The goal of this study is to explore how swimming animals produce the wide range of performance that is seen across their natural behaviors. In vivo recordings of plantaris longus muscle length change were obtained by sonomicrometry. Simultaneous with muscle length data, force measurements were obtained using a novel tendon buckle force transducer placed on the Achilles tendon of Xenopus laevis frogs during brief accelerating bursts of swimming. In vivo work loops revealed that the plantaris generates a variable amount of positive muscle work over a range of swimming cycle durations (from 0.23 to 0.76 s), resulting in a large range of cycle power output (from 2.32 to 74.17 W kg(-1) muscle). Cycle duration correlated negatively with cycle power, and cycle work correlated positively (varying as a function of peak cycle stress and, to a much lesser extent, fascicle strain amplitude). However, variation in cycle duration only contributed to 12% of variation in power, with cycle work accounting for the remaining 88%. Peak cycle stress and strain amplitude were also highly variable, yet peak stress was a much stronger predictor of cycle work than strain amplitude. Additionally, EMG intensity correlated positively with peak muscle stress (r(2)=0.53). Although the timing of muscle recruitment (EMG phase and EMG duty cycle) varied considerably within and among frogs, neither parameter correlated strongly with cycle power, cycle work, peak cycle stress or strain amplitude. These results suggest that relatively few parameters (cycle duration, peak cycle stress and strain amplitude) vary to permit a wide range of muscle power output, which allows anurans to swim over a large range of velocities and accelerations.