If you are one of those who have began pool swimming as an adult, you may have noticed how many people do those fast flip turns (also known as tumble turns) and shoot back off the wall powerfully, then travel quite far down the lane before breaking the surface to resume stroking.

Looks cool, doesn’t it? Do you feel like you need to learn to do that also?

Maybe you’ve taught yourself to do some version of it. Perhaps you’ve tried but found your tumble to be a disaster. Perhaps you’ve given up, or not even tried, assuming those are something meant for so-called ‘real swimmers’ which you don’t feel you are one of. Or perhaps you’re just waiting for someone to show you how in a way that actually works.

But should you learn to do one? Is it really necessary for your training goals?


Purpose Of A Flip Turn

For those who spent time as a youth on a swim team we learned how to do those right away. The flip, push-off and initial glide are actually the fastest moments of the entire pool race – faster than the actual swimming parts. When a swimmer pushes off properly, she is traveling through the water faster than when she is stroking – and ideally, she begins to stroke right when her gliding body decelerates to her actual stroke speed, so she can preserve that momentum down the lane.

Races conducted in short-course (25 m) pools are statistically faster than races in long-course (50 m) pools because there are more turns, more push-offs which reduce the overall time. The push-off and glide, in terms of distance and time, can occupy as much as 20% of the short-course race, and 10% of a long-course race. Flip turns done well are a very important part of a pool competitor’s skill set.

And, that would be the main objective reason for learning to do a good flip turn… if you are going to compete in a pool.

If you don’t intend to race in the pool, then you might have subjective reasons to learn – maybe you want to learn to do flip turns, or learn to do them better because they are another pleasing skill to have. Maybe you need to share a lane with fast lane mates and don’t want to hold them up, or maybe you would like to look like the other ‘real swimmers’. That’s OK too.


Advantages Of An Open Turn

But if you are not intending to race in a pool, and you don’t have strong reasons to use a flip turn otherwise, then I would recommend that you learn to do a good open turn. You still approach the wall in the same way as a flip turn, and you still push off and glide in streamline in the same way to that first stroke. The difference is in the position of the body at the wall, as you turn the body. In a real open turn, there is NO WAITING at the wall – you turn the body and inhale as one quick, smooth motion.

When done well, they are nearly as fast as a flip turn. And open turns have this advantage: you get to inhale as you are turning at the wall. In contrast, in a proper flip turn, you are holding breath, keeping head submerged as you approach the wall, flip and push off. In a well-executed flip turn, you would be holding your breath for possibly up to 6 or 7 seconds – from the flags through the turn and back to the flags – which is a really long time to hold the breath in the midst of vigorous swimming (and pool competitors must get used to this). In an open turn, you get an inhale in the middle of that, at the wall.

Because it is nearly as fast, and because you get that extra breath at the wall, this is much more suitable for open water and tri swimmers and for those who are trying to lower respiratory stress in their swimming. When in open water, you may occasionally have to skip a breath because of waves splashing against the face, which may result in 4 or 5 seconds of waiting until the next opportunity. But rarely would you (or should you) find yourself holding breathing for 5 or 6 strokes, waiting 6 or 7 seconds to inhale. That doesn’t seem like much while sitting in a chair reading this, but you know a couple seconds more of holding breath can be quite stressful in water, when your respiration demands are already high.


What If It Isn’t Perfect?

And, if you are training for open water or triathlon, even if you do not do those open turns very well, if your push-off distance is not very long, consider this: there are no walls in open water. All the turns, push-off and glide distance and time you take in the pool is time and distance you are not stroking, which is time you are not training for your event. So, if you just did a 3000 meter workout in a 25 meter pool, maybe only 2400 meters of that was actually done with strokes. You didn’t get as much of a workout as you thought you did! 

I don’t think you should use that as an excuse to do poor turns, but consider what is more valuable with your precious time in the pool – getting in training for your stroke, muscles and metabolism for long, uninterrupted stretches of swimming, or trying to do this flip trick to fit in with those other people (who are probably not paying attention to your swimming anyway!). Getting a breath at the wall in an open turn is similar to the metabolic situation you face in open water, more similar than holding breath in a flip turn, and therefore more relevant to your training.

But, again, if you have a strong desire or need to learn the flip turn, then go for it. But learn to do it powerfully and well, because the speed advantage it provides comes at this cost – if you have to hold your breath longer, and still don’t get much speed or distance from that glide, you’re really just wasting your time and energy when an open turn can give you same distance and speed, with more breath, for less cost.

In the next post, I will give you some pointers for how to conduct a good open turn.


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