Aqua Notes

The Power of the Surge

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The Surface

At The Race Club, I often ask our campers where is the fastest place one can swim in the water. As you can imagine, most of them say below the surface, but the answer is, of course, above the water, or hydroplaning. Unfortunately, it is estimated that in order to hydroplane, the human body needs to be going around 15 miles an hour, or faster. With world record speed in the 50 at just over 5 miles an hour, I don’t think we will be seeing anyone hydroplaning soon.

So, if we can’t swim on top of the water, where is the next best place to be? Under water is the next best place (our campers aren’t too far off). In fact, swimmers with very strong kicks are able to go faster underwater, with legs only, than they can swim on the surface with arms and legs going at full speed. Part of the reason for this is because the pulling motion contributes to both propulsion and frontal drag. However, the biggest reason is because of surface or wave drag.

Surface drag occurs only when the swimmer is on the surface and is caused by the body moving through the interface between air and water. Just like a boat, swimmers create a small bow wave, mostly from the head, as they move through the water on the surface. Surface drag is as significant for a swimmer as it is for a submarine. Submarines go much faster under water than they go on the surface, and so do humans.

Beyond Starts and Turns

When we speak of underwater movement of the swimmer, most coaches think in terms of starts and turns, and after 15 meters the swimmer is, by the rules, relegated to the surface. Indeed, the underwater speed on both starts and turns is extremely important. What most coaches don’t realize is that each stroke has an underwater phase…or at least it should. Breaststroke is the most obvious one, where in all but the 50, where stroke rates approach 60 or higher, the body submerges completely during the strike phase after the kick propulsion. That is when the breaststroker achieves the greatest speed; when he/she surges forward.

Though it is less noticeable, there is also an under water surge phase in freestyle, fly and backstroke. The under water surge should occur at the peak velocity in the stroke cycle, so the drag coefficient is lowest when the speed is highest. Frontal drag is proportional to the speed squared, not just the speed. In freestyle, the peak velocity occurs when one hand first enters the water.

For hybrid freestylers, like Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky, or hip-driven freestylers, liked Sun Yang, the surge occurs right after the breath stroke, when the head submerges momentarily. In butterfly, the underwater surge occurs after the second down kick, when both hands have entered the water and head is tucked down. For backstroke, one often sees a slight trickle of water come over the face of the swimmer as the hand is nearing entry into the water, the surge point.

The Right Moment

In order to surge, a swimmer has to create propulsive forces to surge with, and, at the right time, the swimmer must be under water. The propulsion comes from two sources substantially, the hands and the feet. One can augment the propulsive forces of the hands and feet by using coupling motions in all four strokes. In freestyle and backstroke, the coupling motions are the rotating body and, depending on the stroke rate, the recovering arm.

In breaststroke, the coupling motions that augment the kicking force are the downward pressing of the upper body and snapping down of the head. The coupling motion that augments the pull is the upward motion of the upper body and head. In butterfly, the coupling motions are primarily the arms swinging forward and the head snapping down, timed with the second down kick. We are just beginning to understand how important these coupling motions are to swimmers to increase power, speed and distance per stroke.

Power of the Surge

I never would have believed that someone could swim a 200 meter butterfly in 1:55 with a stroke rate of 31 (typical stroke rates are 48 or so in the 200). Yet Yajima Yuma from Japan did that in the World University Games recently, maximizing the force of his strong kick with an elevated diving body, strong forward arm swing and head snapping down, all coupling motions, into an underwater surge in a streamlined position. That swim is a testament to the power of coupling.

Do not underestimate the importance of getting the head and most of the body underwater during the surge phases of each stroke. One millimeter under water is enough to eliminate the surface drag. Although in the 50 sprints, because of the high stroke rates, we would be hard pressed to say that there is any significant surge point, in all other races, surging underwater is a key to fast swimming.

Best in swimming,

Gary Sr.


3 Ways to Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick

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Note*: This article has been updated as of 10/16/2017.

Mobility and Rotation

Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, there are two joints that require extraordinary flexibility in order to excel, the shoulders (particularly extension) and plantar flexion of the ankle.

Obviously, the former helps in the pulling motion and recovery, while the latter helps in the kicking speed. Flexibility is extremely important in developing a strong breaststroke kick. 

