Taking responsibility for safety

In recent weeks I have been watching the Six Nations on TV. For the uninitiated, that’s a rugby union tournament. And for anyone still none the wiser, rugby is basically 80 minutes of legalised high-speed car crashes. Without the cars. It’s an exciting but often brutal contact sport played by huge, muscular but highly athletic players. Tackles are fearsome and frequent.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Kelly Brown who was then the Scottish captain. Six foot seven of repressed power. Awesome on the field, surprisingly mild-mannered off it. The previous day he had been taken from the field after a tackle from the English player Matt Bannerman (whom he described as an animal which probably given the size of Mr Brown, gives you some idea of how big and fast Bannerman was!). Brown was telling me how he was forced off for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) so that the doctors could judge whether he was suffering from concussion. He had been convinced he was fine and apparently was quite vocal about the point on the pitch. Unfortunately, he said, one of the effects of concussion is an increase in aggressive behaviour so, the more he insisted he was fine, the more the doctors insisted that he wasn’t. So off he went. In the end, he got the all-clear and returned to complete the match.

HIA’s are now part and parcel of the modern rugby game and have been introduced as a compulsory safety measure solely for the protection of the players. The decision to make an HIA is always made by an independent medical professional.

All very interesting and important, but how, I hear you ask, does this relate to swimming?

Swimming isn’t a contact sport. Head injuries are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, many swimmers damage their bodies through the sport. Maybe not in a one-off incident such as the tackle on Kelly Brown, but more likely through persistently and consistently moving the body in a way in which it was not designed to do. Over time, this may range from an annoying little niggle to something far more serious, and debilitating.

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

What then, is done to protect the swimmer and keep them safe? Safety in rugby isn’t limited just to HIA’s. If, for example, a player lifts an opponent off the ground during a tackle, it is their responsibility to return them to the soil safely rather than simply dropping them or falling on them. Failure to do so can result in the tackler being sent off. Safety is enshrined in the rules of the game.

Is the same true for freestyle swimming? Do regulations exist to keep swimmers safe? (And by “safe” I don’t mean safe from drowning but safe from developing injuries).

The simple answer seems to be “no”.

In all fairness I guess there’s a clue in the name, however, freestyle rules seem to be fairly thin on the ground. It seems that more or less anything goes. Rules are defined by the Federation Internationale De Natation and the basic overview is somewhat sparse. Freestyle is simply defined as any stroke other than backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke and it says that swimmers must touch the wall at the end of the pool when turning and that their head must break the surface no more than15m after a turn but that’s about it. A little more delving finds that swimmers must start the race in a forward direction (!) and can’t use the lane ropes to propel themselves forward nor can they push off from the bottom of the pool. Bizarrely it appears completely legal in a race to stop and stand up for a little rest (providing one stays still and doesn’t begin to walk down the lane).

But you’ll notice there is nothing in there to prevent the swimmer from employing a swimming method that might actually end up harming them. That responsibility is left entirely up to the individual.

Which is a worry, because most people have very little idea which movements are likely to be harmful and which aren’t. Habits are often instilled at an early age when they are first taught to swim and not everyone takes the opportunity to review them later. The problem here is that children are often first encouraged to swim by their parents (or forced to do it as part of a school swimming lesson). And a significant proportion of parents have no more idea about how to ensure the body is moving safely than their pupils. They will judge themselves as a success if they get their little ones t from point A to point B without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Less attention is paid to exactly how this is done with the assumption being made that the finer details will work themselves out over time. There’s no guarantee or reason why this should be so.

School teachers may have a better idea of the rights and wrongs but realistically they can be faced with an entire class of snotty spotty adolescents to motivate and keep in order. Individual care and assessment may well not be a practical option.

All this means is that the role of the swim coach becomes crucial; they must be knowledgeable about the potential dangers of injury and the ways these can be avoided. And that they can communicate this in an easy to understand format. And this can mean they require the ability to be flexible in their teaching approach and strong-willed enough to stay on a particular aspect of the stroke, perhaps approaching the mastery of that skill from multiple directions, before moving on. Proficiency in the basics of the stroke is crucial to long-term success and swimmer safety. Speed and endurance training may have to wait until the fundamentals of the stroke are mastered and that may require not only patience from the swimmer but also expertise on behalf of the coach.

