“DPS” — How To Swim Fast — Some Call it Sprinting, by Jack Nelson (1973)


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The basic point in my philosophy about swimming fast is that swimming is a precision activity. To me, “Sprinting” is a bad word because of its connotation to the swimmer that in order to swim fast one must change something — stroke rate, stroke coordination, or timing. “Sprinting” seems to denote to most people that all you need to be is a big strong ox with lots of muscle in order to go fast. In my opinion, swimming fast entails an entirely different philosophy. This article will discuss the front crawl stroke, commonly called “Freestyle.”

I believe in distance per stroke (DPS) and streamlined body position. Proper breathing is of vital importance. Breathing must be done without negative movement in a manner that cannot be seen. This is why I have adopted the name “mudskippers” for my basic novice groups because the “mudskipper” is a small tropical fish which breathes through its’ tail. If we could teach our swimmers to breathe without turning or lifting their heads we would not have so many stroke problems. Unfortunately, unless human anatomy changes this will not be possible, so we must do the best we can with what we have.

There are several basic drills which we use in our program. We do some stroke exercises in direct relationship to our philosophy of DPS. In order for you to help the swimmer you must first help the swimmer to better understand himself. We do an exercise called, “right arm down, left arm back, one length pull, one length swim.” This exercise gives the swimmer the feel of what one arm does by itself. They will learn that one arm is more efficient than the other, and that they can improve their efficiency by learning these exercises. Throughout this exercise we have them count their one-arm strokes per length. We next try to get them to go the length of the pool with at least two fewer strokes. We tell them to concentrate on distance per stroke and try to cut down the number
of strokes with one arm. For example, we ask the swimmer to swim with one-arm and try for “seven” strokes per 25 yards (of course, depending on age and ability). We have them do this a number of times using alternate arms.

As soon as everyone in the group seems to understand what they are trying to do, we then go into what we call, a “three count, two count, one count, no count exercise.” This is an exaggeration of what we eventually want. We ask them to swim one length of the pool (25 yds) using a three count hold. They pull-push all the way through, holding their arms, one extended and one at the side of their leg, for three counts. After the three count, we then ask them to hold for two counts, then one count, then no counts. This is slow swimming, but I believe firmly that before you can swim fast you must first learn to swim properly at a controlled pace.

It is very important to maintain stroke control at all times. It is very easy for a swimmer to lose concentration resulting in loss of stroke. The entry of the hand should be clean and smooth, there is no need to slap the water or press down on entry. After the entry is made there should be a continuous extension of the hand pushed by the shoulder into full extension. While the one hand and arm is entering into the water (as opposed to onto) the opposite hand and arm is pushing through to finish the stroke.

Swimming the Freestyle in this manner seems to be the most logical way if one is interested in a totally efficient stroke. It is not easy for swimmers who are used to “spinning their wheels” to learn to do this. I feel very fortunate in having had some outstanding swimmers who were self-disciplined enough to be able to maintain distance per stroke.* This type of stroke obviously demands a strong kick.

One of the methods we use to get our swimmers to learn distance per stroke is by using a rope. The rope is fastened at both ends of the pool so that it is from one to two feet below the surface. The swimmer swims his natural stroke above the rope. He is told to grasp the rope, at the end of his full extension, between the thumb and forefinger keeping the palm in a flat position. He then tries to go as far as possible on the push to the rear before letting go of the rope and recovering the arm. The rope is kept straight in order to prevent a cross over and to force the swimmer to extend the reaching arm forward until the rear (rope holding) arm has finished its push. Another exercise we use is having the swimmers swim repeat 100’s maintaining a 24 full stroke count per one hundred. Of course all swimmers cannot do this, so we settle for a relative number of strokes depending on the ability of the individual swimmer. DPS (Distance Per Stroke) is a very familiar term around our FLST Training pools. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the great swimmers who have helped convince me that this is the fastest and most efficient way to travel through the water.

*A partial list of Jack Nelson trained swimmers include:

David Edgar 44.5 (100 yds) 1971
Ken Knox 45.1 (100 yds) 1973; 51.7 100M (1973)
Andy Coan 43.99(100 yds) 1975; 51.23 100M (1974)
Ann Marshall – 52.13(100 yds) 1974; 59.11 100M (1975)
Bonnie Brown – 51.13(100 yds) 1975; 59.7 100M (1975)

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