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Resistance and Submission

(or Swim Smarter and Faster)

Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1995.

Speaking strictly from an engineering standpoint, swimming is a very inefficient method of propulsion. Water is a poor medium for the movement of oddly shaped solid objects, to be avoided wherever possible (hence the invention of the bridge). Alas, in reading the swimming rulebook I find no loophole through which the swimmer or triathlete might crawl to avoid this type of motion. So, my aim here is to try to help you increase your efficiency in situations where you find yourself lacking a bridge.

The vast majority of the energy you expend in swimming is used to overcome resistance of various types. By decreasing the total amount of resistance you work against you can channel more of the limited supply of precious energy toward swimming faster.

We are concerned with reducing resistance in a number of different areas in order to maximize the percentage of total expended energy that goes toward propulsion rather than overcoming resistance forces. There are various techniques we can use to combat (or, more accurately, avoid) these unrelenting forces of nature.

Don't be a bulldozer

"Form drag" is the resistance that occurs as a result of the shape and orientation of an object that is moving through the water. This is the most commonly understood type of resistance. Just as a ship builder shapes curved and tapered hulls instead of flat, square hulls we want to taper the form and profile of the already naturally curved human body as it travels through the water. This process is referred to as "vessel shaping" or "streamlining." In general, this means that, at all times, we are attempting to draw all parts of the body that are moving forward through the water into a tight, horizontal, tapered line, attempting to slide through as small a cross section of water as possible. Ideally, only the arm that is currently providing propulsion should break out of streamline (in actuality this isn't really breaking streamline because the stroking arm is no longer moving forward through the water). It helps to imagine you are flowing through a narrow tube without hitting the sides, stretching the arms out in front, keeping the head in line with the spine, keeping hips and legs near the surface, keeping the size of the kick "inside the tube" that the rest of the body is moving through and avoiding up and down and side to side motions of the core body line. (See also Swimming In Circles, Of Air and Gravity and Assume the Position)

Surf's up

"Wave Drag" is the kinetic energy that any surface-penetrating moving object gives up to the water by creating waves — most notably, creating a wake. When you move through the water you are continually displacing water. When you displace water it goes up (you already know this - when you set yourself down into a half-full bathtub the water rises). Once it goes up it falls out to the side (you already know this too — think what happens if that bathtub was filled two inches from the top before you set yourself down into it). A wake is nothing more than water that has been lifted and then pushed away from the vessel moving through the water.

Of course, lifting water uses energy. The amount of water you lift, the higher you lift it and the further it has to travel to get out of your way all contribute to the total energy you spend to create that wake. You don't have much control over how much water you displace — that's determined by the mass of your body. You do have control over how high you lift that water as you displace it — that's determined by your speed: the faster you move, the higher that water will be lifted. Finally, and this is the important one, you have great control over how far that water must move to get out of your way.

Make way! Comin' through!

If you are moving forward at a given speed on your side, a drop of water (and all of its neighbors) directly in the middle of your intended path must travel a certain distance in a certain period of time to get out of your way as you pass. As such, that drop (and cohorts) must be accelerated to a certain speed, which requires a certain amount of kinetic energy (which you supply). However, when you are on your stomach, that same drop (y amigos) must travel twice the distance to get out of your way (because people are, on average, twice as wide as they are thick). But there is no difference in the amount of time required for that drop (et al) to move over, regardless of the distance it has to travel. Twice the distance in the same amount of time means accelerating that drop (and you know who) to twice the speed. This means you transfer twice as much kinetic energy to the water — energy the water won't give back, not to you, at least. So, at any given swimming speed, a stomach-lying position requires roughly twice the energy to displace water as a side-lying position does. So, in freestyle and backstroke we look for positions that maximize the amount of time spent on the side rather than flat on the back or stomach. This is one of the many reasons that your coach always wants you to roll more in these strokes. (See also Whose Side Are You On Anyway?)

