Longer not faster strokes
by Terry Laughlin
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When I began swimming competitively nearly 30 years ago, I couldn't beat anyone in short sprints. But the farther we swam the better I did. Other people just seemed to get tired faster. So I told myself I was a distance swimmer. It was the first and simplest of many things I've learned from experience in 30 years.
I quickly decided that if my greatest asset as a swimmer was that I was relatively tireless, then the more tireless and relentless a stroker I became the more successful I'd be. That became my guiding principle throughout high school and college. In college, my best race was the mile, 66 lengths of a 25-yard pool. When I first swam it in 1968, my time was about 22 minutes. By 1970, I was swimming it in 18 minutes. The American record at the time was about 16 minutes. Though I swam it for 2 more years in college I never went any faster. But that experience taught me something that I later used to coach a swimmer who went 15 minutes.
As a college swimmer, I never received any technique coaching, but I was given long hard workouts. So I was a well-conditioned, but inefficient swimmer. Where I now take about 17 strokes per length, then I took 24-25 or approximately 1600 strokes in my mile race. My logic was that to swim the race faster, I'd better condition myself to take those 1600 strokes faster and harder. No one ever suggested to me that I'd have a better chance to go faster by, say, learning to swim the race in only 1100-1200 strokes (as I do now).
So every day I went to practice with a single goal: to swim as hard as I could and turn my arms over as fast as I could for 6000 yards, figuring that the better I became at that task and the more pain I could condition myself to tolerate, the better I would do when I could concentrate all that effort into only 1650 yards. And I got pretty good at that. More than once other swimmers told me after a race: "I've never seen anyone move their arms so fast for so long without getting tired."
That approach worked pretty well for several years until I hit a physiological wall. Years of sheer effort had gotten me into the best condition I was capable of. I'd reached the limit of how hard and fast you could stroke while swimming that distance. At the same time, I had a teammate who swam backstroke. I always thought him lazy because, while I was stroking furiously, he moved up and down the pool at what seemed a leisurely pace, stroking long and easy. Now and then, he'd tell me "I don't know how you work so hard," and I'd think "Just imagine how fast you could swim if you just worked harder." But oddly enough, his best times qualified for Nationals while mine never came close.
There was a lesson in that, which I never learned until I began coaching. It's longer strokes, not faster strokes, that make a better swimmer. Two separate studies have proven it empirically. A Penn State biomechanist did a computer analysis of every swim in the 1988 Olympics. And a research group from the University of Rochester analyzed the results of every race of the U.S. Olympic Trials the same year. Both studies were looking for what distinguished faster from slower swimmers (faster and slower being relative terms; all of these swimmers were elite level.) Both studies reached the same conclusion. In each race, the fastest swimmers took the fewest strokes.
But taking fewer strokes is not a simple matter of "subtracting" strokes. These swimmers were able to swim faster on fewer strokes because they figured out how to make their body travel further every time they take a stroke. There are two ways to make that happen: one is to "thrust" your body further through the water by maximizing the propulsive power in each stroke. That's called CREATING propulsion. The other is to "allow" your body to travel further with each stroke by minimizing or ELIMINATING drag.
Of the two, ELIMINATING provides about 70% of your opportunity to increase stroke length while CREATING offers only 30%. So in looking to improve your swimming, you should always look first to the eliminating side; changes in your ability to create should always be secondary. Yet we usually approach swimming technique in the opposite order.
You improve your eliminating skills by focusing on changes in body position. Creating skills tend to focus on how we paddle with the hands (though much of your ability to maximize power actually is found by learning to use trunk muscles to work in better coordination with arm muscles). When we think about our swimming technique, we always think first about the paddling actions of the hands.
Eliminating drag is improved three ways:
By balancing the body. Our feet and legs tend to sink because of body composition, an effect called "body torque." For every increase in torque there's a linear increase in energy cost for swimming, which causes the greatest amount of drag. So the greatest opporunity to reduce drag is by reducing torque, or balancing the body so the hips and legs ride as high as the upper body.
By making the body longer. Any time you increase the length of a vessel at the water line, you reduce drag.
By turning the body on its side. A body on its side allows the water to slip by more easily than a body on its stomach, again reducing drag.
And what about the swimmer I coached to a 15-minute mile? For several years in his early teens, I had him establish a very low stroke count at lower speeds and continually practice how to strategically "trade" distance per stroke for speed as he went faster. He learned how to swim with the greatest possible efficiency at any speed. As he grew older, he was able to apply his increased strength and fitness to the foundation of a very economical stroke, so his energy expenditures would always produce the greatest speed. When he swam the 1650 in 15 minutes, it took him only about 14-15 strokes per length or fewer than 1000 strokes for the race. Stroke longer not faster, by eliminating drag through creative body position, and you'll swim faster too. Happy laps!