We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again…There are only two ways to swim faster: Decrease drag and increase propulsion.
Most of us probably think most about increasing propulsion when we want to boost our speed in the water. We want to pull more water with each stroke, kick harder, increase our strength or improve the surface area of our pull.
While all of those are totally valid ways to swim faster (and they all take a lot of work to master), decreasing drag is actually the fastest way to improve in the water.
Water is 800 times more dense than air, which means that one small tweak in your stroke technique can pay huge dividends when it comes to speed and efficiency.
Let’s dive into what drag is and explore five ways to reduce it so you move through the water like a torpedo!
What is Drag?
Drag in the water is called hydrodynamic drag. For the swim nerds reading, the formula to calculate hydrodynamic drag is:
Hydrodynamic Drag = Cₓ(ρv²/2)S
- Cₓ is the dimensionless coefficient of hydrodynamic drag (this is your body position & shape of your body)
- ρ is the density of the medium (water is 800 times more dense than air)
- v is the velocity
- S is the characteristic area for the given body
The Relationship Between Velocity and Drag
In the formula above, you’ll notice that velocity is squared. This means that when you increase your velocity (how fast you swim), you are going to increase your drag exponentially.
Related: The Swimming Equation | How to Swim Faster 101
If you swim twice as fast, you are creating four times as much drag. This is why it’s tougher to go from 30 seconds in the 50 freestyle to 25 seconds than it is to go from 60 seconds to 55 seconds in the same race.
Yes, you’re dropping the same amount of time, but your body is dealing with a lot more drag going 30 seconds in the 50 than it is when you go 60 seconds.
All that said, what does this have to do with decreasing drag? Let’s dive into five ways you can reduce extra drag as you start to swim faster.
5 Ways to Decrease Drag in Swimming
1. Reduce Surface Area
When we talk about reducing surface area when swimming, we’re really talking about your body (or Cₓ in the formula above). While you’re pretty limited in the ways you can quickly change the surface area of your body, here are three things you can do:
- Wear a Swim Cap: A swim cap keeps your hair contained and your head streamlined. If you have long hair, putting on a swim cap will make a big difference!
- Wear a Fitted Swimsuit: If you wear a really baggy swimsuit, it can feel like you’re wearing a parachute in the water. Instead, opt for a suit that fits snug to your body.
- Shave: Many swimmers choose to shave their bodies before big competitions, and removing that excess hair can help reduce drag.
2. Head Position
Now let’s look at your stroke technique. If you look forward while you swim freestyle, you’re creating extra drag for yourself! When you look forward, your hips are more likely to drop. Your legs probably feel like 100 pound weights!
To encourage a better body position, try to look straight down, or just an inch or two forward as you swim. Think neutral neck! This position will encourage your hips to float up toward the surface of the water instead of dragging behind you.
3. Body Position
You can do more than fix your head to improve your body position! When you’re in proper body position, you should feel like you’re swimming downhill. Your hips should be close to the surface of the water, in line with your head.
4. Not Kicking
This might seem counterintuitive, but kicking less might actually help you swim faster! Let’s explain.
Related: The 5 Biggest Kicking Mistakes Swimmers Make
To an extent, kicking helps increase propulsion (the other way to swim faster aside from reducing drag). However, if you start kicking and your kick is wider than your body line, you’re creating tons of extra drag for yourself.
If you don’t counteract this drag with increased propulsion (and most swimmers don’t!) then you’re going to swim slower.
Think about keeping your kick small and fast vs. large and slow.
5. Learn to Swim Higher in the Water
When you swim faster with good technique, your body will naturally sit higher in the water, and your hips should not drag you down as much.
Related: How to Swim Perfect Freestyle
Think about a speedboat: When the boat is going slow, it sits low in the water. When the engines kick in and the boat is going fast, it rises high out of the water and a smaller part of the boat is touching the water.
So what does this all mean? While increasing your speed will increase the drag you produce, you’ll also be sitting higher in the water, and with proper technique you’ll be much more efficient.
Try This Swim Workout to Reduce Drag
Work on reducing drag with this swim workout in the MySwimPro app! Download the app and start a free, 7-day trial to log this workout from the Workout Library.
- Distance: 1,400 yards/meters
- Duration: 33 minutes
- 1 x 300 Freestyle @ 4:20 Easy
- 8 x 25 Kick @ :30 Streamline on back with fins, focus on head position + body position
- 1 x 200 Pull @ 2:30 with paddles
Main Set (3x)
- 4 x 50 Freestyle @ 1:00 Best Average Descend 1-4
- 4 x 25 Freestyle @ :40 Race Pace
- 4 x 25 Freestyle @ :25 Easy, Silent Swimming
Share your tips and tricks for reducing drag in the comments! To log this swim workout and start your own personalized Training Plan, download the MySwimPro app on iPhone or Android.
Thank you for those good tips on how to reduce drag!
Maintaining the plane of your head position while breathing is also huge! So many newer swimmers will lift their head slightly when breathing, rather than only turning the head to the side and utilizing the body rotation during the stroke. Lifting the head throws off the body’s position by making the hips sink, and so much effort is needed to get back in line.
Great concepts, thanks!
For those that want to dig in a little deeper, there are different kinds of drag. Frontal or pressure drag is functionally the surface area of what the water hits first. For a typical swimmer, it’s the top of the head and shoulders.
Then there is the laminar drag – the area along your body.
Lastly there is turbulence drag due to kicking and moving.
The techniques for reducing each of these drag forces is a little different.
(note that the parenthesis in your drag equation don’t do anything – they have no purpose).