At the highest levels of our sport, it's now widly accepted that the differences in time separating elite swimmers are skill-based, not strength-based. No amount of training volume can bridge a gap created by technical flaws.
That's because training volume is only half the story. There are two ways to improve in swimming: One is to increase training (the science of swimming) and the other is to improve technique (the art of swimming). The first requires a long-term plan encompassing macro principles of specificity, progression, and overload, as well as microadjustments in practice volume, frequency, duration, and intensity. The technique option requires feedback from a trained observer who provides beneficial stroke instruction.
Many adult swimmers have only the first option - to increase training intensity or volume - available to them because they're practicing by themselves. Of the nearly 60,000 registered USMS members, as many as 20 percent - some 12,000 swimmers - are estimated to swim their daily workouts without the help of a skilled coach on the pool deck. With no coach around to help instruct them, how can they possibly improve their own technique?
The good news is, it can be done, and if you're one of those self-coached swimmers, this article is for you.
By studying point-of-view underwater photos alongside simultaneous, third-person pictures, you can gain new perspectives on how various aspects of your stroke should look from your own vantage point as well as if you were being observed by a third party on the pool deck.
When viewing your own freestyle stroke, it will be necessary to change your head and body position - you'll need to briefly lift your head and eyes over the water while holding your breath and looking forward, down, and backward under water. These observational-only positions are unusual and not optimal for speed but not difficult.
To obtain the point-of-view images, I used a GoPro camera with a forehead mount to capture my own arm position, in order to explain what to look for when doing your own POV swimming.
Please note, the head position displayed in these images is INCORRECT, but is being used to show you how you can view your own hand and arm positions and evaluate your technique as it relates to these six points: entry above, extension below, catch, hold, finish, high elbow recovery.
1. Entry Above
The arm should be at or near extension at the moment of horizontal fingertip contact with the water. Hold your breath and lift your eyes above the water line as you see your hands reach straight out from your shoulders - to enter at the width of and in line with your shoulders. The shoulder and elbow remain in the air at this point. Watch out for hands that cross past the body's midline at this point, a common technique flaw that results not only in sideways movement, but can also contribute to shoulder injury.
2. Extension Below
While holding your breath, lift your eyes to just below the waterline and look ahead as your hands and wrists enter in front of you. Your fingertips should move forward as the opposite hand finishes generating its propulsive force at your thigh. Look to see the bubbles surrounding your hand move up your wrist and forearm as you continue extending your hand move up your wrist and forearm as you continue extending. You'll be able to tell if your catch is too quick and doesn't permit complete extension if your hand is covered with a cocoon of bubbles. The more the hand is surrounded by pure water, the more forces can be created. If there are bubbles, it means that you're losing hand forces as you're pulling air instead of water.
Use your large upper back muscles (trapezius and latissimus dorsi) to anchor your shoulder and elbow as your hand begins traveling down into the early vertical forearm position. If you can raise your shoulder and elbow quickly, you should be able to catch a glimpse of your palm before it passes out of view. At this moment, you should imagine that you're reaching around and behind a large beach ball. Swimmers with shoulder problems should use caution here, as trying to view your own early vertical forearm may stress the shoulder.
This is the moment in the underwater sequence when the largest amount of surface area combines with the biggest uppoer body muscles to create the greatest propulsive force.The physiological switch has just been made from pulling to pushing, and the hand force is now accelerating to its final speed. Look for the entire back of your forearm and hand to be visible, with your fingertips pointing down toward the bottom of the pool. This position should be called the late vertical forearm.
Here is the final glimpse before you release your pressure on the water. You'll have to really tilt your head under and backwards to see this, but it's worth the view. Your wrist should be slightly extended as you finish placing backward pressure against the water. One of the easiest ways to measure efficiency in our sport is to count strokes per length. Those who go fastest with the fewest strokesare the most effective at holding their hands in place and swimming over their anchor points. If you can see the back of your hand, and your fingers are still pointing downward as you near extension of your elbow, you too will have begun maximizing forward thrust. Accelerate through this position and imagine you're slamming the drawbridge of a castle shut.
6. High Elbow Recovery
To get this picture, I sacrificed the correct timing of the breath. Normally, you should time your breathing as early in the recovery as possible, with the line of sight backwards, never forward. Here, however, I'm looking ahead, and see how high and how long in the recovery shoulder strength can be used to maintain the high-elbow/high-wrist combination. We want the shoulder and elbow to stay as high as possible in the recovery because that means that the opposite arm, the one under water, is high as well.