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Ten contentious issues in swimming

Our philosophy on the controversial aspects of swimming coaching

Get the mix of technique and training right for maximum results.

1. Technique vs. Fitness Training

Swimming is a very technical sport and requires plenty of attention to the technique aspects of the stroke. Some coaches take this to the extreme, believing that fitness isn't important at all and that if you're a triathlete you'll get sufficient fitness from the other two disciplines. One coaching company even bar you from doing any fitness training at all!

If you become a technique hermit and just perform single length drills then some improvements will come but you'll soon hit a performance ceiling. You may also find it very hard to swim beyond 200m without getting fatigued.

We believe that a mix of technique and fitness work brings the best results. We've observed hundreds of swimmers trying different approaches and the sweet spot for continuous improvement is a balance of both technique work and fitness training.

So in every training session make sure you have a balance of the 2 elements - technique and fitness. If you are a triathlete we recommend a third component in every session - open water specific training. If you combine those three elements you'll lift your swimming to the next level.

Swim Smooth believe that fitness is important to your swimming performance and that there isn't very much crossover from the other triathlon disciplines. If you're a cyclist or a runner who's tried swimming for the first time, you'll know this is the case!

All the Swim Smooth Training Plans contain this balanced approach to your swimming.

For more information on what fitness training to include in your training see our article on Training For Swimming.

2. The S-Shape Pull

The concept of the 'S-Pull' was conceived in the late 1970s by JE Counsilman - who aimed to show how the duration of the pull could be increased by following an S shape: Enter at the front of the stroke with thumb down, sweep outwards, then sweep back in and then finally sweep out again by the hip. You may well have heard of this technique and be trying to follow it yourself.

Any advantage of the S-Pull was disproved in the '80s. It is fundamentally flawed because it was based on a 2-dimensional analysis of the stroke and didn't take account of body roll when swimming.

When trying to perform an S-Pull many swimmers overdid the sweeping action, causing the hips to swing - increasing drag.

These days all great swimmers enter with a flat hand and pull straight back to the wall behind them. It's faster and has a much reduced risk of shoulder injury.

A major disadvantage of the S-Pull technique is that it requires a palm-out, thumb first entry in to the water. This commonly leads to shoulder injuries. If you suffer from any shoulder pain from swimming then you should avoid an S shape pull and read Fix Shoulder Injury.

Instead of trying to create an S-Pull, focus on entering with a flat hand finger tips first and press directly back behind you with the catch and pull. Find out more about this superior technique in our article on Catch And Pull.

3. Head Position - straight down or forward?

Head position is a very individual thing, there's no right or wrong position.

Ian Thorpe (eyes forward) and Alexander Popov (eyes down) are two examples of world class swimmers adopting different head positions to suit their own swimming styles.

You can use your head position as a 'tuning knob' to assist your stroke. For instance, female swimmers tend to have greater natural buoyancy and often feel very unbalanced swimming with their eyes down - especially when wearing a wetsuit. Raising their head and looking forward can really help.

For those with sinky legs, one easy way of seeking a more horizontal position is to look straight down. So it's horses for courses!

We setup Mr Smooth with a mid-head position, it could be raised or lowered from here.

4. Stroke Length - Should I make my stroke as long as I can possibly get it?

Most people starting out in swimming aim to improve their body position and body roll, and develop a good catch - all of which lead to a longer freestyle stroke technique. A longer stroke is a good thing as it means that you take fewer strokes per length. Swim Smooth have loads of great information and tools to help you do this.

However, should you continue to try and lengthen your stroke further and further? If you do this you will end up *gliding* for long portions of your stroke and you will introduce dead spots in your rhythm and timing. We call this an 'overly long stroke technique'.

When this happens your swimming development will hit a ceiling, or you will even slow down from where you were before.

Don't over-do the length of your stroke, you'll hit a performance ceiling.

Swim Smooth believe that you should have a long stroke but not an overly long stroke. For that reason we think that *glide* is a dirty word in swimming! Your lead hand should always be in motion, either extending forwards, tipping, catching or pulling. It should never just sit there dead, doing nothing.

Once you have developed your stroke length, you need to start paying attention to your stroke rate (how many times you turn your arms over in a minute, a bit like cadence on the bike). Developing your stroke rate and finding the best trade off between stroke rate and length is a Swim Smooth specialty and is one of the exciting things about our swim program. Find out more about how we do this in our Rhythm, Timing and Stroke Rate technique article.

5. Body Roll - Do I Really Need to Do It?

Old swimming folklore said:

"Your body needs to stay flat in the water to resist any side-to-side movement of the hips, improving your streamlining as you swim."

Aim to roll your shoulders and hips as one to this sort of angle (45-60°).

Fortunately we know better these days! One of the fundamentals of good freestyle technique is good body rotation. If you had a straight skewer through you, entering at the top of your head, running through your torso and exiting at your feet then as the skewer was rotated you would rotate as one with it - a bit like meat on a kebab stick. This is how you should rotate from side to side with each stroke.

