Improving Starts by Eric Duckering (2002)


To learn how to improve your starts and make them more powerful, analyze and question everything you do in your starts. Begin from scratch, paying attention to what you do from the time you leave the block to 15 meters in the water. What you will learn here is a little bit different from what you are used to hearing.


Are starts more important for longer races or shorter races? The shorter the race, the more important the start is because the start is a larger percentage of the race. For a 50-meter race, the start represents 30% of the race’s distance. Likewise, if a start takes 6 seconds of a 21 second race, it takes 30% of the race’s time. Starts use a tremendous amount of time, yet how much time each week do we coaches spend on the deck working on starts? Most of the coaches I have talked to perhaps spend 10% of their time every week working on starts with their swimmers. However, in the shortest races, the 50s, 30% of the race is based on the start. If you have a bad start, that start can cost you a second or a second and a half. You don’t make it to the finals.


To see the importance of start times in a race, compare the numbers in figure 1 (slide 6). Who was the fastest swimmer? Anthony Ervin had the highest average swim velocity, thereby making him the fastest swimmer. Who was the slowest swimmer? The slowest average swim velocity belongs to Gary Hall, 2.12. Who won the gold medal? The race ended in a tie for gold between Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall. If Gary Hall had the slowest average swim velocity, how could he tie for first place with the fastest swimmer? Look at the difference in the start time, the time to 15 meters.  Gary Hall was 0.14 seconds faster to 15 meters than Pieter van den Hoogenband and 0.16 seconds faster than Anthony Ervin. Ervin is one of the fastest swimmers in the world today, and if his start was just a hair better, the fastest swimmer would have actually won the race instead of tying for first place.



Time analysis Anthony Ervin Gary Hall, Jr. Pieter van de Hoogenband
Avg. Swim Velocity 2.16 2.12 2.14
Avg. Stroke Frequency 59.7 58.7 62
Avg. Stroke Length 2.17 2.17 2.07
Start Time (sec) 5.86 5.7 5.84
Finish Time 2.16 2.16 2.16
Free Swim Time 13.93 14.15 14.03
Total Time 21.98 21.98 22.03

Figure 1



Although you may not be coaching world-class swimmers, powerful starts can benefit age group swimmers as well. In age group, a “good start” can mean up to a five second advantage. Wouldn’t it be cool if you have an age group swimmer who is swimming a 1:00 flat in the 100 meters and who has been doing it for a year, but just can’t get under that 1:00 flat? If we can improve the start, taking 1 second, 2 seconds, or 5 seconds off the start, then we accomplish the goal. The accomplishment creates tremendous success and tremendous motivation to do more and go beyond.  It keeps her motivation and her morale up all the way through the season. In addition, starts at the age group level are important because there is a lot of swimming that goes on between the breakout and the 15 meters. If they get a bad start that means they are going to have to take 10, 15, 20 strokes just to get to 15 meters, just creating a lot of energy and wasting a lot of energy.


As previously mentioned, the fastest swimmer does not always win, and in the shorter races you generally know who is going to win before the swimmers hit the 15-meter mark. It seems kind of a shame doesn’t it?  Now things change. Twenty-five years ago, Mark Spitz did what I call the “pancake start.”  He comes off the block, straight out over the water, then smacks the top of the water. He won a lot of gold medals and was very hard to beat, but nobody uses that start anymore, because we understand some new things about physics, about drag, about better ways to do the entries. What worked then still works now, but it doesn’t work as well as other techniques we developed. Plus, a lot of what I see in dealing with starts deals with the swimmer’s intuition.  “Let’s try this because I think it is faster. Let’s try this because it feels faster. Let’s try this because it looks faster. What I want to do is back up a little bit and take more of a scientific approach rather than a shotgun approach.


Anthony Irving said that basically whether he wins or looses is kind of a crapshoot.  Winning depends on his start, and, as I said, if he is a little slow off the blocks, he is not going to make it to the end of the finals. Bill Pilzuk understands the importance of practicing starts and repeats them several times per week. The more you repeat a movement, the more you are locking it into muscle memory. That is what everybody is trying to do… trying to make everything a reaction, a habit. However, if you are not practicing something that is mechanically efficient, and if you are not practicing the best performance, all you are doing is reinforcing bad habits, making it that much harder to correct.


Age group coaches create fast swimmers that the world record holder coaches get to take credit for; therefore, we should start teaching them correct technique from the beginning.  Teach them the physics of starts and teach them how to take advantage of it.  You don’t need to understand the physics, but understand how to make it work to produce faster swimmers earlier.


Kerry noticed what was going on seven years ago, and we have been working on this for six or seven years to make it work. We did a quick survey of the ASCA videos, the ones that actually said “starts and turns” on them. Out of four or five hours of video, there was a total of 8 minutes on starts and turns. The video basically showed that you can use the two-footed start, or the track start. There was no technique, no instruction, no philosophy, nothing.  There is also the “Swimming Bible” or the “Swim Coaches Bible.” The latest printing on that was last year, 2001. It has 500 or 600 pages in it, and if you go through it looking for all the information on starts and turns, you will find two pages on freestyle starts and two pages on backstroke starts and most of those are pictures. There is a lot of information that really is available, but unfortunately NBC and ESPN own it all and are not giving it to swim coaches. If we could get that video to the coaches, we could do frame-by-frame analysis, and I believe we could make a tremendous improvement in starts.