In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with internal rotation. A flexible lower back enables the swimmer to elevate higher during the pulling motion and create more coupling energy both for the pull and the following breaststroke kick. The internal rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion, while keeping the knees relatively close together.

The Good Fight

At The Race Club we often say that swimming is a sport of tenths of seconds, millimeters and degrees. What is meant by that is that there is a small margin of error between getting it right or not. There is neither a lot of forgiveness nor mercy in the water. Breaststroke kick is a good example of that.

For every additional degree of internal rotation in the hip, I would estimate that the propulsion from the kick increases by 5 -10 %. In other words, if one were to increase the internal rotation of the hip by 5 degrees, one would achieve 25 to 50% more propulsive force with the same amount of effort, just by increasing the surface area of the instep pushing backward. To me, that seems worth fighting for.

The Hip Test

There are three very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to have a fast breaststroke kick. The first two are the hip tests, one for internal and the other for external rotation. For internal rotation, we recommend testing the swimmer in the W squat position. We do NOT recommend this position be used for stretching nor exercise, as it can place too much strain on the knee in swimmers with poor internal rotation.

The swimmer squats on a padded mat with the knees on the ground as close together as possible. The knees are bent with the feet behind, near the hip, turned outward rather than backward, simulating the exact position a swimmer will be in prior to initiating the propulsion from the breaststroke kick. If a swimmer is able to get his/her bum on the ground comfortably in this position with no pain, then the swimmer has good internal hip rotation.

To test for external hip rotation, have the swimmer sit on a chair or bench and cross the legs with one ankle on top of the thigh of the other leg. Dorsiflex the foot of the bent leg to protect the knee. Then, with arms stretched straight overhead, have the swimmer bend forward at the waist with a straight back, allowing the arms and hands to fall toward the ground. A swimmer with a good external hip rotation will be able to put the palms of their hands all the way to the ground. A swimmer with limited external rotation in the hip will not even come close.

For those with limited hip flexibility, the same stretch can be used daily, holding the position for a minute or longer on each side, in order to improve the external rotation. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. Later, I will describe a good stretch to improve internal rotation, but do not use the W squat for that.

Experimental All-Stars

When I was at Indiana University, I was an IMer with a very poor breaststroke kick (an extinct breed of IMer).My coach, Doc Counsilman, had me walk around for hours with what he called ‘alligator shoes’ on. These were a pair of high top Converse All-Stars nailed to a board angled at 45 degrees to the ground. The hope was to increase my ankle dorsi-flexion by lengthening the gastrocnemius muscle and tendon (calf and Achilles tendon). Unfortunately, that is like stretching a Trans-Atlantic cable….and I never did get much faster. We were just focused on the wrong place. While there are various levels of mobility of the ankle and knee which can naturally help breaststrokers, I am not certain how much we can change them. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon, gastrocnemius muscle or the knee joint.

Back Flex Test

The other test I use for breaststroke is to evaluate the flexibility of the lower back. First allow a proper warm up to loosen the low back and strengthen the core. Then, hold down the ankles of a prone swimmer and have them arch upwards with the upper body as far as they can, keeping the pelvis on the ground. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup (on a padded mat), which requires considerable spinal flexibility and arm strength. The closer the swimmer can bring their hands toward the feet on the ground, the more flexibility is present in the lower back. There are modifications to begin increasing low back flexibility to slowly work up to these back bending exercises.

A strong breaststroke kick is key to swim the stroke fast. As much as 80% of a swimmer’s propulsion in breaststroke comes from the kick. The power of the kick depends on having a large surface area of the instep accelerating quickly backward, coupled with the energy of the upper body pressing forward and the head snapping downward. To do well, both motions require extraordinary flexibility in the back and hip, plus strong legs and core.

Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick

Do these three simple mobility tests for each of your swimmers. If your swimmers don’t have enough hip mobility, either develop a stretching/dryland program whereby they can develop more, or don’t focus on the IM or breaststroke. Either option is acceptable. Just don’t expect them to swim fast breaststroke without having this type of flexibility.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Sr.

 

External Hip Rotation Test

Test your external hip rotation flexibility.

