Had a bit of a breakthrough on my stroke technique today. It’s a bit hard to explain, but I tried getting my hand way out of the water, and keeping it out, until I had rotated my body to stretch it far forward, ready to enter again. The effect of this was to cause my body to lie more flat in the water, which raised my shoulders and armpits above the surface. In turn, this allowed me to swim much more rapidly — I felt like I was gliding on the surface, propelled forward like a strange water strider.
With my new stroke, I was able to get my best lap time down to around 30 seconds, where before I was struggling to get 37.
I experimented with some other technique changes as well, but the results were inconclusive.
I’m starting to suspect that the ideal head position may vary by person, so long as it’s “reasonably” pointed downwards. The trade-off is that a higher head position allows you to put more power into the stroke (since you have an arched back), and it also facilitates breathing without raising your head too much because there is a bigger bow wave. Naturally, you generate much more drag with the face not pointed straight down, so there’s a big disadvantage too.
This video of Ian Thorpe shows him with a rather high head position, so clearly it works well enough for the best:
This video came from this site, which has more info on head position.
Another interesting observation from the Thorpe video is that he enters his arms into the water at about a -20º angle (if 0º means putting your arm flat on the surface of the water, and -90º means putting it in straight down pointing toward the bottom of the pool). However, he doesn’t just start pushing from that angle. Rather, he rolls, allowing him to stretch his arm and actually straighten it to a 0º position, except under and parallel to the surface of the water.
I tried doing the “Thorpe stroke,” but it didn’t seem to work too well for me. I find that placing my hands directly on top of the water and pushing down helps me stay flat on the surface and stop tilting, which would cause drag. It also helps me reduce drag by aiding breathing — under Thorpe’s stroke, I have to raise my head a bit and thus tilt my body away from horizontal. Nevertheless, I did notice Thorpe’s stroke was a bit more efficient, presumably because I’m not wasting energy pushing down. It also encourages more body rotation, which is supposedly an efficient way of using your core muscles to help you swim.
I think I’m more or less good on my technique now — there are certainly things I could improve, but it might be good for me to move toward a focus on building speed by doing intervals.