We talk about the best in the world.  I am going to talk about the best possible. Nobody is actually achieving the best possible. The fact that one person is beating everybody does not mean that they cannot improve and become faster. We are looking for what is the best possible, not what is the best currently. Let’s clarify the difference between a quick start and a fast start. A quick start gets the swimmer into the water fast, in a short period of time. A fast start means how long it takes a swimmer to reach the 15 meter mark, but more importantly how fast are they going when they get there? A lot of the swimmers, even the big sprinters, are popping out at 10 or 12 meters. What I want to see is somebody taking the first stroke at 15 meters for no other reason than because the rule says so.


There are two different measurements of reaction time. One measures the time from the beep to when you start to move on the block. The other measures the time from the beep to when you leave the block. Since we are talking about the physics of starts, we analyze the start from the moment your body begins moving on the block. With the power start, we are just looking at the physics, but we are looking at it from a different point of view. Looking at things from different perspectives allows you to learn new things. For example, the Apollo astronauts said the most impressive, the most emotional moment of their whole adventure was not standing on the moon, but getting out into orbit, looking back, and getting a new perspective of the rock that they had been glued to for so many years. They could now see the entire planet, giving them a new reference frame for new and different ideas. Likewise, these power starts will give you a new reference frame for swim starts.


I want to go back to basic principles of physics and find out what physics says we could or should be doing. You should be objective about these changes because they are going to look different than what you are familiar with. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, but as I mentioned, hopefully you will question everything that you do in the starts and really understand them.


Swimming to me is stroking; therefore, swim starts have nothing to do with swimming. Disagree? You are not in the water for the start. I find a lot of swimmers spend the majority of time in the water working on their strokes. There has been a lot of money and time spent on making the strokes more efficient, but nothing on making the starts more efficient. Frankly, there is a lot more time available in starts than in strokes. Once the swimmer is in the water and past the breakout, swimming begins. The start, however, is mostly in the air.


Swimmers know how to swim so they want to get into the water and start swimming. Since swimming is slow, we want to keep them out of the water as much as possible. The fewer the strokes, the less energy used during the race, the faster a swimmer can get to the finish. Consider the true or false question: “If you are winning consistently you must be doing everything right?” This is actually a trick question because there is not enough information to answer it correctly. Just because you are winning doesn’t mean you are doing everything right.  It doesn’t mean you are necessarily doing anything wrong.  There is just not enough information to answer the question.


How many different start techniques are in use today?  Starts include the track start, with its variations, the two-footed start (what I call the grab start), the pull start, the jump start, the step start, and the swing start. But, what do you really know about starts?  Remember, just because you have an answer to a question doesn’t necessarily make it the right answer. It may just be the currently accepted answer that is subject to change upon analysis or change of perspective. Remember, 500 years ago it was accepted knowledge that the Earth was flat. Hopefully by the end of this, you will know something completely different about starts.


Figure 2


Figure 2 shows the nine different stages of three different starts: the track, two-footed, and power starts. The stages are in sync; they are time phased for distance. In the track start, the swimmer comes up slightly (stages 1 and 2), then heads down to the water because they want to get to the water fast (stages 3 – 9). The swimmer using the track start hits the water at a shallow angle and does not get very deep in the water. They come up and start swimming more quickly than the swimmers using the two other start techniques. In the two-footed start, the swimmer starts at a slightly higher angle than the track start, so they get a little bit more height and travel a little farther before hitting the water. By stage 8, the swimmer reaches what is called the “surge”. That is when the swimmer creates a surge by changing vertical velocity into forward thrust. The result is that the swimmer comes out a little bit farther. The swimmers using the track start will beat the swimmer using a two-footed start to the water, but the two-footed starters will reach the 15-meter mark first if they use the power of gravity and create that surge .


We are taking the two-footed start and going back to physics to find out how much power we can really generate. In the power start, the swimmer will go up and down at a greater angle, thereby hitting the water a lot faster. More velocity creates more surge thrust, and the distance from stage 8 to stage 9 is where the race is won. That is why you see guys that appear to have terrible starts come out on their breakout a half a body length ahead of the guys that hit the water first.


So we go back and check our assumptions on a regular basis because while you are operating on assumptions that have been working for twenty years the world is changing. Remember nobody uses the pancake start anymore.


Figure 3


The performance envelope says what is the best that can possibly be done. What does physics say the limits are? Think about this for a moment:  If you can create the same results with different techniques, you are not at the edge of the envelope. The edge of the envelope is the physical limit.  Everything at the edge of the envelope is going to look the same. No matter how you get there, it is going to look the same. Figure 3 shows what a performance envelope looks like for me with airplanes. A lot of performance is altitude and altitude is a function of speed.  Here are some of the limitations.  These are hard limitations. Stall speed.  That means if you go any slower than that point, you fall out of the sky. You have stopped flying.  It is kind of like if you turn too sharply when you hit the water. Steering out too fast before your breakout means you have stopped flying. You stopped generating lift. You are creating nothing but drag and you have wasted all of the power you had. Max thrust is another limitation.  There is only so much thrust you can generate for a given altitude with a jet engine. The same limitation applies here. For a given body style etc, there is only a certain amount of thrust that can possibly be generated.   How do you use that maximum thrust to the best possible effect?  Here is another one, speed of sound.  For some airplanes, it is physically impossible to travel faster than the speed of sound.


