A Study of Steve Holland and World Record 1500 Meter Swimming by Laurie Lawrence (1973)


To begin, let’s study the splits of Steven Holland’s world record 1500 meter swim in Belgrade. From this you will see the type of swimmer he is and the quality of his performance.

What I have done is take the splits of his two world records, one in Brisbane and one in Belgrade, and divided them into 500’s. In the first world record he went 5:11 for the first 500, then 5:12, and 5:14. Just looking at it purely statistically there are only four 100’s in which he went over 63 seconds. To give you an idea of the endurance of the boy, his best 100 meter swim is 58.6, that’s his fastest recorded 100 meters. In the Brisbane swim he went out in a 61.4 and he came home in a 61.1 faster than when he went out.

In Belgrade he swam a little more evenly. Breaking it up by 500’s, he went 5:10, 5:09, 5:11, swimming a little bit harder in the middle. This was probably my fault because I was a little worried that in his first international competition, he might blow it in the first 100 and go out too fast. John Kinsella was on one side of him and I said, “Look, that big horse is going to dive right out in front of you – don’t catch him in the first 25 meters – steady it – don’t make your first 100 too fast – just hold it back.” I said, “I don’t want you up with him the first 50 meters because he is going to get about half a body length on the dive.” Probably that is why he negative split, 5:10, 5:09 because he was out in 62.1, 62.4, and then he hit 61.9, 62.0, 61.9, 61.7, 61.9,
62.1, 61.8, 61.9 and so on right through – 5:10, 5:09, and finished off with a 5:11. Interestingly enough, the first 400 was 4:08.4, Steve’s fastest recorded 400. No doubt, if he had to swim a 400 in Belgrade he would have gone faster, but up to this stage his fastest 400 swim ever was 4:06. But then even more interestingly, his second quarter, from a push-off was 4:07, only a second off his fastest recorded 400.

I am trying to show you what fantastic endurance capabilities he has. If you take any one of those 100 swims in his 15:31.7, and multiply it by eight, it breaks the 800 world record. He broke the 800 world record going through and that was 8:15.6, but here’s another interesting point – if you go from the 200 through the 1000, that 800 is faster than the world record 800. The one big thing I want you to notice is how even he has swum. This is one big feature that I have tried to teach the boy, to swim even. I have picked this up from reading athletic books on how Nurmi and other great distance athletes trained. So much for the splits – let’s have a look at the boy and what makes him so good.

I had him tested in Sydney at the Human Performance Laboratory to find out what his physiological make-up was. We came up with some very, very interesting things. I would like to contend that these are the reasons why he can endure so well. He is not a great sprinter, but he can hang onto that pace once he starts hitting it. These are the physical attributes which I feel point Holland towards endurance. I’ll just run through them quickly then I will elaborate on all the points. He is light; there is an absence of fat. He has high aerobic power. He is skinny and lacks muscle bulk, but I think his strength is optimum for his weight. He has a low body density so he floats high on the water, and he has outstanding flexibility. Now when you put all these things together, I believe all these things contribute toward his endurance capacity, but let’s take them one at a time.

First of all, lightness. He is 5’10” tall and he weighs 135 pounds. He has a light frame – that means that he does not have great muscle bulk to drag through the water. So I feel, because he is light, because he has got this skinny frame, that it is suited towards endurance-type events. Look at the marathon runners, what is their somatic type? They are all of the same mold. There are different shapes to the shot putter; there are different shapes to the distance runner, the high jumper, the hurdler and so on. So Holland’s somatic type is a light type of frame.
Absence of fat. The doctors at the Sydney Human Performance Laboratory uses the skin fold calipers to take fat fold tests on the triceps, sub-scapula, and super iliac. The tests were measured as 7 millimeters on the triceps, sub-scapula, just below the shoulder blade, 5.6 on the super iliac, just above the hip, 6.4. He gave me these measurements and I said, “What the hell does that mean?” He said that any reading below 8 millimeters is regarded as pure skin fold. In other words, in the subcutaneous tissue underneath the skin there is no fat tissue at all, so he has no fatty tissue.
High aerobic power. They put him on a bicycle and got him to pedal like hell for a certain time period, and then the doctors measured his aerobic power by taking the heartbeat and finding out how much oxygen the boy used. Once he had an accurate heart rate per unit work output, factors of weight, age, sex, were used to predict his aerobic power. (That is, how efficient is his oxygen transport system?) His predicted aerobic power was 70 – this is very, very high. There is only one other athlete in Australia who recorded higher than 70 and that was John Farrington, a marathon runner. That aerobic power was the highest ever recorded by any swimmer and aerobic power of 70 was a suppressed reading because the lad had not taken any time off to taper. He had trained that day, six miles in the morning and three in the afternoon. When he took this test he had a respiratory infection. Either of those reasons would tend to suppress his aerobic power.

