance” of my arm moving through the water can help a swimmer generate force. In truth, this drag force functions much the same as the ground would for a baseball pitcher.

Throwing the ball forcefully requires the pitcher to first push against the ground with his leg. This creates a “reaction force” that allows him to anchor his leg into position, similar to the way a swimmer “anchors” their arm into position against the resistance of the water.

Once he has done this, the pitcher then engages in a careful series of movements that allow him to put “his whole body” into driving the ball forward. This is known as “summation of force” and produces much more force than if he were to simply face home plate and throw the ball over his shoulder.

In truth, the stabilization provided by the ground to the pitcher is much stronger than that which drag provides to a swimmer. However, it is still strong enough to allow a swimmer to sum the force of multiple muscle groups to drive their body forward during each stroke.

This leaves us with two goals during the force production phase of Freestyle: 1, we need to ensure that our arm presents the largest possible surface area to the water to maximize the resistance force of the water against it, and 2, we need to ensure that engage our “whole body” in the production of force.

The best drill to use to accomplish these goals is Kicking Rotation Drill. This drill lets you explore two key stroking concepts: 1, how to activate your muscles in the proper sequence during your stroke for force summation, and two, stabilizing your body position to move as far as possible during each stroke.

Start with one of your arms extended forward and the other extended backward. Rotate your torso so that it “feels” like it does when you swim. Kick 4-6 times in this position, and then stroke so that your forward arm produces force as your rear arm recovers forward. When your arms move to the opposite position, pause and start kicking again.

As you stroke, make sure that your palm faces backward and that your forearm remains slightly deeper than your body in close to a vertical position in the water. This will maximize the drag force that resists the movement of your arm.

To sum the forces of your body as you stroke, begin by catching the water in the sweet spot of your power zone. After you catch, you should engage your lats to pull your body towards your arm. As your shoulder moves towards the position of your arm, you should engage the muscles in your upper arm. Finally, as you near the end of your stroking movement, you should push with your wrist and palm, and finally your fingers as you transition out of the water.

One of the best things about learning to maximizing your force is that it gives you different “gears”. In a longer race, you can reduce the force in your stroke to maintain your desired pace for longer. In a shorter race you can increase your force to swim faster. Either way, you will know you are swimming faster.

SwimLabs Swim Schools are state of the art swimming facilities outfitted with video analysis and Endless Pools for a truly unique underwater experience.  At SwimLabs, recreational and competitive swimmers can swim in a unique environment that provides them with the knowledge to learn, experience to continually improve, and the passion to enjoy a lifetime of healthy activity and competition. They currently operate locations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Virginia.