How Swimming Works


It’s practice time in the pool, and I’m working hard to finish the last stroke before touching the wall. But I’m not very happy, because I’m only halfway through. However, at least for a while, I rest and with a mighty sigh, I decide to continue this suffering.

Great, 200m in 4:10. Go, ”the coach shouts at me. I feel everything, just not great.

The lungs are on fire, the arms are as heavy as lead, and my heart is beating so fast I’m afraid it will jump out of my chest. About 15m behind me are my teammates who are already finishing the third hundred.

Something is wrong here, very wrong, an idea flashes before I push off to meet other exhausting meters. Somehow I plough through the other two hundred and the coach calls me: “You gave it at 8:30, nice. Now easy 100m and then we will go again. “

I swim 100m, but then I climb out of the pool. I’m not a masochist and it’s been enough suffering. I watch colleagues easily take one stroke after another. They travel far on each stroke and it looks completely different than I feel when swimming. But they are just the former competitive swimmers. The others, like me, are visibly troubled, fighting, and swimming slowly.

Those who try the hardest are the slowest, it flashed to me.

I am overwhelmed with helplessness and frustration. “I will drown in a triathlon. And if I don’t, I’ll be so exhausted that I won’t make it on the bike and run, “my head runs.

When I’m home, I still recall the incredible lightness of the teammates. How come I try so hard to swim so slowly? I didn’t get it. What did they have and know and I didn’t?

I kept tormenting and fighting like this for about two months before I ran out of patience and said to myself, “Enough. I’m done with this. I can’t go on with something that obviously doesn’t work. ”

There is something different about swimming. Those who work the hardest are the slowest. And if I want to be able to swim and ride triathlons, I have to figure out what’s different.

And I did figure it out. What I learned might be surprising because it is very different from what is traditionally taught.

If swimming is a struggle, boredom, and frustration for you and you’re not getting better, then this guide can be very useful for you. Read on to find how I turned frustration and struggle into passion and satisfaction.

But first, a little bit of a history.

History of Human Swimming

Swimming is an ancient activity that people have been doing since ancient times. Paintings depicting figures who float have been preserved from the times of ancient Egypt. These pictures seem to show breaststroke or doggy paddle.

More references to swimming are found in the Babylonian and Assyrian wall drawings. Swimming had military uses in ancient Greece. In Japan, swimming was one of the Samurai’s skills, and it was one of the seven ‘agilities’ knights were expected to learn.

The earliest known complete book about swimming, Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (The Swimmer, or A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming and Joyful and Pleasant to Read) was written in 1538 by Nikolaus Wynmann, a Swiss-German professor of languages. The main purpose of the book was to reduce the risk of drowning.

Other swimming books were written in the 16th-19th centuries, describing mainly breaststroke and side-stroke. So Europeans swam mostly these styles. Overarm swimming (the precursor of Front crawl) first appeared in Europe in 1844.

Two Native Americans took part in a swimming competition in London. The British competitor used the traditional breaststroke, while the Native Americans swam a variant of the front crawl, which had been used by people in the Americas for generations but was not known to the British. The Americans beat the Briton and proved their style is much faster than the breaststroke.

British media reported disapprovingly that the Native American stroke was an unrefined motion with the arms “like a windmill” and the chaotic and unregulated kicking of the legs. An observer described “windmill thrashing with their arms and beat downward with their feet.”

To sum it up: The Americans introduced a new swimming style. The new style was much faster than European traditional breaststroke.

However, this new style was very exhausting. It was just unrefined motion with the arms “like a windmill” and the chaotic and unregulated kicking of the legs. Very messy, splashy, and inefficient.

“But wait! I see the same kind of survival swimming even today,” you might say. And you are right. Read the next part to find out why it is so and what you can do to swim freestyle with ease, efficiency and grace.

What is wrong and why traditional swimming does not work

If you visit any local pool, it’s not much different from the way most people swim freestyle today. And there is no wonder – traditional instruction remained the same – move your arms, kick with your legs, if you are lucky, take a breath and that’s it.

Swimming is traditionally taught as an ability to survive. Let’s call this instinctive, survival stroke, Human swimming. We simply copy terrestrial animals.

Freestyle swimming – 100 years of standstill

Between 1870-1900 the freestyle developed into overhand style with an up-and-down kick. This remained almost the same for the entire 20th century. It was the best way to swim a short distance fast. Yes, the new stroke was faster than breaststroke but not sustainable for longer distances. Only a very small percentage of swimmers were able to use freestyle for distance swimming.

