How to Increase Your Swimming Speed

Ryan Lochte of the United States swims to the gold medal in the final of the Men's 400m Individual Medley, at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Rome, on Aug. 2, 2009.
Ryan Lochte of the United States swims to the gold medal in the final of the Men's 400m Individual Medley, at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Rome, on Aug. 2, 2009.
AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis

Although many of us know how to swim, few of us truly master the technique. If we walked the way most of us thrash in the water, we'd still be stumbling around like toddlers, stomping and lurching from one handhold to the next. Practiced swimmers seem magically better than the rest of us at gliding through the water; Olympians seem almost to defy physics. How do they do it?

Sure, they're in top physical form, but there's more than fitness at work: Their technique is nearly flawless as well. Unfortunately, hidden in all of that water and motion, it's difficult to see what great swimmers are doing differently from the rest of us -- but, oh, what a difference it makes.

Weaknesses in swimming skills transform what should be a fun recreational activity and challenging sport into a grueling chore. Many people, for example, hunch their shoulders while doing the breaststroke, restricting their capacity to breathe. The resulting shallower respiration causes them to tire much more quickly than they should [source: Bee].

Poor swimming habits can also lead to injuries, pain and muscle strains. People who hold their heads too high while doing the front crawl (freestyle) tend to strain their back and neck muscles; swimmers who lack sufficient hip rotation while backstroking experience decreased shoulder mobility, resulting in neck and upper-back pain. Inexpert swimmers often crane their neck during the breaststroke when trying to breathe, creating a whipping motion that can generate injuries akin to whiplash.

With the right technique and a good exercise regimen, however, you can shave valuable seconds off your time. Even the dreaded butterfly, which many regard to be trickiest and most wearying stroke, can be tamed with the proper technique [source: Bee].

In this article, we'll give you the tools you need to get out of your water wings and into the record books. Everybody into the pool!

Techniques That Maximize Swimming Speed

The best swimmers don't swim faster merely by increasing their strokes per second; they do it by making each stroke do more work.

Maximizing swimming speed comes down to reducing drag while maximizing buoyancy, body fitness and the stroke efficiency. In other words, it's about getting the most bang for your buck. Think about it this way: If you were designing a Formula One racecar, you'd want to cut down its wind resistance, pack it with the most powerful engine available and equip it with a powertrain that could bring as much of that power to bear on the track as possible.

Now, let's look at how best to transform you into a sleek engine of efficiency with the most common stroke: the front crawl, or freestyle.

Good head position helps control drag and ensure that you can breathe effectively. If your noggin rides too high or low in the water, you might as well hang a 25-pound (11.3-kilogram) bowling ball around your neck. In proper position, the water should break just over your forehead as you swim. When breathing, don't turn your head beyond 90 degrees: Craning your neck not only strains your muscles, it slows you down.

Proper body posture and a balance on your center of buoyancy will minimize your drag and maximize your stroke effectiveness. Your buoyancy center usually sits in your chest, near the sternum. Pushing your upper chest outward will keep you balanced while also pushing your hips (the chief source of your swimming power) higher in the water.

Kicking is a common weak spot for many swimmers. Not only does it burn a lot of energy if done improperly -- it can actually slow you down. Whether you use a flutter kick for sprinting or a crossover kick for distance, keep your legs close together. It might help to imagine that you're swimming through a set of narrow, floating rings [source: Kostich].

Ultimately, the key to swimming faster lies in moving more water per stroke. The more water you move, the more power you transfer and (all else being equal) the faster you go. First, make sure you are maximizing your extension with each stroke. As you reach forward, extend your arm to its maximum length. During the stroke, your arm should move in toward your bellybutton, and then out again (the "hourglass pull"), maximizing the amount of water your arm "pulls" during the stroke [source: Kostich]. If you're doing it properly, it should feel like you are climbing a ladder made of "solid" rungs of water. Extend your arm downward as you complete your stroke. Your hand should just brush your thigh as it exits the water [source: GSU].

