Speed vs Technique

Adapted from an article by Dave Tonnesen, ASCA Level 4 Coach

Ooooohhhh! Look at that swimmer...they make it look so easy, and they are so fast!
Don't you love to watch the Olympics! It is just awesome to watch Ryan Lochte make fast swimming look almost magically effortless.

How does he do it?
Well, the good news is that fast swimming is not magical, and when done right, fast swimming can look so beautiful that it appears almost effortless.

Let's start off with a couple questions.

How do you progress your strokes and drop time?

What should I focus on first, speed or technique?

The Basic Progression is:

  • Step 1 - Master Excellent Technique
  • Step 2 - Maintain Excellent Technique while Building Endurance
  • Step 3 - Speed with Excellent Technique


Technique is the key because water is roughly 1,000 times denser than air. And for your swimming that means for every unit of speed that you achieve, you get a penalty of 4 units of drag to go along with your speed. In swimming, it is crucial to have great technique so that you can reduce your drag before focusing on endurance and speed.

Step 1 Master Excellent Technique

It is vital that you learn proper technique before you focus on endurance and speed. Proper technique is the fundamental building block for great swimming. It doesn't matter if you want to be a summer league swimmer, a high school swimmer, a college level swimmer, a nationally ranked swimmer or the next Michael Phelps. To reach your potential, you should have a solid foundation in proper stroke technique that progresses them to their desired goals.  Australian coach Bill Sweetnam has a great quote, 99% right is 100% wrong.

Step 2: Swim Drill-Like (Build Endurance with Excellent Technique)

Once you have a solid foundation of proper stroke technique, your next step is be able to hold your excellent technique while building your endurance.  This is achieved through drill progressions - a combination of drill and swim - and longer swims at an easy pace to improve endurance while still focusing on technique. 

Step 3: Race Drill-Like (Speed with Excellent Technique)

At this point, your training will vary depending on your goals. You will begin incorporating race strategies for everything from the 50 to 1,500 Freestyle, 100 to 400 IM, 50 to 200 of each stroke. You may learn about the importance of distance per stroke, stroke efficiency, cycles per second, break out for starts and turns, the importance of underwater fly kick and mental training techniques among many other things.  This is the double edged sword where many swimmers struggle.  How do you hold technique and swim fast?  Most swimmers see this as an either/or situation.  We use sets like decending sets where we begin adding the time component into sets and you have to increase your speed on each repeat, while still maintaining your technique. These sets are not usually achieved the first or second time age group swimmers attempt them. 

So, to unlock the magic of fast swimming, focus of the technique improvements and have patience. Think in terms of a learning curve.

When you are in step 1 - mastering changes in your stroke technique, it is natural for you to be slow and deliberate.  It is common to overthink as you are learning. This is very normal until you have mastered the technique. Once you have a solid stroke foundation, you will start climbing the learning curve and may drop time especially in longer events.  Focus should be on excellent technique and not time drops.  You will go through another learning curve in step 2 as you progress to holding your technique while improving your endurance (swimming drill-like).  In step 2, many swimmers see time drops in distance events, and even and negative splitting become easier.  The final step is swimming fast with excellent technique (Race Drill-Like) and holding that technique at race pace.

No matter what level swimmer you are or want to be it is crucial to understand that great technique comes first! That is why in our squad program, we do drills at all levels, from the Novice Squad, right through to the Senior and Masters Squads. With persistence, patience and hard work the results will be MAGICAL!  Apply these basics and you will become one of those swimmers everyone ooooohhhhs at during your races!

Winning Starts Today

Everyone wants to win on race day. Everyone stands behind the blocks wanting to win. Some hope. Some pray. Some cross their fingers.  Some rub their lucky swim cap. Some, not many, enjoy the quiet confidence of knowing that winning is possible because of the time and effort spent preparing for race day.

Everyone wants to win the race.  How many want to win every workout just as badly?

Former Australian National Youth Coach Bill Sweetenham often says to swimmers, Winning tomorrow starts by winning today.  To win tomorrow's race, first win today's training session.  Will you be a better swimmer tomorrow because of what you did in training today?

