How do I get Faster? (Part 1 — Avoid Comparisons)

Swim lessons at Swift Elementary School

It’s Hard to Pick Out Reasons in the Moment

On Social Media last week, I opened up the floor to friends and followers to ask any swimming question.  I did my best job to answer each one, but there were some answers that were beyond the scope of a comment.  One friend posted the following question:

When I swim, I am never fast. I think I am – but I am not.

This question is a tough one for coaches to answer because “swimming fast” has so many dimensions to it.  I followed up with the question:

Is it “fast” relative to other people like at lap swim time? Or is it that you swim a mile for time or do a triathlon swim and you thought you swam it faster? Or is it that you are caught on a plateau and can’t seem to improve your speed? Or some combination of those 3 things?

The answer I received was that it was a combination of all three things.  In my coach’s view, the ultimate question is:  How do I improve my speed, track the results of my efforts, adjust my training to stay on course, and realize my goal pace at race time?  The answer is involved, so doing one blog post risks having your eyes roll in the back of you heads as I unfold my treatise.  This blog post will answer the first component of the question:  “Is it ‘fast’ relative to other people like at lap swim time?”  My simple answer is to set aside the comparisons and focus on you.

Part 1:  Avoid Comparisons

Of all the ways to figure out how to get faster, straight comparison to other swimmers is probably the least helpful to make major improvements.  It’s a tough sell because most of my adult clients are high achievers and like to be the best at what they do.  Seeing another swimmer throttle you lap after lap doesn’t help the ol’ ego.  I also recognize that it’s fun and thrilling to race and beat a person next to you whether it be in practice or in a competition.  It gives you an additional sense of accomplishment and pride.

College Swimmers are Fast for a Reason

My point is that you need to set aside this hope for micro-victories and look at the big picture.  Focusing on “the other” puts too much emphasis on the one a variable you can’t control:  another swimmer’s performance.  Here are some common cases that you might face:

  • A Former Competitive Swimmer: Competitive swimmers have logged more hours in the pool than you have.  They spent years on the swim team developing good stroke mechanics, building a strong aerobic base, honing different speed gears, and sharpening their competitive edge.  If you are coming into swimming as an adult, you don’t have that foundation.  It doesn’t mean you can’t develop it, but set realistic expectations for yourself.
  • A Better Prepared Swimmer: You also don’t know what that other swimmer or triathlete has done to prepare for the practice or competitive event.  Are they swimming 3-4 days per week for an hour at a time and you are only doing 1-2 days per week for 30 minutes?  Have they been taking lessons and getting more feedback to hone their stroke, and you’ve been working on your own?  Are they working with a more tailored training plan that builds strengths and reduces weaknesses?
  • A Swimmer in The Zone: It could be that the other swimmer is having a good day, and they are swimming in The Zone.  In my 25+ years of competitive swimming, I’ve had great tapers and crappy tapers.  Sometimes you get everything to peak at the right time.  Other times you don’t.

On the margins, adjusting your speed to match another swimmer is a valuable tool to set a pace, draft, or touch-out at the finish.  As a core strategy for getting faster, matching another swimmer’s pace can pull you out of your flow, break your stroke down, and cause you to waste energy with little benefit.

Chicago Blue Dolphins Swim Classes at Swift Elementary School

Ask Other Swimmers What They Do

One thing you can do is ask that swimmer about their background and approach to training.  I’m a firm believer in finding someone who’s doing what you want to do and then modeling what they are doing.  Be aware that sometimes asking people why they swim fast is like getting medical advice on the Internet – you can get contradictory messages.  But at least you know what they believe makes them fast.  You can bank that knowledge and consider whether it’s helpful to you or not.

Part 2 of this series will describe what metrics to use in a long term, proven strategy to getting faster.

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