Green Swimming – Energy Efficient Strokes by Terry Laughlin (2008)


I have to say that the opportunity to speak at a clinic right after an Olympics is an amazing privilege because you know that a lot of the Olympic coaches are going to be speaking. There is just a sense of real inspiration that follows upon what our amazing team and their coaches did at Beijing. So I am really honored to be part of the program this year and I have indeed gotten a lot of inspiration from the talks yesterday and Wednesday by Bob Bowman, as well and Mark Schubert’s report and Gregg Troy talking about how he trained Ryan Lochte. I may say a thing or two about my thoughts on kicking. They believe a lot in kicking and I will say a few thoughts of my own about kicking, but on the other hand I haven’t coached Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps or anyone near that caliber.

The topic that I gave John when he asked me to speak was Green Swimming. I later struggled with whether that was really a good way to title this talk, so I put on my slide “thrifty swimming” or as I have called it at times – energy conscious swimming. It reflects a predisposition I have developed over the years. It is really so strong that I am almost obsessive about saving energy. You will hear a lot about energy system training in this clinic and I am not here to criticize or say you shouldn’t do energy system training because I do it in my own training. I do it when I coach swimmers, it is just not the first thought. It is something that kind of happens more along the way, based on the kind of nervous system training we do so by doing nervous system training in one way one kind of energy system training happens, and by doing it in another way another kind of energy system training happens.

Even if we are not doing energy system training, even if we are not doing something that refined and sophisticated, we are thinking about getting our swimmers in better shape. We are constantly trying to get them in better shape, and better shape, and still better shape. The thing is, they don’t give out medals for the person with the highest VO2 MAX. So, I think that is a perspective to keep in mind. In any case, as Jennifer said, I am an avid swimmer – particularly an open water swimmer and I am a competitor and a coach. There have been lessons that I have learned from training and racing that have really formed my coaching and vice versa. So the things that I will talk about today will reflect that.

The first slide up there is actually a picture of me swimming in open water. I am not racing at the moment, but one thing I want to point out is that there is nothing about the stroke or that moment in the stroke that is showing there that happens naturally and instinctively. Everything that you see on there, from the position of my legs, to the position of my head and goggles, to the relaxed left arm, to the relaxed and separated fingers are all choices I have made and trained myself to do. I identified them as ways in which I could save energy.

Just to give you a little bit of background on myself, I tried out for a swimming team for the first time at age 13. I was in 8th grade. It was a CYO swimming team at my Catholic grammar school. I was the only person to get cut. I did get on the high school swimming team, but in 12th grade, at the age of 17, I was swimming in the New York City CHSAA, which is not known as a hotbed of swimming. As a 12th grader I did not qualify for the League Championship. I did qualify for the novice championship which is where you went if you didn’t qualify for the league championship. So, swimming against 9th graders I got my first ever swimming medal and that was incredibly exciting. Then at the age of 21, as a senior at St. John’s University in New York, I was swimming in the Metropolitan Collegiate Conference against such national powers as Lehman in Brooklyn and LIU and Adelphi. I didn’t make a final. So I had quite a period of time when I was trying really hard to be a good swimmer, and the number #1 thought in my mind was always to be the hardest working swimmer in the pool. But it didn’t really bring me a whole lot in terms of results. So there really wasn’t a whole lot of indication there that I had the knack to be successful or fast in swimming.

In any case, I started coaching at age 21. I realized as I was working with swimmers that the water-beaters were me. I started coaching with sort of an aesthetic approach, which was to try to make the water beaters look more like the faster swimmers in Lane 1. It really worked quite well. So I was very technique-oriented during my time in coaching. I coached world-class swimmers. I coached world class distance swimmers. I developed swimmers who went on to medal in the Olympics, although I never coached anyone when they were at the peak of their maturity and ready to swim fast. I was mostly coaching mid-teen swimmers during most of that time.

At age 38 I started swimming again and I was very technique-oriented. In my 30’s and 40’s and since I turned 50, my paradigm for swimming – this is going to sound really airy-fairy, but my paradigm for swimming has been to achieve communion with the water. This basically means to really feel like you are one with the water. It feels like you are never fighting yourself or the water, and it has not been to work hard.

I never try to hurt myself. I never try to swim in such a way that I am subjecting myself to pain. The way I describe it is that there are quite a few times in training where I feel sensation, and that sensation anyone would call intense. But, because of the way I swim it is never painful. It really feels quite good. Since I turned 50 I have swum around Manhattan twice and I did that on about 16,000 yards of training – 20 ½ miles. I did it at age 51 and did it again at age 55. And, since I turned 55 and I have continued improving through my 50’s to be a far better swimmer than I ever dreamed I might be. I have actually become an elite swimmer, in my age group. In open water and long distance swimming I have broken several national records in the 55-59 age group and won multiple National Championships.

At the same time, besides that swimming, I am working with quite a few swimmers – some of them Masters. This is done not just in workshops, but on an ongoing basis. I am also the coaching director for an age group team in New Paltz. It is a small team and there is not anybody particularly fast on that team. My job is mainly to coach the coaches. I will be talking about things we are doing there, things I have done at some other coaching stops and what I am doing in my own training.