There are three reasons for this:

1. Power Oriented Freestyle

Traditional training is a power-oriented freestyle that maximizes speed. There is little or no distinction between techniques for sprinting 50 or 100 meters vs. those for swimming much longer distances. Many coaches and books still advocate maximizing power and speed.

Teaching is aimed at one short-term goal – to swim some distance as quickly as possible. In traditional sports training, you are basically not interested in anything else.

This way of training is exhausting for adults – they don’t have such fitness or strength. But mainly they are missing skills.

Most of them are fitness and recreational swimmers swimming for health, fitness, and well-being. They do not want to undergo demanding training, where the main motto is: Swim now, breathe later.

2. Ignoring the Environment

It might seem odd, but many coaches ignore the crucial fact: We swim in and through the water.

This is so important that I want to repeat it again:

We swim in and through the water.

I understand that everybody knows that swimming takes place in water. But not many people (swimming coaches included) realize how different water is.

Water is about 900 times denser than air. When we move through it, it puts a lot of resistance on us.

You can’t lean on water. Although it is so dense, it is not solid enough for us to lean on (such as the ground). Water is unstable, changing and elusive.

You cannot breathe in water. Life-giving air is above the surface and must be reached in good time.

All of this causes discomfort, sometimes even panic.

Traditional teaching is about independent arm and leg movement. But this is only a small and not very significant part of the swimming puzzle. Until you have in place all the essential and fundamental puzzle pieces that take into consideration the difference of water, you will never swim well.

It is like building a house. First, the house has to have a solid and stable foundation. Otherwise, it collapses. Only then can you build walls, windows, doors, roof, etc.

In other words, the idea is that swimming is about the training of arms, legs, and body (muscles). However, it is much more about synchronization, coordination, and the brain. Of course, the muscles are also involved and fitness improves. But improved fitness is rather a side effect of correctly executed movement.

Swimming is considered a muscular-endurance sport similar to running or cycling. But swimming is closer to tennis, golf, or martial arts, where skill, art, and technique are everything.

3. Variable shape

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on designing the most aerodynamic or hydrodynamic shape of cars, bullet trains, planes, or submarines. Designers and engineers know that it is worth it because the proper design reduces drag, wind noise, interior noise and handling and what is very important, affects fuel economy.

The vehicle’s shape, and how air flows around it, plays a large role in fuel consumption. For this reason, engineers often call aerodynamics “free fuel efficiency.”

Look at this picture:

This is a computer-generated study that shows the airflow around the fuselage of a jet engine vehicle. A vehicle that moves at supersonic speed. Aerodynamics plays a key role in it. Orange areas indicate areas of greatest resistance. The blue areas represent the least resistance.

When swimming, we do not move so fast, but again we move through water, which is about 900 times denser than air. Therefore, hydrodynamics is key here as well. Instead of a car, you can replace the human body.

This is ideal shape of human body for swimming:

We want to keep that shape as much as possible.

But, in Human swimming, the shape of the body changes a lot. Let’s take a look at a traditional human swimmer:

A friend of mine described the difference between the two swimming styles as a potato swimmer and a torpedo swimmer.

I really like his point because it clearly shows the difference.

Potatoes can have many different shapes and most of the shapes are really not ideal for moving smoothly through the water.

But torpedoes are completely different. All of them have very similar shapes and are perfectly designed to move through the water.

Now, what kind of swimmer do you want to be? Potato or torpedo? If it is the latter, read on to find out how you can turn yourself into a human torpedo.

Now you understand what is wrong with power, pull, kick, survival style. Fortunately, there is a better way. More fun, engaging, based on science. Let’s take a look at it now.

Swimming the Smart Way

If a picture is worth a thousand words then a moving picture is worth maybe 10.000 words. So instead of trying to find correct words how to describe what I mean by Swimming the smart way, see it for yourself.

Can you recognize a difference from typical splashing, churning, and thrashing swimmers you can see in every local pool? I bet you can.

How to get there?

Let me show you.

New Way to Freestyle

For more than 100 years, Freestyle has just been pulling and kicking. But with adults who are new to swimming, it does not work. Because their main issue is fear of sinking. Water is so different and threatening for us that as soon as we attempt swimming, it is just instinctive survival stroking.

