Freestyle Swimming Core Strength: Timing, Rhythm, and Momentum

SSS freestyle catch

SSS freestyle catchIn her book Swim Speed Workouts, 4-time Olympian Sheila Taormina describes a key concept for developing your fastest freestyle, the Serape Core Drive. Here’s Part II of an overview of serape swimming, which is explained fully Swim Speed Workouts, a swim training program that develops the world’s fastest freestyle swimming technique. Part I of this series introduced the Serape Core Drive.


Many swimmers think low stroke count is the only key to speed, and they’ve sacrificed every natural instinct of athleticism to reach an all-time low count. They hold their extended hand/arm in front of their head, envisioning a “gliding” effect, to achieve low stroke count. Yet, many swimmers in this group remain mystified as to why their times don’t improve after years of working at lowering stroke count.

The reason is a lack of tempo (the rate side of the swimming equation, # Strokes × Rate = Time), and this is directly related to rhythm, timing, and fluidity of forward momentum.

Tempo (rate) is as important as stroke count. A swimmer must strive to lower either of the two numbers without adversely affecting the over-all equation. Optimizing the equation can be complicated with freestyle because our pulling arms move asynchronously. While one arm presses back on the water, the other arm recovers forward over the water. (For more in the Swimming Equation, read Swim Speed Secrets.)

But even though the arms move asynchronously during the freestyle stroke, particular muscles show up in both arm extension and core drive. Everything is connected; what may appear to be unrelated independent movements (each arm spinning freely on its own) is actually a coordinated, connected motion.

The serape movement is central to this connected motion. To feel the coordination and connection in your stroke you must be patient during the catch. A swimmer who rushes the catch, hastily pulling the hand back, lacks not only a feel for the water but also loses the opportunity to load the core with athletic tension. A swimmer who works through the details of the catch gains traction on the water and allows the core the moment to extend on the serape plane to load tension.

Stroke timing can be thought of in two ways. (For more, please see Swim Speed Workouts.)

Where does kicking fit in?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is true for swimming; a swimmer who doesn’t kick won’t pull as strongly under water because they aren’t anchoring their pull. A leg kicking against the water provides the leverage and stability that the core, shoulders, and arms need to pull more effectively. This is why all swimmers must kick, even triathletes. To neglect your kick is to leave a lot of speed in the water—and lose out on another way to build fitness, strength, and flexibility in your legs that can pay dividends for cycling and running.

Where Kicking Meets Breathing

Concentrating on my breathing during yoga class brought about the greatest benefit to my athletic performance. Under pressure, especially when my body was in a spinal twist, my diaphragm had to strengthen to breathe against the pressure and tightness. [Yoga helped my] diaphragm become very strong, giving me the ability during a race or training session to powerfully take in air volume.

The diaphragm also shares attachment areas with the psoas, [a crucial muscle group of the core drive]. Thus, this area has been called the part of the body “where walking meets breathing.” As a swimmer I’d rephrase that as “where kicking meets breathing.” So don’t dread the kicking sets on the workout cards. Instead, breathe strong and notice how the kick is connected to your breath.

VIDEO: See two drills from Swim Speed Workouts that help develop serape swimming:

Sheila Taormina’s Swim Speed Series reveals the world’s fastest way to swim.