The Key to Fast Swimming – Part I

The key to fast swimming is in the volume of yards you swim.  Or is it about the intensity of those yards?  Maybe the key to swimming fast is about the efficient use of energy through technique.  But being strong and powerful is important to swimming fast as well.  Well if power and strength are key to swimming fast, why aren’t all body builders and football players great swimmers? Athleticism has to play a role, right? Then how come some swimmers who can’t put their pants on without falling over swim faster than athletic swimmers who can break dance and slam dunk?  I guess having a good attitude and the power of positive thought is just as important as the physical training you put in the water.  But just because I believe I can still swim the mile as fast as I did when I was in college doesn’t make it happen.  So with all these different philosophies of training in order to swim fast, what one is the best?  Let’s explore:

Yards – When I talk about swimming yards in terms of volume, I relate it to aerobic capacity.  There is great merit to keeping your aerobic system strong and healthy in order to help recover while flushing out lactic acid and when as increase the amount of yards you travel while decreasing the time it takes to swim those yards.  But I feel the purpose of the aerobic yard work is find what people refer to as a solid cruise pace.  When swimming aerobically, a swimmer tries to find the boundary between swimming fast and swimming moderately fast.  Everyone has seen a swimmer in the 200 fly or the 200 free take the 1st 100 out as a sprint and then by the last 50 the struggle bus is in full effect and there are bets in the stands whether an 8 year old can finish a 25 before the swimmer finishes the last 25 of the 200.  It’s painful to watch.  So the goal is to find an aerobic competency level that will allow a swimmer to swim fast, but not past the threshold of diminishing returns, so that the aerobic part of swimming can lead into the fast, anaerobic part of swimming.  But long aerobic swimming can be boring and can lead to overuse injuries, and lots of daydreaming.  So to make the yardage work, the best advice is to use the training not just as an aerobic exercise, but as a strategic exercise.  When you are putting in the yards, have a strategy and play mind games so that come race day, your strategy is second nature.  Everyone has to put in some yardage to find that cruise pace, but if you make that work an exercise in strategy, maybe 9 x 500 on 5:30 won’t be so mindnumbing.

Intensity – The harder you work, the greater the results.  Those who work the hardest get the best results.  If you want to swim fast at the end of the year, you have to learn to swim fast throughout the year.  I’ve heard it all when it comes to swimming fast.  Race pace, sprint, threshold work, all of these are part of the intensity part of swimming.  The ability to push your body to the limit and produce lactic acid and train your body how to deal with it is an important part of swimming fast.  Does swimming fast just mean you will swim fast, and does it only work for sprint events?  For anyone who has tried to the workout phenomenon Insanity, you will know that intensity will not only give you speed and power, but can work you aerobically too.  Sometimes the best way to kick the cardiovascular system into gear is to confuse the heart.  Let that heart rate get up high, plummet back down, and spike up again.  In Insanity, the mighty Shawn T works with the principle of high intensity interval training.  The method calls for a few minutes of intense workout followed by a very short recovery.  What studies have shown is that this method of training doesn’t just tax the anaerobic system, but increases aerobic capacity as well.  But this does come at a price.  Try swimming, or doing anything after an Insanity workout.  Your body is taxed to the limit and exercise after high intensity interval training never seems to be of high quality.  So intensity training in the pool would seem to be a good idea, but that would mean swimmers would need more recovery time.  So now if you work harder, you actually need to add more easy recovery swimming into practices and sometimes have whole recovery days and weeks, but won’t that affect a taper more than one would like?  How do you find a balance between hard work and easy work, what is too much of each, what isn’t enough of each?  This balancing act sure doesn’t seem easy.

Technique – Let’s call this the energy principle.  The less energy you use for each stroke, the longer you will last in a race.  The more efficient your stroke is the less drag you create in the water and the easier it becomes to maintain your speed.  Technique is easy though.  Just go slow and focus on technique and it’s harder to improve your speed or aerobic capacity.  And if I want swimmers to maintain perfect technique throughout a set, then I will have to make intervals easier and that wouldn’t get them in better shape and thus help them swim faster will it?  Technique can be very difficult when done correctly.  Ever go to the weight room and see the guy on the pull up bar who looks like he is having a full body spasm?  You know what I’m talking about.  The person who jumps up to the bar, only lets his arms drop to 90 degrees, does a butterfly kick with his feet, brings in a swing motion with his hips, and grunts really loud to make sure you know that there is hard work getting’ done.  Dude can probably pull off 30 pull ups that way.  Now have that same person do correct form on a pull up and maybe the person will get 10 pull ups.  Does that mean the technique was easier or harder?  What was more effective in taxing the muscles and helping gain in strength?  Now take that principle over to the pool.  Proper technique is different for every person.  Technique is not about finding a cookie cutter solution for a group of swimmers.  Technique is about finding what method of swimming is best for the individual swimmer and then making sure that technique stays true to form from the first stroke to the last stroke.  As a coach, this is a hard principle to grab hold of, and it requires a HUGE amount of patience.  Going back to the 200 free/200 fly examples, that last 50 where someone looks like their drowning, how often does the technique looks flawless?  Stroke rate increases, distance per stroke decreases, hips drop, legs stop moving.  This happens because the body finds this easier than keeping proper form.  Problem is bad technique is slower, so teaching technique and hold to maintain technique seems to be just as important to swimming fast as the volume and the intensity of the work that swimmers do in the water.  Yet everyone know of someone with a terrible stroke that is still faster than someone with a flawless technique.  So this can’t be the correct answer either, I assume.

Since this is a longer post, we have broken it into 2 parts. Part II will be posted on Monday, December 20th. Let us know if you like this idea or would prefer it all at once, even if it is long.

Steve Barnes is currently the second year head coach of a Wabash College in Wabash, IN. Steve maintains a regular blog, which can be found here.

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