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Ways to Improve your swimming start

Improving a swimming start is the easiest way to improve time and conserve energy in swimming. The swimming start is essential for optimal swimming and is estimated to be 26.1% 50 meter race (Cossor 2001). The start differences between elite, trained and novice swimmers is limited secondary to poor understanding of the various phases and styles associated with a swimming start. The phases of a start include:
  • Block Phase (Reaction time): The duration between the starting signal and when the feet leave the block.
  • Flight Phase: The duration between the feet leaving the block and the hands entering the water.
  • Entry Phase: The duration between the hands entering the water and the feet entering the water.
  • Leg kicking Phase (underwater phase): The duration the swimmer spends underwater.
  • swimming phase: time from beginning of first stroke to the instant the head reaches the 15 meter mark

    Various angles can be measured to determine optimization of a start:
  • Take-off Angle: The angle between the horizontal axis and the aerial trajectory of the swimmer.

  • Hand Entry Angle: The angle between the hands and the water when the swimmer enters the water.
  • Shoulder Entry Angle: The angle between the shoulders and the water when the swimmer enters the water.
  • Hip Entry Angle: The angle between the hips and the water when the swimmer enters the water.
  • Ankle Entry Angle: The angle between the ankle and the water when the swimmer enters the water.
  • Hip Angle at Hand Entry: The angle between the hips and the horizontal axis when the hands enter the water (see picture).
  • Glide Phase: The duration between the feet entering the water and the first underwater kick.
It has been suggested there are four main starting styles (Seifert 2010):
  1. Pike: a long flight time enabling a delay when the body has water resistance to overcome, allowing it to “slice” through the water, resulting in a ‘‘pike’’ aerial trajectory; leads to minimal splash, longer underwater phase, but a longer block phase.
  2. Flat: a short block phase, higher aquatic resistance, resulting in a ‘‘flat’’ aerial trajectory; typically have a larger splash and a shorter underwater phase.
  3. Flight: optimizes a short block phase and long flight phase, high force generated by leg extensors (hamstrings and gluteal muscles) in relation to an arm swing, resulting in a ‘‘flight’’ style.
  4. Lift: initiates with the shoulder instead of an arm swing at take off which lifts the shoulders during the flight time; the least common type of the four mentioned start styles.

On the block, elite swimmers grab, stand and pull in various manners, as noticed by Olympic Trial Finalist Kevin Swander:

The athlete's hands should grip the front of the block with all fingers and thumbs. This gives the swimmer a larger surface area on the block, enabling them to generate more force. The thumb position varies greatly, but elite swimmers have their thumbs wrapped in the front of the block, not resting on top of the block.

Arms should remain completely straight and tensed. Not flexed, but tensed and ready to react. Allowing the muscles to be tensed, opposed to relaxed, decreases the swimmers time on the block. Anatomically flexing the joints puts the muscles in a suboptimal position by shortening the muscle, decreasing the potential for muscle activation. The elbows should face backwards, and the athlete should pull backwards on the block with these straight arms to move forward. Anyone who has taken physics has heard the law (thank you Isaac) “every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction.” If the elbows are facing backwards, the reaction is backwards making the equal and opposite reaction forward with the same force applied.

The legs are the most variable body parts during a start. Comfort and steadiness are essential on the block; no swimmers with great starts look like the big bad wolf could blow them over, and neither should you! Evenly distribute the weight among both legs with feet facing forward. If your feet face sideways, you will go sideways, remember equal and opposite reactions!

There are numerous differences between elite swimmers, trained swimmers and novice swimmers. Vantorre 2010 looked at 5 elite and 6 trained freestyle sprint specialist. The trained swimmers were 79.9%+/- 8.0% (and the elite swimmers were 89.3+/-3.0% of the world record in the 100 meter free. Therefore, the world record is 46.91 by Cesar Cielo (Men's 100 free world record analysis), then the average trained swimmers best time was 56.34 and elite swimmers 51.93. It was determined elite swimmers had significantly longer relative durations than the trained swimmers for the entry, glide and leg kicking and shorter relative durations in the swimming phases (Vantorre 2010). In addition, the elite swimmers made more underwater leg undulations and few arm stroke movement to the 15-m mark than the trained swimmers, had less time in the aerial phase and more time in the underwater phase (Vantorre 2010). The impulse in the horizontal axis had the greatest influence on swim start time. No significant difference in reaction time between elite and trained swimmers (Vantorre 2010). Novice and trained swimmers typically generally start stroking too early and are inefficient in terms of performance and energy cost (Sanders 2001, Naemi 2008).
Ways to Improve your Swimming Start
To improve these inadequacies, it may be useful to focus trained swimmers on tasks concerning the forward body imbalance (learning to synchronize the arm swing with the leg impulse during the forward body imbalance) in order to explore whether they can switch their impulse from a vertical to a more horizontal position (Vantorre 2010).
It is also useful to train the gliding, leg kicking and full swimming transiiton to faor streamline body position as long as the swim velocity is high (Naemi 2008, Sanders , Sanders 2001)
How do you improve you athlete's start? Do you break down the various phases? With the availability of video recorders every must record their starts, break them down and determine a plan to improve, not doing so is asking to fall short of your goals.
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator theSwimmer's Shoulder System.
Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
  1. April 27, 2011

    Very informative, what software do you use to analyze starts?

  2. April 27, 2011

    What exercises/drills do you use to improve a start?

  3. April 27, 2011

    One area I never understood, is why sprinters don’t do more starts. In my opinion, if the start can be up to 1/4 of a 50 free race, why not have them perform more starts than one practice a week?

  4. April 27, 2011

    Of the four start styles, how do you decide which is best for you?

  5. August 10, 2011

    Excessive training is advisable to improve your swimming capability.

  6. January 18, 2013

    im a 50 free sprinter for my highschool, and we practice starts 6 out of 7 days a week. i think it highly depends on the coach, experience of the sprinter, and the overall time of practice.

  7. March 8, 2016

    just keep doing starts

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