To swim faster you need to do two things. Increase your arm resistance and decrease your body resistance. Repeatedly over the years I see these two basic components of more efficient swimming working against each other in most people’s swim strokes.
First of all, I want you to change the way you think about what you’re actually doing in the water. When you think of the swim stroke you’re likely thinking about swimming your arm under your body. If you feel yourself doing this (which you will) then you’ll think you’re doing everything right. Unfortunately, as you do this you can have your arm sip through the water yet still feel like you’re doing things properly. Instead I want you to think about yourself swimming your body over your arm. There’s a difference and when you focus on it you’ll feel yourself moving through the water better and going farther with each stroke. Everything I talk about below will be to help you do this better. I’ll give you some ideas on tools you can use in the swim to make this easier/more effective and some ideas at the end on where you can go to get these items.
On You Tube check out the swimmer Alexandre Popov (type in Popov Swimming Technique) and you’ll find some great videos. Here’s the link that works now…
Entry and Catch
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law of Physics) so be very aware of what you’re doing as you enter your arm into the water. Of course you have to get your arm forward in the water to get a catch down the pool to pull yourself up to, but don’t put too much wasted energy into getting your arm forward. Cut into the water leading with your fingertips, don’t push your arm forward leading with your forearm. Slide your hand then your arm and shoulder into the water following the fingertips.
A lot of swimmers reach too high and too far forward for their abilities. They then end up having to put too much energy into pressing down with their hands and forearms to get into the catch position instead of pulling backward. The resulting downward press does very little to pull their body forward through the water and actually increases their body resistance in the water by tipping the front end of the body (shoulders and head) upward (resulting form the downward press of the hands and arms into the water to establish the catch position) which also causes the legs to drop deeper into the water.
I’m not saying don’t reach forward, just don’t reach any farther forward than you are capable of in order to get into an effective catch position. Your limit will be determined by how flexible or strong you are as indicated by your ability to get your hand down below your elbow prior to initiating the pull action. Having a more vertical forearm allows you to expose more surface area to the water and will increase your arm resistance. To many people begin the pull action with their whole arm (hand, forearm and upper arm) before the hand/forearm has established itself vertically below the elbow. Correct this by delaying the pull of the bicep/upper arm.
As I mentioned above, imagine your swim this way. Instead of thinking about swimming your arm UNDER your body as you swim, actually FEEL yourself pulling your body OVER your arm as you swim. It will look like the exact same thing but the difference is huge. Your goal is to swim your body over your arm, not move your arm under your body.
Don’t break your wrist as you begin your pull. You want to maintain a consistent paddle/angle from your forearm through to your hand. If you break your wrist to get your hand facing back without doing the same with you’re forearm then you will decrease the surface area you are exposing to the water as you pull back. A great tool/swim id to use here is the Forearm Fulcrum by Finis (see below). It gives you immediate feedback as you break your wrist angle.
The hands should pull from beneath the body in a motion parallel to the surface of the water (ie pulling backwards, not up or down), but in a position perpendicular to the surface (hand and forearm vertical, not at an angle to the surface of the water). Pressing down or up will cause your body to bob in the water and increase body resistance. Although your hands travel beneath your body they should, in relation to your body, be adjacent to your torso. This rolling in the water is to allow you to engage the stronger back muscles during your swim stroke and to bring your hips into the swim stroke. Too many people stay fairly flat in the water and pull with their arm in front of their chest which forces them to use the weaker chest and arm muscles to swim.
A big thing a lot of people do wrong is snake their hands through the water trying to swim in an S curve. Don’t do that purposefully. Your hip rotation will do that naturally and at the right time. If you try to snake your hand through the water you end up knifing your hand in too soon in the stroke and that suck energy from your stroke. Instead keep your elbow angle constant through the pull and don’t allow your hand to “insweep” until your hand has passed under your shoulder and gets closer to your hip. So once you establish your elbow angle during the catch phase work hard to maintain this angle throughout the pull motion. Bending your elbow to allow the hand to come in towards the chest during the pull sucks energy out of the stroke. Don’t forget to finish off your stroke by pushing down to below your hip, extending your arm backwards.
