Faster Swimming

It's all in your head... position

Vladimir Morozov
Vladimir Morozov false starts 100-m freestyle. Getty Images

Swimmers, the way you position your head while you swim can have a huge effect on technique and how fast you swim. Head position can make your swimming technique fast or it can make your swimming slow. Swimming with your head up or down - which is fast, and why? Or are both good, but in different situations? Head position, body position, and balance are all related to fast swimming.

I like to look at head position in terms of where you are looking in comparison to your spinal column.

  • Freestyle, Breaststroke, and Butterfly
    • If you are looking forward while you swim, then you are in a more head-up position
    • This tends to push your hips down towards the bottom of the pool
    • If you are looking at the bottom of the pool directly below you, then you are in a head-down position
    • If you are in a head down position and your head and spine are in a direct line, then you are also in a neutral position
    • This will tend to keep your hips neutral, too.
  • Backstroke
    • Since you are upside-down when doing backstroke, the idea of head position while swimming is a little different, so you may have to do some translating
    • Looking straight up at the sky or ceiling with your head lined up with your body?
    • Then your head is neutral or back (just like the freestyle, backstroke, or breaststroke head-down position)
    • If you are looking back towards your toes, I'd say you are looking up - you are in a head-up position
    • And if you are somehow looking where you are going - that's not good!

When is a head up, eyes looking forward position (or backwards in backstroke) beneficial?
If you are swimming freestyle or backstroke for a very short distance (50 meters, for example) and you have a very strong kick, you might get a bit faster by raising your head slightly. This will tend to lower your hips and legs and you might be able to get more propulsion from your kick action under water. This might make you faster. It could also make you slower if the increased kick opportunity is not enough to overcome increased drag. It can also make it more difficult to rotate your body from side to side. You will still be able to rotate your shoulders, but your hips will tend to bog down or stick in a flat position. Is this faster for you? You have to check this out in practice.

Remember, when swimming long-axis strokes (freestyle and backstroke), keep some portion of your head above the water level - don't let water go over the top of your head. Your head should not submerge; if it does go under you create a lot of excess drag. The short-axis strokes (butterfly and breaststroke) work the opposite way - you create less overall drag when you allow your head to submerge, creating a longer, smoother streamline shape, head to toe, every stroke cycle.

Swim On!

Updated by Dr. John Mullen December 27th 2015.