*This Article Was Updated 10/16/2017:

I would like to thank Adrien, CrookedDonald and Lizamuch, SwimSwam readers, for correcting my errors on the previous breaststroke evaluation article. While standing (knees extended) the hip externally rotates to point the toes outward, while with the knees bent or flexed, as in the breaststroke kick, the hip moves opposite (internally rotates) in order to point the toes outward. The test we recommend for external rotation of the hip is still a good one to test with, however, as most fast breaststrokers will have increased flexibility for both internal and external rotation. The updated revision suggests a way you can test for both.

– Gary Hall, Sr.


The Best Breathing Pattern in the 100 Freestyle

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Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

The human body is equipped with two systems to produce energy for fast swimming, aerobic (requires oxygen) and anaerobic (no oxygen required). Both are used in tandem to produce ATP, the fuel for our muscles, but there are significant differences between the two energy systems that you should consider when choosing a breathing pattern for a specific race.

While the purpose of this article is not to describe these different energy systems in detail and how they work, it is to try to come up with the best possible breathing solution for the 100 freestyle. The reason that the breathing pattern in the 100 freestyle (and butterfly) is more controversial than for other distances is that for events shorter than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the anaerobic system. In events longer than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the aerobic system. In the 100 meters, the energy derivation is about half aerobic and half anaerobic. 

Different Strategies

We know that the fastest way to swim freestyle (or fly) for a short distance is without breathing. The motion required to take a breath in free or fly increases frontal drag and can slow the stroke rate, both of which will slow the swimmer’s speed. Therefore, in the 50 sprints, where most of the energy is coming from the anaerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as little as possible. In the 200 events and up, where the energy is mostly from the aerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as close to the physiologically ideal rate as possible. That rate, as determined by what athletes do on land during sustained exercise, when oxygen is available at will, is typically between 40 to 50 breaths per minute. That means a breath should be taken every cycle (two freestyle strokes), in order to keep close to that rate.

What about the 100 freestyle, where the energy is split equally between the two systems, the first 50 being mostly anaerobic and the second 50 mostly aerobic? What is the ideal breathing pattern?

For two primary reasons, we believe the breathing pattern should be (and is) different for elite males and females. Women typically train more aerobically than men for the 100 freestyle (have better aerobic systems). Men typically have larger muscle mass than women, which can produce more lactate, lowering the body’s pH sooner than in women. 

Studying the Elite

Virtually all of the elite male freestylers breathe every cycle in the 100 free (SC or LC), while most elite women will breathe on the first 50 with a 1:3 pattern (one breath per 3 strokes, breathing to both sides), a 1:4 pattern (one breath every 4th stroke to the same side). Simone Manuel breathes 1:4 for one cycle, then 1:2 for the next cycle, which is equivalent to the respiratory rate of the 1:3 pattern. On the second 50, most women will increase their respiratory rate by taking extra breaths. Both male and female swimmers typically hold their breath for the final 5-8 strokes, increasing the stroke rate to the wall. Some elite swimmers, like Caeleb Dressel, do not breathe on the final stroke into each turn, in order to accelerate into the wall. 

When one looks at respiratory rates, Caeleb and Nathan Adrian will swim the 100 meters LC with a rate of about 35-38 breaths per minute, though Caeleb’s stroke rate is about 10 strokes per minute faster than Nathan’s.  Caeleb’s respiratory rate in the 100 yards is 30 breaths per minute, because more time is spent under water with the extra turns. His stroke rate in SC (125) is even faster than in LC (115). The elite women tend to hold around a 30 respiratory rate in long course, yet Cate Campbell, who has a slower stroke rate (around 92) and holds a 1:4 breathing pattern for the entire 100 LC, has a respiratory rate of 23…which is probably not high enough to prevent the pH drop.

The Best Breathing Pattern for You

What we like to teach at the Race Club for swimmers that do not have the aerobic systems of the elite athletes is to swim the first 50 more anaerobically with a 1:4 or 1:3 breathing pattern and the second 50 more aerobically with a 1:2 pattern. When the aerobic system improves with age and training, the respiratory rate can decrease. However, it should not go below 30 breaths per minute for women and in LC, 35 breaths per minute for men. 

