6 Reasons Head Position Matters for Swimming

Growing up our parents put us in competitive swimming. My dad’s sports background was football and although he still follows the game I guess he thought swimming was as different from football as you could get.

And although I spent countless hours in pools and had permanently wrinkled fingers I’m not that strong in the pool these days. The technique has changed enough that I’d have to spend some time with a coach to learn the new way to swim.

But if there’s one thing I would change with my swimming technique it would be head position (click here for more information on the type of swimming pools where this is encouraged). And maybe it wouldn’t be so much to change my head position but instead it would be to be aware of it.

Below are 6 Reasons Head Position Matters for Swimming.

  1. Less Resistance – When you watch a non-swimmer swim a short distance this is usually done with the head up. The problem is that when we lift the head we increase drag resistance. And swimming is all about over coming resistance forces. If you are swimming in a pool you should be looking down at the line on the bottom not ahead of yourself towards the end wall. If you’re not sure about your head position have someone shoot a video. Or time yourself for 50 m with your chin tucked, your chin up and with your head in a neutral position. Which position resulted in the fastest time? Ideally it would be best to video yourself doing these time trials.
  2. Better Gas Exchange – Distance swimming is primarily an aerobic sport and relies primarily on the availability of oxygen to fuel the activity. When oxygen supply is diminished or delayed, swimming performance suffers. As well, we remove waste products with cellular respiration. If breathing patterns are impaired we won’t be as effective drawing in air, or removing wastes. When the head is tilted back and the chin is up we limit peak expiratory volume or the maximal amount of air we can exhale. This has to do with the fact that the diaphragm can’t descend as much when we are in an anterior tilted position. As a result there is less negative pressure produced in the thoracic cavity, due to smaller volume produced, and less air in then drawn in.
  3. Better Buoyancy – With swimming we are looking to find a buoyant position in the water. Our center of mass might be closer to the midsection of the body whereas our center of buoyancy would be closer to the chest, where the lungs are. With freestyle and backstroke we want to stay high and level with the water. When the head is lifted we become more vertical in the water. Consider a non-swimmer drowning and they look like they are climbing a ladder with arms and legs thrashing around a vertical torso. When the head is positioned properly it helps us find a better float position in the water and swim more effectively.

    The vertical body position of a drowning person can look as though they're climbing a ladder.

    The vertical body position of a drowning person can look as though they’re climbing a ladder.

  4. Less Stress – Nowadays movie theatres have the option to select your seat before you get to the show. But believe it or not kids, your mom and dad used to have to arrive early, line up and scramble to find the best seats for the show. And not many people were racing to save seats in the front row. If you ever did get stuck sitting in the front row you knew your neck was going to be kinked once the final edits start rolling. Another example that may help is to imagine sitting at the computer for hours on end finishing a report or school project. With the  last key stroke you reach a hand over the opposite trap and slowly let it knead your shoulders and traps as the fingers dig into the traps. When the head is angled up we have more less stress and tension through the traps and neck. This also limits the physical space for the shoulder to move.
  5. Less Power – The body is designed to deliver maximal strength, power and speed when joint angles and posture are optimal. A sprinter is faster when the foot is dorsiflexed on ground contact. An Olympic lift is more powerful when the arms are straight in the hang position. There are many other examples we could look at. But basically the key point is that the structure determines the function. And when the structure is compromised i.e. due to poor posture, compensation or injury result and we will use an alternate movement option. A long spine is a more stable spine. When the spine is shorted, as when the head is tilted back, we cannot produce as much force. Although the arms serve primarily to catch the water in swimming they do contribute to force production. And we may limit this ability when the head is raised.
  6. Slower Hip Rotation – When we swim freestyle or backstroke the body rolls along a longitudinal axis. And it is this rotation that serves as the momentum to propel a swimmer down the lane. When I grew up as a swimmer nobody was talking about hip rotation. Breathing involved turning the head rather than rolling the body. The kick wasn’t directed to the sidewalls but more towards the bottom of the pool. So now that we know that body rotation matters in these strokes are goal should be to train hip rotation for the pool. One thing that influences the level of the hips in the water is head position. When the head is up 1 degree the hips fall 2 degrees. Not only does increase drag as the body is not a level it also impairs rotation of the hips. The hips turn more freely at the surface of the water than when they sit lower in the water.

    Lifting the head 1 degree drops the hips 2 degrees. This increases drag and inhibits hip rotation.

    Lifting the head 1 degree drops the hips 2 degrees. This increases drag and inhibits hip rotation.

If your goal is to be a faster swimmer take a look at your head position. You might have the fitness, mobility and drive to be fast in the pool and one small change with respect to how you position your head might shave seconds, or more, off your races.



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