It's a Matter of Style
(or Whether 'tis Nobler to Flip Thy Turns)
Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1996.
Nothing seems to trumpet the difference between the accomplished swimmer and the unenlightened swimmer more quickly than how they reverse directions when arriving at the wall. What we are attempting to accomplish with any turn is the rapid transition of body position from moving in one direction to moving in the opposite direction in a minimum amount of time, without loss of speed and while using the smallest amount of energy possible.
Virtually everyone that swims laps has a desire to possess a high quality flip turn as part of their swimming arsenal. A fluid, seemingly effortless flip turn looks like a natural extension of the freestyle stroke and seems to allow the swimmer to carom off the wall like a golf ball off concrete. It is a small percentage of lap swimmers who have attained this skill. The rest of the swimming masses either just watch the "professionals" in envy, then go about their more modest open turns, or struggle through a set of exaggerated motions and spasms that eventually gets them going in the opposite direction at significantly greater cost - physical and emotional - and call this a flip turn.
Yet there are two ways to turn in freestyle and still look like you know what you are doing. You can do a flip turn or you can, with no loss of face, opt for an open turn, the same type of turn you see Olympians using for breaststroke and butterfly.
Flip turns vs. open turns
Whether 'tis nobler to flip thy turns or not, that is the question. My purpose here is not to dissuade you from learning a decent flip turn. My purpose is to give you some food for thought, perhaps from a different perspective than you might expect, then to honor whatever your decision might be.
The big difference between a good flip turn and a good open turn boils down to one of oxygen. Both turns, executed correctly can be very quick with the flip turn marginally faster. Both turns can be carried off with a bare minimum of energy. But that's where the similarity ends. The open turn allows you a breath at the wall while the flip turn does not. If you are just swimming a lap or two this doesn't seem like a big deal. But when the distance is longer, say 200 yards or more, this difference adds up.
Let's say we have two swimmers, Bill and Dave, equally matched in conditioning and technical prowess. We ask them both to swim 1000 yards in a 25-yard pool without stopping, at a sub-maximal effort level, breathing every other stroke throughout the swim. Bill will do open turns throughout the swim while Dave does flip turns. Every length of the pool means one fewer breaths for Dave. Over the duration of the swim this oxygen deficit will add up for him. Each time Dave misses a breath where Bill gets one, Dave's level of physiological stress will go up a bit faster than Bill's. At the end of the swim Dave will have taken roughly 40 breaths fewer than Bill. He'll be more starved for oxygen, have a higher heart rate and will be more fatigued.
Here's another way to look at it. Let's assume each swimmer takes 14 strokes per length. Breathing every other stroke, they each take 7 breaths per length while swimming and then Bill gets a bonus breath during the turn. Dave experiences roughly the same amount of physiological stress during his swim as Bill would if, with 5 lengths to go (roughly the distance over which Bill would normally take 40 breaths), Bill stopped breathing and just swam that last 125 yards holding his breath. Dave, by not breathing on each turn, just spreads that stress out over the whole swim so it's never as intense, but he experiences that stress just the same. That one breath per length really is a big deal.
And, if truth be told, what Dave will probably do is shorten up his strokes enough to be able to take a few more strokes each length - allowing him to reclaim that breath he lost at the wall. But those extra strokes cost a lot of energy. This is looking like a no-win deal for Dave.
Has this ever happened to you? You are swimming along at something faster than a leisurely pace, you execute your version of a flip turn and your eyes begin to bug out of your blue-tinged face for want of air. You scramble to the surface as quickly as possible and start to swim so you can suck in life giving oxygen. Sound familiar? Sound like most of your turns? I call it the "flip&scramble turn" and I see it in nearly every pool I visit. If, instead, you were to utilize an open turn, grabbing a big gulp of oxygen in mid-turn, you would be more likely to be able to establish and maintain a sleek streamlined position under water and really capitalize on the "free speed" available in every turn.
Allow me to wax tangential on this free speed point for a moment. Each time you do a turn, any type of turn, you have the opportunity to push off the wall - the only stable surface you'll apply pressure to during your entire swim. For this reason you travel faster during the brief period immediately after pushing off than you do at any other point in the length - as much as 40% faster for some people. In addition, when you are fully submerged, you actually have less resistance than when you are moving through the surface of the water. So, as soon as you launch yourself from the wall in a fully streamlined position (see Assume the Position), you are benefiting from what I call "free speed" - you are not working but you are going fast. As soon as you trade that position for whatever it is you do to take a stroke and get a breath, you slow down to swimming speed - just like putting on the brakes. It makes sense to do whatever is necessary to lengthen that faster-than-swimming, free speed interval as much as possible. The extra breath available during an open turn can be very helpful in this regard. (see Passing the Oafs and Rowdyness and Ignominy)
Which to learn first?
My first response to those wishing to learn to do a flip turn is usually along the lines of "Until you have perfected a blisteringly fast open turn, don't worry about the flip turn thing." A fast open turn is a lot easier to acquire than a fast flip turn. Plus, in gathering open turn skills, your neuromuscular system will learn a lot about momentum transfer that will later aid your efforts to learn a flip turn.
Strategy or Style?
A person swimming in a pool race can afford, at the end of the race, to be completely wasted, to be helped from the water and to maybe collapse on the deck in a spasm of dry heaves (why does the image of a cat hitching up a furrball cross my mind just now?). This guy gets to hit the warm-down pool and spend the next 15 minutes or more recovering. In such a race the flip turn may be worth the physiological expense (if it is faster than his open turn) and thus be a sound strategy.
But for triathletes who have to swim the first leg of an event in a pool, then need to be able to hop, skip and jump out of the water, ready to apply a flurry of activity in the transition area and speed away on that ridiculously expensive two-wheeled toy, this one breath per length differential has far ranging consequences.
For everyone else it's just a matter of personal style. v
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