How to Swim Faster

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Swimming is a fantastic form of exercise and while some people just swim to keep fit, most swimmers want to be able to swim faster. Swimming faster doesn’t just mean moving your arms and legs quicker – an increase in speed in the water directly correlates to several aspects of swimming such as conditioning and the length and intensity of workouts. As the body adapts and gets stronger from these changes in training, it will get faster in the water.

To increase speed in the water, swimmers need to work on three elements:

  1. Technique
  2. Training Time (Volume)
  3. Workout Structure (Intensity)

Technique

A swimmer’s speed in the water is not only dependent on the strength and stamina of the swimmer, but the technique as well. Swim speed is determined by approximately 80% technique and 20% fitness.

A poor technique tends to create resistance in the water, which leads to a decrease in speed. It also hinders improvement and stops the swimmer from improving and getting faster. So, it’s crucial that your technique, or swim economy, is good if you want to be a fast swimmer.


A swimmer’s speed is dependent on strength, stamina, and technique.

To build speed, swimmers much focus on two important aspects:

  •         A reduction in drag/resistant
  •         An increase in propulsion

The main aim when swimming is to move through the water with the least amount of resistance possible. To swim fast, it is important to keep drag to a minimum when swimming. Resistance increases by the square of the speed at which we move through the water due to water being much denser than air.

The amount of power that a swimmer can exert in the water is limited and is best used for moving the body through the water, therefore, reducing drag is easier by improving technique.

There are six principles that swimmers can work on to reduce drag and increase speed.

Principle #1: Improving Balance

The body position in swimming is one of the most important aspects of the exercise and plays a huge part in energy efficiency and speed in the water. All four competitive strokes are swum with the body in a horizontal position and a streamlined body position in the water reduces drag and increases speed and stamina.

The first of the six principles for increasing speed is to improve balance by staying as horizontal as possible while moving through the water. A smooth, streamlined and horizontal body position in the water disrupts the smallest amount of water molecules while moving, resulting in reduced drag.

Other aspects to take into consideration when working on balance and body position in the water include:

  •         Keeping the hips high
  •         Using the entire body
  •         Keeping the ankles and feet relaxed (don’t point the toes)


The body position in swimming is one of the most important aspects. 

Principle #2: Swim Tall

The next way to decrease drag when swimming is to stretch out and make yourself as “tall” as possible in the water.

The theory is that an elongated and tapered object will create less turbulence and move through the water in a smoother and more streamlined way than a short and blunt object. Therefore, by stretching out with a good extension under the water after the arm recovery, the body is stretched out, creates less resistance in the water, and moves faster.

Principle #3: Compact and Efficient Kick

An efficient kick is important for swimming fast and this is achieved by kicking with fast compact movements. The amount of propulsion that the kick contributes to the overall speed varies from stroke to stroke – for experienced freestyle swimmers, the kick only contributes up to 10 percent of propulsion, while the breaststroke kick can contribute up to 70 percent of propulsion.

It’s important for the feet to only slightly break the surface of the water; they should be in the shadow of your body and not move below the body line as this will create drag. Once drag is reduced to a minimum, propulsion can be improved by working on the mechanics of the stroke.

Freestyle and Backstroke

Both freestyle and backstroke use the flutter kick and the smaller the kick, the more efficient it is. The knees should be as straight as possible in both the freestyle and backstroke kick and the kick should stem from the hips. Small, compact kicks at high speed will help to move the body through the water faster.

Breaststroke

The breaststroke kick can contribute up to 70 percent of overall propulsion but it is important to keep the kick as compact as possible. A narrow kick is far more efficient than a wide kick as this creates drag in the water and good flexibility in the ankles, knees, and hips is essential for increasing the speed of the kick.

Butterfly

The butterfly kick is known as the dolphin kick in which both legs are together and move up and down like the tail of a dolphin. For every arm cycle, there are two kicks – the first is performed when the arms are pulling through the water beneath the body and the second when the arms are arcing over the water.

Butterfly is all about rhythm and the arms and legs work in sync with each other. To increase the overall speed of the stroke, it’s important to increase both the arms and legs together.


An efficient kick is important for swimming fast and this is achieved by kicking with fast compact movements. Swimmer using kickboard by
Simply Swim UK /  Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0v

Principle #4: Reach and Rotate

One way to improve propulsion and overall speed in the water is through efficient rotation of the body. Good rotation allows the swimmer to extend their reach further at the end of every stroke, thus generating more power with every stroke.

By beginning the vertical catch phase early with an extended arm, you will travel further through the water with every stroke you take and require fewer strokes per lap. The longer the reach, the better the body rotation and the easier it is to begin the vertical catch phase early which engages the chest and back muscles. This creates more power in the pull phase, allowing you to travel further and faster through the water.

