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Slow Down to Swim Faster

Swimming slow for a more controlled stroke and faster race times

I have mentioned to fellow swimmers that some of my best 50 yard backstroke times are from the first 50 split in a 200 yard backstroke. My strategy is to start slow and controlled, and then build into each 50 so that my splits get faster (or equal) for each 50. But when I sprint a 50, I try to turnover as fast as I can, which creates a more thrashing, and less efficient stroke.

This reinforces a philosophy of mine. (It probably doesn’t apply to sprinters--but then I’m not a sprinter and wouldn’t know how to coach one.) The philosophy is “Slow Down to Swim Faster.”

In the last few months, I’ve been working on stretching out my stroke, focusing on a more efficient technique using “front quadrant” swimming where one arm is always in front of your shoulder. With no swims for a few months, I had the luxury to “rebuild” and get in some nice, easy aerobic sets, keeping my heart rate down and really zeroing in on a better stroke.

I received another lesson is the Slow Down to Swim Faster philosophy the other day when I joined a new swim group. In my lane was a younger woman. New to each other, we compared pace times to gauge who would lead, and in classic Masters fashion she said, “If I’m too slow, just tap my toes.” No matter the lane, no matter the age, Masters swimmers share a common fear of being perceived as too slow and impeding the swimmers behind you.

After a few warm-up sets, we started a series of 200 freestyle swims, with on-deck instructions to “Swim slow and controlled.” Ha! I was having none of that, determined to keep up, or at least not come in too late. All that technique work from earlier weeks was out the window. I was back to my original form that makes coaches cringe. My times were okay, but nothing special.

But then we did some sets of 50s. I realized my technique had gone to hell during the 200s. So reminding myself of what I tell others, I slowed my stroke rate down, stretching out the start of my catch with more catch-up for good front quadrant swimming.

The results were times for some of my best 50s at that interval. While I’m still learning this technique, I was able to slip into a groove where everything felt good--smooth and controlled. But sufficiently fast, or so the clock told me.

Fast swimming is balance of efficiency and effort. Becoming efficient means feeling uncomfortable as you adjust to new and better movements. It requires patience, self-awareness and a genuine desire to swim faster. But when you can build comfort into your stroke, and then be able to step on gas, you reach a new level of faster swimming.

Just remember, every swimmer has flaws--even the best. The best still do drills and have coaches on deck pointing out areas of improvement. I like to think that keeping young is matter of constant learning.

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