And make no mistake – even if you are an experienced swimmer, chances are your fear of sinking deeply affects the way you swim.

I can see it every time I teach weekend workshops. Even seasoned triathletes who compete in the Ironman have a big room for improvement in their basic abilities.

First, you need to realize that good swimming is counterintuitive. That means, to replace instinctive stroke with a counterintuitive alternative, you must take every stroke mindfully.

You want to be like fish. Fish is:

  • at home in the water
  • using its whole body
  • perfectly streamlined and horizontal
  • keeping the shape all the time

Humans can learn to swim like fish too. What is needed is a 3-step swimming pyramid:

Introducing Comfort

Being at home is the first step to swim like a fish. I invite you to be playful and experiment with the very basics. It can be fun and you can learn unexpected insights you were missing while swimming your old survival stroke.

Start with inhaling into the water. if you are really new to swimming, you can start at how with the bowl. Then continue in a pool.

  • Focus on slow, fluent exhale through your nose. Do at least 10 breaths so you enter almost a meditative state.
  • Breathe just enough – you don’t have to fully inhale and exhale. Just similar to your normal breathing.
  • Monitor your body. If you notice any tension, just release it. We usually tense in arms, hands, and the neck.

Get comfortable in a horizontal position

Stand up with your arms in front of you. Then push off into gliding and do nothing. Just enjoy the ride.

Again, monitor your body. Release all tension. It is ok if your legs sink after a while. With rare exception, the legs are heavier than water and fall down. Don’t fight it and when they sink or you are out of breath, stand up, take a breath and do it again.

With each push-off, try to relax more and feel your body. Learn how your body behaves in the water. This is the way to become fish-like.


Since we swim through very dense water, we want to be as streamlined and hydrodynamic as possible. For human swimmers, the most streamlined position is horizontal and slightly rotated.

To practice a correct posture, push off into gliding, keep one hand on your thigh and the other one in front of the shoulder. Start kicking and turn slightly to your side. You should be in the same position as you see in the image above.

If your legs sink too soon:

  • relax your neck muscles (“hang your head”)
  • relax your leading arm and have your fingers slightly deeper that is your shoulder
  • kick lightly from your hips with loose ankles
  • rotate only a little (you still should be on your stomach)


The greatest difference between traditional teaching and Smart Swimming is how we propel ourselves through the water.

Fish is 10x faster than the fastest human and yet has no legs or arms. So where the propulsion comes from?

It is from the trunk from the torso. This is the way how fish swim and it is how we can swim too.

This is nothing new for humans, we do it in many areas of life and in many sports. Some time ago I created this video. I invite you to watch it now and then continue reading.

If you want to swim with ease, speed, and grace, do the same as most of the athletes and use your core for propulsion. Use coordinated and fluent movement.

How To Use Your Whole Body

Do this swimming drill and you’ll be able to swim far forward through the water with very little effort.

  1. Stand up with your left leg is forward. Keep your left arm forward and slightly down. Have at least fingers in the water (if the water is deep, it can be the whole arm). Bend your right arm in your elbow and bring it forward of your head. Keep the fingers of the right arm in the water. It should be like this:
  1. Preparation for the drill is very important, so allow yourself enough time and patience to prepare for the position.
  2. When you are ready:
  • push yourself forward from your feet
  • send the right arm forward
  • move your left arm to your thigh
  • slightly rotate to your right side

Everything happens at the same moment. Just look at the video of how far you can travel with very little effort.

Quite easily you can transition from the drill to the whole stroke. Just notice that the leading arm stays in front of the body until the other arm is in front of the head. Only then switch the arm and rotate your hips.

Can you see how effortlessly you might be able to swim? All you need is to master coordination & synchronization of your whole body.

Coordination & Synchronization

Proper coordination is unnatural for us and it is very helpful to practice on dry land.

Follow this sequence several times on both sides:

  • Stand up straight. Place your right hand on your right thigh and point your left arm up (pic. #1).
  • Bring your right hand toward your head. Slightly bend your right arm and place your fingers next to the elbow of the left arm. (pic.#2)
  • Pause for a moment to imprint this position. Then switch: stretch your right arm upward and place your left hand to your left thigh. (pic.#3)

Putting it all together

If we reverse engineer how propulsion works, we can find four elements contributing to the propulsion:

  1. weight shift in the hips
  2. entry (let it fall into the water forward and slightly down)
  3. kick with the lower leg
  4. catch of the water (no pulling back)

Also, please notice in the picture that both arms are in front of the body. We always want to keep at least one arm in front. The goal is to keep the shape (stay in a streamlined and hydrodynamic position no matter what).