Principle #5: Engage the Core Muscles

The core muscles are the epicenter around which everything revolves in swimming and strong core muscles equate to better strength, stamina, power, and speed in the water. The core muscles should be engaged with every pull and synergy created between the back, the core, the chest, and the shoulder muscles. This technique allows you to swim longer and faster and tire less quickly.


The core muscles should be engaged with every pull. 

Principle #6: Anchoring the Arms

The last principle for swimming faster relates to the anchoring of the arms in the water. The forearm and hand need to be in line with the palm facing downwards in the water before the pull is engaged. This position sets the arm up for the next phase, which is the high elbow catch, where the hand and forearm catch the water for the pull, propelling the body forward.

In addition to the six principles above, a few other technical elements of swimming can contribute to increasing your speed.

Breathing Technique

The breathing technique in swimming is another essential element that contributes towards increasing the overall speed of the stroke. As we know, in all four strokes, the body should be in a horizontal position to maximize efficiency and the head should be aligned with the body to create a smooth and streamlined profile in the water.

It is important to keep the head aligned during the breathing phase of each of the strokes. In freestyle and backstroke, the head remains in line with the body, only turning slightly to the side in freestyle, but not moving out of position.

In breaststroke and butterfly, the head moves out of the aligned position to lift out of the water during the breathing phase but immediately returns to the streamlined position during the arm recovery phase.

It is important to exhale all the oxygen out of the lungs when the face is in the water so that a full lungful of air can be taken in during the breathing phase. Shallow breathing (not taking in enough oxygen) leads to less oxygen being delivered to the muscles, and the body becoming tiring more quickly.


In butterfly, the head moves out of the aligned position to lift out of the water during the breathing phase. 

Training Time: Frequency > Volume

The age-old distance versus race pace training has been argued in swimming circles for decades. Whether the Hungarians swear by huge distance sets, or the Americans prefer short and sharp training schedules, it is a well-known fact that if you want to swim faster, you need to swim more frequently.

It is better to swim smaller distances at a higher intensity more frequently to increase overall speed. The type of training done in the pool is also a major factor in increasing speed and it’s important to include interval sets and sets that work with the pace clock.

Workout Structure (Intensity)

The intensity at which swimmers train has a direct impact on the increase of speed. A well-balanced training program will focus on working the energy systems in the water by doing aerobic work (distance and endurance), threshold work, and VO2 threshold work during different parts of the season.

Changing the intensity in your workouts helps to increase both speed and stamina, as well as boosts motivation, and staves off boredom.

Why Vary Intensity?

Changing intensity and speed during your workout has several benefits. Swimming at different intensities creates different types of stress on the body. By manipulating these stresses on the body during training, it prepares the body for the stresses it will experience on race day.

Changing the intensity while swimming creates workouts that are interesting, stimulating, and increase speed. Swimming at different speeds throughout your workout also builds up endurance to maintain a consistent pace during a race.

Four different intensity levels can be swum during a workout:

1. Recovery Pace

A recovery pace is easy and relaxed and breathing is done without any effort. Swimming at a recovery pace is usually done after a set swum at threshold or high-speed intensity or in the cool down. Movements are slow and methodical with a good technique.

Here are some examples of short, easy recovery sets:

  •         200m freestyle easy
  •         4 x 50m easy freestyle with fins

2. Endurance Pace

An endurance pace is similar to that of a jogging pace – comfortable and easy with a low heart rate and deep breathing. An endurance pace allows swimmers to swim long distances without tiring easily and is good for drill and technique-focused sets. Endurance swimming helps to improve oxygen delivery to your muscles and build stamina.

Example of an endurance set:

  •         2 x (1 x 100m drill / 1 x 400m technique-focuses freestyle). Rest 10 to 15 seconds between each set
  •         6 x 75 freestyle pull (arms only with a pull buoy), kick, swim. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between each set

3. Threshold Pace

Threshold pace swimming is the same as critical swim speed pace and swimming intervals at threshold pace builds muscular endurance, sustainable speed, and stamina. When you swim at a threshold pace, you move from feeling comfortable to more and more uncomfortable and breathing becomes labored and heavy.

Threshold swimming teaches swimmers about pacing and how to adjust their pace during a race. As the body gets stronger and faster, the threshold pace during training should be adjusted (every four to six weeks) to ensure the body is getting the full benefit of swimming at that pace.

Examples of threshold sets:

  •         10 x 100m freestyle on 1:30 Rest 10 seconds between each set
  •         8 x 50 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set
  •         8 x 25 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set
  •         4 x 100 IM – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock.

If you are swimming at threshold pace and not getting faster, it could be one of three reasons:

  1. Your threshold pace is incorrect.
  2. You are not swimming consistently enough.
  3. You have a fundamental technique problem.

