Finding the Balance in Your Freestyle Swim

Coach Morgan Hoffman

Do you love to swim with a pull buoy? Me too.

Those of us who love the pull buoy (I’m talking to you, runners and cyclists) – we love it because it puts a band-aid on a massive crack in our freestyle foundation: balance. The pull buoy allows us to cruise along at quicker speeds, without having to worry about our pesky bottom half sinking down below the surface. Unfortunately, pull buoys are not allowed in triathlon swims (unless you count wetsuits), so as triathletes we need to take steps to develop a strong foundation for our freestyle swim.

By the way – wetsuits and pull buoys may help, but you’ll be a happier, more efficient swimmer either way if you make the effort to address this keep component

What do I mean by balance?

Good balance in freestyle means the body being parallel at the surface of the water throughout the freestyle stroke, with head, glutes and feet breaking the surface. Because water has 800 times the resistance of air, it is REALLY IMPORTANT that we present the smallest front surface area possible to the water while swimming, and keep as much of our body out/on top of the water. If you thought good aerodynamic positioning in your tri bike fit was important… this is (literally) 800 times more important (at least for your swim). It is also significantly more important than your catch/pull/high elbow/fill-in-the-blank-with-your-stroke-term-of-choice because every extra millimeter of front surface area you are presenting to the water is making that perfect stroke exponentially less effective.

How do swimmers achieve/maintain balance?

·        Genetics/body type

·        Small, fast, consistent flutter kick

·        Core engagement

·        Quick/efficient breaths

·        Forward momentum

Let’s break these down.

Genetics/Body Type

Some people just float better. End of story. I do a test with all of my new youth athletes where they have to float face-down in the pool until they need a breath. 90% of them have legs sinking to the bottom before they need a breath. The other 10% don’t. If you are a ten-percenter… congratulations. You still need to kick, but your life will be just a bit easier.

Flutter Kick

The perfect flutter kick is an art, but there are a few components that anyone can work to develop before serious fine-tuning is needed:

·        Kick from the hips: We teach this to athletes by telling them to keep their legs straight while kicking. This way they don’t initiate the kick from the knee, which is a very weak joint, and instead utilize the powerhouse muscles surrounding the pelvis, including the glutes, hamstrings, quads and hip flexors.

·        Keep kicks small and fast: When kicking, pretend like someone has put a 12 inch diameter ring around your ankles, and you cannot kick outside of it. Many swim brands make leg bands (which are essentially giant, stiff rubber bands) that you can wear while kicking and swimming to force a smaller kick (they also make great kick resistance training tools).

·        Heels and toes: Focus on having just the heels and toes of the foot break the surface on every kick. The result should be a small, motor-boat-engine-like splash.

We recommend doing kick sets with a swim snorkel so you can practice kicking with correct body position, versus just a kickboard where the body is in a position unnatural to freestyle swimming. Please note – the three above guidelines are NOT magic tricks that make your kick suddenly both strong and fast. As with any physical skill, a strong and effective kick takes time and consistency to develop.

Core Engagement

Core engagement simply means utilizing the torso muscles to maintain your body position in the water, through body alignment, stiffness and improved momentum.

·        Body alignment: As with most things, a proper spinal alignment is ideal while swimming, meaning the head is neutrally positioned (this means eyes looking down while swimming), and hips and shoulders are on a level plane. This can be achieved by practicing light abdominal and glute engagement in your drills and swimming.

·        Body stiffness: Most of us know that the real reason carbon fiber bikes are preferred over aluminum bikes is not necessarily weight, but the stiffness of the material, and its ability to translate power into forward motion. Engaging the core to make a strong/stiff center does the same for your swim. Think of your body as an elastic band, and imagine someone pulling it long and tight, taking any slack out of the band – this is what we should practice in our freestyle swimming.

·        Improved momentum: Utilizing the core for effective and well-timed rotation of the hips and shoulders actually improves the power and effectiveness of the catch, creating greater momentum, which, as we will explore next, also creates greater balance.

Obviously all of the above will be easier for athletes who have developed a strong and dynamic core structure through effective strength training and mobility work, so don’t neglect those two key components of your foundational training!

Quick Breaths

We always say at Playtri that the number one thing that messes up the freestyle stroke is the breath. Strokes lose their rhythm, neck and shoulder muscles tighten, heads lift, legs drop, kicks get big to compensate, etc. Learning to take a quick and efficient breath means less interruption to your technique, and it starts with a very basic concept – making sure to release the breath in a controlled manner when your face is in the water, keeping the face relaxed while doing so, and then immediately before the face breaches the surface to inhale, gently pushing out the remaining air to prepare yourself for the next breath. Once your exhale and inhale are timed well, you can focus on maintaining a low head position during the breath, turning the head to the side without any frontal lift, looking back towards the arm pit and keeping one goggle underwater as you utilize the small trough created around your mouth by the wake of your head moving through the water. The quicker and more efficient your breath becomes, the less it will interrupt your balance and momentum.

Forward Momentum

Speaking of momentum, I’ll be honest – momentum is the final piece I look at when I’m working to create balance for an athlete. However, an easy way to understand its value to is to do a 50y freestyle once with fins and once without fins. The speed the fins provide will make a noticeable difference in your ability to “stay on top” of the water with greater ease. The tricky thing with momentum is that it is hard to build without having that foundation of kick and core engagement developed. So the main place I utilize momentum as a balance-builder is in teaching and mastering drills with the use of fins, so the athlete can more easily achieve the objective, and more importantly the feel of being on top of the water. Then he or she can work to achieve that same balance without the fins.

Momentum becomes more important in open water swims because of the potential for losing it. Buoy turns, collisions with other swimmers, etc. can all result in a loss of momentum. Continuous swimming regardless of the situation, and being able to quickly regain momentum following a slow-down, are essential skills in the open water.

Finding Your Balance

As with everything, developing balance in the water takes time and intentional work. Pick one of the above concepts to focus on, and work on it almost exclusively for at least a month – until you don’t have to think about it constantly. Then select another, and another, and so on. Great swimmers take years to perfect their art, so don’t expect elite times and comfort in the water to come over the course of a year or two. If there was a magic formula out there, everyone would already be using it. Be patient, consistent, and intentional, and progress will come.