Maybe it was inspired by Avengers: Endgame, where future Captain America fought past Captain America and future Iron Man gave past Iron Man a brief heart attack. Whatever the inspiration, we’re taking it to the next time-bending level this month, pitting Caeleb Dressel against himself… four times.
In a way, it’s a continuation of our discussion earlier this summer about the effects of distance per stroke (DPS) and stroke rate on overall speed. (You can view that post here.) That analysis showed that in the short course pool (whether meters or yards) athletes appear to favor increasing their stroke rate rather than their DPS. In long course meters, however, DPS had a lot more effect on the fastest times than it did in short course.
This month’s analysis focuses in on long course, with finals 100 free swims from Dressel at the major meets of the past four years:
- 2016 Rio Olympics: 48.02
- 2017 World Championships: 47.17
- 2018 Pan Pacific Championships: 48.22
- 2019 World Championships: 46.96
First, a few notes:
- The races we annotated for all of these were his finals in these events.
- He did slightly faster times in his prelims/semis at some of the competitions, but we didn’t annotate those. It doesn’t change the order of results in any case.
2016 to 2017 Jump
The biggest time jump for Dressel was obviously his improvement between the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the 2017 World Championships. He effectively went from a support swimmer on the U.S. Olympic roster to its star at the World Champs. The biggest change in his 100 free between those swims? A slight uptick in his tempo (1.1 seconds per cycle to 1.07 seconds per cycle) and a drop of one stroke (from 33 in 2016 to 32 in 2017).
Likely a factor in the latter, Dressel also spent about a half-second longer underwater in 2017 – that allowed him to take one less stroke while still increasing his overall stroke rate. His distance per stroke actually went slightly backwards despite the major time drop.
2018 to 2019 Similarities
2018 was a bit of an anomaly year for Dressel, with a motorcycle accident injury sapping his training and results. His time went more than a full second backwards from 2017 Worlds to 2018 Pan Pacs. But what’s intriguing is that while Dressel’s 2018 swim was the slowest of these four and his 2019 swim the fastest, they’re remarkably similar in their individual metrics.
As with his big improvement in 2017, the 2018 version of Dressel continued to pare down his overall stroke count, this time cutting two full strokes to get to 30. His stroke rate got a bit slower, too, to 1.16 seconds per cycle (compared to 1.07 in 2017). In return, though, Dressel saw a huge increase in his DPS, from 1.20 to 1.29. He also kept improving his underwaters.
His time was vastly different in 2019, but the metrics almost identical:
|Stroke Rate (sec/cycle)||1.16||1.18|
It’s a credit to Dressel and coach Gregg Troy that they were able to see they’d achieved a winning formula in 2018, even if the time really didn’t back it up. It clearly wasn’t the race plan that held Dressel back in 2018, it was his own physical limitations while fighting injury.
The Winning Formula
So what was it that Dressel did so well in 2019 compared to his previous swims? In comparison to his 2017 World Championships swim, the difference in tactics is very clear:
|Stroke Rate (sec/cycle)||1.07||1.18|
In many ways, swimming is a sport of tradeoffs – early speed means less energy for the final lap. Bigger underwaters mean less oxygen at other points of the race. Dressel made two major tradeoffs from 2017 to 2019:
- A slower turn (by a fairly significant 0.16 seconds) to load up for more time underwater
- A slower stroke tempo (again by a significant 0.11 seconds per cycle) in exchange for significantly improved distance per stroke (by a whopping 0.12 meters per stroke)
Also significant is that those tradeoffs only resulted in a faster time when Dressel was full healthy – perhaps it was the missed training in 2018 that kept him from being able to handle the longer underwaters. It’s also possible (maybe probable) that Dressel was still feeling the effects of the injury in 2018, keeping him from increasing his stroke rate as he had the year before. If that’s the case, one could posit that it was actually an injury-riddled down year that eventually ‘unlocked’ the winning formula for the swimmer who one year later would become the fastest man in the world.
Learn more about how you can improve different areas of your swim such as stroke technique, turns, and more, in this comprehensive guide on How to Swim Faster.
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