Aqua Notes

How Oxygen Affects Our Bodies in a Swim Race

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The Art of Breathing Part I – Swim Race

Breathing while swimming seems like a natural thing to do. After all, we do it all the time without even thinking about it and, if we stop doing it, we cannot survive for more than about 7 minutes. Yet, while swimming, breathing is not that simple. The questions ‘How often do we breathe?’ ‘Where do we breathe?’ or even ‘How do we breathe?’ are legitimate ones. The answers are not that obvious, either.

Breathing in swimming freestyle or butterfly can be problematic. It can slow the stroke rate, if one takes too long to get the breath. It can lead to an increase in frontal drag, if the breath causes an alteration in the pulling motion of the arm under water, or if the head lifts too much for the breath. Yet, in any race lasting longer than about 20 seconds, the delivery of oxygen to the muscles, in order to provide an important source of energy, is vital to our ability to sustain speed. In other words, we have to breathe to keep our pace.

The fastest way to swim fly and free is without breathing. Unfortunately, in any race event over a 50 sprint, not breathing enough leads to a catastrophic dependence on anaerobic sources of energy, which leads quickly to a lowering of the body’s pH (H+ ions). Once the body begins to become acidic, the muscles cease to recover or function at the same rate. In swimming vernacular, we ‘die’ in our races.

Perhaps the fastest way to increase the body’s pH, to restore neutrality, is by breathing. The faster the respiratory rate, the more CO2 we blow off in order to increase our body’s pH. Frequent breathing during intense exercise not only helps to maintain a neutral pH, but it also helps prevent the acidosis to begin with by delivering more oxygen to the muscles. Having a pipeline flow of oxygen delivered to the muscles engaged in the activity is essential to high performance swimming. Increasing the stroke volume of the heart, increasing the numbers of red blood cells, improving the transport systems for delivering oxygen to the muscle cells, increasing the numbers of mitochondria in the muscle cells available to convert glucose into ATP (Adenosine triphosphate, the fuel for our muscles), and increasing the number and type of muscle fibers available for contraction are all important parts of the physiological and anatomical improvements we seek from training. Yet, even if we develop those systems, none of them are optimized if we don’t have a nice flow of oxygen arriving at the alveoli of our lungs, ready to be delivered to the muscle.

After the first 20 seconds or so of our race, when we have used up the most readily available and stored sources of high-energy phosphate (Creatine phosphate), the two systems of producing ATP on an ongoing basis are the aerobic (with oxygen) and the anaerobic (without oxygen) systems. The two systems are needed and work simultaneously during intense exercise to produce the kind of power required to swim very fast. While the aerobic system produces more ATP per molecule of glucose than the anaerobic system (approximately 36 moles of ATP vs 2 moles of ATP), the anaerobic system produces ATP faster than the aerobic system. In this respect, they each may have their advantage, yet only the anaerobic system will lower our body’s pH, leading to a dysfunction of muscular contraction. The more we can utilize our aerobic system of producing ATP, the longer we can sustain our power.

If you compare the respiratory rates of swimmers racing with competing athletes from other sports, like running or cycling, where they can breathe at will, the rates of swimmers are usually slower. At maximum effort on land, the respiratory rate of an athlete is typically 50-60 breaths per minute. Rarely is a swimmer breathing that often, either in a race or in practice. One can make the argument that swimmers train hypoxically most of the time, which means that by under delivering oxygen to the lungs, swimmers are developing all of the other body’s mechanisms to deliver oxygen more efficiently to our muscles and to manage lactate production. By training at altitude, where even less oxygen gets delivered to the muscles, one can build all of those mechanisms even better and faster. That is a good thing. But when it comes to racing, other than in the 50 sprints, do we want to race hypoxically? I think not. I can still recall the pain of swimming the 400 IM at the Olympic Games of Mexico City (7,000 feet) in a time about 10 seconds slower than I would have swum at sea level. At altitude, we may not have the choice of getting as much as oxygen as we need, but at sea level, it makes less sense to deprive ourselves of getting that oxygen. That means swimmers should be breathing more, not less.

