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The 3 Stages of Proper Swim Development

BY Dan Bullock

Learning proper swim technique is a long, often repetitive process as you learn how to identify your movement patterns in the water. Here are the three stages of proper swim development, and why you shouldn’t let yourself get stuck in phase two.

At a recent workshop at Speedo HQ looking at some product development, the conversation turned to the subject of good swim technique.

Amongst the assembled group of designers, scientists and coaches it was not easy fully describing good technique. Each person had a view as to which component was more important.

It was actually easier to describe bad technique and how if you slowly eliminated it one aspect at a time you would be left with something that could be described as good swim technique. The key words such as rhythm, graceful, relaxed, a lack of splash, a lack of effort, symmetry, propulsion and low levels of drag cropped up— but these are all are quite vague descriptions.

The truth about good swim technique is: we know it when we see it. It is highly individual, and we all have an idea as to how we define it. A level of skill is needed to take away the thought process and allow the sequence of swimming actions to unfold naturally without hesitation.

For example, the coordination of the arms and legs, the timing of the breathing, applying just enough force to pull you through the water without slipping in the water.

When a swimmer starts out improving their stroke what I see is a sequence of swimming movements slowly being constructed and processed, hence the hesitations, the slow rigid movements of the body and the mechanical edge to their movements that seem to hold them back.


The big problem for those who are not natural swimmers is the concept of the disparity between what they feel they are doing and what they are actually doing.

For many swimmers, once they see a video of themselves swimming, will still need further convincing that it is actually them up on the screen.

At our weekend workshops where the filming is displayed in a classroom setting shortly after the first swim, often swimmers wait to claim their piece of footage ( i.e. they wait to see if they like what they see).

If it’s wrong and they have identified the wrong person up on the screen, it’s usually an example of somebody swimming better than they do. At this point I diplomatically point out, “Unfortunately sir you are the only gent in today’s group so that has to be you.”

If you come from a sporting background (from any other sport either in or out of the water) and have good hand-eye coordination and good proprioception skills, then the new movements often come easier.

The disparity is narrowed, as people seem to have a more accurate method of allowing them to visualize the movements they are making. I liken this to the idea of the “unconscious incompetence,” which is the first of the Four Stages of Competence, a well-known psychology model that describes how we learn a new skill.


For a swimmer learning proper swim technique, it is not so much that they are unaware of how some of their movements are being performed poorly, it is more that they cannot perceive their own movements as good or bad.

The journey to unconscious competence where it all seems so easy is—not so easy. I feel there are three key stages for an adult swimmer attempting to swim well and most triathletes plateau in the second area not realizing how much time in the water is needed to attain the third (I am trying hard to resist not using the expression enlightenment here!)

The workshop at Speedo HQ touched on why swimming can be so challenging and when I thought about how many repetitions of a certain movement were needed for it to become automatic—for it to become unconscious and competent—I had to agree.

When I thought back to how much repitition must have taken place during my own development years between 1987 and 1994 in order for it to look relaxed and as if I wasn’t trying—it could have easily been in the millions!

How many hours at the steering wheel did you spend driving before you started to not notice the mechanics of the process of driving? I bet it took a while for some to be comfortable enough on the bike to stop looking for the gear and brake levers.

The moment they become an extension of the hands and arms you can then focus on the road around you, the surroundings and traffic, and suddenly you are a much safer cyclist.

Three Key Stages of Swim Development

1. Feeling fast but swimming slow.

Initially, when people start out improving their swim technique, it is exhausting due to making use of the incorrect muscles (usually the larger ones of the legs) to perform incorrect movements.

Getting tired more quickly than is necessary while directing yourself in a direction you don’t want to go is a double whammy of a problem. Unfortunately, the sensation of speed is apparent since it all feels so strong and fast—the bubbles, the splashing and the getting out of breath.