Here are a few tips on how to win workouts:

  1. Arrive earlier than everyone else.  Stretch for 15 minutes before anyone else arrives.  If travelling or school commitments mean you can’t get to the pool early, stretch in the bus, train or car on the way to training.
  2. Make sure you have a drink bottle containing clean water or sports drink at every session.  Drink regularly throughout the workout. 
  3. Be the first swimmer to get in the pool and start training.  Start the first lap with a race quality dive or race start.  Ask the coach to grade your dive out of ten for technical excellence.
  4. Finish every repeat (including drills) with a legal, race quality touch.  In free and fly this means no breathing inside the flags.  In fly and breast this means an explosive, two-handed touch.  In backstroke this means a powerful touch on a full stroke without looking at the wall.  If swimming in a lane next to other swimmers doing the same stroke, make a conscious effort to race them from the flags to the wall on every repeat to practice your ability to win close race finishes.
  5. Swim your warm up (and swim down) with the same attention to detail as you demand in the main set.  Quality, explosive starts, aggressive turns, no breathing inside the flags, never breathing first or last stroke in fly and free, full underwater pull with every lap of breaststroke etc.  Warm up and swim down means great skills and excellent technique done slowly.
  6. Challenge someone faster than you to a race every workout.  It could be a kicking race.  It could be a challenge based on skills and speed (i.e. who can swim the fastest lap with the fewest breaths-time added to number of breaths="total" score and the lowest score wins).  It could a technique challenge (i.e. ask the coach to rate your drill efforts out of ten, then try to do it better and achieve a higher score).  If you are a strong backstroker who is a weak butterflyer, challenge a strong butterflyer to a swimming (or kicking) race.  Work on your weaknesses.
  7. When swimming an effort in training, ask yourself four questions:
  • Could I do this with fewer strokes?
  • Could I do this with fewer breaths?
  • Could I do this with better technique?
  • Could I do this with better starts, turns and finishes?

Challenge yourself to do it better every time.

  1. If you want to be the best swimmer in your club, your state, Australia or the World, you must be the best swimmer in your lane first.  You must set yourself a higher standard than anyone else in your lane is prepared to.  You must set a higher standard and more challenging goals than even your coach thinks possible.
  2. Aim to do it to faster, with better skills and excellent technique especially when you are tired.  Race day success will require you to swim fast when you are tired, under pressure and hurting.  Make training more demanding than race day.  Deliberately make training tougher than the toughest race.  Ask your coach if you can do a time trial at the end of training.
  3. Believe that anything is possible.  You can do PBs in training.  You can swim 25 metres at maximum speed without taking a breath.  You can kick 40 metres in your 50 metre PB swim time.  You can do it.  The words, "I can't" usually mean, "I am not prepared to try in case I fail".

There are no guarantees to success.  You can, however, increase the likelihood of success by making training more demanding than you ever thought possible, attempting to so the impossible everyday and aiming to win every workout.

Racing Turns

What is important for great turns in all four competitive swimming strokes? Two principles immediately stand out as critical for the success of fast turns.

  1. Always swim into the walls strong, or fast. Build your momentum going into the wall, and you will have the greatest potential of coming off that wall fast and with a strong push-off. The harder you throw a tennis ball at a concrete wall, the harder it will rebound off that wall.
  2. Streamline in the full torpedo position off every wall, under the water and the surface tension. Learning to streamline better and more efficiently off every wall has the potential to significantly improve your swimming times.

Both of these principles must be practiced daily in every training session, and emphasised in every swimming set. Win every wall in practice and you will begin to do the same in competition.

Freestyle & Backstroke Turns

These two turns are essentially the same. Backstroke swimmers rotating from the back to front going into the wall, and breaking out in the Backstroke position being the difference. The turning essentials are the same.

Technique Tips

  1. In Backstroke, know how many strokes it takes you to get from the flags to the wall.
  2. In Freestyle, don’t breathe while you are inside the flags.
  3. Maintain nose to knees, chin to chest, and heels to hips.
  4. Push off the wall on the balls of the feet.
  5. Kick the wall as you make contact.
  6. Kick off the wall with very fast dolphin kicks in Backstroke. Use dolphin or flutter kicking off the wall in Freestyle, according to the swimmer’s ability preference.
  7. The feet should be apart at shoulder width on wall contact and push off. This is a horizontal squat position.
  8. The last stroking arm is swept downward under the body.
  9. The head dives down and forward, tucking the chin and using a dolphin kick. The legs must be apart to the wall.
  10. Strive for a 90° flexion knee to hip.
  11. Pull out with the bottom arm in Freestyle.
  12. In Freestyle, don’t breathe on your first stroke.

Breaststroke & Butterfly Turns

The turn is the same for these two strokes. The main difference is in the underwater pullout in Breaststroke.

