Biomechanics of Swimming: How to Swim Faster and Win More
Want to swim faster? Many swimmers have the goal to beat their “personal bests” (PBs), but it may not be clear exactly how to maximize a training routine to do so.
Learning about the biomechanics of swimming, the techniques and exercises that support fast and safe swimming, the fuel, and the mental resources needed to achieve top performance are all part of the process of swimming faster and winning more.
Knowing How to Swim Faster Starts with Reinforcing Certain Techniques
Learning to swim faster is more of an ongoing process than a milestone to reach. Over time, swimmers develop habits of motion. Some habits are helpful, but many can hold an athlete back from achieving top speeds. Athletes who learned strokes correctly as kids may not know the optimal motions for swimming as adults.
Tiny tweaks to technique can improve flexibility, strength, and efficiency in the water—and result in faster times. Proper technique can also help swimmers avoid injuries.
“Shoulder pain, typically called ‘swimmer’s shoulder,’ is the most common injury for competitive swimmers,” Bill Brenner, senior director of club and coach development at US Masters Swimming, said. “This can result from training errors, poor stroke technique and cumulative fatigue. The swimmer and coach must evaluate training plans daily to assure the athlete is not compensating fatigue with poor technique leading to injury.”
Techniques for Swimming Faster
Evidence points to specific techniques that swimmers can use to improve performance:
- Improving distance per stroke can give swimmers an edge. A 2022 analysis of stroke mechanics in 320 men’s European short-course individual medley (IM) championship races published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found a positive correlation between distance per stroke (but not stroke rate) and overall performance.
- Core strength can minimize drag by improving overall balance. Physiotherapists who studied 50 competitive swimmers (36 male and 14 female) found that strong core muscles streamline and stabilize the body during swimming. Core strength correlates with superior static balance (the ability to maintain postural equilibrium in stationary positions) and dynamic balance (postural equilibrium maintenance while moving the arms and legs) in the water.
- Turn performance could be the key to winning in competitive swimming. An analysis of short- and long-course freestylers at the FINA World Swimming Championships found that turn performance significantly affected 75% of short-course championship finalists and 37.5% of long-course finalists.
Putting Techniques into Action: Combining Techniques to Minimize Drag
Ultimately, many techniques boil down to accomplishing one of two aims:
- Minimizing hydrodynamic drag, the water force that slows swimmers down. Water is around 800 times denser than air. Swimmers with proper technique reduce drag as they move through water.
- Improving aerobic and anaerobic efficiency, giving swimmers more energy resources to swim fast. Conditioning techniques for improving aerobic and anaerobic fitness while swimming improve swimmers’ abilities to perform strokes with less energy.
Applying all three of the previously mentioned techniques—improving distance per stroke, strengthening the core, and executing quicker turns—in tandem can contribute to optimal speed improvements.
For example, swimming underwater after pushing off the wall minimizes drag compared with swimming at the surface—but at the cost of increasing anaerobic demand (drawing more energy from the muscles when a swimmer is not breathing). A strong core can make the turn more stable and efficient, and greater distance per stroke enables swimmers to make the most of their energy.
Professional swimmers use multiple techniques to produce strong and efficient strokes and turns, enabling them to reach top speeds.
Performing Specific Drills and Exercises Can Improve Your Speed
After identifying techniques to improve, the next step is to start a regular practice of drills and exercises. Certain exercises target specific skills or abilities, such as weightlifting for building strength. Athletes regularly perform drills to perform overall swimming performance with exercises that target:
- Strength (including specific muscular development for short-distance sprinting and longer-distance performance)
- Range of motion
- Balance and stability
- Neuromuscular control
- Body awareness in the water
One time-tested way for an athlete to identify the specific drills and exercises that can help them to improve swimming speed is to work with a coach or swim instructor. These professionals can provide feedback on form and technique, making sure swimmers get the most out of drills.
Swim Drills and Exercises
Swimmers can use online resources to develop a training routine and improve swimming performance without the support of a coach or instructor.
Swim exercise and drill resources include:
- Scientifically supported strength-training exercises for swimmers. This systematic review of various strength-training exercises for swim performance, published in Sports Medicine — Open, found that dryland strength training can improve overall performance in swimmers when paired with swim-based training. The most effective strength-training methods for swimmers? Researchers recommend:
- Resistance training
- Hypertrophy training
- Maximal strength training
- U.S. Masters Swimming endorses breathing drills to improve full-body alignment and speed. Swimmers use specific motions to rotate the body to breathe efficiently and reduce the risk of injury (as is common when swimmers rotate the neck rather than the shoulders to take a breath, for example).
