In Search of Swimming Speed by Nort Thornton (2004)


Nort Thornton, who was inducted into the ASCA (American Swimming Coaches Association) Hall of Fame last September 2003, enters his 31st season as the director of the California men’s swimming team.  Thornton, the dean of all Pac-10 swimming coaches, continues to combine great determination and dedication in helping his swimming team reach its potential and maximum success level. Last season, he led the 2004 Golden Bears squad to a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships.  A true indication of Thornton’s success is the fact that Cal has finished in the Top 10 nationally 25 of the 30 years he has been at the helm of the Golden Bears’ program.  In his 30 years at Cal, Thornton has led the Bears to two national championships, 25 NCAA Top-10 finishes and a stellar cast of All-Americans. He has an even more impressive collection of Olympians-including world record holder Matt Biondi, and Anthony Ervin, who won a  gold medal in the 50-meter free at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The veteran coach has an impressive 211-81 (.723) career dual meet record, has been National Coach of the Year twice and has been the Pac-10 Coach of the Year four times, most recently in 1999. A past president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, Thornton has served on the ASCA Board of Directors and is a past member of the NCAA Rules Committee. He was also awarded the National Collegiate and Scholastic Award (which is in the International Hall of Fame) for his contributions to swimming as a healthful recreation activity for schools and colleges. Thornton, 71, graduated from San Jose State in 1956 with a degree in education and earned his master’s degree from Stanford. Thornton and his wife Carla have three sons, Richard (46) and twins Marc and Gregg (43).



[Editor’s Note:  Coach Thornton’s handout is printed at the end of this transcript]




A while back John Leonard called and asked if I would like to speak at the Clinic this year. I said: “Yes, I would love to speak.”  It is always great to come and spend time with people I really enjoy.  I like to talk about swimming.  Sometimes, when we are at a party and we are having an interesting conversation with somebody and they ask us what we do for a living and we say that we are swimming coaches, right away, they start looking for somebody else to talk with because they figure we don’t have any more conversation. So, it is always great to be at a place where we can talk about swimming with people who think it is worthwhile.  I am here because I love to be here with the great coaches that we have.


Now, if you ask what I would like to talk about, then that is a problem.  Ten or fifteen years ago, I could have told you a number of things that I knew for sure I would love to talk about. Today, however, I don’t know if there is really anything that I know for sure. It really is amazing. When I got out of college, I had all the answers.  Every year that I coached, I had fewer and fewer answers. Now, I am at the point now where I am not sure I have any at all.  So, what I am trying to do this morning is to go through some of the things that I went through in my career and tell you why I think some of these ideas work and why some of them didn’t work. Hopefully, this will get you thinking about a few things. I will spend a little more time on things that we are doing today because I try to use the good things and the things that work. The things that don’t work, I try to discard. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong. I want to start going through a litany of different things that came into my career, which extends a few years back. I hope you will get something out of it somewhere along the line.


When I swam, it was swim ten, kick ten, pull ten, and a few sprints, and the shower was longer than the whole workout. When I say ten, that was laps; that wasn’t hundreds or anything like that; and we were doing more than most people in those days. That is scary, but that is the way that it was. Basically, we had a pretty good high school program that won a lot of championships because in Palo Alto there is a pool called Lincoln Aqua pool which is a public pool.  In the summertime, we all hung out there.  We played a game called tag in which you had to swim. You couldn’t run around the corners, you had to swim the corners. So, we were running and swimming all day long. By the time we got back to school in the fall, we were in pretty darn good shape. That was our interval training.  After I got out of  San Jose State where, although I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, they had a coaching major that was phenomenal preparation, I developed a philosophy that you are where exactly where you need to be for anything you are going to need to be doing in the future in your life.  We had seven starters on our water polo team then, I think five of us went into coaching and all of us have won NCAA championships.   I had a roommate in an apartment house at San Jose State named Bill Walsh of the 49’ers and his roommate was Nick Biondi so I had an inside track on recruiting Matt actually.  Dick Vermeil was in our program.  There were a number of great coaches who came through that whole program there.


When we came out of San Jose as graduates from that program, we had folders – coaching techniques on every single sport. I think there were close to 20 different sports that we felt like we could handle.  My first job was at Los Altos high school; I was a wrestling coach, so I could be the swimming and water polo coach as well. I felt semi-prepared to do it just because of the background that we had. We had some great preparation.  About the time that I got out and got my first coaching job at Los Altos high school, age group swimming was just getting started.  That is how far back it was. We went with our high school team over to a place called “the Hayward plunge”.  At the time I knew a guy named Ed Heinrich.  He had a couple of sons, Darrel and Gary, and I watched them doing ten 400’s on short rest intervals right before a high school dual meet. I had never seen anything like that before in my life.  I thought: “My god, he is going to be so tired he won’t be able to swim.”  But, he went out and broke the national high school record or came close to it. That experience opened my eyes a little bit about what is possible. That idea was just kind of maybe similar to the idea Michael Phelps had at the Olympics this summer. Set the bar a little bit higher. Push the limits out a little bit farther.  Maybe you need to rethink the whole issue of race preparation.


