Can you increase speed without increasing power?
Yes, and no.
Or rather, it depends.
To explain why the answer could be yes and it could be no, let’s look at the speed equation:
Stroke Length x Stroke Rate = Speed (Velocity)
In terms of training in the pool, it is more convenient for us to talk about the mathematical inverse of this equation which is:
Stroke Count x Tempo = Pace (time/distance)
But we will stick to the Speed Equation for this discussion to keep the language uniform.
Looking at that equation of SL x SR = Speed we can see that you can increase speed by…
- increasing stroke length
- increasing stroke rate
- or a little of both
If you increase stroke length, it’s hard to hold stroke rate the same because it’s easier to just take more time to travel that farther distance on each stroke. But, in order to go faster with a longer stroke, you cannot allow stroke rate to slow down very much. You have to travel farther and cover that distance in the same time as the shorter stroke.
If you increase stroke rate, it’s hard to hold stroke length the same because you’ve got to travel that same distance per stroke in less time. In order to go faster with a faster tempo, you cannot allow stroke length to shorten very much.
Both of these are what intelligent speed training help you build the skill and strength for. It is always suspect when a swimmer or coach only talks about changing tempo without also talking about what needs to happen with stroke length, or vice versa, because changing one only results in increased speed when the other variable is carefully controlled as you do it.
Increasing Stroke Length
Now, can you do this without having to increase power, or increase it very much? Possibly.
Stroke length can be increased by:
- reducing external drag
- reducing internal friction
- increasing power
You can reduce external drag by improving your shape, especially at critical streamlining moments, and minimizing how much turbulence is created by your movement patterns. This requires understanding of how to streamline, and it requires great attention and effort to reform your shape and movement patterns to the point they are automatic in your neuromuscular system.
You can reduce the internal friction by synchronizing the propulsive actions of body parts, and finely tuning their connective relationships inside so that waves of force travel more smoothly, more timely through your body. This is how you take the power you already have and use it more effectively. No extra power required, just use better what’s you’ve already got.
And, you may increase the power generated by your muscles to travel farther – like pushing on the gas in a car or increasing the size of the motor behind the boat. That’s the default mode we all take to increasing speed when we have no better ideas on how to do it.
Increasing Stroke Rate
Stroke rate can be increased by:
- increasing neural reaction time
- increasing relaxation in opposing tissues
- increasing power
You can gradually increase neural reaction time by using a Tempo Trainer to push your brain to move body parts at incrementally faster and faster rates. But you have to discipline yourself to maintain precision of movements while you do it or the brain will let go of that precision, becoming sloppy, to make it easier to catch up to the rate.
You can practice in such a way to impose fatigue and expose unnecessarily tense or opposing actions so you notice where and can affect those parts. Opposing actions in your body are those which create internal friction – muscles in one area working against muscles in another – making it harder for your body to move quickly. But this is the other edge of the knife to increasing neural reaction time – when you try to move faster and try to maintain precision at the same time, the cautious body will be more tense… at first. But you’ve got to go into this internal conflict in order to work out the relaxation solutions for it. There is no other way.
And, you may increase the power to simply make your body parts move more forcefully through the movement patterns. This too is the default mode we take when we have no better ideas on how to do it.
But there is a little good news here as well: when you are breaking into faster-than-normal stroke rates, your brain is accessing more muscle units than necessary to do that. It will feel more effortful because both you are using more muscle power, but just not very good at it yet. Your brain is stumbling around, working harder to figure out how to comply with your command but to do it more efficiently in terms of which muscles to use and how much. It takes some weeks of conditioning for the brain to strip that back down to a minimal necessary effort. You’ll be stronger than you were when first working on faster stroke rate, but you won’t need to use quite as much as you did at first because your brain adapted and became more efficient at executing faster movements.
The Crux Of Increasing Speed
It is fairly easy to increase stroke length and let go of regard for stroke rate, or fairly easy to increase stroke rate and let go of regard for stroke length. But doing one without the other will not likely improve your speed.
The crux of this is to increase one of those variables while holding the other constant. The brain will not do this for you, just because you try to ‘swim faster’. No, you must train specifically and deliberately to do this. Training for both is truly hard training, because it respects the physics and the physiology of the speed situation. To train with consideration for both is intelligent because it is necessary for designing practices that are targeted to exactly what this swimmer needs to do to get faster. Increasing speed becomes a matter of increasing stroke length and/or stroke rate, and each of those are skills that can be broken down into sub-skills with neural components that each swimmer can consciously, deliberately, intelligently do something to improve in each and every practice.
When speed is pursued as a skill, then the possibility of creating efficient speed is increased, because the swimmer will be focused on achieving that speed with less (energy) expensive movements.
But once you’ve done all you can at your current skill level, at your current developmental level, to reduce drag and reduce internal friction, to stimulate faster reaction time and to infuse more relaxation into your quicker movements, you’ve got to get to work building more strength, more power.
Which Route To Take?
So, each swimmer seeking to improve stroke speed in his event – from beginners to Olympic champions – has to ask himself: which route do I take to increase my speed? Should I increase rate and hold stroke length constant, or increase length and hold stroke rate constant?
The answer to that depends on where his current stroke length x stroke rate combination is for that event. At each level of skill and fitness development for each swimmer, there is a sweet spot for stroke length and to try to swim with longer or shorter strokes is going to be more expensive. There is a sweet spot for stroke rate as well – too slow or too fast, for that particular stroke length, and it will not be efficient. At this particular stage in the swimmer’s development one of those might have more potential for improvement than the other one. Obviously, this takes some experience and wisdom to discern.
The swimmer who senses his stroke length is about optimal for his body, at this particular stage of development, in this particular event, may need to work on training his neuromuscular system to hold that stroke length at a slightly faster tempos. This will provoke both stroke refinement and build strength around that particular stroke length.
The swimmer who senses his stroke length is not quite optimal yet, may need to hold stroke rate constant and get to work on lengthening that stroke a bit more, while doing it within a fixed range of stroke rates. This will also provoke refinement of skill, and neural reaction time.
Though there may be exceptions, in general, with respect to neuromuscular development, most less-than-elite swimmers would do well to work on improving stroke length, then work on improving stroke rate on top of that. In each, you start with investing heavily in the neural training, and then eventually start building more strength and power on top of that foundation.
Set Reasonable, Incremental Goals
Did you notice I inserted the factor of ‘stage of development’? Your athletic body, and its physical and neural qualities, under consistent training, go through developmental stages, and those take years. That is part of the consideration because if we take a 6 foot tall, male athlete who is 52 years old and has been swim training for 4 years, we would not likely expect him to use the same range of stroke lengths or stroke rates that we would of a 6 foot tall, male swimmer that is 24 years old and has been training for 14 years. And, for the first year of this 52 year old’s swim training life we may not yet expect him to be using the stroke length or stroke rates that he will be capable of two years later when he has has a lot more neural and muscular development. No, we will set gradually improving targets to work towards over the years ahead. So, don’t try to leap for stroke length or stroke rate perfection at the start, but make reasonable steps of improvement over the years, on your way there.
Looking back at my list above, there are only certain ways to increase length or rate without adding (much) more power – reduce drag, reduce internal friction, improve neural reaction time, improve complementary relaxation. That’s mostly it. If the swimmer has done all he knows to do on those, then he must get to work on increasing power.
So, what do you think? Which route do you need to take right now? Which one offers you more potential payoff for your limited practice time and energy?
Improve stroke length? Or improve stroke rate?
And do it by refining neural patterns further? Or is it time to start building more power?