Speed vs. Technique?

by Coach Dave Tonnesen, Co-Founder SwimKids Swim Schools and ASCA Level 4 Coach

Ooooohhhh! Look at that swimmer...they make it look so easy, and they are so fast!

Don't you love to watch the Olympics! It is just awesome to watch Ryan Lochte make fast swimming look almost magically effortless.

How does he do it?

Well, the good news is that fast swimming is not magical, and when done right, fast swimming can look so beautiful that it appears almost effortless.

Let's start off with a couple questions. 

How do you progress your strokes and drop time? 

What should I focus on first, speed or technique?

The Basic Progression is:
Step 1 - Master Excellent Technique 
Step 2 - Maintain Excellent Technique while Building Endurance 
Step 3 - Speed with Excellent Technique

Why?

Technique is the key because water is roughly 1,000 times denser than air. In fact, if you fire a bullet into the water it will slow down to a speed that would not harm you at 6-8 feet depending on the weapon. In plain terms this means SWIM DEEP if being shot at, and for your swimming that means for every unit of speed that you achieve, you get a penalty of 4 units of drag to go along with your speed. In swimming, it is crucial to have great technique so that you can reduce your drag before focusing on endurance and speed.



Step 1 Master Excellent Technique - It is vital that you learn proper technique before you focus on endurance and speed. Proper technique is the fundamental building block for great swimming. It doesn't matter if you want to be a summer league swimmer, a high school swimmer, a college level swimmer, a nationally ranked swimmer or the next Michael Phelps. To reach your potential, you should have a solid foundation in proper stroke technique that progresses them to their desired goals.  Bill Sweetnam has a great quote, 99% right is 100% wrong.

Step 2: Swim Drill-Like (Build Endurance with Excellent Technique) - Once you have a solid foundation of proper stroke technique, your next step is be able to hold your excellent technique while building your endurance.  At SwimKids, we teach our swimmers their "IMPACT Drills." IMPACT Drills are the drills that are most impactful for each of your strokes. Your IMPACT drill is the drill that will give you the most benefit when you have mastered it and incorporated it into your stroke. IMPACT drills will change as you progresses, and your friends in your group will likely have different IMPACT drills from yours.  This allows you to take more ownership over your progressions while allowing your coaches to easily and quickly customize sets that are the most impactful for you and your friends.  For example, if I have a group of 10-12 year olds and we are doing a stroke focused practice in early October, a typical set would be 2x4x100 stroke with the focus on excellent IMPACT drills and swimming excellent technique on the last 25. (25 kick, 50 IMPACT drill, 25 swim fast drill-like).  IMPACT drills engage your mind in your own stroke progression.  Your coaches will hold you accountable for knowing your four IMPACT drills.  It takes some time at the beginning of the season, but it is a great way to stay engaged and give you a precise plan of exactly what you need to progress quickly.  This has been a great way for our swimmers to keep their excellent technique while improving their endurance.  An example of the next progression would be the same set, but 25 kick, 25 drill, 50 swim to improve endurance while still focusing on technique.   

Step 3: Race Drill-Like (Speed with Excellent Technique) - At this point, your training will vary depending on your goals and your family's time commitments. You will begin incorporating race strategies for everything from the 25 to 1,650, 100 to 400 IM, 25 to 200 of each stroke and relay strategies. You may learn about the importance of distance per stroke, stroke efficiency, cycles per second, break out for their starts and turns, the importance of underwater fly kick and mental training techniques among many other things.  This is the double edged sword where many swimmers and coaches struggle.  How do you hold technique and swim fast?  Most swimmers see this as an either/or situation.  At SwimKids, we use sets like the one above with a small twist - 2x4x100 stroke, Descend 1-4 & 5-8 (25 kick, 50 IMPACT drill, 25 swim fast drill-like). This is where we begin adding the time component into sets.  Another example 5x3x50 free hold stroke count and descend 1-3.  These sets are not usually achieved the first or second time age group swimmers attempt them.  These are the impact moments where character, determination and perseverance are taught.  We find humor helps work through frustration with post set pep talks like, "If it was easy, we would call it football!"

No matter what level swimmer you are or want to be it is crucial to understand that great technique comes first! 

So, to unlock the magic of fast swimming, focus of the technique improvements and have patience. Think in terms of a learning curve.



When you are in step 1 - mastering changes in your stroke technique, it is natural for you to be slow and deliberate.  It is common to overthink as you are learning this is very normal until you have mastered the technique. Once you have a solid stroke foundation, you will start climbing the learning curve and may drop time especially in longer events.  Focus should be on excellent technique and not time drops.  You will go through another learning curve in step 2 as you progress to holding your technique while improving your endurance (swimming drill-like).  In step 2, many swimmers see time drops in distance events, and even and negative splitting become easier.  The final step is swimming fast with excellent technique (Race Drill-Like) and holding that technique at race pace.  With persistence, patience and hard work the results will be MAGICAL!  Apply these basics and you will become one of those swimmers everyone ooooohhhhs at during your races!  I know you can do it!