But if you are flying around 2000 – 5000 feet altitude, you can do pretty much anything in any airplane. You can fly in circles or upside down. At this altitude, airplanes all look different and you are safe, because there are many different solutions to the same problem.  But as you get higher to altitudes and higher thrust, you get toward the edge of the envelope. All the airplanes start looking the same because the physics are limited at that point.  You approach the point where there is only one solution to the problem.


The speed of sound used to be a barrier. Nobody thought it could be achieved. The belief was that as soon as you passed the speed of sound, your body would turn into hamburger.  However, in 1947 Chuck Yeager bolted himself into a funny looking airplane and describing himself as Spam-in-a-Can, went supersonic. Now we fly supersonic routinely.


Figure 4



What is the performance envelope and max performance for swim starts?  First, how do we define performance?  Fifteen meters, right? There are lots of different ways to create that. Figure 4 show diagrams of what I see as the different start techniques. The pike start where the butt is way up in the air, head is down, and you’re looking back behind you.  The track, grab, and pull starts are kind of related; it is just a question of where is your center of gravity. The purple and blue circle depicts the center of gravity. Notice that it is in a different position for each type of start seen here. The figure does not contain a picture for what I call the “jump start”, because I haven’t found a picture of anyone doing it properly. To position yourself for the jump start, keep the back flat, the butt down, the head up, and both feet forward. Figure 5 shows the start techniques on a continuum with a possible limitation, launch angle. You could go up at 90 degrees, but that isn’t going to be very productive because you are going to come right down at 90 degrees. We can also look at how much fast-twitch muscle fiber the swimmer has, because it determines how fast they can generate movement, which is directly proportional to how much force they can create. This is shown in figure 6.


Figure 5


Figure 6


Lets take a track start, which is shown in figure 7a.  There are people good at the track start and people bad at track start, right?  So you have people right here in the middle who are doing the track start just the best that can be done.  Then there are variations on either side with aren’t quite optimum.  They are not getting to the 15 meters quite as fast.



Figure 7a


Similarly, the Jump Start Technique will have the same type of bell curve in performance, as shown in figure 7b.   Then you are going to have people who are kind of in between, as shown in figure 7c.  They are doing a bizarre combination of the two and that is just not going to be as efficient, but you still you can see the two starts are getting about the same results.  And you can do this with all of these techniques.


Figure 7b


Figure 7c


Now remember what I said – when you are flying at low altitude.  You are pretty safe down here and you can create the same result with many different airplanes.  In swimming we have the same situation.  We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of swimmers that are coming in at the 15meter mark and at then end of the race within a half a second of each other.  Long races, short races, what have you, it doesn’t matter, the results are very close in elite swimming.  And, if you can create the same results with multiple techniques, you are not on the edge of the envelope.


We have a ways to go with swim starts to get everything out of them that we can. When we move to the edge of the envelope, physics will force everyone to basically the same technique, assuming they all have basically the same physiology. We already know that the jump start and the track start do not move us to the envelope’s edge. Hopefully the start we are talking about here does. However, it doesn’t really matter.  The important thing is to find the limit and move toward it.


Rather than trying to design a start for the swimmer. Let’s design a swimmer for the maximum performance start.


Notice in figure 8 that state of the art fighter aircraft all look basically the same. For example, they all have two wings with the essentially the same wing sweep. They look similar because they are out on the edge of the envelope. The slight variation in appearance occurs because each airplane is tailored to its mission.


Figure 8


Now turn your attention back to swimmers. The swimmers in figure 9 tremendous variation in their starts. Some go up, some apparently go straight out, and some go down almost immediately. As you can see in figure 10, the women’s starts also vary quite a bit. In the upper left hand corner, six swimmers are going off of the blocks, and they all look different.  But they’ll all get to 15 meters pretty much at the same time.


Figure 9


Figure 10



Physics is not a choice it is the law. You don’t prove the law of gravity; you validate it. Step off a building and tell me that gravity doesn’t exist. When you hit the ground, you will have validated the force of gravity. Most people I talk to about swimming starts are not physics majors. They are not engineers.  They don’t have a background in these fields, but they know a lot more about physics than they think they do, and that is my point here. This is not rocket science.  You don’t need to know exactly how physic works.  All you need to do is learn how to make physics work for you.


You know things intuitively.  For example, where do you throw a ball when you want to throw it as far as possible?  You throw it up as high as you throw it far. The ball goes up at a 45 degree angle.  You know this intuitively, but we in engineering and technical fields come up with all kinds of fancy names so you will think we are smarter than we actually are. Let’s try this one: Would you know what I mean if I say “contained explosive hydrocarbon energy extraction and multistage reduction torque transfer systems?”  It describes the internal combustion engine and the transmission of an automobile. Does it matter what it is if I call it something fancy? Do you really care how it works?  Even if you do not know how an internal combustion engine works, you know how to drive, how to use it to your advantage. That is all that is important, so let’s look at some of the physics that you know.