The next thing is a lack of muscle bulk. He is skinny – he is not big. I had strength tests taken. What is his arm extension? What is his arm flexion? Right arm flexion was 77.5 – that was all he could lift. But in extension he could go 100 pounds. His muscles are being specific – he doesn’t flex, he doesn’t need to be strong to flex, he needs to be strong to extend at the back of his stroke and this flexion action was in fact lower than his extension which is a good thing. When you compare his strength of 77 pounds to that of a football player, he is a weakling.
We took thigh extension, which is lifting a bag. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t take a flexion test also. I believe that his thigh flexion would have been faster than his extension because of the tremendous amount of power he generates in his two-beat kick.

A lot of people are probably wondering what type of kicker he is. He uses a two-beat kick. It is not a reduced kick, but the two-beat is a definite beat and there is a hell of a lot of power generated from it. I’ll speak a little bit more about it later. He is not a strong boy because he is light. But he has optimum strength for his weight and frame as needed for distance freestyle. The one point I want to make clear is that the strength he has is optimum. He has never done a pulley in his life. He has never lifted a weight in his life. As a matter of fact, we always do a half-hour of exercises before the training program instead of having him get out and do the pulley work with the other kids.

I didn’t want to build any muscle bulk at all. He would do a 1500 kick while the others were doing their exercises on land. He didn’t have to work on flexibility because he is so flexible anyway.
Why didn’t I want him to build up muscle bulk? Because I believe that muscle bulk will also increase resistance and make it harder work for him to swim. I don’t really believe that muscle bulk is advisable for a distance swimmer. I think they have to be skinny, but strong enough to keep repeating, repeating, repeating.

There was an article by Blomfield and Blanksby in International Swimmer called, “Anatomical Features Considered in Developing the Ideal Swimming Stroke”. Quoting from the article, “A stronger swimmer can usually pull with a somewhat straighter arm than a swimmer with less strength. The less strong swimmer may need to shorten the lever and have a more pronounced bent arm pull.” These men are a couple of anatomists and this statement was interesting to me so I had some photos made of Steve underneath the water. He has a very, very, pronounced bent arm pull. Probably this is because he is not so strong – the strongest swimmers according to Blomfield and Blanksby can keep their arms straighter when they pull.

A low body density. This causes him to float high and he doesn’t have to drag a lot through the water. Since there is very little in the water, all the energy is being used specifically to move through the water. He floats very high.

Finally, his outstanding flexibility – not so much just shoulder flexibility, but he’s also got what we call hyperextension of the knee joint. You’ll recall that Spitz had hyperextension of the knee joint and indeed many other great swimmers nowadays have this hyperextension of the knee joint. Not only is Steve very flexible at the knee, his feet are also very flexible and his feet are very much like hands. There is a great range of mobility in the ankle joint.

Now putting all these things together, we have his physical attributes, his body build, the flexibility of the boy. His flexibility is very important in stroke. Once you find out that you have an athlete who is pointed towards endurance because of the way he repeats in training, then you realize you have an animal that has endurance qualities.

Next he must have the right mental approach because if he doesn’t have a psychological approach to distance swimming, then you can do nothing. If he doesn’t want to swim distance, that’s it.
Now that we have an animal with the right qualities, the next two important things we must have are the right style, and the right training program. If you don’t have these two things you can do nothing. For the swimmer to be successful in any event, both the technique and the training program must be specific for that event. For 1500 meter swimming, in particular, an athlete wishing to make optimum use of his talents needs to have both technique and training. These two things form an arrowhead that aims towards a specific goal. In order to achieve the specific goal of 1500 meter swimming one must master (1) endurance, (2) pace.