Accelerate your hands through the water thinking that at the beginning of the stroke at entry and the start of the catch your hands are moving approximately 2-3 feet per second. At the end of the stroke they should have accelerated to 12-14 feet per second. Most of this acceleration happens farther down the swim stroke closer to your stomach/hips. Accelerating too early just breaks your hand from sticking in the water properly
The timing of the recovery in relation to the pull should be closer to that of a kayak action than a catch up. I think the catch up stroke (where you leave the hand in the water in place stretched out in front of you while your recovering hand “catches up” before you pull with the under water hand) promotes a slower and weaker turnover. The kayak stroke on the other hand (characterized by the hands being mainly opposite each other throughout the stroke) allows the swimmer to:
-maintain better speed (less accelerating and decelerating),
-establish a faster turnover and
-utilize the hips to pull the stroke using the larger back muscles
As long as you kick efficiently and don’t waste your legs in the swim then kicking with a 2 or 4 beat kick is a matter of personal preference. I prefer the 2 beat kick as it is easier to use your kick to increase your arm turnover without tiring yourself out too much. The 2 beat kick is characterized by having your (for example) left foot kick down into the water every time your right hand enters the water. Your foot actually kicks slightly after your hand actually enters the water. But there is a pronounced downward kick with the leg opposite the hand that is entering the water.
If I use a 4 beat kick I find my arm turnover actually decreases and I find it hard to increase my arm speed without becoming very fatigued. Not good if you are preparing to ride your bike in a triathlon.
Remember to maintain a body position that will promote minimal resistance and do everything you can to increase your arm resistance in the water.
Stroke Rate vs Stroke Length
Once you’ve managed to get yourself into the proper efficient positions to swim properly then you’ll want to focus on improving your stroke rate in the water. A lower stroke rate (# of strokes you take to get through the length of the pool or the number of strokes per minute) indicates a more efficient stroke. Work had to lower your stroke rate (count both arms). Elite swimmers have a stroke rate in the 13 – 16 strokes per 25m range. Once you are able to establish an efficient stroke (Stroke Length) then your next goal (after a few month of lower stroke rate work) is to increase your Stroke Rate. The faster you can turn your arms over while still maintaining your stroke length, the faster you will go.
In the past I’ve had some great discussions with Tim Elson, one of the top swim coaches in the US and a big name behind the Finis Swim products line. I met Tim for the first time in Hawaii as I was getting ready to race the World Champs one year. At the time I was in the Kona pool prepping for the race and he had me try some of their products. Specifically the Snorkel, Tempo Trainer and the Freestyler Hand Paddles. They have zoomer fins etc but I didn’t try those that day. I think both the paddles and the fins are great to use for swim training but I specifically want to talk here about the snorkel and tempo trainer.
I’m really big on grooving your technique prior to working hard in the pool (actually in anything for that matter) so I really liked the feedback I received using the snorkel, the tempo trainer and the paddles. I already have a nice set of contoured Speedo paddles that fit my hand nicely so when I got home from Hawaii I went out to get the snorkel and tempo trainer. I just want to explain here how I use them and why I think they’ll help your training too.
I love this snorkel. It actually fits out the front of your face unlike a regular snorkel which comes off the side. With the snorkel out front between your eyes you have a great sight line for what your head is doing. You know immediately when your head starts to snake through the water and tilt excessively – both big killers of swim efficiency. I’m always telling people during swim sessions that their breathing should fit into your swim stroke, not have your swim stroke fit into your breathing. By taking the breathing temporarily out of the stroke you can focus on what you need to do to get more efficient and smoother in the water. The snorkel allows you to relax in the water, get into a good consistent rhythm and not have the breathing damage your stroke. You might think that this would detract from your ability to breath effectively once the snorkel comes out. On the contrary, I’ve found that once you get a grooved swim stroke without the breathing affecting things, then when you go to breath you are more likely to keep that solid swim stroke and have the breathing just happen naturally.