During my first year at Los Altos, I went to the Ft. Lauderdale Swim Forum at Christmas time.  I was a young high school coach.  I hadn’t done anything coaching-wise, and I was there alone.  Doc Counsilman was there with Hoby Billingsly and they took an interest in me. Thank god  I mean, they spent time talking to me and got me involved in what was going on there. From that point on, I pretty much worshiped everything Doc Counsilman did and said and wrote.  I think I read everything.  I think I probably still have all of it in my office today.  Doc Counsilman was the first major influence on my coaching career.


Times have changed drastically, but Doc was basically on board with what was going on. Everything he said made sense to me, so I took it back to my high school program. I was fortunate enough to have a young man named Steve Clark on my team who went 45.8 in a high school dual meet. Back in 1958 I think it was. Steve went on to a great career at Yale, as you know.


The stuff that Doc was doing seemed to work pretty well, or, at least, the guys I had in the program made it work pretty well.  So, that was what we did.  Anything that Doc did, we did. Maybe it was a week or two later, but we pretty much did it.


It was in about the 70’s that mega yardage crept in to programs, and people were doing a lot of yardage, heavy yardage.  In our area of northern California was a coach named Sherm Chavour up in Arden Hills. His workouts consisted of a lot of yardage. We had a couple of his swimmers on our team, so I knew pretty much what they were doing. Sherm would say: “Okay, we are going 3,000. Ready, Go.”  Then, he would go in and make a few phone calls in the office and come back out just in time to start them on another 3,000 or 2,000 or whatever it was.  Sherm was doing mega, heavy yardage, and it worked really well for some people, such as Mike Burton.


At about the same time, I became aware (and I did not have any factual information, just an understanding) that Salnikoff in Russia was doing about 30,000 a day for as much as a year at a time. He was having amazing results with that.  Over in Australia, Forbes Carlisle was doing what he called: “Long Slow Distance.”  He was also producing a number of great swimmers such as Shane Gould. I had the privilege of working with Forbes and Shane for 15 years. They were phenomenal. It wasn’t just in the 1500 either. Shane was more versatile.  She swam the 100, the 200, the 400, the 800 and the 200 IM all at the same time and all based off the longer training.


I also think we missed a lot of people.  I remember being in Sweden once, when a coach said to me: “You guys are totally different than us.  You take all your eggs and you put them in a bag and you throw the bag against the wall as hard as you can. If one doesn’t break, you have a world record holder.  If we do that in Sweden, we don’t have enough eggs. All of our eggs are all broken and our program is ruined.”


You know, I think there is a lot of truth to that.  Obviously, it is not specific.  Heavy yardage works really well for some people.  It doesn’t work at all for others. Mentally, they cannot deal with it. Particularly today, you cannot expect the kids who are into the computer quick-fix society – you know, fast food, fast this, and fast that — to be very patient with Long Slow Distance.

We have to be pretty tricky about how we get that done.  I tried to talk to Forbes once about why he thought his training worked. He wasn’t real sure himself.  I think Forbes’ type of distance training works because the swimmers eventually just start relaxing the best way they can to survive the workout. When they do that, their stroke gets grooved. When they relax, they tend to get as functional as possible.  You cannot fight it for that long a period of time day after day after day.  If you do, you are probably going to tear your body apart, or your mind is going to fry on you, and you are not going to be able even to get yourself to go to the pool any more. For the swimmers who did it, what really worked, I think, was they just relaxed and they got a very efficient way of swimming. They ended up being successful because of it. I really think that after a while your body needs to find the best way to do things.


Even today, I think that is very important. I have also been told (by Greg Khanale of Sweden a number of years after he left the Cal program) and  that there are studies which show that after the first 20 or 23 minutes, your body kind of turns off and you start to really learn. Learning starts to become subconscious at that point. So, if you don’t get them past 20-23 minutes, then they probably aren’t doing a lot of learning. That is another factor which might be a reason for why distance worked.


Next, in my career anyway, I started to watch what was happening in East Germany.  I noticed how fast they were swimming.  I noticed how big they were, and my assumption was that we needed to get in the weight room. So, we started lifting a lot of weights.  I have since figured out that this probably not the best way to go.  Guys love lifting weights because they look good on the beach and lifting takes them out of the pool. Weight room training depends on how it is done.  I am not saying it is bad. I just think that weight room training has got to be a supplement for your swimming. You don’t want to stop swimming because of something you do in the weight room. If you look at an exercise like bench press, I just can’t figure out how you can equate any of that motion to what you are going to do in the pool swimming wise.


Look at the top swimmers, the top sprinters, these days and you see the Anthony Irvin’s.  You see a lot of kids who are long and lean.  The bigger, stronger, more muscular people are not as prevalent.  I remember when Matt Biondi was swimming in the Olympic Finals in Seoul in the 100, he was about 6’ 5 ½” – almost 6’ 6”, and he was the shortest guy in the race. He was probably about average weight.  I think some of the swimmers were big, but mostly, they were just tall and lean.  I think that has to do with the fact that any mass you build in the weight room, you also have to push down the pool with you. More mass means you are going to have to work harder. I don’t think building mass is the way to go. I think you will probably agree with that.


