A few months ago we posted a video of Olympian Dan Smith swimming a very comfortable 1:10/100m freestyle. In this video, I’ll break down Dan’s technique and show you how he’s able to swim so fast while looking like he’s not trying!
A couple of months ago, we made a video titled Is This The Easiest One Minute 1000 Freestyle Ever? And since making that video, it’s had over 700,000 views and it was shared around by a lot of people. I think one of the main reasons for that is when you look at Dan Smith, who’s a swimmer in the video, he makes that 110 looks so easy that it’s almost unbelievable that he was able to hit that time for the effort that he’s putting in. Now, it’s not necessarily the case that that 110 is really, really easy for him. He still had to put in a bit of effort because to be able to hold your stroke and your technique and do it that well, you can’t do it very, very comfortable and still swim that pace, so you still have to put in a bit of effort.
But what I want to do in today’s video is break it down for you. I want to show you exactly what it is that he does so well that allows him to swim at that pace for that sort of stroke rate and that sort of effort. So we’ll have a look at the stats first. In terms of the first 50, he does five dolphin kicks off the wall and gets out to 14 meters. He takes 21 strikes for the first lap with an average stroke rate of 45 strokes per minute.
Then, on the way back, after the turn, he does four dolphin kicks off the wall. He gets out to around 12 meters, and then he takes 22 strokes for that last lap with, again, an average stroke rate of 45 strikes per minute. Now, if you look at the distance per stroke, he’s achieving about 1.7 meters per stroke that he takes. Now, that’s huge. That is a lot. Most people, they’re typically around one meter per stroke for those that are around the sort of two-minute mark per 100. So it is a very, very impressive distance per stroke that he gets.
Let’s have a look at some of those things that are allowing him to be able to achieve that sort of distance per stroke and be so smooth and so efficient in the water. So off the wall, the first thing that you’ll notice here is that the streamline position. Really, really good. What we want to have when we do streamline off the wall is one hand on top of the other. The top thumb should wrap around that bottom hand, so let’s zoom in here for a moment and I’ll show you what that looks like. In that sort of position, we should also have the top of the ears or towards the back of the head, that should be covered by the arms. And so in terms of can you minimize drag much more than this? No, not really. That is a very, very good streamline position.
Now, when you do get into that sort of position, one thing that a lot of people do if they’re sort of newer to the sport or they’re told, “You’ve got to keep a tight streamline,” what we find is they can be too tense, too tight through here. You can still keep this very tight position without effort, and that’s a great way to save a lot of energy. You don’t need to be very, very stiff and rigid with it. You don’t want that to happen.
In his dolphin kicks here, you can see he’s working both the downwards kick and the upwards kicks. So what we want to have when we get those dolphin kicks is it’s almost like if you imagine there’s a tennis ball that’s on the upper thighs there. And as you go through this downwards kick there, imagine you can sort of roll that tennis ball off the legs. That’s the sort of smoothness and the undulation that we want with the legs.
He works the down kick there and the upwards kick as well. You can see with his ankle flexibility, very impressive ankle flexibility right there. The feet coming well past the line of the lower part of the legs there. That takes great flexibility. And to be able to have that sort of dolphin kick where you get that far from every single kick, yeah, it takes great flexibility. But he’s very, very good with it. Now, with the technique, there are a few things that you’ll notice here. Obviously, to swim 21 strikes for one lap, you’ve got to have a great body position.
So with Dan’s body position here, you’ll notice that he’s got the top of his head, his hips and his heels, they’re all at the surface. And if we look at that line through the body, very, very efficient. He’s got that nice horizontal line through the body there. With the head position, that can be one thing that can help set that body position. You’ll notice that he’s looking slightly forwards, maybe one to two meters in front. One of the things that we talk about all the time is to keep the neck long, keep that extended. So the head position that we want when we swim, long neck, tuck the chin almost into the base of the neck, sort of here, not into the chin but into the base of the neck. You’ll see that Dan, again, just does a really, really good job of that.