Technique Tips

  1. In Butterfly, don’t breathe while you are inside the flags.
  2. Learn to judge the walls. Know where the wall is in relation to your stroke for turning so you can touch on a full stroke.
  3. Touch the wall with both hands, just short of full extension. The elbows are flexed, then straightened.
  4. The lead hand releases the wall on contact and the knees drive towards the wall. Drive the knees towards the chest as quickly as possible. This will get the feet on and off the wall quickly.
  5. One foot should be on top of the other to get to the wall quicker.
  6. The head snaps directly back.
  7. The first hand off the wall sculls up towards the ceiling.
  8. The second hand off the wall drives to the forehead, close to the ear.
  9. Go into the turn and come off the turn through the same hole. A vertical eye position when the head snaps back will help get the swimmer in and out through the same hole.
  10. Hyperextend off the wall and break out into the stroke.
  11. Practice your underwater Breaststroke pullout, complete with the single downward dolphin kick, every time you do a Breaststroke turn.
  12. Use a strong first stroke to break out with momentum, and then get into your racing stroke rhythm.
  13. In Butterfly, don’t breathe on your first stroke.

Why athletes shouldn’t fear carbohydrates

The word ‘carbohydrate’ is the name given to a macronutrient that is in a very broad range of foods and comes in many different forms, which have slightly different functions and are digested differently.

Breaking down the different types of carbohydrate is important to make a distinction between the carbohydrates that are essential for training and good health and those that may need to be limited in some instances rather than lumping them all together as all bad.

At a snapshot, carbohydrates are the best fuel source for maximum energy.

Different carbohydrate dominant foods have different structures of carbohydrate that are broken down to the form that it circulates in the blood as glucose, to be used as fuel.

The most common types of carbohydrate are:

  • Glucose – ingested and oxidized as fuel faster than the other forms of carbohydrates found in bread / pasta / rice / cereal
  • Lactose – a compound of glucose and galactose found naturally in dairy products like milk / yoghurt
  • Fructose – found in fruit / fruit juice / commercial products and is metabolized in the liver before circulating in the blood
  • Sucrose – ‘Sugars’ – Table sugar / soft drink / lollies / cakes = ↓nutrient foods. Ones to limit in day to day eating.

Why do I need carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are circulated as glucose in the blood which is the most easily accessible and preferred fuel source for the body and brain to function, especially during exercise for muscle contraction and the central nervous system innervation.

Before being broken down to glucose, carbohydrates are stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen, with stores lasting around 60-120min of activity before they either need to be topped up through ingesting a carb source, or they become depleted and intensity and performance can start to drop or slow down and need to be replenished before the next session.

Going into a high intensity training session with low glycogen stores or an inadequate amount of carbohydrate in the diet can cause an early onset of fatigue, lethargy and decreased performance – low levels can make you lose focus and concentration in training when it’s needed the most.

Nutritious Carbohydrate Sources

All carbohydrates will ultimately break down to circulate in the body as glucose. The type of carbohydrate eaten can influence how quickly this glucose is available in the system. When choosing carbohydrate foods try to select nutritious, high fibre, nutrient rich carbohydrates to get more from them for maximum health, vitality and energy.

Less nutritious carbohydrates don’t offer too much more than sugar or glucose and are absorbed quite quickly. These foods may have their place at times around activity when you need a boost, however as part of an everyday diet they should be eaten in smaller quantities as they can have a negative impact on immune function and gut health.

MORE Nutritious Carbohydrates LESS Nutritious Carbohydrates
Whole grain bread and bread rolls – all types Soft drink / cordial
Pasta / rice / noodles / barley / Quinoa Bite size rice crackers
Fruit – fresh/dried/ tinned Lollies / chocolate
High fibre cereal / oats / bran Table sugar and added sugar
Low fat milk and natural yoghurt Jams / sweetened spreads
Starchy vegetables like potato,
sweet potato, corn, dried peas /beans / legumes
Sweet sauces and syrups
Grainy crackers and crisp bread Sweet biscuits and cakes

How much carbohydrate do I need?

The total amount of carbohydrates you require depends on your body weight, type of activity, fitness level; training and body composition goals.

It can even change from day to day, let alone week to week according to your training, so it’s not an all or nothing amount. As training and intensity of training increases, the more you will need to include before and around training times, with more during for long endurance events. The delivery of this will then have to suit activity and the individual, and any health requirements, to make fuel efficient for use at the right times for preloading and recovery.

Carbohydrate intake just needs good planning, there is no need to fear or avoid them. Like any food, if you eat too much it won’t be good for you, but if you don’t eat enough it won’t be good for your performance or health.

Fuelling your Body for Swim Meets

It is important to plan what food you will eat, and when, to ensure you have the energy required to perform your best at a swim meet.

