This is, by far, the most common mistake I see in athletes. The good news is that it’s also the one that gives the most benefit when fixed. While swimming, people tend to lift their heads too much, especially when breathing. When your head is tilted up in the water, you hips will drop lower in the water automatically. When your hips and legs drop in the water, you will create more surface area and will be plowing through the water instead of slicing through it like a torpedo.
Try to keep you head and neck in a neutral position, just like if you were standing straight up on land. Your face should be pointed to the bottom of the pool (ocean, lake, etc.) and your eyes should be looking ahead. You do need to see where you’re going, but look with your eyes, not your head. Keeping your head down will make your body more hydrodynamic and will help you go faster while expending less energy.
The old school way of swimming was to swim with your chest and stomach pointing down at all times and use your arms and legs to propel you. This is a recipe for shoulder problems, rapid fatigue, and slow swimming. Your body is most hydrodynamic while on its side, so incorporating more body roll into your stroke could work wonders.
When you take a stroke and extend your lead arm, try rotating on your side. When your right arm is extended, your chest will be pointing left. A complete 90-degree rotation isn’t necessary, but rotate as much as you can while still feeling comfortable. This should lift your shoulder out of the water and will make it easier to take your next stroke. When you do take your next stroke, you will rotate or “roll” to the opposite side. Just imaging you are on a giant BBQ skewer while you roll back and forth. This does not sound pleasant, but it is a good example of rotating on an axis.
This rotation will allow you to engage your core muscles, lats, and hips to generate more power and conserve your arms and shoulders. It will also make it easier to breath without lifting your head and causing your feet and hips to sink. Look up a few side-kick drill variations to help with feeling balance in the water on your side.
Focusing on kicking is not as necessary as some may think. Relatively speaking, kicking does not apply that much forward force to swimmers and uses a lot of energy. The last thing a triathlete wants to do is expend energy, especially in the legs, during the first portion of the race. If you do kick, make sure you are kicking correctly. I only kick for balance purposes and get little, if any, propulsion from my feet.
A lot of times I see swimmers’ legs separating and flailing around, kicking way too much, and bending too much in the knees. All this does is create additional resistance in the water. Keep kicks short, legs close together, knees only slightly bent, and ankles limp. Don’t point your toes unless you would like some calf cramping later in the swim.
The swim should be smooth, fluid, graceful and almost easy compared to the pounding of the run and burn on the bike, but all too often people struggle most in the swim and are constantly battling the water. Don’t battle the water by constantly windmilling your arms, but glide through it like a fish.
After every stroke, pause for a moment or two with arm extended while on your side. With each stroke you also create forward momentum, which is wasted if you hurry to take another stroke before gliding a bit. This is free speed; take advantage of it and save energy.
Hopefully you will be able to recognize if you are making some, or all, of these mistakes. Don’t worry; these are not impossible to fix with the right drills and some practice. A good coach would be even better since they will be able to see what you cannot. Stop logging more miles in the swim, ingraining bad technique in your brain and muscle memory. Make the decision today to fix your stroke and become a whole new swimmer.