It is the strength per pound of body weight that you are really looking for.  You can achieve that in the weight room in creative ways. You have got to be able to do something quick in the weight room.  Our strength coach gets real mad at us when we put light weights on a bar and start banging it up and down real fast. We are trying to get some quicker stuff. Some strength coaches do not appreciate that type of stuff in the weight room because they are into pumping heavy iron. I don’t think that is in the best interest of most swimmers.


One thing that does happen when you lift weights is that you produce growth hormone. In fact, they tell people who are my age to keep lifting weights because we can stay healthier that way. That is exactly what is happening. When you lift weights, you are getting a natural production of growth hormone which is going to help your swimming. That hormone may be the most beneficial thing you are getting out of the weight room. That is one thing you want to keep in the back of your mind.


There are some benefits in lifting, but I think the key thing is power.  “Power” is not a well understood term. A lot of people think that “power” and “strength” are two words for the same thing, but really, they aren’t.  “Power” is strength divided by time or by speed. What happens is that if you want to develop power, you are going to have to do strength work over time.  You know, do it quicker.  Quickness over time is what you want.


At about this time you, Doc developed his biokinetic swim benches. We got into that. Basically what I think biokinetic benches or biokinetic equipment does is to train the nervous system to fire the muscles at faster rates of speed.  I think that is where it all is.  You don’t want to do real slow heavy exercises because pretty soon you are moving slowly – very efficiently, but slowly, and that does not equate to fast times in the pool.  Biokinetic type work or plyometric type work is anything that takes lighter weights and moves them faster. I think this type of training develops your nervous system to the point where it can fire faster.  It is like rewiring your body circuit so that it can shoot impulses faster to your muscles so that they will fire off at faster rates. That to me is what swimming is all about — provided you have got good technique.


I am a technique freak.  I think technique is pretty much the key, but I think the training of the nervous system for quickness is what is important.  I don’t think the weight room itself is a good way to do that.  I think there are other things that you can do, such as plyometrics, to accomplish the goal.

Let’s say that you are going to lift. You do a triceps extension exercise; then,  you get a lighter medicine ball and bounce it against the wall as fast as you can for 20 reps right afterward. You don’t just do a slow rep. Don’t do slow reps and let it go at that, because I don’t think you do yourself any good that way. We always like to get our guys in the water after the weight room and do something a little quicker to get that worked out so it is not leaving them with the slow reps.


At about that time when we were using a speed circuit at Cal, we took the team to the Dallas Morning News Invitational. In that Meet, a team can bring 8 swimmers; there are six teams; each team gets a lane; and you swim two heats of each event.  It is a great event and we took our eight fastest guys at the time. We took them to swim at the meet and when they came back on Monday, we did some testing in the speed circuit. We used a lower setting so they did not have a lot of resistance. We tried to go for about 15 seconds as fast as possible to see who would generate the highest scores.


Well, it was very surprising to me, although it probably should not have been, that the eight guys we took to the Dallas Morning News meet were the eight highest scorers on our team that day – right after going to the meet! Now, they did have a couple of days off from the workouts, and they were sprinting, and maybe that had something to do with it.  I will give them that. But, what the test showed me was that they were wired up to be more explosive than some of the other swimmers on our team.


In the testing we did, we were able to take a reading on the work the swimmers were doing every 5 seconds – No, every 4 seconds – excuse me. We found out that our people on our team who were dual meet swimmers, were able to peak out around 7-8 seconds.  At about 8 seconds, they just couldn’t get it done anymore.  Their score level just tumbled.  The people who were PAC 10 finalists, the ones who were a little bit more successful, were getting it down to about 8-9 seconds before they just collapsed.  The NCAA finalists were getting 9-10 seconds done before they collapsed.  We were going for 15 seconds, but after about 10 seconds their score was almost the same at 15 because they just couldn’t pop another couple of quick reps in there.  Their muscles just gave out at that point.  But the guys who were Olympians – we had a couple of Olympic medallists on our team – could go 12 seconds. That was pretty amazing.  They could go two full seconds longer than the other people. So I am thinking: Well – here we are. We have got guys who are training on this equipment, and after about 7 or 8 seconds, the novice ones aren’t able to keep up. After about 9 seconds, the next group kind of crashes. Then, the better ones go for 10 and the real good ones go for about 12.


What we started doing was we going about 12-15 seconds work with about a minute rest.  We have a room that has got about 24 stations in it. All the stations are all hooked up to a computer, so we know exactly how much actual power the swimmers are generating at each station. What we do is we go short blasts at each station. The stations are set up in a sequential manner, so that we do shoulder work, and then maybe a swim bench, and then lower body work, and then we come back across the room and do shoulder, and then body, and then leg work again, and we just keep cycling through. Not only do you get a minute or a minute and a half rest, you also get to rest the body parts for a couple of stations before you go.  We figured that seemed to make sense, so we started just blasting as hard as we could for the short periods of time. My goal was to try to move people’s settings up.


