The Importance of Flip Turns

There are a few endurance sports related websites that I haunt from time to time. In the various discussions there are a few topics that show up on a regular basis. Flipturns are one of them. It usually starts with someone asking about tips to learn or improve their turn. The general response from the hoards are”why bother? You don’t have to do flip turns in open water so it really doesn’t matter”. There will be a few experienced swimmers in the mix who try and stress the importance, but trying to educate an uniformed and unwilling mob is a losing battle. There is one thing that I have learned about flipturns over the years, and that is this: If you can you will; if you can’t you will make excuses. I’ve never met a swimmer who can do an effective turn and chooses not to. Good swimmers use a flipturn. This isn’t some groundbreaking revelation. I would bet that every single person on this planet who finishes an Ironman swim in 55 minutes or better does flipturns in training. 

So why is it met with such resistance? Beats me. The good cyclists all know how to ride in a pace line. No one says “don’t learn how to ride in a group because you don’t draft in a triathlon”. Riding in a group teaches handling skills, pace, and often can push you beyond what you would normally do by yourself in an effort to keep up with those faster. While the skill set learned by doing a flipturn varies a great deal from that of riding in a paceline, the indirect benefits of learning to flip are just as important. So let your guard down for a minute and let’s go over a few perks that come with an effective flipturn.

1. Uninterrupted swimming. I figure I would start with the most obvious benefit. For those who swim in an 25 yard pool (most of us) and do an open turn (meaning you put your hand on the wall to turn around), you are interrupting the pace and rhythm of your swim at least a couple times a minute. Better swimmers who have dialed in the open turn a little are also getting a little extra rest and an added breath.  Hey, wait a minute…you don’t get to grab a wall and take an extra breath every 25 yards in an open water swim! Why the heck are you doing it then? Because it’s easier.

Quick side story. Every year I do a swim clinic for a local sprint race here where I live for first timers or those unsure about open water swimming. We go through a number of things regarding anxiety, sighting positioning, etc. When it’s time to swim, without fail I have a few people who swim 30 to 40 yards, roll over on their back and paddle to the shore (see where this is going?). They almost always get out and tell me how they regularly swim lap after lap in the pool without a problem and they can’t figure out what happened. I will tell you that there are a number of things that go wrong in the first minute of a lake swim, but the lack of a wall to grab to get an extra breath is a large contributor to their problems.

By doing an effective turn, you eliminate breaktime every 25 and create a more continuous workout. It’s going to make you tired faster, but it will also make you faster faster.

2. Breath control. I don’t want to turn this into a long winded (get it? man I crack myself up) discussion on hypoxic training, but I will say this. Trying to simulate altitude training simply by holding your breath is ridiculous, but in swimming there is still a need (and some benefits and adaptations) to learn how to control your breathing while you swim. Swimming is one of the only sports that you don’t have free access to oxygen at all times. Because of this, you need to be able to manage and time your breathing to match your effort. Flip turns are a great way to get better at all of this. If you do, say, a race pace 500 in a workout you will notice that towards the end of the 500 that you have more and more trouble finishing your turns as the need for oxygen becomes overwhelming. Yet over time, your body will adapt by increasing lung capacity, alveolar number and pulmonary diffusing capacity making those turns easier. The nice carryover that you get is that you can manage your breathing in-between turns better because of this. So that desperate gasp for air late in a hard swim becomes lessened. Now apply this to open water. At the start, we have all been or will be hit, kicked or run over at that start and thereby disrupting our breathing. Same goes for wavy or rough conditions. Your ability to adapt easily and not get panicked or out of breath will allow you to maintain form and speed, even you missed some air.

3. Better Technique. In the swimming world, it’s referred to as “feel for the water”. I would also call it better awareness in the water. As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, very small adjustments in swimming can lead to very large improvements. I mostly discuss the larger aspects of swimming here so as not to muddy the waters (get it? man I’m on a roll here. tip your waitress), but there are lots of smaller items that add up as well. Did you know some of the best swimmers glide with their hand at a 25 degree angle and not flat? You get the idea. So with flip turns, the motion of your hands, arms, head, torso, legs, etc will all effect what happens as you turn. Learning that awareness, and applying it to the rest of your swimming will give you tools you didn’t have before in your attempt to get better. The little things add up.

4. Pool Swim Triathlons – Obvious, but worth mentioning. As you can see in this clip of me flipping under a lane rope, if you can swim a snake in a pool and use turns, you can make some serious time on your competition.

5. And of course …Street Cred: Let’s face facts, if you are doing flip turns in your workout, your street cred goes up. You look like you know what you are doing. We’ve all seen (or in my case been) the guy who wore tennis shoes and a tshirt to his first club bike ride. Not a thing wrong with it, but you knew right away that this guy was new to the sport. Compare that to the day you saw the tshirt guy show up on a new rig and had cycling shoes and cycling clothes. Looked like he knew what the heck he was doing didn’t he?

There are other perks to learning how to do a flipturn, but really now, if you aren’t interested in seeing the light then there aren’t any examples I could give that are going to change your mind. And that’s ok. I am quite aware that there are many out there that deep down aren’t that interested in getting much better at swimming, which is perfectly fine. Sports are about having fun, not torture. Get out there and enjoy yourself. Plus, the less you want to do flipturns, the further down the road I will be before you climb out of the water. And I have no problem with that at all.

Happy flipping.

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  • I can’t stress enough how true #2 is.

    In my first open water swim, I wasn’t expecting how difficult the waves made breathing, forcing me sometimes to miss a breath or taking in a mouthful of water instead.

    Breathing sets and managing your breathing on turns proved invaluable!

  • I know this is a little old but I just stumbled across it. Very good read and more importantly very convincing. I can do flip turns just fine (mechanically) but I am always gasping for air so I pretty much never do them.
    You convinced me, so I’m doing them from now on no matter what it takes. 🙂

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