We have seen that Steven has the idea of swimming even pace. Now let’s talk about his technique – is his style good? I feel that his style is flawless for distance freestyle. I believe that with the two-beat kick in distance freestyle, the short rest between each drive of the legs is beneficial in terms of the amount of oxygen used. With the continuous flutter kick the legs get no respite at all. I am not saying it is impossible to swim 1500 using a six-beat kick, since Rick DeMont has killed this theory. The athlete can do anything he wants provided it is a natural thing to him. Rick DeMont’s six-beat kick is natural to him so he can race 1500 meters at a six-beat kick pace. I believe that the two-beat kick is certainly beneficial in terms of oxygen use.

Now let’s talk about Holland’s two-beat kick – what’s so important about his two-beat kick? He has tremendous ankle flexibility: his drive with his legs is very straight so he is getting power all the time he drives down with his legs. To him the two-beat kick is simply like walking or running. The thing about his two-beat kick is that he gets more drive than most people at the end of the kick because his feet are so flexible. When most swimmers have finished their kick, he still has another six inches to go with his feet and then his knees hyperextend to another six inches. Therefore he is getting extra out of each kick of his two-beat kick. So he is getting a lot of drive – it is not a subdued kick, it is a driving, forceful kick. It is not the same as a six-beat kick, the heavy bang, bang, bang, that sprinters use, but he still generates a lot of power from his kick. In fact, he can kick a board as well as any of the best kickers in our group because of the range of mobility in the ankle joint.

His breathing pattern is very low. I have never seen him breathe so that his body does not stay in a perfectly straight line. In other words, there is no lateral movement of the body in his stroke. If you looked at him from straight ahead his body is like an arrow. In other words, there is no resistance – there’s no sway – it is all perfectly straight. His breathing is so low that he has no lateral movement of the hips at all. His breathing is below the surface of the water. He uses single-side breathing; sometimes he trains bilaterally, but not very much. I believe that single-sided breathing is better than bilateral breathing. I think that in distance swimming you need to get as much oxygen as you can and use it all the time. Thus I believe that single-sided breathing is best for the 1500.

Finally turns – I have him breathe specifically in turns and this is something I feel I learned off Mike Burton by watching him. I watched Mike turn and saw that he came straight up to the surface of the water. He said that he didn’t want to be under water too long in distance swimming. I took this idea one stage further. You don’t want to hold your breath if you don’t want to go into oxygen debt. In training he will take a breath immediately before he goes into the turn and immediately after. So at the turns he will not take that extra stroke, he’ll lie under the arm, take the breath as he goes into the turn. Then as he pushes off, he doesn’t kick and glide underneath the water; he pulls and comes straight up so that he is not under water for very long. We try not to go into oxygen debt at any stage because we are pointing specifically towards endurance.

Next, Steve has great rhythm in his stroke. Because of his density and his high flotation he is right up on top of the water and he just skips along. This is one thing about his two-beat action that you won’t see in other swimmers. His two-beat action is more or less a dolphin type of kick. If you walk along and watch him as he is swimming, his hips are lifting as he goes. He is getting lift out of his hips all the time as he goes. The timing of the stroke is such that as his right hand goes in he kicks down with his left foot, as his left hand goes in the water he presses down with his right foot. There’s a lot of pressure on the legs coming from the thigh right down to the toes.

He has a very early catch because he catches as soon as his hand goes in the water. His thumb comes up straight away as soon as he goes in. There’s an absence of glide, there’s no glide at all. But the beauty about it, the two-beat kick, there’s no wasted time. As soon as his hand goes in, catch, and then he bends, and he’s got an excessive bend underneath the body. His excessive arm bend is a strength factor because he’s not a big strong brute and he needs to bend to get the bigger muscles to do the work for him. Another thing I’ve noticed is the flatness of his hands. When I looked at him underwater on a TV monitor his hands are beautiful. He has a great feel for the water just the same as I have seen in an underwater film of Katie Ball’s feet. Her feet acted like hands as they held the water and pressed all the time. Gary Hall also had a great hold on the water and kept his hands flat in every stroke. These great athletes and others seem to have had this ability. Holland’s hands come through and as they pull, the wrist position changes so that his hands are always flat and pushing back. At all stages in his stroke, he is pushing water backwards and is finishing there. He is never pushing up nor is he ever sliding. He has a beautiful hold on the water all the time and he holds it and pushes it all the way back. So now we have the technique.

