Want to swim like Katie Ledecky? You can!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 8th, 2015

I began our series on swimming principles six weeks ago. Since then, each weekly post has described the advantages of ‘principles-based’ swimming. In the words of Elon Musk–founder of Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX–the core idea of principles-based thinking is to “drill down to the foundations of a problem to view it in an entirely new way” rather than rely on conventional wisdom or prevailing paradigms.

Principles-based thinking is particularly important in swimming because conventional wisdom is based on two deeply flawed ideas:

  1. The fundamental actions of swimming are pulling and kicking. It’s been proven that ‘vessel-shaping’ is both more valuable and more fundamental: You should learn it first and give it more attention in nearly all circumstances . . . And remain conscious that vessel-shaping runs counter to primal instincts and most influences we encounter.
  2. Working harder is the solution to nearly any swimming shortcoming. In fact, our most pressing challenge is massive energy waste. The smartest and most effective solutions focus on reducing mis-spent energy . . . which is not likely to occur to the average swimmer

This post and the last are in response to a question about swimming faster– the aspect of swimming for which a principles-based approach is most urgent. This question, posted in the comments section, succinctly summarized conventional wisdom about swimming faster: If you want to go fast, be prepared to get tired. Let’s not suggest you can swim fast without breaking a sweat.

The conventional wisdom and our instincts instruct us to stroke faster to swim faster. Stroking faster makes you more tired (breaking a sweat), which leads to physical discomfort. Thus the conventional way to train for speed is to:

  1. Stroke faster;
  2. Train more and harder to increase resistance to the inevitable fatigue;
  3. “Push through pain barriers” – coaches’ lingo for intestinal fortitude or trying to ignore pain.

In my last post, Can You Swim Faster . . . Easier? I detailed the many ways to swim faster through subtraction—reducing energy waste and drag; minimizing wavemaking and turbulence; eliminating erratic stroke counts (and pacing.)

This post delves into how to improve speed when you’ve extracted most of the subtractive/easier gains and begin practicing skills that, yes, increase the metabolic demand of your swimming—higher stroke rate, higher heart rate, increased oxygen consumption.

The key question is: Will your speed training focus on breaking a sweat? Or will you Drill down to the foundations of faster swimming; identify the critical skills; and patiently apply yourself to mastering them.

We can find no better lens through which to view this than Katie Ledecky’s history-making performance at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia last month. She became the first swimmer ever to win the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyles at a World Championship. She also set three world records, giving her 10 in the last two years.katie-ledecky-kazan-worlds-swimming_h

This prompted Outside magazine to call her “the best athlete in the world right now.” Human performance expert Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, ranked Ledecky’s combination of unprecedented range (200 to 1500) and sustained record-breaking with “the most remarkable endurance performances ever.”

Ledecky unquestionably has a world-class aerobic engine, but it’s so difficult to measure oxygen consumption while swimming that we can only guess at how her fitness compares with that of her rivals. However Ledecky’s stroke efficiency is precisely measurable and was strikingly superior to that of any rival.

The good news for you is that–unlike her physiological capacities—it’s learnable. Here’s a summary of how Ledecky outswam her competition:

  1. She took significantly fewer strokes. In the 1500 meters, Ledecky took 38 strokes per 50-meter pool length, fewer than any other finalist, and seven strokes less than runnerup Jessica Ashwood. While height is a key factor in stroke length, if both were equally efficient, Ashwood, at 5’8” should take only one more stroke per length than Ledecky at 5’11”. (180cm).
  2. Her stroke count was stunningly consistent. In the 1500, she swam an unvarying 38 strokes per length (SPL) for 90 percent of the race. And she averaged 39 SPL in the 200 meters–just one stroke higher than in the 1500, though her pace per 100 was four seconds faster!
  3. Under pressure, she made her stroke longer! Ledecky faced a serious challenge in only one race, the 200 meters, not taking the lead until the final 50. As she pulled away for the win, Ledecky took two fewer strokes than on the previous length. In contrast, silver medalist Federica Pellegrini (also 5’11”) increased her stroke count from 42 to 45 and bronze medalist Missy Franklin (6’2”) increased from 40 to 43.

Here’s how to apply these insights to your own swimming.

Step One: Know your optimal count . . . then work toward it.

