Do you swim easily enough?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 9th, 2010

In my 50s I’ve come increasingly to appreciate the value of swimming easily, and using the practice of ease for improvement. As I’ve focused more on combining ease and excellence I’ve realized that few people know how to swim easily . . . well. This is most likely because the “protestant work ethic” has been so strong in sports generally and swimming in particular. ¬†Virtually everyone who does swimming as a sport, including triathletes, swim too hard, too often.

I first began to rethink what it meant to really swim easily in my early 50s. Amby Burfoot, executive editor of Runner’s World and a former Boston Marathon champion, related to me that the great Kenyan marathoners would warm up for workouts running at approximtely a 9-minute mile pace. For most of us that’s pretty fleet. But since they can run 26.2 miles at a pace of around 4:45 per mile it meant they were running at just over half their race speed. I compared that with my own usual warmup pace in swimming.

In recent years my pace for a best-pace mile in a 25-yard pool (1650 yards) has been about 1:16 to 1:17 per 100. If I warmed up for my practices like a Kenyan runner I would be swimming at a pace of 2:15 to 2:20 per 100 yards. Instead my initial warmup pace has usually been near, or under 1:30 per 100. After learning about the Kenyans’ warmup pace from Amby I began to swim much more easily and slowly for the first 6 to 10 minutes of every practice. It resulted in achieving a much deeper state of relaxation at the beginning of practice, which I found increased the sense of relaxation I could maintain in nearly every practice item that followed, even the faster-paced sets.

The second key lesson I learned about the value of ease was from Jonty Skinner, who was Director of Performance Science for USA Swimming, until last year when British Swimming hired him for a similar position as they gear up to host the Olympics. Jonty told me that most swimmers do their aerobic training too hard. He said that a reasonably-well-conditioned swimming (as distinguished from a former coach potato who just begins swimming) achieves peak aerobic fitness within 8 to 10 weeks of beginning a training cycle. Beyond that point, aerobic fitness doesn’t improve no matter how much aerobic training you do.

After that point, Jonty said, the primary value of aerobic training is for restoration or recovery. The training that has the most influence on how you perform in a race is neurological – i.e. programming your nervous system to maintain certain combinations of Stroke Length and Stroke Rate. Maintaining a high level combination – long, efficient strokes, repeated at brisk tempos – is metabolically demanding.

According to both Jonty and Mayo Clinic exercise physiologist Mike Joyner M.D. to improve your pace in races or timed efforts, it’s critical to swim at combinations of SL and SR that are near the limit of your current capability. That’s not only exacting in a neural sense, it’s also difficult physically. The critical contribution of aerobic training is to help you recover from one quality session for the next. If you swim just a bit too hard on an aerobic set, you won’t recover as well and will be too tired, or lack sharpness for your next high-performance training set.

I followed Jonty’s advice in 2006, when I turned 55. I found myself swimming a lot more easily on most sets than I had previously. But that meant I was able to swim a LOT faster on certain sets where that was my intention. While doing so it became clear to me that virtually everyone else at my Masters group had a much narrower band of training speeds. They went too hard too often to be able to perform very high quality at key times.

The benefits of easier swimming, so that I could swim faster at the right times, were obvious when I swam the Zone and National Championship races that far. My times were the fastest I had seen in some 12 years.

Mike Joyner recalled advice he gave to a near-elite runner whose performances had been flat for several years. “Make your hard days harder and your easy days easier.” After doing so, that runner progressed to the elite level.

11 Responses to “Do you swim easily enough?”

  1. Jose Diaz says:

    Thank you for your information is very interesting, your blog is a source of learning for me …. and my improvement.

  2. I shared this post with one of my triathletes whom I swam with today for the first time. I helped her find a stroke range between 11 and 20 strokes, whereas when we started she was pretty much stuck at 18-19 strokes for everything. the low end had a lot of gliding…but having never done that before, it was eye opening to her as well.

    I’m hoping that by teaching her “easier” swimming, she’ll have more energy to focus on form, and not just hitting intervals. but it’s hard to tell 20 year olds to slow down!

