At the FINA World Championships this August, 18-year-old Katie Ledecky became the first swimmer ever to win the 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1,500m freestyles at a World Championship. She also set three world records, giving her 10 records in the last two years alone.
This performance prompted Outside magazine to call her “the best athlete in the world right now”. Human performance expert Dr. Michael Joyner agrees, ranking Ledecky’s swimming in the past two years “among the most remarkable endurance performances ever”.
Ledecky unquestionably has a world-class aerobic engine, but one can only guess at how Ledecky’s fitness compares with that of her rivals because it’s so difficult to measure oxygen consumption while swimming. But, one element in Ledecky’s swimming – her stroke efficiency – is precisely measurable. It’s also (unlike her physiological capacities) learnable.
Ledecky displayed three critical skills any triathlete can develop in pool practice:
1. Ledecky took significantly fewer strokes than her competitors. In the 1500 metres, Ledecky took 38 strokes per 50-metre pool length, fewer than any other finalist, and seven strokes less than runner-up Jessica Ashwood. While height is a key factor in stroke length, Ashwood (173cm tall) should take only one to two more strokes per length than Ledecky (180cm) if both were equally efficient.
2. Ledecky’s stroke count was stunningly consistent. In the 1500m, she swam an unvarying 38 strokes per length (SPL) for 90 percent of the race. And she averaged 39 SPL in the 200 metres – just one stroke higher than in the 1500m, though her pace per 100m was four seconds faster!
3. Under pressure, Ledecky’s stroke got longer! Ledecky faced a serious challenge in only one race, the 200 metres, not taking the lead until the final 50m. As she pulled away for the win, Ledecky took two fewer strokes than on the previous length. In contrast, silver medalist Federica Pellegrini (180 cm tall) increased her stroke count from 42 to 45 and bronze medalist Missy Franklin (188 cm) increased from 40 to 43.
In a 40-year study, USA Swimming researchers identified the ability to keep one’s stroke long, while stroking faster, as the strongest predictor of success in swimming. From 200m to 1500m, Ledecky did this better than anyone else at the meet.
Here’s how to apply these insights to your own swimming.
Step one: Know your optimal count . . . then work toward it.
In the 1500m, Ledecky traveled 65% of her height on each stroke. (When Sun Yang broke the men’s 1500m record in the 2012 Olympics, he traveled 70% of his 196 cm height on each stroke. The accompanying “Green Zone” chart shows a height-indexed range of efficient counts for non-elite swimmers—it starts at just 50% of height. Compare your count with those in the chart.
If your SPL is above the range for your height, you’re diverting energy into moving the water, instead of moving yourself forward. To reduce SPL, try the following:
Minimise drag: Align head with spine. Job one for your arms is to extend your bodyline. (Also eliminate bubbles and splash.) Job one for your legs is to draft behind your torso. You can’t go wrong by kicking less.
Slow tempo: Using a Tempo Trainer, slow tempo until you can swim 25m repeats at or below the highest count in your range. Slow tempo by an additional .05 seconds and try 50m repeats. Practice in that tempo range until you can swim 25m repeats at the lowest count in your Green Zone and 100 to 200m repeats at or below the highest count.
Step two: Increase SPL Consistency
Swim 4 x 50m + 3 x 100m + 2 x 150m + 1 x 200m. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between repeats. Count strokes. Assess as follows:
1. Did you stay within your Green Zone?
2. Did you limit SPL increase to three strokes between the 50s and the 200? (i.e. 18 SPL on 50s and no length higher than 21)? If you fell short on these parameters, avoid fast-paced swimming until you can do both on most of your repeat sets. Mastering this will teach you steady pacing – and lead almost effortlessly to faster times.
Step three: Increase stroke rate
When you have good command of the first two steps, begin working on holding stroke count while increasing tempo (with the aid of a Tempo Trainer) using a set like that below. This example assumes a 25-metre Green Zone of 18 to 21 strokes.
Choose a tempo at which you can easily complete 25 metres in 18 strokes. Swim a series of 25’s, increasing tempo by .01 on each successive repeat. For how many repeats can you maintain 18 SPL? Four is good. Eight is great.
Repeat this exercise at any count in your Green Zone. At the higher counts, your tempo range should be faster. E.G. If you can hold 18 SPL between 1.30 and 1.25 seconds/stroke, you might be able to hold 20 SPL between 1.20 and 1.15 seconds/stroke.
These exercises will help improve the speed skills that made Katie Ledecky the best athlete in the world. Happy laps!
(Images: Chan-Fan / Jonny Gawler / Dennis O’Clair)