Next time, we will discuss the how and where of breathing in freestyle and fly.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Read How to Inhale and Exhale While Swimming Fast: The Art of Breathing Part II

Read Oxygen! How Often Should I Breathe in Swimming: The Art of Breathing Part III


The Race Club is Hiring Swim Coaches and Swim Teachers

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The Race Club, with locations in the amazing tropical paradise of Islamorada in the Florida Keys and in Pacific Palisades, a beautiful southern California coast escape from the energy and excitement of Los Angeles, is hiring swim coaches for all staff coaching positions ranging from 3 month internships to Senior Staff and Site Directors for experienced, professional coaches and everything in between.

The Race Club’s Primary Focus is on Swimming Technique and the Technical aspects of swimming. This non-traditional coaching position emphasizes teaching and the science of swimming where the coaching staff is expected to have or develop technical expertise and be on the cutting edge in the sport. This is a great opportunity to launch your coaching career to the next level by learning from world-renowned coaches and world-class athletes while applying proven fundamental progressions to a diverse population of swimmers.

Our Coaches must have a passion for swimming, curiosity and a likeable personality with the ability to communicate positively and effectively with others. Swimming experience and success counts, however, all experience levels of coaches will be considered. Applicants should have talents, skills, experience and/or education outside the sport that effectively demonstrate intellect and capacity to learn. Specific skills in computer science, social media, technology, graphic arts, marketing and business administration are particularly valuable.

Benefits. Every day on the pool deck as a Race Club Coach is a step into the lab to learn at the highest level in the sport, develop and practice your coaching skills, both technical and interactive. Off of the deck, you will have the ability to contribute to building the preeminent swimming organization in the world. Opportunities for significant additional income, international exposure, and growth in a dynamic leader in the sport will be available for the best members of our staff. We are also a leader in swimming social media and online delivery of services, making a coaching position with the Race Club one of the most technologically innovative opportunities for coaches in the sport.

Join the Family. If you, or someone you know, is interested in this unique opportunity of coaching/teaching positions, please contact us. International Applicants must already have authorization to work in the United States. All open positions are for Islamorada, FL location. Email your resume to info@theraceclub.com.


Summer Swim Camp Islamorada, FL June 18-25, 2016

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Come join us for our Summer Swim Camp in Islamorada, FL! Below are the details of each session. You can sign up for as many sessions as you’d like, but you can see why we encourage you to sign up for all 8 sessions and the enhanced sessions. Lots of Great material to cover! These sessions are for any swimmer that wants to swim faster. We have had swimmers and triathletes from age 7- 86 ranging in abilities from beginner wanting to learn a flip turn or a stroke, to Olympians. Sign up and we hope you’ll have a great time!
CAMP SESSIONS
June 18th 10am-12noon – Science of Swimming – Reducing Frontal Drag – Freestyle technique
June 18th 2:45pm-4:45pm – Race Club mobility routine – Increasing Propulsion – Freestyle technique
June 19th 10am-12noon – Nutrition talk – Conforming to the Law of Inertia – Freestyle
June 19th 3pm-5pm – Yoga – Progression to a Fast Backstroke
June 20th 8am-10am – Strength training talk – Key Points to Improve Breaststroke
June 20th 4pm-6pm – Starts – Race Club Circuit Training
June 21st 8am-10am – Mental training talk – Developing an Easier and Faster Butterfly
June 21st 4pm-6pm – Race Practice and Strategy
June 22nd 8am-10am – Science of Swimming – Reducing Frontal Drag – Freestyle technique

