Preface to Swim Speed Secrets, 2nd Ed. by Sheila Taormina
When I wrote Swim Speed Secrets in 2011, I had one principal goal: to steer swimmers and triathletes away from excessive gliding. There was then so much talk of low stroke count that athletes were led to believe this factor was the one and only key to fast swimming. Gliding with a sleek body position became the preferred method for reaching the low stroke counts of Olympic champions. The problem was that the other half of the swimming equation—rate of turnover—was completely ignored, and athletes were not finding themselves swimming any faster.
So, I set out to introduce the “rate” side of the equation in the original edition of the book. I wanted to show athletes that once they understood the importance of rate, they would realize low stroke count is not effectively achieved by gliding but rather by properly navigating the propulsive phases of the stroke. The majority of my effort in the original edition was directed toward convincing readers of my rationale.
Today, in 2018, most athletes understand they must pay attention to the propulsive aspects of the stroke to achieve low stroke count while also attending to the rate side of the equation—the combination that makes for fast swimming.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching swimmers and triathletes begin the process of adopting the very doable, although challenging, stroking mechanics of elite swimmers. Their hard work is paying off. Times are dropping and physiques are changing—telltale signs of solid mechanics.
This is exciting, but there is more. I now want to delve deeper into the stroke.
In the original edition, I did not provide enough guidance on the stroke itself. Two factors contributed to this:
- As mentioned, my primary focus was affecting change in the swimming community’s mindset; and
- I believed that broad descriptions of the stroke were enough for readers to apply solid mechanics.
However, the more I’ve studied technique and worked with athletes of all levels, the more I have honed in on details that—although sometimes barely perceptible—have the power to limit performance tremendously if navigated incorrectly, or at the wrong moment, or not at all. Thus, broad descriptions are simply too vague. They leave too much room for misinterpretation, or leave out key elements altogether. If, for instance, a coach says to make a “deep catch,” then how does the swimmer know what that means exactly? What is deep enough? What is too deep? Should the swimmer think about the hand, the shoulder, the elbow, or some other part of the arm when considering the depth? This uncertainty simply leaves too much to chance and too much potential on the table.
Swimming is a complex, three-dimensional sport, with depth components in addition to fore-aft and lateral components, yet there are no reference points to these dimensions in a mass of water. The movements made by swimmers, even when filmed underwater and analyzed frame by frame, are viewed against a nebulous backdrop. Couple this with the fact that swimming propulsion or speed depends on principles of physics and fluid dynamics, which require measured movements to maximize performance, and we see that coaches can end up in a quandary. They should be offering specific mechanical instruction to their athletes, but the medium in which the sport is contested is obscure, leaving them with choices for coaching instruction as vague as water itself.
Coaches have fallen into a habit of describing this complex sport in short phrases, usually in four words or less: “rotate,” “glide,” “kick from the hips,” “keep your head down,” “reach,” “pull straight back,” and so forth. This is partly practical—swimmers get cold if they have to stand too long at the wall listening to a lengthy explanation of what to do. But it becomes far too easy to write off a slower swimmer as someone who “just doesn’t have a feel for the water.” If a swimmer does not improve after being instructed to “kick from the hips,” for example, the instruction itself is not questioned, it is the swimmer who either didn’t start swimming at an early enough age and therefore is behind the curve and always will be, or doesn’t have kinesthetic awareness, flexibility, or strength.
In this revised edition, my goal is to change that by adding the depth of guidance.
I believe elite stroking is within every athlete’s grasp, but too many athletes are missing out on their potential for lack of guidance on the details. They’re “making a catch,” but they’re doing it too late, too wide, or with improper hand speed. In the following pages, I will unpeel the deepest layers of the stroke and hone in the checklist that is required for making a great catch, as well as other phases of the stroke.
