As far back as 1953, the famous Australian swimming coach Forbes Carlile, while working with his squad at the Ryde facility in Sydney, formulated a philosophy of basic work training. As he describes in his 1953 publication Training for All Sports, it is “The Bread and Butter” training for all distances. Basically, it involves covering long distances easily and quite slowly at a low heart rate – analogous to walking in everyday life (“For about the first month of training, the swimmers should concentrate on long distances of basic swimming, when proper stroke technique can be worked out without any time pressures”).
Forbes also notes that race pace combined with basic work, broken swims, race distance efforts (80%-90% range) and sprinting (20-25 yards all-out) are also necessary parts of a complete training program. However, approximately 75% of the training is in the basic range.
Also mentioned in his 1953 book on training was the fact that this longer, easier basic training was followed by a majority of the 1948 Australian Olympic Team, which set world records and dominated the 1948 games.
Carlile goes on to say that the greatest distances covered will usually be basic work for both sprinters and distance performers. This is an interesting fact: Both the sprinter and the distance man will benefit from any amount of easy work, provided it is done slow enough. Slow work will not “bog down” the sprinter, but too much fast work will spoil both types of athlete. There still should be a blending of various types of pace work, thus the swimmer’s drug of choice is L.S.D. – Long, Slow Distance. This partially explains why some of the heavy yardage programs of the late 60s and early 70s produced some fantastic performances.
Since water is not a familiar medium for the human body, it only makes sense, that unlike other land-based sports and activities, swimming performance is dependent upon familiarity with the feel of the water around the body. This can only be improved with more opportunity to spend time in the water. I believe that swimming success is based on a well-developed neural approach to technique in the water – more specifically a well developed “feel” for the water pressure in and around the body. The art form of swimming must be taken into account to reach your maximum performance level. Just developing more strength and exerting more pressure on the water will not produce what you are truly capable of becoming.
There is only so much effort endurance that you can put into a single training period. Usually the higher the level of effort used, the shorter the duration of the training session. Another point Carlile brought out was that the human brain has “effort-making centers,” and that too much high-end training will fatigue these centers, causing failing adaptation and eventually total fatigue. The recovery process (hours of sleep, balanced diet including nutritional supplements, and a balanced lifestyle of social and recreational activities) becomes just as important, if not more important, than the training in the water, the length of time in the water and the intensity of that time.
Time in the water during “Basic” time needs to be devoted to all the effective drills and the many things that allow you to “DANCE” in the water, as opposed to working. Steve Gladstone, Cal’s celebrated crew coach and winner of eight IRA Challenge Cup championships, is quoted in Sports Illustrated’s Scoreboard section in the June 12 th, 2000 issue. Gladstone evaluates by feel, many times not even looking at his stopwatch. “Precision is intuitive,” he says. “I am drawn to the movement, not the quantifiable pieces. When a racing shell is moving fast through the water, it is an art form. This form is ephemeral, transitory. You’ll see it today and never again.” Later in the same article, it is stated that “in recent years, (Gladstone) has emphasized low-cadence rowing in practices so his oarsmen can better understand leverage.” I believe this applies directly to swimming.
You can’t “Dance” very well, or enjoy it very much, if you are under the gun to swim a certain demanding time on each swim or to make a tough interval. I believe you can carry this all the way up to an Olympic time standard if you are worried and only focused on the time standard rather than how to find ways to enjoy the “Dance.”
The beauty of spending more time in the water and executing less physical effort is that it gives you plenty of time to use your brain to think about ways to make things more efficient and easier. The use of the brain while practicing swimming is almost a lost art with most of the swimmers in our training group. However, like anything else, the more you use it the easier it gets and the better you get at it. New members to our training group often find that their attention span is very short and that the most important skill they must develop is refocusing again and again during a training session. You can usually tell whether or not a swimmer is focused by watching his stroke technique. It is not uncommon to see a stroke technique change two or three times within 50 meters. My definition of effortless is avoiding resistance and drag by shaping the body into the best possible vessel to slip and slide over and through the water while applying the best possible technique to propel the body with as little expenditure of effort as possible. This is something that I call “Easy Speed.” It is like Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth – a never-ending quest for more Easy Speed; you can never have too much. In recent years I have had the pleasure of having a young man named Bart Sikora in our training group. Bart always gave the appearance of not working very hard, and he wasn’t. What he was doing was finding new ways to swim more effectively and easily at the same time. Once he could not find another single way to efficiently get more Easy Speed out of that time, he would drop down to a little faster time and begin the process of making that speed as efficient and effortless as possible. A new and pretty dam intelligent way to approach training.
One might wish to add a third “E” to the acronym A.L.E.E.T., making it A.L.E.E.E.T. This third “E” stands for the European influence brought to the Australian Institute of Sport by Gennadi Touretski, the Russian coach of Aleksandre Popov (the world record holder for the 100 meter freestyle). While training Popov, Gennadi used many easy meters of basic-type work to allow Aleksandre to perfect his range, rhythm and relaxation theory of technique and search with Easy Speed.
