When children learn to swim butterfly for the first time, they often take a late breath in butterfly, pausing their arms at the end of the underwater pull before recovering the arms and taking the breath. We usually try to teach young swimmers to take the breath earlier in the underwater pull to avoid the delay in the arm recovery. While developing a faster pulling stroke rate is important in building a strong butterfly, it may be that the children have it right in delaying their breath.
Two of the fastest butterflyers in the world today, Joseph Schooling of Singapore and Chad Le Clos of South Africa, have a delayed front breath, though they achieve it in slightly different ways. Schooling initiates the head lift later in the underwater pull, while Le Clos holds the head up above water longer before dropping it down. In either case, the head snaps down later than when the front breath is taken earlier in the stroke.
The rationale for the late or delayed front breath has to do with the powerful coupling motions of the butterfly, which include the arms swinging forward during the recovery, the head snapping down and the shoulders/upper body pressing down. None of these motions provide any propulsive force, yet if timed correctly, they can add a tremendous amount of force to the second down kick in the fly cycle. The first down kick occurs when the hands are well into the propulsive phase underwater. The second down kick should be timed with the point of maximum kinetic energy of the coupling motions; when the hands, head and shoulders strike the water on their way down or forward. With the traditional early-breath fly technique, the head is already down before the second down kick occurs, contributing little or no coupling energy to this propulsive force. Similarly, the side breath contributes little or no energy to this second kick. Not so with the delayed front breathing technique.
Nothing is more demonstrative of the power of the coupling motions in butterfly than in the 2015 World University Games 200 finals of the 200-meter butterfly, where Japanese swimmer, Yuya Yajima, won a silver medal in the time of 1:55.7. What was unusual about this swim is that Yuya did that time with a stroke rate of 31, when everyone else in the race swam with a more typical stroke rate of in the high 40’s. Before that race, I would have bet my house that no one could swim a 200-meter fly in 1:55 with a stroke rate of 31. Thankfully, I didn’t.
Yuya’s technique, which has been called the ‘dolphin dive butterfly’, could accomplish that speed only through the use of a strong kick, great streamlining and powerful coupling motions. With the breath on each stroke, Yuya elevates high out of the water, arching the back (similar to breaststroke). Then he swings the arms forward aggressively, snapping the head and pressing the upper body down into a tight streamline, timing the arrival of all three at the surface of the water precisely with the second down kick. The hands are then held in front long enough to take the first dolphin down kick in this streamlined position. The result is an extraordinary surge forward underwater that enables him to be competitive with the other swimmers using a much higher stroke rate.
Neither Schooling nor Le Clos slow their stroke rates, yet by delaying the head snapping and the body pressing downward, they delay the peak of energy from those coupling motions to occur precisely with the second down kick. That leads to a greater surge forward under water after the kick. This technique is similar to the hybrid freestyle, where the swimmer with a strong kick can compete against faster stroke rates by increasing the coupling energy of the body rotation, head drop and faster arm recovery after the breath, leading to a surge forward under water.
Since all fast butterflyers have strong kicks, it makes the use of the delayed or prolonged front breath a plausible technique and worth trying. While in the 50-meter sprint, it is clearly faster to not breathe, for the 100 meters or longer, getting as much oxygen as possible is beneficial. Taking it later in the pulling cycle, rather than earlier, may just be best way to swim fly. Turns out, we may learn something from watching children starting to swim butterfly.
Yours in swimming,
Strong Freestyle 6 Beat Kick
My wife drives an Audi Q5 that has a 4-cylinder engine with a turbocharged engine. I like the car because if I drive it conservatively, it gets really good gas mileage. Yet, if I need to pass someone quickly on the freeway, by pressing the accelerator hard, the car shifts into a much more powerful mode and picks up speed right away. Of course, it uses a lot more gasoline when I do that, but it is nice to know that I have that option when I need it.
One can look at the freestyle kick as being similar to the turbocharged engine. In the 50 meter sprint, every swimmer needs to push the accelerator all the way to the floor, maximizing the power of the kick all of the way. But in any event longer than 50 meters, one has to back off the accelerator some in order to keep from running out of gas. The longer the swim, the more careful one needs to be about pushing the legs into turbocharged mode. In the mile, for example, that mode is often reserved for the finish of the race. It is the turbocharged mode of the kick that enables Sun Yang to swim the last 50 meters in under 26 seconds, or Chris Swanson from U of Penn to swim the last 50 yards in 24.3 seconds and demolish the field. In fact, whenever there is a close race at the finish, I will always bet on the swimmer who has the turbocharged engine available in his/her legs.