I should backtrack a little bit. When we went in there the first day, we tested everyone.  There are nine or ten speed settings [on the biokinetic benches] from 0-9. We put them on 0, and that is real slow. That is like lifting weights. We tested them for 15 seconds to see how far, how much score, they could generate.  The next time we went, we tested on 1and then 2 and then 3, etc.  What we were finding out from these tests was that the distance guys were crashing at about setting 3, or 4 if they were pretty good.  The sprinters were going to 6 or 7 before they crashed. What was happening was the distance guys just couldn’t maintain it as long as the sprinters could.  In other words, they couldn’t fire their muscles at that rate that often, that fast. So, what we did next was to take them up each week until they finally (it was pretty simple, really) found their power peak.  If setting 3 was their highest setting, and when they tied at 4, their power peak got lower, then we knew that they were not as efficient. We would have them try it a second time.  Eventually, we would be able to figure out what was a really true power peak for them. Then, we would set them one setting above their power peak.


Each guy on the team had a setting, and the interesting thing is that it wasn’t always the same.  Lower body parts sometimes were different than upper body and bench. There were sometimes different settings for the same person, and each person knew at each station where their power peak was. At each station, what they were doing was setting it one setting above where their power peak was.  It was like the carrot and the donkey, you know. You hold the carrot, out there, and when they got to the point where their power setting was the same on 4 as it was on 3, then they could change it to 4.  If I could effect about a 2 or 3 setting change in a year, I was doing a pretty good job of increasing their ability to fire their muscles at faster rates.


I think that is basically what we are trying to do.  So, our dry land program consisted primarily of increasing the ability to function at faster and faster rates. Today, that is still something we do. I think we are trying to get our power producing ability up as high as we can.  We have guys that – well Matt Biondi for example – when he came in school he probably had a power peaking high of about 3 or 4.  Before Seoul, at the peak four years later, at the peak of his career probably, he was up about 8 or 9 on the settings.  He had moved up.


I also found out, interestingly enough, that when they would go away and take a couple week break at the end of the summer and come back and get back in there, they would be at almost exactly the same spot where they  had finished. It didn’t seem to erode too much after being off for a short period of time. So, they just kept going over the years. Matt Biondi started peaking at 3 or 4, and then he got up to 5 or 6 or 7, and by the time he was a senior, he was peaking out about 8 or 9 or 10.  He was right up near the top, and he was the most powerful and quickest that he had ever been.


Along about that time, I had watched the young Matt Biondi swimming in a high school meet.  My son Richard swam at the same high school. I was not stupid. I bought a house in the District where Biondi went to school.  Actually, before that, Peter Rocca was a great swimmer in that District, so we moved into his high school district. I would go and pick up my son Richard at the end of practice and say hello to Peter every day so we could recruit him. Luckily, he did come to Cal. He was the guy who turned our program around at Cal. Peter Rocca.  Peter was a national high school backstroke record holder.


I remember onetime, I can’t remember exactly where it was, that summer Nationals were outdoors in the Midwest. I was sitting behind two young guys, and Peter was swimming. One guy in front of me said: “Hey, that’s Peter Rocca.  He is the national backstroke record holder.” The other guy said: “Well – what school does he go to?”  The first guy said: “He is going to college next year.” The second guy said: “Where is he going?”  And the first guy said that he was going to Cal. “Do you mean Southern Cal?” “No, Cal-Berkley.” “Well,   what is he doing that for?”   I felt like reaching out and grabbing their heads and going BANG. But I didn’t, and Peter swam well. When Peter got to Cal, he started having success. Before that, I couldn’t recruit anybody. After Peter got there, we started getting some talent because it was alright to come. Peter had given us credibility.  Before that, I was just another coach who liked to work guys hard, but hadn’t had anybody prove anything. Peter was the guy who opened the door for us, so I say a little blessing for Peter every day when I get up.


About that time, Matt Biondi went to the same high school that Peter Rocca had gone to, which worked out nicely because I could still ride by there on the way home. I knew Matt’s father really well from college. I went to a high school meet once and I was sitting in the stands, watching him go down the pool – I think it was a 25 yard pool – he took about 7 strokes. I thought: “What the hell – does he have fins on?”   I couldn’t believe it.  I wanted to know what he was doing, so I ended up going down on the deck to look down and see if he had fins on.  He didn’t have fins on.  I thought: “Man, That is unusual.”  Everybody else is doing 12 or 14 strokes, and Matt is going 7, and he is going faster than they are. Right away, I started thinking there is something special there. So, I started recruiting him, and all of a sudden renewed the old acquaintance with his father, and Matt came to Cal.


When you watch somebody like Biondi go up and down the pool in front of your nose for four or five years – whatever it was – you are pretty darn stupid if you can’t learn something.  I am sure that Matt taught me a lot more than I ever taught him about swimming.  I figured out after watching him swim from the side of the pool that he was putting his hand in where the blue floats start with the red float next.  His hand would go in where the blue float started, and it would come out two floats down the pool. I would think: “How is that possible?  He is pulling water and his hand is coming out farther ahead than it went in?” Obviously, he was doing something  different.  That got me thinking about a lot of things.


