Off the Wall

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For some people, swimming laps is just controlled drowning. The water saps their strength so badly they can’t get to the side soon enough. These are swimmers who shouldn’t bother trying to pull off a Michael Phelps-style flip turn. But if you can maintain a decent pace and find a comfortable rhythm in your breathing, then learning how to flip turn can help bring your pool-based conditioning to the next level.

Swimming in a pool without doing a flip turn is kind of like driving around the block without making a right-hand turn. Every 60 seconds, you have to break your rhythm and perform an awkward three-point move before starting out again. Being able to smoothly transition to the next lap enables you to maintain exertion throughout the workout — and will cut your times. Here are the basics of the flip turn.

“We call it ‘line-ball-line,’” says Michael Collins, the head coach at Nova Masters Swimming in Orange County, Calif., and the 2002 World Aquathlon amateur champion. “Coming into the wall, you want to look like a straight line. When you flip, you have to turn into a ball so you spin fast. Then when you push off, you have to go back into a straight line.” Collins suggests spending a few minutes during each session working on the mechanics of the flip turn by starting 10 yards out from the wall and repeating the turn. During the actual workout, attempt the turn every other time you reach the wall. During long sets (20 laps), you can do them less frequently, but in short 50-yard sprints (two laps), you should do a flip turn every time.

The Approach: Collins recommends taking your last stroke just as your face passes the ‘T’ on the bottom of the pool. That will also keep your eyes on the bottom of the pool and not on the wall. One of the biggest mistakes a swimmer makes is to look forward while coming to the wall, which can begin a cascade of bad mechanics that kills momentum. “When the head lifts, the back arches and the butt sinks, so the swimmer decelerates as he gets closer to the wall. And you need momentum to make the turn,” Collins says. “It’s like throwing a tennis ball against a wall. You throw it hard and it bounces off and goes straight. If you lob it real slow, it hits and then drops. That’s what people do when they flip.”

The Turn: To initiate the turn, keep your arms at your sides, tuck your head into your chest and round your back. Bring your heels to your butt and knees to your chest and do a somersault in the water. Your feet should come straight over the top and stay close to the surface of the water. Remember, you are on your stomach when you start the flip and on your back when your feet hit the wall. That means you have to turn back over onto your stomach after executing the flip. “Right when the feet touch the wall, the body turns sideways to either 10:00 or 2:00. It doesn’t matter which way. Some people like to have their left side down toward the bottom of the pool. Other people want their right side down,” Collins says. “Once you push off on either side a few times, it is pretty apparent that one side feels better than the other.”

The Breakout: Push off the wall in a straight line with your arms extended in front of you, biceps by your ears, butt tight and toes pointed. Initiate the kick before you start pulling with your arms. And then Collins advises pulling with the lower arm first. “If you’re on your right side, then the right arm — the one closer to the bottom of the pool — should pull first,” Collins says. “Most people pull with the arm that’s closer to the surface, but that just pulls water that is already moving toward the wall, so you get nothing out of that first pull.”