The question is, ‘how does one develop a freestyle with the turbocharge option’? I have focused many of my articles and blogs on the importance of developing a strong kick, but the truth is, it is not easy to do. It requires developing extraordinary plantar flexibility of the ankle, leg strength for both the down and up kick motions, working both sides of the leg, and leg fitness; lots of it.
When you consider your pulling stroke rate, which may vary between 60 and 100 strokes per minute for any distance over 50 meters, with a 6 beat kick, the kicking stroke rate is 6 times that, or 360-600 kicks per minute. That means that during each stroke cycle, hand entry to hand entry, each leg takes 3 down kicks and 3 up kicks. Now consider that your 6 beat kick never really has any recovery time, as the legs are either pushing down or pulling upward at all times. That is a lot of sustained effort. It is no wonder that we cannot keep our legs in turbocharged mode for more than 50 meters without reaching exhaustion. If we are to use our legs in turbocharged mode for any part of the race, however, they simply must be extraordinarily fit; even more so than than our arms are.
Once you develop the turbocharge capacity in your freestyle kick by gaining ankle flexibility, leg strength and fitness, you must also learn how far down to push the accelerator for each race, and when to push the pedal all the way to the metal. The muscles of the leg are big and strong and if you use the turbocharged mode too early or too long, the lactate produced by this mode will ultimately shut you down.
Build a better swimming engine; one with a turbocharge capacity. Do so by working your legs incessantly, in and out of the water, developing the right tools for kicking propulsion. Then plan your longer races carefully, using the 4 cylinders at the beginning, getting good gas mileage, and saving the turbocharge option for the right time at the end. Then you can finish the race blowing by everyone, just like Sun Yang or Chris Swanson. It is a great feeling.
Yours in swimming,
The 6 Kick 1 Stroke drill is one of the most transformative freestyle swim drills we teach at the Race Club Camps. Ultra Marathon Swimmer Lexie Kelly and World Champion Junya Koga demonstrate this classic drill also known as ‘6 Kick Switch’ at the Race Club training grounds in Islamorada, Florida. This drill teaches two very important swimming techniques, body rotation and a relaxed wrist on the recovery. By placing an imaginary string from your shoulder to the sky the swimmer is asked to ‘touch the string’ on the recovery forcing a vertical position with the body. Swimmers that keep the wrist stiff or the fingers clenched together on the recovery can not recover the arm muscles for the next pull nearly as well as with a relaxed recovery. Junya Koga shows us another variation of these freestyle swim drills by sculling when his arm is out front.
It’s not the position on your side that gives you speed rather the quick rotation to the opposite side that creates a coupling motion with the kick and pull that makes them more powerful. Once you’ve mastered the 6 Kick 1 Stroke drill, move onto the 6 Kick 3 Stroke drill using the same arm recovery motion, the same body rotation and the same wrist relaxation for 3 successive strokes followed by 6 kicks on your side. Using these 3 freestyle swim drills; Body Rotation Drill, 6 Kick 1 Stroke Drill and 6 Kick 3 Stroke drill you can transform your stroke into a stronger more efficient technique leading to a faster freestyle.
“I wish we didn’t have to stop..” Those were the words of my youngest boy after him and his brother had spent this past weekend being coached by the fabulous and fantastic Amy Hall!
The sessions were intense, exciting, fun and highly informative and the boys could feel the difference in their swimming after a very short time of being coached. Amy’s knowledge and experience were very evident and she could advise the boys every step of the way. However, the her greatest ability and gift that she has is her ability to really relate to her swimmers. Her kindness and friendliness and willingness to listen meant a huge amount and ensured that the boys really enjoyed every moment of the sessions. She is a fantastic coach and a fantastic person and we were privileged to benefit from her knowledge and experience.
Thank you Amy!!
Anthony, Timothy and Tristan Hartman, Cape Town, South Africa
The backstroke spin drill is one of the most effective ways of teaching swimmers to accelerate the straight arms quickly through the recovery phase of the stroke cycle. One of the greatest challenges we see with our swimmers at The Race Club is getting them to turn their arms over fast enough in backstroke. In this Race Club Swimisode, World champion backstroker Junya Koga demonstrates how fast one can move the arms with the backstroke spin drill, preparing for a strong backstroke race. While a fast stroke rate in backstroke is not the only important technique to swim faster, it is critical, since most backstrokers turn their arms over way too slowly.
