How to Swim Faster – The Six Principles of Fast Swimming

Have you been wondering how to swim faster for months or even years without ever finding a satisfactory answer? If this is the case, well, you are in good company.

This article describes six principles that will allow you to swim faster without becoming exhausted too quickly.

Two men engaged in a front crawl race

Swimming Smarter not Harder

For many coaches, swimming faster is the result of gradually increasing the length and intensity of swimming workouts so that the general level of fitness improves.

While conditioning has its place, this is not all there is about swimming faster, because swimming well requires a lot of technique.

There are a few gifted swimmers that instinctively learn how to move efficiently in the water. Given enough time and practice, they will always improve.

But us less fortunate swimmers often only have a vague sense about our efficiency in the water. Remember, we are land animals!

Because of this, swimming lots of laps will often just make our bad habits more permanent, while our swimming technique only improves slowly or even not at all.

So what do we need to do? In fact, to learn how to swim faster and better with less effort, we need to swim smarter, not harder. Specifically, we need to work on two facets of our technique:

1) We need to decrease drag in the water.

2) We need to improve propulsion in the water.

Decreasing Drag

The importance of swimming with the least amount of drag is often neglected. However, this is an area where we can significantly improve our efficiency in the water.

Water is much denser than air. Drag in the water increases by the square of the speed at which we swim.

So there is quickly an upper limit on how much force we can apply against the water to increase our speed.

On the other hand, reducing drag requires skill rather than force. So there’s a lot of room for improvement there. That’s why it should be the priority for learning how to swim faster.

Principle #1: Improving Your Balance

The first and most efficient way to decrease drag is to improve your balance. This means that you try to stay as horizontal as possible while moving through the water.

When you do this, you disrupt the least amount of water molecules on your path, which translates into reduced drag.

As an example, while swimming front crawl, swimmers often lift their head to breathe or look ahead.

When they do this, they lose balance, and their hips and legs drop. Their body is less streamlined and generates more drag while moving through the water.

Additionally, they need to kick harder to keep those legs up. A lot of energy is wasted while doing this.

Note that being as horizontal as possible is especially important in the front crawl and backstroke.

For the breaststroke and butterfly stroke, things are a little bit different because of the body undulation that is used in those strokes.

Principle #2: Swimming Taller

The next way to decrease drag is to make yourself as tall as possible in the water.

The theory behind this is that for the same mass, a long tapered object moving through the water creates less turbulence than a short compact object.

In fact, this principle has been used by naval engineers for hundreds of years.

To swim taller in the front crawl stroke, you enter your recovering arm early in the water once it has passed your head.

You also make sure to completely extend your recovering arm forward underwater before starting the downsweep and catch.

Principle #3: Compact and Efficient Kick

In world-class front crawl swimmers, the kick contributes for up to 10% of propulsion, while the arm stroke contributes for the rest.

So an efficient kick is important for fast swimming but less than what is commonly believed.

What is equally important is a compact kick, meaning that it should neither break the water surface nor move too low below the body line. Otherwise, unnecessary drag is created which will only slow you down.

Improving Propulsion

Once you have reduced drag to a minimum, you can work on improving your propulsion. Again, this is mainly done by improving your swim stroke mechanics, not by building bigger muscles.

Principle #4: Swimming More on Your Sides

The first way to improve propulsion is to roll more from side to side with each arm stroke.

Rolling more on your sides allows you to better engage the large back muscles in addition to the shoulder muscles.

However, floating on your side is counter-intuitive at first and requires some practice for getting used to.

Principle #5: Using Your Core

This is another secret of how to swim faster. You should engage the large back, hip and torso muscles while rolling from side to side.

The synergy between your core muscles and arm muscles allows you to apply more force to your swim stroke.

It is a little bit like a baseball pitcher when he throws the ball:

First, his body twists backward, then his hips initiate a rotation forward which is channeled through his upper body into his shoulder, arm, hand and finally into the ball, with acceleration occurring at each step.

Once you have integrated this technique, you will be able to swim longer and faster and tire less quickly, as your core muscles have more endurance than the ones in your shoulders and arms.

Principle #6: Anchoring Your Arms

This is the last piece of the puzzle on how to swim faster with less effort.

Before applying propulsive force in the water with your arm, you need to make sure that your hand and forearm are aligned and facing backward.

You can then effectively move your arm back like a big paddle.

This swimming technique is often called the high elbow catch in front crawl because you need to keep your elbow above your hand to be able to do this successfully.

Conclusion

We covered the principles of how to swim faster with less effort.

You can start to integrate those principles in your stroke by following our sequence of swimming drills for the front crawl stroke.

Have fun!

31 thoughts on “How to Swim Faster – The Six Principles of Fast Swimming”

  1. I have started swimming since 15th July’14. I am able to swim fast, according to the feedback I get from the trainer, but I am not able to breathe. I can swim 25m really fast but cannot breathe. I request your advice on how to resolve this deficiency.