And if you look at the line through his head, through his neck, through his spine, it’s great. We’ve got this good sort of tall and proud posture. A friend of mine, Amy Jane, she talks about it as, ‘lead with the heart, lead with the chest.’ We have this sort of chest out posture and keeps a fairly straight line through the upper body, which is excellent. And what we do like to see here is just that top part of the head just above the surface of the water.
The other thing you’ll notice here if we have a look at his kick throughout this hundred, he’s using a really light six-beat kick. If we break it down here, we’ve got one stroke. What a six-beat kick is, it’s three kicks on one stroke, three kicks on the other. On his first stroke, we have one, two, and then three. And then on the next one, we’ve got one, two, and then a really small third one there, and then we start again. That’s just really light, six-beat kick that you can see here.
What he does really well with this, too, is it’s quite narrow, so the feet only come just outside the line of his body. And that’s what we want to have most of the time, are the feet coming just a little bit wider than the body, but not much more. Because if you’re kicking really big, really hard and there’s a lot of bend in the knees, then it’s just going to increase the drag and the extra propulsion that you’ll get from that, that bigger downwards kick, is going to be counteracted by the increased drag. So keep that kick fairly narrow with just a small amount of knee bend. And obviously, yeah, it does help if you’ve got flexible ankles. You’ll see, again, just that really, really good downwards kick with such flexible ankles there.
Now, if we have a look at the rest of the stroke, we’ll have a look at the entry. What you’ll notice here that when he does enter the water, fingers first entry. And in terms of where does, his hand enter, if you’ve got your other arm out in front, imagine it’s sort of it’s about wrist length out there. That’s where most people are best off entering. So with this arm, if this arm was out in front, his wrist would be about here. And so that’s roughly where he’s entering the water.
So from there, there’s just a little bit of room left to then slide the hand forwards in front of the shoulder as this hand is pressing back. And so again, from that drag perspective, there isn’t much he could really do to minimize drag in this position. You’ll notice he’s got this elevated wrist or high wrist position, so we’ve got fingers by the wrist, wrist by the elbow, and the fingertips are just that little bit deeper than the shoulder. A lot of people either go too deep here or their hand comes up too high. It’s pretty common to see people with their hands all the way out there or they might be dropping their elbow and creating a lot of drag on the forearm there.
So if you can just get this long, straight line all the way through the body, fingers, all the way through there, and you can hold that line or you can move through that line every single stroke, that makes a big difference because, with all the clinics that we run, we have a lot of swimmers who go through them. And one of the things that’s quite evident is I’d say about half the swimmers have a good straight line all the way through there. But the other half of swimmers, they don’t either stretch out enough or they go too deep or too high with the hands.
One of the things that we do practice there is just you can do like a side kicking drill, a really simple drill. But what that will work on is it will allow you to feel that long and straight line. Be very efficient with it. And as we go through the catch, so from here down to here, this is the … Oops, that’s the catch in the stroke. So whenever you hear myself or another coach talk about the catch in freestyle, this is what they’re referring to is that movement from there down to there. And we refer to that as the setup phase where you’re not looking to power yourself through the water. You don’t need to apply a lot of force, a lot of effort there. You use that as the setup phase of the stroke.
Now, the reason that we want to use that as the setup phase of the stroke is that then if you put yourself in a high elbow position, which I’ll show you in a moment, then you can start to apply a bit of power. That’s what’s going to be much more effective than trying to really power yourself from here. Because if you want to move forward, we’ve got to get your hand and your forearm angled back behind you in order for you to move forward. But in that position, if you’re looking to power it from there, it’s not going to happen.
So from there, the fingertips should drop down to the bottom of the pool and in an ideal world with an elite-level catch, you’ll see that the upper arm hardly moves while the lower part of the arm just moves down like that. So if we see that with Dan here, fingertips just drop straight down to the bottom of the pool and the upper arm has hardly moved. Look, that’s a fairly extreme position. Most people are not going to be able to sustain that or even do that because of the mobility, because they don’t have that muscle memory and that motor pattern developed. But if we can start to work a little bit towards something like it, it’s going to help you really increase your propulsion there.