Many backstrokers are taught to deliberately slow their arms down before the hand enters the water, yet that is not what you should do. The faster the arm accelerates through the recovery, the more energy is coupled with the arm pulling underwater and the faster you will go. Don’t worry about being delicate or getting air bubbles trapped behind your hand. It is far more important to throw the arm backward aggressively and forcefully,with the little finger entering the water first, increasing the power and the speed of the stroke.
At the Race Club we are proud of the many backstrokers we have helped by using the backstroke spin drill. Try the spin drill with hands open or closed to increase your backstroke speed.
The Dynamics of Dolphin Kick Part II: Why Dolphin is Faster on the Back
Using The Race Club’s Velocity Meter technology, I analyze the dolphin kick of world champion backstroker, Junya Koga. While on his stomach, he generates acceleration of about .7 m/sec2 on the up kick and 14 m/sec2 on the down kick, a significantly greater difference than one would expect on the basis of strength alone. The up kick results in a peak velocity of about 1.5 m/sec while the down kick results in a peak velocity of over 2 m/sec. However, like acceleration, a better representation of the power of the kicks is the difference between trough and peak velocities from both the up and down kicks (Delta PT). For the up kick, the delta PT is a trivial .1 m/sec and for the down kick, it is around .8 m/sec, also a significantly greater difference than one would expect based purely on strength.
When Junya dolphin kicks on his back, we find an extremely different velocity curve. Now, on the up kick, the stronger motion, we find a peak acceleration of around 3 m/sec2, while on the weaker down kick, we find an acceleration of around 5 m/sec2. The peak velocities of the down kick are also greater than the up kick, 2.1 m/sec compared to 1.9 m/sec. The delta PT is still greater on the up kick, but not by much, .4 m/sec compared to .35 m/sec. All of this suggests that the propulsion from the weaker down kick while dolphin kicking on the back is about the same or greater than the propulsion of the stronger up kick.
With the vast difference in biomechanical strength between these two motions, how can this be? It cannot be explained by a difference frontal drag, since the body positions are very similar. One coach, Rick Madge has proposed that the differences in power comparing the up kick and down kick while kicking on the back versus the stomach can be attributed to gravitational force. I don’t agree.
While gravity still applies in water, the actual force in water, reflected by our body weight, is considerably different. While the legs have negative buoyancy, they probably weigh only a few pounds in the water. That is not enough to affect our ability to kick up or down in water. I believe the differences observed on the velocity meter studies from front to back can be attributed to the vortices formed behind the body and feet of the swimmer.
When Junya is on his stomach, the down kick begins with the knees bent and the feet pushing back against the stream of water moving forward behind the body. The result from this strong motion against a current of water results in an extraordinarily strong surge of power and speed forward; more than one would expect from just the biomechanics.
With the up kick, the feet begin the upward movement below the stream from the body’s vortex and do not produce any meaningful propulsion until they enter the stream. By that time, the amount of propulsion is significantly less than that provided by the down kick. However, a strong upward and forward movement of the feet will create another vortex that will contribute to the stream and result in a greater force with the following down kick.
While on his back, Junya’s up kick begins with the feet below the stream and consequently, the feet do not produce as much force as when they are pushing against the stream. Again, the up kick will add even more power to the stream from the stronger vortex following the feet. When he begins the weaker down kick, he is now pushing against a substantial forward movement of water, almost as if he were pushing against a wall. As a result, there is a greater surge of velocity after the down kick than one would expect from this motion.
While all of these differing vortices may change the fluid mechanics of the kick, the important question is, which way is faster? In this particular study, Junya’s average dolphin kick speed on his stomach was 1.76 m/sec. On his back, it was 1.81 m/sec. .05 m/sec difference may not seem like much, but on an underwater kick off a start or turn lasting five seconds, that is 10 inches further ahead or behind that the swimmer would be; enough to win or lose a race.
I suspect that the difference in a swimmer’s speed from stomach to back has more to do with the law of inertia than to any difference in biomechanical strength or frontal drag. The lower delta PT on the back simply means that the kick is more efficient than while kicking on the stomach, since the swimmer maintains a more constant speed.
For completeness sake, we also tested Junya on his side and found that the velocity curves are similar to the ones on his stomach. The average velocity was measured at 1.71 m/sec, slightly slower than on the stomach, so there does not appear to be any clear benefit to kicking on one’s side compared to the stomach. Since the rules preclude us from remaining on our backs dolphin kicking during the underwater portion of a freestyle or fly race, we cannot recommend using this technique on any race other than the backstroke.
Ryan Lochte and other great backstrokers have figured out that they can kick dolphin kick faster on their backs than on their stomachs or sides. Now we know why.