Okay – so the objective here for this session is getting you to ask more questions about the things you are doing. I think we all tend to get into patterns of reflexive thinking in how we coach. I am a real big fan of critical thinking. So a lot of what we will do today will be to stimulate more critical thinking. Also perhaps to ask the question of whether we are aware of the times when we are training to train more and the times when we are truly training to race well. Those are really two different ways of approaching what you do in practice. Here is a good example of reflexive thinking. Speed happens when? When I was a high school swimmer it happened when I moved my arms and legs as fast as I could. In college it was a product of training as hard as I could. What do your swimmers think when they are in the water when you have asked them to swim fast, when they are on the blocks and they are going to go fast? And quite possibly – what do you think at times? Speed happens when you stroke harder and faster. Well yes, that is true. It is something you couldn’t say that that is not true. It does happen. Maybe one of the things that we sometimes do not ask ourselves when we have been in situations where we stroke harder and faster and we swim harder and swim faster momentarily, but then we can’t maintain that speed. Why can’t we maintain that speed? Is it because we are not in good enough shape, or is it because some things are happening in our stroke. Is it an interaction with the water that caused our speed to decay?

Another way of thinking about speed, and I would encourage you to think about this a lot, is speed is what happens when propulsive forces exceed resistive forces? Is it when propulsive forces go up and or when resistive forces go down? We will talk about the fact that when propulsive forces go up, even when you do that effectively, there is a cost. That cost must be borne somehow, and that energy has to come from somewhere. It means that energy will not be available for something else, maybe the last 50. Speed also can increase when resistive forces go down.

That is a little introduction to the way this is going to be going. Some more questions about speed. As I said before, I thought first that it happened when I moved my arms and legs faster. Then I thought it happened because I trained really hard and really consistently. And then in my 20’s and 30’s I started to think about technique. Speed happens when technique is better. There is technique of propulsion and there is technique of drag avoidance. A lot of times we give most of our attention to propulsion and not so much to decreasing drag and the role of sustainability – not slowing down in races. How many people did not make the Olympic team because they were unable to maintain the speed they swam in the middle of the race at the end? There were quite a few instances of people not making the Olympic team and people not winning medals, not because they didn’t swim fast enough, but because they slowed down too quickly and too early in the event instead of being able to maintain that speed. It is not just about how fast you can move, it is how long you can sustain that rate of travel.

When talking about sustainability, I will just talk about the last time that I coached on a fairly serious level, in 1996. Total Immersion had been around for a few years and there was a fair bit of skepticism about whether what we did would apply to competitive swimming. A lot of our clients were tri-athletes. There was a somewhat widespread impression that we were about teaching people to swim pretty And that impression was that if you were a tri-athlete and you weren’t very good to start with you could get better and you could swim a mile in 35 minutes instead of 45 minutes. But, that would not necessarily apply to people who were already fairly good and at a higher skill level.

I had an old friend who was the head coach of the Army swim team at West Point, Ray Bossy. I went to Ray and said, “you know, I can’t really answer these questions that people have about whether what we do works. On an intellectual basis the only way to really address it is to work with some swimmers – do what we are doing and see if it works.” So I said I would volunteer my services. I would work without pay on one condition. I told him he had to give me the most under-performing group on the team because I really want the sternest test. Ray said “That is the sprinters.” So I said, “Fine I will coach the sprinters.”

They spent four or five weeks getting everybody in shape before we could break out into specialty groups. I can remember the first day we broke out into specialty groups and I started teaching some drills. I was coaching maybe ten of the fifty swimmers on the team. I started teaching some drills and body position stuff to the group. I had one of the other assistant coaches who had been quite a good swimmer in college, and had coached as an assistant on another team. He came up to me and said, “shouldn’t you get him in shape first”? That was an example of the kind of reflexive thinking that was there.

The ’96 Olympics had just passed and I had read in an article about Maurice Greene who was the fastest man on earth on land. He had won the 100 meters. I read an article about how he and John Smith, his coach, had strategized for how he could do that. The idea they came up with was the result of John Smith studying the patterns of people who had run the 100 meters. He said that everybody accelerates through about the first 30-35 meters of the race. They hold their top speed through 75 meters and then they all slow down. Everybody decelerates on the last 25 meters. So he said to Maurice, “We are going to adjust the way you run so that your acceleration takes a little bit longer – your sustained speed takes a little bit longer, and you will not start decelerating until after 85 meters.” They trained to do that and he won the race.

I started thinking to myself, that 25 meters of deceleration took about two seconds and change, they gave that such exacting attention, and they looked at that as a really critical opportunity to win the gold medal and break the world record. So, I called all the swimmers I was coaching into a classroom said, ” Let’s talk about the race you swim. And let’s talk about a way in which you can win these races that you have been losing. And I told them that story. I said, “Suppose we were to just really train, not to get in shape, not to be fast; suppose we were just to train so that you would not be decelerating on the last 25?” And I asked them, “How long at the end of the race can you sustain your form on muscle memory and will power?” And they said about ten yards.

So we knew we had to plan the race from 90 yards back. In the end we agreed, by consensus, on a race plan in which they would spend the first 25 not racing, but just getting into a groove, the way they would want the stroke to feel. We would spend the next 50 building steadily to high speed. Then they would reach high speed before the 75 turn, not at the turn, but before the turn and then sustaining it for as long as they could.