Whatever the training program you have, it must be a progressive process of improving the swimmer’s ability to perform muscular work. What you need to have is a well-controlled, well-observed program. In a well-controlled, well-observed program, the features will be: a strengthening of the body muscles, improved muscular coordination, and a more efficient cardio-vascular system. There will be more oxygen available for the working muscles and more blood available for heat dissipation. There also will be an improved pulmonary ventilation for more adequate exchange of oxygen. Put all these things together and they are capable of bringing about enormous improvements in athletic performance. In training for endurance we are primarily interested in developing two types of endurance: cardio-vascular endurance (heart and lungs) and muscular endurance. In cardio-vascular endurance we want the breathing apparatus to take in good quantities of oxygen and give out large quantities of carbon dioxide. The heart and circulatory system must be strong enough to transport these substances to and from the muscle by way of the blood. Muscular endurance will enable the athlete to continue swimming under the stress of fatigue and its physiological adjustments. There will be an increase in the number of capillaries and an increase in heart sufficiency which in turn enables the circulatory system to furnish the working muscles with an adequate supply of blood. In summary, I feel that the superiority of an endurance athlete lies in his ability to meet the demands for oxygen. It is the coach’s responsibility to be specific in his training program so that the best results are obtained.

What sort of training program do I use? I don’t use any one particular school of training. I’ve read many books on athletic training. I became familiar with the Swedish or Fartlek type of training used by Gunder Hagg, the great middle distance runner; Fran Stample’s interval training method which Roger Bannister used when he cracked the four – minute mile; Gershler’s short distance interval training, using high stress, high quality, 100’s and 200’s; and I’ve read about Ceruty’s techniques where he subjects them to a Spartan type of training. I’ve talked with other coaches and read their books. I spent a summer with Don Gambril and where I learned a hell of a lot by observing him in action. While I was here in America I went up and looked at Sherm Chavoor’s program and watched Mike Burton train and that too was a great experience for me. So I put all these experiences together in the melting pot and sort of stirred them around and my training program is a conglomeration of all these things put together.

My training program is aimed specifically at what each individual needs. I really feel that one of the reasons why the East German girls showed such tremendous improvement is because they have used specialization. There has been a specificity of training. Not only have they specialized in coaching by bringing in all their coaches, but they have also specialized in events. Just have a look at the events the East German girls swam. In the breaststroke Vogel swam both the 100 and the 200. Two different girls, Schuchardt and Anke, swam with her. Anke couldn’t make the 100 but she had plenty of speed and split 1:15.5 on the way to the 200. In the backstroke Richter specialized only in the 100 meter backstroke breaking a world record but two other girls swam the 200. In the fly, Ender swam the 100 fly and Kother in both the 100 and the 200. Kother broke the world record for the 200 meter fly – she specialized in just those two fly events. In the freestyle, Ender went the 100 and Eife the 200. A different girl, Sehmisch, went both the 200 and the 400, but didn’t go the 100. Eife went the 100 and 200 which seem to go together. Wegner went the 400, the 800, and 400 IM and these are tending towards endurance types, and her program must have been specialized. Franke swam the two endurance events, the 800 freestyle and the 400 IM. To illustrate specialization at its best, Huebner swam only one event, the 200 IM. In that event she swam a world record time and defeated Ender, who had the world record going into the meet. To do this Huebner had to have ability in other strokes but she couldn’t make it in any of the other events.

I think specialization is going to be the next big development in swimming. That’s why I like to think that I’ve specialized in my training program. In other words we have to make our training program purposeful. Although you might play it by ear from day to day, the athlete must understand what he is doing, why is he doing it, and how it must be done. The athlete is the one who makes a training method successful. Any training system that fails to cater to the individuality of the athlete is going to be an inferior type of training program. I couldn’t ask Steve Holland to go and do Rick DeMont’s type of training program, because he likes to go hard all the time. What Holland likes to do is go hard as often as he can. He has the physical attributes that point him specifically towards the 1500 and so that’s the sort of work we do. Anyone who doesn’t have the physical attributes will not be able to do 15:30 for the 1500 no matter how much training he does. He must have the motor capability to do it.

