If you want to speed up in a car, just hit the gas. In swimming, though, it’s not always so clear how to increase our usual swimming speed. Should we speed up our stroke? Add more muscle to the pull?
At the Olympic level, there is not much debate. If you want to swim fast (which means efficiently), you need to lengthen your stroke. One famous Russian coach, Gennadi Toureetski, cited the work of a zoologist, John Videler, to train his swimmers. Videler’s research, published as “Fish Swimming,” showed that every time stroke rate is doubled, energy consumption will increase eightfold. In other words, increasing arm speed has a diminishing effect on speed overall. We also create more waves as we increase the arm speed which further hampers our progress.
Toureetski was quite a learned coach, and he studied video clips which demonstrated that when most animals in the wild want to increase their speed, they take longer strides (like horses and kangaroos, for instance). Many swimmers know that lowering one’s stroke count per lap is a marker of efficiency.
The world’s fastest swimmer in the mid-90s, Alexander Popov, was renowned for practicing “super slow swimming.” For much of his training (under Toureetski), the Russian Rocket as he was dubbed, would barely have kept pace in the medium lane at the YMCA. One American coach said, “Popov does long sets with meticulously precise strokes in a consistently beautiful flow. In three weeks, I never saw him do a single lap that looked hard.”
What Popov discovered in his training is that when we practice slow swimming we have no choice but to improve our balance in the water and develop a “feel” for how to move efficiently. The Russian rocket was universally seen as a beautiful swimmer who had this “feel” for the water, a mystical term for how water seems to part in the way of certain graceful swimmers. This was not supernatural. He practiced slowing down so that when he sped up he knew which parts of himself to exert and which parts to relax.
Though none of my students are headed to Rio in 2016 (yet), I encourage them to practice slow swimming. Inevitably, they fine tune that delicate balance between glide and power. They swim smarter and with less strokes.
When Popov is really moving, he’s so calm it looks like he is just swimming his warm-ups. That’s the kind of mastery we can all aspire to.