For some sports, such as rugby, the responsibility for safety becomes part and parcel of the game; if the players abide by the rules then they are going a long way to avoiding injury. For many non-contact sports though those taking part must be aware that, to a large part, they are responsible for themselves. They need to do all they can to ensure that they have been taught with the most appropriate techniques available.

Muscle memory: myth or mastery?

Many swim coaches talk a lot about muscle memory. A bit part of their arsenal of tools is to get the swimmer to imprint movement patterns into their muscle memory. But what exactly is it? Does it even exist? And if so, can we do anything to improve it?

On the face of it, the term muscle memory seems a misnomer. Muscles are, after all, nothing more than fibrous tissue with the ability to contract according to signals sent from the brain. They have no inherent ability to memorise anything themselves.

Nevertheless, talk to anyone who has experience lifting weights and they will tell you that the term has at least some validity. If the athlete had had some time away from training and has lost muscle mass as a result, it is often quicker to regain the bulk than it was to attain it in the first place. This phenomenon is put down to “muscle memory”, and there does seem to be some scientific evidence to back up the belief that it is a very real effect. When muscles are put under strain, (for example when they are lifting weights or undertaking resistance training) the nuclei in the muscle cells split and grow over time leading to an increase in the size of the muscle. However, if the training program should cease for some reason, this process stops and muscle atrophy causes the muscles to shrink. The important bit though is that, although smaller, the nuclei don’t actually disappear.

Thus, if training recommences they are already in place to grow once more. The body doesn’t have to spend time creating them all over again, hence the reduction in time to get to the stage the muscles were at before the layoff.

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

All pretty neat and useful to know, particularly if that’s part of your exercise routine.

But that’s not the sense in which swim coaches are using the term. For swimmers, technique and form are far more important than muscle mass.
Thus the term “muscle memory” relates far more to the building of efficient neural pathways from the brain to the muscle rather than the physical state of the muscle itself.
So the challenge becomes one of how to build those pathways in the best way. These can then become a short-cut for the brain allowing it to send commands to the body and to perform tasks almost without conscious thought

Before we start though it is vital to remember that muscle memory is a two-edged sword. It can help you become very good at something but equally can train you to be absolutely terrible at something. (Often when faced with a new student the first task a coach has to do is recognise all the bad habits which have become ingrained in the way they swim and work out how to remove them!).

In order to avoid making matters worse rather than better, then, the best approach is to keep things as simple as possible. Breaking movements down into easy to remember segments is the key. Giving the movement a name or an image can be a great way of making this process easier. One of the fun things to do as a coach is to come up with new visuals for the student to use. Don’t be surprised if you end a coaching session having been asked to open your angel wings, caress the kittens, wear an Elizabethan ruff or tickle the frog. They may appear to be nonsense but they have a very serious purpose.

(For information, I have no idea what “tickle the frog” might be – I just made that up. But I’ll bet there will be a coach somewhere who will work out what it might represent and may start to use it).

These weird and wonderful images are no good, however, unless we have a cross-check to make sure that you are doing it correctly. The best way to do this is to have a partner who can observe and provide critical feedback. This is, however, not always practical or possible and therefore it is important to observe it feels when a specific task is completed. Thus the swimmers need to learn the skill of tuning in to, for example, the sensation of the movement of the water across the body and how the muscles feel.

Photo by Aldrin Rackman on Unsplash

Having started to create movement patterns, it is also important to make practice consistent and regular in order to build it up to be the default movement. There is no substitute for constant repetition to train the brain regarding the signals which need to be sent. Although a certain degree of dedication and application is required, the vivid images being used can help prevent this from becoming boring. Over time you should be able to build up an arsenal of methods for thinking about performing the same task. By cycling through these during a session it is possible to trick the brain into thinking it is doing something different each time.

And be patient too. New ways of movement will not come immediately, particularly if you have been used to doing something completely different for many years. It is all too easy to slip back into old bad habits. So give yourself time and be persistent. Results will come if you keep at it.

Muscle memory, then, as a term may have less of a scientific definition when it comes to being used by swim coaches but it is no less real in its effect on swimmers.

Oi you! Why don’t you push off? I mean, properly push off?