Tempo Trainer (http://www.swimyourbest.com/item_detail.aspx?ItemCode=105015)
I really really like this little device. The Tempo Trainer is a small, electronic device that attaches to the swim cap or goggle strap, and transmits an audible beep to develop consistency of stroke rate. You can actually use it for so much more than swimming (running cadence, timers for fuelling while training/racing etc) but I’ll stick to the uses for swimming in this note. The Tempo Trainer is an electronic device that emits an audible beep. There are two modes. In the first mode a single beep is emitted as quickly as once every 0.2 seconds (5 times a second) up to once every 9.9 seconds. After it reaches 10 seconds the trainer emits a triple chirp once every interval, up to once every 9minutes 59 seconds. This is what Tim and I were just talking about.
Tim was recently working with another swim coach who coaches some of the fastest swimmers in the US and what they were working on was stroke rate drills. This is a typical exercise with the Tempo Trainer. Set the beep to go off every time you want to take a stroke. When I’m swimming I’ll do this to make sure I’m not going too fast so I can focus on technique. Once you have the efficiency of your stroke dialed in then you can ramp up the tempo of the beeps and swim with a faster stroke rate to consistently increase your speed. What Tim was most excited about though was the “Virtual Training Partner” ability of the Mode 2 portion of the Tempo Trainer. By setting the triple chirp interval of the Tempo Trainer you could make sure that you hit the wall on a consistent interval. For example, say you wanted to maintain an average of 1:28 per hundred (or 88seconds per hundred) you could set the Trainer to triple chirp every 22 seconds. That way every time you hit the wall (4 times for 100m) the unit chirps and you’ll know immediately if you’re on pace or falling behind, rather than having to wait till the end of the interval to see that you missed your pace time, that is if you can see the pace clock. This would be ideal for a rest interval too as you could hit the wall every 22 seconds and after the last length get another 22 seconds of rest interval before heading off on the next swim interval. Of course you would need 2 Tempo Trainers if you wanted to have one going to pace your strokes and one going to pace your lengths.
I LOVE this for open water swimming. I’ll just set the interval beep and set off, trying to keep a good consistent stroke rate till I get to where I’m going. Great feedback to stop from getting sloppy in the water. If you had two Tempo Trainers going with one set for 10 minutes you could swim till you heard the triple chirp then stop for a bit of a rest/stretch and then get going again.
Forearm Fulcrum http://swimyourbest.com/item_detail.aspx?ItemCode=10502848
The Forearm Fulcrum looks like an eternity loop that fits over your hand and forearm. As you swim it forces you to keep your hand and forearm aligned as one unit, stopping you from breaking your hand at the wrist. What it doesn’t do is force your arm into that position but rather it forces you to keep your arm in that position. For when YOU stop holding the position the FF falls off your arm – instant feedback to keep that angle. Works amazingly well and is great to use until you develop the habit to keep that position during the catch and pull.
On the Finis website they have some words form Peter Reid. “Peter Reid, the first athlete FINIS has sponsored, won the 2003 Ironman Triathlon World Championship on Saturday, October 18 with a swim time of 00:50:36, and finishing time of 8:22:36. In interviews immediately following the race, Peter commented “I had the best swim of my life.” At the FINIS Swim Clinic in Kona during the week prior to the race, Mr. Reid said, “I never make a workout without my Tempo Trainer. It’s awesome for pool swims. It’s awesome for open water swims.”
A lot of places sell Finis products. The quickest way to find and order them though is online.
Swim Your Best ships to both the US and Canada www.swimyourbest.com I talked to the people there and if you order over $100 it’s free shipping to the US and to Canada. When ordering enter the discount code BENT20. That will get you a 20% discount. They also mentioned that bathing suits are 25% if you enter the code BENT25
Swim and Sports in Mississauga Canada also has mail order. www.swimandsports.com
If you have any questions about the products on the site and what you think might be useful for your requirements let me know. Cheers, Steve