    1. Hi from your comment I gather that you don’t breathe at all during the 25m. But if you are able to swim fast it means that you have good technique, only that breathing hasn’t been integrated yet.

      I’d really suggest that you follow our series of drills to learn front crawl.

      In those drills, you’ll practice floating on the back, side, chest, as well as breathing in those positions. And the arm movements are added step by step. Learning how to breathe is a nice side benefit that occurs when practicing those drills.

    2. You have to exhale fully under water to clear your lungs so that you can fully inhale when your head is above water.

      Moreover your can’t both inhale and exhale at the same time when your head is above water, the time is too short and it causes panting.

      Separate both actions to have ample time.

    3. Hello,

      My daughter is 6 years old, she has been swimming for the last 3 years but her speed is insufficient, she is too slow, what should I do? Also for her height she is a bit short.

  2. Hi,

    I´m David from Ecuador in South America, I would like to improve my times in breaststroke: 50 meters 31,80; 100 meters 1:09,88; 200 Meters 2:37,50 all of them on short course pool (25m).

    I think I have to improve technique but in my country, there are no good coaches or special labs and I know I have a lot of mistakes.

    I want your opinion, you can see these videos on my youtube channel:

    1) 50 breaststroke lane 2 https://youtu.be/zOR1zfI1QbA?list=PL8037P3c-370amg5bzIYB9PZlMKdpxCmD

    2) 100 breaststroke lane 6: https://youtu.be/2od4xBz0_uk?list=PL8037P3c-370amg5bzIYB9PZlMKdpxCmD

    3) and also this 25m sprint underwater video: https://youtu.be/OPNdDh1GMFc?list=PL8037P3c-370amg5bzIYB9PZlMKdpxCmD

    Please help me with my goals.

    Also here is some data:

    Height: 1,70 m
    Weight: 62Kg
    Fat %: 16.3%
    Age: 21

    Daily training time: 1hr gym, 1hr swimming (2000 to 3000 meters, just 1000meters breaststroke swimming), ½ hr core training on land.

    1. Hi David,

      As far as I can tell, you are already a very good swimmer, and I don’t see any particular weaknesses in your breaststroke. So I can’t give you specific tips at this time. Maybe some other site visitors will be able to help.

      Regards,

      Christophe

    2. Hola David, a mi entender como entrenador y nadador, debes trabajar el deslizamiento bajo el agua justo después de una poderosa patada abierta en ángulo de 45º aprox para no perder hacia los costados al abrirla demasiado ni perder agarre al cerrar las piernas, sumando una onda suave antes de comenzar la brazada.

      Trata de realizar el drill o largo en 8 ciclos suaves entendiendo la onda y demás fases, o al menos ir reduciendo la cantidad de ciclos, una vez que te estabilices en la cantidad por largo, entonces puedes comenzar a tomar los tiempos de cada lap y reducirlos tratando de mantener la cantidad mínima de ciclos.

      Luego de un mes de práctica comenta.

    3. Hi David,

      For your freestyle, the only thing I can say is more body rotation, so you aren’t as flat on your front.

  3. Hi,

    Having watched David’s videos they are a very good standard already (which I think you know).

    A possible method to improve though are two drills I’ve seen used at our club recently, one is sprint sculling until your forearms burn, done often it can improve your breast pull and feel for the water.

    The other is pull buoy breaststroke again for the improved water feel and balance. Mess up your alignment and balance in the water and you will stop mid-stroke (most juniors end up staying still).

    If you already do this I’d recommend changing your breast training and drills every 6 weeks to avoid muscle memory, keep shocking them into action.

    Just some thoughts, have fun.

  4. Ruselle Wilson

    Hi David,

    I am a breaststroker, how can I improve my breaststroke to make better times 100m -1.15sec, 200m -2.45sec in a 50m pool?

    I am 14 years of age.

  5. Hi,

    I’m Jade, I’m participating in a swimming carnival tomorrow, and I need help with freestyle. I just struggle to keep a breathing pace. I also would like some advice on backstroke to be faster.

    Thanks a lot,

    Jade.

  6. Calvin Chan

    Hey so my 50m time is 25.61sec and 100m time is 58.23sec freestyle. Anyway can I swim faster than this? I’ve been swimming for about 8 years now. I’m 16 year old.

    Height: 6’1
    Weight: 175

  7. In physics, there is a law that states the further there is between a pivoting point and a force application point, the greater the resulting momentum.

    Among all strokes, butterfly & breaststroke make it easiest to find the pivoting point.

    If your pivoting point is around your shoulders and the pivoting point of your opponent is around the abdomen, obviously his stroke will be more powerful and the distance traveled will also be farther.

    Just watch the recent popular races, and see the swimmer’s face expression.