So now in this position, you’ll see that his forearm and his hand is completely vertical. You often hear coaches talk about an early vertical forearm, which is sort of a little bit like that. That’s what they’re referring to. Now, for most swimmers, I don’t encourage them to get this early vertical forearm because it’s not a position that’s comfortable for a lot of adults. Most adults don’t have the strength and mobility through the shoulders to be able to hold a position like that, so we don’t encourage them to do that position. Yes, we still want to have a high elbow catch, but it doesn’t need to be that extreme.
Now, if you don’t know what a high elbow catch is, the way we determine it is if you have a look from the side, if you draw a line from the shoulder to the fingertips, the elbow should be above that straight line. Draw that again. The elbow should be above that straight line when you finish the catch, and you’ll see that the elbow is well above that straight line. So for swimmers that are dropping the elbow, we’d find that their arm is something a little more like that. The elbow would be below that straight line and the forearm and hand would be pressing down instead of pressing backward. So that’s what a high elbow catch is, and that’s what we want to generally work towards in a stroke.
Now, as he moves from that high elbow catch position to here when the hand passes under the shoulder, you’ll see that the shoulder, the elbow, and the hand completely line up. And when you look from the front, the arm is making this triangle shape. It’s like a triangle on the side, and that’s what we call the power diamond. That’s when, number one, you can really use your lats very, very well. But the other thing that allows you to do is to keep all of this aligned because there’s a lot of surface area that you’ve got facing back behind you. So with Dan there, for him to be able to really propel himself forwards, there’s so much surface area there that he’s able to get such good distance per stroke because of it.
The reason I like to point that position out is a lot of swimmers, when we look from the side, they’ve got their shoulder and elbow aligned, but their hand is a long way out in front. It looks like that. So again, in terms of surface area, in terms of where’s their forearm, where is their hand, it’s just facing in the wrong direction. Yeah, you’ll still move forward. You’ll still get something out of it, but it’s not going to be as effective as where you can see Dan is here,
Then, he presses back and he exits just past the hip. So if we look at that on the other side here, we’ve got that starting catch position. The fingers are the deepest part of the arm. They’re a little bit deeper than the shoulder, and we’ve got this slightly elevated wrist or high wrist position. The reason that we want that is when you have that high wrist position, you’ve got your whole forum and your whole hand to work with as one big paddle.
See most … Well, not most people, but a lot of people, they let their wrist drop. So their hand actually comes back from there, and it halves your paddle. It means you’ve got half of that surface area to work with, so we need to keep that high wrist position. So as he moves through that, the fingers tip down. The upper arm’s hardly moved. You get that nice high elbow catch. From here, you’ll see all of that lines up again. The shoulder, the elbow and the hand, and then presses back.
You’ll notice that he pretty much keeps this vertical position with the arm the whole time after he set up the catch there, all the way to the back, past the hip and exits just here. Keeping that surface area facing back behind him the whole way through. There’s hardly anything that he could really change here in his stroke. He’s swimming so perfectly. Now, the other thing that you’ll notice here, and I’ll just zoom out, and I might just go back to the front here or back to the start, is with movements in swimming, they should be slow to fast.
That means when you go through the reach and the catch, which is this part out in front, so from here through to here, that part of the strike would be a little bit slower than the last part of the stroke, so slow to fast. Now, it doesn’t need to be anything really, really extreme or exaggerated with the change in pace, but we do want to see that slight change in pace. And so if we play this through here, you’ll see that Dan is that little bit slower out the front as he goes through the catch and then it speeds up a bit at the back and he gets this nice propulsion forwards, this good drive forwards at the back. And so that’s what we want in the stroke.
