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Freestyle - Head Play

Posted by Glenn Mills on Mar 14, 2008 08:03AM

Eyes up... or eyes down?  The best position depends more on what kind of swimming you do than on the current trend.  Here's a drill that will help you experiment and decide for yourself which head/eye position is best for you.

Add to Cart View Cart - Pick up Sara McLarty's Triathlon Skills DVD to learn great head position for sighting.

For years, all of us were taught that the correct head position for swimming was with the waterline at the middle of the forehead -- just above the eyebrows.

Then, we were told (and taught), to look directly DOWN at the bottom of the pool, and to position the head so that water would just scrape or wash over the back of the head.

Rather than advocate for one head position over another, we recommend -- as always -- that you experiement with several head positions and find the one that works best for you, and helps you reach your goals.

If you're an open-water swimmer or triathlete, for example, you may need to work on BOTH positions: eyes down for certain parts of your races... and eyes up when you need to sight or when you're in heavy chop.

In watching video of many elite swimmers, we notice that the head position is often somewhere in between the two extremes of eyes up and eyes down. The point is that you need to find what's best for your type of swimming.

Why Do It:
Finding out which head position serves you the best will allow you to perform more of your training in a style that best suits your competitive needs. While one way may offer you more velocity, another way may give you a straighter, more direct line of travel, which will shorten the overall distance. Besides, swimming like this is more interesting and safer in Masters practice.

How to Do It:
1. While there can literally be MANY variations in your head position, we'll only focus on three, which will be a very wide range. Within those three, you can add, adjust, and manipulate them until you feel comfortable.

2. Head Down. We'll start with the easiest, and more widely accepted (but most often overdone) head position. Simply keep your eyes looking directly underneath you as you swim. While this position affords almost NO neck strain, some people push their head in SO far that they burrow through the water. Be careful to pay attention that you're not tucking your chin, but rather, just looking down. This position (when done right) benefits those swimming leisurely for a long time.

3. Head @ 30°. Is it really 30 degrees? I dunno... but it's not quite 45°, so I called it 30. Basically, look forward a bit in front of you as you swim. This allows you to see what's coming, gets part of your head above the waterline, and still doesn't restrict you so much as you roll to breathe. This is a nice sprinter type of head position.

4. Head Up. This allows you to site while you swim. This isn't "sight breathing" but, rather, just putting your goggles at the surface of the water and swimming. You'll still breathe to the side, but this is for those in-between-sighting sights. It doesn't cause as much strain in your neck, and you can see where you're going more frequently.

How to Do It Really Well (the Fine Points):
Alternate each of the three positions throughout practice. Swim a few lengths one way, then switch to something else. By starting with the widest ranges, and then slowly figuring out how little you have to actually change the position of your head to accomplish all, you'll build a stroke with many options, without falling apart when you switch from one to the other.

While one head position can offer you relaxed comfort, the position on the other side of the spectrum can offer you safety. Determining which, when, and how much of each you'll use will be determined by the situation, and your ability to feel comfortable in ANY position.

Archived Comments

Responded Mar 14, 2008 04:05PM

Great drill!!! It is funny because I have one coach who encourages me to continue to look down when I swim (that is what I was doing naturally) and another coach who says that I need to do the 30 degree position because I am ducking and increasing drag. I have noticed already that one is better for longer distances and the 30 position is better for faster swimming and now the 30 degree position has become more natural.

Responded Mar 15, 2008 09:14AM

Speaking (wisely?) from experience:

With your head in the balance neutral position (Head Down) beware of false positives...

There's lots of talk (on various sites) about having a balanced body and the sensation of swimming downhill, both of which can be "easily"(?) achieved by the head down position. But as Glenn says - beware of burrowing. A while back I went through (must be at least a year-or-so) swimming on my own by bending my neck and getting my head lower in the water and I had a hugely exagerated feeling of swimming "downhill". And whilst my body was definitely more balanced than most of my peers, a lot of the benefits were lost because of this exagerated neck bending, things like a bigger frontal resistance profile, larger body roll to get to the air, and "fishtailing" when breathing (becaue of where my head started from).

All of this because I was conning myself brain into thinking I was better streamlined with a neutral head position, because of the false positive of pushing just my head down and believing the sensation/feedback I got back. Swimming's a whole body (and mind) experience - you've got to go holistic (and don't just get carried away by one sensation).

Edited Mar 16, 2008 04:55AM
Responded Mar 16, 2008 03:39AM

For years I swam with my eyes looking completely down...but instinctively I tended to look forward a little bit and the reason was that with the first position my feet ended almost out of the water. Now I swim with a 15 degree or so angle and I get a much better kick and position of my body in the water.

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