Warning! Your hips may be out of control!
Well, ok, if not totally out of control, I’ll lay odds that they could be inhibiting your freestyle. And no, I’m not talking about the size of your hips. I would not dare to tread there.
Your hips are an integral part of any of the four strokes. In this posting, I’ll concentrate only on the role your hips play in freestyle. Otherwise you’d be reading on forever. And you do have a life, right?
Center of Buoyancy vs. Center of Gravity
First a note about center of buoyancy vs. center of gravity. The center of gravity (what pulls us down), for most of us, lies near our hips – as seen in this graphic.
The center of buoyancy (what makes us float) is our lungs. Our bodies are in a a constant tug-o-war between buoyancy and mass. In essence, your lungs want to lift you up, your hips want to pull you down. If you let this happen, you swim “uphill” with your hips below your shoulder line and your ankles well below your hip line. That creates massive resistance. Your first objective should be to find your “posture, line and balance” in the water (thank you Richard Quick). You want to ride a very horizontal line in the water, with head, shoulders, hips and heels on or near the same plane, as you see in this graphic.
Keeping your hips near the surface will help you in your quest to keep the rest of the body line on the same plane. From on deck, what I see happening with a lot of triathletes and masters swimmers is that, while they might manage to keep their shoulders and hips on a pretty okay horizontal line, their feet are often sit well below the line. That is because they are either 1) not kicking enough; 2) creating too big of a kick; or 3) improperly kicking. Your kick needs to be soft and steady (unless you are sprinting and then it needs to be rapid and steady) and it needs to originate from your hips, not your knees. Work to keep your kick going and to keep your feet close together in your kick — especially when you breathe. I often see swimmers splay (separate) their legs far apart when they go to breathe. This is because they are out of balance and are using their legs, not their core, in a desperate attempt to find their balance. As you can see, a lot of factors go into finding and holding that perfect posture, line and balance. This short video shows you some common mistakes swimmers make in flutter kick and ends with a clip on proper kicking technique.
Ah yes, but I digress. Let’s get back to the hips.
Connect the Body Parts
We coaches will tell you that in freestyle and backstroke, you rotate off the “long-axis”. What that means is that you don’t just rotate from your hips. If you do so, you’ll actually wiggle or snake across the top of the water, creating drag instead of minimizing it. One of my favorites sites, www.swimsmooth.com, covers this body roll or body rotation topic quite well:
For good efficient swimming technique, the shoulders, torso and hips should all roll together as one. For your kick, this means you kick on the side slightly as you rotate.
Check out the full article and supporting video that Swim Smooth has on body rotation and why it is essential to good freestyle: http://www.swimsmooth.com/rotation.html#ixzz2UK4UVkl4
Ok, so you need to connect your shoulders, torso, hips, and (I’ll add) your feet into one long line as you roll slightly side to side. Note that your head should stay still when the rest of your body rotates. Check out this series of pictures of three Olympic swimmers: Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin (upper right) and Lindsey Benko (lower left). Look at the amazing line each of them has and you can see the connection of shoulders, torso, hips and feet.
Now watch this GoSwim video clip of Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce. She has such an amazing freestyle with probably one of the best “early vertical forearm” strokes I’ve seen! Feel free to study all aspects of her stroke here, but pay close attention to her kick, especially in the opening series. See how compact that kick is? She keeps her feet fairly close together and in a tight cylinder behind her body. Now take note of the connection she has with her shoulder, torso, hips and heels aligning as she rotates or rolls from side to side.
Roll Baby Roll?
Finding the perfect amount of rotation is admittedly tough. We coaches usually see severe over rotation or almost no rotation. Geez, gang do you always have to go to extremes? When you are in the water, it can be tough to know exactly how much body roll to give, let alone whether you meet or exceed that. Ah ha! Well for a definitive answer, we turn to Russell Mark, High Performance Consultant for USA Swimming. In studying elite freestylers, Russell noted that:
The best freestylers rotate their shoulders to either side about 30 degrees from the surface, meaning that they never even rotate halfway onto their side (which would be 90 degrees).
Think about it. 30 degrees is not very much. Check out this graphic from Mark’s posting on USA swimming. What we have seen in freestyle is a significant decrease in rotation as the science of swimming has evolved. Just a few years ago it was common to see rotation in the 45-60 degree range, now we’ve seen it drop to around 30 degrees. If you are rotating above 60 degrees, you are probably over rotating, and most definitely over rotating if you are closer to 90 degrees.
To make sure you are not over rotating, you’ve got to embrace and implement the concept of connecting that long line on your body – hand, shoulder, hip, feet. When you go to stroke–let’s say with your right hand–take your right hip and let it slide forward and let it press just slightly down on the water. It should lead the right hand into the water. Just remember to engage your core and connect heels, hip, shoulder as one long line.
Hey, there is no doubt that swimming is incredibly complex and technical. It seems like a zillion factors go into swimming a “correct” freestyle that will eventually be faster for you and save you energy. We touched on a few of them here, but those for a future posting (or past posting on this website) are: head position, breathing, pull, early vertical forearm, arm recovery, and hand strike. Aligning yourself in the water to find the optimum posture, line and balance, is key to an efficient freestyle.
Stop exhausting yourself by muscling through in your freestyle. Learn to finesse the water. Minimize resistance everywhere you can. Keep those hips up, align yourself fingertip to toe, keep the kick small and compact, and visualize swimming in the cylinder. Continue to “sweat the small stuff” in your freestyle. Focus on all of these little details and it will add up to huge improvements in your freestyle.