Less is More: Accidentally Crushing a Best Time at Age 39

by James Fike, CEO /Founder of Fike Swim

If you haven’t read my previous Less Is More articles, check them out here:

Less Is More: Lifetime Bests at 38
Less Is More: Another Lifetime Best at 39

This past weekend at the Lone Star Spring Invitational I dropped two more tenths in the 100 breast (54.19), which felt amazing, but the big win was going 1:58.91 in the 200 breast in prelims and 1:58.71 in finals. Up until about five weeks ago my best was 2:02 from college in 2002. I don’t “train for the 200,” and until five weeks ago when I swam it with a new approach, I didn’t even care about it. In fact, I hated it. In college I was a 55.2 100 breaststroker but only a 2:02 200 breaststroker. I typically died in the last 75, even though I didn’t take it out very fast, so I dreaded the whole event. Now here I am at 39 years old focusing on the 100 but rarely swimming even a 100 in practice, let alone a 200, and taking it out fast but now only dying on the last 25!

Conventional swimming wisdom says the 200 is a mid-distance event and therefore your training must reflect that. In other words, you have to put in more yards than a sprinter. Sprinters can get away with only doing 25s and 50s in practice and maxing out at a couple thousand yards, especially if they are big and strong. But for the 200, you must do 100s and 200s, and even some 300s and 400s. The problem for me, as I’ve said in previous articles, is that more yards equals worse technique done in a less-than-dynamic way, and breaststroke should be extremely dynamic. There is no point in doing eight 200s unless you can somehow maintain that explosive recovery. A mono-speed breaststroke is only training me to look like a fast rec swimmer.

Before I get into the specifics of how my 100 training affected my 200, the mental aspect of how I approached the race is really important. I was afraid of the 200, and a bit embarrassed that I swam at Texas and never broke 2:00. So when I finally decided to race it again in December 2016 I was determined to have fun with it- see how fast I could go with as few strokes as possible (like eight the first 100) and then turn it up on the last 50. I wanted play with it instead of it playing with me. I wanted to finish a 200 feeling good about it for a change. And I did that once a year for four years. Then in December of last year I decided to add a few more strokes to see what would happen. I went 2:04 without really trying and still felt great when I got out, which got me thinking that maybe I had way more in me than I thought. So five weeks ago I applied my new training to the 200 and hit 2:01.2, a best time by almost a second without being tapered. At that point, I knew sub-2:00 was possible.

There are four aspects of my training that allowed me to improve my 200 on a “sprinter’s regimen”: longer high-intensity sets, power, technique, and distance per stroke (DPS).

Long, High-Intensity Sets
My practices are either very intense to simulate racing or very easy for recovery. There is no yardage for the sake of yardage. And the intense practices are meant to address my biggest weakness- the second half of my race. I can take a 100 out in 25.0 but only come back in 29.1, which is better than the 29.5 it used to be because of how hard I’ve worked on maintaining speed and form while tired. And no, if I backed off the first half, the second half would not get faster. I’ve tried. So I build workouts that allow me to simulate the second half of races. I like doing variations of the following:

5 Rounds (SCM):
50 free @ :35 90%
50 breast @ 1:05 92%
50 EZ @ 1:20
2 minute break, then 3 rounds, then 1 round, increasing the breaststroke effort from five (92%) to three (96%) to one (100%).

This isn’t a long set in terms of yardage, but it does require my body to repeat race-like effort and form over a long period of time. The idea is to take my muscles right up to their breaking point, then give them just enough rest to push them hard again. This kind of set was intended to help my 100, but I think it was a big factor in my 200 success.

Distance per stroke matters for every event. You want to get as much as you can out of every stroke, even when you are doing a 50 and the turnover is super high. I love DPS work because it forces you to find every ounce of water in your catch and every efficiency possible to make the most of every stroke, especially in breaststroke. Unlike “regular” swimming where you fall into a rhythm and can get lax on certain mechanics, DPS forces you to examine every single motion of the stroke as it’s happening. You “see” the slight imperfections that will cost you in your race if you don’t fix them.

For the most part, when I do DPS it’s mixed into my warm-up to prepare my stroke for the main set. My favorite is three 50s spread across the second half of warm-up doing two strokes per 25 (SCM) and descending them 1-3. For instance, it might look like this:

3 Rounds:
100 breast kick @ 2:00 desc 1-3 (70%/80%/90%)
50 cobra drill @ 1:30 (rise up like a cobra and explode forward like a cobra striking; no kick)
50 DPS @ 1:30 desc 1-3 (:40/:39/:38)
When I first started doing this nine months ago my best was :41. Now I’m down to :38 and the next goal is :37.

However, there are two other sets I will do from time to time:

Fast and Fewious
6 x 50 (SCM) @ 1:30 as fast as you can with as few strokes as you can
I do a couple variations of this. The first focuses more on power and is like the DPS in warm-up, where I cap my stroke count at four and try to hit :38 every time. If I want to focus more on speed, I’ll do ten strokes and try to hit :31.

