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How to improve your swim efficiency and distance per stroke for front crawl

Understanding how to improve your swim efficiency is a massive element of learning to swim faster without wasting energy in the water. As water is 1,000 times denser than air, there is a lot more initial and ongoing resistance to overcome. Therefore, technique wins over force every time for swimming, and it is much better to focus on reducing drag and becoming more streamlined for front crawl.

There are 3 ways to swim faster:

1. Train your aerobic system more - (vo2 max) > 85% effort or max heart rate

2. Train your anaerobic system - lactate threshold heart rate 80% effort or T pace

3. Improve your economy

The first 2 methods hold true for most swimmers and triathletes, but there is a limit to the amount you can push your body, before you become injured or over trained and feel stale.

The 3rd method is the one which has the most potential beneficial gains. This is by improving your technique, and swimming efficiency.

We call measuring your swim efficiency swim golf or "SWOLF". You may have seen this metric on your garmin or suunto swim / multisport watch or similar. It's also related to your distance per stroke (how much water your pull yourself over on each stroke).

Swolf is a way of measuring where your sweet spot is for pacing and stroke count.

Try performing the following swim set:

SWOLF Swim Efficiency test

Count your strokes and time the 50m. Add the 2 together

1. 50 FC counting strokes

2. 50 FC stroke count minus 2 (from 1st 50m)

3. 50 FC stroke count -2 (from 2nd 50m)

4. 50 FC Stroke count holding-2 (from 3rd 50m) and swim 1-2 seconds faster

Single arm balance test

• 50m single arm left passive arm in front

• 50m single arm right passive arm in front

• 50m FC normal

Then key the times and stroke counts of each 50 metres into the following table:

Ideally you should be able to reduce your stroke count on the 2nd and 3rd 50

faster over the last 50 metres.

This is where your swimming technique comes into play much more. As you try and hold that slightly faster time, and slightly reduced stroke count, you must think about all aspects of your technique and pulling yourself over the water and using it as efficiently and as effectively as possible!

We offer front crawl lessons and swim squads, held at Guildford Lido in Surrey, front crawl video analysis in an endless pool at Tribal in Chertsey and provide online training plans for swimming and triathlons.

If your arms are too straight in the catch and pull phase, or you have a crossover of the midline of your body with your hands, you bend your knees to kick, over rotate your hips to one side and not the other, breathe from your chest and not your diaphragm.

Swim golf set

4x 50m FC 20 rest

Count your strokes and time the 50m.

Add the 2 together.

Try and hold the cumulative number of strokes and time over the course of the 4 x 50 m FC

One of the ways we measure this is by using a Swim golf session regularly as above, which looks at your swimming efficiency. This should also be coupled with the following areas too:

1. Stroke rate

2. Stroke count (or distance per stroke)

3. Technique and how much water you're pushing behind yourself

4. Pacing and the law of diminishing returns

These can all merge into a grey area all together, and become a bit confusing, so we're keeping them to the above headings and talking about them separately below:

1. Stroke rate

We know that for many swimmers, and particularly beginners, when your stroke rate is below 60 per minute, you won't have constant motion through the water. It will be more of a stop / start, since you'll be gliding too far on each stroke, and effectively speeding up and slowing down on each stroke. If you're stroke count is between 40 and 50 you'll be doing this for sure, and probably swimming with straight arms underwater.

You can measure and improve this by using a tempo trainer in mode 3, and gradually increasing your stroke rate by 2 every 50 metres. We would recommend you do this with a coach, so they can check the point where you reach the law of diminishing returns.

2. Stroke count

If you're doing more than 28 strokes per 25 metre length, then you would be wise to try and reduce this to increase your distance per stroke (DPS) to a more efficient level under 25 per length. The theory here is that your hand and forearm would be slipping through the water more, instead of catching the water better with a high and early vertical forearm. This links in with your technique and pacing.

You want to try and increase your DPS which will see a subsequent reduction in your stroke count without increasing your stroke count. You might also be crossing over the mid-line of your body, kicking incorrectly, have poor body position etc.

3. Technique

Maintaining positive pressure on the water with your hand, all the way through the stroke underwater, is vital to get the most from your distance per stroke. Achieving an early vertical forearm position of around 90 -100 degrees, a high body position, kicking with your legs straight, and rotating your body evenly to 45 degrees on a long axis from your core and hips will make you much more streamlined and improve your swim efficiency.

4. Pacing and the law of diminishing returns

Maintaining your technique at race pace, or when working hard, is something you need to become inherently aware of, and understand which technique limiters might arise as you become either tired or are working at 80% effort or above.

This is known as your "T pace." This would be equivalent to your average 100 metre pace for 1500 metres at 80 per cent effort.

Have you ever completed a swim session or race and held your pace evenly throughout, or did it gradually drop away as the distance crept up? Finishing an interval set or distance with your 1st 1-2 x 100 metres at a much faster pace is a sign of poor pacing, as is a pace that gradually gets slower which may be stamina and technique related.

If the former is the case, then you should examine why this is, and work to correct it as soon as possible. A coach can help you with this by monitoring and analysis of your workouts and annual training plan. Stamina should be addressed with strength training and the correct scheduling of progressive sessions on a periodisation model suited to your events.

Swim this set and try and hold your pacing and stroke count throughout:

All at 75% effort

1. 4x 100 FC pace control on @75% 30 rest

2. 400 FC @ same pace as 100’s maintaining stroke count - 45 rest

3. 4x 100 FC pace control on @75% 25 rest

4. 400 FC @ same pace as 100’s with stroke count minus 2 per length – 40 rest

How did you get on? Were they all evenly paced, or did they vary a lot?

Understanding how to pace yourself is key for your swim or triathlon events. This is obviously a tricky thing to do in open water and to some degree in the pool, as you only find out how you have performed after completing the interval.

So, we must develop an inherent feel for how the effort should be in training, by doing lots of repeats at your race pace. This is going to be different for different distances, getting slightly slower per 100 metre pace as the distance becomes longer.

Using a tempo trainer is one method of measuring and helping to control your swim pacing and stroke rate. We'll cover this in a future blog soon.

What is it the faster or elite swimmers are doing underwater to swim faster and more efficiently?

• Achieving a higher elbow position

• Holding the water better to push more behind them

• Utilising a powerful front crawl stroke by maintaining positive pitch with the water

• Driving the body over the hand and arm that have just purchased the water

• Kicking effectively with straight legs from the hips

• A good balance of stroke count and stroke rate

3 Ways to get faster

1.Less strokes / same time

2.More strokes / less time

3.Less strokes / less time

3 drills to practice which help

1. Swim over a barrel

2. Power Push

3. Bodyroll

We offer front crawl lessons and swim squads, held at Guildford Lido in Surrey, front crawl video analysis in an endless pool at Tribal in Chertsey and provide online training plans for swimming and triathlons.

Copyright © Speedy Swimming

Nick is a level 3 British Triathlon Coach, Level 2 Accredited Training Peaks coach, STA Nowca Open water swim coach level 2, STA level 2 swim teacher, level 3 personal trainer and TRX Instructor, and Training Bible coaching Master endurance coach with 25 years’ experience in triathlon, founder and Head Coach for Speedy Swimming.


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