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The 4 Biggest Swim Form Blunders (And How to Fix Them)

December 19, 2018

I often hear from people that the number one reason they couldn’t do a triathlon is because of the swim. They never mention running or cycling, and seem both fearful of swimming at distance or show a lack of confidence in their ability.

This four-series article will explore the common issues that most people face with swimming and will provide some solutions for addressing the issue.

As a former competitive swimmer who just got back into swimming a couple years ago, I found that I returned with some bad habits. Given my base knowledge of the sport and 18+ years in the pool ,  I have developed a unique view into the issues that plague swimmers.

Let’s start with a quick lesson on hydrodynamics, or the interaction between your body and the water. According to Wired, there are four forces related to swimming:

· Gravitational: Downward force dependent on swimmer’s mass

· Buoyancy: Upward force proportional to volume of water displaced by swimmer

· Drag: As a swimmer pushes forward, water pushes back, creating drag

· Thrust: The force that the swimmer creates to push back against drag

So the swimmer needs to balance gravitational and buoyancy forces to stay at the surface, while counteracting the drag of swimming through the water. Your thrust, or your pull and kick, will carry you forward.

Part 1: Overrreaching

The Blunder: When your stroke crosses over in front of your head and body rather than out in front of your shoulder (See GIF image to the right).

Why it’s a blunder: This overreach will create more drag while also affecting your forward movement. In the GIF to the right, you will see the drastic turn right that the swimmer makes when the left arm crosses over in front of the body. (And believe me, this video was not staged).

The Fix: Imprinting your stroke will help you fix this. To determine if you are over reaching, film yourself. Your stroke instead should go in front of you, just outside of your shoulder path. The swimmer in the video gets it right with his first stroke with his right hand.

Find this spot, using a friend or video if needed, and practice this stroke while standing in place in the pool (head underwater, go to the deeper part of the pool if needed). Stand in place and try to hit this mark, imprinting in your brain the location where your hand plunges and seeing it underwater.

Then stand in place and film it again, making sure that your imprint is in the right place. Practice hitting this spot every time you swim, and continue to film it regularly to make sure the lesson has taken root.

Part 2: Bent Knee During Kick

The Blunder: You bend your knee while kicking, which causes you to kick from the knee instead of the hip.

Why it’s a blunder: It will cause your legs to sink and bring you out of a hydrodynamic position, effectively creating more drag while not creating any forward thrust.

Your kick actually brings you very little forward thrust, but serves as a stabilizer while you move forward. Especially if you are a triathlete, you want to preserve your legs for the bike and run.

The Fix: Think of your kick as more of a flutter; it’s constantly going like a small motor and helps to keep your body in position. Keep your knees soft and relaxed, your toes pointed, and let your entire leg do the kick, with power coming from the hip. Squeeze your glutes a bit so that you are engaging them and keeping your legs at the surface. The small flutter through your leg should be easy and relaxed.

If you’re able, hold onto the wall with both hands and kick in place, practicing this method. When you’re ready, add kick drills into every swim practice.

The picture below demonstrates the extent to which your knee should bend, which essentially keeps your leg nearly straight. For video and more information on kick technique, check out Speedo’s video here.

Part 3: Head Position

The Blunder: You are looking too far forward.

Why it’s a blunder: When your neck is bent such that you are looking too far forward, you are creating drag while also lowering your hips deeper into the water. In the first graphic to the right, notice how the swimmer’s feet and legs are low in the water and not at the surface, as they are in the second picture. The second picture demonstrates where your eyes should be focused and how this position aligns the rest of your body while in the water.  

In addition to it being poor form, I have found that looking up or forward creates a lower back arch that leads to back pain following each swim session.

The Fix: Think of dropping your chin, tucking it into your chest, and looking down instead of forward. While swimming, this should be your focal point. In a pool, a good way to practice this is to look at the stripe on the bottom of the pool and make sure that you are always able to see it. You are allowed to peek forward from time to time to check on swimmers ahead of you, but your focal point is on the pool floor with a slight gaze ahead.

Part 4: Hand & Shoulder Position

The Blunder: Your shoulders are not in optimal position for a long, forward reach and/or your hands are not in optimal “paddle” position. 

Why it’s a blunder: Reaching forward and pulling through with a long, effective stroke is the key to swimming efficiently. When you’re too tight in the upper torso you are limiting your reach while creating more side-to-side movement than forward movement (more explanation below).  

The other blunder concerns your hand. When you pull through and complete your stroke, your hand needs to be in the most effective position to grip the water and displace it. Having your hand either cupped or your fingers completely spread apart means you’re not creating the optimal surface area to propel yourself forward. 

The Fix: The swimmer in the bottom of the picture below has her shoulders level and squared (not to mention she is also overreaching!) and is not getting a full reach forward. Compare with the swimmer in the top of the picture, who is getting a full extension. The extended shoulder is in front of the other one, leading the way. 

Position your hand like the swimmer on the right: thumb out to the side with the other four fingers together. You don’t need to squeeze them together either, as studies have shown that small gaps between fingers don’t result in meaningful loss in swim and stroke efficiency. Not to mention, this will give you a hand cramp. 

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Overrreaching.  Pay attention to the swimmer’s left arm.

Overrreaching. Pay attention to the swimmer’s left arm.

Head too far forward, hips drop.

Head too far forward, hips drop.

Downward gaze keeps swimmer’s hips up.

Downward gaze keeps swimmer’s hips up.

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