To help achieve this goal, I developed an apparatus called the STGRID™ (patent pending). The STGRID is a measurement tool that allows swim mechanics to be articulated in measurable, definable terms. The grid is used in conjunction with underwater cameras that film a swimmer’s stroke. All movements throughout the swim stroke are measured and analyzed against the grid. Swimmers who are filmed using the STGRID can then measure their own strokes against measurements I have taken from Olympic swimmers’ strokes. The elite swimmers have been measured with the STGRID on all three dimensions. While not every elite swimming stroke is exactly like another, the movements always fall within a tight set of parameters. The STGRID outlines those parameters so that aspiring swimmers can adjust their mechanics with certainty and confidence.
Those who have read the original edition of this book will recall that its theme centered on organizing the massive amount of information relating to swim technique and then focusing intently on the few vital elements of the stroke. That remains the theme in this new edition. The propulsive phases of the stroke are still where I contend we must place the majority of our focus. However, in this edition I have defined how to navigate those phases in more detail, so that athletes don’t miss a critical element that can make the difference in performance.
Complementing this in-depth description of the propulsive phases of the stroke are several other related updates, including the following.
1. Hand Speed Change
Feel for the water is an area I’ve examined closely for several years. The generally accepted truth is that an athlete either “has it” or doesn’t. I have never bought into that mindset. Working with hundreds of athletes over the years has led me to see that this vital element is teachable, not simply a gift of the lucky few. Feel is closely related to hand speed change throughout the stroke cycle. Not hand speed; hand speed change. In this edition, I teach the finer points of acceleration, namely the unique movements at the beginning of the propulsive stroke cycle that affect hand speed (hint: they do not entail a passive “gliding” motion). Once swimmers learn the details behind these movements, they will understand and “feel” the secret ingredient to achieve elite propulsion.
In studying minute details of the stroke in action, I noted that some athletes employed very good mechanics but failed to effectively transfer momentum to the core. Their speed did not match their mechanics; they were slower than they should have been. This led me to the discovery of a key detail in the stroke that has never been addressed in our sport. I term it oarlocks and here’s why it matters: unstable oarlocks diminish the effect of great mechanics. Stable oarlocks, on the other hand, reward the swimmer by maximally converting propulsive power from the limbs to the body’s movement forward. In this new edition, you will learn where the oarlocks are on a swimmer and how to stabilize them. I’m extremely excited to share this crucial information with readers.
3. Reinforcement of Pull Path
Since the original edition of Swim Speed Secrets was published six years ago, an ideology that began in the early 2000s has grown in popularity—the “pull straight back” craze. I’ve watched with uneasiness as coaches and swimmers revile the S Pull to such an extent that they’ve swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. The newly chosen semantics imply that swimmers should eliminate all movement on the lateral and vertical dimensions of our three-dimensional sport. The result? Shoulder injuries are skyrocketing, and swimmers who use this path are not getting faster. While some progress has been made toward convincing athletes of the curvilinear path, the straight-back path is still too readily taught. This edition includes a section intended to redirect the pendulum, along with photos throughout of the most current freestyle Olympic medalists from Rio 2016, confirming the curvilinear path in their strokes.
4. New Drills
The drills in the original edition were chosen to correlate with the broad stroking guidance I gave in that book. Now that we are unveiling deeper layers of the stroke, I’ve selected drills that correlate with those details. Don’t worry—while a few may be a little more challenging than you’re accustomed to, all are very doable, and they will help you develop a championship stroke down to the last detail.
5. Applying Swimming Stroke Rate
Rate is a significant topic in the original edition, and here I take a more extensive look at how it is applied. Rate is not automatic; it must be trained. In the original edition, I addressed only racing rates of turnover, but in order to reach those, a swimmer must know how to apply rate of turnover in training. In this edition, I explain how that is accomplished.
6. The Nonvital Elements of the Stroke
Finally, while I will always believe the majority of a swimmer’s focus should be on the critical underwater pull path, there are other parts of the stroke that do impact performance. In the original edition of this book I did not address those. In this edition, I dedicate a chapter to the details behind those elements, and I explain how to train them.
I’m excited to share these updates and the many discoveries I’ve made along the way as I’ve studied our amazing sport. My overarching goal with this book is the same as it has been since the first edition: to help those interested in getting faster to discover the beauty, science, and art of propulsive swimming.
Enjoy the process. Don’t rush this. Swimming is a complex sport, not mastered in a day.