  3. Sarah Bennett-Davidson says:

    Thank you for your inspiring post. When I first started learning TI, was doing 11-12 spl at a snail’s pace. Now I have allowed myself to go faster, at about 15-18 spl. Maybe it’s time to rediscover that leisurely gliding 12 spl, and mix it up with the 18…

  4. Sarah That’s a good idea. For most of my swimming I use a range of about 4 SPL in the short-course pool. In my case 12-15 or, if I’m a bit tired or the pool is more crowded and turbulent, 13-16. But early in warmup, or on occasion for more of a practice, I’ll expand that range by a couple more strokes at the low end, making the range, say, 10-15. My goal is always to improve my swimming at EVERY count in my range, which means wrining out a bit more speed with no more effort and even greater sense of harmony.

  5. Brian says:

    Great!! Just what I need, I am training for my first Sprint Tri which takes place on the 22nd of this month and any advice is welcomed.

  6. Rick Vasquez says:

    I have been taught to always train to mirror or match race conditions and pace. So if you consistently swim slow your muscles and mind get grooved into that pace then come race day and you shock your muscles and mind & your heart rate skyrockets and you lose your race plan. Maybe I am missing something in regards to the consistency and frequency of slow pace swimming.

  7. John Ashley says:

    Lately I have been aiming to increase my FS speed, discovering that my left side breath was slightly restricted, whilst the right side is full and relaxed. I slowed my effort much like you have described above. The important lesson I have been reinforcing through the practise is that the relaxed connected feeling must be an enduring foundation that is maintained even at the fastest speed. Another element I identified is that my maximum effort in FS puts very little effort through my arms, if I push form from my hips. These foundation behaviours are part of a slow swimming audit that involves, feelings, visualisation and balance.

  8. John Thanks for an eloquent comment. When asked about the qualities he emphasized when coaching Alexandre Popov and others Gennadi Touretski always mentioned the “3 R’s” – Range, Rhythm, and Relaxation. You could certainly see all three manifest in Popov’s swimming. I had the privilege to watch him practice for a cumulative total of 6 hours in 1998 while he was in NY for the Goodwill Games. I saw him repeatedly swim at (what were for him, if not the rest of us) superslow speeds with a superhuman grace and flow. His bodyline looked aligned and toned, but at the extremities he was utterly relaxed. As he added speed, he lost none of his relaxed appearance. It was evident that he established relaxation as the “enduring foundation” for his fast swimming as well.

  9. Rick – See John Ashley’s comment and my reply.

  10. E.P. Pearl says:

    I read one of the TI books last summer and it was an amazing relevation because I too was taught competitive swimming back in the ’60s where it was all about turning over those arms as fast as you could. Now I “ride the glide” and am swimming smooth and relaxed, but am swimming fast as well. My problem was getting used to a completely different stroke rate when I was sprinting in a race. I found myself coming up on the wall too fast, which threw off the timing on my flip turns. Once, I nearly hit my head on the wall in my first Masters race because I was not accustomed to sprinting speed with TI swimming. I went back to the drawing board and practice more sprint sets.
    Last week at my pool, a High School swimmer challenged me to a 50-yd sprint race. I was an hour into my workout so my calves were about shot, but I could see the youngster really wanted to race, so I agreed. I was surprised that my TI training kicked in and I maintained a “sprinters mindset and pace” while keeping everything smooth and relaxed. This helped me to time my flip-turn perfectly and the eager kid got royally smoked by a 55-year-old dude who was an hour into his workout. Thank you, Terry.

  11. E.P. Your account of outswimming the cheeky kid by stroking more effectively made me wonder whether the two of you looked like Jason Lezak and Alain Bernard swimming the anchor legs of the 4×100 relay in Beijing. Check out the difference between the “Patient Catch” of the US swimmers in lane 4 and the “Hurried Catch” of the French swimmers in lane 6 in this underwater video. On the final 50 Lezak took 34 strokes to Bernard’s 46.

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