You’ll see from time to time in elite swimming, especially in the shorter/faster events, that a swimmer may have a ‘gallop’ or ‘lope’ which is a slight up/down motion of their head and upper body during the stroke cycle. This gallop is caused by one arm stroking harder or differently than the other arm, which causes the head or whole upper body to rise farther on one stroke than the other. It might be particularly pronounced in during the breathing stroke, when the swimmer tries to get the face a bit higher over the surface.
Occasionally, I am asked by a swimmer or coach if this is something we should imitate.
The short and emphatic answer is: no, we should not.
And here is the case I build against it…
Examples From Nature and Technology
First, let’s consider examples from animals in nature and in technology.
When animals that are using speed advantage to evade danger or to hunt, the faster they need to go, the straighter their path is and the more linear the line of force is along their body line. In fish and aquatic mammals the tail might be oscillating but the nose remains fairly fixed on a laser line – those with a vertical fin tend to be even straighter than those with a horizontal fin.
Consider the efficiency imperative for jet planes, rockets, attack submarines, torpedoes, and surface ships – the more speed they want, the more straight their trajectory must be. Any deviation up/down or side-to-side immediately causes drag and slows the vessel, or worse, spins it out of control. Changes in direction cost energy and cost time.
In both animals and human-made speed vessels, they change direction when there is need to respond to a change in direction in their target, or when they have lost the speed advantage and maneuverability is now more important, such as in rabbits dodging the fangs of a fox or two planes rolling around in a dog fight.
But you are not in those dodgy animal situations as a swimmer. Nor are you in the same situations as elite swimmers.
Physics and Physiology
First of all, at the world champion level, where most elite examples are drawn from, they are swimming at least twice as fast as nearly everyone reading this blog. That matters in at least two important ways in physics and physiology:
- As the velocity of the swimmer increases, the resistance of water ahead of that swimmer goes up exponentially
- As the resistance of water increases, the amount of power required to swim against it goes up exponentially
Less-than-elite swimmers are going at a fraction of the speed, thus facing a fraction of the resistance and thus required to generate a fraction of the power compared to elites at top speed.
Humans are not naturally shaped for generating high power in the swimming positions we use. When one of us tries to generate more power, and then tries to generate extreme amounts of swimming power, he may inevitably be forced to make some sort of trade off between holding best streamline to cut through that resistance more easily and altering his shape in order to get more muscular leverage with his aquatically-awkward body mechanics. But coming to this trade-off must be resisted up to the very end and elites are (or should be) exceptional at preserving streamline under the greatest stresses because drag is so extraordinarily costly at those speeds. They must do this because deviations away from the most streamline shape require a disproportionately higher increase in power to make up for them.
All of us mortals, with significantly less power available, should be very cautious about anything that increases drag unnecessarily in our stroke. Even though we travel at far slower speeds, our ability to compensate for increased drag with more power is theoretically far less than those elites.
Then there is the matter of pushing the head up so far against gravity. To lift the head up out of the water has at least two negative effects:
- The mass of the head is lifted up against gravity, and the head is about 10% of body mass
- The spine tilts upward, away from the direction of travel
When the head is pushed up, away from its neutral buoyancy position, some amount of force has to be diverted from the forward direction to the vertical direction. Pushing the head up means the lower body is going to be shoved down by gravity and the swimmer, aware of not, is going to have to apply more force upward to compensate. That is force applied in a direction other than where he wants to go and is arguably an unnecessary waste of energy.
When the spine is tilted up (the head connected to the neck which is connected to the rest of the spine and then down the legs), it urges the lower body deeper in the water and it creates a larger surface area against the direction of travel = more drag. The front of the vessel is curving upward, shoving the water downward more than it would be if the head were down and the body line diverting that water more toward the sides. Every lift of the head is costly in terms of drag, energy waste and strain on the spine. Even if the cost of the tilt of the head feels like mere pennies of waste per stroke, after thousands of strokes, those pennies add up to a lot.
Is It Intentional? Is It Defensible?
It may be that these best-of-the-best athletes – who are operating against such high resistance and required to generate force that is many times greater than what the common citizen swimmer is – may feel that they can accept a bit less streamline and then make up for it with the greater power they are able to generate by oscillating their vertical position in the water. Some elite swimmers have a pronounced gallop and many do not. I have no idea how they came to their particular stroke style, whether by accident or by intention. Who knows how many have bothered to train their bodies for both and then test both ways in terms of safety, strength and speed. How many can say they deliberately choose their style after testing the others, and that every visible feature of their stroke is intended and has a defensible purpose?
What we do know is that it is commonly understood among body workers that chronic asymmetric movement and loading is not good for the body. It’s one thing for a young person who is working toward a very specific, very high competitive goal for a few years of his early life to accept asymmetry, and the risks associated with it, in order to move in a way that he and his coach believe to be necessary to get to that podium. But it is another thing for an older person who swims primarily for health and pleasure reasons to intentionally build asymmetry into their movement patterns and muscles, even if he wants to swim faster for those occasional races.
If your higher values are safety and health and energy efficiency, then keeping the body position and movements as smooth, symmetrical and linear as possible is definitely the way you want to go. If you want to swim faster, I still urge you to swim that way, because you would likely agree that you are not even close yet to extracting all the speed that could come from just mastering the fundamentals of proper body position and movement patterns. It’s not time yet to try short cuts and tricks to getting faster. By continuing to work on the fundamentals your body will stay safer too. You need to consider the difference between your context and that of the young elites that are held up as examples for older people. The list of things that puts them in an entirely different category than you and I is quite long.