Meets may last for 2 to 7 days, with races anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes depending on the stroke and distance being raced. In some competitions, swimmers may compete multiple times per day, and have as little as 20 minutes to recover between races, while in other situations there may be several hours between races.

What to eat before swimming

Have a high carbohydrate meal 2-4 hours before the first race of a competition. Fluids (mainly water) should be sipped regularly in the lead up to the first race. To avoid stomach discomfort foods should be relatively low in fibre and fat. The pre-competition meal should be planned and practice during training (don’t try new foods or fluids on competition day). Suitable pre-competition meals include:

  • Wholegrain breakfast cereal with milk + fruit (e.g. Weet-bix)
  • Fruit salad with yoghurt and nuts
  • English muffin with jam or cheese
  • Sandwich/roll with salad + lean meat/cheese
  • Porridge with banana and cinnamon

A small snack can also be eaten in the 1-2 hours before a race to top up energy levels. For example:

  • Muesli or sports bars
  • Fresh fruit
  • Rice cakes with nut butter
  • Dried fruit & nut mix

If solids don’t sit well before swimming, or swimmers are very nervous, a liquid source of protein and carbohydrate such as a fruit smoothie may be a good option.

What to eat and drink during swim meets

Swimmers need to make sure that they take advantage of opportunities to eat and drink between events. An eating plan should be developed that fits in with the individual competition schedule and includes familiar foods. Competition eating should be practised during training sessions or intra-club lead up competitions before major events to help identify food choices that will suit best.

If less than 60 minutes between races – keep options light and easy to digest. Carbohydrate-rich liquids may be preferred as they are rapidly digested from the gut.

  • Juice
  • Flavoured milk tetra packs
  • Yoghurt pouches
  • Dried fruit (e.g. banana chips)
  • Small pieces of fresh fruit (e.g. grapes/banana)

If more than 1 – 2 hours between races – a more substantial meal can be eaten to top up energy needs and avoid getting hungry.

  • Pasta/noodle-based dishes
  • Sandwiches with simple fillings
  • Sushi or rice paper rolls

Competition and training venues do not always have suitable food and fluid options available so swimmers must arrive at venues with food and fluids prepared. A cooler bag with drinks and food options should be packed and kept easily accessible for topping up with fuel and fluids throughout the day.

Post-race recovery

Recovery nutrition is especially important during competitions that are held over several days.

Recovery meals and snacks should contain carbohydrate (fuel), some protein (for muscle repair and development) and plenty of fluids and electrolytes to replace sweat losses.

A recovery meal or snack should be consumed soon after the final event of the day, particularly when the next race is the following day. Fluids (mainly water) should also be consumed, based on estimated losses.

Some recovery food suggestions include:

  • Ham, cheese and salad roll or wrap
  • Dairy-based fruit smoothie
  • Omelettes or poached eggs on toast
  • Homemade pizzas with chicken, cheese + veggies

Hydration needs

To stay hydrated, swimmers should drink fluids before, during and after events. 

It can be difficult to identify sweat loss because of the water-based environment, and pool areas (especially indoors) are often warm and humid which increases fluid losses. Water bottles should be taken to competitions and placed in an easily accessible location to ensure fluids are consumed regularly.

What to eat during swimming competitions

When preparing to compete at a swimming competition you need to pay careful attention to nutrition. Here are some tips about what to eat during swimming competitions.

The day before

When competition time comes round, you’ll have plenty on your mind. So the day before the event keep exercise to a minimum – if anything at all – and eat meals and snacks high in complex carbohydrates. You need to keep those glycogen stores topped up.

  1. Drink fluids little and often to stay properly hydrated.
  2. Eat little and often – every two to four hours to keep your blood sugar levels steady and fuel your muscles in preparation for your event.
  3. Avoid big meals or over-eating in the evening – this will almost certainly make you feel uncomfortable and lethargic the next day.
  4. Try to stick to familiar foods. Curries, spicy foods, baked beans and pulses (unless you are used to eating them) can cause gas and bloating, so avoid eating anything that may cause stomach discomfort the next day. It’s best to stick to foods that you are familiar and compatible with!

The morning of the event

Don’t swim on empty. Even if you feel nervous, make breakfast happen. Stick to easily digested foods – cereal with milk, porridge, banana with yoghurt, some fruit or toast with jam.

If you’re really struggling, try liquid meals such as milkshakes, yoghurt drinks or a smoothie.

It’s a good idea to rehearse your competition meal routine in training so you know exactly what agrees with you.

Snacks between heats

Try to eat as soon as possible after your swim to give yourself as long as possible to recover if you have to swim again.

High fat and simple sugar foods will do you no favours in competition. Instead search out complex carbohydrates again.

