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Technical Foundations Part VI



As described in part V, rhythm and timing is greatly underappreciated and seldom addressed in swimming. Technical interventions are often focused on the positions of limbs rather than the transitions between these positions. There is little consideration as to how these transitions are executed, whether in terms of the actual movements, or the dynamics of the movements.


As there is little attention to the movements themselves, there is even less attention given as to how swimmers can learn these skills. The strategies are not necessarily novel; however, the difference is in their application. What is critical is the intention of the coach in which these strategies are implemented, in conjunction with the intention of the swimmer in which these strategies are executed.


Rhythm and Timing


Rhythm and timing are when it all comes together. It is about doing the right thing at the right time. It’s less about the positions swimmers achieve, and more about the transitions between those positions. It is the key to efficient, effective, and sustainable swimming, yet is overlooked by coaches and swimmer alike. It’s not addressed in coaching education and there are no attempts to help swimmers learn it.


Much of the problem is that you can’t show someone rhythm like you can show someone a catch position. It’s not a specific movement, it’s the relationship between movements, something much more nebulous. For most coaches, if they can’t describe it, they can’t teach it. Our words fail us.


So, we need different strategies.


Here are the strategies I have found to be effective in helping swimmers learn rhythm. While we might not be able to teach it, swimmers can learnrhythm. Importantly, these are all TRAINING tools as well, and fitness can be developed while helping swimmers learn rhythm and timing that is relevant to racing.


Speed changes.  One of the best ways to teach rhythm is by changing speeds through builds, descends, negative splits, positive splits, and alternating speeds within repetitions. You may be saying, ‘Well, I already do that.’ I understand that. The difference is in intention and communication. When you clearly communicate the intention, and you hold swimmers accountable to engagement, these tasks can be very effective.


It’s not about the speed change. It’s about HOW speeds change and what swimmers are doing to make it happen. How do they do it? How can they make it easier? What shift in focus makes the biggest difference? This interaction and reflection dramatically changes what is learned.


The other way to make build a gear changes more effective is to give the swimmers specific times they need to hit, or you could let them choose their time. Now they have specific goals for the rhythms they are trying to achieve. The specific time is not that important, unless you’re trying to concurrently develop fitness, which is a great idea. The time gives them a goal and a purpose.


When they perform the swim, and they hit the time they expected, ask them if they were able to build smoothly. Were there any hiccups? If it was a speed change exercise, were they able to get right into the 2nd gear? How long did it take? Could they make the transition shorter?


Swimmers have to be engaged in the process and it is up to us to facilitate engagement. They best way to do so is through questions. It helps swimmers to find the answers for themselves.


Manage stroke rate.  Require swimmers to change their stroke rates between repetitions and within repetitions of longer swims. This can be done with or without a tempo trainer or similar device in the initial stages to help swimmers get a feel for the change. Later, these same swims can be performed without the aid of a tempo trainer, with swimmers trying to hit varying stroke rates without immediate feedback.


It’s not about learning to swim at ‘ideal’ strokes rates. It’s about having the coordination and the timing to switch between rhythms on command. If swimmers possess this ability, they have control of their rhythm. The next step is to do all of the above with performance constraints as well. They need to be able to change speeds as well.


Changing strokes rates changes the velocity of the limbs through the recovery phase. As the arms move faster, more momentum is generated and swimmers can use this momentum to aid in undulation or rotation. By creating contrast between different stroke rates, this can be felt by swimmers, and eventually employed to aid performance.


Alternate arm recovery style.  Beyond the velocity of the limbs, the length of the recovery limb will also affect the momentum generated. A longer recovery arm, swung at the same speed, will generate more torque which can be transferred to the torso. By requiring swimmers to swim with different recovery styles between or within different repetitions, swimmers can learn how recovery style impacts momentum generation, as well as learn how to merge the benefits of one style with the benefits of another.


As an example, a straight recovery may help swimmers feel the connection between the arm and the torso. However, the recovery is to laborious to be used effectively. They can work to transfer the feeling of the long recovery to their normal recovery. This process can also be aided by swimming with two different arm recoveries at the same time, one straight and one bent, trying to merge the benefits of both.


