Everyone hits it at some point. The stage where you’ve been improving as a swimmer for a while, knocking off seconds here and there. And then it stops. You reach a plateau, and for whatever reason, no matter how hard you think you’re working, you can’t get any quicker.
Plateaus are standard – you can’t improve indefinitely. And they’re certainly not a bad thing, as you can use them to take stock. On the flipside, you don’t want to be stuck in that position for too long.
To improve anything, you need specificity – i.e. specific to the race you’re aiming for; progression – the work needs to get harder; overload – the body requires challenges; and time – changes and adaptations don’t take place overnight.
Because technique takes time to embed, it can be really frustrating when we don’t see improvements. We live in a world of instant gratification, but following a steady and consistent upward path will be ultimately more rewarding than constantly chopping and changing.
So here we present 15 areas that you can work on to break out of that annoying swim rut and step up to the next swim performance level.
Get better body position
So you’ve managed to achieve your 400/750/1.5km goal race distance, but getting faster is proving challenging. Maybe your body position is letting you down.
If you’re creating too much resistance to the water, the force you need to put down to swim faster goes up exponentially. To bring your hips closer to the surface and make sure that your body moves as one part (rather than arms and legs independently) there are two things you can try.
First, try lowering your head – you definitely don’t want to be looking straight forward. A different cue is to think about lengthening your neck or pulling your ears away from your shoulders. The end result is a neutral head position, looking downward in the water but not burying your head underneath.
Second, engage your core by pulling your belly button towards your spine. This will keep your spine straighter and allow you to generate more power.
Improve your swim kick
Making sure your kick is efficient can easily save you time and energy. You’re never going to gain much power from your kick so it’s worth practising a slower rhythm, either in your full stroke or kick sets.
Make sure that your kick comes from the hips (meaning they stay relatively but not completely straight) and covers a depth of 1ft-18in. Try this drill: kick with your arms by your sides, thumbs pressed into the sides of your glutes. If you’re kicking from the hips, you’ll feel your glutes working. If you’re bending your knee too much then you won’t feel your bum muscles working as much or at all.
Many swimmers reach too far forward, trying to maximise the distance travelled per stroke. As a result, they enter and pull across the midline of their body or end up ‘snaking’ through the water.
Instead, try putting your hands in the water at 10-2 or a Y shape. The chances are that your entry will go from being in front of your nose (or even further across your body) to being in-line with your shoulder, even though it’ll feel like your hands are going directly to the side. This will enable you to control your arm better from the shoulder, but also get the bigger back muscles involved to propel you forwards.
Improve your hold
Putting pressure on the water and pulling with purpose are key to generating forward force and momentum. If you can connect with the water and really feel what it means to push the water backward, it’ll make a big difference to your speed. This is where sculling drills are needed.
For a basic drill, try swimming with your hands balled up into fists. This basically teaches your body to maximise any surface that you can to help propel the water. Ideally, you’ll feel the pressure of the water on your forearms – so that when you go to swim full stroke, you generate even more speed with a bigger paddle (your hand).
Vary your training sets
Too many people come to me having done the same two or three sessions, on repeat, for several months. So, first off I tell them to use their warm-up to switch on for the main set. Maybe do some session-specific drills, e.g. if you’re doing a fast session, do some build (acceleration through the rep) or descending efforts (each rep gets faster). If you have a particular stroke fault , do some drills to help improve your proprioception.
Then make sure that your main set has a point! Swimming aimlessly is the fastest way to get stuck in a rut. One session might be aerobic, so make sure you swim it easy. If another one is a sprint make sure that you sprint it! Creating that variation will have a positive influence on your enjoyment and your overall speed.
Train at threshold
In the same way that you might do tempo and threshold runs, CSS (critical swim speed) or threshold swimming is all about pushing your body to create lactate that you can use as fuel. It’s also about teaching your body to manage your effort at potential race pace.
You can work out your CSS pace by doing a 400m timed swim followed by a 200m timed swim, and with a simple online calculator. With this you can set target paces for all distances and reps from 100m upward. Use it to perfect your swimming under duress, pacing, race fitness and speed. Most of the time, for short reps, the first one or two may feel easy, but after that it’s a mental training session as much as a physical effort.
