How to Swim Faster by Stroking Slower (AND Faster)
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 15th, 2013

Describing swimming as ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ is too imprecise to be meaningful. A pace that is slow for 100 meters can be very fast for 1500 meters. A time that is slow for a 25 year old can be world-record pace for a 75 year old.  And even for the same swimmer and distance, ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ tells us surprisingly little.

If I swim a series of 100-yard repeats at a pace of 1 minute 24 seconds that would be nothing to write home about if I swam them at a tempo of 1.0 seconds/stroke (which would be 16 strokes per length.)  But I’d feel inclined to shout from the rooftops (or at least post on the TI Forum, Facebook and Twitter) if I swam at a tempo of 1.5 seconds/stroke —  which would require me to complete each length in 11 strokes.

Drilling much deeper into the slow/fast dichotomy, have you considered that even within the same stroke, some parts should be ‘slow’ while others should be fast. In fact, the ability to do this–called asynchronous timing–is a high level skill that is critical to swimming your best.

The catch (not the entire stroke) should be as slow as possible–all other things being equal. Taking more time on the catch improves streamline by keeping your bodyline extended a bit longer. It also improves propulsion by allowing you to cultivate a firmer grip and keep the water molecules behind your hand and arm quieter.

With a faster catch, you’re liable to move the water more. With a slower catch, you move your body more. The most notorious example is the anchor leg on the Mens 4 x 100 Freestyle Relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The main Jason Lezak passed Alain Bernard was his dramatically-slower catch–which resulted in him traveling much farther on each stroke.

In contrast, the recovery should be as quick as possible–all other things being equal. This is because the more time your arm is out of the water–where it weighs 10x more– the more ‘stress’ is imposed on your balance and stability. And thus the more chance you’ll use arms and legs to ‘steady’ yourself. Also the more time the recovery arm is out of water, the more time you spend as a ‘shorter vessel.’

But here’s the conundrum. You shouldn’t try to speed up your recovery  by moving your arm faster. Instead, strive to (i) travel the shortest distance between exit and entry — a straight line with fingertips barely clearing the water; and (ii) have your hand out of water as briefly as possible.

And here’s one more benefit to practicing a superslow catch: It will improve your Balance and  Stability by tuning up spinal-stabilizer muscles.

15 Responses to “How to Swim Faster by Stroking Slower (AND Faster)”

  1. Michael Bushell says:

    Terry, I’ve been thinking about those very same things lately. Actually, I’m always thinking about it! But I have to believe that there’s a target ratio between the time building the catch, the trip down and the recovery time (say, if kicking were to be constant, which may not be a universal baseline, many 6 beat kicks should each part of the stroke take?)

    You may feel the need to qualify the ratio by old/young swimmer, tall/short swimmer, 200/400/1500 swim, target stroke length, etc.

    I’m all ears!

    Best regards,

  2. GregJS says:

    Good points. My master’s coach has us working on early vertical forearm (EVF) which seem to fit naturally with a slower catch. I do feel more power when I pay attention to this, but can’t yet say how much this is due to moving less turbulent water (as you are saying here) versus engaging bigger muscle groups, which is another benefit of EVF. Probably a combination of both.

    Hadn’t given any thought to making the recovery as short/quick as possible. Makes sense. Thanks for that.

    There is a “stroke count” thread on the US Master’s site that includes a link to this video:

    The guy who wins the 500 (SCY) here (in 4:16!) is taking 9-10 SPL, partly because of a good underwater dolphin – but still, his catch looks quite relaxed and he is taking far fewer strokes than the guy next to him who comes in next.

    Did I notice a typo in the 2nd to last paragraph? Should “You shouldn’t try to sped up your catch” read “You shouldn’t try to sped up your recovery”?

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Arlene Ladden says:

    Dear Terry and Staff,

    Thanks for your wonderful updates. Any tips on kicking and breathing correctly? Right now, I’m only comfortable with backstroke while wearing large fins (but can do it continuously for very long periods without stopping. I also find the crawl difficult, primarily due to breathing.

    Whatever, I love TI and always will.

    Arlene Ladden

  4. Gene says:

    Correction—next to last paragraph—should read—
    You shouldn’t try to speed up your RECOVERY by moving your arm faster.

  5. Markku Siipola says:

    I sometimes try to stroke slower, but mostly feel it to be to slow and ineffective.
    How do you know when slow is too slow?

  6. Noel Olsen says:

    Another thought provoking blog. I’ll try the slow catch – It seems to be the opposite of the ‘early vertical forearm.

  7. Noel says:

    Hi Terry,
    Thank you for posting this update. I’m about to compete in 2 weeks and will implement this strategy in my training right now.

    I also have a lazy left arm which is not that effective in castcing the water as my right arm. I’ll slow down the catch and se how this improves.

  8. Noel says:

    Please amend my vote to a 10. I keep stuffing it up.

  9. Rob Polley says:

    I think this should have said that you shouldn’t try to speed up your recovery (but it said catch) by moving your hand faster. Is this correct?

    Thank you,


  10. Arlene
    Thanks for your comment. The best place to ask technique questions is on the TI Discussion Forum.

  11. Terry this is absolutely one of my all time favorite posts of yours. So incredibly articulate!

    Comments about EVF vs. Terry’s description actually result in a similar functional result…the hand stays put while the body moves forward…prior to any “stroking” motion of the arm.

    Think about it. When achieving an “EVF”, you may perceive the hand as moving down and back…but your body has forward momentum. so the hand is still moving forward quite a bit. If you pull too soon, you’re losing traction and an effective powerful pull feels “wrong” at first because it’s counter-intuitive to moving your hadn back quickly.

    Anyway, great post. thanks.

  12. Bill Kircher says:

    This post has created a lot of “thinking” and raises additional questions. Am I correct in that a so-called “slow-catch” can be monitored by watching for and minimizing the trailing bubbles from the lead arm? Would the “one-arm” drill be “good” for such monitoring? If so, wouldn’t this benefit the not so skilled swimmers in that weight shifting a little lateral and anterior (your balance term?) onto the leading arm to develop this skill?

    I’ll stop now as I’m still in the learning phase.

  13. Bill, yes to all your questions. Watching for bubbles was quite useful for me back in the mid-90s. Now I seldom see any.

  14. Steve Leveen says:

    Thanks for this Terry. I’ll use this as a focus point next week while swimming in the Bahamas. All best, Steve

  15. Jesus Avelar says:

    I just want to thank Terry Laughlin for sharing this knowledge. I am 53 years old and had been swimming (or so I thought) for the last 10 years. One year ago I discovered the swimwell blog, and bought the video. I have been swimming under Terry´s advice (on the blog) and last weekend I just competed in my first ever 3.75 km open water swim. To make a long story short, I finished in 2nd place of my age group, following Terry´s advice. It felt like winning the gold in the Olympics!
    Thank you very much for sharing this knowledge!

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