The 100 freestyle is not a sprint and requires a steady flow of oxygen intake, more so on the second 50 than the first, in order to maximize the performance. Have your breathing pattern determined and planned before the race, not during it. Otherwise, one will hold the breath too long at the beginning, when there is no feeling that breathing is needed, and will not be able to get enough oxygen at the end, when the pH drops too low.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


10 Ways to Reduce Frontal Drag

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Out of Our Element

Frontal drag is the number one enemy of the swimmer. Swimming is arguably the most technique sensitive sport on the planet. With water being some 800 times denser than air, the frontal drag forces that slow swimmers down come into play at much slower speeds than all other sports on land. For that reason, in order to become fast, we must learn how to reduce frontal drag as much as possible.

There are three types of frontal drag; friction, pressure (form) drag and surface (wave) drag. Researchers have shown that all three can contribute significantly to the slowing of a swimmer. In any given medium, including water, the frontal drag forces of an object are determined by its shape, its surface texture (friction) and its speed squared.

10 Good Ways to Reduce Frontal Drag:
  1. Keep the body aligned. A curved body creates more frontal drag than a straight body. While some curve in our body is needed in order to create more propulsion, such as during the hip undulation in the dolphin kick, it is important that we bend, but not break the body. Too much curve or too much angle of one of our appendages sticking out causes an enormous increase in frontal drag. Keeping the body aligned requires having a tight core.
  2. Keep the head down. Keeping the head down helps keep it in alignment with the body, but more importantly, a head down also can help reduce surface or wave drag. There is actually less drag underwater than on the surface of the water (think of a submarine), because we eliminate surface drag. Frontal drag is proportional to our speed squared, so ideally, we would like to see the head submerged during the fastest point in the stroke cycle, which I call the surge point. All four strokes have a surge point where the head should be underwater, even if it is slightly so.
  3. Pull underwater with a high elbow. In the pulling motion of all four strokes, the upper arm is the ‘bad cop’, causing most of the frontal drag. By keeping the elbow nearer to the surface (except it backstroke) and more in alignment with our body’s motion, we can reduce, but not eliminate, the frontal drag caused by the forward motion of the upper arm during the pull.
  4. Wear the fastest technology racing suit possible. The records set in 2008 and 2009 convinced all of us that the suits really matter. Even today, the best suits help reduce friction and keep the body tighter to reduce frontal drag.
  5. Shave all the hair from your body. Although this is generally not done (or recommended) until post puberty, when significantly more hair grows on the body, shaving the entire body will reduce friction and make us slicker and faster.
  6. Streamline off the start and all turns. Getting into the tightest streamline possible creates a huge advantage when you are moving fast. The fastest point you will reach in a swimming race (about 15 mph) is when the fingertips touch the water off the starting block. The second fastest is when your toes leave the wall on each turn (6-8 mph). At either time, because of the exponential relationship between speed and frontal drag, you had better get into the tightest streamline possible.
  7. Keep your kick tight. In freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, the kick must be tight in order to help reduce frontal drag. With the former two, that means not bending the knees too much and in breaststroke it means keeping the knees at or inside the hips and elevating the feet and legs at the end of the kick.
  8. Double cap. Covering up that thick head of hair and creating a new surface for your head with the reduced friction of silicone is another good way to reduce drag. Most athletes today will double cap, leaving the goggle straps between the first and second caps. The outer cap should be a thicker silicone material to maintain its smoothness.
  9. Wear low profile goggles. Racing goggles should be strapped on tighter to the face and are a little smaller and sleeker than larger training goggles. The less they protrude from your face, the better.
  10. Point your toes. One of them most common mistakes made on the start is not pointing the toes at entry. Our Race Club study of passive drag showed that a relaxed (hanging) foot causes a 33% increase in frontal drag as compared to pointed toes. In general, the less splash one makes on the dive entry, the less frontal drag. The other common strokes where the relaxed foot causes more frontal drag is at the end of the breaststroke kick and the down kick in dolphin. In either case, keep the toes pointed backward to reduce drag. 
Slip Through Water

If you successfully comply with all of the above, you will graduate from being a swimmer, one who slogs through the water, to become a much faster ‘swipper’, a swimmer that slips through the water. Let’s hope you become a ‘swipper’! (Click here to find out what a swipper is)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


Setting Goals: Short, Medium, and Long Term

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3 Sets of Goals

We begin every camp at The Race Club by helping each swimmer in setting goals: a short term, medium term and a long term goal. The short term goal is what we want to accomplish while at the camp. Every swimmer has a greater need to improve on some facets of his/her race or on a certain stroke or strokes more than others. The swimmer and/or parents always seem to have a clear idea of what the weaknesses are.