June 22nd 4pm-6pm – Race Club mobility routine – Increasing Propulsion – Freestyle technique
June 23rd 8am-10am – Nutrition talk – Conforming to the Law of Inertia – Freestyle
June 23rd 4pm-6pm – Yoga – Progression to a Fast Backstroke
June 24th 8am-10am – Strength training talk – Key Points to Improve Breaststroke
June 24th 4pm-6pm – Starts – Race Club Circuit Training
June 25th 10am-12noon – Mental training talk – Developing an Easier and Faster Butterfly
June 25th 3pm-5pm – Race Practice and Strategy
*All sessions are subject to change depending on the individuals signed up in each session, weather, etc.
ENHANCED SESSIONS
June 18th 12noon-1pm Breathing Technique and Breathing Patterns
June 19th 12pm-1pm Hybrid Freestyle (the third style of Freestyle or Phelps Swimming technique)
June 20th 10am-11am Back to Breast Transition Turn
June 20th 3pm-4pm Starts
June 21st 10am-11am Turns
June 22nd 10am-11am Breathing Technique and Breathing Patterns
June 22nd 3pm-4pm Hybrid Freestyle (the third style of Freestyle or Phelps Swimming technique)
June 23rd 10am-11am Open Water Technique and Training
June 23rd 3pm-4pm Dolphin Kick Technique and Drills
June 24th 10am-11am Back to Breast Transition turn
June 24th 3pm-4pm Starts
June 25th 12noon-1pm Turns
Pricing:
Sign up for as many camp sessions as you’d like with a minimum of 3.
  • 16 camp sessions plus 8 enhanced sessions – $2550 ($650 savings if you register by May 17th, 2016)
  • 16 camp sessions = $1950 ($450 savings if you register by May 17th, 2016)
  • 8 camp sessions plus 4 enhanced sessions = $1300 ($300 savings if you register by May 17th, 2016)
  • 8 camp sessions = $1000 ($200 savings if you register by May 17th, 2016)
  • Each camp session is $150 (minimum of 3)
  • Each enhanced session is $100
Location: Islamorada, Florida Email for questions. Or Register Here.

Race Club Los Angeles Swim Camp April 21-24, 2016

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Come join us for our Los Angeles Swim Camp! Below are the details of each session. You can sign up for as many sessions as you’d like, but you can see why we encourage you to sign up for all 8 sessions and the enhanced sessions. Lots of Great material to cover! These sessions are for any swimmer that wants to swim faster. We have had swimmers and triathletes from age 7- 86 ranging in abilities from beginner wanting to learn a flip turn or a stroke, to Olympians. Sign up and we hope you’ll have a great time!
CAMP SESSIONS
April 21 6:15am -8:15am – Science of Swimming – Reducing Frontal Drag – Freestyle technique
April 21 5:30pm-7:30pm – Race Club mobility routine – Increasing Propulsion – Freestyle technique
April 22 6:15am-8:15am – Nutrition – Conforming to the Law of Inertia – Freestyle
April 22 5:30pm-7:30pm – Yoga – Progression to a Fast Backstroke
April 23 9am-11am – Strength training – Key Points to Improve Breaststroke
April 23 2pm-4pm – Starts – Strength Training with Brian MacKenzie
April 24 9am-11am – Mental training – Developing an Easier and Faster Butterfly
April 24 2pm-4pm – Race Practice and Strategy
ENHANCED SESSIONS
April 21 11:30am-12:30pm Breathing Technique and Breathing Patterns
April 22 11:30am-12:30pm Dolphin Kick Technique and Drills
April 23 11am-12noon Back to Breast Transition Turn
April 24 11am-12noon Starts and Turns
Pricing:
-All 8 camp sessions plus 4 enhanced sessions = $1300 ($300 savings if you register by March 21st, 2016)
-All 8 camp sessions = $1000 ($200 savings if you register by March 21st, 2016)
-Each camp session is $150
-Each enhanced session is $100
Location: Pacific Palisades High School, 15777 Bowdoin Street, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
We recommend finding an apartment or house to rent in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood near the pool. Otherwise there are many hotels in Santa Monica. Email for questions. Or Register Here.
los angeles swim camp

10 Ways to Reduce Frontal Drag

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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. Here are ten good ways to help 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.
  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. A German study recently showed that a relaxed foot creates 40% more frontal drag than a pointed toe. 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. 

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.


The Peaks and Troughs of the Swimming Stroke Cycle

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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. In fly there is 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. In 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 several stroke cycles. 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.

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 of the four strokes. 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. In fly, 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. 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


The Importance of Inertia in Swimming Fast

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The definition of inertia is the following: a body in motion wants to remain in motion, while a body at rest wants to remain at rest. It was first described by Galileo and later incorporated into the first of Newton’s three laws of motions. What does the law of inertia have to do with swimming? Lots.

