Imagine you were at the Olympics watching someone like Usain Bolt competing in the 100m back in his prime. The gun goes off. What happened next? Did Usain stand up from the blocks and, in the words of Dolly Parton, yawn and stretch and try to come to life? Or was he more like Meatloaf and, in one fluid movement, like a bat out of hell he was gone, gone, gone?

For folks like Usain, and indeed any serious racer, the start of the race was just as important as the rest of it. More so, in fact, as it sets up the body in the correct manner for the main part of the event. And even if you don’t race and have no intention of ever racing, the principle still applies.

So let me ask you a question. When was the last time you spent a pool session solely practising how you start to swim? 

Note, I am not talking here about leaping salmon-like from starting blocks, nor really anything that could be described as a “racing start”. I merely want to focus on the process you use to go from being stationary to being in full stroke.

My guess is that for many of us we rarely, if ever, practice. After all, why bother, our current push off takes us more or less to the first row of flags above the lane, isn’t that pretty good? Well, it’s OK. But the flags are set at five metres from the end of a 25metre pool. So, if you’re not practising your push-offs your training is only ever targeted on 80% of the length. For one-fifth of the time you’re mentally and often physically, just drifting.

Photo by Jonah Brown from Unsplash

This lack of attention to how swimmers start can be seen at any pool where all manner of techniques are employed to begin. Some give a small jump into the air before disappearing below the surface, headed straight for the bottom, some tip forward like felled timber whilst others push off with such force it’s like watching the launch of an ocean liner. Far more common, however, is the feeble lacklustre push off which has all the explosive power of a fart in a hurricane.

Which is a shame, because the point at which you leave the wall should be when you are travelling at your fastest, and that momentum should be taking you as far up the pool as you can possibly manage.  

And it’s not a difficult process to master. (I am ignoring, for the moment, all the complications of flip turns or tumble turns, where the body is already in motion and needs to suddenly transfer all that energy 180 degrees in the opposite direction).  

For a standard push-off there are only a few basic fundamental points to follow.

  1. Start below the surface
  2. Create and maintain a streamlined position
  3. Generate maximum power off the wall
  4. Maximise the benefits of the momentum

It’s an easy trap to fall into, if you’re standing at the wall, to push off on the surface of the water. 

It’s almost a default for most folk (and if they’re swimming backstroke it seems even more common). Yet at the surface the swimmer will encounter far more water resistance, creating splash and a bow wave which both equate to lost energy. Below the surface, there is less drag and water displacement. Many top swimmers can swim faster underwater than on top of it. 

This is the reason that Olympic swimmers are only allowed to swim a maximum of 15m underwater for each 50m length. Previously competitors were completing 30m and more underwater. Great for breaking world records, not so great for spectators.  

Nevertheless, you should aim to travel as far as possible completely submerged as, with practice, this can become the fastest point in your length. How far under the water you should be will be dependent on how far you can travel and how naturally buoyant you are. The aim is to break the surface just at the point at which you are ready to take your first stroke. Thus, as you improve you may want to start a little deeper to delay this happening. 

At first, however, a depth of around 18 inches is probably a good start point.

But being underwater alone will not be good enough. A perfect Streamline position is crucial. The hands should be placed one on top of the other and extended above the head with a straight elbow. The head should be hidden between the arms in a neutral position. In the early stages you should be facing the bottom of the pool. The legs should be together following the line of the torso. Some swimmers employ a flutter kick during the push-off although the benefits gained from this over the additional resistance created are debatable. To begin with it might be best not to move the legs at all.  

Photo by Richard R Schunemann from Unsplash

However, once the basic body position is achieved then a dolphin kick or two can be added to keep the momentum going. The inexperienced swimmer will tend to attempt the dolphin kick starting only at the knees. But this will only result in drag and may, in fact, slow the swimmer down. The true dolphin kick is an undulation starting at the torso, travelling through the hips and moves down the legs in a smooth wave-like motion. For those who are less flexible it may take some time to perfect but time spent practising is never wasted. (It’s the sort of thing that can easily be practised on land in a vertical position).

The optimum size of the dolphin kick will differ for each swimmer. A large kick will produce more power but create more drag whilst a smaller kick will not generate the same thrust but will be more efficient. Experimentation is the key here to find out what works best for you.

But there’s little point in being streamlined and having an efficient kick if you’re pointing in the wrong direction! Ensure that, when you thrust off the wall, the direction of travel is horizontal up the lane rather than towards the bottom or the surface. At the point of contact, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees to achieve maximum power. Both feet should be planted firmly on the wall to balance the push. This is relatively simple if you are pushing off facing downwards. 

However, in time you may want to start employing a position with rotation of around 45 degrees. This position will become more natural if you progress to employing flip turns and may help to set you up in the right position for your first stroke. However, it can also result in disproportionate thrust from one leg or the other so is probably best left for more advanced practice.

You also need to pay close attention to your speed through the water. You should be breaking the surface and taking the first stroke just before the point where you begin to slow down. The best way to observe your speed is to notice how quickly you are passing the tiles on the bottom of the pool. The trick is to transition seamlessly from the push off into the full stroke with no loss of momentum. Subtle adjustments may be necessary to your push-off position and technique as you improve to keep this transition as smooth as possible.

The final consideration to be taken into account is breathing. It is easy to take a deep (diaphragmatic) breath before you begin and this can be a useful trigger for your brain to switch on and start to think about the various elements of the push-off you are about to employ.  

But when should you exhale, and when should you take the first breath? The exhale will affect your buoyancy and rhythm so should be closely allied to your natural swimming pattern. i.e. a constant stream of bubbles should be coming from the nose as you push off. This controlled exhale can sometimes feel at odds with the explosive power being generated by the legs but over time will become easier. As for when you should take your first breath, this will be a matter of individual choice and experience. The breathing stroke tends to be slightly more disruptive than the non-breathing stroke and therefore some swimmers prefer to get in a few non-breathers as soon as they hit the surface so as not to disrupt the general flow of the stroke. 

Others prefer to get a quick sneaky breath in immediately so that they don’t run out of air. The guide you should follow when deciding what is right for you is for you to do whatever enables you to maintain the speed and momentum generated from the push-off.

All this might sound overly complex but in reality, a good push off can become second nature very quickly and will almost certainly result in fewer strokes being taken to complete the length and a reduction in time as well. However, because it isn’t viewed as traditional swimming it can often be overlooked despite the enormous beneficial effect it can have on the stroke overall.

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