Statics. You may or may not have taken a class in statics, but if you can balance while you are walking you understand statistics.  Dynamics. If you can ride a bicycle you understand dynamics. Ballistics. Ballistics is unpowered flight; throw a ball or a rock as far as you can and you understand ballistics. In a start, the swimmer is ballistic. As soon as you leave the block you are a rock.  There is nothing you can do to change the path of your center of gravity or dynamics. Aerodynamics. Have you ever moved a mattress that was tied to the roof of a car while driving down the freeway? Did you wonder why you were having a hard time steering? It is because the whole front end of your car is flying cause you didn’t tie down the front. You generated lift and it is pulling you car right up off the ground. Drag coefficient… This is why we use streamline….  You create less resistive force by reducing your frontal area. Heat transfer. If you are cold, you put on a down jacket to insulate you. Mathematics. Can you sing or carry a tune? Music scales are mathematical. Vector Geometry. Merging on an onramp into traffic without causing anyone to slow down is an example of velocity matching.


What we don’t know about physics is what to measure. We can’t really understand the physics of things if we don’t know what to measure.  Just because you have a lot of data, such as a lot of stopwatch splits, doesn’t mean you have anything useful.  You have to turn the information into knowledge and then you have to turn the knowledge into expertise. The only way you can create expertise is actually to do it. If you are measuring the wrong thing, you are going to get the wrong answer.


Here are some of the metrics that I came up with that you might measure for starts. However, our research says there are at least 50 things going on in the start, which all happen in less that two seconds. You as a coach have to stand there on the deck and take a snapshot with your eyeball of all fifty things that are occurring, and then you wait for the dripping kid to come out of the water to explain it to him. You did this and you know the eyeball snapshot just doesn’t work. That is why we use stop action in video analysis.


Remember that it is the first to the finish, not the first to the water that is important.  There is a lot of emphasis on getting to the water fast because swimmers know how to swim. Getting into the water to start swimming is not going to get you to the 15 meters fast. Back up a little bit, check your assumptions, change your perspective, and be willing to change what you are doing based on what you find. Did you know that Post-Its was supposed to be really strong glue? It did not work, so we now take advantage of this mistake when we stick a message in a place we know someone will see, such as the refrigerator door. An example of a change of perspective in swimming occurred back in the early 1900s when Americans went to England for a meet. When the Americans warmed up doing the crawl, the English kind of scoffed at that and said it was a bunch of “undignified splashing”. How long did they think it was undignified?  Right to the end of the race, when the Americans finished before the English.


That was a radical change in swimming.  We need to have radical improvement, and you can only get radical improvement from radical thinking.  You have to take a completely new view of what you are doing. We are the sum of our experiences and we learn from people who have gone before us.  Who do swimmers learn from?  They learn from swimmers, who learned from swimmers, who learned from swimmers.


Nobody likes change, but it is important. If you do not try new things, you may not get any faster. We are going to talk about how to change quickly rather than how to change slowly because you don’t want to invest 8 months in changing somebody’s start and find out that it doesn’t work. Here are a few examples of big changes in other sports. Cycling. Basically everyone rode the equivalent to a Schwinn Varsity in the tour de France until the 70s when they were improved upon a little.  But in 1986, Greg LeMond showed up on the weirdest looking contraption anybody had ever come up with. The bicycle had a small front wheel and no handlebars, and Greg had a funky helmet. They laughed at him just like the Americans were laughed at for swimming the crawl. They laughed that is until the end of the first long course individual time trial where he set a speed record that even Lance Armstrong hasn’t broken. Although they all laughed, the next year everybody who could afford one had a bike like Greg’s. The high jump is a sport dear to my heart. Dick Fosbury completely changed the sport.  He applied physics to a sport that was attempting improvement through trial and error. Here is the brilliance of what he did; I am showing you this in detail because this is applicable to what you will soon see for swim starts.


Figure 11 shows different ways people go over the bar. People used to go over the bar like they were jumping over a fence. They were kind of in a sitting position and then they stepped over the bar. This is seen in the lower left image. In order to get over this bar your center of gravity (shown as the purple and blue circle) had to be about 8 inches over the bar.  If you wanted to jump 6 feet, your center of gravity had to get up to 6 foot 8. Next, they came up with the Western Roll (center image). The person is lying over the bar and their center of gravity is a little bit closer to the bar due to the laid-out position.  Then Fosbury came along and did something completely harebrained: he went over the bar backwards! The magic of this technique is that when he arches over the bar, his center of gravity never actually goes over the bar.  The change from going from the style on the left to the style in the center led to the world record, on average, increasing 1/6 of an inch every year.  From the point when Fosbury came until 1995, the world record average improvement was 1/3 of an inch.  How would you like to double the rate that we are breaking the world record in swimming?


Figure 11


Dick Fosbury came up with this jump technique on his own in high school and he had a lot of success with it.  What was the first thing his college coach did when he saw this weird thing Dick was doing? He told him to go back to jumping it the way he knew how to coach it. However, he was jumping higher than anybody else.


Now here is what is important:  All of this is mental. “Reducing the gap between the theoretical best practice [what I am calling ‘best possible’], and even the demonstrated best practice [which I call “state of the art”], is almost always a question of changing the existing way of thinking.” This stuff on Fosbury is not from Encyclopedia Britannica and it is not from a book on high jump. This is from a management consultant that makes a tremendous amount of money improving organizations by changing the way the organizations think and view themselves.


