Speed and time is the traditional metric for measuring swimming ability.
Yes, it seems a bit arbitrary but then again, no, it’s not.
Sure, we all want to swim a long way in a relaxed and sustainable fashion and that is great but all that is easier and more obtainable if you have developed the technique to swim fast.
Speed through the water is mostly technique with fitness thrown in as a bonus, not the other way around like many other activities.
Swimming as a sport and industry has come to appreciate long-distance swimming only in the last 20-odd years. But speed and times have always been number one. A fast swimmer can transition to distance swimming pretty readily. A slow swimmer can easily get in trouble in open water events.
Anyway, now is the time of year for plenty of events, triathlons, races etc so how do you train to build your speed?
13 tips to swim faster
- Go to the pool. Yes, we love swimming in the ocean but it’s not making you quicker. Laps of the pool make you quicker. Interval training makes you quicker.
- Train fast to get faster: Don’t train at 50% or even 90% max effort – you can’t get faster doing that. You have to train at 100% effort. You have to swim faster than you have swum before to increase your speed in the water. If you are not pushing yourself to top speed in training, you won’t be able to go fast in a race or event. This might mean you have to swim shorter distances – down to 25m at a go – to really ensure you are pushing yourself to maximum pace.
- Quality of metres, not quantity of metres, is what counts if you want to increase your swim speed. Lots of kilometres, swum relatively slowly is the training you do if you want to swim slowly for a long distance. If you want to increase your speed, do this: swim fast, rest, then swim faster, rest again, repeat. If you want to swim fast for a long distance in the open water, you have to mix things up. Swim fast intervals a couple of times per week at the pool then do one long swim each week.
- Relax to swim fast. All this info is not designed to stress you out. You can’t grit your teeth and pull hard through the water and get faster. Everything has to be fluid. Your technique has to be better than ever before if you want to travel through the water faster than ever before. The water is unforgiving of bad technique. The water loves you if you do things correctly.
- Be firm in your core, don’t wiggle and snake through the water. Reach out in front until your elbows are straight. Be long. Develop a feeling of reaching so far with your shoulders and back that you are stretching yourself longer and taller. Maintain a firm spot just under your belly button.
- Get narrow and straight. Like a streamlined torpedo. Legs close together. Arms coming straight through under the water and straight back through the air, close to your body. That means high elbows.
- Rock, don’t roll. When you reach forward, rock using your abs in your stomach. Your shoulder will move forward and your other shoulder will turn so it’s out of the water, allowing your recovering arm to cleanly get back to the front for the next stroke. Your hips though need to stay fairly stable, not rolling from side to side.
- Faster stroke rate? Yes. Shorter stroke length? No. The best way to tire yourself out is to take lots of strokes. Every stroke has to count and be worth the effort you’re making. Don’t give up on your stroke halfway – keep pushing until your thumb flicks past your hip or thigh.
- Your kick has to be pretty good. Keep legs close together, pretty straight and toes pointy. Your legs can undermine all your upper body effort. A good kick can even give you some go-forward speed but the first consideration is to keep them up behind you, at the top of the water.
- Fingers get wider apart – The faster you swim, the wider apart your fingers need to be. You have to be grabbing more water.
- Elbows need to be high, forearms vertical really early in your stroke and your hand has to get ‘behind’ your elbow asap.
- Breathing – Your head can’t lift up to breathe if you want to go quickly. You need to keep it low and have faith that your speed will make a bow wave and a pocket of air behind it with the top of your head – if your head is low when you breathe in. One goggle in the air and one goggle in the water is the key.
- When you start to get it – it all clicks, you rise up just slightly in the water, there’s a bow wave, you can feel the rush of the water and you are superhuman. The water loves you and you will want more of that, it’s addictive. Ian Thorpe said: “Swimming is my art.” This isn’t endorphins flowing from physical activity, recent science has debunked a lot of that anyway. This is a technical masterwork you have created yourself by being relaxed, in control of your physical self and able to spend serious energy without things falling apart. You’re a junky. Be proud.