How I Used Principles-Based Training to Swim Faster in Spring and Summer
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 28th, 2015

This is the third post in a series describing how to swim faster with a principles-based approach. In this post I share the thought process that guides my own training. Speed isn’t my highest priority, but I frequently use it to measure the effectiveness of my efforts.

Five Core Truths of Speed

To follow a principles-based approach, you drill down to identify core truths about something, then use them to guide your actions. Here are five core truths about speed in swimming that guide the TI Method:

  1. Speed is a math problem captured in the equation Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate or V = SL x SR. [Measure Length and Rate in training via Strokes Per Length (SPL) and Tempo.]
  2. Because Stroke Length is the factor in that equation with the strongest proven correlation with speed, it should be your starting point. [Use the TI Green Zone chart to determine how many strokes per length (SPL) is efficient for your height. Download for free here.]
  3. Achieving your most efficient SPL–most swimmers take too many strokes–requires considerable skill . . . primarily the skill of minimizing drag. [Learn these skills with the downloadable TI Self-Coaching Toolkit.]toolkit.jpg
  4. For a simple and foolproof way to swim faster, incrementally increase Tempo, while keeping SPL constant. [Doing this with a Tempo Trainer is the most precise way to do so.]TT Pro
  5. Because drag increases exponentially with gains in speed (2x faster = 4x drag), streamlining skill becomes increasingly important as you swim faster.

In the first post in this series, Can You Swim Faster . . . Easier? I explained why initial efforts to increase speed should focus on learning to swim your current pace with less effort. Reduce energy waste and drag; minimize wavemaking and turbulence; control stroke count and pace.

In the second post Want to swim like Katie Ledecky? You can! I showed that learnable skills were critical to the most dominant distance freestyle performance in swimming history. To recap, Katie was the best in the field at:

  • Maintaining a highly efficient stroke count—at the lower end of her personal Green Zone, even at top speed.
  • Keeping SPL consistent at a wide range distances and speeds.
  • Increasing Stroke Rate/Tempo while maintaining a highly efficient SPL.

Terry’s Training Lab

My three highest priorities in swim training are:

  1. Mens sana in corpore sano—the ancient Latin phrase meaning ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.’
  2. 2. To be energized, mentally and physically, for everything else I’d like to do that day.
  3. To use my training as a ‘laboratory’ to learn what works in swimming, in both technique and training.

I consistently accomplish all three with practices I refer to as ‘Terry’s Training Lab,’ a name inspired by Mike Bryant, an avid Ironman triathlete and improvement-minded swimmer, who refers to practice sessions as his Aqua Lab.

I’ll turn 65 in six months—and have been swimming for over 50 years—so personal best times are no longer a realistic goal. However I keep my passion for improvement high by doing an Improvement Project several times a year. (The inspiration for this also came from a TI enthusiast–Andy Miller, of Brighton, England, who posts on the TI Discussion Forum as “Andy in Norway.”)

Improvement Projects have these elements:

  1. A defined time frame. Mine have lasted from 30 days to 12 weeks. Shorter is generally better because it concentrates your focus. Your time frame can be measured in number of practices or practice hours, or a calendar period.
  2. A measurable goal. The goal comes from an initial test, or assessment, swim or set, including at least two of these three metrics—Time, SPL, or Tempo. You conclude the project by repeating this test swim—and sometimes repeat it at intervals during the project.
  3. An improvement plan. Use information from the test set to plan your practices. Each practice should focus on making tiny improvements on one or more metrics in your test swim, and/or from an earlier practice during the project.

Accountability This is an optional, but critical, element. Andy announced his project—to see how much he could improve his personal best for 400 meters time in 21 practices—on the Forum, and gave periodic progress reports. When you make your goal public—whether to one person, or potentially thousands, as on the TI Forum—you’ll pursue it with greater commitment.

I’ve logged each of my Improvement Projects on the Favorite Practices and Sets conference on the TI Forum. In each, I’ve improved on my initial test set by between 5 and 10 percent. Given my age, half-century-long swimming history, and the relatively minimal training volume during these projects, that is quite striking improvement.

My most important benefit is the galvanizing sense of mission I experience during a project. Each time I go to the pool or lake, I know the precise purpose and ‘success metrics’ of that practice. My consistency in meeting practice goals has created a sense of anticipation and excitement for each swim. That success and satisfaction has flowed from principles-based training, guided by the Core Truths of Speed listed above.

Here are summaries of my last two Improvement Projects.

Terry’s Spring Training Project (click to read all posts)

I began on April 20 with a test set of 3 x 550 yards on interval of 10:00. I chose 3 x 550 because it adds up to 1650y, the equivalent of 1500m in a 25y pool. I’d just taken a 7-month training hiatus, my longest downtime in many years, and thought this would be a good way to prepare for open water races I expected to do beginning in June or July.

On April 20, I swam as follows:

#1 Tempo 1.20 sec/stroke.    Time 8:31

#2 Tempo 1.17                    Time 8:27

#3 Tempo 1.15                    Time 8:25

My cumulative ‘broken’ 1650y time was 25:23.

I chose somewhat ‘leisurely’ tempos because of my lengthy downtime. I estimated they’d allow me to avoid exceeding 16 SPL–the top count in my 25y Green Zone.

My guesstimate turned out to be quite accurate. I was able to easily hold 14 SPL at the start, but it took maximum focus and self-control to avoid exceeding 16 SPL at the end.

Over the next two months, I trained 3 times per week, for an average of just 2000 yards per session. You can review every practice here. Each was focused on making tiny but steady improvements in SPL and/or Tempo from the test set and previous practices.