From that point everything we did was devoted to developing those capacities. We didn’t do a single lap of kicking in three years. We didn’t do a single lap of pulling in three years. Our dry-land training was totally ordinary. In fact, I took them off the training program the rest of the team was doing and had them do 30 reps which was stupid. I just thought it would be good. Now I realize it was a dumb thing to have them do because it was not contributing very much. So, the sprinters were doing sets of 30 reps in the weight room. They never did a single kick set and never did a single pull set.

I have to embarrass somebody now. Joe, would you stand up please? Joe Novak was a 3rd Classman when I showed up. In his plebe year Joe had swum 21.9 for the 50 and 49.1 for the 100. He was about 6’ 3” or so and 155 or 160 pounds when I met him. His whole approach, as he explained it to me, the previous year had been brute force. A guy that is 6” 3” and 155 pounds has no brute force available, but what he did have with that sort of body type was he had a vessel. He had a body that was meant to avoid drag. So I basically told him, “We are going to take this refined approach.” And explained how he could be as fast as possible through that middle 50, up to the 75, and still not have worked hard so that he can sustain whatever speed there is.

Joe had not made a single Army relay the year before. His second year he won all three of his sprint events in the Patriot League Conference. He was chosen the outstanding swimmer in the conference. Every swimmer on the team improved off the charts and over the course of those three years, this group of sprinters broke 10 of the 14 records that were broken during that period of time. This included relay records, individual records, plebe records and varsity records and won 2/3 of the outstanding swimmer awards for the six outstanding swimmer awards in the Patriot league. This had been the most under-performing group. But it was the idea that there was a clear goal to avoid deceleration, and that we made a plan to avoid deceleration. And we spent all of our time training to do that.

So your choices are to increase fitness or conserve energy – fuel the engine or shape the vessel – work harder or find a way to make it easier. These are not either/or choices. It is not a zero sum game. What I am suggesting is that you at least spend a little bit of time thinking about the right column. If things work out well, spend more time thinking about that column.

Does anybody recognize the swimmer on the left? Is that face recognizable to anybody? That is John Lennon. I found a picture of John Lennon swimming. He well represents the human swimmer. The guy on the right is our Director of Total Immersion in Japan. In November of 2007, Scientific American published an article about a group of physicists and engineers from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They normally work on weapons research, really black box stuff – deep dark secret stuff. They were given a project to design a swim foil for the Navy SEALS. When they started on that project they thought it would be a good idea to determine the most efficient swimmers on the planet and how humans compare to that.

What they found was that dolphins are 80% efficient. Twenty percent of their horsepower and energy gets diverted some way, but 80% gets converted directly into forward movement. Recreational swimmers are 3% energy efficient. That is just a mind boggling example of inefficiency and frustration. Elite swimmers are actually a bit below 10%, but I think with the suits and the submerged dolphin that number probably has gone to 10%. The thing that is really striking here is the difference between the recreational swimmer, or what is done by instinct, and the elite swimmers. The former is 300% less efficient than an elite athlete.

You have to start thinking – what are my athletes? What is the number for the people I am coaching? Is it 5%, 6%, 7% – it is probably not 9% – maybe in some cases it is 8%, but I think probably that 5-7% range is a reliable estimate. You have to think about energy system training as building up energy stores, and then working so hard and somehow wasting 95%. What if I could take them from 5% to 6%? How would I do that? That is the question I want you to ask.

When I read this article I immediately went to Google and typed in “energy efficiency.” Then I put in all the land sports one by one. By comparison, in land sports, the efficiency range for elite athletes was 21% to 36%. Recreational, the un-coached athletes who are left to their own devices, are in the 16-32% range. So the difference on land is less than 25% between an athlete left to his own devices and an athlete who has been coached really, really well. The difference is 300% in swimming and 25% on land.

That next slide is a swimmer from the first heat of the 50 free in Beijing. That doesn’t look anything like Phelps, Lezak or any of the other good swimmers. That is the way humans swim. Your swimmers do not look like that, but there is a lot of stuff going on that they do that reflects the fact that at some point they swam like that. Their first lap definitely looked like that and there was some imprint left on their nervous systems. It remains today, and if you are on deck and are not underwater with a camera looking at slow motion, you don’t know what is going on.

When physiology studies are done, elite land athletes always score higher than elite swimmers. Elite swimmers generally are not that impressive in the physiological markers. You have to consider on land the potential errors versus the effective choices. Now think about the two pre-eminent athletes in the Olympics. Michael Phelps is an easy one. You say Eamonn Sullivan – it would be hard to argue against those two as the pre-eminent. So you say Sullivan blew away the field in the 100 meters and broke the world record. I read later, on a sport science blog, people who were good at analyzing running identified three important errors he made in the course of that race, and that was before he started celebrating at 80 meters. Think of the cost of the last 5 meters for Michael Kavich swimming against Phelps who was swimming more efficiently. You can get away with stuff on land that you can never get away with in the water.

Jesse Owens actually outran a racehorse in a staged race. I know that you think Bolt could crunch a racehorse, at least across 100 meters. Do you think Michael Phelps could out-swim a guppy? I bet not.

