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April 2018

The 3 Stages of Proper Swim Development

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Originally featured on

At a recent workshop at Speedo HQ looking at some product development, the conversation turned to the subject of good swim technique.

Amongst the assembled group of designers, scientists and coaches it was not easy fully describing good technique. Each person had a view as to which component was more important, and the best way to inject this into their swim classes.

It was actually easier to describe bad technique, and how if you slowly eliminated examples bad technique one aspect at a time you would be left with something that could be described as good swim technique. The key words such as rhythm, graceful, relaxed, a lack of splash, a lack of effort, symmetry, propulsion and low levels of drag cropped up— but these are all are quite vague descriptions.

The truth about good swim technique is: we know it when we see it. It is highly individual, and we all have an idea as to how we define it. A level of skill is needed to take away the thought process and allow the sequence of swimming actions to unfold naturally without hesitation.

For example, the coordination of the arms and legs, the timing of the breathing, applying just enough force to pull you through the water without slipping in the water.

When a swimmer starts out improving their stroke what I see is a sequence of swimming movements slowly being constructed and processed, hence the hesitations, the slow rigid movements of the body and the mechanical edge to their movements that seem to hold them back.


The big problem for those who are not natural swimmers is the concept of the disparity between what they feel they are doing and what they are actually doing.

For many swimmers, once they see a video of themselves swimming, will still need further convincing that it is actually them up on the screen.

At our weekend workshops where the filming is displayed in a classroom setting shortly after the first swim, often swimmers wait to claim their piece of footage ( i.e. they wait to see if they like what they see).

If it’s wrong and they have identified the wrong person up on the screen, it’s usually an example of somebody swimming better than they do. At this point I diplomatically point out, “Unfortunately sir you are the only gent in today’s group so that has to be you.”

If you come from a sporting background (from any other sport either in or out of the water) and have good hand-eye coordination and good proprioception skills, then the new movements often come easier.

The disparity is narrowed, as people seem to have a more accurate method of allowing them to visualize the movements they are making. I liken this to the idea of the “unconscious incompetence,” which is the first of the Four Stages of Competence, a well-known psychology model that describes how we learn a new skill.


For a swimmer learning proper swim technique, it is not so much that they are unaware of how some of their movements are being performed poorly, it is more that they cannot perceive their own movements as good or bad.

The journey to unconscious competence where it all seems so easy is—not so easy. I feel there are three key stages for an adult swimmer attempting to swim well and most triathletes plateau in the second area not realizing how much time in the water is needed to attain the third (I am trying hard to resist not using the expression enlightenment here!)

The workshop at Speedo HQ touched on why swimming can be so challenging and when I thought about how many repetitions of a certain movement were needed for it to become automatic—for it to become unconscious and competent—I had to agree.

When I thought back to how much repitition must have taken place during my own development years between 1987 and 1994 in order for it to look relaxed and as if I wasn’t trying—it could have easily been in the millions!

How many hours at the steering wheel did you spend driving before you started to not notice the mechanics of the process of driving? I bet it took a while for some to be comfortable enough on the bike to stop looking for the gear and brake levers.

The moment they become an extension of the hands and arms you can then focus on the road around you, the surroundings and traffic, and suddenly you are a much safer cyclist.

Three Key Stages of Swim Development

Initially, when people start out improving their swim technique, it is exhausting due to making use of the incorrect muscles (usually the larger ones of the legs) to perform incorrect movements.

Getting tired more quickly than is necessary while directing yourself in a direction you don’t want to go is a double whammy of a problem. Unfortunately, the sensation of speed is apparent since it all feels so strong and fast—the bubbles, the splashing and the getting out of breath.

The sensations that can deliver such speed on the bike and the run will do nothing but fatigue you in the water due to a lack of streamline, using the wrong muscles to channel water in the wrong directions and not allowing you a healthy window of opportunity to get your air in when breathing.

Fortunately, it does not take too long to move on from this position. Four or five lessons can do it for many people; acquiring the correct movements driven by many of the smaller muscles will soon have you moving into stage two.

Getting faster as the effort levels come down and streamline starts to kick in can happen quite quickly. At this stage, you are unlikely to be purely swimming faster but for longer distances you should be setting improved times as you fatigue less.

Often the big issue at this time is convincing swimmers that they are indeed getting faster. Due to the counterintuitive nature of faster swimming becoming possible with less effort—many people refuse to buy into it.

Constant measuring will help reassure you, whether it is time taken for a distance, strokes taken per length, or distance swum in a certain time. Be fair and time yourself over at least 400m, as a 25m sprint will unlikely to be quicker as you will not be swimming faster in terms of pure swim velocity.

You will still be processing a sequence of swimming movements to create the freestyle stroke, but the direction you channel water will be positive in terms of you moving forward.