Kerry and I both started looking at swim starts from a different perspective.  We are not swimmers.  We were looking into something new, so we just started asking questions. Are there questions about swim starts that you wanted to ask but you didn’t, because you knew what the answer was going to be?  Did that ever happen?  Kerry and I didn’t know what questions not to ask, because we didn’t know what the answers were going to be. We asked questions and found some answers that might be a little bit different from what everybody else believes.


We are going to try and apply an outside perspective and try to do to swimming what Dick Fosbury did to the high jump thirty years ago.  There have been huge improvements in all kinds sports due to the application of engineering and physics. I mean even skateboarding!  These guys are getting tremendous improvement in their sport because they are applying physics or aerospace engineering or new materials to their sport. We are doing this now with swim strokes, but to my knowledge nobody has done anything like that with swim starts, and I don’t know why.


It is rocket science, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. There are two things you can control in your start: speed off the block and trajectory. I call speed thrust because your speed is a direct relation to your thrust. In fact, you create thrust with speed. If you are in the Space Shuttle and don’t get your thrust and your trajectory correct, you are off into space and you never come back. Swim starts are exactly the same. You need to consider the direction off the block, trajectory, and how much thrust you can generate. A successful mission is fastest to 15 meters.


Figure 13


How do we create thrust?  Let’s use the two sticks connected by a spring in figure 13 to demonstrate this point. The center of gravity is right smack in the middle. If the stick is straight, as shown on the left hand side, you can push on it and it will move just like it is a rigid stick. But if you put a little bend in it, the center of gravity is not in direct line with the thrust.  Now picture this as a swimmer with his butt sticking out. Our swimmers are seen in figure 14.   If you have a direct line from your foot through your center of gravity to your shoulders and your head, then 100% of your thrust can go through your body, putting you out over the pool.  If you don’t, if you get your butt up and your head down, some of your thrust turns in a moment, rotating your body around your center of gravity. You are wasting the thrust.  Notice that the thrust vector (T) on the right is a little bit shorter than the thrust factor on the left. This is because some of the thrust has been depleted.


Figure 14


Let’s look at trajectories again.  If you want to go as far as you can in the air, go up at 45 degrees and come down at 45 degrees in a ballistic arc and that is the center of gravity path. You cannot move that.  All of the piking, head tucking, arm waving, and leg tucking just moves you around your center of gravity.  Your center of gravity follows a constant pattern.  The problem is that if you are going to create thrust, you have to adjust your center of gravity by getting your butt underneath your shoulders. Figure 16) How long is it going to take you to get from the positions on the left to that position on the far right?  A long time. If you have to get to this position anyway why don’t you do it before the start? We figure you should do all that you can before the start so you don’t penalize yourself by taking time after the race starts. So if you can move to the position on the far right as they are saying set, then you are already preloaded. When the gun goes off, you are gone!


Figure 15


Figure 16 on next page

Figure 16


Let’s talk about how much thrust we can create. (Figure 17) Humans can vertically jump about 18 to 20 to 30 inches depending on how good they are. Big dogs can jump 50-100 percent of their height and cats can jump 200-400 percent of their height. Fleas are most impressive because they can jump 100 times their own height. How are they able to do that?  Strength?  Obviously the flea is not stronger than a human.  And it’s not the strength to weight ratio.  It’s because fleas are quicker.  They move faster.


Figure 17


Inertial forces. On the starting block, the only forces you have to react to are inertial forces. Inertial forces are generated by speed.  The faster you can move, the faster you can get off the block, and the more thrust you can create.  That is why it is so important to get from your crouch to a full extension as fast as possible.  That will greatly increase your thrust.


Thrust is also a function of leverage.  As I said, you have to get your butt underneath your shoulders in order to generate this thrust. Anything other than this is a mechanical disadvantage. Remember we want to generate force and power. Power is a function of speed; it is force times velocity.  Most elite swimmers lose power on their starts at 10-12 meters.  You cannot create any more force.  You are at the maximum force you can create with your legs, but you can create more velocity. You can create more power because it is the product of force and velocity.  Speed is a function of potential energy. (Figure 18)  The speed you go down on this roller coaster is dependent on how high you are at the top of it. This is why we are not talking about going straight down into the water. We go up the roller coaster and let gravity do its work to pull us back down fast, just like it pulls us into the water fast.  We are going to create a lot more thrust this way.  You can do the following experiment with a ruler as demonstrated in figure 19.  Put the ruler down at a 30-degree angle and roll a ball down it. The ball will fall off the table at this angle. Putting the ruler up at a steeper angle allows the ball to roll down the same distance more quickly because it is taking advantage of gravity. Because the ball is coming off the ruler faster at the steeper angle, it also falls more quickly. You can apply the same information to your starts. The faster you enter the water due to the steeper angle of entry, the sooner you get to 15 meters.


Figure 18


Figure 19


How do you change direction?  You change direction by creating lift.  Look at this airplane wing (Figure 20). Lift is generated by velocity, not by angle of attack and lift is always perpendicular to the direction of travel. You can create a little bit more lift if you create an angle of attack.  You are arching your body a little bit and you are steering up with your hands, but in order to create more lift with an angle you have to maintain the same velocity.  But when you create an angle of attack, you create more drag, so somehow you have to overcome that and create more velocity. If you create a lot of lift, you create a lot more speed, but speed increases drag. Getting a 20% improvement in your surge thrust for a 5% increase in drag would be a good investment. Everybody thinks lift is up. Lift is not always up.


