There are two ways to try to swim faster. One is what I call the “Limbs, Lungs, and Muscles” approach. Move your limbs as fast as you can. Put more muscle into your stroke. Hope that your fitness will outlast failing muscles and that you can ‘push through pain barriers’ as coaches often say. For most this is a path to failure and frustration.
Total Immersion teaches a second way—speed as a problem-solving exercise. The fact that you’re solving the most exacting problems in swimming can also transform this into a Mastery pursuit. The TI way to swim faster is based on three well-proven principles. There not really ‘secrets.’ I only call them that because so few people take advantage of them.
1. Start with Stroke Length. The foundation for fast swimming is Stroke Length. For over 60 years, every authoritative study of factors that correlate with speed found that longer strokes matter most. This has proven true in all strokes and all ages—from 10 and under to 80 and up!
How far should you travel? For freestyle, from 55% to 65% or more of your height. We’ve converted that into Strokes Per Length (SPL), recorded on our Green Zone charts of height-indexed efficient stroke counts in any standard distance pool, available as a free download here.
When stroking at the lowest SPL for your height, your hand leaves the water–at the end of the stroke–pretty close to where it entered. In other words, most of your energy is converted into forward motion. When your stroke count is above the highest in your Green Zone, too much of your energy is moving water back.
Once you can swim your Green Zone counts with ease and consistency, strive to patiently increase the distance and/or speed at which you can maintain those counts. If you’ve been swimming at higher counts, try this simple exercise: Compare the speed of your arm moving back with the speed of your body moving forward. Slow your stroke until they match.
2. Train your Nervous–not Aerobic–System.
In 2005, just before I turned 55, I set several goals that were far more ambitious than any I’d contemplated before. I asked Jonty Skinner, Director of Performance Science for USA Swimming’s Olympic program, for training advice. Jonty said: “It’s neural conditioning, not aerobic conditioning, that wins races.”
Jonty meant that swimmers who trained to maintain a long stroke as they swam farther and faster would be much more successful those who simply focused on swimming longer or harder. Rather than train for the capacity to work harder, focus on creating and encoding the highest quality muscle memories—to make it easier to maintain longer strokes at faster rates. Not only will it require less oxygen to swim any pace, but cardiovascular conditioning still ‘happens.’ Only it’s now specific to the stroke length and rate to which your nervous system is highly adapted—rather than to non-specific hard efforts.
3. Master the ‘Swimming Success Algorithm’
The term algorithm was coined in mathematics over 1000 years ago and has become widely familiar in the last 20 years due to its use in computer science. Its use in modern technology suggests something complicated, but it’s definition is pretty simple: An algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”
A recurrent—indeed nearly universal—problem in swimming is how to swim the fastest of which you are physically capable. The overwhelming majority of swimmers fall far short of their true potential (I was a prime example in high school and college) because they choose ineffective means to solve the problem—stroke faster and swim harder. This is what I did in high school and college. It led to frustration and a feeling I lacked the ‘right stuff’ to swim fast, whatever that might be.
Stroking faster isn’t so much a choice as a primal instinct, which is why so many do it. Fortunately there is a solution for this problem that is so foolproof, I call it the Algorithm for Swimming Success. It comes from 40 years of data collected by USA Swimming on their very best swimmers.
Since 1976, USA-Swimming has assigned staffers to sit in the stands and record the stroke count and stroke rate of every swimmer, in every heat, of every event at Olympic Trials—the most competitive meet in the US, and sometimes the world. Every swimmer at this meet is hightly talented and supremely fit, but in each event only two competitors—of 60 to 70 entrants–will come away with the most precious prize of a slot on the Olympic Team.
USA Swimming collected this data to learn if there was some stroking or pacing pattern which maximizes a swimmer’s chances of being among the fortunate few.
After 40 years, the data shows most clearly that a rare and completely counterintuitive skill is the key to success in swimming. That skill is the ability to maintain Stroke Length while increasing Stroke Rate.
Why counterintuitive? Well what does everyone do naturally when trying to swim faster? Work harder and stroke faster—while ignoring Stroke Length! No wonder this virtually always leads to failure and frustration: They have it exactly backwards!
With this information, you can ensure that your efforts to swim faster will have a vastly greater chance of success. To do this, plan sets which:
- Reveal your current ability to maintain one stroke count (say 18 SPL), while increasing Tempo.
- Make a tiny increase in tempo (as little as a hundredth of a second) and count strokes. If your SPL holds, increase tempo and count strokes again.
- Continue until your SPL increases.
When your SPL increases, you’ve discovered your current level of Conscious Incompetence at this combination of SPL and Tempo. Work at this level until you can easily and consistently swim this Tempo+SPL combo. Then raise tempo again until you find the tempo at which it’s a struggle to maintain your SPL.
Learn to swim with greater ease and speed in your Green Zone with our downloadable Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Complete Self-Coaching Toolkit.
Want to master the Swimming Success Algorithm? A Tempo Trainer is the essential tool.
May your laps be as happy as mine.