Simple logic says if you want to get faster on land, you build the engine. If you want to get faster in the water you really should be focused on reducing energy waste. Building the engine is not unimportant, but if you are ignoring production of energy waste you are really missing out on the main chance. So why are we so wed to the religion of energy system training? In large part it is because swimming is hard to research. I have asked Dave Costill, and what was the other guy’s name – Jack Daniels – how could I forget that name. Some of the leading sport scientists in the world and they are all related to swimming in some way. Dave Costill is a Masters swimmer. Jack Daniels was a modern pent-athlete who coached swimming before he became a running coach. He started doing a lot of really influential running research. I asked all of them how we could study changes in stroke that would reduce drag. They said it is really impossible to do that. Swimming is really, really hard to research. So, there has been a ton of research done on energy system training in land athletes because it works. A lot of what we are guided by in energy system has been taken from land research. The question is how similar are these two activities?

At this point energy system training is authoritative. There is a lot of information that comes out of USA Swimming. They have all kinds of parameters and relationships, with ratios and amounts of time you should train in this heart rate, what the work/rest ratio should be and what you can expect as the MAX VO2 result. So it is authoritative, but there really has never been any correlation established between this level of VO2 MAX that is going to yield this level of performance. Just as often, there has been a negative correlation between them. The best swimmer in the world has an unimpressive VO2 MAX; and some pretty middling swimmers have an incredible VO2 MAX. These metrics are pretty vague. Do you know when your MAX VO2 has gotten better? You are in the middle of a set – you get to the end of practice – do you know if it got better? How do you measure it? Even Bob Bowman yesterday who has access to all sorts of stuff said they hardly ever study VO2 MAX. He sort of takes it on faith that it is getting better because they are doing the stuff that energy system training says you should do. But it is an act of faith that it is getting better. It is a vague metric, and there is no guarantee that nervous system training is going to happen.

Qualitatively, when you are doing aerobic system training and your heart rate is where it should be for how long it should be, your stroke could be horrible. On the other hand, thrift training or nervous system training, if you want to call it that, is really untested because there has been no way to test it. There has been a little bit of research. I will tell you about that later, but there has been a correlation to performance where pretty clear metrics like your stroke count improves. You know if you can swim a certain distance in a certain time at a specific stroke count and a lower perceived ratio effort, or even a lower heart rate. Those are pretty clear metrics. At the same time you are training the nervous system. Aerobic system training always happens.

So the question is, how does energy loss slow us down? What really happens when we get tired? We know we get tired and we go slower. There is a cause and effect relationship that is pretty clear there, but what are the mechanics that are really causing us to lose velocity? Basically they come down to several things. We lose propulsive force. That is because the primary mover muscles are not working so well any more. We lose propulsive efficiency. We should be here and we have gone to here. That is because the secondary movers have gotten tired. Two things can cause that. First, because we are just swimming rougher and we are creating more turbulence – we are making more waves. Our stabilizer muscles are not working the way they should. But, I think largely it is because we are just not paying attention to the things that we need to do to keep drag low at various speeds. That is, to keep drag low on the third 50 or to keep drag low on the fourth 50 when you are at your red line.. It is sheer inattention that causes drag to increase.

How much energy does it take to be thinking about something as opposed to be working and then finally the rate goes down as well and that is an aerobic system effect – the aerobic system will not support the rate anymore so the length falls off because of the prime movers and the secondary movers – the rate goes down because of the aerobic system, but also the nervous system. The nervous system is highly influential in rate.

The summer before this I swam a 10 K race. It was the 10K National Master’s Championship. I only trained 16,000 yards a week. The guys who swam the 10K in Beijing were swimming 100,000 yards a week. I also am not swimming it in two hours. I was thinking that if I could hold a stroke length of 1.1 meters per second for something a little less than 10,000 strokes, I am going to take about 9,000 strokes. If I can hold 1.1 meters per second, and if I can hold that rate at about 1.1 seconds per stroke – I am going to swim about 2 hours and 45 minutes. What I wanted to do was take 9,000 strokes – all of them consistent. Number 8,000 would be at 1.1 meters per stroke and it would be at 1.1 seconds per stroke. That was the way I planned it. So I spent a lot of time in a lake with a tempo trainer and in a 50 meter pool. I was training myself to lock that into my nervous system so that I would swim that way.

However, on race day conditions were really adverse. When I touched the finish pad it wasn’t 2 hours and 45 minutes, it was 3 hours and 36 minutes. Adverse conditions affected everybody. I thought – oh my God – that is a horrible time. There was no chance I am going to get a medal. When they finally did all the results I had won my age group by 20 minutes. I am 55-59. I had beaten the winners of the 19-24, 20-25 and 25-29 age groups. WHY? Because I had trained to keep my stroke efficient and in adverse conditions my stroke stayed efficient. Everybody else was getting distracted by the adverse conditions and started struggling because of that. I was just locked in to having a certain stroke feeling and repeating it and repeating it and repeating it and repeating it. So under adverse conditions it won a race for me.