Once the swimmer leaves the camp, or for those that do not attend, the short term goal should be what will be accomplished today. The focus of training is different nearly every single day. One day, the focus may be on butterfly or kicking or IM, while on another day the focus may be on strength/power training, turns, recovery or any number of other important techniques. The goal of that day should be to improve in a specific technique that was learned at our camp for whatever aspect of training is being emphasized. By doing so, the swimmer will reinforce the improvements gained from attending our Race Club camp. The swimmer will begin to shore up their biggest weaknesses.

Setting Specifics

The second or medium term goal is what we want to accomplish this season. As part of our discussion on mental training at our camps, we have every swimmer define specific goal times for the end of the season and write them down. We also ask the swimmer to know exactly when and where those goal times will be reached. One by one, we go over those goal times with each swimmer, offering suggestions if we do not feel they are appropriate. Then we ask the swimmer to take the approved goal times home and transpose them onto a large poster board that can be hung in their bedroom. We want the swimmer to see those goal times every single day of the season.

Specifically defined goal setting is an extremely important part of mental training and one that should be taken very seriously. It is surprising how many swimmers are not setting goals each season. It is remarkable how often our Race Club swimmers that do will achieve their goal times each season. If the goals are not written and visible to the swimmer each day, I doubt they would be as successful.

Valuable Experience

We like to think of each season as a chapter in the swimmer’s life; a book that is being written about the swimmer in real time. Once the season is over, regardless of the outcome, we close the chapter and start a new one. Some chapters seem better than others, yet from our perspective, every chapter is valuable, as each provides vital experience and education, some of which is tough. There are no bad chapters.

The swimmer’s long term goal may be the most important. Swimming is a challenging sport. Incredible amounts of work and dedication are required by both swimmers and parents in order to excel. For a swimmer to continue on this long journey, chapter after chapter, year in and year out, there needs to be a vision of where the journey is leading to. There needs to be something personally significant in setting goals for the swimmer.

For an old swimmer like me, a hot shower after practice and the release of a few endorphins may be enough to keep me coming back, but not so much for a young swimmer. The workload and expectations can sometimes be too great. There has to be more to it than socializing with team members, the occasional great practice or even achieving the goal times at the season’s end. There has to be a bigger reward.

Dream Big When Setting Goals

At The Race Club, we encourage every swimmer to dream big when setting goals. Whether the long term goal or dream is realistic or not does not matter. While every Olympian began with a dream to be there some day, not every swimmer that dreams of being an Olympian arrives there. This really doesn’t matter. It is the dream that kept him or her going through the most difficult chapters. The dream pushes the swimmer higher up the ladder of success. It could be making it to the Junior Nationals, Olympic Trials or getting a college scholarship or even achieving a personal best time. So long as there is a vision; a dream of where the path is leading to, the journey becomes doable.

The short term goal should be considered every day. The middle term goal should be established at the beginning of each season or chapter, with a friendly reminder on the bedroom wall each day. The long term goal should be considered every so often and tucked into the subconscious of the mind. It is kept there in a safe place and brought out whenever motivation is needed.

If you want to become a better swimmer today, this season and over your career, begin setting these three sets of goals. We guarantee that they will help you.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


Develop a Turbocharged Engine for Your Freestyle

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Turbocharged When You Need It

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.

Race Strategies

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.

6 Beat Kick

The question is, ‘how does one develop a freestyle with the turbocharged 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.

The Right Moment

Once you develop the turbocharged 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,

Gary Sr.


The Peaks and Troughs of the Swimming Stroke Cycle

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Obeying the Law

Once we understand how important it is to obey the law of inertia in the water, how do we really know if we are? Each of the four strokes demonstrates peaks and troughs of our body’s speed during the swimming stroke cycle. In freestyle and backstroke, there is a right arm peak and trough speed and a left arm peak and trough speed. Butterfly has a peak for the first down kick, which occurs while the hands are pulling underwater, and a peak for the second down kick, when the hands are recovering over the water. Between each peak is a trough. In breaststroke, there is a kick and pull peak and a trough that follows each.

