Improving a Swimmer's 100 Freestyle

Lessons Learned from World Record and Olympic Swimmer Alexandre Popov

Swimmers racing in pool
Paul Bradbury/Caiaimage/Getty Images

An on-line discussion on how to improve a 100 yd free from a 56 to a 52 had a number of well-intentioned responses. They boiled down to:

  • Work harder
  • Get stronger
  • Focus on stroke efficiency

I suggest consideration of a different method for maximizing sprint swimming speed. How did Alexandre Popov manage to become the world's fastest and most efficient human swimmer? The basic thrust of his program was that stroke efficiency - not training speed, hard work or power - was the #1 goal.

Swimming speed is simply a product of that. In fact, his weight lifting program is rather modest, particularly in comparison to many US collegiate swimmers who he basically beats at will in 100-meter races. He swims much faster despite a power output estimated by sports scientists to be from 25% to 40% lower than most of those he races.

In the same vein, Rick Sharp and Jane Cappaert of the International Center for Aquatic Research have reported that of all the men's 100-meter freestylers in the 92 Olympics, the finalists averaged a power output 16% LOWER than everyone else in the field who FAILED to make finals. This is so because swimmers who maximize their stroke efficiency simply don't NEED as much power to swim fast.

How Popov Swam So Fast

Popov and his coach, Gennadi Touretski, have devised a program that focuses on a few core objectives. While the traditional emphasis in swim training is on how MUCH or how HARD, Popov's focus is mainly on how RIGHT -- technical perfection and stroke length.

Where most other swimmers engage in a daily race with the clock to prove their speed and fitness, the rule with Popov is "if you can't do it exactly right, don't do it at all." Popov's training VOLUME is dictated by how FAR he can swim while meeting Touretski's rigorous standards for technical excellence, and his training SPEEDS are limited by how FAST he can swim while meeting those standards.

During his teens, while developing to the world record holder he became, his mileage and intensity were increased only as Alex demonstrated the ability to maintain his stroke length and efficiency while swimming farther or faster.

Two of Touretski's principles for fast swimming -- stroke length and relaxation -- are immediately useful to swimmers of all levels and can easily be practiced without the aid of a coach. While Popov now makes them look effortless, it took him years of consistent and disciplined application to make them habits.

Five Swimming Suggestions From The Popov Model To Improve Your Own Sprint Swimming Speed

Swim Slowly
Conventional sprint training doctrine dictates large doses of fast, intensive repeats to simulate the lung-searing, chest-pounding experience of top-speed racing. Touretski and Popov put little stock in it. Coach Bill Sweetenham, the swimming development director for Australian Swimming, told me that Popov "does a huge proportion of his training at very slow speeds. And he does very little 'hard' swimming." Be willing to spend far more of your pool time swimming slowly and with more ease.

Stroke Length And Swimming Efficiency
Popov prepares for his world-record attempts with practice repeats on which he takes up to 10 fewer strokes (for 50 meters) than he will use while racing.

He does a huge amount of his training volume, taking only 23-24 strokes (hand hits) per 50 meter pool length. He practices doing that at a whole variety of speeds.

You can practice "stroke deprivation" yourself. Challenge yourself to swim for several weeks at two fewer strokes (on average) than you usually do -- unless you've already been focusing on stroke count for a year or more. You may feel a bit awkward in the first few thousand yards. Be patient. Soon the new lower count will come to feel more rhythmic and normal. When it does, your nervous system has successfully adapted to the new movements. After a week or so, take another stroke off your average.

Slippery Swimming
Bill Sweetenham also told me that he had watched Popov swim for hours doing little more than tuning in acutely to feelings of where and how the water was resisting him and creatively seeking ways to avoid that drag.

Since drag increases exponentially as you swim faster, if you can establish a very low-drag style at lower speeds, the energy savings also increase exponentially as you swim faster. At all times, some small part of your brain should be thinking about how big a "tube" you cut through the water; do whatever it takes to make that tube narrower.

Be Water Friendly
Whenever you do speed up from your concentrated slow-swimming practice, be very sensitive to when you begin fighting the water or yourself. Avoid, at all costs, ever "practicing" struggle. Swim at all speeds with as much economy as possible.

Practice Fish-like Swimming
Popov and Touretski have released a commercial video of him swimming at both race and practice speeds. I watched it with great interest for about an hour. I noticed two things about his style, both of which contribute greatly to his stroke efficiency and economy.

  1. Popov carries his head MUCH lower than you do. To swim as he does, look at the bottom, not forward, as you swim. When you get it right, you'll feel as if the water could easily flow over the back of your head. Ask a friend to watch as you swim. Ask them to let you know when only a sliver of the back of your head is showing. Then remember how that head position feels.


  2. Popov extends his hand MUCH longer than you do before he begins stroking. As you swim, feel as if the most important thing you do with your hand is lengthen your body line, not using it as a paddle to push you forward.

About the Author: Terry Laughlin is the founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming.


Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 26, 2016