Power is More Important Than Head Position
I am going to start off with a controversial statement: I think too much is made about looking down at the bottom of the pool as being one of the keys to swimming faster. There are many hills to die on when it comes to swimming technique and speed, so you need to pick your priorities. (I am not saying that looking down or keeping one's head down will not be helpful to some people in their quest to find a better body position, and hence, less drag.) But I usually find that propulsion is the first order of business and, in fact, many people come to me with buried heads as a result of being scolded to keep the head down. Furthermore, some people will benefit from a slightly forward tilt of the eyes and an opening of the chest at the most opportune time in their pull. As with all things swimming, be prepared to experiment within the realm of what seems logical and reasonable in your own quest for more power.
Keep in mind that there are many different kinds of swimmer: pool & open water, age group & masters, competitive & recreational, and then there are the triathletes. For our purposes today I have focused mainly on elite distance-oriented pool, open water and triathlon swimmers. Even if we are not elite swimmers, we can still learn from watching the best, while keeping our limitations in mind.
What Does Head Position Mean
It has always struck me that head position and eye position are two different things, i.e. you can have your head down while angling your eyes forward slightly -- without causing any major movement up in the actual head and chest. But further than that, I think we have to look at the head position during the power phase of the pull (especially on the breath on same side) and recovery of the opposite arm. Many elite swimmers (pool and open water) are picking up the head, engaging the chest, slightly arching the back and snapping the hip at this moment and then putting the head back down as the lead arm extends. In the collage below, Katie Ledecky most notably does this as she adopts a "gallop" in her stroke which has catapulted her to the top of the all-time best list. Here is a full video of her powerful gallop style.
Head position on the breath, which often becomes an every-two pattern in long-distance swimming, doesn't look the same for every elite swimmer. And I think everyone can agree that open water swimming generally requires more awareness of sighting, competitors, toes for drafting -- and, hence, a higher head.
Pictured: Hackett, Ledecky, Phelps, Adlington, Thorpe, Anderson, Yang, Jennings, Potts
Head position below the surface, on extension, is slightly varied among pool & open water swimmers, as well as triathletes.
Pictured: Hackett, Ledecky, Phelps, Adlington, Thorpe, Carfrae, Yang, Jennings, Potts
One of our other swimming phenoms in the distance arena is Janet Evans. There aren't many good videos or photos of her but this sequence that I put together from some flume footage shows how she looks slightly forward as she extends and then lifts her head and opens her chest as she prepares for her breath. Here is a link to the full Youtube video:
I am not the first person to suggest that looking down is not for everyone. Swim Smooth has opened the door to differing opinions on this topic and away from the one-size-fits-all approach to head position. Check out this link:
Ian Thorpe, one of the best swimmers of all time, is famous for looking forward under the water in his freestyle stroke. Was he the best in spite of this? Some say, "think how fast he would have been if he looked down." I say -- I guess we shall never know. But there is a chance that he and his coach experimented with head position and found that, in fact, he was not faster that way.
Both Thorpe & Hackett appear to pick up the head and engage the chest, just before the breath, similar to Evans and Ledecky. Full disclosure: this may not work for everyone.
Indeed we all have our swimming stroke assets and liabilities (buoyancy, flexibility, height, strength, explosive speed, stamina -- to name some) -- and buoyancy was one of Thorpe's many assets. Most people with too many checks in the liability column have probably been weeded out early as "sinkers" and have reluctantly sulked back to swimming as one of the necessary evils of being a triathlete. Sinkers are more typically male and, yes, they are going to need to be more aware of how head position affects their alignment issues.
At the end of the day, I always tell my swimmers to take the ideas and tools that I give them -- use the ones that work and discard the ones that don't. Different coaches will give you different contradictory advice. You can be paralyzed by these contradictions or you can take matters into your own hands and see what works best for you. This takes a certain amount of awareness and intention, two tools that I always try to take to the water with me.
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