Yours in swimming,
Butterfly is a tough stroke to swim. It demands excellent fitness, strong legs, upper body and core, along with exceptional shoulder and ankle flexibility in order to perform well. Olympian and former butterfly world record holder Roland Schoeman makes it look easier with his graceful, yet powerful strokes across the pool. One of Roland’s secrets to swimming a faster butterfly is to enter his hands directly in front of his shoulders, rather than over or under reaching with the arm swing. He then initiates the pull quickly but maintains the elbows in a rather high position as he forcefully pushes his hands backward through the water . The high elbow position enables him to create propulsion from his hands without causing an excessive amount of frontal drag from the upper arms. Similar to the freestyle pull, but with both arms moving underwater at the same time, the high elbow pull in butterfly is a compromise from the maximum power possible, but is a technique that is required to reach the fastest speeds.
In swimming, we often need to learn to do what is right, rather than what feels right. That can be a challenge when we don’t feel the frontal drag forces working to slow us down. At The Race Club, we teach the right technique for each swimmer for all strokes With every stroke of butterfly taken, the precise timing of the two down kicks coupled with the recovery of the arms and the high elbow underwater pull is absolutely crucial for speed. Keeping the arm pull in the high elbow position enables the swimmer to get the hands through the stroke cycle faster, while reducing frontal drag. Watch Roland in this Race Club Swimisode and see how he has mastered this challenging butterfly stroke.
The Dynamics of Dolphin Kick Part I: Using the Vortex
The two sources of propulsion we use while swimming, the hands and the feet, work in different environments. Although the hands and feet are creating nearly all of the propulsion in the water, the flow dynamics where the forces are taking place for each one differ considerably.
In order to produce propulsion, the surface areas creating the forces (from the hands and feet) must move backwards relative to the water. The hands begin to create propulsion when they are about one foot in front of the shoulder. Since the hand is in front of and to the side of the body when the pulling propulsion begins, the vortex created by the body does not affect the water where the hand is pulling until the end of the pulling motion. In other words, the hand is pushing backward against relatively still water during the times it is producing most of the propulsion. Not so with the feet.
Behind every swimmer moving forward is a vortex of water (wake) created by the separation of the water moving along the body (as the body moves forward). This vortex creates a stream of water that follows the swimmer. It is this stream that enables a swimmer to swim right behind another swimmer and catch a ride. The bigger and the faster the swimmer, the bigger the vortex and the faster the stream is moving. The wake behind a swimmer extends for a few feet behind him and funnels out wider from the feet, but it does not extend very deep in the water. The width of the stream even enables a swimmer that is swimming in the next lane, yet close enough to the swimmer, to catch some of the ride. The most famous example of that was Jason Lezak riding Alain Bernard’s wake as long as he could in the 4 x100 free relay in Beijing, completing the fastest relay leg in history.
Since the propulsion from the feet is occurring, for the most part, within this stream, the stream affects the dynamics of the kicking motion. Relative to a stationary point in the pool, the feet in the dolphin kick (while the swimmer is on the stomach) are moving backward only during the beginning of the down kick. There is virtually no backward motion of the feet at all during the up kick. Yet the feet can create propulsion on both the down and the up kicks. The reason is that the feet need to be moving backward relative to the water only, and since the water is moving forward, propulsion can occur when the feet are moving upward or downward, in addition to backward.
The dynamics of the kick are made even more complicated by another smaller vortex that forms behind the feet as they move across the stream of the body’s vortex. Since most of the motion of the foot is upward, downward or forward, the vortex of the moving foot, somewhat like a tributary connecting to a river, contributes to the fluid dynamics of the body’s stream, generally adding more water moving forward behind the swimmer.
Using the velocity meter technology at The Race Club, from the changes of the body’s velocity and acceleration resulting from each of the down or up kicks, one can gain an appreciation for the amount of propulsive force generated by the foot moving in each direction. With the swimmer on his stomach, the down kick, which involves extension of the knee and flexion of the hip, is a biomechanically stronger motion than the motion of the up kick, which involves extension of the hip and flexion of the knee. Further, with the extraordinary plantar flexibility of the ankle of a fast kicker, the surface area of the foot moving backward relative to the water is greater on the down kick (top of the foot) than it is during the up kick (sole of the foot).
In the gym, for example, I can lift about 70 pounds 50 times before exhaustion on the down kick motion. However, using the up kick motion, I can lift 30 pounds for about 30 reps before exhaustion. The difference would suggest that the down kick motion is at least twice as powerful as the up kick motion. Therefore, when analyzing the velocity and acceleration of the swimmer’s body while dolphin kicking, one would expect to see the greatest acceleration and peak velocity occur from the down kick, rather than from the up kick. While a swimmer is on his stomach that is precisely what one sees. However, the difference in speed resulting from the down kick and the up kick on the stomach will surprise you.
