What’s the Difference Between Streamlining and Gliding?

Swim Speed Secrets straight-arm underwater pull

A reader Larry has asked this insightful question: “If I am reading your book right, you seem to think the idea of streamlining is something that has somehow been misinterpreted by the masses. I have not finished the book Total Immersion, but so far it seems to emphasize glide. Is this just a matter of semantics or do you disagree with that approach?”

Before we answer, there is a semantic difference in how Larry has asked his question. In Swim Speed Secrets, Sheila says a swimmer is gliding when he holds his arms out in front of his body in an attempt to increase his distance per stroke or, put another way, reduce his number of strokes per pool length. Sheila describes “streamlining” as being a desirable way of pushing off the wall after a turn. (Watch Sheila demonstrate good streamlining in this video.)

[RELATED: When does freestyle arm extension become gliding?]

But Swim Speed Secrets fully answers this question in detail in Chapter 2: The Big Picture — Understanding the Swimming Equation. In this chapter, Sheila explains how swimmers need to consider not just the number of strokes they take, but also their rate of stroke turnover.


An elite swimmer's freestyle catch in Swim Speed Secrets by Sheila Taormina

From the book: “A weekend swimming clinic is coming to town. It is marketed as holding the key to unleashing your swimming potential. At the clinic, swimmers are told that taking fewer strokes is better. The focus is entirely on reducing the number of strokes to get across the pool. From the swimming equation, we know that this is a good thing. However, at this clinic, swimmers are not told about the rate part of the equation.

All weekend, the participants are in the water — reaching, extending, and gliding out front. They look beautiful and smooth.

The athletes get excited about having reduced their number of strokes from 10 down to 8. They probably raised their hands to tell the coach the good news, and the coach probably high-fived them. But, here is the problem: the coach never told them about rate. No one timed their turnover. Now, instead of taking 1 second per stroke, the swimmers are taking 1.5 seconds per stroke, because they are gliding out front so long on every stroke.”

Sheila then uses basic math and a simple equation to show that swimmers who take fewer strokes at slower rates will swim slower, not faster. It looks like this:

(10 strokes per length of the pool) x (1 second/stroke) = 10 seconds to swim a length
(8 strokes per length) x (1.5 seconds/stroke) = 12 seconds to swim a length

That’s 20% slower!

Swim Speed Secrets straight-arm underwater pull
This is Sheila’s friend Jim. They have the same stroke count per length, but Jim is 19 seconds slower per 100. Why? His body position, head position, hip rotation are good, but he glides and pulls with a straight arm.

Or, as Sheila says in the book:

“Yikes! They became slower. They left the clinic thinking they had become faster, but the opposite was true. And the reason they got slower was that they were taught only half the equation and led to believe they could improve their swimming by focusing only on reducing the number of their strokes.

They may not realize this for a while. In fact, many of them may never quite understand, instead always wondering why they did wrong.”


“The bottom line is that you cannot improve the number of strokes side of the equation by gliding out front. That is not what competitive swimmers do to improve their swim times.

That said, gliding does serve one particular group of swimmers quite well. It serves the swimmer who would like to enjoy the sport simply for exercise or is learning to swim simply to survive through a triathlon or, as a friend of mine once put it, in case your boat sinks.”


“However, if you are a swimmer who wants to be competitive, then you have to hang with me for awhile longer to find out how to reduce the number of strokes you take without adversely affecting your rate.”

Sheila’s approach in Swim Speed Secrets addresses both sides of the swimming equation.

In her book Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes, 4-time Olympian, gold medalist, and triathlon world champion Sheila Taormina reveals the swim technique used by the world’s fastest swimmers.