Adding Speed and Efficiency to Technique

Swimming quietly will make you a more efficient swimmer.

Dear Terry
My 14-year-old daughter has been a competitive swimmer since age 8. After attending a TI workshop and working with the TI coaches, she now looks extremely comfortable in all strokes. We feel she is now ready to begin focusing on speed, especially in backstroke. She swims for her high school team and would like to improve from her current best of 1:14 in the 100 backstroke to the state cut-off time of 1:04. Can you give us some tips on how to transition from an emphasis on efficiency to building greater speed? Thank you in advance. We really appreciate the work you do.

I appreciate your enthusiasm for Total Immersion. The exercises on our Backstroke for Every Body video are intended for stroke formation, not as much for speed. However, most swimmers should still experience some gains in speed from the drills, because increased economy and decreased fatigue will allow them to maintain initial speed longer. Most swimmers of her age—indeed of any age—lose speed following the first quarter of a race because of inefficiency.

Once you've developed an efficient stroke, you can then look to stroke rate for further speed gains. If you can consistently take efficient strokes faster, you'll swim faster. This is a continuous cycle: Improve your stroke a bit, and then learn to swim a bit faster with that stroke. Then increase your efficiency again...

When you try to train faster with your new stroke for the first time, only increase the speed by a little—and hold it only briefly, perhaps 25 yards or less. If that goes well, then you can try to add a bit more speed and/or maintain it for slightly longer. If, on the other hand, you quickly revert to your old stroke, you need more practice to deepen your new muscle memory.

Adjusting Your Training

Most of the time, competitive swimmers should practice both technique and speed training. During meet season you'll include more speed exercises than out of season. Training will also be influenced by your level of fatigue. In season, after a day or two of higher-intensity workouts, most swimmers benefit from one or two sessions that mostly focus on skill and are less physically taxing.

Here are several training exercises that should help your daughter gain a feel for swimming faster without sacrificing more efficiency:

1. Swim 25 yards or meters of the most efficient backstroke possible. Count strokes. Then add one stroke to that count (i.e. if perfect stroke count is 14, try a length at 15 strokes per lap) and examine how efficient and fast that length felt. If it feels good, try +2. If that feels good, try +3. Work within the range of perfect-to-+3 while trying to feel as smooth at +3 as at your original count.

2. Swim one length at the highest speed possible while swimming quietly—that is, without excess splashing or slapping of the water. Work at improving the combination of speed and silence, then at maintaining the combination for longer distances. Anything you do more quietly will automatically be more efficient, and this is the simplest way I've found to stay efficient while also working on speed (quieter turns are also more efficient).

3. The state qualifying time of 1:04 works out to a pace of 16 seconds per 25. Use this as a benchmark in both exercises. For the first one: How few strokes can she add to her perfect count and be able to swim 16 seconds per length? For example, if she can swim 16 seconds at +3 initially, then progress gradually to swimming 16 seconds at +2, then +1, etc. By doing so, she will greatly increase her ability to repeat 16 seconds over 50, 75, then 100 yards. Likewise, the more quietly she can swim a 16-second 25, the better her chances of sustaining that pace.

Terry Laughlin is head coach of Total Immersion. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body. Read similar articles at

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