Again, the point is not to always swim with long arm recoveries. The point is to use the change in recovery style to perceive new opportunities for generating rhythm through the arm recoveries. Not only are swimmers more likely to discover their ideal stroke recovery, they’re more likely to learn how to connect those recoveries to the torso, and use the recoveries to drive stroking rhythm.


One only needs to look to Janet Evans to realize the impact the arm recovery can have on the generation of rhythm and speed.


Manage stroke length.  Similar to stroke rate, stroke length is another way to alter stroke rhythm and timing. The value of manipulating stroke length is that it is a metric that swimmers get immediate feedback about. They know after each length whether there has been a change or not. You can have swimmers switch their stroke length by repetition, or even within repetition, to ‘change gears’. These gear changes should be related to changes in speed. It can help swimmers understand how changes in rhythm affect efficiency and effectiveness.


Beyond exposing swimmers to potentially positive technical changes, it consistently requiring stroke length changes helps swimmers develop control over their rhythm. This control allows swimmers to choose how they’re going to swim. Establishing this control is not only a short-term investment in performance; it’s a long-term investment in the awareness and ability to learn new skills.


Play with breathing.  The breath plays a critical role in the generation of rhythm in all three prone strokes, as the movement of the head can be used to generate and magnify the undulatory or rotational momentum of the torso. Practicing swimming without breathing, or with different breathing rhythms, can help swimmers feel how the breath influences the rhythm of the body.


Swimmers can also practice minimizing and maximizing the size of the breath to determine the impact on rhythm. They can also play with learning to accelerate the head back to a neutral position following inhalation. This can aid in momentum generation. While a larger breath will typically generate more drag on the body, it can sometimes be worth the trade-off to generate more momentum and establish a better rhythm.


Use light hand weights.  While the torque of the recovery arm can be influenced by changing the recovery pattern, it can also be altered by holding small weights in the hands, or by applying weights to the wrists or elbows. This added weight will increase the momentum of the swinging arm and provide swimmers more feedback about how to transfer the momentum of the recovery to snap the rotation of the shoulders.


This tactic can be enhanced by changing how heavy the weights are, where they are placed on the limb, as well as whether the limbs are loaded symmetrically. How the resistance is used can and should be changed and contrasted with some frequency.


As an added benefit, stroke rhythm can often be negatively influenced by what happens in the catch position. Some swimmers take way too long to initiate their catch, and some swimmers rush the process. The added weight of the recovery arm is going to force swimmers to initiate their catch sooner as the added momentum is going to carry the arm into position faster. This can be beneficial for those who are too patient. For those that rush the process, this contrast can help them break out of their habits. In some cases, exaggerating the problem can help to create awareness of the issue.


Use a different kick pattern. To change rhythm, it’s sometimes necessary to present swimmers with a different perspective. One way to do this is to change the kicking rhythm. Have breastsrokers swim with dolphin kick, using 1 or 2 kicks per cycle, or with flutter kick. Have butterflyers swim with flutter kick. Have backstrokers and freestylers swim with dolphin kick. When used strategically, this can help swimmers break out of their stroking rhythm by experiencing a novel rhythm. However, it should be used randomly. There has to be a specific reason to do so. In many cases, switching the kick type will help swimmers achieve a faster stroke rate. If this is the intention, using a different kicking action must facilitate this outcome.




Helping swimmers find their rhythm, and helping swimmers learn to help themselves find their rhythm, is a critical component of the technical process. In many cases, swimmers will complain that they’re stroke is ‘off’. This is almost always are rhythm and timing issue. A given component of the stroke is happening at the wrong place or the wrong time.


By familiarizing swimmers with the concepts of rhythm and timing, and helping swimmers learn to appreciate and control these skills throughout the training process, we’re not only improving their skills, we’re helping them learn how to manage their skills when problems arise. As problems tend to arise at the most inopportune times such as championship meets, the ability to manage these problems is a critical weapon.


Rather than solving technical issues by exclusively focusing on specific positions, a focus on improving rhythm and timing by using momentum and effectively transitioning between positions may be just what is required to help swimmers take the next step in their performance development.


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