The sensations that can deliver such speed on the bike and the run will do nothing but fatigue you in the water due to a lack of streamline, using the wrong muscles to channel water in the wrong directions and not allowing you a healthy window of opportunity to get your air in when breathing.

Fortunately, it does not take too long to move on from this position. Four or five lessons can do it for many people; acquiring the correct movements driven by many of the smaller muscles will soon have you moving into stage two.

2. Feeling slow but getting faster. The swim plateau.

Getting faster as the effort levels come down and streamline starts to kick in can happen quite quickly. At this stage, you are unlikely to be purely swimming faster but for longer distances you should be setting improved times as you fatigue less.

Often the big issue at this time is convincing swimmers that they are indeed getting faster. Due to the counterintuitive nature of faster swimming becoming possible with less effort—many people refuse to buy into it.

Constant measuring will help reassure you, whether it is time taken for a distance, strokes taken per length, or distance swum in a certain time. Be fair and time yourself over at least 400m, as a 25m sprint will unlikely to be quicker as you will not be swimming faster in terms of pure swim velocity.

You will still be processing a sequence of swimming movements to create the freestyle stroke, but the direction you channel water will be positive in terms of you moving forward.

You will generally be taught to use the smaller muscle groups to control smaller movements. The energy and oxygen cost per stroke will reduce massively. Linked to the counterintuitive feel, unfortunately, is that these new muscles are not yet familiar with the new movements. So, for six to eight weeks even smaller muscles (now moving correctly) will be more tiring until they adapt to the new overload.

Most will now be in that tricky, in-between stage where you are not reaping the benefits of being faster just yet (more on this later) but since your movements are now contributing to going forward rather then up and down or sideways, faster times are inevitable if you believe and persevere.

3. Swimming fast and feeling fast.

Finally, we come to the moment of enlightenment (sorry!) when you feel fast in the water and you are actually moving fast in the water.

Swimming fast with the sensation of speed is a combination of a well streamlined body position, a rhythmical leg kick to hold you in the water and assist your body position, constant rotation to the degree you are streamlined (but not overdoing it so you waste time gliding).

Probably the key benefit is acquiring the feel for the water, at this point you make the water feel more solid around the hand. You can feel the body moving over a stationary hand rather than it slipping under the body.

A secondary part of the feel for the water is how you can sense just how much effort to put into each pulling movement. Too much strength and it is wasted as the fluid water slips around the hand, not enough and you just move slowly.

A strong pull is a combined balance of strength and finesse, allowing the maximum amount of effort to be deployed. The faster you move through the water will add additional benefits, such as the trough of air deepening around the head, meaning you can turn the head less when breathing. Sitting higher in the water carries benefits to the sighting process, and so on.

At this point you will automatically process the freestyle movements without the thought process, meaning you can focus more on pacing and race tactics but it is going to take quite some time to acquire that degree of unconscious competency.

For some this may take a while longer than they hoped, but it is possible. You may need to think in terms of sessions per month rather then sessions per week. What I mean by this is that aiming for four sessions per week is a noble ambition but you are more likely to be content with three. If you aim for between 13 and 16 sessions per month—you will be getting more achieved and hopefully be inspired to achieve more.

Set realistic goals and think about it being a two-year process if you are starting out from a novice level. Acquiring a technically proficient stroke will enable you to be faster, swim easier, be prone to fewer injuries and eventually allow you to enjoy the swim aspect of your race (the pacing, the tactics and the actual racing rather than just mechanically processing the swim movements to help you survive from start to T1). It’s a process, to be sure, but a worthwhile one in the long-term scope of your endurance performance.

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About Dan Bullock

A respected figure in the swimming community, Dan is a Speedo Coaching Advisor, Vasa Coaching Advisor, and a coach with the London Disability Swimming Club. The founder of Swim For Tri, Dan regularly contributes to Tri247.com, H2Open magazine and was the H2Open Coach of the Year 2004 and runner up Coach of the Year 2016.