Would you be surprised if I told you that swimming fast had little to do with muscle? That how much arm and leg strength you have play a very small role — that even your swimming endurance doesn’t have much to do with how fast you can swim?
This may have shocked you, or even just made you mildly surprised, but it’s true. You don’t need to be ripped or even in that great of shape to swim fast. This is why you sometimes see middle-aged men and women zipping through the water like it’s nothing at your local YMCA.
So if it has little to do with physical fitness, what does swim speed have to do with? And how can I use this information to swim faster?
Let’s find out.
How to Swim Fast
Once you know how to swim, it’s only natural that you would want to become better and faster at swimming. Maybe now that you can swim you’re looking to try more advanced swimming-related activities like snorkeling or scuba diving. Or maybe you’ve joined your school’s swim team or the local swimming club and want to compete with those “natural-born” swimmers, who seem to glide through the water like a fish, making it seem totally effortless.
What is their secret to swimming fast?
Okay, enough with the suspense… I’ll just tell you how to swim faster. Or, rather, what determines swimming speed. Here it goes:
The most important element to swimming faster is technique.
I know… that isn’t very exciting — it certainly doesn’t have you seeing Olympic gold medals and imagining a roaring crowd — but it’s the truth. When you have good swimming technique, you swim with efficiency. This helps with speed as well as swimming endurance (because you don’t have to work as hard). Technique is single-handedly the most important determining factor in your swimming speed.
An oft-repeated phrase in the swimming world is this: smooth is fast. This means that the smoother you move through the water, the faster the movement will be. Simply trying to swim faster doesn’t help at all, and in many cases will hurt your technique and slow you down. An important thing to remember: Trying harder doesn’t mean you’ll start swim faster; in fact, it often results in more drag and thus slows you down. When you have good technique, however, you naturally swim smoother through the water, which in turn makes you move more quickly.
One of the best swimming resources that I’ve ever encountered is a book written by Terry Laughlin called Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier (check it out on Amazon). He’s also created some DVDs on swimming called Total Immersion Swimming and Freestyle: Made Easy, both of which are incredibly helpful. Laughlin really hammers home the idea that less is more in swimming — i.e. smooth is fast.
Techniques for Swimming Faster
Much can be learned by studying the hydrodynamics of swimming fish. Millennia of evolutionary adaptations in the water have made their movements through the water flawless. We can take notes on their techniques and use them to our advantage.
Here are some of the best ways to increase swimming speed by focusing on technique. Learning about these ideas will help you to better understand the physics of water and what it takes to use them to your advantage. Improving any of these factors will improve your swimming from a technical standpoint (and therefore increasing your swim speed).
1. Decrease Drag
Again, hydrodynamics plays an important role in swimming. Learning about the physics of water can be incredibly beneficial to your swimming, and most — if not all — of the techniques stated here are based on a solid foundation of physics and hydrodynamics.
Many studies have been performed on dolphins in order to better understand the science of swimming. As we are mostly landlocked creatures, humans still have much to learn when it comes to moving effectively through water.
With that said, we have learned some effective ways to reduce drag while swimming:
- Stay level in the water
- Keep your head down/aligned with the rest of your body
- Keep your center of gravity “down” (explained more in the balance section)
- Avoid unnecessarily large kicks
- Wear the right equipment (explained in more detail in the next section)
Reducing drag while swimming any way you can is a sure way to swim faster.
2. Wear Proper Swimming Attire
Related to the previous section about drag, in order to help reduce drag (i.e. friction) as you move through the water, you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing the right gear. Just as it’s important to select the right scuba diving equipment, the swimming attire you use will have a significant impact on your speed and overall swimming effectiveness.
Here are some important considerations:
One major consideration is the type of swimsuit you use. For women: you’re going to want to avoid two-piece bikinis like the plague, no matter how cute you look in them. Stick to a one-piece swimsuit. For guys: simple boardshorts from any old store aren’t going to cut it — if swimming faster is really important to you, you may want to look into getting a swim jammer, which is a skin-tight bathing suit similar to a traditional “Speedo” but it goes down to your knees. These jammers are much more hydrodynamic and are what you see Olympic swimmers wear.
For obvious reasons, swim goggles are another crucial piece of swimming equipment. It’d be best to set your full-face snorkel masks aside and instead find a great pair of swim goggles. There is a difference, and it’s not only in looks — the wide, bulky lens on the mask is great for seeing incredible underwater views but increases drag in the water. The goggles meant for swimming are smaller and You don’t need to break the bank, but a high-quality pair is going to last longer and be more comfortable.
While not seen as mandatory by casual shorter-haired lap-swimmers, a swim cap is necessary for competitive swimmers as well as swimmers with longer hair. Not only can flowing hair be obnoxious to deal with, but it can seriously slow down your swim time, too.
3. Find Your Balance
Finding and maintaining good balance in the water is key. This means keeping your body level and not raising your upper body/head out of the water, which will cause your legs to sink (creating drag).
A great way to find your balance in the water is to press your chest down. This is also sometimes referred to as “pressing your buoy”. Not everyone knows what it means to “press your chest down” in the water, so to help explain, check out this video on swimming balance (apologies for the poor audio quality — it’s not our video):
Finding your balance in the water takes practice. It requires a certain feel for the water that may not feel natural for some people. Keep at it — the more time you spend in the water, the easier it’ll get.
4. Focus on Hip Rotation
This has had perhaps the most beneficial effect on my swimming overall — including my speed and the ease with which I’m able to move through the water. It allows you to swim more efficiently, thus preserving energy and helping you to swim farther distances. By letting your rotating hips do most of the work, it takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders, and you’re able to kick less and focus on having a long extension (part of an effective catch and pull).
The trick with this one is to really exaggerate the body rotation. Do movements so exaggerated that it starts to feel like it could almost comical — rotating back and forth in the water — until before you know it, you are moving almost effortlessly through the water. This hip rotation really propels your body forward, and for those who’ve never tried this before, it’ll be a real eye-opener.
5. Master the Catch and Pull
The catch and pull is likely the most misunderstood freestyle technique. An effective catch and pull can make you swim much faster and improve your efficiency. Here’s a quick and simplified overview of the technique:
- Keep upper elbow high
- Enter the water with fingertips
- Reach forward as far as possible (making use of the hip rotation mentioned above)
- Bend the fingertips — the catch — then bend the elbow down, being sure to pull the water backwards and not downward.
The most important part is the direction in which you pull the water — you want to “catch” the water in the direction it is already going, which is toward you, and then “pull” it back. Pushing the water down will slow you down, so practice this one.
6. Know Your Stroke
This isn’t exactly related to the other terms as far as technique goes, but I’ve included stroke (i.e. the type of stroke you’re using) because it is an important determining factor. How fast you swim depends heavily on what stroke you’re using.
This is probably obvious to most but it’s still worth a mention. Don’t go comparing your backstroke time to somebody’s freestyle. That would be absurd. They are fundamentally different movements, interact with the water in inherently different ways, and your speed will reflect those differences.
With that said, the swim technique terms listed above are crucial for all strokes, no matter how different they may be from each other.
Takeaway on Swimming Faster
Focus on technique and learn to get a feel for the water. A helpful tip for swimming fast is not to worry about your swim speed and instead practice technique. If you work on your technique, I promise you the increased speed will come on its own.