If you have been taking time to absorb Total Immersion methods and coaching, you may have (or I hope, you should have) encountered our argument that Speed Is A Skill. Many of my posts are dedicated to explaining some facet of that concept. If you are wondering what skills to work on to get faster, this post will guide you.
In a nutshell, your ability to attain sustainable speed comes as a product of your ability to achieve a suitable stroke length, and pair that with a suitable tempo, and hold them together – over your chosen distance or event – because Stroke Length x Stroke Rate = Speed.
Power output is a variable in this equation, but it is only meaningful in how well that power is applied to achieve SL and SR consistently and sustainably.
Stroke length comes from ability to hold your body in superior shape and control movement patterns which minimize water resistance, and deliver power with precision when, where, and in the amount necessary. This allows you to travel a certain distance forward on each and every stroke. Functional (versus ‘dysfunctional’) Stroke Rate comes from training the motor system to execute those movement patterns within a suitable time constraint, without disrupting superior body shape and movement patterns. Anyone can move arms faster and go nowhere (that’s dysfunctional stroke rate), but only with skill can those faster movements translate into more forward movement.
When we phrase it like this, it is easier to comprehend how speed is very much a motor skill set, not merely a muscle one.
Power is important, but its utility will always be constrained by the ability of the motor system to deliver that power where and how it is needed to move forward in the water. Otherwise, your power is used mostly to just ‘move water around’ (as TI Head Coach Terry puts it).
If you would like to think about this a bit more you can view my short video series Introduction To TI Training (playlist, total of 15 minutes), and listen to Part 5 of 5 particularly.
Levels Of Proficiency
I sometimes receive questions like, “How do I know when my skills at Level 1 are good enough to start working on Level 2?” Or, “I am working every week, getting better in my skills, but how will I know when I am ready to join one of your advanced training events?
Rather than leave discussion of skillfulness wishy-washy and ambiguous I’ve taken the step to more clearly define what a swimmer should aim to capable of, in terms of both technique and fitness, as she/he works through the sequence of stroke control skills. I have these described on our webpage called Levels Of Proficiency.
Kids in swim lessons are motivated to move up to the next level of lessons – something like moving from Minnows team to Seals to Dolphins to Sharks!. Instructors also are held accountable for success by having a clear set of skill objectives the child needs to achieve in order to earn the privilege to moving up to the next rank. I don’t think that need for clarity or motivation disappears suddenly for adults!
So, how do you know when you’ve earned your right to move up to the next level, little Minnow?
We do recognize there are a lot of personal circumstances and conditions that will affect an adult’s manner of progress through the skills. I don’t propose these Levels Of Proficiency as rules but as guidelines to help both the athlete and coach make better decisions about where to work and where the next step of challenge may be.
You can certainly mix up the arrangement of skills you are working on, but in general, your proficiency or lack thereof at the fundamental skills (in Level 1) will aid or hinder your ability to master the advanced skills. If you try to skimp on mastery of fundamental skills, you will be restricted in your development later on. But you don’t need to forgo, nor should you forgo working on greater quantities as you work on greater qualities. The two go hand-in-hand.
Aim For These Swim Achievement Goals
With this in mind, I want to offer a set of very clear, objective achievement goals to aim for, which will require you to integrate the necessary skills, in sequence, that compose your ability to generate speed and sustain it over distance.
As an arbitrary recommendation (to correspond to the way I’ve organized those training levels) you may aim to accomplish these specific swim distances, in the form of a test swim, in this order of development:
- 400m continuous, no rest
- 400 with consistent ‘SPL’ (stroke count on each length)
- 400 with consistent SPL in your Green (optimal) Zone
- 400m with consistent SPL and steady tempo
- 1000m continuous, no rest
- 1000m with consistent SPL
- 1000m with consistent SPL in your Green Zone
- 1000m with consistent SPL and steady tempo
By an incremental increase in challenge, you develop both skill and fitness together. I don’t recommend that you work on just one of those in isolation, to an extreme. Work on them together. First, hold one variable (like stroke quality) constant, and focus on increasing another variable (like distance) a little bit. Get to a measurable level of improvement with that pairing, and then switch – hold distance constant and focus on increasing a stroke quality.
Notice that first swimming 400m continuously is merely the first step. Next, you must work on doing the same distance with higher stroke control quality, and so one. This sequence urges you to establish a very clear level of control over your stroke quality before you move on to longer distance (higher stress) swimming, because you will carry your quality standards and sensitivity with you into those longer distances and reinforce them through all that repetition. Establish the value-habits first, then increase the work load within that value mindset.
NOTE: If you are wondering what the Green Zone for SPL is, you may view the ‘Stroke Counting’ section on our Resources page.
If 400 is yet a daunting distance to consider, then you can break that down into intervals with an incrementally increasing ratio of work and rest.
For example, you may work on accomplishing this series of interval sets as you work over the weeks toward a continuous 400:
- 8x 50, with 30 seconds rest
- 8x 50, with 20 seconds rest
- 8x 50, with 10 seconds rest
- 4x 100, with 20 seconds rest
- 4x 100, with 10 seconds rest
- 2x 200, with 20 seconds rest
- 2x 200, with 10 seconds rest
- 400m continuous, no rest
To each one of these interval sets, you will apply the same quality standards noted above, one after another. On your first time through the set, just swim the 50 continuously. Then work on doing it with a consistent SPL on every length, every repeat. Then do it with a better (more optimal) SPL. Then work on it with that consistent SPL and a steady Tempo (using a Tempo Trainer set to a comfortable time).
Once you reach your full ‘400m + stroke quality’ goal, and are ready to start working on that 1000m goal, you can break that longer distance into intervals in the same way – make it into smaller pieces (like 100s, 200s, 250s, or 500s) and insert a fixed amount of rest between each interval. Over the days and weeks, gradually reduce the amount of rest, and gradually increase the distance of each repeat.
For a swimmer who agrees that Speed Is A Skill and wants to learn to swim faster, this would be a simple and solid way to build the necessary sequence of skills and the requisite fitness to support it.
Set Habits Of Quality First
Why not just work on swimming the 1000 first any way posssible, then go back and try to improve the quality of your stroke later? One could do it that way, but remember that all repetitive movement is programming the motor system on what pattern to prefer under stress – and you are going to repeat a lot of strokes under an inferior quality value, which will establish a habit that you must break later on, when that inferior program has gotten much stronger. Why not take time up front to establish the habits of quality, then strengthen those habits along the way as you develop power and speed? I think it is safe to say that excellence-oriented programs treat performance development this way.
In the long-view of training, you will save much time building qualities along with quantities. Pay the price in quality up front and you get a better return on that investment in the end. By pursuing these gradually increasing achievement goals which combine quantity + quality requirements, you develop fitness and technique together, which is much safer and stronger for your aging joints.
You may read this entire series on Speed:
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