  8. Hi,

    I have been swimming for about 4 months and my current 50 meter freestyle time is a 25.5.

    I am a senior, and I don’t have much time to improve, my average time dropped has been almost exactly a 1 second decrease every two weeks. Sometimes more sometimes less.

    My biggest problem is my start, flip turn, and underwater.

    I have also been practicing with swimming trunks on and my time has been dropping a little faster, I am the fastest freestyle on the team, and I feel like they are banking on me to take the relays to state.

    I really never learned how to swim besides using websites like this one. My 100 free time is a 1:06.

    I know I have the endurance, its just I really suck at flip turns, so they slow me down every time.

    My 100 meter long course time is a 58 if that helps put it into perspective. I swim about 3 hours a day and workout about 45 minutes.

    I need some help to drop my time fast, luckily I have room to improve. Any advice is appreciated.

  9. What are things I can do to make my 500-yard freestyle faster what kind of strategies are best and is 6:00 minutes a fast time? I’m trying to get under 6 minutes but it’s hard.

    I need strategies.

  10. I’m a minor Thalassemic, suffering from minor anemic traits since young.

    Mom always told me since young I’ll suffer from aerobic exercises performance. Back then I didn’t care as a kid and as I approached young adulthood I started to feel it.

    No matter what intensity and training I did on sports near perfection, I never succeeded my peers unfortunately :D

    I picked up swimming when I was 22, preparing myself to be a part-time lifeguard as part of a work and travel programme to the US organized by an agency in my university (I’m Asian actually – Chinese, yeah a stereotype Chinese can’t survive 5 seconds in the water, lol).

    I never had a coach, whatever my self-coaching came from YouTube and importantly COMMON SENSE. In one year time, I felt that I became a good swimmer, I could move on water like how ice skaters glace through ice.

    As the article mentioned, some people instinctively know how to improve themselves in water and I’m glad I am one. Perhaps because I’m an engineering student thus I could deduce, interpret whatever my actions in the water and relate it to physics – drag as the most important factor in swimming, not brute force.

    That’s how I improved myself without a coach – understanding the simple technical principles of swimming and have the notion to improve. Most would have just called it a day after they could swim from one end to another, not me though.

    People are surprised to see a thin (maybe rather lean), lanky yellow-skinned dude coming out from the pool who could swim so well as opposed to majority uninformed belief that good swimmers come from big muscles and shit. Then I would have another group who claims I could swim due to my long arms and legs :D

    Oh well, I like to share my experience because I’ve seen too many who are coached – being taught to swim like a robot following a typical series of steps, but not being taught to UNDERSTAND why this and that of their actions in water (at least the amateur coaches in my country).

    I feel pathetic for coaches who teach the young for example to kick the water as hard if you wanna reach the end! Things like that.

    At present time though, I am still struggling with my stamina. With the same effort and quality, the other person could do 3-4 times farther than I do. I’ll pant and be gassed out easily, nevertheless, I’ll try not to give up and love what I achieve.

    I try not to undermine/take for granted of my weakness as it has actually nurtured me plenty of improvisations in water.

  11. Hi,

    I have my NLS course coming up soon for my final lifeguarding certification, and I’m a bit worried about the 16 lengths swim in less than 10 minutes and the 2 lengths head-up front crawl in less than 60 seconds.

    I know I can make the 16 lengths in under 10:30 but I need some strategies on endurance swim to cut down on a few seconds.

    Also, what are some strategies for head-up front crawl as it has always created a ton of drag in my swimming?

  12. Hey!

    So, I started swimming in 3rd grade.

    Obviously, I have improved since then but for a while now I’ve been stuck on a plateau, not really improving even though I work very hard in practice to improve. I still feel like I’m going nowhere.

    I’m one of the shortest girls in the senior elite group at 5’3. I’m having trouble in my freestyle. I keep bobbing in the water and I can feel my breathing is off too.

    Help please! How do I get faster with a strong build and short arm length when height is not on my side?

    1. Hi Kaylie,

      You might want to look into Swim Smooth’s Swim Type Guides. Those guides contain customized training advice based on your body’s morphology.

      I personally haven’t reviewed those guides, but the concept sounds interesting and might be what you need.

      Good luck!

  13. Hello,

    Where I lived before, we didn’t have sports in schools so I learned how to swim at an early age but only started swimming competitively at the age of 15.

    We don’t have a pool at school so we only practice 2 days a week for an hour for 3 months, and I will be going to college fall of 2018 and I want to be really fast before that.

    Right now I swim the 50 freestyle in 63 seconds and I want to get at least to 30 or 25 seconds before 2018, any suggestions on how I can do that?

    I plan on practicing a lot during summer but I am not sure what kind of workout I should do.

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Mariama,

      I keep hearing good things about the “Swim Speed” series by Sheila Taormina, you might check it out.

      Good luck,

      Christophe

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