Swimming in a blender

"Turbulent opposition" is a result of moving a body through turbulent water instead of calm water. Just as a boat moves faster and more smoothly through still water than through choppy water, so does the swimmer. We have all seen the guy that looks like a giant splash moving slowly down the pool (see Splash and the XXLg Jockstrap), working so hard throwing water and waves in all directions that he gets more of a workout swimming a 25 than you get doing a long descending set of negative split 200s. The opposite of this is the person that seems to glide effortlessly through the water with virtually no splash even when swimming fast. This person has the advantage of not having to swim through his own turbulence while the splasher's body has to move through all of the chop produced by slapping his arms down on the surface, bobbing his head up and down, "paddlewheel" stroking, over-kicking etc. Turbulent opposition can be avoided through applying good stroke mechanics. Learning proper recovery, kicking and breathing techniques as well as learning to launch your body forward rather than pulling your stroking hand backward will drastically decrease the amount of turbulence produced.

Surface drag

"Surface drag" is resistance caused by what can be best described as the frictional force of a moving body in water. Surface drag can be reduced not through technique but through preparation and equipment. Removing barnacles and repainting of a boat achieves the same result a swimmer achieves when putting on a close fitting swim suit rather than a pair of "beach baggies." For even less resistance, new high-tech suits that are specially designed and treated to reduce water absorption and surface drag can be purchased for princely sums (this is one of the few ways you can actually "buy" extra speed - an absolute must for "test tube" athletes with serious cash - otherwise, only for elite athletes in major competitions). Properly fitting swimming caps (as opposed to "bathing" caps — those heavy rubber, flowered monstrosities that are sometimes worn by the Unenlightened) are a must for any person with hair more than a couple of inches long. For serious competition, shaving of body hair is a common practice that helps to reduce surface drag.

Surface tension

Surface tension is a property of fluids that "holds" the fluid surface together (this is what allows a water bug to "walk" on water). Surface tension increases surface drag and thus impedes motion of objects at the water surface more so than below the surface. A swimmer's body on its side cuts through a smaller cross section of surface tension than a body on its back or front and therefore encounters less drag due to surface tension.

Hold your breath a bit longer

Here is a great place to point out that both wave drag and surface tension cease to be issues from the moment your body leaves the wall till the moment it breaks through the surface again. So every extra foot you add to the initial underwater portion of each length avoids both these energy drains a bit longer. (See Assume the Position.)

Fighting yourself

Aside from the external resistance sources, there are a couple types of internal of resistance to deal with. First, wherever swimming motions cause a limb to be moved through a position that is at, or near, the extremity of the range of motion (ROM) of a particular joint, greater muscular force is required to continue the work against the resistance provided by connective tissues surrounding the joint structure. Flexibility and stroke mechanics are the cure here. Increasing ranges of motion, through stretching or micro-fiber reduction, so that normal swimming motions are not as close to the extremes of ROM will yield significant reduction of internal resistance. Also, paying particular attention to proper limb positions in recovery motions will reduce this internal resistance. Second, whenever opposing sets of muscles work against each other, greater muscular force is required to complete the motion. As in any sport we are always attempting to keep internal muscles from fighting each other. Keeping all muscles that are not immediately involved in the propulsive part of a stroke loose and relaxed while swimming is vitally important to minimizing internal resistance. If you are wound up like a tightly coiled spring you will spend a great deal of energy fighting this type of internal resistance.


Perhaps the single biggest tip to minimizing resistance from all sources is to first be aware of it and then act on that awareness. Periodically use your senses to give you feedback about where you are fighting the water. Listen for splashing or "kerplunking" sounds and try to eliminate them. Feel for smooth flowing movements of all parts of your body instead of "bulldozing" movements. You are trying to slip through the water rather than plow through it. Look for large or numerous bubbles in the water around you — a sure sign of turbulence causing actions. Make adjustments to reduce or eliminate these resistance indicators.

'Nuff said

There you have it, although I am really just scratching the surface on the topic of minimizing resistance in swimming. Suffice it to say that the less resistance you work against the more efficient you will be in the water. You will have greater control over your workout, look more proficient as a swimmer, have more fun and you will feel better about doing it all again.

Get with your coach and have him check out your strokes and tell you where you need to make changes so that you can swim smarter and faster instead of just working harder. If you don't have a coach, get one. If you are interested in swimming, either as a sport or for fitness, you owe it to yourself to seek professional assistance in perfecting your style and developing your training plan. v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2005

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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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