In the next article, we will examine in detail the acceleration, velocity and differences between peak and trough velocities resulting from the dolphin kick performed on the stomach, side and on the back.
Yours in swimming,
Pictured is Olympian Junya Koga from Japan.
The Art of Breathing in Swimming Part III
In part II of this series, we discussed where and how to breathe in freestyle and butterfly, but the question that remains is ‘how often should we breathe in swimming’? In the first article we established that, for the most part, swimmers train hypoxically. In other words, they don’t breathe quite as often as they would if they could breathe at will. Further, we know that depriving swimmers of oxygen by training at altitude significantly improves all of the aerobic systems involved in the production of ATP. While training hypoxically may make sense for most swimmers, racing hypoxically in any event other than a 50-meter sprint does not. After about 20 seconds of near maximal exertion, we must rely on both aerobic and anaerobic systems of energy production to keep going. Bring on the oxygen!
Since the respiratory rate that seems to work most efficiently on land during maximal exercise is 50-60 breaths per minute, we must assume that the ideal respiratory rate for a swimmer racing should be similar. In freestyle, if we consider that breathing every cycle (every other stroke) is the most often we can breathe, then a stroke rate of at least 100 is needed to achieve that respiratory rate. In shoulder-driven freestyle, that is often the stroke rate we see among elite swimmers in the 100 freestyle. The hybrid freestylers, such as Phelps, Lochte or Lezak, may drop down to the mid 80’s, leading to a respiratory rate lower than the ideal.
In the 1500 meter freestyle, particularly on the men’s side, we find an interesting variety of freestyle techniques with substantially different stroke and respiratory rates. World record holder Sun Yang uses a hip-driven technique with a stroke rate of 60 for most of the race. If he used a conventional one-breath per cycle breathing pattern and without considering the turns, that would mean a very low respiratory rate of 30 per minute, but he doesn’t. In the middle of most laps and going into and out of each turn, Sun Yang takes a breath to each side in succession, breathing three or even four strokes in a row. Those extra three or four breaths per length likely have a huge impact on his ability to sustain his speed and finish faster than any other swimmer in the race.
Comparing Sun Yang’s breaths in the 1500 to Ryan Cochrane from Canada, who uses a shoulder driven freestyle technique with a stroke rate of 86, here is what we find. Ryan breathes every third stroke for the first 800 meters or so, then switches to every cycle for the final 700 meters. So for approximately half of the race, Ryan’s respiratory rate is around 28 and for the other half it is 43. If we consider the race to be 15 minutes of duration, that means that Ryan would be getting around 532 breaths. With four extra breaths per length, Sun Yang would be getting around 570 breaths, even with a stroke rate of 60 compared to Ryan’s 86.
Connor Jaeger and Katie Ledecky both swim the 1500 with a hybrid technique and a similar stroke rate of around 86, breathing every cycle. Over 15 minutes of sustained swimming at this rate, they each would have around 645 breaths, more than Sun Yang or Ryan Cochrane.
I am not sure what conclusion we can draw from this, except that both Sun Yang and Ryan Cochrane modify their traditional breathing patterns in order to get more oxygen delivery. Perhaps in the future, we will see more swimmers modify their breathing patterns to get more oxygen delivery by breathing to both sides or abandoning the 1:3 pattern of breathing like Ryan begins the race with.
In the butterfly, there is a growing trend, particularly on the men’s side, toward breathing every stroke for both the 100 and 200 meter events. In the 100 meters, with stroke rates typically in the mid 50’s, that would be very close to the ideal respiratory rate. In the 200, with stroke rates usually in the mid to high 40’s, the respiratory rate breathing every stroke is less than ideal, but not far from it. However, if one breathes every other stroke in fly, in either event, the respiratory rate drops down into the 20’s, which is far from ideal.
It is no wonder that the fastest finishers in the fly are typically the swimmers breathing every stroke. The key points to breathing more are to practice the breathing pattern to be used in races often, develop the ability to get the breath quickly and with the least amount of disruption to the stroke cycle or increase in frontal drag, and to use the kinetic energy of the head drop or head turn as a coupling motion to augment the propulsive forces of the hands and feet. The last point is really what I call ‘using your head’.
Remember, oxygen is the most important nutrient we have, so I say, ‘Let’s get more of it, not less’. Besides that, it is lot more fun to pass people at the end of a race, rather than being the one who is passed.
Yours in swimming,