Put in the sprint effort
Just because you’re training to swim 400m or longer, don’t omit sprints from your training, as they will teach your body that you can swim faster than your current race pace.
You’ll also learn how to generate more force to move faster; learn how to relax your body when working hard; provide an extra gear in a race start or to catch some feet in front of you; and boost your overall fitness – doing one speed all the time does not equal well-rounded fitness.
Play with your stroke rate
Stroke rate is the speed that your arms move at – your cadence. People tend to naturally fall into one of two camps; either very long and very slow, or short and fast. But as long as your hands don’t actually stop at any part of the stroke, you can do what you like!
If you’re someone who’s always tried to swim with as long a stroke as possible, try shortening your stroke a little and see if you can move your arms faster for less effort. Similarly, if you’re someone who always feels a little out of breath, try slowing your stroke down a touch and see if that improves your breathing. A useful tool is a tempo trainer – a device that beeps to a preset length of time – to try out different cadences and see what suits you best.
Swim with friends/club
If you do all your swimming on your own, training with others can offer many benefits, such as encouraging you to work harder in your weaker areas or when you’re feeling less than enthusiastic to train! Faster swimmers can also drag you along – the slipstream effect of swimming behind people may be a small speed cheat, but it gets you used to swimming at a higher velocity, something that you can then aim to replicate without the leader.
Another benefit here is the technical feedback. Someone might notice something with your stroke that you haven’t seen or thought of before. Just don’t try to change too much all at once!
Get swim lessons/video swim analysis
Just because you’re an experienced swimmer doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from a swim lesson or two. Having eyes specifically on you can hone particular elements of your technique that may have been neglected or overlooked.
The benefit of video analysis is the ability to see yourself rather than just be told. The value, though, is still in the coach breaking down the order in which you should build on things.
Swim on your own
If you’re someone that always swims with a club, try swimming on your own once in a while. Swimming with a group can almost ‘fix’ your speed or effort as you’re always tied in to swim at the pace of the swimmers around you. This can be a good thing (if it encourages you to swim faster on occasion), but it can also mean you work hard all of the time or it can force you to rush your stroke and end up grabbing at the water rather than purposefully pushing the water backward.
Swimming on your own allows you time and space to work on your form and pace. Just remember to find a good balance between working as hard as you want/need and taking adequate recovery.
Do extra swim sessions
If you can put in more swim time, consistently, then do so! If you’re only swimming once a week, a second swim will most definitely help. A third swim can be of benefit as long as you’re not overly fatigued. Once you’re above three swims, the additional gains become smaller and smaller. These extra swims don’t have to be long sessions. If you can only do 20 or 30mins, that’s more than okay. It’s more about regular quality swimming.
Swim longer/further in sessions
Swimming is a sport defined by yards or metres. Swimming further in each session and each week can be a great way to build your speed, strength or fitness. It could be as simple as not resting quite as long between sets – especially simple if you’re doing aerobic training or skills swimming.
Another option is swimming longer reps in some of your sessions. Rather than just doing 25s, 50s or 100s, include some 200s, 400s or even 800m reps. This will have the double effect of moving for longer within your session as well as forcing you to work on form as you fatigue.
Whatever you choose to do, remember the aim of each of your sessions – if you’re doing an aerobic session, you don’t need much recovery; if you’re needing to stop and rest more then you need to ease off; if you’re doing higher speed efforts then the recovery should be appropriate – lots or not much at all.
Swim with tools
If you haven’t swum with any kit before, pull buoys, fins, paddles and snorkels can make a big difference to your understanding of your stroke in the water. My favourite tool is a snorkel as it allows you to swim without breathing, so focusses on your stroke and maintaining a smooth steady swim. Similarly, using a pull buoy can artificially raise your hips, fins can improve your leg kick, and paddles will allow you to hold more water and generate more force from your back muscles.
Whatever tools you use, don’t get too accustomed to them! Practise with them and then swim without them. If you can swim in the same way and effort (not necessarily at the same speed), then you’re doing well.
Do other strokes
Not an essential but doing other strokes other than front crawl will keep you mentally engaged in swim sessions. Doing backstroke and breaststroke will help you understand what propels your body forward best and help you control the water better. They’ll also open up your shoulders and chest to improve your shoulder mobility and control. Just another way of making your training more difficult but, ultimately, speeding you up