Being streamlined (also often referred to as alignment) in swimming is essential to maximise propulsion; the more streamlined the body, the less frontal contact with the water and so the faster the body can be propelled.
Before looking at alignment, I’ll briefly outline why it is actually quite hard to be aware of being aligned (or anything else in water for that matter!), unless you have a coach to provide feedback or have access to video analysis (where it quickly becomes obvious).
My previous article described the major inhibitor to the vast majority of triathletes (and swimmers) I see in 1-2-1 video analysis sessions as well as swim and triathlon clinics – breathing correctly.
While this is an easy concept to grasp, being able to do it in the water, and while swimming, can be surprisingly difficult to master. However, once the triathlete is aware of the need to breathe properly, it is relatively easy to recognise and realise when it’s not happening properly (fatigue, out-of-breath feeling).
Other than breathing, many triathletes are initially unaware of what is actually happening while swimming.
Being aware of your body when performing any task is important, especially if attempting to master and maintain a new technique. In almost every sporting activity there are stable, fixed points of reference which allow us to assess how our body is reacting to our movements. For example, riding a bike provides five reference points: the saddle, two pedals and the handlebars for both hands; even running provides at least one stable point when with each foot-strike.
Unfortunately, water provides no stability and so when swimming there are no references against which to assess what is happening during the swim stroke, and this makes our perception difficult.
We all use our perception of movement against fixed points, and react accordingly (often unconsciously), to correct or adapt – and it is a major advantage to be able to do so. Think of running where our foot movement changes when we sense that the ground is uneven, or loose; this perception is important as we instinctively know what to do, especially when trying to maintain good form and speed.
Perception of movement in swimming is equally important and can be mastered simply by being more aware of the flow of water, and what we see around us as we move through it. For example, when swimming freestyle can you feel water (pressure) on the top of your feet/toes (indicating ankles are flexed and resisting) or can you feel water pressure as you push your hands back - and can you occasionally feel this pressure ‘slip-away’)?
The more perception the better.
Streamlining / alignment
As noted above, the more streamlined the better. If self-perception is good then any non-streamlining becomes evident by feeling water pressure where it shouldn’t be, or being aware of head or leg movement from side to side.
To visualise a streamlined swimmer, think of a longitudinal axis running through the top of the head, down the neck and spine and running centrally between the legs (that are close together). This is the optimum alignment and streamlining is maintained when the body is horizontal in the water – like a long thin pencil that will slice through the water more effectively than an end-on barrel.
If this position needs to be retained to optimise propulsion, the only parts of the body that will influence this are the arms when stroking and the legs that need to be kept together and toes pointing backwards to minimise resistance.
For the arms, the hands need to enter the water parallel to this longitudinal axis [see photo above] and essentially pull and push water straight back – always in a path parallel to this axis. (More on this in the propulsive phase of the stroke in the next article).
As a coach, I always comment that I’m not interested in what the arm recovery (when the arm is out of the water between finishing and re-starting a stroke) is like. What I do focus on is the position of the hand when re-entering the water as this one action can easily compromise both streamlining AND propulsion.
Entering over the axis (crossing-over), or wide of the shoulders, affects both alignment and propulsion as the body will be twisted during the entry [see above]. This knocks-on to delay the initial propulsion, wasting time, energy and worsening alignment. This is very commonly seen with a snaking or zig-zag movement through the water.
Increased perception will often highlight this problem to the swimmer both regarding hand entry (visual perhaps) but more likely in feeling legs ‘swaying’ from side-to-side, especially when using a pull buoy - watch and feel what happens as you go through the stroke.
While swimming try to retain a long body position, imagining that long axis through your body and keep every movement symmetrical around this axis. Hips and shoulders should be locked together and rotate together, the head should be still and only turn to breathe, the hands should follow a track parallel to this axis.
Learning how to be streamlined is relatively easy and should be one of the first skills to be developed. Simply practising (no swimming) a good streamlined push-off [see main picture at the top of this article] from the wall will soon make you aware of how beneficial a good streamlined position can be.
To do this, when starting and pushing off the wall, place one hand directly on top of the other and stretch them out (use a thumb to lock them in place) – imagine your fingers are being stretched out to touch the opposite wall. In doing this, your head should be squeezed between your arms (biceps) and your face is looking down to the bottom. Keep a long stretched body and keep legs together, with toes pointed backwards as much as possible.
Practice this and see how far you can travel (compared to previous push-offs) – this is physically no more effort than you have previously been doing but does require some thought and probably some flexibility – several well-performed push-offs may well cause shoulder and back soreness!
This streamlined push-off does help you to become aware of what your body is doing and will carry-across into retaining a similar position when you do start to swim.
Progress from simple push-offs to pushing off into swimming and be aware of how your body feels - and then try to retain this long straight position. This will not only improve the distance of the push-off but once flowed into the swim (and obviously performing a good streamlined push-off EVERY time) will carry across into swim pacing, and be of even greater benefit in turbulent open water swimming.
There are many ways to develop alignment that can be incorporated into swim sessions, such as using a swim snorkel, using a pull buoy, using an ankle band etc. but the basics should be learnt first of all.
Being streamlined is essential to maximise effort applied in propulsion and can easily be learnt and practised. However, a self-awareness or perception is really important to allow this, and other skills, to be applied.