Figure 20


What if you want to make your airplane go forward, what do you use?  A propeller? (Figure 21) So let’s take the same exact same wing pictures and turn them 90 degrees, so they look like a propeller.  If the wing is flat or the propeller is flat you are generating a certain amount of lift.  If you put a little angle attached to the same speed, you generate more lift. If you put the same angle of attack and a lot more speed, you create a lot more lift.  (Fig 22) Swimmer = propeller blade.  Surge lift or surge thrust = airplane pull.  Physics is physics, and there is no changing it.  Now, in swimming, we are not actually going straight down in that direction.  Let’s take a look. Remember, we are talking about what angle are we creating and what velocity are we creating to generate that forward thrust that is going to go from point A to point B faster than anybody else in the pool.


Here is more of a typical orientation. In the track start you come off the block not very high, and at a low angle of incidence, 30 degrees. (fig 23)  I took the liberty of showing a typical pike.  Why are you piking?  Because you have to get this body down into the proper angle.  You have a lift vector, because you have an angle of attack and you have a forward thrust vector. Combine the two and that is your surge vector.  Your surge is pushing you forward.  Lets try a 45-degree entry angle. (fig 24)  You have more speed, and more speed creates more lift.  Now combine those two and look at the difference between them.  We came down a little steeper, went a little faster, and created more thrust.  More thrust generates more carry-through, so you will break out farther down the pool.  You are going to have to take fewer strokes.  Let’s go to the extreme, to 60 degrees (fig 25). I do not recommend this steep an entry, especially in a shallow pool, but it does make a point.  You are going a lot faster coming down that roller coaster, creating a lot more lift and your surge is considerably larger (fig 26).


Figure 21


Figure 22


Figure 23

Remember we use 15 meters as the end of the start, and there is some concern that we get different results for different race distances.  The reason for the different results is we are swimming before 15 meters.  If you use the power that is available from gravity, you will carry your surge to 13, 14, 15 meters and you won’t have to swim before there. For every single event that you do, your time to 15 meters will be the same.


Figure 24


Figure 25


Figure 26


Let’s discuss cosmetic movements. Cosmetic movements are the things that you think make you faster, but don’t, or things you could have done before the gun. Doing them after the gun just costs you time. Cosmetic movements are also the things that don’t really make you faster, but you may think they do.  You may think something makes you faster because you know a particular swimmer does a certain thing and they are really fast. Do you ever step back and say,  “That person is doing that thing and they are really fast. I should have all of my swimmers do that”? What if they have a bad start technique, but they can swim fast because they happen to be really talented?  Now you are going to take somebody who is not as talented a swimmer and inflict on him a start technique that is not as mechanically efficient.  We want to make sure that we look at the basis of what is occurring before we make a decision that makes you faster or slower.


As I understand it, the conventional wisdom regarding the head swing is that the 15-pound head weighs more than any other part of the body so you need to swing it to create momentum.  And I agree, the head swing actually can create momentum. You can show mathematically that moving your head creates force.  The problem is that in order to do it productively, you have to do so many other things that are mechanically a disadvantage that it costs you more in your start than what you are gaining. If it were just changing the center of gravity I would agree. If it is creating force or momentum I would disagree and here is why: put your head all the way down with your chin down to your chest, then put your head all the way back. How far did the center of gravity of your head move?  Six to eight inches.  I will give you credit for 8 inches in half a second.  That will generate about 15 pounds of inertial force.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that while you are doing that you have to bring your center of gravity from way up high to way down low.   The end result is that you wind up being horizontal and your legs have already extended because you are kind of falling forward. (Figure 27a) The legs have already extended some, and now as far as going from a semi-crouch to a full extension, you only have about 12 inches of leg stroke left.  How fast can you move that?  Let’s say that you can move it in half a second again.  Based on a 200-pound swimmer, at 24 inches per second, 300 pounds of thrust are generated. A smaller swimmer is going to move faster but add less force.


Would you agree we now have 315 pounds of thrust? You should, not because the swimmer did one movement first and then the other. The only thing that counts is the last movement, the last force created when leaving the block. The head swing did create some force, but it was done first. You only get to count the latter movement, 300 pounds, and it is only going out horizontally. Let’s try it again. Let’s go from a full crouch preloaded legs to a full extension. How would you like your swimmer to be six inches closer to the finish at the gun, before they have left the block? How long does it take a full-sized swimmer to cover six inches?  Does it matter? It’s time right?


Figure 27a



When standing with your arms down by your sides, where is your center of gravity? It depends obviously. Swimmers with long legs will have a different center of gravity than short people like myself. For short people like me, the center of gravity is right at the wheel of your hips.  Now, you want to get 6 inches closer to the ceiling without moving. How can you accomplish this without standing on your toes? Put your arms up over your head.  Where is your center of gravity now?  The center of gravity is six inches higher, and if you are tall it is even farther. When you start from a full crouch preloaded position, there is no time delay.  You have already loaded up your legs. Here is another position for you to try. Stand with your butt high and flex your thighs Keep your legs straight and your hands down at your toes. Again, flex your thighs. How much force can you generate with your thighs?


