Many swimmers (and some coaches) believe that every swimmer should look straight down at the bottom of the pool when they swim, so as to improve their body position. Is this true? Let’s look at some swimmers underwater to find out :
The Star Of The Pool
First up we have double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, showing us a mid head position, looking at the bottom of the pool 1-2 meters ahead of her:
As you can see Rebecca sits fantastically high in the water, a body position she can easily achieve despite looking slightly ahead. This is very typical of elite pool swimmers who rarely look straight down or very far forwards.
Key point: The very best pool swimmers in the world tend to use a mid head position, looking slightly ahead.
The Professional Triathlete
Fraser Cartmell is a star of the 70.3 world stage and a great swimmer to boot. Like all elite triathletes, Fraser’s main concern is performing well in open water swims and so he uses a very forward looking head position:
Looking so far forwards helps him navigate effectively and find the toes of other swimmers to draft effectively. Note that he can do this while still maintaining a high body position in the water (despite being super-lean).
Key point: If you have good stroke technique, you can achieve a high body position despite looking forwards and for open water swimming this is a major tactical advantage.
The Buoyant Age Grouper
Marina is an age group swimmer with a naturally high body position in the water, she’s been told to look straight down at the bottom of the pool when she swims but this was very bad advice for her:
By looking straight down she starts to rise up out of the water at the rear:
In a wetsuit, the extra buoyancy exacerbates this problem further, leaving her feeling very unstable. We coached Marina to look a little further forwards, rebalancing her in the water while still maintaining an excellent body position. Looking further forwards also helped her proprioception (body awareness) in front of her head so that she could develop a greater feel for the water during her catch.
The extreme version of this advice is to ask swimmers to ‘swim downhill’, which is a disaster when their natural body position is already very good :
Here Barbara has added huge frontal resistance after being asked to bury her head in the water. Returning to a higher head position and not pressing down with her chest allowed her to immediately swim more efficiently and be much more comfortable doing so.
Key point: For swimmers with a good natural body position, looking straight down harms their swimming. If you feel unbalanced when swimming (or in your wetsuit in open water) try looking further forwards and see if it helps gives you stability.
The Sinky Legged Swimmer
Glen is a former professional Aussie Rules football player and is relatively new to swimming and triathlon. He suffers greatly from low sinking legs in the water:
Much stronger on the bike and run, this athlete is massively held back by the drag from his low lying legs. To improve his body position there are numerous things he can work on in his stroke, such as:
– Removing hand-entry crossovers which cause scissor kicks and drop the legs downwards.
– Exhaling better into the water to remove excess buoyancy from the chest and make him feel more relaxed.
– Keeping his head low and using the bow wave trough when he breathes.
Once he’s worked on these things he can also try a lower head position to help bring his legs up further.
Key point: Looking down can be a useful modification for those with sinky legs. However, it makes navigation and catch development harder so treat it as a last resort by working on other areas of the stroke to improve body position first.
You can see from the examples above that selecting a head position should be an individual thing for individual swimmers – there is no universal head position that is best for everyone.
Try swimming 100m yourself experimenting with your head position, looking in each of the directions below for 25m in turn :
Choose the one that feels best for your stroke and allows you to swim faster and more efficiently, then stick with it. When we try this exercises on our Swim Smooth Clinics we always receive a range of feedback with some swimmers feeling better looking forwards, while others improve when looking downwards, others feel best somewhere in between.
You can repeat this exercise in your wetsuit, you might well find you can look further forwards which can be a great advantage for open water navigation and drafting.