Swimming Sweet Spots

The Critical Role of Technique

Chances are if you’re reading this article you’re aware that in swimming technique is a critical component and the ability to maintain technique at intensity is essentially what separates a good swimmer from a bad one.


The reason its critical is that without good technique your ability to swim faster is limited and fitness can only take you so far. However once we have a grasp of good technique how do we apply it and make sure we consistently use it in our training?


Quantifying Good Technique

A good swimmer being defined as the one travelling the fastest there’s a couple of factors we can measure to assess how good a swimmer we are.
The first is our distance per stroke, if I push-off in a 25m pool and then swim 20 strokes to get to the other end I’m probably covering a distance of 1m per stroke (assuming a 5m push-off). If I can do that same swim in 15 strokes that’s a distance of 1.2m per stroke, and for the same stroke rate that’s 25% faster.


Stroke Rate or turnover is how fast we complete each stroke. This can be recorded in strokes per minutes or time per stroke. Now for the same given distance per stroke the swimmer turning their arms fastest is going to get to the end of the pool quickest. So to swim at your fastest and best you need to turn your arms the fastest you can whilst maintaining the good technique necessary to achieve a good distance per stroke.


Understanding Technical Failure

It’s rarely that simple, but it does bring to our attention the problem. There is a physical limit to how fast you can turn your arms before your technique falls apart. When your technique falls apart it becomes harder to maintain speed, your forced to exert more energy and eventually you peak and slow down.


What happens is when we increase the tempo of our stroke rate beyond the level we can maintain the length of our stroke we shorten up and the increase in tempo fails to continue to bring faster speeds. The point of technical failure is therefore the cross over where you increase tempo but fail to get faster for any given distance.


The Intermediate Swimmer

In our experience there are two common problems with the training in the majority of our intermediate swimmers which by working on and resolving they can make big improvements.


First they’re often not breathing properly. Failure to breathe properly means you fail to produce energy effectively, lactic acid builds ups, muscles slow down and eventually your forced to back off or stop. Work continuously on improving your ability to breathe regularly and in coordination with you’re swimming stroke.


Secondly they are working both fitness and technique in the pool but separately not together, they fail to work at the correct intensity to master holding technique and make improvements effectively and consistently.


So to be a good swimmer and continually improve we need to;
  • Understand and grasp what good technique is.
  • Identify the intensities at which technical failure occurs at each interval distance.
  • Over time push that point back by reinforcing good technique and developing fitness.
  • Identify and work on our technical weaknesses as we get faster.


What is a Sweet Spot?

Most running and cycling athletes are aware of the idea of sweet spots, perfect training intensities which maximise the training benefit. Sweetspot intensities comprise an effort that is difficult to sustain but just about possible. This effort is typically 90% of your functional max, and just before the point of diminishing return.



Pic: Dr. Andy Coggan/Velopress


The same concept can apply to swimming but the sweet spot is about maintaining the right combination of technique and intensity for any given distance. The sweet spot can be defined as being the highest possible turnover at which we can maintain our stroke length for a given distance and for training purpose this forms our optimum training intensity.


Training at the Sweet Spot

In order to progress for any given distance week by week we want to shift our sweet spot towards higher stroke rates and greater stroke lengths. If I can currently hold 15 strokes per length over a 100m repeat at 60 Spm week by week I want to slowly see that tempo creep up towards 70, 80 and beyond whilst maintaining that stroke count. In turn I should see myself get faster and faster.


We’ll explore next time the training protocols you can use to make this happen.


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