Figure 27b


(Figure 27b)  Think about moving the center of gravity. You are not going to get a 20 inch stroke on your legs unless you are really tall, but if your center of gravity is down low and you are moving from the low center of gravity all the way up to that six inch addition (high), you can get a 20 inch stroke on that. If you can move 20 inches on your center of gravity in half a second, you can generate 600 pounds of thrust.


You can talk all you want about how fast you get into the water and what your thrust is, but thrust equals speed. Would you rather have 298 pounds of speed or 600 pounds of speed? Remember the grab start is like a track start, but you are pulling yourself forward (figure 28). The pull start is similar except you are leaning back a little bit. In the grab start, the center of gravity is right over the edge of the block.  In the pull start, the center of gravity is over the middle of the block. In the pull start, the force you generate by using your arms to “pull you forward” is a two-component force.  It is a component of force with your arms straight pulling down (figure 29). You may try this demonstration. Put your hand out straight onto something, like someone’s shoulder, keeping your elbow straight.  Now push down as hard as you can. Maybe that is 20 pounds. Now scoot a little closer to the person. Again, put your hand on their shoulder and put your elbow down. Now move closer or else this demonstration will not work. Once you are close, pull down. Which method resulted in more force? The force that you can create pushing forward with a straight arm is minuscule.  It is not zilch; it is pretty darn close, though. However, when you pull on a rope, you can create a tremendous amount of force between your hand and your shoulder. This is represented by the straight blue line from the shoulder to the hand. Now I take the two forces and I add them together. The red line represents the resultant force. When you start with a grab start like that, you pull down on the blocks. Are you getting the forward motion that you think you are when you start with a grab start by pulling down on the blocks? Let’s take a look. Note the angle of the resultant line.  Which direction is it really pulling?  Down and backwards.


Figure 28


Figure 29 next page

Figure 29

Now we will discuss track starts. Everybody knows that pushing forward is great. However, you can really only push perpendicular to the block, which rolls you over. Here is another demonstration for you to try. Do a standing vertical jump, trying to jump as high as you can. First, jump with both feet directly under hips and shoulders. Second, jump with one foot directly under hips and shoulders while the other foot is 15 inches back. Third, look down at the ground and jump as high as you can. Fourth, look straight out and jump as high as you can. Fifth, look up and jump as high as you can. You will find that if you want to go someplace you have to look there. In the track start, you push up, levering around the leg (Fig 30). The movement creates a leg flip so you are relegated to creating all your thrust with just one leg.


Back to the high jump. Do you know how many legs you jump off of in high jump? One. Do you know why you don’t use two?  It is illegal.  Why is it illegal?  For the same reason that it is illegal to take your first stroke after 15 meters; it gives you way too big of an advantage. You can create much more force using two feet than you can using only one. That is the reason behind the stance in our start. In our stance, we raise the head, bring the bottom down, and flatten the back because that is getting rid of the cosmetic movements.  We are preloading the thighs and getting the center of gravity underneath us so that we can create the thrust as soon as we hear the beep (figure 31, slide 117).  You start out pre-squatted. When the gun goes you get a little extra dip with the hips, just a little extra dip.


You can think of it as a slingshot.  You have already loaded it up and when you are done, what do you do? It’s also like an archer; you don’t just let go for the launch. You give it just a little extra tug; that is exactly what we do in this start.  How do you make a powerful start? Force times velocity. You want to maximize your force and maximize velocity to get awesome, awesome power. What about surge? Remember going up the roller coaster and back down. Create a bunch of force.  Turn that force with angle of attack; turn it into lift or thrust.  Move from the block to 15 meters faster than anybody.


Here you see a 30-inch (2.5 foot) block. [referring to video] The model jumps off the block and peaks way higher than the noodle. When most people do a track start off a 30-inch block, their center of gravity never exceeds 3.5 feet, which is about a foot higher than the block. Our model peaks out on this, but her center of gravity is about 7 feet. Here is a little more physics for you: acceleration of gravity is a square term. How fast are you if you fall twice as far?  Four times as fast.  And what creates surge?  Speed.


Here is what we think is the most productive way to start. Stand with your feet together because you can create more thrust. Keep your head up because it brings your butt down, bringing your center of gravity forward and preloading your legs. Heads down and looking back behind you is not productive. Remember you go where you are looking.  You have to be prepared not to grab at the start, but rather to swing your arms out straight, because that inertial force will create more force onto the blocks so that when you stop it lifts you right off. Remember, you go where you look. Here is Michael Johnson, a fairly fast guy (fig 33).  Look at what he is doing.  His back is straight. There is a straight line from his butt to his shoulders. His head is up and it will never move. Where is he looking? He is looking up about 10-15 meters ahead of him. What would happen if he were looking down at his fingers?  Soon as the gun goes and he picks up his hands ….. really not pretty on national TV.  The swimmers on the right show a standard start position. Notice that none of the swimmers is looking forward. In the bottom photograph, people are lifting weights. They are creating a tremendous amount of force with their legs. Notice the direction in which they are looking.  They are looking exactly where they want the weight to go, straight up.


Figure 33


When you are on the launch pad (stage 1) there are some things to be aware of (fig 34.)  Get your head up, get your hips tucked, flex your thighs, and don’t waste time moving with those cosmetic movements.  Create your force at a preload before the gun goes off.  Grabbing the block will pull you down.  We are trying to go up.