Another way of looking at inertia is that it is far more efficient to keep a body moving at the same speed than it is to start it and stop it, or even slow it down, repeatedly. Because of inertia, we get better gas mileage on the freeway driving a constant speed of 70 mph than in town, averaging 35 mph, with lots of starts and stops.

As coaches, I think we often get hung up on the word ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is defined as the number of calories we burn to travel a certain distance in the water; in other words, it is our ‘gas mileage’ in the water. While that is important, efficiency per se does not win races. No one asks the winner of the Indianapolis 500 how the gas mileage was during the race. They don’t care. They just know that he or she got the checkered flag. The same goes with swimming. In order to be swimming fast and win races, we have to burn lots of calories. We simply cannot afford to waste them on unproductive motion.

In the sport of swimming, two of the four strokes conform more to the law of inertia than the other two. I call freestyle and backstroke the ‘freeway strokes’ and butterfly and breaststroke the ‘stop and go strokes’. It is partly due to inertia that the latter are either more difficult or slower than the former. Nonetheless, the law of inertia applies to all four strokes, as well as to starts and turns.

The reason that freestyle and backstroke conform more to the law of inertia than breast or fly is that there are more propulsive efforts occurring during each stroke cycle, particularly with a six-beat kick. In other words, there is less propulsive ‘down time’. The amount of propulsive ‘down time’ is important because as long as we are moving forward, frontal drag has no ‘down time’. That is, with our non-streamlined shape, frontal drag is working to slow us down at all times and quickly. Therefore, the only way we can keep a constant speed is by maintaining constant propulsion, which doesn’t happen with any stroke.

There are three ways to get on the freeway and maintain speed while swimming freestyle and backstroke; six beat kick, increased stroke rate and reducing frontal drag. At The Race Club, we focus on the importance of inertia and how each individual can try to best comply with our universe’s laws that rule us in the pool.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.


Finesse Your Freestyle

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Swimming fast is a skill that demands great strength and stamina. Yet swimming is neither baseball nor boxing. One cannot hit the water like a ball crushed over the center field wall or knock it out in the first round. One cannot simply power through the water. To swim fast, one also needs great timing and swimming finesse.

What does finesse mean with respect to swimming fast? In water, where frontal drag forces are so compelling, swimming finesse means learning to swim with the lowest possible drag forces. It means pulling with an arm motion that may seem totally inept or awkward, yet works better. Finesse means timing the powerful, but rarely appreciated coupling motions of body rotation and arm recovery to augment the pulling and kicking forces. Finesse means using a surge kick, a strong down kick that occurs shortly after the opposite hand entry, in order to increase the body’s speed when its drag coefficient is low, another timing issue. It also means dipping the head slightly underwater after the breath, at the same crucial time of maximum body speed. Finesse means avoiding the temptation to dig your arm deep into the water and muscle yourself across the pool. In swimming, finesse means using your brain, not your brawn.

The nuances of swimming fast are not easy to learn. Some require extraordinary flexibility, such as in the ankles and shoulders, in order to implement. All require great strength in the legs, core and upper back in order to sustain well. Yet, if we do not learn to finesse our freestyle, we will all succumb to the drag forces, much sooner than we would like.

While swimming is not very forgiving with respect to technique, there is some margin for error. It’s just not much. I call the permissible angle or bend of a swimmer’s body or limb motion the ‘threshold’ for frontal drag force. Bend your knee 35 degrees for a kick and you may be ok. Bend it 60 degrees or more and you come to a screeching halt. Drop your elbow on the pull by more than a few inches and the frontal drag forces go up a lot. Bending the knee more or dropping the elbow more results in more powerful propulsion. Unfortunately, getting to those positions causes so much frontal drag that the additional propulsive forces can’t overcome it. Don’t forget the law of inertia. Each time we slow down more, it takes a lot more force (and energy) to get us going again. The key to finessing your freestyle is to know what the thresholds are and to learn to swim within them.

One of the best tools I have found for learning more precisely where these thresholds are is the velocity meter technology. With the velocity meter, we measure your body speed (and acceleration/deceleration) at all points through your swimming cycle and synchronize them with video. By doing so we can measure your peak and trough velocities for both right and left arm strokes velocity meter analysisrepeatedly. You would be amazed at how very small deviations in technique lead to significant changes in speed in a very short period of time, tenths of seconds. With this technology we can identify exactly where the mistakes in swimming technique are being made and often repeated over and over again and how big a price is being paid for them in terms of loss of speed.

