Stealth Swimming

TRADING SPLASH FOR SPEED

Runners who value no-impact training, triathletes prepping for that open-water mile and fitness swimmers angling to score some aerobic points may tell you that swimming fast isn’t a high priority.

But, in any of them, there probably lurks a childhood memory of, “Race you to the other end of the pool!” Jump in and churn 25 yards all out, arms and legs flailing, one length, no strategy, no breath left at the end. And, not likely to teach you much about how the world’s best swimmers manufacture speed.

The best sprinter I ever coached earned top-10 world ranking in the 50-meter freestyle for three years running. He was indisputably good at swimming fast, but was equally impressive at swimming quietly.

He usually started practice with at least 800 meters of languid freestyle_beautiful and graceful. Later in the practice, as he approached race pace, my stopwatch was the only thing that told me he was going faster. You couldn’t tell by watching how adept he was at following one of my pet coaching dictums: “Go fast, but hide the effort.”

That goes against the grain of every triathlete, cyclist, runner and other dry-land athlete who starts training at the pool. When these athletes try to swim a little faster, they turn into a moving ball of splash, lots of aeration and perspiration, but little acceleration.

How can this be? Cyclists and runners know that hammering makes you faster. A powerful leg drive applied to a solid surface like the ground or a pedal gets results.

This is not the case in the pool, where you’re pulling and kicking against a moving medium. Abrupt movements burn up energy but don’t move you faster. New swimmer or old pro, if your power is smoothly applied¬†you will get to the other end of the pool faster and feel better when you arrive.

But first, you must convince your body. Stroke drills demand more kicking than straight swimming does. Trouble is, a splashy kicker is kicking air half the time, and air will get you nowhere. The fix is something I call the “Stealth” kick, no noise, no splash. Getting the froth out is not complicated. First, embrace the idea that you’re better off as a torpedo than an aircraft carrier. Then, work on the following drills.

To improve an inefficient kick, the best exercise is vertical kicking. In water at least six feet deep, upper arms along your rib cage, hands up near your ears, body vertical and knees flexing only slightly from the pressure of the water, kick in a narrow flutter pattern hard enough to keep your face above water.

Use a pendulum motion that starts at the hip. Since your foot is so deep, you’ll feel added resistance on it. When you go back to a normal (horizontal) position, keep the same feeling. That’s the stealth kick. You automatically move more water and less air.

Achieve the same thing with your arms simply by slowing them down. First, get the useless air out of your stroke by making sure your hands never move faster than your body in either direction. That’s as fast as your hands should go forward for the catch, entering the water in front of you, or pulling back. Any faster and you’re just spinning your wheels like a car on ice. Work on matching hand and body speed at slow speeds first, then crank it up little by little.

When you’re ready to pick up the speed, the hands and arms are the wrong place to pick up your tempo. Runaway arms just cause you to lose yor rhythm. Tune your stroke tempo to the speed of your torso roll as you stroke. Remember, it’s core muscle that actually provides the power_your arms are just the delivery mechanism.

It makes no sense to have your arms going faster than your hip roll because when you force them to you’ve disconnected them from their source of power, the hips.

Even precisely synchronized arms won’t count for much if you end up crashing your hand into the water. Stirring up turbulence holds you back. Practice a gentle hand entry at slow speeds. The less noise you hear, the more efficient you’re swimming.

Try these exercises, first, in short swims (one to two lengths), very slowly. And as you build your speed, keep thinking: “Hide the effort.”

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