Rule the Pool: The Science of Swimming -
Here in Canada, swimming is a very competitive winter sport. The official season for colleges, universities, high schools and local clubs is when the snow flies across the land. Providing a full slate of fitness and health benefits, swimming is an excellent non-impact way of getting a cardio workout in – at whatever intensity you wish. A cursory glance at the science of this super sport can help you to sail through the water and rule the pool!

Have you ever heard the term “a swimmer’s body”? This is a phenomenon that occurs to athletes who swim in the pool regularly. It refers to the lithe, toned bodies of both men and women whose repetitive pushing, rotating, pulling and kicking actions required to swim transform their bodies over time into incredibly sculpted, muscular machines. Let’s not forget about the effect that swimming has on shaping and defining an individual’s core area too. Simply put, swimming is an absolutely superb form of cardio exercise for both muscle shaping and endurance development. So how do you make your swimming motions the most efficient and productive, as opposed to simply jumping in the water and splashing around? As you can imagine, there’s a lot of science involved, which clarifies how an efficient stroke yields the greatest distance covered in the shortest period of time. It’s obvious that swimming with your body elongated requires a horizontal direction, and that any superfluous vertical movement is counter-productive. In layman’s terms, this means you want to get to your destination as flat as possible, without incessant bobbing up and down, such as when you take a breath with every single arm rotation (that’s too often). This is but one general example; let’s take a closer look at some of the specifics:


It’s easy to think that swimming is a “pulling” sport, since we tend to focus on the reaching forward toward our destination aspect, and pulling ourselves forward. This is a myth, however, since there is actually far more pushing involved. Although your lead arm surges forth to pull water backward during a portion of the standard forward stroke, both your other arm and, most importantly, your legs do a considerable amount of pushing. Ultimately, you need to have the thrust force (forward) exceeding the drag force (backward). Furthermore, you have opposite vertical forces of buoyancy (upward) at play against gravity (downward) within a framework of friction in the surface of the water. Ultimately, your takeaway should be to use your legs very actively and not rely so overwhelmingly on your arms.


If you recall, we did say that an efficient stroke (using all the physical tools in your body) is the most successful stroke. It’s important therefore to use a lot of flicking in your wrists with every single arm rotation, in order to produce additional lift force. This is the same reason why airplane wings are not simply parallel to the ground, but tilted upward. By producing additional lift force, you’ll keep your body slightly flatter and most importantly lessen the drag force. To illustrate this point further, try swimming with straight wrists – or worse, without using your legs at all – and you’ll quickly see how the sinking feeling of your lower body creates unwanted additional drag force.


Here’s one for you who either swim competitively or have designs to. To make your times as short as possible, you want to begin the initial underwater portion of the race (and each flipover when you reach the end of the pool), using a dolphin kick. This is when you flex both your legs, then whip them downward while you’re still underwater. You may think it’s more strategic to emerge on top of the water as quickly as possible, but science has demonstrated that elite swimmers can advance 2.5 metres per second while doing the dolphin – this is equivalent to the top speed they can swim while above the water. Practice your technique and make this scientifically proven method work for you too.

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