- Practicing with hand paddles can improve efficiency and upper-body strength, according to Swimming World magazine. Hand paddles enable greater propulsion, allowing swimmers to practice longer before reaching states of exhaustion. In addition, paddle practice can help swimmers identify sources of drag, helping them learn to use less power to swim at faster speeds.
- Exercises for pacing and different kick techniques can help swimmers at any level. U.S. Masters Swimming has free exercise resources for novice and advanced swimmers alike, as well as triathletes and other athletes who may be new to swimming. For a small fee, becoming a U.S. Masters Swimming member also unlocks an entire workout library for thousands of swim workouts.
Following Nutritional Advice Can Fuel Better Performance
As with all exercise, swimming movement requires fuel and recovery resources in the form of healthy food and adequate hydration. Swimmers looking to improve their times should seek nutritional guidance to achieve optimal performance:
- Eating for fuel and recovery is crucial. Consuming certain foods before, during, and after a workout can strengthen performance and improve recovery, according to Swimming World.
- Listening to your body and its natural signs of hunger can promote healthy eating, according to Michele Tuttle, a sports dietician, lifelong swimmer, and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. She also recommends eating strategically before and after swim workouts and competitions to fuel and recover the body.
- Proper hydration is a must for swimmers, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says. While it may be less noticeable when actively swimming, swimmers sweat like any other athlete. Given the high intensity of swim competition, swimmers must drink adequate water before and after competitions and during swim practice.
- Snacking and eating for competition requires proper timing of certain macronutrients. Nick Baker, the director of the Nike Peak Performance Summer Swim Camp in Chicago, recommends eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of healthy fats, lean protein, and carbohydrates. He recommends fueling training sessions with carbohydrate-heavy meals for high-volume swim training to restore glycogen levels. For repairing muscle fibers after workouts, he recommends eating healthy sources of protein and carbohydrates immediately following training sessions.
Strengthening Your Mental Game Can Supplement Physical Training
Swimming requires mental as well as physical health. Consider the following tips for mental training for peak swim performance.
- Practicing visualization can strengthen motor skills, instill a sense of calm, and enable swimmers to adapt to stress, according to researchers with the Physical Education, Sport and Kinetotherapy Journal. They studied a variety of athletes—swimmers included—and found that one hour of mental training a day promoted mental equanimity (the ability to stay calm under pressure) and adaptability to challenges in practice and competition.
- USA Swimming endorses emotional and mental health for swimmers. Citing world-class athletes including Michael Phelps, USA Swimming advocates for swimmers to listen to and trust their bodies, practice self-care, and seek mental health counseling when necessary.
- Knowing the real purpose of goals can help you do your best at competitions, according to Dr. Alan Goldberg, sports performance consultant and author of Swimming Fast When It Counts the Most.
Using a Host of Other Tools Can Boost Performance
Beyond practicing techniques, performing targeted exercises, and fueling the body properly with nutritious foods and a robust self-care regime, there are other tools that swimmers can use to swim faster:
- Consulting USA Swimming’s American Development Model (ADM) can help an athlete to assess their present swimming level and develop future goals. The ADM focuses on athlete outcomes using best practices from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee Quality Coaching Framework, homing in on four characteristics:
- Competence: the skills athletes need to succeed.
- Character: the courage, integrity, and other values that athletes need to perform well and work alongside coaches, instructors, guides, and other athletes.
- Confidence: the resilience and positive self-esteem that can propel athletes during times of challenge or conflict.
- Connection: the social bonds that provide support to athletes in and outside of the pool.
- Using wearable devices can provide real-time information on performance, according to an academic review of wearable sport technology published in the journal Sensors.
After You Learn How to Swim Faster, the Next Step Is Applying What You’ve Learned
Training regimens guided by the principles of exercise science can equip swimmers with techniques, drills and exercises, nutritional guidance, mental training, and other tools that can help them swim faster. The next step is to apply those lessons in competition.
Learning to swim fast is not a matter of a single, isolated moment of insight or accomplishment but the result of hours and years of dedicated training. With time, reflection, and a training routine that adapts to changing needs and swim goals, swimmers have all that they need to get stronger and faster—and ultimately achieve their personal bests.
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