Don’t Burn Rubber

Anyone can crank their arms around wildly in the water. You don’t even have to try to go anywhere. You don’t even have to be a swimmer! Yet the swimmer who increases his stroke tempo* without maintaining a long stroke is like a hotshot who’s spinning out his car, burnin’ rubber on the asphalt. Without a long stroke to go with that fast tempo, a swimmer becomes merely a wave and bubble machine… that tires quickly.

Why do those special swimmers, those elites, those gifted ones seem to move so much faster, even with a slower tempo than the rest of us? Surprisingly perhaps, it is not superior strength, it is superior form.

This is most pronounced in distance races because we can see the cumulative advantage of one swimmers”s more effective stroke over another’s. Sun Yang set a marvelous world record in July in the 1500m by taking an average of 27 strokes per 50 meters at an average pace of 58 seconds per 100m (that is about 12 strokes per 25m accounting for a 6m glide from the wall!). Though faster he looked far more relaxed than any of his opponents who were cranking along with much higher stroke rates- he crushed them all with beauty. My interpretation is that he put his best training effort into form, while others may have put theirs into muscle.

The physics problem behind speed in the water that we are working to solve is how to thrust the vessel (you, the swimmer) forward while water pushes back. Molecule to molecule, the harder the vessel pushes, the harder water pushes back (exponentially)! Solving this problem predominantly through force is expensive from the perspective of physics. The higher the speed, or the longer the event, the more pronounced the effects of good form will be from poor form. This is most easily revealed by how much waves, bubbles and noise are produced- the evidence of wasted energy. Instead of figuring out how to push harder, physics shows us that its more economical to gain speed by reshaping the body and the stroke timing to give the water less to push back against. The evidence of this efficiency will be a stroke that is relatively smooth, splashless, bubble-free, and quiet.

The simple math: Swim Speed = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate

The first and primary element of swimming speed is a long Stroke Length (SL). The next and subordinate element of speed is Stroke Rate (SR). Build the first, then build the second upon it. The secret to success is to discover how to protect that SL while you increase the SR. Building Stroke Rate is easy. Building Stroke Rate while protecting a long SL is difficult… but far less difficult than trying to gain speed through sheer muscle power. The good news is that SL x SR is developed through intelligent training that is available to anyone willing to take the knowledge and apply it.

Here’s the concept:

Stroke length is primarily improved by working on form. Long SL plus fast SR is achieved primarily through perfecting the timing of the stroke cycle at each incremental increase in SR until you reach the desired SL and SR combination(s) for your event. Then imprint it deeply into your neuro-muscular system.

Simple to write, but it takes time, understanding of the training techniques, and focus in every stroke, in every practice to produce this effect.

You can do it.

More in the next essay…

* For the purposes of this essay I may use ‘tempo’ and ‘stroke rate’ interchangeably. However, in physics, when doing the actual math, tempo is the inverse of stroke rate. T = 1/SR, or SR = 1/T. Stroke Rate is in units of strokes per minute (60 seconds) and Tempo is in units of seconds per stroke. For example: a Tempo of 1.10 seconds per stroke will be a SR of 54 strokes per minute.

Conveniently, the new Tempo Trainer Pro can be set to display either SR or Tempo- the last model displayed only Tempo.