In the 1500, Ledecky traveled 65% of her height on each stroke. (When Sun Yang broke the men’s 1500 record in the 2012 Olympics, he traveled 70% of his 196 cm height on each stroke.) Our “Green Zone” charts (a free download from the TI Digital Store) show a height-indexed range of efficient counts for non-elite swimmers—it starts at just 50% of height. Compare your count with those in the chart.

If your SPL is above the range for your height, you’re diverting energy into moving the water, instead of moving yourself forward. To reduce SPL, try the following:

  • Minimize drag. Align head with spine. Job One for your arms is to extend your bodyline. (Also eliminate bubbles and splash.) Job One for your legs is to draft behind your torso. You can’t go wrong by kicking less.
  • Slow tempo. Using a Tempo Trainer, slow tempo until you can swim 25m repeats at or below the highest count in your range. Slow tempo by an additional .05 seconds and try 50m repeats. Practice in that tempo range until you can swim 25m repeats at the lowest count in your Green Zone and 100 to 200m repeats at or below the highest count. TT Pro

Step Two: Increase SPL Consistency

Swim 4 x 50 + 3 x 100 + 2 x 150 + 1 x 200. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between repeats. Count strokes. Assess as follows:

  1. Did you stay within your Green Zone?
  2. Did you limit SPL increase to three strokes between the 4 x 50s and the 200? (E.G. 18 SPL on 50s and no length higher than 21)? If you fell short on these parameters, avoid fast-paced swimming until you can do both on most of your repeat sets. Mastering this will teach you steady pacing—and lead almost effortlessly to faster times.

Step Three: Increase Stroke Rate

When you have good command of the first two steps, begin working on holding stroke count while increasing tempo (with the aid of a Tempo Trainer) using a set like that below. This example assumes a 25-yard Green Zone range of 16 to 19 strokes.

Choose a tempo at which you can easily complete 25 yards in 16 strokes. Swim a series of 25’s, increasing tempo by .01 on each successive repeat. For how many repeats can you maintain 16 SPL? Four is good. Eight is great. Repeat this exercise at any count in your Green Zone.

At the higher counts, your tempo range should be faster. E.G. If you can hold 16 SPL between 1.30 and 1.24 seconds/stroke, you might be able to hold 17 SPL between 1.23 and 1.18 seconds/stroke.

These exercises will help improve the speed skills that made Katie Ledecky the best athlete in the world.

 *   *   *

In my next post I’ll summarize my Summer Training Lab (10 weeks of practices in a 50m pool and on a 400m course in Lake Minnewaska) and how I used principles-based training, working on the same skills that set Ledecky apart from her rivals.

I’ll also explain why I began every set with the intention of finding the easiest possible way to achieve my objective.


25 Responses to “Want to swim like Katie Ledecky? You can!”

  1. Dan says:

    hmm… circumstantial, your honor. how do we know that Katie increased her stroke length during those finishes by “improving the vessel”? there’s no proof about that. she might as well have just pulled harder while keeping the vessel in the same shape.

  2. Dan
    You’re putting words in my mouth–or on my page. I wrote a strictly objective account of what she did on final lap to pull away to a win:
    >>Under pressure, she made her stroke longer! Ledecky faced a serious challenge in only one race, the 200 meters, not taking the lead until the final 50. As she pulled away for the win, Ledecky took two fewer strokes than on the previous length. In contrast, silver medalist Federica Pellegrini (also 5’11”) increased her stroke count from 42 to 45 and bronze medalist Missy Franklin (6’2”) increased from 40 to 43.>>
    I didn’t include any hypothesis as to HOW that occurred.

    Further down in the article–in advice to NON-elite readers–I did suggest giving primary attention to the shape of the vessel. On this I’m confident I’m on very safe ground, having directly observed thousands of average swimmers and seen that for 99% their upside on reducing drag is significantly greater than for increasing propulsion. It’s also core to TI Mehodology.

    In Katie’s case I’m fairly sure she used a combination of more propulsion and less drag. It would be nearly impossible to shave two strokes at that speed, without a significant contribution from drag avoidance.