The next phase of swimming relates to the technique part of it.  I call these the laws of physics.  I think you have got to be in tune with the laws of physics as they pertain to swimming, or I think that you are in trouble.  Basically, the laws of physics do the same thing that car makers do when they want to get better gas mileage. They design a hydro-dynamically better body.  So, get a swimmer’s body that will go through the water and push less resistance and drag, drag less water with it.


I think the laws are pretty simple.  The first one I call the Sweet Spot. The sweet spot in swimming, I think, is where gravity is pulling you down and buoyancy is popping you up.  There is going to be a point there where they are going to counter-balance and you are going to stay in one position without any effort.  Now, a lot of people say you have got to swim up on top of the water.  I don’t think that is necessarily true.  I think if you are trying to find your sweet spot, you need to be able to find where that is – where gravity pulls you down because buoyancy is counteracting that. I once knew a guy named Norm, who was a Stanford All-American guard and who played for the 49’ers. This guy was about 3% body fat; he was amazing – just as cut as anybody I have ever seen.  We had to pass a life-saving test together.  We were out in the pool and we had to take our trousers off and tie knots in them in the legs and flip them over the top and inflate them and use them for buoyancy. Norm is next to me and I thought that was good. The instructor told us to go ahead and gather our clothes up and come out over the side of the pool. I was floating around getting my clothing together, and   when I looked over, there was Norm standing on the bottom of the pool in about 10 feet of water. He was rolling everything up and putting it under his arm and he started looking around for the nearest ladder. Then he started walking across the bottom of the pool to find the nearest ladder to climb out.  Well, here is a guy who would be swimming real low in the water obviously. That is why he was a football player and not a swimmer.  You have to find your sweet spot.


I think swimming on top of the water is simply this:  when you start moving forward, the water goes under your body much like the water under the hull of a speed boat.  The faster the water goes under your body, the higher you ride on the water. A speed boat when it is not moving and is tied up at a dock sits down low in the water. I think it is the same with a human body.  I don’t think you try falsely to create a position on top of the water. I think you let the speed of the water going under your body do that for you.  I think if you do that, then you can use 100% if your energy towards propulsion, without wasting any of it trying to stay up on top. The Sweet Spot is the first one of the laws of physics–gravity versus buoyancy.


Balancing the core is the next one.  You have all heard a lot about this. It is where you have your lungs full of air. You have air sacs in your lungs, and you have legs that probably have very little buoyancy. When the average person stops moving, they go vertical in the water.  So, you do have to be able to find a way, through “pressing the T” or whatever you want to call it ,  of pressing the air sacs down and to catch it in the core of your body, so that the front end goes down and  the back end comes up.  That can all be done through internal tension and contractions. You don’t have to really kick or do anything. You have to be able to create that balance, and I think you have to be able to learn how to do it. That is the second point.


The third one is an old ship building adage: the longer the keel, the greater the potential of speed.  If you have a body like Biondi did, with long arms and long legs, and you keep extended as long as possible for the longest period of time, you have the greatest potential to go fast. So I think the longer the keel, the greater the potential for speed.  If you have a short body, and you are not streamlining, and you are not doing other things right, you are at a real disadvantage.


The fourth one is that you move opposite the palm or the backside of your hand. A lot of people have trouble figuring that one out, but I don’t understand why.  If you put your hand down and the fingertips go towards the bottom of the pool and the elbow stays up, you are going to move in a direction perpendicular to the backside of your hand.  In other words: away from your palm.


A lot of people reach out here [in front] and then they try to press, and what they do is to create a platform for their breath. Or, they are in position and spend a lot of time bouncing up and down. That is all wasted motion and worse than that, what you are doing is exerting a tremendously long lever on your shoulder. You are going to have shoulder problems if you do that very long. It doesn’t take too many workouts in succession of that type of thing to really destroy a shoulder.  So, getting the fingertips down, keeping the forearm vertical, and being able to hold a good catch I think are keys to that.


You want to be able to spend 100% of your propulsive energy on moving forward, and not bouncing up and down.  I find that one of the biggest detriments to learning how to swim properly is the breath.  Every single swimmer who has a different type of breathing pattern always either platforms on their hand to get up, or they are moving their head all around. One of the best things I have ever found for working with that is a snorkel.

We spent months with a snorkel at Cal. The nice thing about a snorkel is that you don’t have to hear anybody complaining. They just go. It does take the head movement out of the stroke, and they look great when they take it off.


Another law of physics is that if you pass water over both sides of your body, you end up eliminating about 50% of the drag and resistance. In other words, if you are on your side, the water is going over both sides of your body. OR, if you are under water dolphin kicking, water is going over the top and bottom of your body and you are not dragging as much water as the person who is strictly on their stomach on the top, or on their back up on top of the water.  I think that is why a lot of people can do so well under water kicking. The other people are probably swimming too flat a lot of that time. Body rotation is something that Biondi did extremely well. He figured it out. He was eliminating a lot of drag and resistance.