Figure 34


Thrust is stage two. To me, thrust begins the instant you start. We are trying to create an  explosive release.  We do the preload so we can get off the blocks and off into space as fast as possible.  The guy on the left in figure 35 actually has his arms in peak extension too soon, slightly before his legs. Notice the angle he going.  The center of gravity is going up. Actually he is a little bit too steep here. He is about 50 degrees, but the point is that even if he does it wrong, he is still going to hit the water farther out than anybody else. We see in the picture of Michael Klim (center of bottom row) that he has already used all the thrust he can generate with his arms.  Now all he has got left are his legs pushing horizontal. Ian, lower right, is not even using his arms. Plus he has a big bow in back so he doesn’t have that good column stability to create all of the thrust to push it forward.  I am not picking on these guys. They just happen to have convenient pictures on the internet.


Figure 35


Figure 36


Figure 36 shows a couple more starts. On the left is a two-footed start, but the butt is still very high. He is looking up though.  Have you noticed that?  No matter where your head is at the bottom, somewhere along the line you are going to be looking out ahead of you, but not really using the arms. Notice from this photo that when you are taking off at this low angle from a 10-degree block, the only thing that you have to mount your thrust is your toes.  On the other hand, if you are going off at a 45-degree angle, you can push against the ball of your foot. It is a much more solid position to be in and you can control your angle better than you can with the toes.


Be cautious of contradictory movements, such as your butt going up and your shoulders going down or your arms going up but your head going down. Everything should be going in the same exact direction.


Figure 37


Now we are leaving the blocks in the Launch (stage 3). The guy on the left has his arms a little too high, but he hits the stops on his arm just about the same time he does it with his legs. He is going to be going nice and high. Now look at the guy on the right.  His arms are a little bit too far down, but look at how much height he has.  That is how we generate surge. I am not sure of the race in fig 37.  Ian (in black) is as flat as a new chain ring, and he is horizontal from the block, whereas Anthony (in blue) is actually going down. He also has the wobble in his body, which doesn’t have that good column stability.


Flight is stage four.  There are certain things to be aware of. (Fig 38, slide 134)The guy on the left is about 6 to 6 ½ feet off the ground and he is going to hit the water well past the 2 ½ meter mark – he is going to enter water at 3 ½ or 4 meters every time, and he is going to be going a lot faster to the 15-meter mark. The power of his start-dive will carry the distance.


Figure 38


If you get a lot of height during flight, you have plenty of time to get your body into the right angle, to come over the top, and punch into the water.  If you tuck your head too soon to get your angle down properly you are not getting enough height. On re-entry you come down steeper and go faster; therefore, you will go deeper. We have to be careful with this, but if you follow the path and you take it right out on the wall, you are going to wind up pushing further out and have a lot greater velocity at 15 meters.


Here is the same person coming down.  [referring to video]  She is coming down nice and steep. It looks like she is doing a high dive.  She just punches through water with very little splash. She is now in perfect position for a dolphin kick and she surges way out in front because it is not over when you hit the water.  You still have to breakout so you have to convert all of this extra energy into distance.


Now you have to train your swimmers effectively to make this stick. Otherwise, it is just an idea that I made up that you can’t use. You need tools.  You need video.  You need that apparatus that we showed you.  You need something so the swimmer knows exactly where he is without you telling him. The swimmer has to know where he is while he is in the air.  Now here are side-by-side views (slide 154-162).  Here is the before picture of a 13 year old girl at a clinic we did. On the left she is going to just fall off the blocks, and on the right she is going to do the power start. She actually does it incorrectly, but she does it a lot better. She hit the water 40% farther, 30% faster, and will wind up way out in front of everybody else.


Figure 39


Figure 41


Figure 42

Figure 43


Figure 44


Figure 45


Figure 46


Figure 47


Figure 48


But you have to do this all or nothing. It is not an incremental thing.  It is not put your hands here or here.  It is completely different. You have to start from scratch.


Summary.  Let’s back up and take a new perspective on swimming.  Look at everything that you do. Question everything that you do. Find out if your assumptions are correct.  Be willing and eager to change, because if you don’t somebody else will and then you are going to wind up in the stands.  Maximum performance is what is possible, not what is the best right now. However, what is possible lets you work toward maximum performance.  I have not made this stuff up; physics is physics. Think about how you can take advantage of physics. Remember you don’t have to understand how this works. Also remember that radical improvement not only comes from radical thinking, but it requires radical thinking. Know that the physics is there, the math is there, the engineering is there, and most importantly, the potential is there.


The start is the greatest untapped area of swimming that we can improve. When you set a new standard and work toward it, you will get faster. The sport will get better.  Your kids will be more enthusiastic about it because they are going to start getting big changes.  They are going to be excited.  We did a clinic five years ago and there was a 9-year-old boy there who was only there because his older sister was swimming and his mom didn’t want to take him to baseball.  He was there reluctantly.  He didn’t want to be there, but he did one of these clinics.  He went over this apparatus.  He goes “wow”; he was so excited about it.  He was smiling about it and having such a great time that he got into swimming. He really got serious about it and he is the first kid on that club to hit national times in five years.


Set a new standard for performance and a new paradigm for expectation, then do everything possible to reach that standard.  In the process, you will get faster and the sport will get better.




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