How to Not Slow Down
The most dramatic and memorable race at the 2008 Olympics was the final leg of the Mens’ 4 x 100 Free relay between Jason Lezak of the U.S. and Alain Barnard of France. Barnard held the 100-meter world record. Three days later he would win Olympic gold in the 100 meters.
Barnard began the final 100 with a body-length lead and increased it to .82 seconds when he swam the first 50 in 21.27 seconds – a hundredth of a second faster than the world record for 50 meters. Barnard was clearly not suffering from an inability to Go Fast. But he was about to experience the highest-profile Slowing Down problem in swimming history, with its consequences witnessed by a global audience in the hundreds of millions and likely to be talked about for decades.
Make up more than eight-tenths of a second? In 50 meters? Against the world record holder? Improbable, but Lezak somehow closed the gap, reaching the wall a fingernail ahead (and kept alive Michael Phelps’s shot at 8 gold medals.)
Describing Lezak’s swim as herculean barely does it justice, but there’s another description that can help the rest of us ‘crack the code’ of our own speed potential. That description is mathematical. The most revealing way to understand a swim of any speed or pace is via the math of Stroke Length and Stroke Rate.
All of us saw Lezak creeping up on Barnard, but few of us understood how. Even Lezak said afterward "I don't know how I was able to take it back that fast.” But the Math of Speed offers a very simple and clear explanation.
The Math of Speed is based on this equation: V = SL x SR. Velocity equals Stroke Length – how far you travel on each stroke – multiplied by Stroke Rate – how fast or frequently you take them. This equation represents the only path to greater speed that offers absolute predictability. When you work the math effectively, your speed is guaranteed. Any other way of trying to swim fast is just guesswork.
Just as elites can offer us valuable insights by showing us that disappointing results are virtually always due to a Slowing Down problem, they point us toward the best solution when we analyze how they slow down.
V = SL x SR is similar to a more familiar equation V = L x W. The Volume of a square equals Length times Width. Without both Length and Width, all you have is a line. Without Length and Rate, no speed. If one increases and the other decreases similarly, speed is unchanged. If one increases and the other decreases more, you go slower. Those patterns determine winners and losers in swim races.
Elite swimmers (like everyone else) stroke faster in the latter stages of the race. Some of this increase in Stroke Rate is intentional but a lot just happens. As Rate increases, strokes become a little rougher, the water a bit more turbulent. Lungs burn, muscles falter, hands slip. Strokes are faster, but shorter too. Whoever does a better job of maintaining Stroke Length will win.
As Eddie Reese said, the swimmer who slows the least in the last 25 of 100-meter races will win. They do that by holding Stroke Length better than others. In the 1500 meters as well, everyone strokes faster as the finish approaches . Also-rans lose Length and either maintain the same pace or slow down. Winners pull away by holding Stroke Length better than others.
One the climactic lap of the Olympic 4 x 100, Barnard swam the final 50 meters in 25.4 seconds and 46 strokes, Lezak in 24.5 seconds and 34 strokes. Discounting pushoff here are Stroke Length (in meters per stroke) and Stroke Rate (in strokes per second) for each:
Stroke Rate Barnard 1. 8 Lezak 1.4
Stroke Length Lezak 1.5 Barnard 1.1
Barnard was stroking 24 percent faster than Lezak, but Lezak traveled 36 percent farther on each stroke. Barnard was mostly moving water around with his strokes. Lezak passed him and won the race because his strokes were moving him forward.
So the winning strategy – and the secret to speed – is unquestionably to create and maintain Stroke Length. The reason why swimming fast is so difficult is that Length is devilishly hard, while Rate is sinfully easy. Increasing Stroke Rate is a universal, emotional and almost overpowering instinct. Increasing (and maintaining) Stroke Length is an oncommon, strategic, and rational choice.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
My TI Story
Last edited by terry : 12-30-2010 at 10:09 PM.