Another thing is that I think we don’t pull water. I think when we say we are going to do a pulling set that is really a misnomer.  What I think you do is to set your hand in a catch position, and then you rotate or twist your body or screw your body past that position. That is how Matt Biondi could get a float ahead of where he went in – because his body rotation was so efficient, it was dragging the rest of his body through the water.  I will get into more of that later on because I think that is really important. Your power, or your strength divided by speed, comes through what I believe is your ability to torque your body.  Torquing your body is from the point of the catch to the first six inches of the rotation – like a shot putter.  They say that the first six inches of the put is going to determine the length of put. How fast you can move through that, how fast you can torque that is the key to how much speed you are going to get.  I believe that is really important.


You have got to hold tension in your body, and you have got to really be able to just jump past your hand.  When you are out of here like this, you are not going to be able to do anything but press down and go up.  You have got to be able to get into a catch position before you can do that.  Your catch should not be moving back.  Your body should be going forward, and your hip catch should be at the worst coming out where it goes in. That is maybe a little different than some people believe, but that is what I believe.


Now, I have spent a lot of time trying to develop the nervous system. It has been interesting because they are coming out  now with some research that says that there is not enough time for your body to think about what you have got to do, i.e. go to the brain and then send out impulses to your body. When you are in a zone or when you are flowing, your muscles are just doing the right thing. I think that is one thing that does happen when you swim a little longer distances – maybe not fast, but at least just longer distances. The interesting literature that I have seen lately says that there is intelligence in the connective tissue.  You know, all this time, I have been working on the nervous system, and now I’ve the got to go to the connective tissue and start over again.


Basically, what they are saying is that your connective tissue, which attaches your muscles to the bone, is where the weak link in your strength system is.  If you can strengthen the connective tissue you have got, then you are able to get results faster. So I have been working on and I will show you a machine that we are using for considerable amount of time. It is the Impulse Machine.  It was interesting. There was a guy, who I think was Adam Marshall, a defensive back at Arizona State. When he was at the combine, he was breaking all these records. He was just shattering the speed, quickness, jumping records.  He attributed a lot of this to a guy named Jay Schroeder down in Tempi. Richard Quick and I must have been watching the same shows or something, because he and I went down to Jay’s gym to watch what was going on. We spent a day following him around, and we talked about what his theories were.  He had a different take on things and one of the things that Richard and I saw was that he had a machine in there called the Impulse Machine.  The Impulse Machine is a machine that has two tracks, or a track with a sled on it with weights on it, and a machine. You pull on the machine, and this weight track goes up and down the track – the sled goes up and down the track. The interesting thing is that the heavier the weights are, the easier it is to use.  You have got to really be able to generate good impulse or tension. When you take the weights off, it gets harder and harder, because there is no momentum going with it.


Richard and I both have these machines in our programs. I think it is amazing how high it raises the core temperature of your body without really hurting the muscles.  It is really quite interesting. If you are one of these guys who likes to just force things, the impulse machine will just stall on you.  You can’t just rip it; you have to let the track go; and you have to just kind of find the flow of it. This is interesting because that is exactly what you are doing in the water. We use this machine considerably today, and it is amazing how the core temperature goes way up, but the muscles don’t get sore.  It is an interesting phenomenon.


I want to spend a little more time talking about the stroke, the catch, and the rotation because I think they are so important.  It is key. I believe that when you get into a catch position, you have got to connect your catch to the opposite hip, and be able to put pressure against the water, and rotate to the opposite side.  Now the water is a semi-solid object that will rip if it is pulled too hard, or if it is forced too hard. So, you have got to be a little bit tender with it. This is the “cube of butter” theory. If you can put a cube of butter between your hand and the object you are pulling on and not squash the butter, then you are probably doing it about right.  So, you have got to be able to generate power from water which is not a solid object – it is a little tricky.


Now, I remember back at San Jose State that we had a project one time where we were dropping guys off the tower or a high board. In mid-air, we would yell “twist,” or wouldn’t yell anything. These guys had to be able to generate a twist in mid air.  We found out that if they were free falling when we yelled “twist,” they would throw their arms to twist, and their body would go the other way. You have got to be able to anchor on something. What I am finding out is that the best swimmers are anchoring two ways: (1) they anchor with their hand in their catch; and (2) they are also anchoring with their foot in their kick.  Some people do one exclusively – usually distance people are more hand oriented.  Sprinters are usually more kick oriented. But, I think it is a combination that gets you the best results.  What I mean by that is that if you are catching with your right hand – your elbow is up and you are in good position – you are over on your right side and you bury that hand down in fairly deeply. We don’t want to be up on the surface. We want to get down.  You want to be able to get pressure against the palm.  What you do to get the other side down is to press and connect, but if you will kick down on the same side, your head will pop up and your hip will pop down automatically. I think that that is key. I think that is what a two beat kick is.  If you look at people who have two beat kick, they are kicking to get their hip down on the opposite side of the side of the catch.  That sets them up for a recovery.


In a talk earlier today, a question posed to Dave Salo was: “Do you like the straight arm or the bent arm recovery?” And he said: “Yes.”   I think I go a little farther on that. I would say that the reason we went to the straight arm with our guys is that it shifts the shoulders.  I think that is the key problem with a lot of people; you can’t get your shoulder blade to come up when you are recovering. In other words, if you are throwing that arm on the recovery, if the elbow is bent a little bit or straight, as long as your shoulder is shifting and the shoulder blade is moving up on the back, up closer to the actual top of the shoulder, you are going to be fine. But a lot of people throw the arm and they do not ever move their shoulder blade. What happens then is like a weight tied to a rope. You get it out to the end and boom! It hits, and nothing happens.  You have got to be able to get over to the other side and shift over. If you will catch and then kick down on that side, it pushes the hip down that you want to be down and the other side will come up, so you will get your recovery.  You get more distance per stroke, which I feel is the key to any swimming speed.


