Swimming: To Glide or Not To Glide?

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Like most areas of endurance sports, swimming is not immune from multiple theories regarding proper form and technique. One area in particular is that of gliding. During the glide phase, there is no forward propulsion coming from the arms (the primary means of propulsion).

BE EFFICIENT

The glide aspect of swimming is primarily performed to allow the body to conserve energy – but does it really conserve energy?

During the glide phase, the body slows down due to a lack of propulsion and the viscosity of the water. If the body slows down too much, a substantial amount of energy is required to reaccelerate the body through the water.

A good analogy of this is a car’s gasoline consumption while driving in a city versus on the highway. When a car stops and accelerates frequently while driving in a city, the car consumes fuel at a greater rate than when driving at a faster, consistent speed on a highway. As you probably know, driving at an insanely fast rate of speed is also inefficient (as is an overly fast swimming arm cycle).

swimming form triathlon


LIKE BANGING YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL

Before we go any further, let’s discuss this in relation to cycling. Anyone that has ever ridden a bike knows how challenging it can be to ride against the wind. Now consider this, water is 800 times more dense than air! See what I’m getting at? Try riding into the wind by only pushing down on the pedals once every 2-3 seconds! We can also use cycling as an analogy to the pedal stroke.

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TRADE OFF

As you can see, a lower cadence (slow arm stroke, long glide phase) results in greater muscle fatigue due to the increased stress on the muscles while a higher cadence (faster arm stroke, shorter or non-existent glide phase) places less demand on the muscles but more on the aerobic system.

Note that while over-gliding is inefficient when swimming in a pool, it is even more inefficient when swimming in open water due to the chop of the waves and the current (if either are going against the swimmer).

THE OPTIMAL GLIDE PHASE DURATION

Like most areas of human performance a sweet spot exists where optimal performance is realized.

This is true for the glide phase. A swimmer should look to have a short glide phase where some degree of rest is realized but not so long that their speed decreases to the point where a herculean effort is required to reaccelerate.

Also, in open water swimming, the stroke rate should be altered to some degree based on the conditions. For example, if a swimmer is swimming against the current or there are a lot of waves (i.e., chop), a fast, near constant arm cycle may be required. Conversely, if a swimmer is swimming with a strong current, they can likely increase the duration of the glide phase. These specific stroke adaptations are best learned through experimentation and in training.

Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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