The universal speed equation is…
Speed = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate
If you want to go faster in the water you need to make stroke length (SL) longer without losing more than a calculated amount of stroke rate, or you need to make stroke rate (SR) higher without losing more than a calculated amount of stroke length. Or you may improve a little of each.
Increasing stroke rate is relatively easy, but it is relatively worthless without controlling stroke length at the same time. Increasing stroke length is relatively hard, and only effective at making you faster if you combine it with an appropriate stroke rate. In this post we’re going to focus solely on a process for lengthening the stroke, assuming you will go into a process of training stroke rate afterward so that you are truly on the path to improving sustainable speed. After all, you’ve got to work on your skills for both variables in that speed equation.
In this post we are assuming your stroke is on the short side with regard to your wingspan, your event, and your physical condition. By some indication you feel the need to work on making it longer – which is usually the case of maybe 9 out or 10 swimmers we see. Occasionally, someone comes along swimming with an extremely long stroke (and an extremely slow tempo) and we’ve got to work in the opposite direction. But this is rarely the case so I will focus here on only the former situation.
So, if you, like most folks, need to make your stroke longer there are two main ways to do it:
- Increase power
- Decrease drag
[I could add a third way – increase effective transfer of force through the body – which might be regarded as a subtopic in both #1 and #2.]
When aiming for a longer stroke, which one do find yourself working with more? Applying more power or trying to reduce drag? (Mind you, using more than a 2 Beat Kick to make it longer between strokes would be cheating!)
You likely need a little of both, and you can get both of those when you approach this in a certain way I would like to share with you.
Here are some things to consider when working on increasing your stroke length…
Aim For Optimal
Although there is benefit from working on extremely long strokes for short duration, for functional swimming purposes you need to work with a stroke length that is neither too long, nor too short – but just right in the middle for your wingspan, your event, and your personal physical condition.
When extremely well tuned and feeling strong, I can do maybe 12 or 11 strokes per length in a 25 yard pool, for a few lengths, with rest in between, using a 2 Beat Kick – no cheating with a flutter kick! It is rather like a gymnastics trick, really, that tests the extremes of balance and streamline. It has some training purpose, but this kind of stroke is not useful for any sort of functional swimming. When putting in extraordinary effort and concentration, I can swim continuously for maybe 1000 with 14 strokes per length. But knowing my body and from extensive testing, I’ve settled on 15-16 SPL and have trained to handle a higher tempo while preserving that stroke length. I can swim with a longer stroke, but I prefer a slightly shorter stroke with higher stroke rate. For me this feels better in my body, and allows me to work at higher intensity and work longer.
If your stroke is a lot shorter than it needs to be, you need to think about moving toward your optimal stroke length in incremental steps. Anticipate improving your stroke count by just N=-1 each training cycle, rather than N= -2, -3 or -4.
A swimmer who is brand new to working on transforming their freestyle technique might experience an initial sudden drop in their stroke count, but then may have to work for weeks or months to get a little more. Many years ago, when I first started experimenting with Total Immersion, I found in my bi-weekly 1500 time trial, I quickly went from 25 strokes per length (in a 25 yard pool) to 17 . But then it took months, if not years, to work down to consistency with 15 and 14 strokes per length, and more to make it feel easy.
Maryna from Krakow – fairly new to swimming, and to TI – has developed a suitably long stroke in just a few months, which she can hold consistent for a whole swim, even in open water!
First Aim For Strength, Not Length
However, work on making your current stroke length stronger, rather than longer. This strength will be the foundation for making it longer. This is not the only approach, but for many of your reading this, it may work better. There are other ways to develop longer stroke but this approach requires you to develop the physical conditioning you need to make a longer stroke more easily possible.
When I use the word ‘strength’ in this context, it is not about applying more power, but about provoking the body to strengthen the whole system that produces that specific stroke choreography. This kind of strength is about building up the small stabilizing muscles and the weaker members of the system, and making the motor (neural) operations more efficient. It is about a process of making better use of the power you already have, before trying to add more.
Specifically, work on holding your current stroke length consistent on every length of a long swim or a long set. Aim for consistency for at least 1000 (meters or yards) of swimming. This objective of stroke length consistency over distance is going to build specific muscle and neural strength – specific to the choreography that produces that stroke length.
