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Principles Before Philosophy Part II

In part I, we explored the concept of foundational principles of fast swimming, and came to the following conclusions-

  • Swimming fast is simple.

  • Swimming fast is all about great technique.

  • Great technique only becomes possible when the required physical attributes have been developed.

  • Great technique must reduce drag and increase propulsion, while optimizing the trade-offs between the two.

  • These movements must be organized in a way that optimizes rhythm, which will further enhance propulsion and reduce drag.

  • These skills must be challenged in a way that makes them robust to the stressors of competition.

  • The entire process must develop confidence and the ability to focus.

This is what must be accomplished if swimmers are to improve and perform to their potential. HOW we accomplish these tasks is a very different question. Here we have options. ‘Traditional’ training can work really well. USRPT type training can work really well. It’s all about how you design and execute the tasks, matching what training you provide swimmers with the training that they need. As long as these fundamental tasks are addressed, swimmers will swim fast.

1. There must be a focus on technical development.

From the start, all decisions must be geared towards improving technique. To swim faster, swimmers must swim with a better combination of stroke rate and stroke length. This requires achieving body positions that reduce drag and allow for the limbs to be positioned to for the effective creation of higher forces.

The specific skills we choose to teach, and HOW we choose to teach these skills is up to our discretion, provided we respect basic biomechanical principles. The nature of these specific skills is a separate article. However, there must be a focus on reducing drag and improving propulsion, while organizing all movements with effective timing.

2. Technical development is primarily limited by the ability to achieve positions that minimize drag.

Better swimmers don’t necessarily produce greater forces, they create body positions that minimize resistance in the water (granted, the best of the best perform both. See below.). A lot of these skills are dictated by the ability to manage air through floating effectively and breathing without losing body position. Swimming performance is initially influenced by the ability to get into the right positions. Skilled youth are not creating a lot of propulsion; they are swimming fast due to their ability to manage flotation and achieve effective body positions. It is later that they become more effective at creating force.

Swimmers must be able to position the spine as straight as possible to minimize drag, while also retaining the ability to articulate the spine in a manner that allows for the effective application of force by the limbs. At the same time, they must possess the necessary mobility in the extremities to articulate the limbs to create force without compromising spinal position. Both the spine and the limbs must be mobile enough to accomplish the dual tasks of minimizing resistance and applying force. If the necessary mobility is not present, swimmers will not be able to execute these skills as effectively as possible.

Assuming the required mobility is in place, the main technical task is minimizing drag while moving through the water. Beyond creating a long body position typically associated with ‘streamline’, swimmers must learn to manage their moment to moment drag profile that occurs throughout the shifting positions of each stroke cycle. It is the ability to manage these position that will greatly influence this profile, and ultimately swimming speed.

3. Training is mostly about improving force production, the ability to sustain force, and the ability to maintain body position.

As performance levels rise, the ability to create higher and higher forces, and sustain those forces for the duration of the race. It is not about energy systems or anything else. It’s about FORCE production. THAT’S IT. Although force production is supported by energetic and muscular capacities, it is force that we ultimately need.

Developing aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, anaerobic threshold, etc., is all about providing the energy required to sustain force production. Same with improving the fitness of the heart, creating capillaries in the vascular beds, improving hormonal output, etc. Same with muscular strength, muscular endurance, strength endurance, etc. ALL of it is centered around improving the ability to create and sustain higher forces for the duration of the race.

4. Technical skills must be put under pressure in race-like situations.

While the physical training required to increase force production capabilities likely includes some race-relevant training, it doesn’t necessarily do so. For skills to show up in competition, and to be sustained for the duration of the race, they need to be exposed to race contexts. These exposures need to be consistent enough for the skills to be stabilized under pressure. There’s not necessarily a ‘right’ amount of work in this area.

If swimmers are sustaining their skills at a really high level with consistency, those skills are likely robust enough to withstand the pressure of racing. The other obvious test is competition itself. How are swimmers finishing their races? Beyond the impact of making skills robust against the stress of racing, race-like training can also be a potent stimulus for effectively enhancing physical capacities, a strategy some coaches have chosen to use.

5. Psychological skills

There must be an active attempt to help swimmers learn task specific focus in practice. There must be an active attempt to design training sessions that serve to build swimmers confidence over time. These two traits are foundational to swimming success. Some ideas for how to do so have been outlined previously HERE. Psychology should not be an afterthought. It must be a designed into the training process and coached every day if we are to expect swimmers to achieve their potential in training and competition. It has to happen in the moment, not on a couch, and it is the coach’s responsibility to make it happen.

Making Choices

In spite of this simplicity, we are now left with deciding what to do. While the goals we must accomplish are straightforward, our options for accomplishing those goals are essentially unlimited. When making training decisions, we can come back to these simple ideas, and ask some simple questions.

  • Are effective technical changes being made?

  • Are those technical changes increasing propulsion, reducing drag, or improving rhythm?

  • Are the technical changes limited by restricted physical abilities, and if so, how are those physical limitations being addressed?

  • Is training being performed that will improve race relevant force production, as well as the ability to maintain that force production?

  • Are the technical skills being learned exposed to race-relevant training situations that allow for these skills to be solidified under pressure?

  • Are swimmers growing in their confidence and ability to focus on the tasks they need to achieve, regardless of the situation?

If we can answer in the affirmative for reach of these questions, our swimmers are likely on their way to faster swimming in the future. If not, then there are gaps in the performance program that may be hindering the progress of the swimmers you coach. Fortunately, the tasks that need to be accomplished are straightforward and outlined above.


The required tasks of fast swimming are simple and direct. These tasks must be accomplished, and these guidelines do not leave much room for argumentation. In terms of the strategies we choose to implement to achieve these goals, we are governed by nothing beyond the results that these strategies achieve.

As demonstrated by the many coaching approaches currently practice and practiced in the past, there are many different options that can be effective. When looking to decide how to improve performance, coaches can look to history to understand the approaches that have been used. By understanding the foundational principles of fast swimming, coaches can see why these approaches were successful, as well as the short comings of these approaches.

Beyond understanding what has happened in the past, we can use these principles to innovate new strategies that satisfy the requirements of these tasks. Whether these approaches are implemented due to unique constraints (injury, illness, etc.), or simply because they are more effective, we can use our understanding of how swimming works to develop strategies to help swimmers go fast.

Through an understanding of what really matters, and what is foundational to swimming fast, we can better make choices about how to facilitate the process of performance improvement for all of the swimmers we are charged with helping to improve.


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