Goal: Learn to glide across the water.

Have you ever seen a swimmer that looks like they glide effortlessly through the water? They seem to go twice as fast with half the number of strokes. In swim jargon, they have great “distance-per-stroke.”

These swimmers have obviously mastered several areas of freestyle technique but the primary aspect they’ve mastered is their timing.

You can learn to do this, too.

First, let’s bust a common misconception about the freestyle arm cycle.

No Windmilling

Many beginners think the freestyle arm rotation is “windmill-like.” They assume that their hands should be diametrically opposed throughout the arm cycle, so that when the left is forward the right is back; and when the left is above the right is below.

This motion is correct for cycling, running, kayaking, etc….but not for distance freestyle. A windmill arm motion creates a rushed, choppy freestyle. Additionally, trying to fit breathing into this constant rotation is very difficult because it creates a very small window for the swimmer to take a breath.

[Insert 4-5 montage of windmill swimming.]

[Side Note: Sprint freestylers do use a diametrically opposed arm motion. They want a fast stroke turnover, to create power. The race typically lasts a few seconds to a couple of minutes, so distance-per-stroke, energy conservation and breathing patterns aren’t as important to them as distance swimmers.]

Upfront Swimming

The most efficient distance freestyle stroke practices “upfront swimming” or “front quadrant swimming.” This, essentially, means that your hands almost catch up at the front of your stroke. As you swim, there’s always a lead hand in front of you…gliding.

[Insert 4-5 montage of upfront swimming.]

Take a look at the image. When the hand enters the water, it takes on the lead hand duty (1). It stays extended while the other hand pulls (2) , recovers (3) and then takes on the lead hand duty (4).

The lead hand performs three incredibly valuable tasks:

  1. Maximizes Your Momentum

It’s important to understand that majority of the forward momentum comes from the second half of the pull. When you’ve pulled past your shoulder line you’re now pushing water towards your feet. That’s what creates forward momentum.

So, what should your lead hand be doing as your pulling hand is creating momentum? Gliding. Surfing. Riding the momentum. This is how you get the most distance from each stroke.

Think about a roller skater. Their back foot creates forward momentum while the lead foot is planted — preparing to glide and make the most from the force created by the back foot. Make sense?

  1. Opens Your Breathing Window

The lead hand opens up a much longer window in which to breathe. It’s much easier to turn your head to breathe when the opposite are is extended. It gives you something to lean on.

  1. Helps You Catch the Water

In the module on Pulling, we discuss the “Catch.” This is the first part of your underwater pull. It describes the act of “anchoring” your hand into stable water. If you rush this part, you will slip water and your pull will not be efficient. Again, we’ll cover it more later but, for now, just know that upfront swimming helps you catch the water better.

How to Practice Upfront Swimming

You’ll see that many of the workouts that are focused on Timing include “Catch Up” drill. This drill exaggerates the timing by requiring that the thumbs touch at the beginning of the stroke. Next, we’ll back off a little, so that the thumbs don’t touch, but almost touch. That’s the correct timing.

We also do single-arm drills to help practice gliding with the lead hand.

The next time you swim, count the number of strokes it takes you to do a length. Do a few lengths and get an average. Our goal will be to knock some strokes off this number.

If you have a tendency to “windmill,” it can be a hard to switch to upfront swimming. But stick with it. The improvements can be dramatic. Strokes become longer; breathing becomes easier; and energy is conserved. For most beginner triathletes, nailing the body position and timing can give a whole new enjoyment of swimming.