If you can’t stomach anything solid try sports drinks, flavoured milk or diluted juice that will help replenish your energy supplies and assist the recovery of aching muscles.

The list below offers great food options to be snacking on in and around training for a competition. Remember to keep eating healthy foods from your regular diet though, such as fresh vegetables, nuts and fruits.

  • Water, diluted fruit juice with a pinch of salt or a sports drink
  • Pasta salad
  • Plain sandwiches e.g. chicken, tuna, cheese with salad, banana, peanut butter
  • Bananas, grapes, apples, plums, pears
  • Dried fruit e.g. raisins, apricots, mango
  • Smoothies
  • Crackers and rice cakes with bananas and/or honey
  • Mini-pancakes, fruit buns
  • Cereal bars, fruit bars, sesame snaps
  • Yoghurt and yoghurt drinks
  • Small bags of unsalted nuts e.g. peanuts, cashews, almonds
  • Prepared vegetable crudités e.g. carrots, peppers, cucumber and celery

Swimming Nutrition

Nutrition is an important area of successful performance in any sport. Swimmers need to eat a variety of nutritious foods to compete and train to the best of their ability.

Greg Shaw, AIS Sports Dietitian, talks about a balanced diet for a swimmer, and the types of foods they should be eating and why.

No Good Pain, No Gain

Should I be training when I am sore?

The answer is that it depends on the type of soreness or pain you are feeling—is it Good Pain or Bad Pain? It also depends on how long you have been feeling sore. The following article from Swimming NSW describes you how to tell the difference between Good and Bad Pain.

Think of a word that starts with “p,” rhymes with “main” and is great for your swimming. If you guessed “pain ”you’re absolutely right. But not just any kind of pain, good pain. What’s good pain you ask? It’s the kind of pain you feel when you push your body to it’s absolute limit, like during a really challenging butterfly set, a super tough distance set or an all-out set of 50’s. Good pain is an essential part of training. Without good pain, you will never develop the kind of physical fitness and mental toughness you’ll need to consistently swim best times in meets and achieve your ultimate swimming goal.

Good pain should never be confused with bad pain, which is the pain you feel when you’ve injured yourself. Swimming with bad pain is the absolute worst thing you can do. Even though you might get away with it for awhile, it will eventually catch up to you, which means you will have to cut back on the amount of training you do, seek medical attention or worse- stop swimming for an indefinite amount of time. Swimming with bad pain is a “no-win” situation and should be avoided at all cost!
The trick however is knowing how to tell the difference between good and bad pain.

To test your knowledge on good and bad pain, I invite you to take the following quiz. All you have to do is tick the pains you think are good.

The Name that Pain Quiz

  1. The pain you feel when your arms are so heavy that you can barely lift them out of the water during a butterfly set.
  2. The pain you feel when your muscles are so sore that you can’t finish your stroke in freestyle.
  3. The pain you feel in your neck from holding your head still in a long backstroke set.
  4. The pain you feel in your side during a challenging swim set ( some call it a stitch).
  5. The pain you feel in your shins from kicking a lot of breaststroke kick.
  6. The sharp pain you feel in your knee every time you kick or push off the wall.
  7. The pain you feel in your lungs during a major breath holding set, a set that also makes you feel dizzy.
  8. The pain you get from kicking your legs so hard that they end up feeling as thick and heavy as telephone poles.
  9. The sharp pain you feel in your shoulder every time you recover your arm in freestyle or butterfly.
  10. The pain you feel in your stomach muscles after doing a lot of sit-ups.

The correct answers can be found at the end of this article. Knowing how to tell the difference between good and bad pain is one of the secrets to having a long and successful swimming career. Any bad pain should be reported to your coach right away. Don’t be afraid to tell them. A good coach wont think you’re slacking off, if fact they’ll admire you for being so responsible and in tune with your body.

Although you should avoid bad pain at all costs, you should also try and experience as much good pain as you can. The more good pain you experience in training, the more time you will drop in meets.

The Good Pains are: 1,2,3,4,5,8,10
The Bad Pains are: 6,7,9

So basically, Good Pain is achy, dull, and very general. It tells you that you are working hard. Bad Pain tends to be sharp and specific and tells you that you are hurt or injured. This type of pain should be referred to a Sports Physiotherapist for assessment and treatment.
However, your body also needs time to recover from a hard workout. Tired, sore muscles for an extended period can be a sign of overtraining.

Completing a warm-down (which includes a stretching routine) following a training session can help to reduce the amount of muscle soreness that you experience and also helps your body to recover more quickly.