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Technique and Training

How to Find the Sweet Spot in Swimming Efficiency

Your distance per stroke tells only part of the story

Terry Heggy | April 25, 2017

A good measure of stroke effectiveness is the distance a swimmer travels during each pull cycle. Known as distance per stroke, this statistic is an important factor in your racing speed. If two swimmers have the same stroke rate (cadence), the swimmer who has the best DPS will swim faster.

Elements that affect DPS include the following:

  • Body geometry (height, wingspan, hand size, etc.)
  • Drag profile (the amount of body surface pushing against the water)
  • Amount of propulsive force applied
  • Duration of propulsive force application

Here’s how you can improve in all four of these areas.

Gymnastics vs. Genetics

You can’t do much about your height or the size of your limbs so improving body geometry is mainly accomplished by increasing flexibility. Additional range of motion allows for a longer stroke that uses less energy. Working with a personal trainer can help, as can yoga and TRX classes. But the easiest thing Masters swimmers can do to avoid losing flexibility as we age is to get out of our chairs and move around during the day.

Diminish the Drag

Think about how fast you can go on ice skates. To generate that speed, you use only a fraction of the muscles you apply to swimming yet attain vastly greater velocity. Propelling yourself through water requires you to overcome far more friction than what you encounter on ice and in air. Therefore, reducing your drag profile has an enormous impact on your ability to achieve good DPS.

Lower drag comes from streamlining, holding good posture, and breathing correctly.

Pick up the Power

Once you’ve minimized your drag profile, it’s time to increase the force you apply to your stroke. It’s not simply about being strong. It’s about developing a feel for the water that ensures your strength generates pressure that propels you forward. You should be able to identify which muscles are exerting the effort that causes your propulsion. If you succeed in getting a good grip and the water and accelerating throughout the stroke, you should hear your muscles yelling, “Hey, I’m feeling this!

Continue the Contact

To increase distance per stroke, it’s obvious that each pull should cover the maximum effective distance. But it’s important to learn the dimensions of effective pull distance, because it’s possible to move your hand through long underwater arcs that do nothing to provide propulsion or even slow you down. Recent research indicates that a fairly straight pull is most effective (as opposed to the “S” pull that many of us were taught in our youth). Lateral hand motions in freestyle and backstroke tend to create sideways forces that take us out of alignment and should therefore be avoided.

Other considerations for stroke duration include the following:

  • Flutter or dolphin kicks should stay in line with the body’s drag profile. A large-amplitude kick creates drag that offsets propulsion.
  • Breaststroke requires a short, quick armstroke and a kick that keeps the knees from going wider than the feet. If you kick too wide or pull back too far, the extra resistance negates any thrust those motions may generate.
  • Butterfly rhythm is critical. For some people, an elongated pull destroys that rhythm so a slightly shorter stroke could be more efficient.

Implementing the Idea

The standard method for measuring DPS is to count strokes for one length of the pool. Such single-length DPS drills provide an excellent opportunity to focus on streamline, breathing smoothness, and power production and should be performed regularly to ensure that we continually strive to improve our form.

But don’t stop there. A one-length swim at a moderate effort is a far different experience than trying to hold your DPS during a race. Therefore, it’s important to regularly swim sets where you continue to count strokes over a longer distance.

Swim Golf

In golf, the lowest score wins. A great way to test our DPS abilities is known as swim golf, or swolf. The idea is to add together the time and the stroke count for a swim, trying to find the sweet spot where we’re best able to hold an efficient form at a high speed. For example:

  • If you swim a 50 freestyle in 30 strokes and it takes 38 seconds, your swolf score would be 30 + 38 = 68. If you swam it again in 28 strokes, but it took 42 seconds, you’d have a higher (less desirable) swolf score of 70.

The idea of swolf is to teach us how to get good distance per stroke while working hard. If we only count our strokes when we’re doing easy 25s, we tend to achieve misleadingly low counts by gliding more or almost doing a catch-up stroke. But gliding between strokes is not propulsive, so we also need to count when we’re cranking. Find your swolf sweet spot in all four strokes.

Other opportunities

We also learn a lot by counting strokes during longer sets. For example:

  • Swim 8 x 100s on a consistent sendoff that would normally give you about 20 seconds of rest. But instead of focusing on how fast you can go, focus on keeping the stroke count low. You likely won’t get quite enough rest to maintain the same count throughout the set, which provides an opportunity to identify your breakdown mechanisms. Are you coming out of your streamlines earlier off the wall? Is your pull getting shorter as you get tired? Is your core getting loose and sloppy, leading to a wider drag profile? And the critical question: What are you going to do to eliminate these breakdowns?

Remember that distance per stroke is not the goal—because a long stroke doesn’t help if you can’t turn it over quickly. But if you can hold a great DPS at a high stroke cadence, you’ll consistently have blazing speed.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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