Imagine you were at the Olympics watching someone like Usain Bolt competing in the 100m back in his prime. The gun goes off. What happened next? Did Usain stand up from the blocks and, in the words of Dolly Parton, yawn and stretch and try to come to life? Or was he more like Meatloaf and, in one fluid movement, like a bat out of hell he was gone, gone, gone?

For folks like Usain, and indeed any serious racer, the start of the race was just as important as the rest of it. More so, in fact, as it sets up the body in the correct manner for the main part of the event. And even if you don’t race and have no intention of ever racing, the principle still applies.

So let me ask you a question. When was the last time you spent a pool session solely practising how you start to swim? 

Note, I am not talking here about leaping salmon-like from starting blocks, nor really anything that could be described as a “racing start”. I merely want to focus on the process you use to go from being stationary to being in full stroke.

My guess is that for many of us we rarely, if ever, practice. After all, why bother, our current push off takes us more or less to the first row of flags above the lane, isn’t that pretty good? Well, it’s OK. But the flags are set at five metres from the end of a 25metre pool. So, if you’re not practising your push-offs your training is only ever targeted on 80% of the length. For one-fifth of the time you’re mentally and often physically, just drifting.

Photo by Jonah Brown from Unsplash

This lack of attention to how swimmers start can be seen at any pool where all manner of techniques are employed to begin. Some give a small jump into the air before disappearing below the surface, headed straight for the bottom, some tip forward like felled timber whilst others push off with such force it’s like watching the launch of an ocean liner. Far more common, however, is the feeble lacklustre push off which has all the explosive power of a fart in a hurricane.

Which is a shame, because the point at which you leave the wall should be when you are travelling at your fastest, and that momentum should be taking you as far up the pool as you can possibly manage.  

And it’s not a difficult process to master. (I am ignoring, for the moment, all the complications of flip turns or tumble turns, where the body is already in motion and needs to suddenly transfer all that energy 180 degrees in the opposite direction).  

For a standard push-off there are only a few basic fundamental points to follow.

  1. Start below the surface
  2. Create and maintain a streamlined position
  3. Generate maximum power off the wall
  4. Maximise the benefits of the momentum

It’s an easy trap to fall into, if you’re standing at the wall, to push off on the surface of the water. 

It’s almost a default for most folk (and if they’re swimming backstroke it seems even more common). Yet at the surface the swimmer will encounter far more water resistance, creating splash and a bow wave which both equate to lost energy. Below the surface, there is less drag and water displacement. Many top swimmers can swim faster underwater than on top of it. 

This is the reason that Olympic swimmers are only allowed to swim a maximum of 15m underwater for each 50m length. Previously competitors were completing 30m and more underwater. Great for breaking world records, not so great for spectators.  

Nevertheless, you should aim to travel as far as possible completely submerged as, with practice, this can become the fastest point in your length. How far under the water you should be will be dependent on how far you can travel and how naturally buoyant you are. The aim is to break the surface just at the point at which you are ready to take your first stroke. Thus, as you improve you may want to start a little deeper to delay this happening. 

At first, however, a depth of around 18 inches is probably a good start point.

But being underwater alone will not be good enough. A perfect Streamline position is crucial. The hands should be placed one on top of the other and extended above the head with a straight elbow. The head should be hidden between the arms in a neutral position. In the early stages you should be facing the bottom of the pool. The legs should be together following the line of the torso. Some swimmers employ a flutter kick during the push-off although the benefits gained from this over the additional resistance created are debatable. To begin with it might be best not to move the legs at all.  

Photo by Richard R Schunemann from Unsplash

However, once the basic body position is achieved then a dolphin kick or two can be added to keep the momentum going. The inexperienced swimmer will tend to attempt the dolphin kick starting only at the knees. But this will only result in drag and may, in fact, slow the swimmer down. The true dolphin kick is an undulation starting at the torso, travelling through the hips and moves down the legs in a smooth wave-like motion. For those who are less flexible it may take some time to perfect but time spent practising is never wasted. (It’s the sort of thing that can easily be practised on land in a vertical position).

The optimum size of the dolphin kick will differ for each swimmer. A large kick will produce more power but create more drag whilst a smaller kick will not generate the same thrust but will be more efficient. Experimentation is the key here to find out what works best for you.

