The traditional approach to swimming faster is to just go harder and keep at it until something breaks through.

For some, that simple instruction might work. But for far too many it hasn’t.

Regardless of what approach you take to developing technique or building fitness, the equation for how fast you travel in the water is composed of two variables: stroke length x stroke rate. This is an engineering way to look at it which can be a very helpful viewpoint, especially if you are stuck in your efforts to swim faster.

While you might be focused on ‘going harder’, if you want to go faster the only way you will actually do it is if your stroke length or your stroke length increases. If your ‘going harder’ causes one of those to increase, the trick to success is that the other can’t be allowed to decrease very much. When you go harder, and then go even harder, but you don’t end up going faster, invariably you have increased one variable while allowing the other one to slip too far = Pitfall #1.

Now if you are one of those who are trying to channel your harder effort into one of those variables while doing your best to restrain the other, there is another pit you might still fall into. Stroke length and stroke rate are physically yoked together and if you try to push one of those too far ahead of the other, it will yank back on the other variable, leading the body into a strained state – this is a physiological view of that equation. You’ll hit an improvement dead end, no matter how hard or dedicated you are at pushing that variable= Pitfall #2.

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

To avoid this, you’ve got to acquire an understanding of what range of stroke lengths and strokes rates, yoked together, are appropriate for your body and your event. Then, from counting (counting strokes per length and counting tempo*) while doing some test swims, you find out what patterns of stroke length and stroke rate you currently produce, corresponding to different levels of effort. From the data you collect, a picture forms suggesting where you need to apply effort differently to break through. Remembering that stroke length is yoked to stroke rate, you can be on the lookout for having a stroke length and/or stroke rate that is too low or too high, making these out of proportion to each other.

To begin correction, changing the more excessively high or excessively low variable is often the best place to start. Making that change does not initially produce an increase in speed – it will actually slow you down. But you’ve first got to reduce the excess and bring these two variables back into proportion with each other and reduce the awkward strain on your body. The reduction in strain can free up resources making your technical and fitness development go better. Then with stroke length and stroke rate more evenly yoked, you can go into a process of channeling effort into incrementally increasing one of those variables while holding the other steady. Then you might make it incrementally more challenging or switch which variable to push while holding the other.

That word ‘process’ here means weeks of training, not a few lengths nor even a few sessions. It takes thousands of cycles of action over possibly many training sessions to do the trick successfully = to develop the strength to push one variable without letting the other decrease very much.

While this viewpoint is independent of anyone’s particular method or approach to swimming, those training programs that 1) give attention to developing both variables, 2) help you identify when one is too much or too little, and 3) build your technique and fitness while keeping those two yoked, are at least working with both halves of the physics equation and physiology in mind. Those features in training will be very useful if you want to break through and go faster.

*Note: I’ll explain a method for estimating tempo in another article.

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