Swimming freestyle fast isn’t always about stroking as fast as you can or exerting maximum power in the water. The great Russian sprinter Alexander Popov took fewer strokes per length of the pool than many world-class distance swimmers. According to Dr. Gary Hall, a swimmer and swimming researcher, you can improve your freestyle sprinting by maintaining a streamlined body position, keeping your head down while swimming to reduce drag and pulling underwater with a high elbow, which also reduces drag.
Freestyle swimming workouts for speed typically involve a series of short sprints, such as 10 sprints of 50 or 100 yards, with a short rest of 15 to 30 seconds between each sprint. Dr. Hall recommends using the workout to try to get faster as you progress through the series of sprints. Toward the end of each set of 10 sprints, you'll feel the sting of lactic acid building up in your muscles. As a result, follow these sprint workouts with an easy swim of 200 yards to cool down.
Sprint workouts involve maintaining your desired race pace over a series of set distances, but that doesn't mean you should bore yourself by just sprinting endlessly. As you become faster and more comfortable swimming at sprint speed, add variety and challenge by increasing the speed of the 50s. In addition, the U.S. Open Water Swimming Connection recommends a sprint set that alternates sprints with kicking or increase or decreases the amount of rest you take between sprints.
Body position in the water is also critical to proper sprint workouts. Dr. Hall notes that fast freestylers rotate their bodies along a long axis, snapping their hips and shoulders from one side to the other. This counter-rotation allows your arms to engage more muscle groups and generate a force to pull against. When focusing on speed, concentrate on using your core to power your freestyle stroke, so you are not trying to swim fast with just your arms and legs.
Add drills designed to improve your efficiency, aiding the muscle memory you'll need when sprinting. For example, swim with your hands clenched into fists. You won’t feel very fast, but swimming with your fists makes you more sensitive to the pulling power of your forearm. When you reopen your hand, your stroke feels much stronger and powerful, enabling better speed.
Another useful drill is called “the touch and go,” also known as "catch-up freestyle." This drill involves keeping one hand out in front of you until your other hand completes its underwater pull and recovers to the forward position, touching your opposite hand and triggering the pull on that side. This drill trains you to maintain your streamline longer and also increases your speed since it is in that position – one arm out in front and the other having completed its pull – that the body is traveling at its fastest, Hall says.
Jim Sloan is a writer and editor in Reno, Nevada. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years and is the author of two books, "Staying Fit After Fifty," and "Nevada: True Tales from the Neon Wilderness."