Little-Known Fact about Speed
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 22nd, 2010

Over the past five years I’ve done, by far, the best competitive/performance swimming of my life, in the 55-59 age group, winning national titles, setting age group records and ranking among the ‘elite’ swimmers in my peer group – something I could never have imagined 40, or even 10, years previously.

In March, I’ll move into the 60-64 age group and have expanded the range of my ambitions. Once again, I hope to perform among the ‘world elite’ of that age group in my favorite events – 1 to 3 miles in open water. I also hope to break an Adirondack Masters record in every pool discipline – i.e. in all 4 strokes plus the IM. ¬†Finally, influenced by the book “Younger Next Year,” I hope to match or come very close to the pool times I recorded at 55. What makes this daunting is that those times were the fastest I’d swum since age 42, ‘turning back the clock’ 13 years. Can I now turn it back almost 20 years?

To reach that goal I must remain mindful of the following:

1. Velocity = Length x Rate.

2. Of the two, Length is the most persistent and exacting challenge. Rate is almost irresistible. Unskilled swimmers have too much of it and virtually no ability to create Length.

Even skilled swimmers – including elites – tend to find it incredibly difficult to sustain length as the race goes on.

Little known fact about Speed. In the 100 meters everyone is slowing down over the last 25m. Those who slow the least end up as the winners and medalists.

And what differentiates winners from losers? Everyone increases rate near the end. Losers sacrifice length. Winners maintain it.

In the 1500 meters, winners are increasing pace near the end. (The majority of American and World records from 400 meters up were set with negatives-split pacing. I.E. Swimming the 2nd half of the race faster than the 1st half.)

Both winners and losers are typically increasing rate (i.e. stroking faster) in the final quarter. Winners – as in the 100-meters – do a better job of maintaining length. Losers give up length and therefore fall off the pace.

Knowing this, a lot of my training is geared to ‘programming’ my nervous system to improving and maintaining Length.

Creating and maintaining Stroke Length takes great mechanical efficiency and unwavering mental focus.

Rate, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously easy to program. All I have to do is press the right button on my Tempo Trainer.

6 Responses to “Little-Known Fact about Speed”

  1. Thorsten says:

    The aspect of all this that I find entirely missing in your discussion is strength. Where I find that I have trouble maintaining length while increasing rate is in continuing to apply the same force to each pull. My body just doesn’t have the strength to do that, or perhaps only for a single 50m and then I have to go real slow. I can, however, increase the rate much more easily and that does make me go faster. It may be that if I increased the rate less and maintained length better that I would use less energy overall (that’s how I understand your argument), but I don’t have the strength to do that.
    In a way, just like you have velocity = length * rate there must be an energy = force * rate equation. This means that if you reach max force, you may still go faster by increasing rate. If you’re not at max force, perhaps you should increase that first because it’s easier to maintain streamlining with higher force than with higher rate.
    Uh, oh, all a bit abstract, hope it made some sense.

  2. Thorsten I understand your point. Power is indeed part of the equation. To propel my body farther in a stroke may require more power. I say ‘may’ because I do all I can to minimize the need for power before I make any effort to increase it.
    When I do seek to increase it, then I seek to minimize the force needed to generate power. I do that by focusing on improvements in the integration of my stroke. Yesterday my final set was 8 x 25 FLY @ 8SPL on :45 interval. I averaged 21 sec. However #8 felt noticeably easier and smoother than #1 because I had focused the entire set on better integrating my stroke. I swam as fast, but worked less. I’m not sure how power measures would come out. All I care about is same speed for less effort. Or more speed for same effort.

  3. Harry says:

    I have a very short stroke length and can only do a 50m lap at a minimum of 45 strokes. I have been told i need to increase SL, what can i do to improve this in training?

  4. Improve Balance and Streamlining.

  5. Lance R. says:

    Harry, get some lessons. Aside from that, look up hip drive. Have someone watch you swim to verify/correct the timing of your extension/rotation. You really should learn to glide more while in a good one-hand-forward streamline (right after that extension/rotation…hold that position on your side longer than normal, makes for a really effective drill), rather than taking that next stroke. Remember that decreasing drag at higher speeds always yields more speed than an increase in propulsive power. Make sure that your neck is neutral (look straight down at the tiles and keep this alignment even as you take a breath). None of us would be able to correct these things for ourselves alone… you need an instructor.

  6. Lance R. says:

    Of course you should master one element at a time, another reason for outside instruction.

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