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In Tokyo, Katie Ledecky earned the first-ever Olympic gold medal for the women’s 1500-meter freestyle with a time of 15 minutes and 37 seconds. In past races, she’s proven she can cover the distance even faster, blazing through 30 lengths of the pool in only 15 minutes and 20 seconds. Her world-record time blows her Olympic tri counterparts out of the water, as the fastest time clocked in the Tokyo 2021 races was a slow-by-comparison 17:39 from France’s Luis Vincent for the same distance in open water. Naturally, triathletes and swimmers everywhere are screaming at their TVs, “How does Katie Ledecky swim so fast?” while watching her and her signature loping swim stroke glide away with win after win.
But before you overhaul your swim stroke entirely to swim like the champion, it’s important to understand what, exactly, makes Ledecky’s form work so well. Think of a duck moving across a pond—above the surface, the duck gracefully glides atop the water. You don’t see the complex coordination required to make that happen—it’s all hidden beneath the surface. The same is true for Ledecky’s stroke: Simply trying to mimic what you see, without understanding the hows or whys, will only bring the realization that swimming like Katie Ledecky is a lot harder than it looks.
To break down her swim stroke and to get some expert insight on how Katie Ledecky swims so fast, we tapped another powerhouse swimmer: pro triathlete Haley Chura, an Ironman and 70.3 Champion who is often first out of the water. Here, she breaks down the elements of Ledecky’s stroke, including what triathletes can—and most definitely shouldn’t—replicate.
Ledecky is most known for what is described as a “gallop” or “giddy-up” stroke. Instead of a metronomic beat, which follows a regular left-right-left-right rhythm, Ledecky swims with syncopation: short left, long right, short left, long right.
“She breathes every two strokes, always to her right, which does create a bit of a gallop in her stroke,” Chura explained. “It works because her body position is so efficient, her stroke so rhythmic, and I’m sure it’s helpful to get a steady oxygen flow.”
This works well in a controlled setting like a pool, but it may not work in some open-water settings; particularly situations where waves, chop, sun, or other competitors require swimmers to breathe on their non-dominant side.
“Katie has an incredibly strong pull,” Chura said. “Once her fingertips hit the water, it’s almost like she uses her hand and forearm as an anchor, pulling the rest of her body by that set point in a perfect early vertical forearm, or high elbow pull.”
Another advantage of Ledecky’s pull: When done properly, an early vertical forearm pull like Katie’s should engage an athlete’s large lat muscles in their back, actually making them less susceptible to shoulder injury. Chura recommends drills like the Finger Tip Paddle drill, where the swimmer wraps their fingers over the top of their paddles without using the straps. This allows the swimmer to focuses on using the paddle and forearm as a single plane, creating a larger surface for increasing pull strength.
In longer races, Katie kicks less, but in her shorter races, or even near the end of long races, she brings out a very strong kick. This shows she’s capable of kicking hard—she’s just careful about when she chooses to do so. Triathletes can employ this as well by developing a strong kick, but using it strategically.
“Triathletes aren’t usually big fans of kicking, but don’t let Katie’s two-beat kick fool you,” Chura said. “Kicking is really important for maintaining an efficient body position. I would encourage triathletes to add some kick sets to their workouts, especially streamline kicking on their back.”
The Body Position
Remember Ledecky’s viral Chocolate Milk Challenge?
Her ability to make it across a pool without spilling a drop is not only prime TikTok fodder, garnering millions of TikTok likes in a matter of days, it’s evidence of an ideal body position. Watch Ledecky’s line from head to toe as she swims: Her hips are close to the surface of the water, and her head is looking straight down to the bottom of the pool. This, coupled with an efficient kick, minimizes drag and allows Katie Ledecky to swim so fast. “A more efficient body position and stroke will allow an athlete to move through the water using less energy,” Chura said. “I’d suggest athletes do drills and kicking early in a workout, when they are still fresh. Start with a few 25s or 50s with plenty of rest, and also consider using fins to really feel that perfect body position.”
The biggest difference between Katie Ledecky and triathletes? Katie Ledecky actually does her strength work instead of just saying she’ll do her strength work.
In addition to pulling and strength-specific swim work in the pool, Ledecky does core and balance work outside of the pool. “This makes her a strong athlete who is also very good at managing her energy,” Chura said.
Ledecky is also known for a single-minded focus on perfecting her stroke, instead of obsessing about results or the competition. Chura said this mindset is a huge advantage:
“Every athlete is in control of their own technique, but no one really controls their competitors. I think Katie is brilliant to focus on her stroke and her own training. I’m sure she uses her competitors as motivation, but it seems she knows her best effort will probably lead to a good result.”
Triathletes can pull from this strategy by committing to a singular, consistent focus on various aspects of the stroke. “Start small, but be consistent. I’d encourage athletes to start with just a few 25s of a new drill, maybe even using fins,” Chura recommended. “The following week, try it without fins. Then maybe a few weeks later, try a couple 50s. Progress often feels very slow, but consistent small steps can lead to big gains over time.”
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The Bottom Line
“A very efficient body position and stroke like Katie’s would be great for a triathlon because triathletes want to swim fast, but conserve energy for the upcoming bike and run,” Chura said. “The downside of her stroke in open water might be how rhythmic it is, since it can be hard to hold a steady rhythm in the dynamic environment of open-water swimming. In a perfect world, an athlete would have Katie’s stroke, but also the ability to adapt stroke rate, breathing, and even speed to suit the open-water conditions and potential physical contact with other swimmers.”