He must also have the right type of training program if he is going to make it. So what do we do for 1500 swimming? We try to teach pace, and build endurance. I believe that in races over 200 meters, energy can be saved and oxygen used more efficiently by even-pace swimming, so we try to teach even pace. Much of my program is geared towards teaching someone to swim at an even-pace. Pavo Nurmi used to train with a stop watch in his hand. He learned even-pace – just how much the human body can take – because he had it on the stopwatch as he trained. In swimming we have to have a swimmer who can use the pace clock intelligently and know just how fast he is going and where he is at each part of the race. In other words I try to teach my distance swimmers to have, as one coach said to me, “You put the clock in the head”. That is where you have to put a clock, in his head so he knows just how fast he is going all the time.

For a good 1500 meter program you have to teach pace first of all. How would you go about teaching pace? One of the things we do to teach pace is, to teach pace both with a clock and without a clock. I think you have to do a certain amount of pace swimming with your athlete without a clock so he knows just how fast he is capable of going. Suppose we were doing a descending series of 400’s, starting off with 5 minutes, then 4:40 and descending down to a 4:16 or a 4:12 or whatever you want to go. He is learning pace here, he is learning what it feels like to
go a little harder all the time. You can also do it by negative splitting your 400’s by going out a little easier and coming home a little bit harder. Then you can have a combination of the two, you can have a series of 8×400, descending and also negative splitting at the same time. Then a fourth way you might vary his rest intervals but he still has got to keep a constant pace. Supposing I wanted Holland to swim 4:20 on each of four 400’s. He gets a minute rest after the first, 30 seconds after the second, and 10 seconds after the third. We are shortening the rest intervals but still asking him to swim the same pace.

Now what good is that? I believe the above types of series assimilate the feeling an athlete experiences toward the end of his race. By repeating in this manner in training, an athlete becomes specifically geared toward holding pace under pressure in the concluding stages of the race. The great Czech runner, Zatopeck, believed that the training work load should be so intensive and hard that the actual race would feel comparatively easy. In other words, he attempted to duplicate in practice the physiological, the organic, and the psychological disturbances that he would face in competition. This would tend to bolster his ability to take the pressure and maintain his running style without tension, when it was important in the concluding stages of the race. This great Czech insisted that endurance and the capacity to resist fatigue are developed through repeated testing. I believe that to develop endurance the swimmer must extend himself in training up to and beyond a point of maximum fatigue. They are then training to build a resistance to fatigue.

Now how do you do it? There must be a gradual increase in the amount and the intensity of the work. Because there must be a gradual increase in the amount of work and the intensity of the work, the coach must constantly reappraise his swimmer’s program and time training goals. Therefore, if I give Holland time training goals this week of quarters on 4:45, I have to reappraise next week because I want to extend him up to maximum fatigue. Next week his quarters are going to be 4:40 or 4:42. Each week you should reappraise your program in terms of what was done two weeks ago or a week ago. By continually reappraising the time goals, the high intensity of stress is always placed on the swimmer and he continues to extend himself in training up to a point of maximum fatigue.

There will come a time when general fatigue will superimpose after training – so you have got him down. Then you have either got him overworked, or he hasn’t had adequate rest, or he is on a bad diet, or he’s sick or emotionally upset. The coach then has to be smart and lighten the load for one or two training sessions or even skip a training session completely to allow him to recover. If he is not making time standards in training and he is not training intensely, then there is something wrong. So in other words, I would use a type of cyclical training program. Several physiologists have indicated to me that the best adaptation to stress takes place when the muscle is worked to complete exhaustion. Once the glycogen in that muscle has been completely depleted then maximum glycogen replacement occurs. With this in mind, after talking with these physiologists, I thought I better do something about this, so some days I forget even pace swimming altogether and go strictly for endurance. To summarize, the training necessary for the 1500 must be hard and it must be designed to teach the swimmer to maintain an even pace and it must develop endurance.

Comments are closed.

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news