The secrets to gaining the upper hand in the water

By Betsy Medalla | Photo by Mike Wilson/Unsplash

As soon as you get moving, whether you’re in or out of the water, there are forces already working to slow you down. The cycling world is on an endless quest to create more aerodynamic technology to manage these forces. Swimming’s counterpart? Good swim form and technique.

In the water, the fluid forces fighting your movement are known collectively as drag. Think of yourself punching a hole through the water. The strongest force resisting your forward progression is pressure drag (or form drag). As you push on the water, the water pushes back.

Another fluid force comes into play when you start swimming. When you push off a wall or start moving, you create a wave of water in front of you. This is called wave drag and it adds to the pressure pushing you backward. Wave drag is especially relevant because its contribution to resistance increases dramatically as you swim faster. The good news is reduction of drag requires skill—not force.

Working on swim fitness without good technique only makes your bad habits more permanent. As for speed without good technique, power can only take you so far before you burn out your matches

To be clear, conditioning and fitness are still essential to swimming fast. However for most age-groupers without a childhood background in swimming, the progression should be technique first, then fitness, then speed.

Working on swim fitness without good technique only makes your bad habits more permanent. As for speed without good technique, power can only take you so far before you burn out your matches. Getting the swim right can mean starting your bike with a lower heart rate and feeling fresh. Getting it wrong means you spend the first third of your bike leg recovering from a tough swim, and sometimes, that spike in heart rate will come back to haunt you in the run.

Four Tips to Reduce Drag
  1. Imagine yourself swimming through a tube. Streamline.
  2. Reduce upward and downward exposures outside of the tube. Don’t raise your head and chest too high; don’t let your legs sink at the back.
  3. Reduce lateral exposures outside of the tube. Don’t squirm or curve your body, don’t allow your kick to scissor or splay out.
  4. Avoid vertical motions during the swim, like a body or head that bobs up and down. They add to wave drag.