4. Speed Pace

Speed pace is swimming at your fastest pace and requires adequate rest periods to maintain intensity. Swimming at a speed pace is essential for developing overall speed and is vital for having that extra kick at the end of a race. This intensity should be used sparingly in workouts to avoid overtraining.

Examples of speed sets:

  •         12 x 25 IM order sprints with fins going every 30 seconds.
  •         8 x 50 freestyle – going every 45 seconds.
  •         16 x 25 freestyle – easy/hard – going every 30 seconds on the clock.


Threshold swimming teaches swimmers about pacing.

Swimming Workouts for Competitive Swimmers

Workout 1

Distance: 2,900 yds / 2,900 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 250 alternating breathing pattern: 25 yards breathing every 6th stroke, 50 every 5th stroke bilateral breathing, 75 every 4th stroke, 100 every 3rd stroke (bilateral breathing)

v  4 x 100 choice of strokes – any stroke except freestyle – 30 seconds rest between each set

v  8 x 50 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 25 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  4 x 100 IM – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 2

Distance: 3,000 yds / 3,000 m

v  Warm-up: 200 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 200 IM in reverse order – 30 seconds rest between each set

v  4 x 100 butterfly with fins – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 backstroke – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 breaststroke – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  4 x 100 freestyle – 20 seconds rest between each set – keep the time consistent

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 3

Distance: 3,250 yds / 3,250 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  400 IM drill with fins – right arm, left arm, double arm, full swim through all four strokes

v  200 kicking – any stroke

v  6 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  4 x 50 butterfly kick fins – right side / left side – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  6 x 75 freestyle with paddles – going every 1:45 seconds on the clock

v  4 x 50 breaststroke kicking – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 4

Distance: 3,300 yds / 3,300 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  10 x 50 butterfly / freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  4 x 200 IM with fins – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  8 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x 50 butterfly / freestyle – going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 5

Distance: 3,100 yds / 3,100 m

v  Warm-up: 500 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x flip turns – practice taking 4 strokes and doing a flip turn followed by 4 strokes without a breathe

v  2 x 200 freestyle – going every 3:30 minutes seconds on the clock

v  10 x flip turns – practice taking 4 strokes and doing a flip turn followed by 4 strokes without a breathe

v  4 x 200 IM with fins focusing on turns and transitions between strokes

v  200 recovery set – kicking or swimming own stroke

v  8 x 50 freestyle focusing on turns going every 1:00 minute on the clock

v  8 x 25 IM order with fins – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 6

Distance: 3,400 yds / 3,400 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  12 x 75 freestyle with pull buoy – pull / kick/swim – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 kicking – alternating between freestyle and other strokes – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  2 x 200 freestyle – counting strokes – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 IM order with fins – going every 1:15 on the clock

v  2 x 200 freestyle – counting strokes – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 IM order with fins – going every 1:00 seconds on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 7

Distance: 3,200 yds / 3,200 m

v  Warm-up: 300 easy swim freestyle

v  400 IM drill with fins – right arm, left arm, double arm, full swim through all four strokes

v  4 x 100 kicking – any stroke – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 75 arms only with a pull buoy

v  12 x 25 butterfly kick with fins – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  200 recovery set – easy swim

v  5 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 8

Distance: 3,600 yds / 3,600 m

v  Warm-up: 200 easy swim freestyle

v  Ladder swim: 25, 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, 175, 200, 175, 150, 125, 100, 75, 50, 25 freestyle – 10 second rest in between each set – every 3rd length is butterfly

v  12 x 50 kicking alternating freestyle and other strokes – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  12 x 50 arms only with pull buoy and paddles – alternating freestyle and other strokes – 15 seconds rest in between each set

v  16 x 25 IM order sprints with fins

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 9

Distance: 3,200 yds / 3,200 m

v  Warm-up: 200 easy swim freestyle

v  4 x 200 IM order drill with fins – right arm, left, arm repeat through the medley

v  8 x 100 freestyle – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

v  200 recovery set – easy swim or kick

v  12 x 50 pull/kick – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  16 x 25 freestyle – easy/hard – going every 30 seconds on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Workout 10

Distance: 3,300 yds / 3,300 m

v  Warm-up: 400 easy swim freestyle and another stroke – breaststroke or backstroke

v  300 freestyle – pull / kick / swim

v  12 x 75 pull/kick/swim freestyle with a pull buoy

v  4 x 100 freestyle – going every 2:00 minutes on the clock

v  4 x 100 own stroke – going every 40 seconds on the clock

v  200 recovery set – easy swim or kick

v  2 x 200 freestyle – counting strokes – 20 seconds rest in between each set

v  8 x 50 IM order with fins – going every 1:00 seconds on the clock

v  Cool down: 200 easy swim

Happy swimming!

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