There are many reasons why body roll is so fundamental to good freestyle technique including: making breathing easier, lengthening your stroke, dramatically reducing injury risk and allowing you to employ larger muscle groups. Read our Body Rotation technique article to find out how to develop good rotation and swim faster.

6. Crossover - How Do I Remove It?

Crossing over the centre line at the front of the stroke is bad for your swimming: it will disrupt your catch and cause you to fish-tail, increasing your drag. The standard solution from coaches seems to be "Think about placing the hands in the water wider and despite it feeling wide you'll actually be entering much straighter". We've lost count of how many times we've heard swim coaches say this.


We disagree fundamentally with the 'just enter wider' approach. Doing so will cause a swimmer to become much flatter, removing that all important body roll. There is also a tendency to start entering very wide, so creating the opposite technique problem!

A far better approach is to get each hand entering directly forward in front of its shoulder by developing your Swimming Posture - i.e. swimming with shoulders back and chest forward. We call this 'Swimming Proud'! Once this has been achieved the hand will naturally enter and reach with good alignment.

Read a little more on how to do this in our technique article on Shoulder Injury In Swimming.

7. Hand Entry - How Should I Position My Hand?

Swimming folklore says 'Your hand should be placed smoothly in to the water with the hand pitched palm out such that the thumb enters first'. In fact, in the UK, the ASA governing body still teaches this today.

Spear into the water with a flat hand.

The problem with a palm-out hand entry is that it internally rotates the shoulder putting stress on it. Doing this thousands of times in every session commonly leads to shoulder impingement issues, also known as 'Swimmers Shoulder'. Often the simple fix for shoulder problems is to simply correct your hand entry technique.

The best way to enter the water at the front of your stroke is one with a neutral relaxed shoulder - a flat hand with the palm facing down and slightly back, entering finger tips first. An added advantage of a flat hand entry technique is that it sets you up for a better catch phase.

Find out more in About Shoulder Injury.

8. Kicking - Should I Kick As A Triathlete?

Triathlon folklore states: 'Don't kick as a triathlete, save your legs for the bike and run'.

Kicking from the hip.
Kick from the hip with a straight relaxed leg.

Neglecting your kick entirely can have severe implications for your swim stroke. You are not looking for propulsion from your kick technique but you are looking to keep your legs up high with minimum effort.

If you don't have an effective kick technique, you will create lots of drag which will cause your legs to sink.

Find out more in our key technique article: Freestyle Kick.

9. Breathing and Buoyancy

Many people believe that holding on to your breath whilst swimming improves your body position because it improves your buoyancy.

don't hold your breath!
Don't forget to breathe. Doctors recommend it.

Actually, the buoyancy gained from holding your breath causes you to be too buoyant in your chest. Your body tends to act like a see-saw in the water so if the chest is lifted high the legs tend to sink. This increases your drag!

Holding on to your breath increases anxiety and the feeling of CO2 build up in your body. A tense body and the resultant snatching of breath do nothing but harm to your stroke.

An important Swim Smooth philosophy is that you should be constantly exhaling whenever your face is in the water. Many swimmers think they do this but very few actually do! A constant exhalation technique causes you to relax and when you do go to take a breath, you are fully exhaled and ready to breath in. This makes breathing much much easier!

See our two technique articles on breathing: Breathing in Freestyle and You Know Your Problem, You Keep It All In.

10. Breathing - Why Bother With Bilateral If I Find It Tough?

Mr Smooth exhales into the water.
Whenever your face is in the water, exhale constantly and strongly.

Breathing bilaterally (breathing to both sides) is the simplest way to improve the symmetry of your stroke technique. Not only will you swim faster but you will also swim straighter in open water. Swim Smooth recommends that you spend most of your training time breathing bilaterally to keep your stroke symmetrical.

In a race, breathe in whatever way feels natural - because you have swam bilaterally in training your stroke technique will hold together nicely. If you need to keep an eye on a competitor, avoid being dazzled by the sun or avoid breathing in to waves then breath to one side.

If you are struggling with bilateral breathing then the most likely reason is that you are holding on to your breath and not exhaling constantly into the water. When you move from breathing every 2 strokes to every 3 strokes, don't think of it as one more stroke to hold your breath, think of it as one more stroke to exhale for.

For more tips on bilateral breathing and benefits it can bring you, check out our key technique article on Bilateral Breathing in Freestyle.


Return to our starting pages for: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced Swimmers and Coaches.

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Swim Smooth Links

get the hang of freestyle breathing now.
work on your freestyle training as well as your stroke.
work on your swimming catch and rip up your races.
triathlon and swimming coaching expertise.
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do you need a swimming training plan to lift your swim fitness?
get the hang of freestyle breathing now.
work on your freestyle training as well as your stroke.
work on your swimming catch and rip up your races.
triathlon and swimming coaching expertise.
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do you need a swimming training plan to lift your swim fitness?