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Passing the Oafs

(or Finding Faster-Than-Swimming Speed For Free)

Originally an answer to a swimmer's question in the H2Ouston discussion forum - 8/2000.

In short-course swimming 20-40 percent of the distance is covered underwater, depending on the length of the event and the ability of the swimmer. And nearly all of that is (or can be) done at near zero effort levels. Clueless, uncouth oafs treat the pushoff and ensuing glide as insignificant parts of the swim—a necessary interruption to be dispensed with quickly so the swimmer can scramble back to cranking out short choppy strokes. Canny, refined aquatic athletes, on the other hand, look forward to the first part of each new length as an opportunity to streak past and humiliate the oafs and flow seamlessly into long efficient strokes.

The idea, when pushing off into a swim, is to maintain a perfectly streamlined position underwater so as to capitalize completely on the momentum of the push—i.e. glide till you have slowed to swimming speed. Once you get to swimming speed, further gliding is not effective because you'll continue to slow below swimming speed and then have to accelerate back up to swimming speed—not good. Conversely, if you start swimming too soon you'll prematurely slow yourself down to swimming speed—also not good. In a perfect world you would begin your first stroke at, or just before, the instant you slow to swimming speed.

FTS Speed

Even if you have just a so-so push-off you'll be traveling faster at the instant your feet leave the wall than at any other time during the length. You want to milk this instant—and all ensuing instants during which you are traveling at a faster-than-swimming (FTS) speed—for all they are worth. And while you are milking these instants, the speed you have is free—or, more accurately, it has already been paid for with the muscles you used in your pushoff.

The most important aspect of a good push-and-glide is the position you start your glide in. Our time-honored, hand-over-hand, wrist-over-wrist, ears-squeezed-firmly-between-your-upper-arms, toes-pointed, butt-pinched, small-of-your-back-pressed-against-an-imaginary-wall position is the right one for gliding away from walls (see Assume the Position). An excellent streamlined position will allow you to continue to glide at FTS speed for a longer time and distance than will a poorly streamlined position.

Notice I said you want to start the glide in your excellent streamlined position. This means that during your pushoff you should be snapping into your excellent streamlined position, such that in the instant your feet leave the wall you are as streamlined as you're going to get. If it takes you even a fraction of a second after your feet leave the wall to get streamlined you will have squandered a large percentage of your "free" FTS speed off the wall and the oafs will be gaining on you.

Do It Deep

When pushing off from the wall we are also concerned with depth. You want to leave the wall with at least 1 to 1.5 feet between you and the surface. This is important because, when swimming into the wall there will be a significant flow of water that is "following" you into the wall, and you would like to avoid gliding against that flow at the beginning of your next length. Avoiding that flow by gliding under it will increase the distance you can glide at FTS speed.

But you don't want to stay deep for too long. At some point you must regain a surface penetrating position. You want to first break the surface on your side rather than on your stomach (or back) to reduce breakout resistance. This means you want to break through the surface at the end of the body roll associated with the first stroke. And you want that first stroking arm to be the part of the body that breaks the surface—right as it finishes the stroke and begins to recover. I can think of no more ignominious way to start a length than to take that first stroke only to find that your arm must now recover through the 12 inches of water still between you and the surface.

Using Your Buoy

As much as possible you want to use your own buoyancy to get you to the surface rather than "steering" yourself toward the surface. Steering yourself costs you beaucoups of kinetic energy because you use your body as a drag plane (by angling your hands, arms, head, torso or legs against the onrush of water) to alter your direction of travel. Instead, allowing buoyancy to lift you to the surface does not require you to trade kinetic energy for a change in direction.

Depending on your own personal buoyancy factor (i.e. ratio of fat to lean body mass coupled with volume of air in your lungs) this may mean you need to push off on a slight down-angle to compensate for your tendency to float quickly to the top. Others may be able to push off on a true horizontal. Adjusting the amount of air in your lungs will also alter your ascent to the surface. Less air = slower rise toward the surface.