How does drag increase cost. There are two kinds of drag – there is passive drag and there is active drag. Passive drag is what happens when you push off the wall. In other words it is the difference between the form of a fuselage and the form of the human body. Land speed record setting cars, jet planes, torpedoes, submarines, and dolphins all have the same form. They are tapered at one end, smooth skin, smooth even contours after that tapered leading edge. Humans look nothing like that. In the 5th stroke is where we look like that. That is why we are so fast in the 5th stroke, because we are not at the surface where the drag is greater. We are underwater. There are a couple of other reasons, but those are the most important. Active drag is what happens every time you move a muscle. You are no longer in this position, but you have started stroking. Most of what is happening there is wave making and the creation of turbulence and not conversion of your efforts and energy into forward motion.

I remember the first time this was so strikingly clear to me. In 1978 I took a job in Richmond, Virginia. The pool where I was coaching was 50 meters. There was an underwater window at one end. In the first week of practice I gave my swimmers 8X200, or something, and I climbed down the ladder. I sat in a chair watching them swim from under water. I had been coaching on the pool deck for six years at that point. What I saw when I watched practice from underwater blew my mind. I had never realized what was going on down there. What I saw was that the people who came off the wall and were really streamlined went really far. They were really fast, and anybody who was only a little bit less streamlined looked like they had run into a wall. It just absolutely blew my mind to see the difference a slight loss in streamlining had.

The other thing was that those people who were really well streamlined and moving really fast, slowed down as soon as they started to pull and kick – the stuff that we all think is so important. I started thinking of some way to teach them to avoid the resistance they are so obviously encountering when they begin stroking. I thought that it probably would help them more than any workout design I might come up with. Ten years before I met Bill Boomer my thinking had started to change. It was a result of watching from underwater, where before I had been watching from on deck. So, when you focus on increasing propulsive force, you should do this. This should be part of your technique work. However, be aware that when you do it your primary stroking thought is to push back on the water behind you. What you are using to do that is prime and secondary movements. Those are big muscles, the prime movers particularly. The prime movers are big muscles and suck up a lot of energy. So, there is an increased energy cost, even if you do it effectively. There is still an increased energy cost you sustain for increasing propulsive force and there is increased drag that goes along with it. As you increase propulsive force, drag also increases; and it increases more than the propulsive force.

Decreasing drag – your primary stroking thought changes from pushing water back, to what can I do to gradually separate the water molecules in front of me? You think differently about the stroke. You consequently stroke a little bit differently. Probably the most important muscles that you use in this are the midline stabilizers and what you are looking to do with midline stabilizers – the primary and secondary muscles – you are contracting. There is force involved and with main midline stabilizers – mainly what you are trying to do is maintain tone. And there is a lot less work involved and those are also muscles that are not fatigue-prone the way the prime movers are. There is definitely a decreased energy cost when you decrease drag. Speed goes up when drag goes down. So there is definitely a decreased energy cost. I have learned over years of working on this that you are relying far more on mindfulness than muscle to do this. And, of course, mindfulness has no cost.

I have two choices in my technique work. Again it is not an either/or, zero sum situation; you should be doing both. Examine your priorities. Examine the things you do. The difference is locomotion skills are fine and complex skills. They are harder to learn. They take longer to master. Whole body skills are gross motor skills and for the most part they are simpler, easier and quicker to learn. When you start doing this, start and finish in the most hydrodynamic position in as many activities as you can. For example, what is the most hydrodynamic position for butterfly? I am going to design all my drills and stroke work to start and finish in that position. If there is going to be a pause in the stroke? If there is going to be a pause in the action? As so often there is in drills, you pause in the most hydrodynamic position.

There has actually been some research on the potential impact of what they call active streamlining versus the potential impact of increasing propulsive power. When they studied dolphins they found that for the speed they swam and the body mass that they were moving at the speed they swam, the dolphins only had 1/8 of the predicted horse power available. In other words, it should take 8 times more horse power for them to move as fast as they did, but there was some sort of magic going on that allowed them to do it with 1/8 the horse power. The physicists and engineers said that active streamlining is the reason. In 1992, John Troup and Jane Cappaert went to the Barcelona Olympics. They had an opportunity to test the fastest swimmers in the world. Something interesting came out of the test. When they measured stroking power they found out that the Medalists had no more stroking power than everybody else who failed to medal. They also found in the men’s 100 free that the eight finalists actually averaged less stroking power than all the people who failed to make the final, and that is pretty mind boggling. They did not use the term active streamlining to explain why you could swim fast with less power, but they used the term whole-body streamlining.

Then you think about that and you walk across the hall into the expo hall. How many power-oriented products are there in there? You do not have to tell me how many – there are a lot. How many drag-reduction products are there in there? There might be a couple where you can actually look at video underwater and see where there is excess drag. I can’t think of anything else in there. The problem is drag reduction just isn’t sexy. It doesn’t sell. Nobody would buy it. So, there are no products for drag reduction and it comes down to, it is not about a product you buy. It is about how you think about your swimming.

Pulling sets? What is that? Pulling sets are propulsive power sets. Is there anything about drag reduction typically going on in a pulling set? There may be. Somebody may be thinking about head position, but it is really peripheral. Ten 100 kicks on 1:30 – we do lots of that. We hear how much we should do, but is there anything going on there? That is all engine building. That is all it is for. It is about engine building. And forget Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. When they do it their drag is low. When the kids at the Hawks Team do it – which they don’t – but if they did ten 100’s kick on a board or ten 50’s or ten 25’s or 125 for that matter – it would be pure work for the thighs. Get the thighs stronger and that is really what to think about.