  3. Robert Bramson says:

    Question: i’ve never understood where the power comes from, ie. Assuming i get as hydrodynamic as i can, what muscle groups do i need to strengthen for more power? Is most of the propulsion from the torque? Cause it sure isn’t from the kick…

  4. howie lee says:

    I wonder if a modification of the Height/ SPL Index chart might be in order…..I think the variable missing is ratio of arm length to height…..I think that for people who’s height = “wing span” the published chart is appropriate. HOWEVER, there are a few of us build like “raptors” with “wing spans” much shorter than our height…..for those of us, we tend to take a few more strokes across the pool….Likewise, there are folks who’s wing span exceeds height, and the converse is true….my only other comment is that perhaps not enough emphasis is put on rotation which offers a “free way” to “grow a few cm’s..THANKS….love the TI way

  5. Howie
    Thanks for your comment about the potential variability of SPL relative to the ratio of wing span to height. You’re quite correct in noting that. That’s why we made the Green Zone a bit larger. Also we consider it only a rough guide to efficiency. To achieve the greatest precision or accuracy in setting one’s personal SPL range, the absolute best way is with a Tempo Trainer. I’ll write on that in a subsequent post.
    Rotation will indeed help you extend your reach by a few centimeters, but one must take care not to rotate TOO much as that can destabilize the core.
    Do I guess right from your email address that you help people overcome disordered sleeping patterns?

  6. Robert
    Thanks for your question. That could easily be grist for a series of posts. However I’ll try for a succinct yet helpful answer here
    1) Power is a far over-rated ingredient in speed. A study of 1992 Olympic swimmers found that Olympic finalists generated 16% LESS stroking power than non-finalists. This surprising finding shows that a primary advantage for elite swimmers is the ability to swim fast without generating that much power. This helps them do what Katie did in winning the 200–finish races stronger.
    In fact, in the last couple of weeks, while speaking at a coaching clinic on how he trained her for the World Championships, Katie’s coach Bruce Gemmell commented on how average she is on power-oriented sets like pulling.
    2) The best way to increase one’s swimming power is to improve stroke integration. Closely synchronize the pull and kick with core-body action. In other words, swim with your WHOLE BODY, not your arms and legs.

  7. Peter says:

    What is the assumption for push off distance before beginning your stroking when using the Green Zone chart? Is it the same distance for all body lengths? For example do you assume that the first stroke starts at the flags or two body lengths?

  8. Gilad says:

    Thanks for the precious information!
    How about a Green Zone chart for a 50 meter pool….??
    Thank you!

  9. Bill Lang says:

    It would be fascinating to know what Katie does when she thinks “I gotta swim faster!,” and perhaps one day she will write a book and tell us. My guess is that she is already exerting nearly maximum pressure on the water, so it’s not, mostly, “pulling harder”; rather, some subtle combination of streamlining and slightly increased pressure. What’s astonishing is that she does not increase her stroke rate, but speeds up anyway!

  10. Gholamabbas Zavari says:

    Dear Sirs,
    If I were to put it in a word, I would say “Exquisite”, in the sense that, given my experience in swimming, the description provides a meticulous account of the process gained by years of invaluable experience.
    Sincerely yours,

  11. Bill Thanks for commenting. Indeed I think you’ve articulated the intuitive process by which once-in-a-generation swimmers like Katie find a way to win races and generate amazing speed.

  12. Gilad. We have a Green Zone chart for 50m. I’ll get it added to the Free Stuff section of our web site.

  13. Peter
    Great point. I believe we’ve made an implicit assumption of 5 yards. However 2 body lengths would no doubt improve the accuracy of the chart.

  14. John Woodward says:

    Sorry the geek in me had to work out the maths so the swim distance is the length of the pool less the push off . So if the push off is twice height the first bit of the formula will be L – 2H where L is the pool length and H your height . Take care to have them in same units in metric it’s easy but for yards it may be easier to convert everything to inches!
    In my case my pool is 25m and I am 1.78m so the sum to give swim distance at a 2 body length push off is (25 – 2*1.78) which gives 21.44 metres to swim.

    The second part of the calculation is how far you travel per stroke . So using Terry’s 50 % of height that bit of the formula is simply H*P/100 where P is percentage of your height you want to travel per stroke.
    In my case this gives (1.78*50/100) = 0.89
    Then finally divide the first answer by the second
    So I get 21.44 / 0.89 =24

    The whole formula is ( L-NH) /(H*P/100)
    Where L is the length of your pool,N is the no of your body lengths that you push off, H is your height, P is the percentage of your body length you wish to target to travel each stroke.
    So if I now wanted to work it out at a 3 body length push off and a 60 percent of body length distance per stroke I would get
    (25 – 3*1.78) /( 1.78*60/100) = 18.41 strokes.