The same thing applies to above the water. You’ll often find it’s a little bit slower in the first part of the recovery and a little bit quicker in the last part of it. Slow to fast is a really good cue to keep in mind if you’re looking to swim smoother freestyle and faster freestyle as well. The other thing I want to show you here is the rotation. Dan gets great rotation side to side. When you look front on, he’s around about 45 up to about 50 degrees on his breathing stroke. So if you look at how far his shoulders and his hips are rotating, his shoulders go to that 45 to 50. His hips are a little bit less. They’re around sort of 30 degrees side to side, which is pretty common.
But you’ll also see here that he times the kick in the catch well, so you might’ve seen some of the videos that we talk about this. The catch here should be at the same time as the downwards kick. So on his left-hand side, he’s about to go through the catch when this left foot is kicking down. So left side catch, left side kick, going together there. What you’ll find that does for you is it’s this downwards kick here sort of transfers that through the body, helps this hip move upwards and helps him rotate to the other side. And so that just allows everything, all the parts of the body to sync up and move together. That, again, is just a really big factor for him to be able to sync things up.
The other way you can think of that timing is that the left foot should kick down at the same time as the right hand enters the water and sort of do opposite sides there. So the right hand’s entering or the left foot is kicking downwards there. You can use either one of those sorts of timing cues is left side catch, left sidekick at the same time, or left side kick and right side entry with the hand. The same thing applies to the other side here. You get the left-hand entering, right foot kicking down at the same time. That’s the timing that we see at the top level there.
Now, if you have a look at this where his shoulders are. One of the things that I’ve noticed quite a bit lately because we do a lot of analysis videos with people in our membership … People from around the world send their videos and I analyze their strike and I say, “All right, these are the drills that you probably want to do to change these different aspects of the strike.” We do this on an ongoing basis, and we’ve had some really good results with swimmers inside the membership. One of the things that I notice here is the shoulder with a lot of people when they first start, it’s a long way from the cheek or the chin and the side of the face there.
So if you’re moving through your catch and your shoulder is well below or a long way from the side of your face, sort of somewhere down here, if it’s all the way down here, good luck trying to get a high elbow catch. It’s just not the position for the arm to be in in order to get that high elbow catch. Again, at the top level with those elite swimmers, you will see that the shoulder stays somewhat up near the side of the face. It’s just that which allows you to really get a good catch. It doesn’t need to be anything extreme.
Again, it doesn’t need to be right up next to it, but it should be somewhere fairly close. And again, you’ll see that with Dan here as he moves through it. His left-hand side, same thing. As he’s going through that catch, that shoulder is pretty close to the side of the face there. That’s another thing that allows him to get that catch position. There are some of the key things that you’ll be able to see here in this 110 100 freestyle.
And yeah, that’s not easy to achieve. I mean, Dan’s been swimming since he was young. He’s an Olympic level swimmer and one of the best in the world, especially with technique. And so that will take time to achieve. But with some of those things that we talked about today, if you can start to implement some of those into your stroke, it can make a big difference. A good way to know, right, are you doing these things? Get some underwater footage.
If you can film yourself from the side and from the front under the water, you’ll be able to compare what you look like compared to Dan here in some of the aspects of the strike. Now, it doesn’t mean that you need to swim with the same stroke rate as Dan or the same style of freestyle. Because if you’re doing a triathlon on open water, as you know, we recommend some sort of different or definitely a higher strike rate than that. Dan wouldn’t race with that sort of strike rate either. But what you can take from that is a few of those things like the timing of the kick, like the catch, and a couple of other things.
Hope you enjoyed this video. If you haven’t subscribed to our channel, please subscribe below. We do two videos a week where we do analysis videos, and we also do a tip on freestyle every single week as well, so please subscribe. And if you are looking to improve your swimming, what I’d recommend is to have a look at our Effortless Swimming video membership. We’ve got the video membership where you can access all of our technique courses, where I’m going to take you to step by step on improving your swimming, and I’ll take you through the drills and the workouts that are going to help you do that. Or if you do have access to that underwater camera, then you can send in your videos for analysis in the stroke analysis section. I work with hundreds of swimmers every single month to help them improve their swimming. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next week with another video.