"Don't slouch" or "sit up straight" are common orders parents tell their kids. What's the big deal with standing hunched over or walking with your head looking down at your phone? Well, your posture directly affects how well your body is aligned and how well you perform in various daily and recreational activities, and swimming is no exception to this basic rule. The manner in which you position your body in the water directly affects your swimming mechanics and thus the power you output in the water.
The point to finding your ideal swimming posture is to reduce sources of drag and increase body lift in the water. To simplify this intricate swimming equation, let's take a close look at the most common inefficiencies of head position and how to avoid them.
Head Position: High vs. Low
First, examine your head position in order to create a long, lean profile in the water. At some point you've likely been told to keep your head down and chin tucked during freestyle. Conversely, it's common to see a swimmer carrying their head too high in the water, assuming it is easier to breathe in this position. It's important to find a happy medium between these two common errors, and both extreme head positions will only cause your hips and legs to sink.
For a swimmer with low head position, the distance necessary to lift the head to clear the water for an inhale is too great. This can potentially cause a late initiation of the breath, which in return will cause shallow breathing and also cause other timing issues throughout the entire stroke. Meanwhile, cranking the neck to keep the head overly lifted during the breath places excess stress on your neck and back, and your body will begin to sink as you attempt to ventilate the lung.
Perfecting Your Head Position
Imagine your spine is a skewer passing straight down through the crown of your head, keeping your head in a very fixed position. The goal should be to have the water line break at the top third of your head (just about at the hairline), and maintain a stable head position throughout the stroke cycle. This head placement creates a bow wave off the head and a subsequent trough to easily inhale from.
The less deviation of the head throughout the stroke cycle the better, as you will be able to maintain a smooth forward momentum that creates a clean pocket of air to draw from. Also, you're now able to maintain a "neutral" spinal alignment, allowing your hips and legs to maintain lift and stay in line with your upper body. If you notice that you're barely clearing the water line when coming up for a sip of air, this is a clear indication of low head position.
How to Practice Perfect Head Position
To practice this new head position, you'll need to use reference points to help find consistency. Repetition is paramount to success here and the black line at the bottom of the pool is a perfect, fixed point to use.
- While exhaling, fix your head position so that you are looking between 2-5ft in front of you. Each person's idea of 2-5ft is different, so it's a subjective number that will be unique to you. Don't be surprised if this feels quite different than what you're used to, as the sensation in the water can be deceptive.
- Each time you return your face into the water to exhale, lock in your gaze to the same point on the line to create consistent head posture.
Next, it's necessary to reference your head position while inhaling to ensure that you don't deviate from your fixed head posture and cause any of the timing and efficiency issues discussed above.
- Take notice of your goggle line relative to the waterline while inhaling, and strive for a perpendicular angle between the two. The goal is to maintain the bottom eye half submerged and half above water, creating a unique split-screen perspective that is easy to reference during each stroke. If you find that both goggles are regularly out of the water while breathing, this is a clear indication that your head position is too high.
- Maintain your fixed head position and set your gaze directly to the side as you inhale. You should not be able to see in front of you or behind you. Imagine keeping everything very linear as you look ahead a few feet during your exhale and directly to your side while inhaling. This postural consistency will translate from head-to-toe, allowing ideal body symmetry and length.
Like golf, swimming is a game of inches and each small change you make mechanically has a significant effect on how well you're able to perform. Everyone wants to swim faster, so correcting simple elements such as head position will prove to have a massive payout on your overall swimming efficiency and comfort in the water. Remember, just keep swimming!