On June 22, I concluded my Spring Training Lab by repeating my test set of 3 x 550y on 10:00. This practice was the first time I didn’t use a Tempo Trainer. Instead I used SPL as my controlling metric, starting at 14 SPL and finishing at 16 SPL, as on my baseline test two months earlier.

My ‘final exam’ results:

#1 14-15 SPL   Time 8:04

#2 15-16 SPL   Time 7:46

#3  16 SPL         Time 7:45 (I was fighting off foot cramps on this 550.)

My ‘broken’ 1650 time improved to 23:35. This was 7% faster than on April 20—a very significant payoff for rather modest training.

Terry’s Summer Training Project (click to read all posts)

Three days later I began my summer project, which would combine practices in an outdoor 50m pool with open water swims in Lake Minnewaska. I chose a ‘broken’ 1500m baseline test—done as 5 x 300m on 6:00–to maintain consistency with my spring project. I chose the shorter repeats because I began this project with a well-tuned stroke and much better fitness and believed shorter training swims would allow more progress.

For my initial test set of 5 x 300, I decided to start at 40 SPL and allow my count to rise to 41 then 42 (my 50m Green Zone is 36 to 44 SPL) while also increasing stroke-pressure from ‘featherlight’ to ‘firm.’

My times that day were 5:06, 4:59, 4:56, 4:52, 4:52 for a cumulative broken 1500m time of 24:45. I calculated my average tempo on this set as 1.13 sec/stroke.

The two metrics of average SPL and total 1500m time allowed me to calculate the third key metric—Tempo—with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I would use these three metrics in planning my pool and open water practices.

Training in both pool and lake allowed me to be a bit more creative in my summer project than in the spring. I planned to repeat the 5 x 300 every 10 to 14 days, with about six pool or lake practices in between. I know from experience, I can adjust to a faster range of tempo in open water than in the pool. So I planned to push my lake tempo—with a goal of being comfortable and efficient a week or two later in the pool at that same tempo. My goal was to see how much I could increase tempo, while staying close to my initial SPL

In mid-summer, I switched to doing the 5 x 300 with tempo, rather than SPL, as the primary metric. I did this because the spread between my time on the first and last 300m repeats had been too great. By increasing tempo by just .01 second on each repeat, I reasoned I should have a much closer spread—and thus a faster cumulative time for the broken 1500.

When I made that change, I still improved my time on each 300, but I reduced the average spread between fastest and slowest from 14 seconds, to 7 seconds. The key to doing this is to control increase in SPL (loss in SL) as tempo increases. That required intense focus.

On Sept 6, I swam my final test set of 5 x 300 on 6:00. I started at 1.04 sec/stroke tempo and a time of 4:47 (five seconds faster than any 300 on my initial test) and finished at 0.98 tempo and a time of 4:39.

My cumulative 1500 time was 23:41, an improvement of 1:04 and 5 percent from 10 weeks earlier. During those 10 weeks I’d averaged only 2000 meters per practice.

By making precise adjustments, I increased average tempo from 1.13 to 1.00 sec/stroke, while adding only two strokes—from 41 to 43–to average SPL. I increased tempo by 13 percent, while limiting increase in SPL to 5 percent.

In other words, I improved my 1500-meter pace by over a minute by ‘solving’ speed as a math problem.


In both Improvement Projects, I used a principles-based approach as follows:

  1. Began with Stroke Length/SPL as my primary factor.
  2. Devoted every meter of practice to a problem-solving exercises in the math of speed. Every meter was also 100% specific to my personal capacities on that day.
  3. Never gave a thought to conditioning, yet gained steadily in fitness. As my nervous system adapted to more  difficult combinations of SPL and Tempo–and I swim faster as a result–my fitness gains were specific to my exact requirements at that moment.
  4. These brief periods of highly focused, utterly precise, low-yardage training period resulted in significant gains in speed.
  5. Every practice left me highly energized, mentally and physically, for my other activities.
  6. I learned invaluable lessons about high-efficiency training which I’m sharing with you here.

If you browse the posts on these Forum threads, you’ll find detailed notes on how I planned and adjusted my approach, as well as replies to queries or comments from other Forum members.

3 Responses to “How I Used Principles-Based Training to Swim Faster in Spring and Summer”

  1. Lazzaro says:

    how can you “decide” to swim 50m at precisely 40, 41 or 42 SPL? How is it possibile to have such an instant feeling and certainty?

    Best regards,

  2. Lazzaro
    I’m delighted to have a reader in Italy. I recently returned from Italy, where I went to swim from Corsica to Sardinia. Thank you for following–and commenting on–my blog.
    The answer to your question of how I can choose–and swim–a particular stroke count with such precision is the same as the answer to the question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall” (In Italy, it might be asked “Come si arrive a Teatro alla Scala?”)
    The answer is “Practice.”
    I’ve been counting strokes for so many years I no longer even have to think to do it. It’s automatic.
    Not long after I began counting strokes, I began to give myself challenging stroke-count exercises.
    The simplest was to swim 4 rounds of (3 x 25) with each round at, e.g. 15-16-17 SPL (25m pool).
    A little more difficult would be to swim the same set, but at 17-16-15 SPL.
    It’s brought me a great deal of pleasure, but also an unusual degree of skill.
    Molte grazie, Terry

  3. […] more ideas on creating swimming improvement projects, check Terry Laughlin’s  Swim Well blog, or check the Total Immersion website forums as […]

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