If you want to swim farther and/or swim faster, you have to be both more skilled, and stronger. Some people focus on just one or the other. But you can develop both of those together if you require both in how you go about your training. 

I trust you are already sold on the idea that you need to build your skills for this. And it is easy to understand how you need to be stronger too. Many people try to increase the strength side of the equation by just swimming more laps and others add some weight room activities as well. However, I want to show you a way to work on this specific kind of skilled strength in the water, in a way that is better than just swimming more laps, and in a way far more specific to your needs than weight training on land.

 

Definitions For Swim Strength

First, let’s work out some definitions…

Strength = your ability to work.

For the purposes of the rest of this discussion, let’s assume you are swimming freestyle and each stroke will carry you half a body-length forward.

Your stroke length = making your body mass travel forward a certain distance per stroke. That is the work you do on each stroke.

In swimming, rather than lifting a weight or your body weight upward against gravity, you are moving your body mass forward, against resistance of water. Water’s mass opposing your mass creates the work situation.

Power = your ability to do that work within a short time frame. Power is strength over time.

Power means you are able to move your body mass forward in a certain amount of time. All other things being equal, a person applying low power may take 1.60 seconds to move his body forward half a body-length, while another person applying high power may take just 0.90 seconds to do the exact same amount of work. 

But those ‘all other things’ determine how much power you need to generate, so it is critical that we examine those other things.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

How Much Power Do You Need?

There are three dimensions that determine how much power you need to get the work done:

  1. You streamline your body to reduce the resistance of water, to reduce the amount of work.
  2. You transfer forces through your body smoothly, to get power from where it is generated to where it is put to work. You use power conservatively.
  3. You generate power by seeking out water resistance and leveraging some part of your body against it.

In our program, your first level training experience is about developing your skill for #1, and toward the end, you start to work on #2. In advanced training, you work on #3 while giving great attention to protecting #1 and #2. It is a mistake to focus on just one of these to the neglect of the others, yet they are best emphasized in a certain order, as I have listed them. 

Streamlining the body reduces the amount of resistance you have to work against. It is clearly a skill that requires strength as well – neural and muscular strength. Better streamline will allow you to move your body forward more easily (faster or with less effort) but in virtually every human swimmer streamline decreases as speed increases, and as fatigue sets in. The stronger, the more skilled the swimmer, the less he allows that streamline to degrade under higher speeds and higher fatigue.

Having streamline skill means you can save power. If you can improve your streamline, then this means you can either use less power to travel the same distance in the same amount of time, or you can use the same amount of power to travel the same distance more quickly.

 

Break Down Speed Into Skills

It is common, but it is not very helpful to tell a swimmer to ‘swim faster!’ unless that he also happens to know exactly what he controls which will make speed happen.

Stroke length x stroke rate = Speed. Your body mass travels a certain distance forward and covers that distance in a certain time.  When you hold each of these steady over a distance, you hold your speed steady.

Stroke length requires a certain kind of skill and a certain kind of strength. Stroke rate requires a certain kind of skill and a certain kind of strength. When the coach and swimmer understand the particular kind of skill and particular kind of strength required by each of these, then the command to ‘swim faster’ can be broken down into identifiable and very specific skill+strength projects that can be assigned according to that swimmer’s personal weaknesses.

To increase speed, you can either increase stroke length or increase stroke rate, or you might try to do a little of both. When you increase the stroke length while holding the stroke rate constant, you have to move your body mass forward a bit farther, but do it in the same amount of time. When you increase the stroke rate while holding stroke length constant, you have to move your body mass forward the same distance, but do it more quickly.

 

The Dilemma Behind More Speed

Now, here is a frustrating fact about a vessel (your body, in this case) moving through water: as the speed of the vessel increases, the resistance of water increases… exponentially. The higher the speed you try to swim (on an absolute scale comparing all human swimmers) the amount of water resistance your body mass must push against increases at a higher rate. This is why streamline is so incredibly important for swimmers, and more so the higher up the speed scale one aspires to go. Let me explain further…

When you already swim slow (on that scale) water resistance increases just a little when you try to swim a little faster. When you already swim fast on that scale, going a little faster provokes a great increase in water resistance. Those who regularly swim slowly may likely have comparatively low power available, and when they attempt to go 1% faster, they will still feel like they have to put in a lot more effort to counter that small increase in resistance – not because of the resistance but because of their low muscle power. While those who regularly swim fast will likely have more power available and will notice how much harder it is to swim 1% faster – not because of their low muscle power but because of the disproportionately greater resistance.

Once you understand the role of stroke length, stroke rate and the exponential increase of water resistance relative to speed, this reveals your dilemma: to swim a bit faster at your position on the human speed scale, is it more appropriate for you to try to increase the stroke length or increase the stroke rate? Where will your weakness be found – in a particular aspect of skill or in a particular aspect of strength related to either SL or SR?

If you have the best streamline in place that your skill level can produce, then when you try to increase speed, the only way to move forward faster is to generate more power while you protect streamline, and protect the smooth transfer of forces through your body.

Since everyone, even the best swimmers in the world, let streamline degrade as speed increases, that is one part of the equation you can never work too much on. The faster you try to swim, the more that errors will be provoked. There is always the possibility that you could do something to reduce the amount of resistance you must work against, and so in our program we are always vigilant about protecting and correcting streamline under the stress of faster or longer swimming.

But at some point, every human swimmer has to concede some ground when working against the mounting forces of nature. Stroke length has to be relaxed a bit as increasing water resistance exceeds your skill and power to over come it. After that, the only way to preserve some of the speed under fatigue (to not let it drop too much, too rapidly) is to increase stroke rate, and that comes at a high cost that also cannot be sustained very long. The less skilled and less strong the swimmer the sooner he compromises stroke length, and the less effective an increase in stroke rate will be to compensate for it.

So, let’s talk about the ways you can build strength to hold your ground longer against those natural forces. 

You can view that in Part 2 soon…

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