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!

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