Here is something I explain to my swimmers when we’re building (or re-building) the freestyle stroke for the first time. This is meant to help students on each extreme: those who are too anxious to start moving faster, and those who are too reluctant to add more power, more speed to their movements.

And, for those who feel like they’ve done all they can to improve their technique but still aren’t moving that fast… you should consider this as well.

First, Slow Down

When first learning new movement patterns we use drill positions to slow down and isolate certain parts of the stroke. Drills make it easier to pay attention and control these chosen parts of the stroke, without other things complicating the situation. Drills are tools used temporarily or occasionally to build attention and control, but once we have those to a certain measure we don’t want to stay in drill mode, and we don’t want to swim too slowly for any sort of distance because going too slow it is actually more tiring over distance than going a bit faster would be.

[For more discussion on how to use drills, scroll down to that topic on our Blog Highlights page.]

It is almost always necessary to slow down the movement, to move robot-like while carefully getting acquainted with it for the first time. For example, there is so much going on in just swinging the arm on a properly shaped recovery, while staying aligned and balanced below the surface. The brain is having to manage not just what you are concentrating on consciously, but all the rest of your body holding position to support it in the unstable medium of water. Being in drill mode makes the initial learning go so much better.

This is not unlike slowing down to carefully pronounce a new, multi-syllable word in the foreign language you are learning. At first, the brain and the tongue muscle need everything slowed down and often broken into smaller pieces so that you can successfully learn each part and then gradually put them together into a full word, and then put those words together into full sentences and then sentences together into full paragraphs. 

(At the moment I am immersed in the language analogy because as I write this I am in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic trying to recall the Spanish I have not used in 25 years! I am here setting up things for our new DR Open Water Swim Camps, starting in Feb 2018)

Then, Speed Up

The goal is not to have slow-but-precise fragments of speech, but to speak smoothly, in full composition, at a rate that is normal for conversation. 

This is the same for your swimming. The goal is not to be good with slow-but-precise fragments of the stroke, but to move fluidly through the entire stroke cycle, again and again without pauses in the choreography, and to move quickly enough through that cycle that you generate and preserve momentum. It is by preserving momentum that you are able to make perpetual strokes and to swim for longer duration more easily. It is by preserving momentum that you are able to swim fast or faster than your swim companions without getting tired out quickly. 

A precise swimmer without momentum is going to be ‘beautiful but slow’, as some critics say, those who do not understand the entire process we work through. And slow swimming is not only not very fun, it doesn’t allow you to swim very far before getting fatigued, because swimming without momentum is tiring, no matter how beautiful it is.

From physics we understand that Momentum is a product of Mass and Velocity (p=mv). Momentum is a force pointed in a certain direction. The more all the particles in your body are sent moving in the same direction with more velocity, the more momentum you have. If parts of the body are moving in directions other than straight forward, then they are reducing your momentum.

In this video I am swimming in an Endless Pool, in a fixed position so that you can easily view the fluid motion of the recovery arm. Though the torso is not moving (the torso is stationary while water is flowing past it) the recovery arm is moving and generating  forward-pointing momentum that I can use to work against the current. Through the carefully designed shape and pathway of my entry I direct that forward-force down into the water to use it to part water molecules and cut my path through the current.

In contrast, consider the commonly seen recovery arm that swings high, curves downward and smacks the water like a board – this style of recovery is directing momentum downward, like a machete hacking at the surface. The splash and waves indicate how its momentum was used for something other than moving forward. A high swinging (arcing) arm does not contribute much to forward momentum so the swimmer is able to use only the catch to pull the torso forward.

Build Up Momentum

Momentum is that physics force which makes your car keep moving forward on the highway even when you take your foot off of the acceleration pedal for a moment. If you wait until the car is nearly stopped before pressing the accelerator again, then the car has to inject a lot of fuel and rev the engine to bring the car back up to the cruising speed. If you drove like that all day, you would notice how quickly your fuel tank became empty.

But when the car has momentum, only the light press of your foot to the pedal is required to keep it going at that speed. When momentum is built up, you may notice that the revolutions of the engine (RPM) are low while traveling quite fast – this is because the car is taking advantage of riding and protecting the momentum already built up in the system. This is one of the main reasons why your car gets better fuel economy while driving on the highway. A lot of acceleration-deceleration is costly in terms of fuel. 

In this video I am going along at a comfortable (for me) cruising tempo of 1.03 seconds per stroke. Notice the fairly steady velocity which indicates a low acceleration-deceleration curve. As my arm enters and extends forward, notice I produce nearly no splash, bubbles, or waves which indicate smooth, streamlined movements – evidence of energy efficiency. PS: Note the cameo of Coach Terry swimming in the lane behind me!

Preserving Momentum

In swimming, assuming you have the basic features necessary for preserving and channeling momentum (see Checklist For Easier Breathing – Part 3 for the list of those basic features), you must apply some initial effort to build up momentum. This is not so difficult when you are fresh. Once up to the speed that you would like to stay at, you must reduce the amount of deceleration in the stroke cycle so that you are not required to make as much acceleration. This is what preserves that momentum. You want a more steady velocity, with less acceleration-deceleration.

Some people try to solve the acceleration-deceleration puzzle by just speeding up the tempo. This is appropriate only after optimal stroke length has been achieved through skillful practice. This is because the inadequately-trained swimmer who applies faster tempo (faster stroke rate) will nearly always compromised their form in the attempt to handle it. A reduction in form is indicated by an inappropriate decrease in stroke length (an increase in the number of strokes taken per length). For this unprepared swimmer a faster tempo will reduce stroke length too much, and when we run those numbers through the math of SL x SR = Speed we find that they actually end up swimming slower, or swim the same speed at a much higher cost in energy. (Note: the speed equation does not directly focus on energy expense, but stroke length tells us much more about how the swimmer is expending energy than stroke tempo does.)

The priority skills for preserving momentum (reducing deceleration) is to…

1 – Protect Streamline

The first priority skill is to maintain extremely good streamline form on both the extending side (what we call Skate position in TI) and the recovery side of the body (especially in how that recovery arm approaches entry, enters and then extends forward), and then switching the arms at the ideal moment. These actions protect your stroke length by reducing drag, and minimizing deceleration without adding more effort.

2 – Achieve Minimum Critical Tempo

The second priority skill is to maintain a fast enough stroke frequency (what we call stroke tempo) in order to preserve momentum and use it to reduce the force required on each stroke. You do need to add a bit more effort to increase stroke tempo, but preserved momentum allows you to minimize how much additional effort is required to do so.

Here is the caution again… higher stroke frequency must not be achieved at the indiscriminant cost of stroke length, it must be done always with respect to it. The SL x SR = Speed is a physical law that cannot be broken. 

More practical advice for you in Part 2

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