To Kick or Not to Kick

Should you kick or not during your streamlined glide? That depends largely on the quality of your kick—i.e. does it add substantially to the distance you travel before slowing to swimming speed? If you have a very powerful, fast, compact kick that really propels you when you get it going then consider adding some to your streamlined glide (realizing there is a tradeoff here because even excellent kicking takes way much energy to get even a little extra speed). But if your kick is not very propulsive or it likes to stray way outside "the tube" that the rest of your body carves out while gliding, then you'll likely find your kick actually slows you down prematurely and you might want to conserve your energy for other uses.


How fast you launch yourself from the wall affects your FTS glide length. Regardless of the speed you are swimming you should be trying to maximize initial glide speed. At first one might assume this simply means you need to push off as hard as possible. Not necessarily so. Many people find that pushing off "too hard" nets them less speed and distance. This is usually a result of overshooting a streamlined glide position by arching the back at the moment of full extension—a much less effective gliding position. Starting with slow pushoffs focused on hitting perfect streamlined positions as the feet leave the wall, and gradually increasing pushoff "oomph" serves such people well. As you hone your ability to instantly snap into your most effective streamlined position you'll find that you can push harder—more explosively—away from the wall and have it end up as extra distance at FTS speed. Expertly done, the pushoff is kind of like a sneeze—a totally committed, 100 percent effort in the blink of an eye. And as luck would have it, the pushoff uses muscles you have been largely resting since your last pushoff, so there is no reason you can't eventually have sneeze-like pushoffs from every wall.

Different FTS Speeds

Given consistent pushoffs, the faster you are going to be swimming, the sooner you'll slow down to swimming speed as you glide (If you are sprinting and have a very propulsive kick that keeps you going at a FTS speed, this would be the time to use it). If you are swimming at a slower pace you'll be able to glide longer before you reach that slower swimming speed.

Waiting to Inhale

The one down side to a long glide after your pushoff is, of course, oxygen starvation (or, more accurately, CO2 accumulation). The longer you glide the more your body cries out for your next gulp of air (and if you are not careful you may lift your head or otherwise contort yourself way out of streamline as you struggle to gasp in your first breath of the new length). This is one of the reasons why, on swims longer than a 50, you should not alternate breathe (breathing every third stroke), or breathe on any pattern other than every other stroke while swimming any length where you plan to turn at the next wall. Breathe a lot while you swim so you can afford to hold your breath as you glide past the oafs.

And if, in workouts, you practice long glides consistently, you'll improve your ability to resist that urge to breathe, and still get a civilized first breath on the next length. Until then, in competition you'll have to temper your zeal for long glides with the tradeoff you make in the air management area.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

So you have been spending loads of time improving your pushoff distances and can glide past the halfway point of the pool before you come to a complete stop. And in the last meet you were really pulling away from the oafs with your pushoff and in the first couple seconds of your glide. But, dadgumit, by the time you glided out to the middle of the pool all the oafs had passed you up! "What's up with that, Coach?" you query.

Recall that the part of the glide we are interested in when pushing off into a swim is the FTS part? In competition that's the part we want to maximize and then we want to skip all the rest of the glide. What this means is that as you begin to swim you are trying to maintain the speed generated in the pushoff. If you find yourself accelerating on your first stroke you have definitely glided too long before starting to swim. The best place to get a feel for this is in shallow water where you can watch the bottom go by easily. The closer you are to the bottom the easier it will be to see speed changes. Or get your lane partner to watch you from the side and tell you whether you are slowing too much and then accelerating on your first stroke.

They Are All Around You

Oafs don't just dwell in the slower lanes. As you delve deeper into the mysteries of the underwater part of your swimming, expect to be surprised. Many of the faster swimmers have neglected their pushoffs such that your new efforts will allow you to pass them too. If you want some ideas on specific drills and activities to help you leave the oafs behind (as well as another pool toy you can add to your bag of aquatic tricks), see Rowdyness and Ignominy.¨

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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