When you watch runners running out there, they do not take a lot of little small steps. You can pick up your tempo as much as you want. But, if you are not covering distance-per-stroke and not maintaining distance-per-stroke, you are in trouble.  You need to be able to keep the distance-per- stroke while the tempo picks up. That too is kind of the key the way I see it.  So, if a person is bending their elbow slightly, as long as they are getting their shoulder shifted, it is ok.  I think the way I like to look at it is: when you catch, it is like you catch, and then you vault.  It is like you put the pole in the vault box, and then you vault over that hand.  I think that’s where the power comes from, and I think that’s where the speed comes from. The more velocity you can get, the more torque you can create through tension in the core. There is a lot of Russian technology coming out now that says that the breathing is key to that. If you could tighten up your solar plexus and really hold the breath, you can generate power similar to where you might be if you were lifting a heavy weight.  You kind of tighten everything up and then you get more power. If you can tighten everything up and get more out of it, you are going to be more into it. I am not talking about holding your breath. I am just talking about tightening up the core muscle.  Everybody talks about core and everybody talks about rotation, but I think that the secret to it all is being able to maintain tension in your body through your breathing technique. That is key.


So let me show you a little video here to see what I mean. This is kind of a hodge podge of different things.  It starts with Biondi because that is where it all started. This shows you the amount of rotation.  This obviously – he is swimming slow, but this is pretty typical.  You see the white stripes on his suit.  It didn’t change a lot when he went faster.  He went a little bit less but One of the things that I do want to point out here is that Matt Biondi’s head is extremely high. If he had a coach that knew a little bit more about what he was doing, he probably could have been a lot faster. So don’t laugh when you see his head position.  He was a water polo player. He wanted to see where the ball was.  There he is a little bit faster.  It was a one arm drill.  You will notice how he will always breathe on the opposite side as much as possible and will try to make sure the rotation is equal to both sides.  A big mistake a lot of people make is trying to get too long.  I think you have got to get down to your catch.  Your catch points should probably be about two to three feet below the surface. You are going to have a lot of shoulder problems if it is any less than that.  You will notice as his hip starts down – he kicks down on the other side and the hip goes down. That is right about his catch point – right there.  That is a sculling drill that we used to use a lot.  It is funny because I don’t believe you move your hand around too much.


There is a lot of research that says that you have an out scull and an in scull and this and that.  My experience is just the opposite of that.  I believe that you put your hand on the bottom of the pool – right at that line down there, and you hold it there in that one spot, and it doesn’t move.  Your body goes past it, and your body is rolling from side to side.  I don’t believe the hand goes in and out.  This is more for a feel of water.  I think where we are misled is we look out of our eyes as the hand is here, and the body goes over here, and we see the body goes here and your eyes are moving back and forth, and you assume that it is your hand that is moving.  I think it is the head that is moving.  If you put a snorkel on you can hold it right on the line along with your hand, and you could see. So I think this is more for feel.  I am not saying the hand doesn’t move at all. It does.  When you swim, I don’t think you should be trying that, trying to sweep out and everything.  I don’t think those are powerful positions.


I think kick boards are nice for recreation, but they are not going to do much for your kick.  I think you can kick a little bit on a board, but I don’t think it applies too much to actually kicking in the water.  You see how deep he is getting in his catch.  Matt used to come out after a race and say, “man – I am out of shape – my little finger couldn’t hold water on the last 25 out there.” Whew – okay – I couldn’t feel any of my fingers after my last 25 and he is worried about one little finger.  This is Australia – this is I believe Thorpe – you see him get in the high elbow position before they put pressure on the hand.  You watch the hips and the hips are sliding over.  I just believe that if you watch carefully, you will see as they apply pressure on the catch, they are kicking down on the same side as the catch side and that is going to push the hips over.  You see a few drills.  Some of these are Gary Hall.  There is Gary.  We have water that flows uphill in our pool, so it is really fast the other way.  He worked a lot on this hip rotation, kicking it over – doing a lot of it.  There is Gary again.  He is getting a deep catch.  You try to get him to scull a couple of times and then get into a catch position and then kick it over to the other side and then go back on that side again.  His hand is a little high and his head is a little high and his hips are a little low in proportion.  You need to get the fingertips down more.  That is a real tough battle.  You know, I got 30 guys that all try to do this.  It is tough to learn new habits.  There is a kind of a dark paddle – he is working on connecting and kicking over.  As soon as you press back, you kick down on the same side and rotate the hips, and it is just a – never recovering – just dog paddling – it was a sculling drill – staying on a kickboard and that is a good purpose for a kick board.