Howard Firby in 1976 spoke at this clinic. He talked about the current thinking being that we have an arms department that pulls us forward and a legs department that pushes us forward. He thought that was really not the way in which we should be thinking. Fish do not have an arms department and a legs department. They swim with the whole body and they do it pretty well. So, we put on a lot of emphasis on getting the arms strong and getting the legs strong. How much emphasis do we put on really integrating things so they work better together? When you teach drills, what is the focus you put on the drills?. What about the famous single arm drill or the famous catch-up drill? We really are always thinking about pushing past the hip aren’t we? How much attention are we giving to drag in that sort of a drill? Start rethinking your drills so that your drills are teaching awareness and better skills for avoiding resistance.

I won’t tell you the drills. I have a bunch of videos out there that teach them, but you can make up your own just like I did. How do you coach? What do you coach? What do you say? How often is your language about pulling and kicking and pushing and power, versus thinking about drag and avoiding drag and resisting drag?

Why is the fifth stroke so fast? I asked that before. That is the stroke that has the lowest drag. It is more effective than propulsion too, because it is a whole body movement. We are not using the legs. We are using the whole body. The power is coming from here. The other reason is that the legs are together rather than separate. They interact more powerfully with the water so there is increased propulsion. But, the most important thing that is going on there, and that is the difference maker in swimming right now, is something that drag is lower than any other time you swim. This is just an example of the ways in which you can start thinking differently.

So, what do we think? What are the thoughts we have? What are the things we tell our swimmers when we start focusing on saving energy and reducing drag and prioritizing these? One thing we talk about a lot is swimming more quietly. Every time we do a descending set or speed play, going easy-fast, or even a fast set we just really consistently tell the swimmers to listen to their swimming and try to do it without making more noise. Try to do it as quietly as they can. There is just some sort of voodoo about swimming more quietly. It is always more efficient than noisy swimming. Listen to practice. Don’t just watch. Listen to practice. Is it really noisy?

One of our coaches has a small developmental team in New Hampshire. She is teaching her kids these and the whole team is 10 and under. So she is always teaching her swimmers to be so quiet. When she took them to their first meet, after about 10 or 15 minutes one of the swimmers came up to her and said, “Coach, it is so noisy in here, so they are thinking differently.”

Use “don’t fight gravity.” I will give you an example later about butterfly, but the thing there is a principle in Tai Chi. It is called cooperating with a force. You do not meet a force with a force. I think we spend a lot of time fighting gravity, trying to climb out of the water, trying to swim high in the water. Gravity is a mighty force. Figure out how to use it. When you balance you balance because you learn to use gravity differently. Just start thinking differently about how you interact with gravity and whether you can figure out a way to use it rather than fight it. Maximize the most hydrodynamic position in the stroke. Whatever the most hydrodynamic position is, make tiny adjustments, not massive adjustments that are going to ruin your rhythm. Tiny adjustments in your stroke so that you spend a little more of each stroke cycle in whatever is the most hydrodynamic position.

How can you spend a little bit longer in that position in the stroke without hurting your rhythm? What you do when you do that is to think about each stroke as a period of time that a stroke cycle takes up. Then you take the next stroke and there is a period of time, and you take the next stroke, etc. When you start maximizing the most hydrodynamic position you contract the work phase So, in essence, is within this period of time that each stroke cycle consumes, you are making the work part shrink and expanding the restful part of it. This is going to keep your heart rate a little bit lower than if you didn’t make that change. If your heart rate is lower, you are using less energy, and there will be more there on the last quarter of the race when it is going to be decided.

Don’t activate any muscle needlessly. I will just mention two muscle groups or muscles right here that almost everybody activates needlessly – the neck muscles and the muscles that support the head. People think they have to put the head somewhere. For the most part, we do not hold it up anymore. I watched my roommate, Michael Brooks, who is just speaking in the other room about preparing swimmers for meets. He has this amazing collection of videos on his Mac-book. We spent about 40 minutes yesterday watching all these great videos. One of the videos that he had was Jonty Skinner setting the world record for 100 meters in 1976 in Philadelphia at Nationals with a 49.44. The pool was really shallow. The most striking thing about watching that race was that we don’t swim like that anymore. The swimming in Beijing looked nothing like the swimming that was done in that final heat of the 100 meters where he broke the world record. The biggest difference is head position, but the arm swinging and the needless fast movement doesn’t look like that anymore at the Olympic level. However, if you go to a local meet and watch warm-up’s of the 10 and unders, I do not think it looks any different for the most part, than it looked in 1976. And that is something we could be changing.

If you simply release your head in whatever stroke you are swimming – when you are swimming breaststroke – when you are landing in butterfly – when you are swimming freestyle – when you are supine in backstroke – if you simply release the head – let it go – let the water support it – it finds the right position. You have turned off a muscle that you were activating needlessly and you have saved a little energy. It might come in handy somewhere. The second one is your hand. Virtually everybody thinks they need to do this to swim fast. There is an amazing video of Michael Phelps on U-tube shot by NHK which is a Japanese television station. They made this great video and some people grabbed clips and put it on U-tube. There is a comparison of Michael Phelps and Chris Thompson. Thompson is not a shabby swimmer. He’s a 1650 swimmer – 1500 swimmer, but there was a top and bottom and side by side comparison of Phelps and Thompson in this video. It is just amazing because Thompson has a stiff hand and he slams it down and starts stroking and Phelps’s hand is completely limp, he slides it out, it searches a little bit for some purchase, and then he strokes. Then he slides it out, it searches a little bit for some purchase, and then he strokes, he slides it out, and it searches a little bit for some purchase, and then he strokes. The hand is completely relaxed the whole time.