The period in the water actually becomes a training session as opposed to a “workout” (“work” is a four-letter word). Creating a systematic way to play at learning to dance more effectively with less effort in the water will produce more fun and a playful daily approach to being the best water dancer that you can be. By perfecting your balance and streamline, effective stroke technique will influence your number of strokes per length and effectively use your core to generate power that will positively influence your stroke rate. You will end up with a product to keep tweaking and polishing during the longer, slower yardage. The end result of all this is tremendous endurance and ultimate speed. The by-product of this is a fast time – the thing that you never actually specifically tried to get. Ironically, the more you try for it, the harder it is to achieve. I guess it is kind of like holding water – the harder you squeeze water in your hands, the less of it you can actually hold. Trying is not doing. We need to decide if we really want to try hard with much effort and too few results or go for an easy, relaxed “Dance” which can be achieved in less and less time on the stop watch. The choice is yours.
*The reference to Dance comes from George Leonard’s book The Ultimate Athlete, chapter 14, “The Dance Within the Game”
More Thoughts on Effortless & Effective
There are two human swimming patterns: 1) Rhythm cycles – distance per stroke; and 2) Cycling rates – the number of cycles in a period of time. As speed increases, cycling rates must increase. Usually, distance per stroke (D.P.S.) will decrease. However, the more successful you are, the less it will decrease. Simply put, holding distance per stroke constant while increasing your cycle rate yields maximum speed, whatever that may be for your current stage of development.
As speed increases, the viscosity of the water increases and becomes more and more resistant. This makes technique increasingly more important.
Two Sides to a Stroke Cycle
Side One is the recovery/eliminating side, and Side Two is the pulling/creating force side. I look at it much like a steam engine on a railroad train – the pistons driving forward on one side while they move backward on the opposite side. I believe that most swimmers and coaches focus their attention and efforts on the pulling/creating force side of the stroke, the thinking being, “Pull harder on the water and I will move forward faster.” Until recently, I was one of that group, before reading some material written by Charles “Red” Silvia of Springfield College, who writes about the “inertial” and “free swinging conceptual level” of swimming.
Silvia coined several phrases whose meanings are based on the laws of motion and translate into the “Dance” concept, namely:
“Swim within yourself.”
“Let your stroke carry you” (and bring it home at the end of your swim).
“Be as inertial as possible and the least muscular.”
“Swing my hands” (not the arms).
“Fire and release” (with firm but relaxed hand).
“To be truly unconscious when you swim, you first must be conscious.” – sounds like Phil Jackson?
These concepts, from Red Silvia by way of Tufts University Coach Don Megerle, are his greatest contribution to swimming. The use of the “swing” allows the swimmer to let his arms be free of muscular effort and tension. (Always referring to the hands as opposed to the arms allows for more relaxed easy speed.) The great number of sensory end organs in the hands and feet (with their appropriate representation in the sensory and motor cortices) plays an important role in the anatomical make-up. Nervous system impulses are not fatigued or stymied when the body moves freely within the “Dance.” Again, this is what I call “Easy Speed.”
Silvia’s material and with Gennadi Touretski’s training with Podov have convinced me to look on the opposite side of the stroke. By effortlessly throwing the hands, with relaxed arms, you may increase both cycle rate and distance per cycle (or at least not decrease it). The real beauty of this is that the low physical cost it takes to swing the hands allows you to go for much longer duration at greater speed (G.S.).
An athlete can slow down and go for longer distances and be able to stand up and go at top speed for shorter distances at almost any time. I believe that this is the mark of an athlete who is training properly.
According to Bill Boomer, U.S. Swimming has done tests on towing athletes, and they have found that at high speed (faster than world record pace), the elimination side (recovery) accounts for as high as 80% of the speed. At slower speeds it seems to be down to 70%. My opinion is that this is the side that E.S. comes from, and the greatest thing is that it is an easier and much faster way to go. The keys seem to be establishing a rhythm by swinging the hands, being aware of the hand’s angle of entry into the water to establish the proper catch (at lower speeds, the hand must assume a greater angle to reach the proper vertical catch position), and being able to shift the hips to facilitate the swing of that side of the body.
Training now becomes a play period (to allow you the opportunity to play around with the technique) followed by a show & tell period (to share with your teammates the exciting new “Dances” you have learned). Sounds like kindergarten all over again. Next it is time for a snack and a good nap – nothing wrong with that!
The Catch – The Key to Unlocking Easy Speed
Charles “Red” Silvia lists the four distinct parts of a mechanically superior stroke. They are:
- Inertial shoulder girdle elevation and upward scapular rotation.
- Shoulder joint medial rotation and elbow flexion.
- Shoulder joint adduction and downward scapular motion.
- Inertial round off and release (partial supination and shoulder joint lateral rotation). This is the quick-released arm action that we have been referring to.