    If I wasn’t such an analyst I would probably be able to do it in 18 strokes but I can’t it’s 24 or 22 when I try .

  15. Mike Kearney says:

    I think it is worth saying that, unlike show dogs, there is no “Breed Standard” for humans. Each individual is unique and only those who differ greatly from the norm are likely to achieve success in competition at Olympic standard. Each of us has to find a way to swim that is best suited to our physical characteristics, but reducing drag and avoiding wasting energy is the key to success for every swimmer.
    Howie Lee raises an important point. Arm length may be more relevant than height when determining optimum stroke length. But it seems to me that even that may be an oversimplification. There is also the matter of “Paddle Size” by which I mean the total area of the hand and inner arm from fingertips to the bend of the elbow. Efficient stroking is achieved by keeping the “Paddle” at right-angles to the direction of travel as far as is possible throughout the length of the stroke. A bigger “Paddle” will be able move the body more efficiently thru the water. There comes a point where stroking too fast becomes counter-productive, resulting in a breakdown at the paddle/water interface, causing turbulence and drag. A big paddle can push harder before that happens.

  16. dave d says:

    If anyone wants to have a little taste of the Ledecky ‘final length experience’, then have a go at the following exercise.

    Warm up, then swim 150 yd or m at a steady pace (your 400/500 pace) and steady stroke tempo.

    Then switch into ‘Ledecky mode’ by tensing ALL your muscles in your body, even the ones you don’t need to use, and do ONE more lap, using the same steady pace, but slower stroke rate.

    If everything has gone to plan you should find you finish the final lap easier and quicker than previous laps.

    You will also, hopefully, sense the immense ‘power surge’ that has actually come from the new vessel shape, created by tensing your body into a much more streamlined shape.

    Certainly for 60+ swimmers like myself there can be a huge noticeable difference and gains to be made.

    Of course, like Ledecky this is not something you can do for the whole 1500m as it can be tiring, but as part of a race strategy it can be a very effective weapon. AND it gives clues as to how swimmers can reduce drag in the water.

    I am sure Terry has a much more TI way saying what Ive said. Sorry Terry.

  17. jackie says:

    your info is a treasure!: unweighting out of the water, being relaxed in the water, and align segments to get an hydrodynamic shape to swim through the molecules of the water is what I sintesyze from your info, and it works!, and less movements in one pool!, thx, Terry!!!

  18. Jackie
    Thank you very much for reading my blog and leaving such a lovely and enthusiastic comment. I’m glad that TI brings you such pleasure.
    Next month (Oct 15-21) I will be in Sardegna, partly for vacation and partly to swim from Corsica to Sardegna with two friends.
    It will be my first visit to Italy in nearly 15 years, and only my 2nd overall.
    I’m really looking forward to it, and hope to return soon after to teach Total Immersion there and perhaps even train our first TI coaches in IT.

  19. Dave
    Thank you for reading and commenting. You’re on the right track, but using different language than I would. Most importantly I wouldn’t recommend tensing muscles–ANY muscles, much less all of them–to achieve a ‘Ledecky Effect.’

    Muscle *tone* is critical to maintaining a low-drag bodyline, but this is very different from tension.

    In fact, one of Katie’s great gifts or advantages over rival elite swimmers is that she stays noticeably more relaxed while swimming at top speed. They are visibly working harder–and wasting far more energy.

  20. Mike
    Everything you’ve written is quite true and you’ve articulated it well. There’s no question that ‘Paddle Size’ makes a difference. Elite level freestylers tend to have large hands and feet–which goes along with their overall greater-than-average height.

    However I think we should all remain mindful of two aspects of this:
    1) Hand and foot size is genetically determined. It’s not an aspect of swimming within our control.
    2) Reducing drag remains far more important than increasing propulsion–as shown by studies of fish, dolphins and elite human swimmers.

    It’s important to work on both resistance and propulsion at some point, staying conscious of priorities.

