The Power of Using Swim Cues


Posted by Coach Chris Palmquist

February is an excellent time to break through some swimming performance plateaus.  As a coach, I’ve always visualized an athlete climbing two “ladders” to become faster as a swimmer (or any sport). One is the “Fitness Ladder,” where athletes increase the frequency, volume and intensity of their training sessions to get faster through better fitness. The other path to speed is through the “Technique Ladder,” where athletes get faster by improving their propulsion and by lessening their impact of water resistance on their swim speed. Because water resistance is incredibly powerful, better technique can often be the “faster ladder” to swim improvement.                                

Last month, I again had the honor of coaching two High Performance Paratriathlon swim camps with our USA Paratriathlon National and Development Teams with three other wonderful swim coaches (Wes Johnson, Derick Williamson and Jordan Fletcher). During those 11 days of video analysis, power analysis, testing, drill sessions and challenging interval sets, several consistent swim cues rose to the surface as helpful for swimmers trying to better their technique.

photo from USA Paratriathlon


Swim cues are focusing thoughts that help a swimmer maintain or improve technique while swimming any set at any intensity.  A swimmer can use a swim cue for a set or a whole swim or several swims to work on some important aspect of their pull, kick, body balance or recovery. Our brain works best when we focus on one thing at a time (believe it or not) and therefore is it best to select one cue at a time on which to focus. The best athletes almost never swim (bike or run) without a cue in their mind and this includes racing. They are always focused on something that will improve or maintain good technique.

Here are four cues that we used often at the camp. Try them to climb your “technique ladder” more quickly in 2017.

Cue - “Laser Pointer”

One of the main causes of drag is too much head movement. This can also expose more of the swimmer’s trunk and legs to water resistance from balancing out the excessive head motions. Try using the cue “laser pointer.” Pretend you have a laser beaming forward from the top of your forehead toward the wall at the far end of your lane.  As you swim and breathe, try to keep your laser pointed at the same spot on the wall (don’t “shine” it up at the ceiling and all around the room). 

Cue – “Finishing Push”

The most powerful part of your stroke is the last half. This is more of a push then a pull as it seems like you are moving water from under your shoulders to your thigh (actually, you are moving your body past your hand – but that is another cue!).  A fast swimmer will make sure to keep the wide palm of their hand facing their feet to keep their “catch” on the water and they will finish this part of their stroke strongly. Slower swimmers often release their hold on the water by turning their hand sideways to avoid or shorten the finish.

Cue – “Core”

Strong swimmers initiate the stroke, the recovery and their kick from their core.  Slower swimmers attempt to stroke from their shoulders and arms and kick from their knees.  One of my former swim coaches would ask us to swim with a “fire in our belly.” Use that cue or just plain “core” and make sure that your lats, hips, glutes and abs are all very involved in your swimming.

Cue (Coach Jordan) – “Swimming with Ovals”

Fast swimmers pull with a bent elbow that is always higher than their wrists – which are higher than their fingers. If you were to look at an underwater video of them swimming, you would notice that at least underwater, the track of their hands traces a more oval shape (green) than circular. This ultimately means that they are propelling their bodies through the water for much longer part of their stroke. Conversely, a swimmer with a straight arm pull (red) traces a more circular path through the water. For much of their pull, they are pushing either down on the water or up on the water rather than propelling themselves forward. Swimming with ovals is a cue that helps swimmers to smooth out unnecessary motions in their pull and to push water more for longer in the correct direction.

Green oval represents proper underwater pull path. Green line represents how long this swimmer’s pull is effective at forward propulsion. Red represents straight arm pull and much shorter effective movement.


Try these cues on your next swim and climb the rungs of the Technique Ladder to new levels of performance!


Coach Chris Palmquist is a USAT Level III and Youth/Junior Coach, USAC Level I Coach and a F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter with 18 years of coaching experience and has coached athletes to success at the regional, national and world level. Chris has coached elite athletes at ITU World Paratriathlon Events and High Performance Camps at Olympic Training Centers. In 2016 she was a Team USA Paratriathlon Paralympic Coach at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games as well as Head Coach for the National Champion MMTT Youth Triathlon Team, and in 2017 she is a USA Paratriathlon National Team and Development Team Coach. Chris coaches training camps for USAT Juniors, Challenged Athletes Foundation and Dare2Tri. As an athlete, she has numerous top finishes in many sports including triathlon, collegiate rowing, canoe/kayak, cross country skiing, speed skating and road bike racing. Her coaching philosophy is based on trust, communication, balance, achieving top potential and the joy of training and racing. Chris is married with two children. She can be reached at

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