Did anybody watch the 4 X 100 free relay? Men’s 4 x 100 free relay from underwater? Who saw that? It was on NBC – you have got to go to at your first opportunity and watch this race – it is just amazing. To watch Jason Lezak swim against Alain Bernard. From underwater they were swimming two completely different strokes. On the second lap Bernard was slamming his hand in the water and coming immediately back. He swims fast, but he used too much energy. And what was Lezak doing? Every single stroke, even as he was going 46.06 seconds, his hand would extend completely and stop for a moment and set. Even at his stroke rate there was time in there to extend completely stop and set. I counted the strokes between Lezak and Bernard on the second 50. Lezak took 34 strokes and 42 for Bernard. The guy was running out of gas because the energy cost was too high.

That is one of the reasons why Michael Phelps got 8 gold medals instead of 7 and it is over. Send energy forward. Finish your strokes forward. So don’t think about finishing the strokes back here. On every stroke think about finishing it forward because if you are doing it in the way I am talking about you are also piercing water. You are also separating water molecules. When you send your energy forward you use the whole body to put it there and when you send it back you are using the arm. When you use the whole body you do not fatigue. When you use the arm you do.

Here are some thoughts on butterfly. Land forward gently. Minimize splash. These are really helpful thoughts to give your swimmers. Use four 25’s for a bunch of 10 and unders or eight 25’s or a few 50’s. All they are thinking about is landing forward gently. The idea is to land forward. Don’t dive in. Don’t crash in – land forward – land gently. In the 2000 Olympics, during the 200 butterfly Rowdy Gaines was doing the color commentary and was talking about Tom Malchow, he said, “look how powerfully he explodes over the water” Then after the race they were talking to Malchow’s coach, Jon Urbanchek. Urbanchek was looking at the video and doing his own analysis and he said, “Look how he hugs the water and lands softly.” Rowdy Gaines saw one thing – the guy who coached him saw something completely different. The language and the thought in what this coach saw was radically different.

We tend to think about butterfly in a particular way. We have reflexive thinking about butterfly. I think Michael Phelps and the way he swims is changing our reflexive thinking. Think of butterfly as play with gravity and buoyancy. Think about it this way as you land. Land forward and land with your arms wide like Phelps does. I tell the young swimmers to land with their arms wide enough that that can easily sink between their arms. I watched the Phelps DVD about three years ago – the one that he and Bob Bowman made and I was going frame by frame to study what he was doing. What I really noticed was that he would just land and sink straight down. Gravity would simply take him down. He didn’t have to dive in. If all of his energy went forward, gravity would just take him down and he just allowed gravity to sink him. While he was sinking what was he doing? He was holding his most hydrodynamic position. His arms stayed forward. It was a fraction of a second, but there was a moment in the stroke where he did nothing but sink with his arms forward in a streamline hydrodynamic position. Then what I noticed was that he didn’t even press to bring himself back up. At a certain point gravity sort of ran out of gas and buoyancy became the stronger force. It returned him to the surface. When he returned to the surface two things were happening – momentum from the previous stroke was going that way – buoyancy was taking him this way. He had a vector like that that resulted from those two forces. His head was already traveling because of that. The crown of his head was already moving in that direction and there was just a moment, at the optimal moment, helped by his hands that his head was going to go through the surface on its own because of buoyancy.

He could not tell you he does this because he probably doesn’t even think about it, but when you watch really slowly frame by frame you see what happens. We are all thinking we have to wrench the arms back and he just helped and as he helped the momentum and everything made him literally fly over the water and past his hands. That is a low energy way to swim fly and it is a way to make up 10 meters in 5 meters at the end of a race. Help with the hands, with a light and brief pull, rather than actively bending at the moment when gravity is bringing you up. Then you start to help with the hands and the body is going to sort of buckle. The body has been a long lever up to that point. As soon as you go for the catch the hips drop and the knees are going to bend anyway. So if you simply soften the knees and allow them, rather than doing something active, that is a passive movement.

Backstroke – I started to get this idea when I watched the 96 Olympics. I have only been to one Olympic final and it was in Atlanta in 1996. I happened to see the women’s 100 backstroke. In that session Beth Botsford won the race and she had the slowest stroke of the 8 finalists, just a most leisurely turnover. But the other thing that was really striking was in her lane – the only lane of the 8 – there was no water in the air. Everybody else had water in the air and Beth didn’t. There was also a video taken of Natalie Coughlin when she went 49. something at NCAA’s and won by 5 yards or more. They studied that video at a coaching clinic and asked the people in the audience what was the distinction between Natalie and the other 7 people. The comment everybody made was that the water in her lane was less disturbed. So I started thinking about backstroke. We do not have a lot of mechanical advantage, so maybe the thing is to not disturb the water as much when we swim.

