The Physics of Swimming: How Water Resistance Impacts Performance

physics of swimming

Anyone who says swimming isn’t a complex sport has never swam competitively. Competitive swimming requires the perfect combination and balance of strength, speed, and endurance. It also includes an often overlooked factor – physics. The physics of swimming can significantly impact a swimmer’s performance and their swim times. By understanding how water resistance works, you can start to improve your meet times and conquer the physics of swimming. 

Understanding How Water Resistance Impacts Swim Performance 

As a general definition, water resistance is the force that opposes the movement of an object through the water. This resistance is caused by several factors, including: 

  • Viscosity of the water
  • Shape of the object in the water
  • The speed at which the object is moving

Specifically for swimmers, water resistance is the number one obstacle they must overcome to move through the water efficiently.

In regards to the physics of swimming, there are two types of water resistance that swimmers face: drag and friction. Drag is the force that fights the forward motion of a swimmer through the water. Friction is the force that opposes a swimmer’s movement along the surface of the water. Not surprisingly, both drag and friction can have a significant impact on a swimmer’s overall performance.

The Physics of Swimming: Overcoming Drag

As a swimmer, your goal is to continually tweak your swimming technique to reduce drag in the water. Minimizing this resistance can improve your performance and drop your swim times. 

Here are some strategies and techniques to overcome drag:

  • Body position: Keeping your body aligned and streamlined is essential for reducing drag. When swimming competitively, your head should be down, your core should be engaged, and your body extended in a straight line. Do your best to keep your hips and knees from sagging, as this will increase drag. 
  • Swim technique: It should be obvious, but proper swimming technique is essential for reducing drag. Use your arms and legs efficiently with every stroke to ensure you’re not creating any unnecessary drag.
  • Swimsuit: Believe it or not, a tight, well-fitting swimsuit can help to reduce drag in the water. Look for a swimsuit made of a smooth, low-drag material that isn’t loose in any places that will slow you down.
  • Goggles: Low-profile goggles can also help reduce drag by limiting the surface area on your face that could be exposed to the water.
  • Shaving: Many competitive swimmers opt to shave their bodies. Shaving can help reduce drag by reducing the amount of hair exposed to the water while swimming.

By streamlining your technique, keeping your head still, and pointing your toes, you can become a more efficient and faster swimmer. 

The Physics of Swimming: Overcoming Friction

Some of the most obvious ways to reduce friction are the same as the ways to avoid drag, making it easier for swimmers to focus on dropping their swim times. If you have already shaved your body and bought a better-fitting swimsuit to reduce drag and overcome friction, there are still a few other things to consider trying: 

  • Wear a swim cap: A swim cap can help reduce drag by streamlining your body and reducing the amount of surface area exposed to the water.
  • Use a swim cream: Swim creams are a useful tool to help reduce friction by making your skin slick in the water. However, it is important to note that some swim creams are not allowed in competition settings, so be sure to check the rules before using one.
  • Shower before swimming: If swim cream is not allowed, consider showering before a meet, as this will help to remove any dirt or oils from your skin that could cause friction.

While not all of these options will directly impact your performance, when used together, you could notice an improvement in your overall swim performance over time. 

Experimenting with different swim techniques and strategies is always best to see what works for you. Every swimmer is different and every pool is different, so give it time and see how focusing on the physics of swimming can help improve your swim times. 

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