I began our series on swimming principles six weeks ago. Since then, each weekly post has described the advantages of ‘principles-based’ swimming. In the words of Elon Musk–founder of Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX–the core idea of principles-based thinking is to “drill down to the foundations of a problem to view it in an entirely new way” rather than rely on conventional wisdom or prevailing paradigms.
Principles-based thinking is particularly important in swimming because conventional wisdom is based on two deeply flawed ideas:
- The fundamental actions of swimming are pulling and kicking. It’s been proven that ‘vessel-shaping’ is both more valuable and more fundamental: You should learn it first and give it more attention in nearly all circumstances . . . And remain conscious that vessel-shaping runs counter to primal instincts and most influences we encounter.
- Working harder is the solution to nearly any swimming shortcoming. In fact, our most pressing challenge is massive energy waste. The smartest and most effective solutions focus on reducing mis-spent energy . . . which is not likely to occur to the average swimmer
This post and the last are in response to a question about swimming faster– the aspect of swimming for which a principles-based approach is most urgent. This question, posted in the comments section, succinctly summarized conventional wisdom about swimming faster: If you want to go fast, be prepared to get tired. Let’s not suggest you can swim fast without breaking a sweat.
The conventional wisdom and our instincts instruct us to stroke faster to swim faster. Stroking faster makes you more tired (breaking a sweat), which leads to physical discomfort. Thus the conventional way to train for speed is to:
- Stroke faster;
- Train more and harder to increase resistance to the inevitable fatigue;
- “Push through pain barriers” – coaches’ lingo for intestinal fortitude or trying to ignore pain.
In my last post, Can You Swim Faster . . . Easier? I detailed the many ways to swim faster through subtraction—reducing energy waste and drag; minimizing wavemaking and turbulence; eliminating erratic stroke counts (and pacing.)
This post delves into how to improve speed when you’ve extracted most of the subtractive/easier gains and begin practicing skills that, yes, increase the metabolic demand of your swimming—higher stroke rate, higher heart rate, increased oxygen consumption.
The key question is: Will your speed training focus on breaking a sweat? Or will you Drill down to the foundations of faster swimming; identify the critical skills; and patiently apply yourself to mastering them.
We can find no better lens through which to view this than Katie Ledecky’s history-making performance at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia last month. She became the first swimmer ever to win the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyles at a World Championship. She also set three world records, giving her 10 in the last two years.
This prompted Outside magazine to call her “the best athlete in the world right now.” Human performance expert Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, ranked Ledecky’s combination of unprecedented range (200 to 1500) and sustained record-breaking with “the most remarkable endurance performances ever.”
Ledecky unquestionably has a world-class aerobic engine, but it’s so difficult to measure oxygen consumption while swimming that we can only guess at how her fitness compares with that of her rivals. However Ledecky’s stroke efficiency is precisely measurable and was strikingly superior to that of any rival.
The good news for you is that–unlike her physiological capacities—it’s learnable. Here’s a summary of how Ledecky outswam her competition:
- She took significantly fewer strokes. In the 1500 meters, Ledecky took 38 strokes per 50-meter pool length, fewer than any other finalist, and seven strokes less than runnerup Jessica Ashwood. While height is a key factor in stroke length, if both were equally efficient, Ashwood, at 5’8” should take only one more stroke per length than Ledecky at 5’11”. (180cm).
- Her stroke count was stunningly consistent. In the 1500, she swam an unvarying 38 strokes per length (SPL) for 90 percent of the race. And she averaged 39 SPL in the 200 meters–just one stroke higher than in the 1500, though her pace per 100 was four seconds faster!
- Under pressure, she made her stroke longer! Ledecky faced a serious challenge in only one race, the 200 meters, not taking the lead until the final 50. As she pulled away for the win, Ledecky took two fewer strokes than on the previous length. In contrast, silver medalist Federica Pellegrini (also 5’11”) increased her stroke count from 42 to 45 and bronze medalist Missy Franklin (6’2”) increased from 40 to 43.
Here’s how to apply these insights to your own swimming.
Step One: Know your optimal count . . . then work toward it.
In the 1500, Ledecky traveled 65% of her height on each stroke. (When Sun Yang broke the men’s 1500 record in the 2012 Olympics, he traveled 70% of his 196 cm height on each stroke.) Our “Green Zone” charts (a free download from the TI Digital Store) show a height-indexed range of efficient counts for non-elite swimmers—it starts at just 50% of height. Compare your count with those in the chart.
If your SPL is above the range for your height, you’re diverting energy into moving the water, instead of moving yourself forward. To reduce SPL, try the following:
- Minimize drag. Align head with spine. Job One for your arms is to extend your bodyline. (Also eliminate bubbles and splash.) Job One for your legs is to draft behind your torso. You can’t go wrong by kicking less.
- Slow tempo. Using a Tempo Trainer, slow tempo until you can swim 25m repeats at or below the highest count in your range. Slow tempo by an additional .05 seconds and try 50m repeats. Practice in that tempo range until you can swim 25m repeats at the lowest count in your Green Zone and 100 to 200m repeats at or below the highest count.
Step Two: Increase SPL Consistency
Swim 4 x 50 + 3 x 100 + 2 x 150 + 1 x 200. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between repeats. Count strokes. Assess as follows:
- Did you stay within your Green Zone?
- Did you limit SPL increase to three strokes between the 4 x 50s and the 200? (E.G. 18 SPL on 50s and no length higher than 21)? If you fell short on these parameters, avoid fast-paced swimming until you can do both on most of your repeat sets. Mastering this will teach you steady pacing—and lead almost effortlessly to faster times.
Step Three: Increase Stroke Rate
When you have good command of the first two steps, begin working on holding stroke count while increasing tempo (with the aid of a Tempo Trainer) using a set like that below. This example assumes a 25-yard Green Zone range of 16 to 19 strokes.
Choose a tempo at which you can easily complete 25 yards in 16 strokes. Swim a series of 25’s, increasing tempo by .01 on each successive repeat. For how many repeats can you maintain 16 SPL? Four is good. Eight is great. Repeat this exercise at any count in your Green Zone.
At the higher counts, your tempo range should be faster. E.G. If you can hold 16 SPL between 1.30 and 1.24 seconds/stroke, you might be able to hold 17 SPL between 1.23 and 1.18 seconds/stroke.
These exercises will help improve the speed skills that made Katie Ledecky the best athlete in the world.
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In my next post I’ll summarize my Summer Training Lab (10 weeks of practices in a 50m pool and on a 400m course in Lake Minnewaska) and how I used principles-based training, working on the same skills that set Ledecky apart from her rivals.
I’ll also explain why I began every set with the intention of finding the easiest possible way to achieve my objective.