As you move one arm through a stroke and bring the other forward, your body will naturally want to rotate. Let it. Develop a feel for this rhythm. As your right arm extends forward, your body should rotate rightward, preparing for your next stroke. Simultaneously, your left side should breach the surface as you begin to bring your left arm out of the water. Your total rotation from stroke to stroke will last about one-third of a circle. Remember to breathe on both strokes (bilaterally).

That's about it for technique, but be sure to work on your turns and kickoffs as well. Finish with a strong final stroke into the wall -- don't let your speed bleed off by coasting [source: Kostich].

Now that you have the technique down, let's do some laps to get you in peak condition.

Workouts to Increase Swimming Speed

Improving your technique alone may improve your speed quite a bit at first, but in order to see long-term improvement, you need a good workout plan. Workouts should be fun and should focus on a variety of key areas. Some coaches recommend a rotation, switching between technique, sprinting, distance and interval training. It's also best to train with a wide range of strokes, which will recruit more of your body's muscles, improving your overall strength as a swimmer.

As with any training, you should begin your water workouts with a warm-up swim and end with a cool-down swim. Usually 200 to 500 meters each, depending on your workout that day.

Technique-focused workouts entail a mix of long, medium and short sessions, and alternate a variety of stroke or kick exercises in succession. Generally, plans rotate between freestyle and the butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. During kick exercises, try switching from using a kickboard to not using a kickboard and back again.

Sprint workouts, conversely, are all about short and medium-length swims. Speeds change during each heat; the first run might alternate between slow and medium, the second between medium and fast and so on. During the fastest laps, the ratio of sprints to fast strokes should be about 3:1, with a brief rest between the fast laps and the full-on sprints.

Distance workouts usually use a forward crawl (freestyle) stroke. Sometimes, swimmers will kick with a board and fins during the kick sections of the workout, then switch to a pull buoy and paddles for the pull sections. These allow the swimmer to focus on particular areas he or she wishes to strengthen. If endurance is your goal, cross-training (running and biking) can also improve your conditioning while helping to prevent injuries stemming from too much swimming.

Interval training shares much in common with sprint training, but each set switches more frequently between speeds. For example, if a sprint set alternates between medium and fast in a sprint workout, an interval set might switch between slow and fast.

Many swimmers, especially triathletes, feel that they have to put thousands of yards behind them daily or risk losing their conditioning. Although this can be useful in certain cases, the lack of recovery time can also leave you fatigued and prone to injury. You might get more bang for your buck by improving your cardiovascular efficiency: Instead of swimming slowly for long distances, swim shorter, faster sessions with shorter breaks. This can help you meet your speed goals.

For more information about swimming speed and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Bee, Peta. "Improving Your Swimming Technique." The Times (London). March 20, 2008. (Aug. 26, 2010) http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article3592554.ece
  • Connor, Steve. "Sharkskin Swimsuits Lead Hi-Tech Bid for Olympic Gold." March 17, 2000. (Aug. 25, 2010) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/sharkskin-swimsuits-lead-hitech-bid-for-olympic-gold-724371.html
  • Counsilman, James E. and Counsilman, Brian E. "The New Science of Swimming." Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1994.
  • Georgia State University Department of Kinesiology and Health. "Swimming." (Aug. 28, 2010) http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwfit/swimming.html
  • Kostich, Alex. "10 Elements of a Perfect Freestyle Stroke." Coach TJ Tryon. (Aug. 25, 2010) http://www.coachtj.com/?page_id=157
  • Kostich, Alex. "How to Boost Your Speed Over the Long Haul." (Aug. 27, 2010) http://www.active.com/swimming/Articles/ Fitness_Makeover__How_to_boost_your_swim_speed_over_the_long_haul_.htm
  • Lilley, Erika. "Four Focused Swim Workouts." (Aug. 26, 2010) http://www.coachtj.com/?page_id=63
  • Newsome, Paul. "Training for Swimming - Maximize Your Speed With CSS / Threshold Work." (Aug. 25, 2010) http://www.swimsmooth.com/training.html