Last weekend I watched Aleksandre Popov’s video, called "Sprint Freestyle – What’s the Limit?" The tape begins with Popov saying that the most important elements in sprint freestyle are rhythm, range, and relaxation. This set helps you work on one of the three Rs: Relaxation.
It’s not until the end of the video that Popov and his coach, Gennadi Touretski, discuss relaxation. They introduce the topic by quoting Johnny Weissmuller who, along with Popov and Van den Hoogenband, is the only man ever to win back-to-back Olympic gold in the 100 free (1924 and 1928 for Weissmuller; 1992 and 1996 for Popov; 2000 and 2004 for Van den Hoogenband). More than seven decades ago, Weissmuller apparently said that the greatest secret of freestyle sprinting is relaxation. Popov puts it this way: Relaxation at top speed is the single biggest secret in successful sprinting.
So the question is: How do you train for relaxation at top speed? How do you practice going FAST and being RELAXED at the same time? One way is to use a swim tether and to focus on the breath.
When you use a tether, you may not be traveling fast, but you are working harder than normal. You also have a heightened sense of the technique that you need to use in order to go fast. When you are swimming against a tether, distractions such as walls, turns, and other swimmers fall away. Using a tether encourages you to calm down and settle in — which is a bit of a paradox because the tether also makes you work harder than normal. But, relaxation at top speed is also a paradox. No matter how contradictory it seems, working against a tether makes it easier to focus on technique, effort level… and the breath.
Here’s just one tether sequence that you could try. For this sequence, use a tether that is fairly stiff, i.e., one that doesn’t let you get to the other end of the pool. You want a tether that allows you to pretty much swim in place.
Wear a pull buoy.
Push off, do your breast pullout, then take 50 breast strokes. Focus on starting your exhale as soon as your nose goes in the water. Don’t hold your breath and explode it just before you come up for air. Keep the breath steady and even and full. After 50 strokes, float back to the wall and do a few recovery bobs.
Push off again and this time do 60 strokes of freestyle. Focus on hand and elbow position during the pull but, more important, focus on starting your exhale as soon as your nose goes in the water. After 60 strokes, float back to the wall.
Now get rid of the pull buoy and put on flippers. Do 50 strokes of pulse breaststroke, focusing on the immediate exhale. Float back to the wall, then do 60 strokes of freestyle, focusing on the exhale.
Now get rid of the fins and repeat 50 strokes of breaststroke, then 60 strokes of freestyle, focusing on the immediate exhale.
Repeat round #1, except that this time you do only 25 strokes of breaststroke and 30 strokes for freestyle. Increase your stroke rate and intensity, and try to stretch the tether a little further than you did on Round #1. But…your main focus should still be on the breath. Use the immediate exhale as a way to relax your entire body while at the same time you are REALLY WORKING.