Rock n’ Roll? First Roll, Then Rock! (Your Triathlon Swim, that is)

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Okay, I admit it, the title is really corny.  But it amused me and it got you to check to see what this post is about.  So then, what is it about?  Body roll.

Let me explain what I mean by body roll.  When you take a stroke in freestyle, as your hand recovers (the portion of your arm cycle conducted above the water, that returns the hand to the front of the stroke), the related shoulder should drop down, allowing a greater reach.  Meanwhile, the opposing shoulder should raise up as that arm completes the stroke and begins its recovery.  This will rotate, or roll, your body to face out toward the side, rather than straight down toward the bottom. Please note that while this only ‘forces’ the upper torso area to rotate, proper technique calls for you to maintain a generally straight body, so you should rotate through your hips and legs as well.

Many of us were taught freestyle or the front crawl as being performed with our body facing toward the bottom.  Today, a more apt perspective is the stroke being performed rotated toward your side, alternating back and forth to each side, in time with the arm cycle.  Notice that I haven’t brought up breathing.  In this specific area of the stroke technique, breathing is not material.  Your body should rotate to each side equally, regardless of breathing.  The correct amount of rotation is fairly common to our breathing side, as we utilize the rotation to make it easier to rotate our face out of the water for that breath.  The non-breathing side, however, does not provide such an incentive for proper rotation. Over the past several weeks, I have seen a very large number of people making the same error; a dramatic under-rotation to the non-breathing side.

Under-rotation in your freestyle will cause or contribute to a number of problems in the effectiveness in your stroke.  First, it will significantly limit the forward reach of your stroke, thereby shortening by an equal amount the length of each arm pull.  Second, it makes a full extension and completion of your stroke on the other side of your body far more difficult.  Third, it prevents a high arm recovery, as our shoulders simply don’t (generally) move that far behind the plane of our body.  In open water, an excessively low arm recovery sets you up for catching your arm on an errant wave, which can disrupt a stroke pattern and cause rapid muscle fatigue.

Alternatively, if you do focus on getting a good rotation in your torso, particularly to your non-breathing side, you will find that it is far easier to avoid these errors.  A note about the third issue I mentioned above – by rotating your torso, you do not need to attempt to elevate your arm behind the plane of your back in order to clear the water on recovery, as the natural angle of your trunk will provide plenty of incline for your recovering arm.  This takes a substantial amount of pressure off of your shoulder, and will save you a significant amount of energy.  And with a bike and a run coming up, I suggest you use no more energy than required for your swim.

So, now that you’re really Rolling, go Rock that triathlon swim!  (Sorry, but… well, I just had to.)

David Wendkos lives in Annapolis, MD and has over 30 years of competitive swimming experience, coaching swimmers for the pool, open water, and triathlons. He can be followed on twitter at or on the web at  Email him at