At The Race Club, through the technology of the velocity meter, we measure a swimmer’s velocity, acceleration and deceleration at all times throughout each swimming stroke cycle. It enables us to identify and quantify all of the peak and trough speeds. When synchronized with video, it also enables us to identify stroke deficiencies, such as poor kicking or pulling motions or head and body position that magnify the differences between peak and trough speeds. The velocity meter enables us to make corrections in technique that we could never identify from the deck nor from an underwater window without also understanding the impact they have on body speed.

Desirable Values

After performing many of these studies on great and not-so-great swimmers, we have come to appreciate what the ‘desirable values’ are for the differences between peak and trough speeds in each swimming stroke cycle. Backstroke is the most conforming stroke with a difference between peak and trough speed on each arm of .35 meters per second or less considered to be very good. In freestyle, the difference between peak and trough speeds for each arm should be .5 meters per second or less.

Looking at butterfly, we often see a difference range of 1 to 1.5 meters per second or more between the peak and trough speeds. In breaststroke, since we are starting from nearly a dead stop before beginning each kick and the kick provides the majority of propulsive forces, we want to see a big increase in speed, or a large difference between peak and trough after the kick.  Breaststroke is analogous to doing a standing dunk under the basketball net.

Certainly in freestyle and backstroke, minimizing the difference between peak and trough speeds conforms to the law of inertia and makes us more efficient swimmers. The question is how do we do that?

In both strokes, there are really only three things we can do to conform to inertia. First, sustain a steady six-beat kick. Second, increase the stroke rate, which lessens the ‘down time’ of our pulling propulsion. Third, reduce frontal drag in all aspects possible; better head and body position, proper elbow bend and arm position and a tighter kick.

Improve Your Swimming Stroke Cycle

For example, in a study of my freestyle pull (no kick involved), I found that in the three tenths of a second between the peak and trough velocities of each hand, the deep arm pull caused a 40% drop in body speed due to increased frontal drag versus a 25-30% drop in speed with the high elbow pull (less frontal drag). The amount of work required to overcome a 10% difference in body speed on each and every pull is overwhelming. The speed cannot be sustained for long with the deeper pulling motion.

For starts and turns, conforming to the law of inertia generally means not waiting too long to initiate the dolphin kicks off the wall or entry. Or it means keeping the kicks fast and tight and transitioning to flutter kick before the breakout….all designed to help sustain our speed.

In summary, don’t ignore Galileo’s discovery and Newton’s first law of motion. Inertia is vital to our success as swimmers. If we learn to conform to it, we might just win some races.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

READ: The Importance of Inertia Aqua Note


Wear a Noseclip in Backstroke

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Winning is Cool

At one time, it may have been uncool to wear a noseclip for backstroke in either workout or in competition, but not any more. With backstroke superstars like Missy Franklin and Tyler Clary, among others, sporting their noseclips on television, coaches and swimmers are starting to realize that there is more to it than what meets the eye…or nose.

The first advantage of the noseclip is the obvious avoidance of the unpleasant experience of getting water up the sinuses. Ouch! Nothing puts a damper on a good race better than that. OK…maybe missing a wall on a turn does.

Holding Pressure

The second advantage of the noseclip is gained by avoiding what is needed to do in order to keep water from crawling down the nose and into the sinuses, blowing out your air. Unless you are one of those freaky swimmers with a long nose and big upper lip and can curl that lip up against your nostrils to keep water out, then you must provide a steady stream of air from your lungs out your nose in order to provide the positive pressure to keep the water out. The problem with this maneuver is that if you are staying underwater for any length of time doing the dolphin kicks, by the time you are ready to surface, the lung has run out of air.

If you were to blow all of the air that you can out of your lungs in the pool, the first thing you would notice is that you sink like a rock. The truth is, you would then weigh about 8 pounds in the water. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but when compared to the neutral weight of the body with a lung filled with air, it is significant. Imagine putting on an 8 pound weight belt and trying to kick to the surface; not impossible, but requires a lot more work.

