After every Olympic Games, and after more records fall, the same question keeps coming up: How do swimmers keep getting faster? It is a fair question, as there’s surely a limit to how fast a human body can move through the water given the limited tools that we have to work with.
God never really designed the human to be fast in the water. He had more of a jumping, throwing, running creature in mind. Yet here we are, just over 100 years after the most popular swimming contests began in the Olympic Games of Athens in 1896, still trying and succeeding at getting faster in water.
I once saw an analysis showing where swimmers from different eras would be in the pool during their fastest 100 meter freestyle race, precisely as today’s world record holder completed the race. The world record holder in the100 freestyle of 75 years ago would still have another 25 more meters to swim, in the same time taken for today’s world record. It is astounding how far we have come in such a relatively short time.
Is it reasonable to think that we can continue to swim faster and improve at the same rate that we have over the past 50 years or so? Certainly not at the same rate, but swimmers will get faster. If you think not, think back to athletes like Janet Evans and Michael Phelps. Janet held the 800m world record for an astounding 20 years while Michael excelled in both the 100m fly and 400 IM – two very diverse events. All world records will eventually fall (including those swum in the now illegal full-body slick suits of 2008 and 2009), albeit by smaller margins.
For those extraordinarily gifted swimmers and the coaches that are fortunate to coach them, the questions are begged: Where is the improvement going to come from? How is the improvement going to be made? It would be easy to generalize with answers such as, smarter training, tougher mental training, improved technique, more swim specific power, or all of the above. How does one get mentally tougher than Michael Phelps or train harder or smarter than Katie Ledecky or create more propulsion than Nathan Adrian? I’m not sure. I do think that when striving for more improvement in fast swimming, we need to uncover every stone. We will need to focus on areas where we haven’t paid as much attention in the past. The means to do that will be through better technology that increases our knowledge and leads to improved technique.
As the most successful swimming country in the world, the U.S. is not very technologically advanced. Technology will lift the hood of the car and allow us to get a much closer look at the engine. In a sport that is arguably the world’s most technique-sensitive, we are far behind where we should be in technology compared to other sports. In order for our swimmers to keep getting faster, that needs to change.
The lesson from the slick suits of 2008 and 2009 should have taught us that technology is the next frontier. Yet with the current rules, the technology will not come in the form of improving suits as it did then, but rather from improving the swimmer’s technique.
There are new technologies coming to the market all the time but swimming faster is not just a matter of having the technology. It is a matter of knowing what to do with it and how to interpret the data. Armed with that new knowledge, both the swimmer and coach will know exactly where and how to improve.
At The Race Club, we use two technologies that have made us aware of the extreme importance of technique and how to improve that technique to swim faster. The first is called the Velocity Meter. It measures changes in acceleration and deceleration (including velocity) at every 2/100 of a second through a stroke cycle. Before having this technology, I had no idea it was even possible for a swimmer to go from 18 m/sec2 of acceleration to the same amount of deceleration in less than 1/10 of a second (of course, that shouldn’t happen with an efficient fast swimming technique). By measuring peaks and troughs of velocity through the stroke cycle and the difference between them, we derive information on propulsion and frontal drag. These tests take time to analyze (around 10 hours per test) but we now have a much better understanding of what is great technique, and can identify and quantitate what is poor technique with more precision.
With the second piece of technology we have recently acquired, we can measure a swimmer’s frontal drag and propulsion, the importance of which I have spoken about often. We are testing, studying and scrutinizing all of the advanced analysis capabilities this machine (called the Ben Hur) has to offer and integrating them into The Race Club methodology. We look forward to testing our clients with the Velocity Meter and the Ben Hur and seeing the performance gains from their improved technique.
Based on what I know now, two of the biggest opportunities that we have to improve swimming technique through technology will be in the kicking technique (and training) and in the more effective use of coupling motions to gain propulsion. We may have more understanding to gain with these two fast swimming techniques than with any others. In the next Aqua Note, I will discuss in more detail how and why I think kicking and coupling techniques may provide the next breakthrough for swimmers.
Yours in swimming,