In my swimming career, which has spanned some 55 years and included 3 Olympic Games, most of my best swims were not the most exhausting. In fact, those feelings belonged to some of my worst swims. It wasn’t the exhilaration of setting a PR or even a World Record that made me feel as if the race was easier. I may have been physiologically or mentally more prepared on those great days, but I can also assure you that I swam with more finesse. I swam smarter races.

At The Race Club, we teach swimmers how to finesse the freestyle, how to swim smarter and faster. No matter what your age or experience level, you can still learn how to finesse your freestyle, to swim faster with less effort, and to feel really good after your race. Are you ready for that?

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

 


2 Ways to Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick

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Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and fly, 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.

In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with external 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 external rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion.

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 external 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 external 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.

There are two very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to kick breaststroke fast. The first is the hip test. 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. Flex 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 good breaststroker (or at least potentially) 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 breaststroke kicking propulsion. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. When I was at Indiana University, I was an IMer with a very poor breaststroke (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. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon and gastrocnemius muscle.

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. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup, 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 kick is a key to swim fast breaststroke. 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.

Do these two 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.

Watch Swimisodes Breaststroke Wall Kick


What the Heck Am I Doing Here?

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Gary Hall Jr won Olympic silver medals at the 96 Olympics; he then took time off, and returned to win the gold at the 2000 Olympics.

When things inevitably get tough in life and in sport, the greatest threat often arises insidiously from within our minds in the form of the question: “What the heck am I doing here?”

This question is never asked when things are fun, the answer is just too obvious then, but it waits for us, lurking in our moments of greatest exhaustion, pain and weakness. A champion is so much more than just medals and titles. A champion is a good answer to this question.

This question cuts through to the very essence of our being. There can’t be a shadow of doubt. At that desperate moment, when faced with this profound self-inquiry, there better be an honest answer. If you don’t have one, or are not honest with yourself at that point about exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it, you are going to be in trouble as everything falls apart.

As Friedrich Neitzche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. The answer to that profound question of “what the heck am I doing here?” is what makes your mind your weapon or your weakness. The answer gets you up before the sun and drives you beyond your comfort zone and sustains you out there. This answer is the essence of toughness and applies to everything, from enduring the last few miles of a marathon to the last few rounds of chemotherapy.

Rudyard Kipling so eloquently expressed this type of mental fortitude with these lines from his famous poem entitled If:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

Fundamentally this type of endurance only arises if your answer to the question of “What am I doing here?” is good enough. It can’t come from anyone else but yourself, and no one else has to know it. The actual answer is unimportant; what is important is that you believe it wholeheartedly.

For me, I know. The answer is always changing, but to me, it’s always a good one; it has to be. I do it because I love it, because I can, for those who can’t, and because it’s a beautiful thing. A very good answer can sustain a sporting career for decades.

To gain experience, be consistent and enjoy longevity, one must not be afraid take time out to get re-inspired, re-focus and set new goals. The answer to our question is going to change as we change. In order to have a good answer it will become absolutely necessary to take a step back from the routine and the grind to reassess things and re-answer that question from time to time.

This is as much a part of being a champion as the act of consistently performing at the top of your game. Gary Hall Jr won Olympic silver medals at the ’96 Olympics; he then took time off, and returned to win the gold at the 2000 Olympics. Then after again taking almost two years off focusing on other interests, he returned to live a spartan existence of tirelessly toiling after perfection for another two years, despite suffering from diabetes, to once again win the gold at the 2004 Olympics.

For him, the answer to that simple but profound question of “What the heck am I doing here?” was worth more than all the minor competitions missed and passionless days of going through the motions during his years away from the sport. His answer, even though he took time away to find it, ensured his longevity, which gave him the experience to finish on top the Olympic podium quadrennial after quadrennial.

I am always impressed by consistency more than anything else when it comes to athletes and their sporting careers. From experience, I know that behind the impressive consistency lies great willpower, tenacity and toughness that arises from having a perfect answer to the question, and I always wonder what it might be for each person.

-George Bovell

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