Video: Secrets of Speed Part 4 of 9
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 21st, 2011

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.


10 Responses to “Video: Secrets of Speed Part 4 of 9”

  1. MB says:

    How do you increase stroke length? I have both the TI freestyle dvds and I was able to decrease from 30 to 24 spl in the last 7 months but when I get to my last laps in my 1500 my spl is 27. My goal is 20. These are in a 25 yd pool.

  2. Marjorie
    Your post identifies two separate aspects of increasing efficiency: (1) Improving Stroke Length; (2) Maintaining Stroke Length. They’re equal in importance, but accomplished in different ways.
    To Improve Stroke Length, you do specialized sets of relatively short repeats, where speed or pace is besides the point. The sole goal of such sets is to swim at a lower count than usual. These sets can include either drills or whole stroke, in a wide variety of combinations. You will include only the following elements
    – A primary focus on Balance and Streamline – whether in your choice of drills, or in the Focal Points you choose for whole-stroke laps.
    – Using a Tempo Trainer at lower rates — most often 1.3 sec/stroke or slower.
    This kind of training changes your movement pattern to reduce (1) drag and turbulence caused by how your body moves through the water or how you move arms and legs; and (2) slippage in your stroke. Your goal is to learn to move through the water, rather than move it around.

    To Maintain Stroke Length, you do whole-stroke repeats, most often with a goal of patiently-and-incrementally increasing the distance you can swim without adding strokes to your SPL. I will often do this with sets like
    4 x 25 + 3 x 50 + 2 x 75 + 1 x 100, in which my sole focus is to establish an efficient count/pattern on the 25s and test my ability to complete the set while minimizing any increase in count.
    I also do this quite often with Tempo Trainer — I.E. Do the above set with TT set at 1.30 seconds/stroke. If I succeed, I might repeat at, say, 1.28 sec/stroke.

    In your case it would mean NOT swimming a 1500 if your SPL rises to 27 SPL as you go. It could perhaps mean you keep going so long as SPL is 24, then rest for 10 seconds or more after any lap of 25 SPL. Over time, your goal would be to complete the 1500 with fewer — eventually NONE — of those 10-sec breaks.

    You’d use a separate kind of set to improve that SPL to 22 — and test the new improved SPL with ‘broken’ 1500s in a similar way. If you wanted to focus on 1500s. I RACE 1500 to 3000m in open water, but 90% of my training reps are 200 or less.

  3. […] reprinting verbatim a comment-and-reply from Olympic Champions are Terrestrial Mammals Too since a doubt acted is of concept […]

  4. Darren says:


    I am enjoying this video series so far, can’t wait to see the rest of it! I am 42 years old and just started swimming 6 months ago. I just completed my first sprint triathlon, but the swim really wore me out. I did the 500 yards open water in 19 minutes. I went on to have a great bike and run but I wonder how much better I could have done with an easier swim. I hated the swim so much I was not even sure I wanted to do another triathlon. I am reading your Triathlon Swimming Made Easy book and I just got your Perpetual Freestyle DVD. I have been working on improving my balance. I am already beginning to see some progress and feeling better in the water. Thanks for publishing all of this!


  5. MB says:

    Thank you for this information and this great website.

  6. Terry, I know the ending of that race and yet still watching Lezak, my HR started climbing and I was nervous for the finish! Do you have a copy of this slide presentation I could use/adapt for my own talks?

    Thanks, great series on your blog here.

  7. Suzanne
    Happy to share that with you. A large file so would need to use bigarsefiles or some such thing.

  8. MLM says:

    This is one of the best and most eye-opening articles on speed I know of. I’ve lost several races trying to move my arms and feet faster. I fell for the same trap as Barnard. I don’t think Terry is saying greater speed comes by stroking super slowly. (I’ll let him speak for himself.) I’m hearing him say our stroke tends to fall apart (it gets shorter, the catch slips instead of sticks, and balance & streamline are compromised) as we try to go fast. Being stronger or putting more effort and speed into the stroke can’t make up for the resistance created by a deteriorated stroke. The deficiencies in balance, streamline, and propulsion quickly outweigh any speed that would be gained by increased stroke rate. And, it’s all more tiring which compounds the problem.

    I’ve seen underwater footage of the final 50m of the 2008 4x100m race. 1. Barnard swims close to the lane line offering Lezak his draft. 2. It appears he uses an almost straight arm pull by dropping his elbows. (That is so incredible after hours & hours of practicing his stroke that it must be just an effect of the camera angle.) 3. As Terry says his stroke count sky-rockets.

    I’m more convinced than ever to work on great balance, streamline and propulsion technique and then slowly add small increases of stroke rate while focusing on maintaining the first three.

    Thanks, Terry. Great article.

  9. […] 4 x 100 meter relay in the 2008 Olympics when he was down by 0.5 seconds going into the last leg.  Watch the video here and read the blog to see as Lezak has a far slower stroke rate but a longer stroke and thereby takes the gold from […]

  10. […] stile libero, quando J.Lezak riesce a superare il francese Bernard nell’ultima frazione: Finale staffetta 4×100 – Olimpiade Pechino 2008 Like this:Mi piaceBe the first to like this post. […]

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