The other day I was doing my swim at Founder’s Park in Islamorada, when Chris, a marine researcher from Key Largo, swimming in the lane next to me, asked me if I had ever seen a documentary on Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic. I hadn’t.
“They have this amazing ability to sequester air under their feathers”, he explained. “When they are swimming under water and getting chased by sea lions, they somehow release all that air around their bodies which results in a sudden burst of speed. That’s how they avoid getting eaten for lunch.”
“Hmmm”, I thought. “Interesting.” I was wondering what the relevance of this was to us.
“I watched Sun Yang on Youtube”, he continued, “and couldn’t help but notice that he blows air out through his nose after each breath and a lot of that air ends up under his body. Do you think that makes him faster”?
I had never really thought about it, but perhaps Chris is right. Perhaps it does make a difference.
Sun Yang does a few things out of the ordinary. While swimming the 1500, he takes 3 or so successive breaths in to and out of each turn and often again in the middle of the pool. Except for the final 100 meters, he takes only four out of the six beat kicks, opting to rest on two during the breath stroke. He bends his knee on the kicks, when the opposite hand enters the water, more than one would think he should (what I call the ‘surge’ kicks). He takes no dolphin kicks off walls. And he seems to get more air bubbles under his body than most, coming from his nose. He tucks his chin down pretty close to his chest after the breath strokes and that may be responsible for the released air staying under his body.
He also has an enormous wingspan, pulls with an extremely high elbow, has a monster kick, especially in the last 50 meters (who else finishes under 26 seconds?) and with a stroke rate of 60, manages to beat everyone else and break world records.
With each of these quirky techniques, I can’t help thinking that there is a method to the madness. I can understand and appreciate that with a stroke rate of 60 breathing every cycle (30 respirations per minute) would not be enough to maintain such a high speed. The extra 5 or 6 breaths each lap could really make a difference. Giving up the two dolphin kicks off each wall seems a bit contrary to what most coaches would advocate, but perhaps the trade for the earlier breaths is worth it. I have never seen another swimmer use his unusual kicking technique, but in spite of forfeiting two kicks each cycle, he somehow manages to maintain his speed with a slow stroke rate. Undoubtedly, that enables him to finish with his incredible kicking speed. But what about those air bubbles?
It always seemed to make more sense to me to keep air in the lungs as long as possible before exhaling prior to the breath. After all, the more buoyant we are with the air in our lungs, the higher in the water, the less frontal drag. It would seem, but perhaps not.
Water is some 800 times denser than air and the frontal drag forces in water are astronomically higher than in air. The Emperor Penguins do not escape the wrath of the sea lion by kicking or pulling harder, but by reducing frontal drag, surrounding themselves with tiny air bubbles, rather than water, at that critical feeding time. I know that some racing boats put steps in the hulls in order to trap air under the boat and increase lift and reduce drag. Perhaps a few air bubbles under the chest of a swimmer has more impact on reducing frontal drag than keeping all of it in our lungs. Who knows?
I do know this. Swimmers, like Sun Yang, end up teaching us more than we think we know. It is up to us to observe, to think, to question and most importantly, to learn. Chris might be right. The Emperor Penguins and Sun Yang may be on to something.
Yours in swimming,