    Swimmers do have tremendous upside potential in how well they create propulsion with the hand. This comes from (i) achieving the most advantageous position of hand and arm; (ii) concentrating pressure entirely to the rear–avoiding pressure in any other direction; and (iii) applying pressure with great precision and sensitivity. It is ridiculously easy to convert hand pressure into turbulence and devilishly difficult to convert it into locomotion.

  21. Øivind Lien says:

    I don’t think this analysis is very impressive:
    “Under pressure, she made her stroke longer! Ledecky faced a serious challenge in only one race, the 200 meters, not taking the lead until the final 50. As she pulled away for the win, Ledecky took two fewer strokes than on the previous length.”

    But why is that? If you look at the turns, she is kicking for about two extra yards om her last lap. That would explain at least one of the strokes. And when she reaches the finish, she would obviously had taken an extra stroke to make a new turn. That explains the other stroke. So I think its fair to say that she more or less manage to keep her strokelength trough her race, but are not able to increase it.

    “In Katie’s case I’m fairly sure she used a combination of more propulsion and less drag. It would be nearly impossible to shave two strokes at that speed, without a significant contribution from drag avoidance.”

    Well, as you can see, my explanation is a bit simpler, but in my opinion more correct

  22. Øivind Lien says:

    “However Ledecky’s stroke efficiency is precisely measurable and was strikingly superior to that of any rival.”
    Regarding the 200 m freestyle. How can you possible say that? Ledecky uses one more stroke overall than Missy Franklin even though she is kicking longer after the turns. Pellegrini is making the fastest last lap. The differences in total time is so little, that they are of now significans to make any statements.

    “In fact, one of Katie’s great gifts or advantages over rival elite swimmers is that she stays noticeably more relaxed while swimming at top speed. They are visibly working harder–and wasting far more energy.”
    I find that very hard to see.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Confirmation bias, also called myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, prefer, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.”

  23. Oivind
    I’m sorry. You’re incorrect on the stroke counts. Though Missy Franklin is 3″/7.6cm taller than Ledecky, she took more strokes during the 200. I re-ran the race about 10 times to be sure of my count.
    As for the observation on Katie being noticeably more relaxed–while it is subjective–I took that from a comment Dr. Mike Joyner made in an article in Outside Magazine. As the director of exercise research at the Mayo Clinic, and one of the world’s leading authorities on Human Athletic Performance, Dr. Joyner is not generally thought of as suffering from Confirmation Bias.

  24. Oivind
    You are wholly entitled to your opinion.
    Thanks again for reading and commenting on my blog.

  25. Øivind Lien says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    I don’t agree on the stroke counts. I count every stroke under water including the stroke that initiates the turn.

    Here is my counts:
    Ledecky: 38 – 43 – 43 – 40 = 164
    Franklin: 37 – 40 – 42 – 44 = 163

    It’s obvious that Ledecky kicks for a longer distance, especially on the last lap, and thus are “swimming” a shorter distance than Franklin. If you compare them swimming side by side, they pretty much have the same stroke rate. As I Mentioned before, Ledecky is kicking for a longer distance on her last lap, which explains the reduction of strokes on that lap.

    By the way, here is Ledeckys stroke on the Pan American games: 39 – 42 – 42 – 43
    In this video, the reporter refers to Ledeckys coach, Bruce Gemmell, who said “that when she’s sprinting, she has a little bit of disadvantage because sometimes she tend to spin her wheels and losing the contact with the water.”
    Not exactly what your point is I suppose?

    My reference to the confirmation bias was not intended for Dr. Mike Joyner or the last statement in particular. (Maybe you should put a reference on that statement, by the way.)
    But the statement is highly subjective and, I would think, very hard to prove.

    The confirmation bias was ment as a comment to several aspects of this blog.
    Here are some:
    You do not mention Ledeckys longer kicking distance.
    You do not mention that Pelligrini has the strongest finish.
    When comparing Ledeckys average strokes per length on 200 and 1500, you don’t mention that the first lap and the last lap is not representative for the 200 m, and for that reason should not be counted in, when comparing the two distances.
    And you do not mention that the difference in time is only 0.33 seconds, or 0,28 %.

    And of course I question this statement:
    “However Ledecky’s stroke efficiency is precisely measurable and was strikingly superior to that of any rival.”
    Held up against her coaches statement, that seems a bit hasty.

    And just for the record, I think Ledecky is an incredible swimmer.

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