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How to Position your Head while Swimming

Written by: Gary Hall, Sr.
Added: Thu May 26 2011

Nearly every swimmer, good or not-so-good, who has visited The Race Club camp in the past several years has shared one common problem; the head position is wrong. After watching countless heads bobbing up and down, waves crashing against the forehead as the swimmer plows through the water, I have come to an almost undeniable conclusion. The human head must be made out of cork.

Or there may be another explanation. Perhaps swimmers really like to see where they are going. The fact is, if you swim in a pool like most, with 4, 5 or 6 swimmers per lane, circling around the black stripe on the bottom, hoping to avoid a fatal collision, you will swim defensively, just like everybody else, with eyes looking forward.

The problems with that head position are two. One is that by looking forward, you create a nice surface (your forehead) for the bow wave to strike you as you move forward through the water. At the speed you swim, how significant can that be? Significant. Surface drag (or wave drag) has been shown to be an important component of the three drag forces that slow us down. The other two drag forces, pressure drag and friction, also play important roles. Surface drag is important enough us humans that a really good kicker (ie Lochte, Phelps, Coughlin) can go faster underwater (for a fairly short distance) with just legs in a streamlined position than they can on the surface using arms and legs (in a less streamlined position). Surface drag has much to do with that fact. When you swim with your head down and in the correct position, that bow wave goes right over the top of your head and all that slowing energy passes you by. When you body surf, going out through waves, it is best to dive deep under the wave. Same thing applies when you swim.

The second problem that lifting the head creates is that is takes the entire body out of alignment. In order to swim at our fastest capability, the human body needs to remain as straight as possible. Please do not confuse this with swimming flat. We want the body to rotate along the axis of our motion. We just don't want the body to be curved along that axis. By lifting the head, our hips automatically sink down. For the swimmer who uses a steady kick, the lifted head creates the 'hammock' position of your body with feet and head at the surface, but hips below. The position is even worse for the swimmer who has no kick, as the body takes on a slight incline from head to toe, perhaps 7 to 10 degrees, as the swimmer labors through the water.

We have all tried pulling a kickboard sideways through the water and know how much drag force that creates compared to keeping the kickboard flat. Trying to pull a 5 to 6 foot body at even a 10 degree incline will add a tremendous amount of frontal drag to our effort.

This week we have the USA National Team for Open Water training with us in Islamorada, preparing for the upcoming World Championship and Olympic Trials in June. Of the four swimmers here, it is interesting to observe that they use three different styles of freestyle technique. Alex Meyer (World Champion in the 25k swim last year) uses a hip-driven technique, pushing his hands out in front with a slower stroke rate than the others. Of the three girls, two of them (Christine Jennings and Emily Brunemann) use a symmetrical, fairly fast shoulder-driven technique, while the youngest (Eva Fabian) uses a fast hybrid technique, holding in front a bit with her right hand on the breathing side. The opposite hand (left) makes a quicker catch and a slower recovery as she takes her breath to the right. She is using Michael Phelps' freestyle technique in fast motion (with respect to her stroke rate). I bring this to your attention merely to remind you that in swimming, there is not one technique that is right for everyone. When talking to Alex later, he claims he really uses three different techniques in any open water race, starting or making a move on the field with more of a shoulder-driven and finishing the race with a hybrid technique. However, the two things that all four swimmers do have in common are that their head position was correct, looking down, not forward. Second, they all swim with extremely high elbows underwater (early vertical forearm). Check out part two of the video series featuring these athletes and spotting drills for open water.

In open water, when the visibility may be measured in inches, what is the point of swimming with your eyes looking forward? At the start of the race, it may be to keep from getting mauled. In the middle of the race to avoid jellyfish, big globs of seaweed or swimming up someone's back. Some may justify it thinking that it is easier to spot from the head up position than from the head down position. Whatever your reasoning might be, I am here to tell you it is not worth it. I will take the jellyfish sting any day over having to plow through a mile or two in open water with a higher drag coefficient. For spotting, lifting your head from the correct position (down) as opposed to the wrong position (looking forward) is not much harder.

As for the pool, for those who wonder how they are going to manage to navigate through a workout with their heads down without getting smacked, I tell my swimmers the following. Lead your lane… Or if you are not fast enough to do that, leave 10 seconds (or more) behind the swimmer in front of you. Stay as far to the right as you can in the lane. Pray a lot. But keep your head down… Even on the turns. It is faster and easier.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


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Head Position 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Gary Hall Sr., Jun 30 2011 5:27AM

Another great example of the importance of head position can be seen on Youtube. Search Cesar Cielo and watch his 50 M freestyle race against Nathan Adrian from the Pan Pacs last summer. Cielo is ahead all the way with his head down, then looks forward with about 5 meters to go and Nathan goes by him.....with his head down. Mike Cavic vs Michael Phelps in Beijing 100 m fly...another example of the same mistake. Keep your head down!

Head Position 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Gary Hall Sr., Jun 26 2011 3:25PM

Watch the video on our website Head Position part II. These are three of the fastest long distance swimmers in the World...and America's best; Alex Meyer, Eva Fabian and Christine Jennings. They all three have their heads in down position with Alex and Christine looking forward maybe 10 degrees. I believe there is some tolerance to looking forward, perhaps as much as 20 degrees, without significantly affecting body position. Beyond that and it is not desirable for Phelps, Hackett, Thorpe or anyone else. Hackett had a very similar motion to Eva and tucked his chin down before the breath, went to a slightly forward look position then tucked it back in for the next breath. I think others do the same. Look at the underwater head position of Cielo and or Nathan Adrian in the 50. You won't see them looking forward very much, if at all.

Not a review, a question 3 out of 5 stars

Not sure if this conclusion is supported by eviden

Reviewed by: Greg, Jun 12 2011 11:29AM

Gary, A question for you, why is that when you carefully observe elite (not world class, just very fast) male and female 800m and 1500m distance swimmers, easily 95% of them have a slight but noticeable head tilt, i.e., their face does NOT actually point to the pool bottom, but instead angles very slightly forward?

head position 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Gary Hall Sr., Jun 12 2011 10:33AM

There are two good ways I know of to convince you that looking down is better than looking forward underwater. First, swim 50 meters or yards looking forward then 50 meters or yards looking down. Which way is easier? An extrteme example of looking forward is swimming with your head out of the water (water polo style) which takes a tremendous amount of energy.
Second, focus on your lumber spine as you look forward underwater then change to the look-down position. You will note that your lower spine goes from an arched position to a straight position when you do that. The body is not in alignment (straight) when the lower back is arched. Looking forward causes the body to go out of alignment, increasing the drag coefficient.

Why do these guys look forward? 2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Kenneth Lehner, May 27 2011 3:18PM

I picked the first YouTube video of Michael Phelps doing freestyle, and if you go to 1:10 of I see Phelps looking forward. While his head bobs up and down, when it is up the water line appears to be at eye level.

I did the same with Grant Hackett: He's looking forward, not down. Finally, the first video of Ian Thorpe: shows him looking forward quite clearly.

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