Wear a Noseclip

By the time you blow out all the available air in your lung on your underwater dolphin journey to the surface, you have added about 8 pounds more weight to the task. Why burden yourself with the extra work? Wear a noseclip, keep the air in your lung and explode out of the water on your breakout, instead of resurfacing like a submarine floating to the surface. Not only will you pop up easier, but you will also have one less thing to worry about, getting water up your nose.  With a relatively small investment in a Finis noseclip, you will do yourself two big favors.

In our Race Club camps, we work a lot on improving the underwater dolphin kick, now considered the fifth stroke. The use of the dolphin kick on backstroke is of the highest importance in developing good swimming technique. Getting fast underwater and staying down for the maximum allowed distance is essential to win. We highly recommend you wear a noseclip from Finis in backstroke as an important part of that process.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


How to Get Your Breaststroke Clicking Again pt. 2

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Working With the Right Tools

If you are interested in getting your breaststroke clicking, you had better build a strong breaststroke kick. That process starts with having the tools to kick fast; external rotation of the hip, dorsiflexion of the ankle and extension of the lumbar (lower) spine. I estimate that for every additional degree of external rotation of the hip, your propulsion in breaststroke will increase by about 5% with the same amount of effort. That is worth fighting for.

Two of our favorite stretches for improving your breaststroke flexibility and giving you the necessary tools are the hip stretch and yoga pushups. With the hip stretch, you sit on the edge of a chair and cross your legs, placing the ankle on the thigh, just above the knee. Now, with arms raised straight over head, bend forward with a straight back, allowing the arms to go over the top of the folded leg. Try to get your palms all the way to the ground.

Hip Stretch Test and Yoga Pushups

Great breaststroke kickers will usually get their palms all the way to the ground, while swimmers with poor external rotation of the hip will struggle to get their fingers to touch the ground. By stretching in this position for two minutes or longer daily, one can slowly increase the flexibility of the hip to improve the breaststroke kick.

Yoga pushups are started in the downward dog position, with the body in the A position, palms on the ground in front, feet on the ground behind, separated to shoulder width. The heels should be pushed as close to the ground as possible. The closer they come to the ground, the better the dorsiflexion of the ankle.

From downward dog, the body is extended forward into the straight arm plank position. The feet are then flipped over on to the tops of the feet and the body lowered to a pushup position, with elbows tucked at the sides. Feet and hands should be the only parts touching the ground. From here, the upper body is arched backward as far as possible, extending the cervical and lumbar spine. This position is swimmer’s Cobra or upward dog position. The body is then pushed backward into upward dog and the feet flipped back over to begin the cycle again. Yoga pushups improve dorsiflexion of the ankle and lumbar extension of the spine- both important tools for breaststroke.

Coupling Motions

There are three important coupling motions that help get your breaststroke clicking. For the pull, the elevation of the shoulders and back is a strong coupling motion. For the kick, snapping the head down and pressing the body forward and downward are two powerful coupling motions.

The most challenging part of getting breaststroke clicking is the coupling with the kick. Because of the independent nature of the kick and pull, a breaststroker has precious little time to get the kicking cycle into the propulsion phase in time to catch the kinetic energy of the moving upper body and head. A swimmer has precisely .4 seconds from the time the shoulders are maximally elevated and pull propulsion is completed, to draw the legs from a straight back position into the kicking propulsion phase, pushing water backward with the insteps. If the swimmer delays in getting the feet into propulsion, then he or she misses the opportunity to couple with the motion of the head and upper body. The kinetic energy of the upper body will peak as the body strikes the water, but quickly goes to zero after that.

Breaststroke Clicking Fast

All great breaststrokers kick with the knees at or inside the hips because it is the only way that they can get the kicking cycle in quickly enough to catch the coupling energy of their upper bodies. In order to get significant kicking propulsion, swimmers that have poor hip flexibility must kick with the knees wider than desirable. Unfortunately, with wider knees, it takes too long to complete the kicking cycle and so the opportunity to connect with the coupling motion of the upper body is lost. In other words, there is no opportunity for a breaststroker to swim fast without a fast kicking cycle. Hip flexibility and leg strength are required to do this with maximum speed and propulsion.

To get your breaststroke clicking….and develop a faster breaststroke, start doing these three important breaststroke stretches and do lots of kicking in practice, lifting the heels and pointing the toes backward!