Studies of Ian Thorpe’s crawl stroke show that he does not rush the initial part of the propulsive phase of his stroke (the catch) as he takes the time to position the hand and forearm by medially rotating the humerous and flexing the elbow. Once this position is attained, then the prime movers of adduction vigorously contract against the resistance of the water.
In simple words, on his recovery he swings a relaxed arm and hand into the water in front of his head using the momentum of the throw for propulsion. As the hand is sliding forward, he uses the water pressure over the top/back of the hand to drive the hand slightly downward. It is at this point that he allows his scapula to slide up and forward over his rib cage. Once the shoulder and scapula are shifted forward, the upper arm rotates inward about a quarter turn and the elbow bends to near a 90-degree angle with fingers pointing toward the bottom. Now you have a catch, and swinging the recovery arm can allow you to hold water and rotate your body past your catch. Very little muscular force is used, and the speed of the relaxed recovery arm drives the stroke.
Because of the speed of the recovery arm as opposed to the resistance of the water on the lower side of the stroke, you get the appearance of a catch-up in the stroke. There is no need to hurry up and spin your wheels as some less-experienced swimmer might try to do. Approximately 1/3 of the stroke cycle time needs to be taken to get into a good catch position. This position is purely a mechanical function of shifting the scapula and shoulder up and forward. It should not be muscular. A relaxed body is always more efficient and effortless.
The advantage of the inertial positioning movement of the medial rotation instead of vigorous muscular action involves the size and positioning of the muscles involved. The rotator cuff muscles are small and their main function is to stabilize the humerous in the shoulder. Trying to use these muscles for propulsion would be ineffective and would cause shoulder problems.
So slowing down and shifting the scapula and shoulder parts up and forward on your frame allowing your upper arm to rotate inward a quarter-turn – and flexing your elbow to near 90 degrees will set you up with a great catch. Once you have the catch, and only when you have it, you can throw and go to amazing new speeds.
Back to Basics – Balance, the platform from which all speed emerges
While in Los Angeles at the 2000 Janet Evans Invitational, my son Richard had the opportunity to speak with Attila Czene. Attila is a very talented swimmer and gold medalist in the 200 individual medley in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Richard asked him when he began swimming and what his coaches taught him as a beginner. Attila began at age I 0, and the first and only thing he was allowed to do was to learn to balance on five points (I. Head, 2. Right Shoulder, 3. Left Shoulder, 4. Right Hip, and 5. Left Hip). Once he could balance perfectly on all five points – front, back and sides – then he was allowed to breathe in each of these positions, without losing his balance. Once he had perfected these skills, they let him begin to move through the water while maintaining perfect balance. A little different than the “learn to swim” classes I have seen.
The major problem we have is that we begin swimming with all of our imbalances and our tremendous need for air. We build our strokes around our breath while supporting all of our stroke problems with our hands and feet. We are lucky to have anything left for forward propulsion once we are finished counterbalancing all of our problems.
Good luck on finding any speed, much less “Easy Speed.”
More Thoughts on Balance
Balance is so basic that it is impossible to reach your maximum speed without a good degree of it. Balance is the platform from which we work. Any instability and you have problems. To be balanced in the water is quite a bit different than being balanced on land. Examples:
To be able to capture the aquatic body line, you need to be able to be aware of the position of your body segments (the head, chest/rib cage, hips, thighs, and lower legs and feet). You also have to be aware of the muscle of your “core” and which muscles can move certain body blocks into and out of balanced aquatic alignment.
Some basic beginning drills are as follows:
- Laying face down on a kick board and moving your segments around into an aligned position (The bottom edge of the kick board should be at the bend of your hips).
- Elongating the neck with the head relaxed. Draw the head up by lifting your lower jawbone up under the ears. Proper head position will have your goggle straps vertical to the surface of the water.
- Eliminating the sway of the lower back by drawing the muscles of your crotch up toward your navel. If you flex your abdominal muscles too much, you will force your feet down. Once you have become perfectly balanced, you will have eliminated the sway in the small of your back, your feet and legs will be on the surface as well as the back of your head, arms shoulders and hands.
The easiest way to begin is in an “X” position (arms and legs separated for balance). Then move slowly to a “Y” position by closing your legs. Then, finally into an “I” position with both arms and legs together in a streamlined position. Once you get comfortable, then you can begin changing your position and keeping your balance.
The progression goes 1) Stomach, 2) Back, and 3) Sides. Then add more boards under you in each position. Finally, have someone shake the boards gently while you keep your balance. Once you have this, then add breathing in each of these positions. Last, add swimming movement while maintaining this balance.
You will find some sketches done by Milt Nelms, a coach with US Swimming, which depict each of these positions.
If you feel like getting in a pool, find a kick board and try some of this stuff. It will do you a lot more good than swimming laps.
*In the near future, USA Swimming will be releasing some new video tapes on working with the “Boomer Boards.”