You will generally be taught to use the smaller muscle groups to control smaller movements. The energy and oxygen cost per stroke will reduce massively. Linked to the counterintuitive feel, unfortunately, is that these new muscles are not yet familiar with the new movements. So, for six to eight weeks even smaller muscles (now moving correctly) will be more tiring until they adapt to the new overload.

Most will now be in that tricky, in-between stage where you are not reaping the benefits of being faster just yet (more on this later) but since your movements are now contributing to going forward rather then up and down or sideways, faster times are inevitable if you believe and persevere.

Finally, we come to the moment of enlightenment (sorry!) when you feel fast in the water and you are actually moving fast in the water.

Swimming fast with the sensation of speed is a combination of a well streamlined body position, a rhythmical leg kick to hold you in the water and assist your body position, constant rotation to the degree you are streamlined (but not overdoing it so you waste time gliding).

Probably the key benefit is acquiring the feel for the water, at this point you make the water feel more solid around the hand. You can feel the body moving over a stationary hand rather than it slipping under the body.

A secondary part of the feel for the water is how you can sense just how much effort to put into each pulling movement. Too much strength and it is wasted as the fluid water slips around the hand, not enough and you just move slowly.

A strong pull is a combined balance of strength and finesse, allowing the maximum amount of effort to be deployed. The faster you move through the water will add additional benefits, such as the trough of air deepening around the head, meaning you can turn the head less when breathing. Sitting higher in the water carries benefits to the sighting process, and so on.

At this point you will automatically process the freestyle movements without the thought process, meaning you can focus more on pacing and race tactics but it is going to take quite some time to acquire that degree of unconscious competency.

For some this may take a while longer than they hoped, but it is possible. You may need to think in terms of sessions per month rather then sessions per week. What I mean by this is that aiming for four sessions per week is a noble ambition but you are more likely to be content with three. If you aim for between 13 and 16 sessions per month—you will be getting more achieved and hopefully be inspired to achieve more.

Set realistic goals and think about it being a two-year process if you are starting out from a novice level. Acquiring a technically proficient stroke will enable you to be faster, swim easier, be prone to fewer injuries and eventually allow you to enjoy the swim aspect of your race (the pacing, the tactics and the actual racing rather than just mechanically processing the swim movements to help you survive from start to T1). It’s a process, to be sure, but a worthwhile one in the long-term scope of your endurance performance.

Improvements to speed need swim fitness and technique.

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Improvements to speed need swim fitness & technique. The two go hand in hand, stroke in stroke. You do not get to be a faster swimmer if either swim fitness or technique are missing. As part of this equation our swim fitness sessions are full of technical pointers, drills, testing, stroke counting & analysis.

On occasion we can also film which is a great opportunity to narrow the gulf between how you swim and how you think you swim. More on this in my Plateau article from Training Peaks

‘The big problem for those who are not natural swimmers is the concept of the disparity between what they feel they are doing and what they are actually doing. For many swimmers, once they see a video of themselves swimming, they will still need convincing that it is actually them up on the screen.’

If you swam this week at one of our swim fitness sessions then you should find your video footage here –

London Fields

Kings Cross

London Bridge

Mile End




Have a look at some full stroke swum here from multiple angles. Apologies but due to sharing lanes with the public some locations had better opportunities than others. If you feel you need more attention then our new Endless Pool Facility is now offering lessons with multi angle playback.

More details here – Fulham The chance to swim against a current is a great way to learn streamline and feel when you are creating drag. Equally the water moving around the body can help accelerate the learning process.

Breathing ….both sides or single side?

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Bilateral Breathing (alternating to both sides) is not the only solution despite what the text books will keep telling you. Until you have control of the breathing aspect of your FrontCrawl (F.C.) stroke it will also not be possible to relax in the water regardless of how often people keep giving you this advice. How often, for how long and when is one of those grey areas that is quite individual to you. The right and wrongs though would include in through the mouth (only) and out when the head is submerged. Don’t wast time exhaling when the head is turned to the side. The best solution is what is comfortable for you and depends if you are racing or training and at what intensities. Usually on race day that means each second stroke to keep a healthy flow of air coming into the body. In training however it would be good to mix the pattern to stop any bad habits becoming ingrained. This could include alternate lengths swapping sides. If you struggle to breath to a certain side check your technique for balanced and symmetrical rotation.  A lack of rotation to a certain side will impact the heads ability to turn. Try the Torpedo drill to assist here.  If the head only turns to one side repeatedly then there will be negative repercussions to body position and arm movements.  We always try to balance particular movements so that they are not repeated on their own too many times. Keep in mind the head is a large clumsy object that contributes so much more to fast swimming if it does not move. Keep head movements when turning to breathe, small, fast and fluid.

Some coaches will suggest a full exhalation at the last moment before the head turn to keep the body high in the water, others will feel that this added buoyancy to the chest cavity will keep the legs low so to exhale continually. There are arguments for and against both styles but reducing anything that causes tension is desired (so exhale a small amount continually during the face in the water stage) and if you’re legs sit low find out why, there are probably contributing factors.

