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Swim Better, Swim Faster: Lessons from the Gay Army Tri Swim Coach

By Louis Tharp

RealJock.com is pleased to present this first in a series of articles on improving your swimming form and performance from Louis Tharp, out gay man, swim coach for the Army Triathlon Team at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and author of the new book Overachiever's Diary: How the Army Triathlon Team Became World Contenders. Tharp is the first out gay coach in the history of West Point.

Swimming better and faster is not simply a matter of trying harder or doing more of what you did the last time you got in the pool. It also involves modifying your form to maximize efficiency and power generation. To get started, focus on these two important factors: Know where your hips and hands are. High hips mean less drag, and proper hand position means maximum power delivery.

Help Your Hips—With Your Hands
Let's start with your hips. If they are not at the top of the water (jammer/competition suit exposed to the air), get them there. There are several ways to do this. Some people like to press on their upper chest, while others like to kick harder. These are temporary fixes. Kicking harder isn't smart and won't help. Pressing down on your upper pecs works—but only to a point.

The reality of swimming is that your hips will come to the surface when you are relaxed in the water with a controlled kick. But they will stay at the surface when you figure out what to do with your leading hand.

When I coach the Army Triathlon team, I'm not fussy about hand position for the sake of getting a stronger pull using your hand and arm muscles. I'm fussy about hand position because it sets up your body in a balanced attitude to maximize the power generated from your hips and abs.

Side Note on the Realities of Water
But before we go further, you have to accept the reality of water, which makes body management more difficult. When you're running or biking, the earth (and resulting blood when you fall) tells you quickly what you're doing wrong. The water is much more lenient. If you want to swim inefficiently, it will let you. This means it may be harder for you to change your stroke and body position and do what I'm asking you to do. But don't give up—practice patiently on your own or with a team and you will learn it.

The Proper Angle to Link Hips, Abs, and Stroke
Ready to get your hips high to reduce drag? Change your arm/hand position and stroke as described below to get the hand position you need to lift your hips out of the water:

  1. Start with a high elbow—like a shark fin—leading your hand above the water.
  2. Next, drive your hand into the water as if, as my mentor Terry Laughlin at Total Immersion says, you are putting it through a mail slot. That means your hand will go into the water at a 45-degree angle with very little splash.
  3. As your arm enters the water, eliminate elbow plunk by keeping your elbow high. If your elbow splashes, that means you've dropped it.
  4. Once your arm is in front of you in the water, at a 45-degree angle, finger tips angled downward, you'll notice that you'll feel some resistance on the back of your hand. At this point you may say to yourself, "This angle is causing drag, and drag is my nemesis." Yes, this position is causing drag, but swimming fast is a series of adult trade-offs. While you will get maximum glide and minimum drag with your arm stretched out directly in front of you, with this dead-end glide you will also end up having to push your hand down until you reach about 45-degrees before you can begin to take any sort of productive stroke. This is not at all propulsive. The dead-end glide presents additional problems: First, when you finally get to point where you can begin to take a productive stroke, your hand will already be moving, which means the opportunity to set up for your stroke will be nearly gone before you realize it's time to set up. Second, at this point your elbow will also probably be lower than your forearm, which means you'll be putting a huge amount of stress on those tiny rotator cuff muscles as you work to lift your arm out of the water. That's a whole lot of trade-offs for a little bit of drag. Instead, why not position your arm/hand at a 45-degree angle in the first place? Yes, you lose a little glide, but you gain a lot of set-up because—and here's the important part—your hand is going to anchor out there for at least a second.
  5. While you're hanging out there at a 45-degree angle, you're going to be in a high-hip position because that 45-degree angle will act as a lever on your hips, and you'll have time to be raising your elbow in order to maximize your ability to recruit the energy that will be transmitted from your hips and lats.
A word on patience: There is no way you're going to be able to get this right the first time you try it. Linking hips, abs, and stroke together is not something you read in an article and then just jump in the pool and do. But by getting your hips high, and relocating your leading arm/hand position to 45-degrees, you will immediately swim faster. With practice (and possibly the help of a coach or workshop), you will find and improve that link between your hips, abs, and stroke, and will combine efficiency and power delivery to improve your swimming. Try it and tell me what happens.

About Louis Tharp: Louis Tharp is the author of the new book Overachiever’s Diary: How the Army Triathlon Team Became World Contenders," and the first out gay coach in the history of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Contact him through the Overachiever’s Diary web site at http://www.overachieversdiary.com.