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

READ: Get Your Breaststroke Clicking Again pt. 1


How to Get Your Breaststroke Clicking Again pt. 1

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A Unique Stroke

Breaststroke can come and go like the wind. It is frustrating for both swimmers and coaches to have a swimmer’s breaststroke clicking one season and then, in the next, ‘poof’, the technique vanishes. Gone…and so are the fast swim times. Breaststroke is a tough stroke to do well and continue doing well. When done properly, it differs from the other three strokes in the following ways:

Breaststroke is the only stroke where the kick and pull occur independently
Breaststroke is the only stroke where the body speed goes to nearly zero with each stroke cycle
Breaststroke is the stroke most dependent on a strong kick
Breaststroke requires a completely different set of anatomical/biomechanical tools
Breaststroke is the only stroke that does not offer any ‘recovery time’ for either arms or legs
The coupling motions of breaststroke are the most timing sensitive and difficult to achieve

Let’s examine each of these six differentiating points of breaststroke and help get you on the road to a fast breaststroke again.

How to Get Your Breaststroke Clicking Again

First, since the kick and the pull occur independently in breaststroke, that means that the legs/feet cannot get in the way when the arms are pulling. Similarly, the arms/head/upper body cannot get in the way when the kick is happening. In other words, one end of the body must be streamlined to reduce frontal drag while the other end is working to create propulsion.Too often, breaststrokers fail to do that.

When the kick propulsion happens, the swimmer is often relaxing the arms out front with the head positioned too high, the so-called superman pose. The swimmer is trying to take a mini-vacation for the arms. Or in other cases, the swimmer is over anxious to start pulling and separates the arms while the kick propulsion is greatest. In either case the frontal drag increases tremendously during the important propulsive phase of the kick. When the pull is happening, too often the legs and feet are hanging down, relaxing, also causing a bad frontal drag position.

At The Race Club we practice a lot of two kick/one pull drill in the hyper-streamlined position or the racing streamlined position, which improves the speed of the body moving forward from the kick and also teaches the swimmer to be patient with the pull, keeping the hands together out front. To improve the streamline at the back end, we do many kicking drills with the heels lifted and feet pointed backward at the end of the kick.

The Standing Dunk

Second, the speed of a breaststroker approaches zero when the two thighs are brought forward and the shoulders are elevated in preparation for the next kick. Since frontal drag is related to the swimmer’s speed squared, at that particular moment, with the speed near zero, frontal drag is no longer an issue. Therefore, we want the breaststroker to get into the best possible position for the next kick propulsion. That means elevating the shoulders as high as possible, while keeping the legs pointing straight back.

I call breaststroke the ‘standing dunk’ of swimming. You don’t get to run and dunk the basketball, like you do in free, back or fly. You have to try and dunk it from a dead stand each time. That means we want to maximize the propulsion for each kick which requires the highest elevation of the shoulders possible, bending, not rotating on the short axis, and drawing the thighs forward to a 100 degree angle with the upper body.

The Kick is Key

Third, while the kick is important in all strokes, in good breaststrokers, the kick is providing as much as 80% of the total propulsion, which is a higher contribution to total propulsion than all of the other strokes. To get your breaststroke clicking or be fast in the IM today, one must develop a strong breaststroke kick.

The kick propulsion is determined from the amount and speed of the surface area of the instep of the feet pushing backward. The larger the area and faster that area can be pushed backward, the stronger the propulsion. Most of the propulsion occurs in the early phase of the feet pushing backward, not toward the end of the kick.

Besides having strong legs and good kicking technique, there are three sets of anatomical tools that are extremely important in order to develop a fast breaststroke kick. The first is a flexibility of the hip to externally rotate the leg, so the feet can point further outward creating more surface area. The second is the dorsiflexion of the ankle (pulling the toes back), which also helps to point the feet outward. The third is the lumbar flexibility of the spine, which enables a swimmer to elevate the shoulders higher out of the water, while still keeping the legs pointed straight backward.

If you are not gifted naturally with these tools, don’t worry. You can still work hard to develop them. You just need to know how. In the next article we will describe some dryland stretches that will help you get your breaststroke clicking, as well as how to use the important coupling motions to improve the power of your kick and pull.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.


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