200 breast @ 4:00 two strokes/25
4×25 free drill
2×150 breast @ 3:00 two strokes/25
4×25 free drill
3×100 breast @ 2:30 two strokes/25
4×25 free drill
4×50 breast @ 1:30 two strokes/25
This set happens just a couple times per year. It is the one time I swim more than 100 yards of continuous breaststroke and one of the very few times I swim more than 50 yards of continuous breaststroke, because in this set I can maintain a dynamic stroke.

There were three problems with my stroke as of March 2019 when I tied my best college 100 breast time and thought maybe I could do better.

Problem #1 On each breath my chest was low and my eyes were only looking at my hands. This kept my body position low.
Solution: Using lots of drill work, especially cobra drill, fins, and paddles to get used to lifting my eyes and chest as high as I could for 25s at first, then longer distances like 50s and 100s. It took about a year to see the change applied in my races.

Problem #2 The lactic acid buildup in my biceps was so bad I locked up the last 15 yards and couldn’t bend my arms after the race. Way back when, I was taught to imagine an enormous bowl of ice cream. You reach along the back (sweep), dig in along the sides and bring the ice cream to your mouth (pull), then go back for more (shoot). But the bringing the ice cream to the mouth was like doing a ton of bicep curls, hence the lactic acid buildup. Solution: I told this to a top breaststroker once and they looked at me like I was crazy. Since then I have worked to squeeze my arms together after the sweep instead of trying to dig for water/ice cream like you would in fly and back. The focus is on getting narrow and skinny after getting wide and big by bringing the elbows in, like my life depends on escaping through a shrinking hole right in front of me. It took me a year to get this, but I haven’t locked up in a race since.

Problem # 3 I lacked aggressiveness. After you come up you need to get forward and back down as fast as you can. I simply didn’t do that. When I studied video of my races it looked like I was sinking down on the recovery instead going forward.
Solution: Despite simplifying it in my problem statement, this was actually a hard one for me and one that still isn’t consistent. About half of the strokes I took last weekend were too passive. It’s difficult to throw your whole upper body forward again and again. I see many swimmers try to do this but they end up pushing their head, and as a result their body, down. Distance per stroke helps with this. Stretch cords are valuable, as you have to fight the pull with your whole body. Breast pull with fin-assisted dolphin kick can be a great tool as well. Fins make it easy to get forward.

My technique is still evolving and improving, which is one reason I’m optimistic that I’ll be going even faster into my 40s.

My size and strength play a big part in my success. At 6’3” 215 lbs I leave the blocks and walls with a lot of momentum, and the key is to hold onto that for as long as possible. I love to ask swimmers at clinics what the fastest points in a race are. Almost everyone knows the answer is off the blocks and walls, but I find that so few swimmers appreciate the potential duration of wall speed. Do a streamline for distance the next time you swim. If you’re really good, you can probably get 2/3 to ¾ of a 25. That’s “free” additional speed on top of your swimming effort for 2/3 to ¾ of a 25! It means that if you do a really good job of streamlining, breaking out, and swimming, you can build your effort to replace the diminishing returns of wall speed, instead of pushing off and going 100% wall to wall. Unfortunately, so many swimmers do things off the walls (bad streamlines, poor body alignment, weak push offs, early/late breakouts) that destroy wall speed.

My work in the weight room definitely contributes to greater power off the walls and in my stroke, but it’s also the changes in technique and types of workouts which are allowing me to use my strength gains. Again, eight 200s does not allow me to apply what I have learned and achieved. That kind of set would negate it all. I want everything I’m doing to be complimentary, such that my weight room goals match my technique goals match my swim workouts. Specifically in the 200, my goal stroke count by 25 is 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6 with goal splits of 56.0/1:01.5, which means I have to get great push offs, huge pull downs, and aggressive shoots.

I left the meet last weekend knowing I still have a lot more improvement left as I head into my 40s and that’s an amazing feeling. Good luck with your training. I hope this helps. SWIM DIFFERENT!

If you like this article and still want to know more, I plan on hosting a Facebook/Instagram live Q&A event in the next week or two, so stay tuned to the Fike Swim:


About Fike Swim

“We design products exclusively for the toughest sport in the world.  We unapologetically place swimmers on a pedestal.  The rigors they embrace on a daily basis can only be understood by another swimmer and they deserve a company focused 100% on helping them succeed.  Whether you’re just starting out or training for Tokyo, we stand behind you.”
-James Fike, Founder

Fike Swim Products was born when founder James Fike put a brick on top of a kickboard and transformed just another legs-only kick set into a total body workout felt into the next day. Since then it’s been our mission to create unique swim equipment with the single-minded goal of making you faster. We don’t sell toys. We create tools to help you reach your potential.

Swimming news courtesy of Fike Swim, a SwimSwam partner.

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1 month ago

All the props in the world! Such an inspiring story!