But there’s little point in being streamlined and having an efficient kick if you’re pointing in the wrong direction! Ensure that, when you thrust off the wall, the direction of travel is horizontal up the lane rather than towards the bottom or the surface. At the point of contact, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees to achieve maximum power. Both feet should be planted firmly on the wall to balance the push. This is relatively simple if you are pushing off facing downwards. 

However, in time you may want to start employing a position with rotation of around 45 degrees. This position will become more natural if you progress to employing flip turns and may help to set you up in the right position for your first stroke. However, it can also result in disproportionate thrust from one leg or the other so is probably best left for more advanced practice.

You also need to pay close attention to your speed through the water. You should be breaking the surface and taking the first stroke just before the point where you begin to slow down. The best way to observe your speed is to notice how quickly you are passing the tiles on the bottom of the pool. The trick is to transition seamlessly from the push off into the full stroke with no loss of momentum. Subtle adjustments may be necessary to your push-off position and technique as you improve to keep this transition as smooth as possible.

The final consideration to be taken into account is breathing. It is easy to take a deep (diaphragmatic) breath before you begin and this can be a useful trigger for your brain to switch on and start to think about the various elements of the push-off you are about to employ.  

But when should you exhale, and when should you take the first breath? The exhale will affect your buoyancy and rhythm so should be closely allied to your natural swimming pattern. i.e. a constant stream of bubbles should be coming from the nose as you push off. This controlled exhale can sometimes feel at odds with the explosive power being generated by the legs but over time will become easier. As for when you should take your first breath, this will be a matter of individual choice and experience. The breathing stroke tends to be slightly more disruptive than the non-breathing stroke and therefore some swimmers prefer to get in a few non-breathers as soon as they hit the surface so as not to disrupt the general flow of the stroke. 

Others prefer to get a quick sneaky breath in immediately so that they don’t run out of air. The guide you should follow when deciding what is right for you is for you to do whatever enables you to maintain the speed and momentum generated from the push-off.

All this might sound overly complex but in reality, a good push off can become second nature very quickly and will almost certainly result in fewer strokes being taken to complete the length and a reduction in time as well. However, because it isn’t viewed as traditional swimming it can often be overlooked despite the enormous beneficial effect it can have on the stroke overall.

Can a frog on a bicycle help you swim better?

What has a frog on a bicycle got to do with swimming I hear you ask? 

Well, nothing at all. Obviously. That’s the point.

Let me explain

As swimmers, we are constantly told to swim with a specific goal in mind and to use cues to achieve this. A good cue acts as a constant feedback loop. By honing in on a specific aspect of your stroke you can use the cue as a yardstick by which to measure your performance. Thus you can assess the success (or otherwise) of your swimming instantly and make any corrections or adjustments necessary to improve your performance. 

There is an important caveat to remember though in that you can only gauge your results for that particular swim and, more importantly, only for the particular aspect of your stroke being addressed by the cue in question. Thus if your cue pertains to the way your hand is entering the water but whilst swimming you become aware that, say, your legs are sinking, this does not automatically mean that you have failed in the execution of your cue.

Because the body is one unit and a problem in one area can cause a reaction elsewhere there might be a connection between the two issues, but it doesn’t follow in all cases. The trick is to keep focused on the cue you are working on and not to worry about anything else. You may find that if you can increase the level of adherence to the aspect you are working on then other problems seem to magically disappear. If they don’t, no worries just choose another cue later to address the second problem.

That’s the beauty of a good cue. They act as a small and precise hammer chipping away at the block of marble trying to gradually reveal the statue within. 

But what is a “good” cue? And what happens if you use a bad one? Or no cue at all?

One of the joys of leading our Masters class on occasions is the opportunity to work with a group of swimmers willing, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to be guinea pigs into my little explorations into some of the theories behind how we learn and improve our stroke.

Photo by Kirwin Elias on Unsplash

To this end, last Thursday I gave the group a seemingly random set of 25 cues and asked them to time themselves over 25 metres for each one to see if there were differences in their performance. Some of the cues were familiar to them as traditional SwimMastery favourites like keeping the head away from the feet and sending the head forwards with each stroke. But some were phrases that coaches normally try to avoid such as “Don’t over-rotate” and “Prevent splashing”. I also included some frankly bizarre things for them to concentrate on. 

