Should triathletes spend time perfecting their flip turns? I get many requests for this kind of instruction, and I questioned its relevance to multisport athletes for some time. Usually it crops up during a training camp where we have a lot of time to practice. While the mechanics of the movement can seem quite straightforward, the act of following someone into a wall, executing the roll over at a slight angle with someone on your feet is just a lot to process for many triathletes. Many swimmers have more pressing swim improvements to work on for greater race day gains, so it depends on the ability of the swimmer and their overall goals as to whether or not it is worth their time.
Of course there is no direct benefit on race day as the very nature of a long and unbroken course is often the attraction of an open-water swim to a novice triathlete. However, perfecting your flip turn will keep your average swim speed within your sessions higher. Braking at the wall with an open turn (touching the wall with your hand) and pushing off can be a huge interruption to your swim speed. A smooth change of direction coupled with a continuation to your average swim speed makes more sense to the pace and rhythm of open water and thus of race-day simulation.
A good turn will not only speed up your swim repeat times, it will also develop breath control as flipping becomes a short hypoxic exercise as you wait for a breath after a good push off from the wall. The ability to control your breath will be of use on the occasions when perhaps turning at a crowded buoy you don’t get that window of opportunity to take your normal breath due to congestion, rough water or another swimmer drafting on your less dominant breathing side.
A complete how-to guide on flip turns would take hundreds of pictures and diagrams, so instead I will outline some key points to focus on and mistakes to avoid. A swim coach will quickly be able to take you through the finer points. An idea I use to initially connect the concept of swimming and then performing the “forward roll” (yes pretty much just how we did it in school gym class) is to swim freestyle down the lane and perform a roll or somersault in the water every 10 strokes. Think about combining the momentum of the last stroke in order to initiate the roll. Think about how that last stroke brings your chin down onto your chest into a tucked position. Perform the roll fully so you are facing the wall you are swimming toward, and continue with another 10 strokes before you roll again.
As you approach each roll, take your head quickly down with the last stroke to help raise the hips. A lift of the head during the final approach (which many swimmers do thinking it will help create momentum) will actually just sink your legs. A balanced roll with even momentum will have you face the wall you are swimming toward. Keep practicing this aspect until you are continually facing the right way. When you progress this into the wall you will not roll so much and by the time your feet land you will be facing up, performing what is basically three-fourths of a somersault. A nose-clip or a controlled nasal exhalation will be necessary. Both hands will find their way to the side of the body as you roll over and place your feet onto the wall. A small flick of the hands in a downward motion helps the body’s momentum. The hands then remain where they are so they are ready in the streamline position to push off the wall.
The below video offers a good example of this process. Notice how the swimmer keeps his head down and his hands move back so he is already in a nice streamline position as he pushes off of the wall:
The streamlined position involves pushing off from the wall with the arms outstretched. Ideally with one hand on top of the other, upper arms tight against the ears, legs together and toes pointed straight back away from the body. They should not be pointing to the bottom of the pool. A good streamline will reduce drag and maximize the speed gained from the powerful leg push off the wall. This will be the fastest speed you attain during the length of the pool (aside from a dive) so it’s best to try and maintain it for as long as you can before you slow when you start to swim.
Many swimmers partially push off on one side, but to make life easier until you perfect your own style you can just roll straight over and push off on your back. The twisting onto your front can then take place during the push and glide making the movement easier to perfect.
The longer you take to somersault over, the more likely you are to sink lower in the water. As a result of this, when your legs finally get over they will be pushing from quite a deep position and you will likely need to come straight up for air, ruining the streamlined glide. Eventually you will want to push with your feet planted on the wall quite high up in order to help develop a shallow push and glide.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Avoid landing on the wall with the feet tight together. This creates a weak foundation from which to generate power.
- Don’t miss out on the free speed off the wall by rushing into your stroke too soon.
- As you land your feet, ideally your knees will be at a 90-degree angle. Less than 90 degrees leaves you too compact which will lengthen the time you spend in the turn.
- Be close enough to the wall so that when you land there is some bend at the knee. There will be no stored energy returned from a straight leg push off.
- Land the feet too deep on the wall or too near the surface and you will struggle to push off horizontally under the water.
- Go with the simpler “forward roll” style, which will leave you on your back, face up and ready to push off and twist during the push and glide. Adding the twist earlier in the turn (i.e. a straighter-legged pike) complicates things.
- Avoid lifting the head as the turn starts thinking that it will initiate the roll faster. All this does is sink the legs and slow the start of the turn.
- Try to breathe on your last stroke into the wall, otherwise due to a lack of air the push and glide off the wall will be compromised.
- The more speed you have heading into the wall, the easier the turn becomes to perform. It really is one of those leap of faith moments. The slower you approach, the harder it is generate the forces need to facilitate a good rotation.
- Remember your nose clip for those upside down moments, or learn how to exhale out of your nose during the turn.
Slowly introduce the flip turn into your training. Preferably in a quiet, empty lane attempting clockwise and anticlockwise swim lengths before you demo it to your teammates during a workout. The basics will come quickly, so work on perfecting those before you add the stress of performing it while in a busy lane. Take time with the process, and then enjoy the free speed and increased efficiency that proper flip turning can bring to your workouts.