Using some of the surgical tubing – belt – you know, he is just working on trying to kick his legs over – trying to kick his hips over basically – trying to get that one hip – when you kick down, the hip is going to roll up on that side. So you kick down and pop the hip up, and you just get a little momentum with the tube and also the kick.  It is isolating the legs because he has got his arms at his side.  And then carry it and hook it right up with with a full stroke and take it from there.  Unfortunately, a lot of novice swimmers will pull and they don’t move their hips a lot after it is pretty much gone.


Here is the dry land ——- one of the dry land circuits that we use – this is a ——- up above our swimming pool.  That is Celene Isles who was a 6th place finisher in 50 and the other guy is Rolandus Gimbutis who went 48.8 in the 100  at Olympics. Duje Draganja unfortunately got mono this summer so he wasn’t at full strength. We are doing a lot of things to try and hook up the whole body – balance and core.  You will see over in the background there that they are using a set of wheels to go forward and back, just to try to tighten everything up again and get working.  This is the indoor speed circuit I talked about – the Peter Ives isokinetic equipment.  They come in – on the door on the right there is – they punch in a code number and it tracks them through the stations and then at the end it prints out how much work they have actually done.  That is the Impulse Machine there at the end.  Okay, here are some guys in there actually doing something – who knows, but we use pads on the wall pulley just so they have to stabilize.  They are not always working their legs –the core as well as just the upper body.   We got it set up to a minute but normally it is about 15 seconds on and about 45 off.  There are 24 stations – under a half hour – that is one of the beauties about it – these guys all will get in there and they really get into it.  I mean, they have the numbers right there in front of them. This is the impulse machine. I wanted you to see how that works.  It is kind of a unique machine, but anyway they got the numbers right in front of them. It is like a human packman game, and if you try going too easy, you can’t because the score is right there, so you just start working.  We’ve got guys who bet beers on it, and if they lose, they go back and do it again so they don’t have to lose a beer.  This is the impulse machine.  This is one of many exercises.  It has straps that will go and you can also take it down so that is a good way to teach them how to rotate their body in the appropriate manner.  I think that is probably it.  okay, so I guess the point that I really want to make is #1:  I think it is core tension.  It is torque – the ability to generate rapid strength and it is keeping the hands in position – in the catch position.  If you don’t have a good catch, if your hand is giving way, you may as well take it out and paint the fence with it because it is not doing any good in the water. You need to be able to really hold water and be able to develop core and as you throw. I believe there is velocity in recovery, so if you throw that arm forward, at the same time you are twisting past, you are going to get a little more distance out of your stroke and distance per stroke.


So, there is probably a little bit to think about there.  I don’t know.  I hope that the things that I have been doing and continue to do – the last few things.  Any questions?  Okay?.  Let’s say you have a catch on your left side and you want to rotate the right hip down?  Okay, to get the right hip down there are two things that you could do: you could either kick up on that side, or push that one down; or you can kick down on the other side which will put the other side up.  We find most guys are more forward kicking dominated than upper kicking so it is easier for them to kick down on the same side they are catching on and that pushes them over.  Well then, let them set it up with you know, four or five sculls and then when they are ready pop it …. We like to use a snorkel and you can see what you are doing.  Anything else?  Okay, great – thank you.









Handout begins on next page.



Looking for speed, and my many stops along the way.


1) Yardage – Overload to force the body to:

  1. A) Relax – through repetition / find most efficient & effortless way.
  2. B) Groove strokes / Get in a Flow
  3. C) Not very specific


2) Weight Room / Dryland exercise that takes away from the water time influenced

greatly by the East Germans success (Speed & Size).

  1. A) Does release growth hormones

*Careful to gain Power not Size


3) Power – understanding that it was Power = Strength/Speed

  1. A) Training the nervous system to fire the muscles at faster rates (quickness).
  2. B) Explode for short periods.


4) Laws of Physics that create a hydrodynamically designed swimmers body for

eliminating drag & persistence in the water (Swimmers Body Alignment).



  1. A) “Sweet Spot”




  1. B) Balance at The Core (From within – utilizing air spaces & body tension).
  2. C) The longer the keel of the vessel, the greater the potential for speed.

– Distance per stroke is the foundation for speed, then your rate/tempo.

**Mini Maxi’s) tell you where your most efficient stroking action is.

  1. D) Back side of hand – move in that direction
  2. E) Water over both sides of the body eliminates 50% of your drag and resistance. Body Rotation

– 1) Catch & hold water or 2) Kick over.

  1. F) Hands stay still and body rotates by yo ur hands (we do not pull water).
  2. G) Power (Strength/Speed) comes from your ability to torque your core – (hold

tension in your body through breathing by connecting your opposite hip so as

to screw/rotate it passed your catch hand. You can also kick it over – a combo

is probably best


5) Connective Tissue – There is not enough time for thought to go through the brain, and

then out to the body parts. Studies show that there is intelligence in the connective tissue,

which bypasses the brain and goes directly to the muscle that activates the necessary

action (often this is called “flow” or being in the flow state). This is where very little (or

  1. no) thought is involved and outstanding performance is effortless.


IMPULSE MACHINE – builds connective tissue strength without affecting the muscles

in any great amount. It will build coordination and raise the core temperature.



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