Trust me, if you’ve never seen the look on the faces of a group of swimmers as you tell them you want them to swim whilst imagining a garden gnome playing a trumpet or a giraffe on roller skates then you’ve missed out on one of life’s rare treats!

Although I didn’t make this obvious to them before the session started I had chosen a number of broad topics (the amount of rotation, the level of connection, the focus on forward motion etc.) and assigned to each, one “random” cue, one “don’t” cue and three “good” cues.

Getting them to use familiar tried and tested cues was an obvious choice although providing different types in order to reach the same ultimate result may have led one or two of them to move away from the security of what they were used to and instead try a different approach.

The reason for using the random yet, I hoped, quite vivid images was an attempt to take their mind off their performance in the water completely so that we could look at how they fared if they reverted to pure muscle memory alone. 

The most interesting results for me though were the ones from “Don’t do this” group. The problem with telling someone to concentrate on not doing something, and the reason why SwimMastery coaches try to avoid doing so, is that there is no instruction regarding how this should be achieved or what should be done instead. It’s like telling someone you want them to go to the bottom of the garden but they mustn’t walk. What should they do then? Run? Skip? Jump? Crawl? Fly? With no further instruction other than “Don’t Walk” it’s impossible to know how the task should be achieved.

Thus “Don’t over-rotate” for example might be a very laudable and worthwhile aim but the brain needs some further information regarding how this should be achieved.

The reason I think this is so important is that there is a great temptation, when practising or training alone, to slip into using these “Don’t do this” cues by default. Have you ever started a swim thinking “I’m not going to drop my elbow before the catch today” or “This time I’m going to concentrate on not splaying my legs as I kick”? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

In order for a cue to be effective, it must be clear, achievable and measurable. If it isn’t, the effects on the stroke will be at best negligible and at worst detrimental.

So what was the effect of my experiment on my Masters group? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that any results have very little statistical validity. The group was very small and the distances they were swimming made it difficult to record any major differences in times. We also need to consider the inaccuracies involved in using time as a measure (but I wanted to avoid them wasting brain space by counting strokes) plus the fact that after a while tiredness inevitably affected performance.

Nevertheless, although there were only broad trends visible, even with the limitations outlined above, the “don’t “ cues seemed to perform less well (or no better anyway) than the traditional SM group. 

What was fascinating though was that one of the group said he felt he swam better when using the bizarre “random” cues! His reasoning was that he felt more able to relax and “just let it all happen”. It is worth noting, however, that he is a very experienced and graceful swimmer and no doubt his muscle memory is excellent. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a group of novice swimmers and see if the results are more marked.

It is difficult to replicate this experiment completely now that I have explained the rationale behind it. However, if you wanted to, you could try a slightly modified version. 

Next time you are at the pool decide on your favourite SM cue – one that you know works for you – and time yourself over 100m concentrating only on that.

When you’ve finished, take at least a minute rest. Not to rest your body so much as to rest your brain. Now decide on an aspect of your swimming that you know needs improvement; a bad habit you just can’t kick. Swim another 100m with your only thought being not to do whatever that is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash                              Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Take another rest and now pick a random image, the weirder the better; a hippo in a hot air balloon, a yeti doing a tap dance, a chicken on a roller coaster, whatever. Swim another 100m and compare your times. 

Let us know how you got on. At the end I suspect you’ll either learn something about the importance of choosing a good cue or the difficulty you have in maintaining a given cue over a longer period of swimming.

Or maybe, more thrillingly, your feedback will help change the way SwimMastery is coached forevermore!! 

The rapid development of the Japanese Crawl

Human beings have been swimming (or at least, trying to swim) for thousands of years.  You’d have thought by now that we would have figured out the best way to do it wouldn’t you?  The trouble is, that, as a species, we aren’t really designed to be in the water.  Fins and gills are conspicuous by their absence.  Some sort of rudimentary propeller would be useful but evolution seems to think otherwise.  Even the internal layout of our organs is all wrong, meaning that we constantly battle to get some bits to float whilst trying to keep other bits down.