A breathing pattern (B.P.) alternative I like is the 3.2. Here you take 3 strokes between breaths then 2 so it mixes 2 breaths to the left then 2 to the right. You could think of this as 2 breaths per 5 strokes rather then 6 which is slightly less taxing on the system. I try to encourage bilateral breathing (to both sides) at low intensities in training (warmups and subsets, even cool downs.) A key piece of swim equipment to help is the central snorkel that takes the head movement for air out of the equation altogether meaning you get a chance to focus on body position and arm movements. Getting comfortable with the breathing aspect of FrontCrawl is not easy but once mastered will allow you to relax in the water and start to make some big gains. Early on the stroke will dictate when you get to breathe (compare to the bike and run when you are always in charge) which will never allow you to relax. As stroke mechanics improve you will take charge of when you breathe and so allow the stroke to be performed more relaxed. A more relaxed stroke is less aggressive, more economical, needs less air and the delicate balance of pulling on slippery nothingness gets easier.

One of my favourite blocks of work to reinforce these concepts is as follows. Perform a sensible warmup ahead of starting this more intense block of work. Consider this your main set which should then be followed with a cool down. B.P. – Breathing pattern. A breath every 2nd,3rd, 4th or 5th stroke etc. Rest 25 between each swim. FC – front crawl swimming stroke

500metres (20Lengths in a 25m Pool) F.C. (front crawl), swum with fins, Breathing Pattern 5

400metres (16Lengths) F.C., swum with paddles,       Breathing Pattern 4 (change sides with each length)

300metres (12Lengths)   F.C. pull,                                  Breathing Pattern 3.2

200metres (8Lengths)    F.C. swim,                                Breathing Pattern  2

100metre (4Lengths) F.C. swim, 3-4 breaths per length, your choice where you use them…                                                                                                                                                                        1500m

new to swimming? Technique Swim Tips for Beginners

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Technique Swim Tips for Beginners, some Q&As

  • How important is technique when you are learning to swim? Swim technique is harder to change later in life so the fewer mistakes made earlier when learning the more effective you will be later in your swim career.
  • If you’ve never had swimming lessons/coaching, does this necessarily mean you will have poor technique? Swimming is highly technical and not easy to change even for advanced swimmers. It is illogical and counter intuitive so to get it right without instruction will be very hard
  • Can you teach yourself better swimming technique? Not the easiest since most struggle to imagine what they are doing right and wrong while in the water since it is such an alien environment. You can watch good technique, read good technique even picture good technique in your mind but this is rarely translated into correct movements performed.
  • What are the main benefits of having a coach to help you improve? They will be the eyes you need to guide you and describe the mistakes you make. They will help translate the technical points you might be misinterpreting into fluid swimming movements.
  • Which stroke is the hardest to master and why? They all have their complexities but perhaps Butterfly is most the difficult due to the very specific timing issues. If your timing is out you will struggle to take in air.
  • What are the benefits of good swimming technique? Does it improve fitness as well as performance? Good technique will exhaust you less so you can do more of it at a steadier pace. The fitness benefits are well documented but until the mechanics of your strokes are efficient it will be hard to do much more then a few lengths. You are also less likely to injure yourself if the correct movements are made with the correct muscles.
  • If you’ve never thought about technique before, which stroke should you start with and why? FC and Backstroke are perhaps the two least tiring if done well. Backstroke removes the need to time a head turn allowing for air to be taken when you want so could be considered an easier starting point. FC can create concerns since to do it well you need to put your face in the water. Depending on fitness levels and starting point Breaststroke might appear simple but done well is highly technical. Confidence, the ability to relax and timing of the breath should be early aims regardless of stroke.
  • Are there different techniques you should employ for pool / open water swimming and why? Swim movements do not necessarily need to change due to solely being in OW but you will need to add in a method for sighting and looking where you are going. If you are swimming in a wetsuit this will impact body position so we might take into account this change but legs still kick and arms still pull.
  • What do you think is most important and why: stroke techniques or breathing techniques? Or do you need to have everything working in synch to swim effectively? The two are inextricably linked. Controlled breathing allows you to swim relaxed with a stroke that can be reproduced over and over. Swimming well with good technique allows you to breathe when you want. On dry land, breathing is not an interrupted stop/start function due to only being allowed a short window of opportunity to inhale. In the water until you have better control of your swim technique your stroke will dictate when you get to take a breath and that can only lead to further frustration.
  • What is your top piece of technique advice for,
  • a) a swimming novice, swim more frequently but perhaps for shorter periods. Tremendous gains can be made if you reduce the amount of time ‘unlearning’ between swims
  • b) a swimming enthusiast, work with a coach, huge gains can be made for modest changes to your swim technique.
  • c) an experienced, high level swimmer? Check progress by performing some specific, reproduce able swim sets each 6 weeks or so. Measure if you are getting faster, fitter or swimming further. Add some accountability to your swimming. It might help get you to the pool on those days you are not so keen to go.