Why swim at slower than normal tempos?

Practicing at slower-than-normal Tempos exposes your weaknesses in balance, stability – which make up the greatest portion of a swimmer’s excessive drag and energy waste. And that is the first crux in the swimmer’s speed problem.

Balance (the balance from ‘front/rear’ or ‘head/tail’) is the ability to hold the body parallel to the surface without having to apply vertical force against gravity. Features of imbalance often include a high head and/or low hips and legs. This makes the swimmer obligated to kick a lot more to work against gravity like that. Contrary to the recommendations of others to kick more to compensate for sinking hips – for increased kicking does not cure poor balance, it only covers it up at a higher energy expense – why not just remove the sinking problem so that more energy is freed up to move forward with?

Then there are some swimmers who have the appearance of balance until they are asked to turn off the legs and all is revealed. But balance is not a gift, it is a learnable skill. Though it is not instinctive for land mammals to balance in water, humans can be taught this skill. A little understanding of fluid dynamics and some instruction on how to re-distribute the forces using his own body and the flow of water and he is relieved of a great deal of unnecessary exertion.

Stability is the ability to calmly hold body at a slightly rotated angle using only the core muscles of the torso, while recovering the other arm. If the swimmer has poor stability he is obligated to swing the arm around quickly and get it back down in the water to keep himself from falling flat. The legs will often react to this instability by spreading sideways (rather than vertical) and scissor (spread opposite of each other, rather than one press at a time).

If there is poor balance, poor stability the swimmer’s brain realizes those are priority problems to deal with over forward motion. And for the swimmer’s appendages, this presents a conflict of interest in how force will be applied. Though there may be a semblance of a forward propelling arm and leg movements, so many swimmers wonder why they still can’t move very fast. This is the likely culprit. They are wasting energy and motion on fighting imbalance and instability with each stroke more than actually working to slide the body forward.

We understand this priority on land – try kicking or throwing a ball while falling – the body is unbalanced, unstable and therefore it cannot support the kick/throw. Try even just walking another step when the last one didn’t establish balance – the human brain will immediately divert the next step in some other direction to prevent falling, and interrupt the act of walking forward. The brain will make it very hard for us to carry out the action with any force or accuracy until we have established our footing. It is the same situation in water, but not apparent to the aquatically-untrained land mammal brain.

‘Excess’ arm and leg movements (versus smooth and minimal ones) are a sign that force is being applied in directions other than in the the only direction this swimmer intends to travel. All that excess motion creates drag evidenced in forms of splash, waves, bubbles and turbulence surrounding him. A swimmer with high drag will decelerate relatively quickly between strokes at slow tempo, while a swimmer with low drag will decelerate relatively less. Here is a reason to practice a longer hydrodynamic glide – the ease of acceleration and rate of deceleration of each stroke tells the swimmer a lot about how hydrodynamic his shape is becoming. It is an important form of feedback.

Another example: Take two boats of the same displacement mass: 1) a row boat, and 2) a sea kayak. Give each of them a push of the same force at the same time. Which one will travel farther? Which one will travel quicker? Exactly.

Practice at slower tempos to achieve this farther, faster glide in each stroke (without increasing force) and you will be actively reshaping your body from a rowboat into a sea kayak, so to speak.

Swim at slower tempos and you will be compelled to start solving areas of poor balance and poor stability by reshaping your vessel.


How to swim at slower tempos?

I could write pages on this, but I will try to give a few foremost helpful tips…

Use two metrics for assessing improvement:

1) Count Strokes. This is an objective number fact.

Achieving a lower stroke count per length (SPL) may indicate that you are improving balance, stability, and reducing drag.

But this does not complete the picture – you need to partner that metric with a reading on energy expense too…

2) Improved ease. This is subjective body awareness. This means sensing and controlling how much effort you apply (physically and mentally!). You are improving when you find yourself going farther at the same level of effort, or better, going farther with less effort.

It is not enough that you can achieve longer strokes, but that those longer strokes are actually easier to produce than your previously short ones.

When the stroke tempo slows there is more time available for each stroke cycle. How will you use that extra time?

The whole stroke cycle has a repeating series of phases:

  1. Extension to setting the Catch.
  2. Catch and Hold.
  3. Exit and Recovery.
  4. Entry and Extension to Target.

How will you distribute that extra time within each phase?

You have two things you can control: speed of movement and force/pressure behind that movement. Just slowing things down only accounts for the first. You need to adjust both.

Work on extending the Catch and Hold phase – imagine starting the Catch a few millimeters farther in front to increase the distance you will perform the Catch and Hold. Though moving slightly slower, maintain firm pressure on the water, and distribute that press evenly from start to finish in the Catch and Hold phase. Pay more attention to getting a good ‘grip’ on the water, placing the palm and forearm on what we might call the ‘pilates ball of water molecules’ – that high pressure zone formed behind the arm. This is what you press on to slide the body forward. And beware of sculling – it is a sign your hand is slipping from this grip (just like a sculling kayak paddle is undesirable) – correct the coordination between your rotation timing and your catch to fix this.

Resist pausing the recovery arm in an attempt to slow down the stroke. Keep a steady forward swing of the elbow combined with  a steady slide of the shoulder joint, from hand exit to hand entry, so that you can take advantage of its momentum as you spear and drive energy forward into the water. Increase relaxation in the muscles of that Recovery Arm – you now have the time to pay attention to it. Tension is your enemy in this context.

Hold a long, stable body line – Skate Position – just like a speed skater would step onto her strong sharp blade and smoothly drive her energy forward through that blade to the surface of the ice. The Patient Front Arm, waiting for the Recovery, is the front end of to that long, stable speed-skate-like body line.

And, this Patient Front Arm sets you up for a truly high level skill – asymmetric stroke timing, which is what allows you to control and adjust stroke length on command, under Tempo constraints. This is the basis of ‘gears’ in your swimming stroke, like you have on your bicycle. Let your brain learn to execute asymmetric stroke timing first in slow motion strokes, then you can learn to use it in moderate, and then learn to use it in high tempo strokes.

Overall, discipline yourself to solve the imbalance and instability problem with improved body position control and relaxation (those are actually complementary, not contrary), rather than with more force. You will strive to maintain forward momentum at slower Tempos, but do it with shape, rather than power. Solving the problem this way produces marvelous results in your swimming, at any speed.

Recall what I mentioned occasionally: physics shows us there are two ways to solve the speed problem:

1) Increase force to overcome water resistance
2) Decrease water resistance to decrease the amount of force required

And I ask again, which path do you want to follow to faster swimming?

Swimming at slower tempos gives you the opportunity to learn the skills for swimming faster with more ease, by exposing the major wasters of your energy: imbalance and instability. But you access that opportunity only if you understand how to work at those slower Tempos. The key is what and how you practice – what you train inside the brain and inside the body. What you see on the outside is mostly a product of what has happened on this inside. If you do understand this, then you may step into the process of learning how one becomes a faster swimmer by swimming at slower Tempos.


View the whole Metrics Series:

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