Developing a style and method that works for the human form has been a long process and it’s one that’s far from finished.  New ideas are constantly being proposed, tested, adapted and adopted or discarded.  

The other day I came across the story of the Japanese Crawl.  Perhaps I am very ignorant but I’d not heard of this before.  The American Crawl and the Trudgen Crawl, yes, but not the Japanese version.  

It dates from the late 1920s during a period when swimming was virtually unheard of in the country.  No swimming representatives were sent to the 1920 Antwerp games and indeed there were only two public swimming pools in the whole of Japan.  Then in 1928, against all the odds Yoshiyuki Tsurata won gold in the 200m breaststroke, only the second Olympic gold medal ever won by the country.  This sparked a national interest in the sport and public pools began springing up across the country.

However, they faced a problem when it came to trying to replicate the success at the highest level.  During this period swimming was dominated by the Americans.  The typical build was epitomised by Johnny Weissmuller who was famously to go on to have a successful movie career portraying Tarzan.  He was tall, powerful and broad-shouldered, attributes which did not apply to the average Japanese competitor.

To try and narrow the disparity the Japanese turned to scientific analysis and they set about developing a style more suited to the shorter stature of their swimmers. They studied underwater footage of Weissmuller and noticed that his method was to remain stable in the water relying on his powerful arms to propel him forward.  They experimented with allowing their swimmers to roll their shoulders more and increase the length of the arm movement.  They also placed a far greater emphasis on the kick.  This was what became known as the Japanese Crawl.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The results were astonishing.  In the 1928 Games, the Japanese swimming team had won just one gold, one silver and one bronze whilst the Americans brought back three golds, a silver and two bronze medals.  By 1932 the fortunes had been completely reversed; the Americans achieved just two golds, a silver and two bronzes but the Japanese haul comprised five golds, four silvers and two bronze medals.  In the process, they proved that superior technique could win out against raw power.  The 100m Freestyle was won by a 15-year-old schoolboy Yasuji Mijazaki who not only won the gold but, during the semi-finals, also broke  Weissmuller’s Olympic record.

And Mijazaki was not even the youngest winner in the team.  That honour went to the winner of the 1500m event, Kusuo Kitamura who at 14 years and 309 days remains the youngest ever male swimmer to win a gold medal.  (His overall record remained in place until 1988 when Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi won the gold in the Women’s 200m backstroke).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to analyse the importance of the Japanese Crawl to the overall development of the stroke.  In many ways it was rather ahead of its time, and indeed in the immediate aftermath of the Amsterdam Games, it tended to be dismissed by other countries as being uniquely relevant only to the shorter stature of the Japanese.  Today, however, whilst the emphasis on a big kick has once more been reduced in significance, the relevance of using rotation to generate forward momentum is widely adopted.  Neither should we overlook the importance of analysing the swimmer from below the surface to the eventual success the team achieved.  Today, this seems an obvious and essential process but in 1932 to use of underwater cameras was in its infancy and somewhat revolutionary.

All of which makes one wonder what techniques and methods which we take for granted today will over time become outdated and irrelevant and what may develop to replace them.  Like the Japanese Crawl, no doubt some innovations will prove to have elements relevant to all whilst other features will fall by the wayside.  Only time will tell

The pace of change is relentless and seems to be increasing. If we were to pop into a time machine and end up a hundred years into the future I have little doubt that many new and exciting developments will have occurred.

Who knows. We might even have made a start on those propellers.

Why learning from the best is not always a good idea.

One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others.  Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets.  With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible.  Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away.  It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game.  If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.

However, it is important to recognise the limitations too.  It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives.  The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite.  It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication.  Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak.  Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.

But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own.  There are, however, other factors to remember.  Swimming is a “whole body” sport.  Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result.  Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water.  Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns.  Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.

Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash

Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training.  Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race.  This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes.  If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change.  The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.

And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers.  A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic. 

There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level.  These are not normal people!  That is not intended in a derogatory way.  It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals.  In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone.  Some were much taller.  Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot.  For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone.  In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties.  However, an athletic build is often just the starting point.  To take Michael Phelps as an example.  It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick.  He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility.  He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height.  His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.  

Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.

In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming.  There is much to be learned from this approach.  However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming.  Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.




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