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Efficient Swimming

Last weekend I spent some time on YouTube doing some swimming research. The internet is a terrific medium for looking at ideas, research and training methods on a global level. The only problem is anyone can publish on the internet. After searching ‘efficient swimming’ and looking at all the different YouTube submissions even I was getting a little confused,  it is difficult to ascertain who is the ‘expert’ and correct, let alone who is explaining Efficient Swimming best. I thought it best to retire to my back garden and study my fish in the pond for a time to see if by studying their swim action I could ascertain the true answer to efficient swimming; alas no, but it was very relaxing.

For this article on Efficient Swimming I am going to be forced to go it alone and use my knowledge built up over my years of swimming and swim coaching. To start there is no point talking about Efficient Swimming unless I first define it for you. ‘Efficient’ in the eyes of FitandAbel is ‘achieving the maximum amount of productivity with the minimum of waste’. In the realm of swimming take ‘productivity’ to means forward propulsion.

The equation for fast swimming is the same as it is for efficient swimming = stroke rate + stroke length, with the most efficient or the fastest outcome being a balance between the two. The easiest and most commonly adjusted factor is the stroke rate. Howver, just like driving a car, it’s pretty easy to put your foot down hard on the accelerator and spin the wheels however the resulting forward speed is likely to be minimal at best.

The equation will work for every single swimmer, although the magic balance point between stroke rate and stroke length will vary between individuals and is influenced by a great number of variables, height, weight, ability, technique, level of fitness etc and etc. Differences in height for example will inevitably result in differences in stroke rate. Take two female swimmers, of a similar level of fitness and ability. The only difference is one is 1.65 meters tall and the other is 1.81 meters tall. All things considered one would expect the taller one to have a much lower stroke rate per lap than the shorter one. Their power to weight ratio will be different therefore there efficient swimming ratio will also be different.

Let us look at some actual examples, The USA swimmer Janet Evans set one of the world’s greatest ever swim world records in the 400 Meter Freestyle at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 (the record stood for 20years!), she also has a phenomenally high stroke rate. Is this surprising? Not really, Janet is 1.65M tall, shorter stature, shorter arms means her stroke rate needs to be higher. When looking at Janets swim and applying FitandAbel’s efficient swimming equation one should pay more attention to her pull under the water than her stroke rate. Janet had a phenomenally high elbow position under water meaning she maximised her forward momentum for each stroke meaning greater output less waste.

Let’s look at another example, Grant Hackett holder of the World Record in the 1500 Freestyle from 2001 through to 2011. This record was broken by the amazing young Chinese swimmer Sun Yang at the 2011 World Championships. Both swimmers are 1.98 M tall. Sun Yang managed to average two strokes less per length over the race than Hackett in his world record swim. It is clear that Yang has optimised his output per arm stroke and minimised waste resulting in an amazing world record swim.

With this in mind does counting your stroke over a length give you a helpful measure? Absolutely it does. I would also encourage swimmers to time their lap as well, trying to reduce the amount of strokes in a lap while maintaining the same time is a good method of measure increased efficiency in your stroke length. Will increasing your stroke rate make you go faster, yes definitely, but eventually you will reach a point of decreasing amount of return for effort as the stroke rate increases. This has application both in the pool and the open water. You are looking for speed and efficiency; which means covering as much distance as possible with minimal waste. By reducing waste a swimmer can swim faster, swim further or a combination of the two.

Refine your technique, starting from the bigger things and work your way down to the smaller more subtle changes. Improve your fitness and adjust your training for the length of your swim. A 100 Meter swimmer will train differently to a 10km marathon swimmer, their stroke rate x stroke length equation will be different. As you improve both technique and fitness be more cognisant of what you are doing while swimming, are your shoulders and hips rotating around a central axis? Is your elbow high at the start of your pull phase?  The secret to efficient and faster swimming is that there is no secret.

Happy swimming, Dan

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