When I am teaching backstroke I always tell the swimmers to keep calm water in the face and try to have no water in the air. As you enter – extend from that hand going into the opposite foot to be lengthening and streamlining the line at that moment. And when you pull – do not pull with the arm, but just hold and pull from the opposite hip.

In Breaststroke there are two properties. There is wave amplitude and there is wave length. Wave length is what gets us to the other end of the pool. The way we increase wave length is to squeeze the amplitude so you want to be thinking about barely above and barely below. You have to get below because drag is lower there. You want to spend 2/3 of the stroke below water in a streamline position, which a very simple skill. But you want to go barely above – barely below – emerge forward – submerge forward – don’t climb and dive in breaststroke. Virtually all the swimmers we coach, left to their own devices, let the legs go out here. So we have them work at all times on a micro-kick to make that kick as soft as it can be. Sometimes we talk in different ways about the thrust. Sometimes we talk about the thrust as pushing water back with your feet. Just as often we talk about the fact that as you begin the kick your body looks like this and to think at times about driving your hips into line, and the difference between the thought of driving your hips into line and thrusting water back? Well, the thrusting water will activate thigh muscles and to drive the hips into line will activate core muscles.

Yesterday Bob Bowman was asked how he helped Michael improve his breaststroke so that it wasn’t a weak spot so he could win the 400 IM easily. He said one of the things they worked on a lot was bringing the knees to the surface – the back of the knees to the surface – same idea. When you are bringing the back of the knees to the surface you are activating different muscles than when you are thrusting the feet back. These muscles tend not to fatigue.

Freestyle – At that ‘76 clinic when Howard Firby was talking, he talked about freestyle. Most of us think about freestyle as bisecting the body at the waist into an upper body that pulls and a lower body that kicks. He said, “Try thinking about it instead and consider the thickness and the drag of water; try thinking instead about having a streamline of the right side and a streamline of the left side and stroking with that thought in mind.” What you were trying to do in the stroke was not push water back, but to use the arm going forward to put you in the most streamline position and to have the whole body line up to follow it through that path – through that channel. The hand is caught as it separated water molecules. Hold rather than pull. The pulling is still going to happen – it is not that the pull is not going to happen, but when the thought is to hold you activate core muscles. That change in activation can save you some energy.

The stroke – When you are steering that arm through the water you do it from the hip, instead of thinking about pulling you are thinking about holding this arm and how you are going to spear that arm through the water. You think about driving the high hip down. You have body mass and gravity working instead of your muscles. And that is hand and body speed – that is a little bit too obtuse to get into too much. We’ll finish up quite quickly because it appears that the next group is coming in.

Training thoughts create race habits. You really want to be thinking about the fact that whatever thoughts you plant – the things you say before the set – the things you say in the middle of the set – all the reminders you give and so on are going to turn into race habits because of what we practice. I swim with a master’s coach. The coach is constantly saying do this hard. I ask, “Can I do it fast? Isn’t that the point?” I don’t really say that, but it is what I am thinking. So, fast, not hard – perfect rather than slow. They mean really different things. They accomplish what you really want to accomplish. If you can go fast easily it means you are going to hold that fast speed longer.

Don’t go to practice to get in shape. Go to practice knowing what the skills are that win races. What are the skills that win the 10 and under 100 butterfly? What are the skills that win an 11-12 100 IM race? What are the skills that win the races – between the walls – on the walls and so on? Spend your time practicing the skills that win races and get in shape while you do that. When you start a set and it is a challenging set, don’t be thinking about how hard I am going to go in this set. Be thinking about how I can make this hard set easier, what is the easiest way I can accomplish this task that I have been given.

At the beginning of practice in your warm-up, the beginning of a challenging set, and the beginning of any set, establish a state of relaxation and see how well you can maintain that relaxation as you go through it. When you are doing a descending set – instead of trying to go harder, harder, harder – try to feel more integrated – feel the parts of the body working more as a system rather than just pulling harder and kicking harder and having everything become disintegrated. The body works really well when you work it as a system. When you get to the last repeat on a descending set and you are just really galvanized, and all your adrenalin is going, and you are just going to really pump it out on this one – what if you slow it down a tiniest bit? Every time that I have suggested this to someone and they slow it down the tiniest bit they actually swim faster because they are more controlled and the control they gain gives them more speed than the effort that they might have put in. And also on the last and fastest repeat – visualize perfection. Visualize how easy it is going to feel, how good it is going to feel.

This is the last thing I am going to say about this ease and feeling good. We hear so much about training ourselves to push through pain barriers. I was at the University of Texas where I visit periodically. You know that there are multiple world record holders swimming there. So one afternoon I got Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, and Ian Crocker and asked each of them what it felt like when they set world records. I have no clue what it feels like to be the fastest human in history in an event and they all answered me in slightly different words. Aaron Peirsol said, “When I touched the wall it felt like I could have kept going at that speed.” That is what he said, but each of them said things that emphasized how good it felt, not how much it hurt.

I thought to myself, what if we really trained to have experiences like that instead of training to hurt? Because if you train to hurt it’s guaranteed that you are going to hurt. What happens in a race when you hurt? You have blown this! You are not going to swim a good race when you hurt, so if you train yourself to hurt – you will hurt. Train yourself to feel good and there’s a chance you will feel good.

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