While you work on that specific stroke length, stroke after stroke, practice after practice, particularly as you swim with this objective into the scarce energy zone (fatigue state) your brain is searching for ways to make it easier to produce that specific choreography. It will be provoked to strengthen muscle motor units, and then refine the number of muscle units required to get that action done. The brain is obsessed with energy conservation, especially when fatigued. With your attention turned on and tuned in, your nervous system, given our TI menu of focal points, will be searching for ways to reduce drag so that it doesn’t have to work as hard to produce the same amount of work. This is the essence of efficiency training.
Fatigue Is Your Friend
You will work on swimming with your assigned stroke count for up to 1000 until you can do that whole distance with consistent stroke count on just about every length. And then you will keep working with that distance to give your brain and body time to figure out how to adapt to that work load and become efficient at it (making if feel easier).
When new at this task, or when the stroke starts to shorten due to some fatigue in the muscles and attention, the easiest solution for the brain is to try to apply more power to make up for deteriorate in motor control. But that just makes energy drain more quickly and make more power less available! However, this is exactly the dilemma you want to put your body and brain into, because now you are forced to concentrate even more to find a way to swim smarter rather than harder. It’s time to search for and double your concentration upon your most effective, streamline-protecting focal points.
By working on making your stroke length consistent over distance, especially as you swim into that scarce energy zone, you are laying the neural and muscular foundation your body needs in order to click into a better stroke length later without even having to push your body into a longer stroke. This is nearly identical to what you would do if under guidance to train for lifting weights in the gym. No responsible trainer is going to allow you to increase the weight of your lift until you can do the lift perfectly for several repetitions with the weight you are currently using. In our case in swimming, you are learning to do thousands of perfect reps with the stroke length you already have. An increase in stroke length would correspond to an increase in weight on the bar.
The longer stroke will come, not because you force yourself to use a longer stroke, but because you are requiring your brain to get better at using the stroke length you already have. Then, you’ll find it much easier to slip into the next longer stroke length and begin the strengthening/lengthening process again.
Of course, it is easy to hold your current stroke length consistent when energy is abundant and attention is easy… which lasts for only a few minutes. But when you swim into the fatigue zone, that is where the most valuable training takes place. That is where you need to double your attention and effort in order to get the most powerful benefit from such exacting practice. Your practice will be effective at strengthening your stroke length only if it takes you into some fatigue and you spend some time there trying to solve the problem of preserving SL a bit longer than you did before.
Gradually Increase The Challenge
Really, if you cannot hold your current functional stroke length consistent for 1000 meters/yards – either divided up into intervals or in continuous swimming – then this is a sign you don’t have the foundation to swim with a longer stroke length yet. If you can’t hold your current stroke length consistent or hold it for very long, a longer and stronger stroke won’t come by accident. Your brain has to prepare the circuitry and the muscles activation through a process of gradually increasing challenge. You’ve got to pass through the process at this level in order to get to the next one.
Once you set a goal to swim 1000 continuously while holding a consistent N SPL, then you need to create practice sets that gradually take you from your current capability toward that goal.
Maybe you start with swimming 10x 50 repeats, with a fixed amount of rest, and swim up to 500 total meters or yards. Repeat this practice set several times (over several practices) until you can do the whole set with consistent stroke count on each length. Maybe you use this practice set at this challenge level for a week or two.
Note: after a rest at the wall, it is very common that your first length will have a lower stroke count than the subsequent lengths, because you are starting off fresh and perhaps using more power than you realize. So, use a little restraint on that first length, then consider your stroke count on the second and third length to be a better indicator of your capability than the first.
Then increase the challenge by either increasing the repeat distance (e.g. from 50s to 75s, or by increasing the total distance (from 10 repeats to 12, from 500 total to 600). Sometimes increase the repeat distance (keeping total distance the same) and sometimes increase the total distance (keeping the repeat distance the same), until eventually you are swimming 1000 continuously.
Once you can repeatedly swim 1000 continuously, holding a consistent stroke count, then you may set a new standard of N-1 SPL and go back through this process again to build up your ability to swim 1000 with a longer stroke.