The reason is the density of the water. As soon as you lose ideal body posture, you waste too much energy and you can get exhausted very soon.

Changing the way you swim takes some time, but it is more than worth it. You will swim more efficiently, easier and faster. Also, there are some unexpected benefits. We will cover them in the next part. Stay tuned!


Breathing and having enough air is the number 1 priority for every swimmer. If you do not master breathing, you can never swim with ease and grace. But from my observations, few swimmers are capable of getting the air they need.

Breathing is the very first and very last component of good swimming. Before, I showed you a swimming pyramid. Now, I’d like to show it to you again, just slightly modified.

There are two components of proper breathing:

  • air exchange
  • synchronization

Air Exchange

It might seem odd to you that I speak about simple exhaling and inhaling. You do it since you were born, so you should be quite skillful at it by now, right?

Well, not so fast. With our sedentary lifestyle, our breathing is not very efficient and healthy. I suggest paying attention to your breathing during the day. It is deep or shallow, do you breathe through your nose or mouth, is it audible? Simple awareness can improve your breathing (and your overall well-being).

Another story is breathing in the water. Here is what is different from our day-to-day breathing:

Water resistance during exhale. As you already know, water is appr. 900x denser than air. When we exhale into the water, we need to do it intentionally and more energetically.

Water can get into your nose. This might be very unpleasant, so I suggest keep exhaling all the time your face is underwater. flow from the nose will prevent the water from coming in.

Exhalation is longer than inhalation. Swimming is a rhythmic movement and breathing needs to fit that rhythm. You do several strokes with your head underwater and then you take a breath during one single stroke. So don’t rush the exhaling – exhale slowly and fluently.

Inhale just enough. There is no need to try to fully inhale or exhale. This might be quite exhausting. Just breathe as you are used to. Your breathing should be very similar as you normally do.


Synchronizing breathing with the rest of the stroke is a complex and difficult skill. And usually, swimmers won’t make it if they are not really comfortable in the water.

This is the reason I repeatedly mention the importance of comfort. I know that swimmers and coaches have a tendency to ignore or skip this step and go as soon as possible to the stroke part.

Please, don’t.


Because I see discomfort way too often. Did you know that fewer than 30% of American adults can swim 25 meters?

Ok, enough about comfort, let get into synchronization of breathing and the stroke.

Keep your head low

Lifting the head during inhalation is very common. It is probably the most common swimming mistake.

If this happens, our legs tend to sink, drag increases and we have to spend more energy to keep moving.

Practice turning your head for inhalation. First, without inhaling and then with inhaling.

Move your head together with hips

Swimmers focus so much on their stroking that they forget to inhale. When they realize it, it is usually too late. Their head movement is not connected with the movement of the rest of the body. This disconnection disrupts the rhythm because swimmers don’t have enough time to inhale. So they lift their head to get the air they need.

To avoid that, focus on moving your head together with the hip movement. When you insert your arm into the water and shift the weight in your hips, turn the head.

To connect and synchronize all the moving parts of your body takes time. But when you master it, it feels natural and you will breathe smoothly and seamlessly.

Keep the posture

Do you remember “torpedo” x “potato” swimmers? Swimmers turn into potatoes mostly when they are breathing.

To keep torpedo shape, focus on patient leading arm. That means to keep your leading arm in front of you as long as the other arm is not ready to enter the water. You want to do it when not breathing and also when breathing.

With this new, Smart way of swimming, you will swim with ease, speed and grace. And you will enjoy it more!

Tomas Vojtechovsky
I have been a swim coach since 2004. I live in the Czech Republic. Triathlon brought me to swimming. When I first discovered triathlon in 1996, I fell in love with the sport. But swimming had always been a struggle and frustration. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get any better. So I began my journey by learning how to move through water efficiently and gracefully. I have practiced yoga and tai chi, the Alexander technique, Natural Movement on dry land. In water it was the Art of Swimming. But the greatest difference came with Total Immersion and for several years I had been a certified TI coach. Now I work on my own. I founded and developed the instruction and content for Totální plavání and Smart Swimming.

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