What’s New & What’s Not

By Dick Hannula

What’s new and what has been around for a long time but now has a new package? I’ve been in the process of cleaning out my files, and boxes of newspaper clippings that were never filed. I keep running across the old that is now considered new, and some very interesting articles that keep me from making the timely progress that I’m trying to attain. Currently I’m reading a 1975 newspaper interview with Olympic women’s coach, Jack Nelson. He was asked about the new training methods and their contribution to lowering swimming times. Jack responded, “Practically everything “new” is 10 to 40 years old, if not 80. I’d say about 80% of those articles that we read about new training methods have been around for years. They give it a new name and they write about it.”

I heartily agree with Jack. This extends to technique as well. I don’t want to give the impression that nothing is new. However, most of what is new is the fine tuning of what has already been done. One example of a “new” concept is the trunk rotation, or swimming on the side, in the long axis strokes – free and backstroke. Much of what has been written recently indicates that this is a new concept in swimming. Where have these people been? Murray Rose and his generation of Australian Olympians swam on their side, rotating the trunk. This was in 1956, and they weren’t the first swimmers to use this technique. Howard Firby was lecturing in the early 1960s that free and backstroke were swum best using the trunk rotation, or swimming on the side. He illustrated this in his lectures through the use of a molded, from clay, swimmer. He also illustrated this in his drawings that he later used in his excellent book. Howard was a commercial artist, and had an exceptional “eye” in analyzing why some swimmers swam faster than others.

This isn’t a new concept, but it is being refined in the presentations, if not in the actual swimming strokes. I believe that backstroke swimmers trailed the freestyle swimmers in the application of the trunk rotation effectively. I know that I used a full trunk rotation concept with my backstroke swimmers in the early ’60s, and they had great successes, including Olympic Gold and a World Record. In any event, trunk rotation and swimming on the side in the long axis strokes, isn’t new.

What is new? I believe that I’m seeing something new, or at least a new refinement in freestyle swimming. I was a speaker at the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association’s Convention on the Gold Coast in May. I had the privilege and opportunity to observe a training session of several members of the Australian National Team, and the local swim club. World Record holders, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, swam side by side in adjacent lanes during this training session.

The morning sessions, early season for them as they had just had a couple of weeks break, were mostly kicking and pulling. Ian Thorpe is a great kicker and finished a morning session with a 5:11 for a 400 meters kick. He had done a 2:28 for a 200 meters kick earlier in the week. This is all 50 meters long course.

In the afternoon session that I attended, the swimmers did about one hour of drills, kicking, and pulling before the main set. The main set was 3 x 200 on 2:20, rest an extra 30 seconds and then swim a 4th 200 10 seconds faster, followed by 4 x 50 recovery on 40 seconds. This was repeated over 4 rounds for a total of 4000 meters. Thorpe and Hackett swam stroke for stroke at 2:09 and 2:10 for each of the first 3 x 200, as their goal was to swim fast enough to permit a 10 seconds rest. Their 4th 200 was 1:57 to 1:59’s through all 4 rounds. Heart rates were monitored mechanically through the set. I believe 160 and 170 were the HR on the 3 x 200 on 2;20, and 170 and 180 was the HR on the faster 200. About 5 swimmers swam on this same send off, and other swimmers, some in the strokes, swam the set on a slower send off.

I observed these swimmers from the sides of the pool, and both ends of the pool Their technique underwater was very similar. I then looked at the age group swimmers that were in the water training as well. They too were using the same basic technique. This is what I believe is a new development. I had seen this technique used by other swimmers as long as 15 or more years ago, but it was the exception and not the norm. Here in Australia, I was seeing all of the swimmers on this club using the same basic freestyle technique. There were no sideward sweeps. The swimmers were using effective trunk rotation, high elbow; etc. But they didn’t use side sweeps. This defies the textbook technique that is being presented on crawl.

These swimmers were entering the water, catching that water and pressing the fingertips downward and getting the wrist up over the hand, and the elbow up over the wrist. The hand then follows a downward and backward path extremely close to a straight line. It was a most efficient stroking pattern to watch. I remember Robin Leamy, a former American Record holder, stating that this is how he attempted to swim freestyle over 15 years ago when I worked clinics with him. My thoughts then were that it may be OK for a sprinter like Robin, but not the best method for freestyle swimmers in general. Thorpe and Hackett aren’t sprinters, and it is working amazingly well for them.

Is this new? I’m sure it isn’t totally new, but it is a refinement in a new direction at the minimum. I was impressed with the younger swimmers who had already mastered the technique. How do they teach this? Their role models are using the technique so there is some learning taking place through mental image copying. However, I believe that they are doing a great job of teaching the new technique through the use of paddles. Fingertip type of paddles self-teach getting the fingers downward into the catch and early stroke. I’m recommending reversing black Han’s Paddles on the hand. The tapered end is forward, and the paddle fits on the fingers of the hand when reversed. This permits the swimmer to naturally press the fingers downward, and to raise the wrist above the fingers, and the elbow above the wrist. Swimming with the paddles on the fingers in this manner will automatically encourage the desired results. I would also use the fingers, hand, wrist and elbow drills to “memorize the habit” of entry. Standing drills, walking drills, and swimming drills emphasize fingers in first and downward, hand and wrist follow and get over the fingers, then elbows enter next and get over the wrist. This drill can be done with the reversed Han’s Paddles and without the paddles.

One arm drills, and other drills, can also be done in a similar manner to provide continuing variety but with the same goal in mind.

I believe that the trunk rotation is even more effective in the near straight line pull through. Rotating the hips to drive the trunk past the arms on each stroke results in greater efficiency. The hand directly engages water through the stroke without sliding sideways in sweeps, resulting in a more constant propulsive force. The fingers get down on the water in the most efficient direction to provide propulsive force. The wrist and elbow getting up provide an “anchored position” from which the trunk rotation can be most effective.

The near straight line projection results in more distance per stroke with less time on each stroke. This could make stroke rate more efficient when correlated with distance per stroke. Although I see some American swimmers using a similar stroking pattern, I don’t believe that it is being taught in our swim programs. We need to look at this developing technique adjustment. It may be new, at least according to the definition currently being used to describe techniques that have been around for many years.