Coaching Tips to Gain Speed

Ironman athlete coming out of the water
January 25, 2017

D3 Staff


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I have been swimming since I was little but have not participated in coached adult swimming sessions until college. While I knew that my technique was decent I could not figure out why I was relatively slow in the water. So I asked the coach on the deck and he said to me: "You need to move your arms faster". Oh, all right, I said.  When I tried to move my arms faster, however, my arms started to burn and my form fell apart, both of which forced me to slow down.Hence, to swim fast one needs not only technical speed but also physical speed. Technical speed relates to an effective stroke-the better the technique the more distance per stroke a swimmer can cover. Physical speed pertains to fitness, strength and power.

Let's look at the technical speed first. There are several drills available to help develop and polish good technique. The fundamental two are: balance in the water and good rotation.

Developing Balance:

The basic kick drill for balance sounds simple but improper alignment can make it difficult. The drill consists of kicking across the pool with hands by the side of the body and head in neutral position. To catch a breath the head is lifted up and not turned to the side. If there is too much extension in the neck the hips and legs will drop causing drag.


Progression is executed on the side with one arm extended in the front. The other arm rests on the hip. The head rests on the outstretched arm facing the bottom of the pool.

Improving rotation:

The rotation drill combines both levels of the balance drill with the exception that the arms remain by the side throughout. Commence by pushing off with arms by the side and looking at the bottom of the pool with head in neutral position. After six kicks rotate to the side and kick to the count of six. Return to the front and rotate to the other side. Rotation is initiated by engaging the top hip and the core.


Kick on the side with one arm outstretched, head resting on the arm and looking at the bottom of the pool. The other arm rests on the top hip. Kick on a count of six and then bring in the arm stroke for a count of three. Rotate to the other side. The drill is also known as "Popov" drill after the famous Russian swimmer Alexander Popov.

The second component of speed is physical speed. Let's look at some exercises that can help with fitness, strength and power.


Some of the readers might relate to my story of being able to sustain powerful strokes at slow speeds but have their stroke fall apart as the speed and the resistance of water increase.  Goldsmith, an Australian swimming authority, recommends a drill he calls "build" and he relates it to changing gears in the car.

The main set would look as follows: 25 at 800 yard pace (1st gear), 25 at 400 yard pace (2nd gear), 25 at 200 yard pace (3rd gear) and 25 at 100 yard pace (4th gear). The key, however, is maintaining stroke efficiency (distance per stroke): as the speed and arm cadence increase the distance per stroke should not decrease.


Topolski and colleagues believe that to swim fast a swimmer needs good propulsion and for good propulsion one must master the Early Vertical Forearm Position or a High Elbow Stroke. Many swimmers suffer from the "dropped elbow" because they lack the strength in the rotator cuff musculature. Rotator cuff consisting of SITS muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatur, teres minor and subscapularis) is the "core" of the shoulder girdle.  Research has shown that the following exercises work well for the rotator cuff:

  • Military press (works supraspinatus)

Prone horizontal abduction at 90 degrees abduction with external rotation (works infraspinatus).  The exercise is executed on a table with face down. The working arm is hanging off the table straight down and the thumb is turned out (palm up). From that position lift the arm as if doing a reverse fly.


  • Side-lying external rotation at 0 degrees abduction (works teres minor)


  • Flexion above 120 degrees with external rotation (thumbs up) or D2 diagonal pattern (extension, horizontal adduction, internal rotation). Both work Subscapularis.  D2 diagonal pattern.  See photo to left.



Power is related to explosive movements. A good way to improve explosive ability is by incorporating plyometrics in the training regimen.

Push up with a clap

A push up is performed. On the return a forceful push through both arms is applied so that the upper body disconnects from the floor. Prior to landing a clap is performed. If the regular push up cannot me performed due to a lack of strength one can do a push up on the knees or with the upper body elevated on the table or even a wall (standing push up) in which case the swimmer pushes away from the wall, claps and then lands back on the wall.

I am currently working with an Olympic swimmer. When I asked her about her favorite exercise to improve speed she told me boxing, more specifically punching the bag for sets of 30 seconds to one minute. Boxing is also good for the core and general fitness. A great idea to mix it up!

Rotator cuff muscles are relatively small therefore the weight should also be on the lower end. Pick a load that can be sustained for two to three sets of 15 repetitions. Pushups can be done to failure also for two or three sets. Due to the nature of training soreness should not be present. With adherence to the technical and physical training plan an athlete can anticipate to gain speed. Keep in mind that a prerequisite for good sport performance is core stability (shoulder, trunk and hip) on which every other component of power is based. Happy training!

Martina  Young is a USAT Level 1 certified Triathlon coach, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and an avid triathlete. She is currently working with an Olympian and Olympic hopefuls at  Zvezda Swim Team in Slovenia.

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