The world’s best swimmers are faster than you because they travel further with each stroke, not because they are moving their arms faster.
Distance per stroke (DPS) is the distance you travel per stroke and it is a direct reflection of your technique efficiency.
Once you have developed the ability to control and maintain a constant pace throughout your swim sets, distance per stroke is the next important training component to focus on.
Stroke counting is an excellent way to increase your distance per stroke.
Keeping track of the number of strokes you take per length will allow you to lengthen out your stroke and save energy for later in the swim or race.
Here is a typical progression for exploring and then improving your DPS performance:
1) Find your target stroke count
Start by counting your number of strokes (count each arm) per length regularly and check if these are constant from the beginning to the end of a swim set. Staying focused on this can be challenging as you get more tired towards the end of the set. You don’t have to count the strokes for every length, just a few at the beginning, middle and end of the swim set.
Determine what your range is. Try to swim most of the time at the low end of your range or below your lowest stroke count. Don’t worry about speed at first. It is normal that your speed decreases initially during a technical set, as you concentrate on lengthening your strokes. You can influence speed later.
2) Develop the ability to hold a constant number of strokes at a steady pace
Holding a regular distance per stroke at a constant speed throughout an entire swim set can be very demanding. It requires lots of focus as you have to keep checking your times as well as your number of strokes. This is, however, an important target to achieve in order to maintain an efficient technique, especially when your body gets tired.
3) Increase your distance per stroke
In order to increase your DPS, the goal is to bring down your average stroke count per length. This will allow you to improve your stroke efficiency. In other words, you go further with each stroke.
However, if you increase your distance per stroke too much, it can result in over gliding which will effect your speed. A longer glide can end up with you decelerating and swimming slower.
To increase your DPS, you need to find a good balance between a good body position which eliminates drag and developing more power under the water. Focusing on different part of your stroke and practicing specific drills regularly will help you to achieve this.
Here is an example of the Freestyle technical breakdown during the first part of a training season.
4) Maintain your DPS and steady pace while increasing repetitions, then distances
Once you have established your DPS and can maintain it at a steady pace, regular practice is needed to make this your new automatic setting. When this is achieved, it is time to increase the number of repetitions of this kind of training in your swim set and, eventually increase the distances you swim.
Whatever progression you do, don’t rush it! Always ensure that each step is well established and achieved before moving onto the following challenge. Swimming requires patience and consistency.
5) Increase speed without impacting your technique
Swimming faster while maintaining good technique is very demanding. This requires strong focus, some mental toughness and a good level of fitness.
One way to achieve this next important step, is to increase your stroke rate while trying to maintain the best possible technique.
Stroke rate is the number of cycles (counting both arms) you take in a minute. This reflects the speed of your stroke.
Below are some focus points to help you increase your stroke rate.
The propulsive part (under the water) is the most important part to get more power and speed.
- Setting up a faster catch
- Accelerating the speed of your hands as you push back
The non-propulsive parts also play an important role in minimizing drag such as:
- Reaching further out in front by giving your shoulders an extra stretch
- Streamline with no gap between ears and shoulders when reaching your arm out in front
- Horizontality by keeping your hips at the surface or as high as possible during the propulsive part (particularly when your stroking hand is directly below the shoulder)
- Body rotation allowing you to use the larger back muscles during the propulsive catch
To swim faster, you may need to shorten your strokes a little. This will decrease your DPS (adding more strokes) but try to keep this to a minimum!
Finally, swimming short distance repetitions at various paces, sprints, strength and power development with pull buoy, elastic band and paddles, will also contribute a lot to your speed development.