Flip Turns

Why is it important that you, as a triathlete, learn how to flip-turn? First, open turns in a pool allow you rest once every length of the pool. I know you probably donít think so, if youíre swimming open turns, nevertheless this is the case, and once you start flip turning youíll agree.

Second, while I donít think itís of any benefit to you to deliberately eschew oxygen while you swim Ė Iím not a fan of hypoxic sets, or of breathing every third stroke Ė I do like the idea of having to go underwater every length, to get used to the fact that you will occasionally miss breaths while open water swimming.

Finally, I want you swimming with people as fast or faster than you in workouts. Not every workout. But a lot of workouts. You need to swim faster. You need to swim with fast people to swim faster. You need to swim with a better crowd. You need speed to swim with that crowd. No, you do not open turn as fast as you will flip turn. Open turns are like race walking: trying to optimize an obviously slower technique.

So, how do you flip turn? The most obvious misconception about flip turns Ė and I donít need to ask you to know this, I see this when I watch you try to flip turn Ė is that the flip, the rotation, is an act in which you physically, muscularly, engage separate from the normal course of swimming. What I mean is, you swim to the end of the pool, you pretty much stop, and you try, muscularly, to spin, to turn a somersault. Of course, you get about halfway around that somersault and your spin runs out of gas.

In fact, the turn is not nearly so hard. Just as a world class high jumper is able to transform his running speed on the ground to height, you transform or translate your speed in the water into the energy that propels that somersault.

Hereís a video of Sun Yang and 7 of his closest friends, slow motion (I love this video, I play it to Goreckiís Symphony #3, you ought to try that.), lots of flip turning going on in this video. Itís the speed into the wall Ė all the way into the wall Ė that energizes the flip. Note how the last thing these swimmers do is pull right into the flip, that is, one hand and then the other pulls right into the flip, to keep the speed up. The speed empowers the flip.

On your computer, open a separate window, resize your browsers, if your screenís wide enough, so that you have two browsers side-by-side. Read this article with the video next to it, so you can reference what Iím writing with what youíre seeing.

Me, I donít bend at the waist when I flip, I just sort of curl or peel my body from the head down. I begin by dropping my head, then hunching my shoulders, so that my body looks kind of like a question mark by the time Iím ready to fully flip. I think this makes my body kind of like a louvre, the water hitting my back and helping force that somersault.

Right now youíre unfortunately using your hands to scull, and give you extra energy, to complete the turn. Really, avoid that if you want to learn this skill properly. If you watch these guys flip, hereís what happens with their hands and arms. The last two strokes Ė left and then right, or right and then left, doesnít matter Ė leave the swimmer with both arms straight back, like heís standing at attention, hands at his side (just, standing at attention horizontally). The arms are now pointed back toward the other end of the pool. When you flip, everything moves but the arms. The arms stay put. The arms never change their aspect in the water. They stay pointed at the other end of the pool. The end result of this is, now, flip completed, your hands are directly out in front of you, Superman-style.

Watch the video. Pulls completed, hands are at the swimmersí sides going into the turn; hands are now straight in front of the swimmersí heads coming out of the turn.

Another way to look at this: From the moment you enter the turn, hands at your sides, your hands do not change where they are, in the water, during the turn. They occupy the same space, the same place, in the water, during the turn. Imagine your hands are butterflies in Godís butterfly collection, and heís just straight-pinned your hands in place. You have to execute the flip turn with your hands stuck right there, immovable. The benefit of this is, no extraneous movement, nothing slowing you down, and your hands and arms are perfectly positioned for your push off the wall.

Okay, but, what about your feet? Isnít it going to hurt when I miscalculate and my heels come banging down on the pool deck instead of in the water? Yes, that would hurt. Why doesnít that happen to me? I retract my feet just before they (would) hit the wall. I bend my knees. I pull my feet in. Does every swimmer do this? No. but hereís Sun Yang swimming with an above-the-water view, and I think he does it. Probably learned pretty quickly how to keep the legs of that 6í8Ē frame in the water and off the pool deck. By the time you get to the point where you retract your feet and bend your knees, just before your feet are about to contact either water or pool deck, your turn is pretty well completed. I kind of think this technique helps speed the turn anyway, in the same way that a figure skaterís spin increases when he or she contracts his arms and legs.

When you flip, and the flip is completed, are you now upside down in the water, looking through the water to the sky? Yes. No. Maybe. Depends on the swimmer. Sun Yang, yup, thatís how he turns. This means his push off the wall is executed with him ready to Ė seemingly Ė do the backstroke. He coils, like a corkscrew, in the water, executing that half turn that brings him now face down in the water, after his push off the wall.

But if you look at that first video I referenced of Sun Yang further above, not all swimmers execute that entire corkscrew from facing up to facing down after the turn. Some swimmers turn a bit lopsided, off to the side, so that by the time theyíre ready to push off the wall theyíre already partway rotated. Thatís me. Thatís now I flip turn. Good or bad? Donít know.

I will tell you that thereís a beautiful flip turn youíll see in this video of Melissa Hubley and sheís like Sun Yang: facing up after the flip. She rotates around the bodyís longitudinal axis a slight bit just prior to the push off the wall, and the rest of the rotation occurs after the push.

In my opinion, the non-negotiable elements of the flip are: 1) that you donít use arms and hands to propel the flip, they are passive actors; 2) the flip is not executed so far away from the wall, out of fear of contacting the wall with your heels, that you have to drift into the wall after the flip.

Do you see these people whose feet come slapping down on the water hard, about a mile-and-a-half from the edge of the pool? Thereís no value in slapping your feet hard on the water. Thereís no value in slapping them down with a straighter leg, to draw more attention to your sexy flip turn. The girls arenít going to think, ďOh, what a sexy guy, look at how those feet just slap the water hard; he must be a real tiger.Ē The girls are going to think, ďMan, that foolís heels are really going to hurt someday when he jams the turn and misjudges the wall.Ē When you see these people turning far from the wall, drifting into the wall so that they can eventually push off, itís because they did jam a turn once, it did hurt, and their incorrect, unfortunate take-away was to turn a long way away from the end of the pool. Better, in my opinion, to simply retract the feet a bit just before the turn is fully executed; and to not slap the feet down on the water as hard as you can.

The negotiable elements of the turn are how much you rotate your body around its longitudinal axis during the flip; and 2) whether you dolphin out of the turn on the way to the surface or not. Ms. Hubley dolphins out of the turn. Sun Yang does not. Me? I do not. Why? Because Iím gasping for air as it is out of the turn; and because my dolphin kick is so slow that Iíd just slow myself down if I dolphined more than once out of the turn.

Do not eschew the use of Ts and targets in the pool. That T at the end of the black line at the bottom of the pool, on each end, is to give you a sign or signal allowing you to know how to gauge your turn. When to begin your turn. Thatís the entire and only point of the T. Likewise the target. Thatís the + sign on the pool wall. These are visual devices telling you when to turn. Same thing, by the way, with those flaglines above the pool near each end. Those are backstroke flags, to tell backstrokers when to execute their turns. Use the Ts and targets to tell help you gauge your timing. Itís going to take a little practice but youíll get it.

Maybe the best set of standard and slow motion video shots of a really nice flip turn are those of Shinji Takeuchi. Note how his hands stick pretty much in place during the turn. They donít scull. They are nailed in place, so that going into the turn theyíre at his sides, out of the turn theyíre in front of his head and ready for the push off the wall. I also think Shinji uses a bit of my own pool-wall-avoidance technique, retracting his knees and feet just prior to their contact with the water.