In a few weeks, I’ll mark the 50th anniversary of when I first got serious about swimming—i.e. training with an explicit goal of swimming fast. In November of 1965, I joined the newly-launched swim team at my high school, St. Mary’s in Manhasset NY.
For the next five or six years, I got faster each year simply because growing taller and stronger as I matured mattered more than the inefficiency of my stroke or generic nature of my training. But at age 20 I plateaued. Though I was still maturing, I was already stroking as fast and working as hard as I could. In the 45 years since, speed has never again simply ‘happened.’
However, while I’ll celebrate my 65th birthday in just a few months, I’m still highly motivated to swim as fast as my physical capabilities, and limited training time, allow. Thus it’s thrilling to have mastered a form of training that offers a mathematically precise—you could even say guaranteed—way of improving my speed. The accompanying video illustrates how it works.
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The first clip shows me swimming a continuous 100 yards. The onscreen graphics display the key elements in the Math of Speed, based on the formula Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate. However I’m far less interested in sprinting a short distance , than in sustaining a brisk pace for a mile or more. That requires easy—and smart—speed.
I began this 100-yard swim with two thoughts:
- Stroke Count: I planned to take 13 strokes on the first length, 14 strokes on the middle two lengths, and 15 on the fourth length. (My Green Zone in a 25-yard pool is 13 to 16 SPL.) I missed my target count by one stroke on the third length, taking 15 strokes.
- Stroke Pressure: I planned to apply featherlight pressure (one TI Coach called this ‘gathering moonbeams’) on the first length, slightly firmer pressure on the middle lengths; and super-firm pressure on the final length.
I expected that increasing stroke count and stroke pressure would produce faster paces. And as I increased tempo, pressure, and speed, I focused on keeping my stroke quiet and splash-free—as I always do when increasing pace.
From the video, I took split times, counted strokes, and timed tempo for each length. The seconds, stroke count, and Tempo for each length are displayed on screen:
1st 25: 21.7 sec., 13 strokes, 1.24 sec/stroke
2nd 25: 21.7 sec., 14 strokes, 1.20 sec/stroke
3rd 25: 21.6 sec., 15 strokes, 1.16 sec/stroke
4th 25: 20.2 sec., 15 strokes, 1.06 sec/stroke
My 1500-meter pool pace (calculated by multiplying 25-yard split times by 66) improved from 23:52 on the first length to 22:12 on the final length.
Besides the technique skills of balance, stability, streamline, etc., this swim also displays a high level of pacing skill, which is critical to racing success at any distance from 100 meters up—and to maximizing your personal speed potential.
Few swimmers can maintain or increase pace on each successive 25 of a continuous 100, as I did here. Fewer still can increase pace by 6.5% from start to finish. And here’s another thing to consider while watching this video. Drag increases exponentially as speed increases. Swimming 6.5% faster should increase drag by 47%. Does I look as if I’m working 47% harder on the 4th length?
The ability to generate easy speed requires two kinds of skills:
1. To keep one’s stroke efficient, relaxed, and highly integrated as tempo and speed increase.
2. The ability to precisely control and adjust stroke length, tempo, and pressure.
To develop these skills you must design most training sets as challenging tasks or problem-solving exercises like the one illustrated in the next two video clips, shot in a 25-meter pool. Those shown are the first and last in a series of 7 x 25.
I started at a tempo of 1.10 seconds/stroke, and increased tempo by .04 on each successive 25 (1.06, 1.02, 0.98, 0.94, 0.90.) My goal was to test whether I could maintain a consistent stroke count—i.e. travel as far on each stroke—on each 25, to a cumulative tempo increase of two-tenths of a second. At a tempo of 1.1 seconds, 17 SPL converts mathematically to a 25-meter pace of 22.4 sec 0r 22:24 for 1500m. At a tempo of .9, 17 SPL converts mathematically to a 25-meter pace of 18.8 sec or 18:00 for 1500 meters. That’s what I mean by ‘guaranteed’ speed.
When I first began using a Tempo Trainer, I adjusted in smaller increments—as little as .01 second—and was pleased if I could hold one stroke count while increasing by .06 of a second. Years of practice have significantly improved my ability to hold Stroke Length, while increasing Stroke Rate. As I noted in the post Swim like Katie Ledecky, 40 years of data collected by USA Swimming has revealed that this is the closest thing to an algorithm for swimming success.
As also noted in that post, training for Smart and Easy Speed starts with two steps
1. Learn to swim consistently in your Green Zone range of stroke counts.
2. Patiently learn to swim each of those stroke counts at incrementally faster tempos.