Olympic Champions are Terrestrial Mammals too.
At the 2008 Olympics, French sprinter Alain Barnard guaranteed himself years of notoriety by giving away a huge lead on the anchor leg of the Mens 4 x 100 relay to American Jason Lezak, losing a sure gold medal. The fact that it’s utterly inconceivable that the same fate could befall Usain Bolt in the 4 x 100 running relay illustrates the difference between being a terrestrial mammal in water vs. on land.
If Barnard – the 100-meter world record holder – could swim the biggest race of his life with jawdropping ineffectiveness what chance does a triathlete — in open water with bodies pressing in on all sides — have to avoid doing so? Fortunately, the math of how Lezak overtook Barnard reveals how even a novice swimmer can keep your head — and your stroke — in stressful circumstances.
In the video we can see Lezak creeping up on Barnard, before exploding past, but do we understand how? Even Lezak said afterward “I don’t know how I was able to take it back that fast.” But the Math of Speed offers a simple and clear explanation, based on the equation V = SL x SR. How far you travel on each stroke (SL or Stroke Length) multiplied by how fast you stroke (SR or Stroke Rate) determines how fast (V or Velocity) you swim. This equation represents the only absolutely certain path to greater speed. When you work the math effectively, your speed is guaranteed. Any other way of trying to swim fast is just guesswork.
Olympians (like the rest of us) stroke faster in the latter stages of a race. Some is intentional but a lot just happens. As Rate increases, strokes become a bit rougher, the water a bit more turbulent. Lungs burn, muscles falter, hands slip. Whoever does a better job of maintaining Stroke Length will win.
Barnard swam the final 50 meters in 25.4 seconds and 46 strokes, Lezak in 24.5 seconds and 34 strokes. Barnard was stroking 24 percent faster than Lezak (1.8 strokes/second to 1.4), but Lezak traveled 36 percent farther on each stroke (1.5 meters/stroke to 1.1). Barnard was mostly moving water around with his strokes. Lezak passed him and won the race because his strokes were moving him forward.
Their comparative 25-meter stroke counts explains the outcome in even starker terms. Barnard took 13-21-18 (pushoff at 50m) and 28 strokes, while Lezak took 11-18-15-19. Lezak took two fewer strokes on the first 25, and three fewer on the second 25, falling back slightly – but saving crucial heartbeats. On the third 25, Lezak again took three fewer strokes — yet gained slightly. On the final 25 — when the wheels came off for Barnard — Lezak’s efficiency advantage tripled to a 9-stroke differential.
So the winning strategy – and the secret to speed – is unquestionably to create and maintain Stroke Length. The reason why swimming fast is so difficult is that Length is devilishly hard, while Rate is sinfully easy. Increasing Rate is a universal, emotional and almost overpowering instinct. Maintaining Length is a strategic and rational choice that requires a skill that a vanishingly small percentage of swimmers possess.
Cultivating that skill through thoughtful, purposeful practice is Job One for the smart triathlete.