I’ve had this discussion behind the scenes with some swimmers recently and felt their challenge to bring up this topic more in the open. So here it is…
I want to address ‘the elephant in the room’ (as one of them put it) regarding the apparent rivalry between TI and another program’s approach to the speed problem.
The Speed Problem
The question is: what’s the program’s solution for making a swimmer faster (while maintaining efficiency)?
Many swimmers seems to summarize it as: TI is about getting swimmers to use a Longer Stroke while Program B is about getting swimmers to use a Faster Tempo.
[Note: it seems to be an implied agreement between the rival programs and between coaches in our org to not mention the rival’s name directly in public. So I am going to carry on that policy to maintain the peace. And I am bringing up this topic in the attempt to reason and find the common ground between the perspectives and maintain professional respect in the discussion.]
Where does this impression of two programs sitting at two ideological poles come from? Perhaps some of it comes from how the companies present themselves and how they frame their competitors. And, some of it may come from how the general public has been traditionally taught to view How Swimming Works, which is becoming increasingly outdated. Then there are those, like my friend, a retired engineer (who’s provoked me to post this blog essay), who dig in with critical eyes and actually start crunching the performance equations and cataloging the assumptions behind the view points, working on a more responsible evaluation of each program’s claims.
This essay is not going to address how the impression has been made, it is going to confront the accuracy of that impression. Of course, I spend a lot of blog space explaining what we actually teach and practice in TI in order to clarify gaps in understanding and to correct misinformation.
What Does TI Teach?
If it has not become clear to those who regularly study my blog let me review again: TI teaches what we understand to be the proper use of both SL and SR in relation to each other. in order to achieve desired speed at desired energy expense. As our method for swimmer development shows, we see that it is usually better to develop SL before developing SR for physiological reasons.
I actually have a hard time believing that studious swim coaches in other programs can disregard the role of stroke length in speed training. Yet, I wonder if or how these other programs teach swimmers to achieve and control stroke length. I rarely see it discussed by other programs – or if it is mentioned, I don’t see reference to it being taught in a systematic way. (If you do know of specific treatments on the topic by coaches outside of TI, please pass on links to those, because I want to believe others are following the same physics though we might differ on emphasis).
Quick clarifying definitions: SPL = number of strokes taken per length (in your pool), while SL = stroke length (how many meters you travel on each two-arm stroke cycle). SR = stroke rate (how many strokes taken per minute, which is the mathematical inverse of Tempo). We might casually use terms interchangeably in other discussions, but I will stick to SL and SR in this essay.
The Speed Equation
You know that our speed is governed by this equation: SL x SR = Speed (or the mathematical inverse: SPL x Tempo = Pace)
In TI we are concerned about achieving – not the longest stroke, nor the fastest tempo – but the optimal stroke length combined with the optimal stroke rate which will create the pace we want at the energy cost we can afford. For each swimmer, in each event, in each kind of condition (like triathlon versus pool racing) there is an optimal SL x SR combination to use, or a small range of them. So, for each person, there is a point at which stroke length is too short and a point at which it becomes too long – for efficiency (in terms of energy expense) and for speed effect (with or without concern for energy expense). And the same can be said of stroke rate – it can be too slow or it can be too fast for the context. But because of the relationship in that speed equation, the SL and SR settings only have meaning in relationship to each other. Training for one cannot be done well without respect to its effect on the other variable.
Physiology Drives Development Order
Furthermore, we recognize physiological principles which urge us to establish appropriate stroke length before trying to establish appropriate stroke rate. In TI the first step is to establish appropriate SL. That emphasis on the first step comes from the understanding of how the body develops superior control and strength for complex movement patterns. And it comes from the observation of thousands and thousands of humans in the water – it is much more common to find under-developed swimmers (all the way to Olympic level swimmers) who suffer from severely shortened strokes, or quickly deteriorating stroke length, who then try (unsuccessfully) to compensate with inappropriately fast and energy-wasteful SR – though not all of them, for sure.
It is this land-based instinct we must over-ride with stroke length programming first. Stroke length is first and foremost built through body-shaping. And body-shape is the center piece of technique. Thus we return to the idea that stroke length reaching an optimum is a good external indicator of how much body shape is improving. And, TI is well-known for effectively teaching this aspect of technique.
For a brief, persuasive summary of the superiority of stroke length control over stroke rate increase read Coach Terry’s recent article Pro swimmer Katie Ledecky’s Three Steps To Better Swim Efficiency.
So naturally, to cover the more common problem seen by TI Coaches over the last 40 years (which amounts to 100’s of thousands of hours of live observation) that ‘improvement of control over stroke length’ needs to come first in our standard process for developing a swimmer. Then, once there is a reasonable level of control over that, we add SR work with respect to SL. There is complete understanding here that once the swimmer has made the initial gains from improved SL, SR has to be improved eventually if one is going to achieve a new personal record.
Why The Differing Emphasis?
It may be that Program B sees more swimmers with a bigger problem with stroke rate and therefore has developed an emphasis on increasing SR right away in most of their swimmers. And it may be that TI coaches, for whatever reason, see more swimmers with a bigger problem with stroke length and so get to work on it first, then address SR second. I don’t know how certain kinds of problems tend to show up in more statistical frequency in this program while other kinds of problems show up more often in that program. That phenomenon may lead to an earnest view that ‘most swimmers have this/that problem and need this/that solution’. Maybe coaches see what they want to see. Or it may mean that one program feels the need to distinguish itself from the features of the rival, so it picks a point and tries to make it seem like there is a difference when there is none, or should be none.
Regardless of whether one is a TI fan or not, physics rules the discussion. The development of speed (and speed with efficiency) cannot focus only on SL or only on SR. The swimmer’s weak spots in the whole SL x SR equation must be addressed. To achieve her desired personal record in the swim, the swimmer has to be able to achieve both an optimal SL and an optimal SR and then hold those consistently (or shift them intentionally) over the swim. And the energy expense for each SL x SR combination has to be examined so that the swimmer can find the combination which produces the desired speed at an acceptable cost. It is not about being loyal to SL increase or SR increase, nor about being dogmatically loyal to this program or that one, but about prescribing the correction for each swimmer’s weakness and setting up a training process that works to affect those changes.
To say that TI only focuses on making strokes longer and longer is an innocent misunderstanding or an intentional distortion – because in all our certified training events and materials, we teach and train by that whole SL x SR equation. Likewise, I have a hard time believing that other programs can only see faster and faster tempo as the solution, without regard for improving stroke length (and stroke length endurance) when it is a problem.
Is There Agreement?
For the speed-oriented swimmer, I advocate that weaknesses in both short SL and slow SR have to be addressed. Yet, physiologically it doesn’t work well to correct both at the same time in the initial coaching intervention – one has to be corrected first, then the other with respect to the first.
Perhaps Program B totally agrees – but there may be a void in the public awareness about how much TI offers SR solutions and how much Program B offers SL solutions. It would behoove each program to recognize the public perception and provide more material to fill in that void. I do what I can for those I reach with my media.
Or maybe the program promoters are too easily caught up in the bubble of their paradigm (and marketing tactics) at the expense of swimmers’ understanding…
As a consumer of the information the various coaching programs provide, what do you think is going on?
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Send me a note if this has confirmed your understanding, challenged it, or you have more perspective you think I should know about.