Mental Toughness: The Mike Burton Story

At The Race Club we try to help swimmers become mentally tougher. Mental toughness is necessary to become a swimming champion, as it is in any sport. Some are born with it. Others must learn how to get it.

At University of Texas, Eddie Reese used to rank all of his swimmers on mental toughness from 0-10. He called it the Killer Instinct scale. In order to grade his swimmers, he needed to see how they performed in the Championship meets and particularly during their freshman year. After all, those are the meets that count.

Whatever level you may have been born with on the Killer Instinct scale, we do believe you can improve your ranking on that scale. At The Race Club we teach a five-step process to improve your mental toughness; goal setting, visualization, confidence building, focus, and anchoring.

In our talks on mental training, we often share an inspirational story of one of the many swimmers that we believe are a 10 on the killer instinct scale. One of my favorite stories is of Mike Burton. Many of you have never heard of him, but you should know about him. He was as mentally tough as Michael Phelps, but with a lot less talent.

Mike was from Sacramento, California, and trained under the great coach, Sherm Chavoor. He started swimming competitively at the age of nine as a result of a bike accident. Although he was small and had small hands and feet, he was kind of like Forest Gump. He just kept on swimming, outworking everyone else around him.

By the time Mike was at UCLA in the late 60’s (back when they had a men’s team), he had become the world’s best distance freestyler, holding American and World Records in the 1500 meters. In 1966 at the Spring Nationals in Brandon, Florida, which was the last outdoor short course Nationals ever held, the weather was miserable; cold (38 degree low), wet and rainy. Everyone swam poorly, except Mike. He didn’t care about the weather and broke two American records.

In 1968 at the Olympic Games of Mexico City, after graduating from UCLA, he appeared to have a story-book ending to his illustrious career, winning gold medals in the 400 meter and 1500-meter freestyle events in high altitude. In those days, there was no post-grad swimming program around and no money to support a career. Seemed like a good time for Mike to bow out. He wasn’t finished yet.

In 1972, Mike decided to make a comeback at the age of 25, which was considered ancient in those days. In those four years since Mexico City, the swimming world, led by Rick DeMont, had passed him by. Rick was the new man on the block for distance freestyle swimming. Beautiful technique, awesome kick, amazing work ethic, Rick’s freestyle was like watching a ballet in the water.

At the 1972 Olympic Trials in Portage Park Illinois, Rick won both the 400 meter and 1500-meter freestyle events in world record times. Mike qualified 8th for the finals of the men’s 1500, barely getting in. Somehow, the next evening Mike miraculously finished 3rd in the 1500 freestyle final to qualify for the Olympic Team. He received a standing ovation for his comeback effort. Yet no one expected him to win a medal in Munich, except Mike and perhaps Sherm.

In Munich, after Rick won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle on the first day of competition, it was abruptly taken away from him on the following day because of a positive test for ephedrine, an ingredient found in his asthma medication. He had never been warned that ephedrine was a banned substance nor that it was in his daily medication. Not only did Rick’s gold medal from his 400 get taken away, he was also disqualified from swimming the 1500 on the final day. That mishap likely cost Rick two Olympic gold medals.

The other Team USA swimmer in the 1500-meter freestyle, Doug Northway, did not swim well. In the finals of the men’s 1500-meter freestyle, on the final day of Olympic competition, Mike Burton was our best hope for a medal. He had qualified behind two faster Australians, Graham Windeatt and Brad Cooper. Both Aussies had their eyes on the gold medal.

When the gun went off for the start, Mike went out fast, quickly gaining a body length on his competitors. That was the only race strategy he knew; go out fast and try to hang on. By the 600-meter mark, however, Windeatt had already passed Burton and Cooper was gaining ground on him. The Australians, sitting next to us in the stands, were already celebrating the victory. We were cheering Mike on, hoping he could hang in for a silver medal.

There wasn’t much change in their positions over the next 400 meters, with Windeatt now holding about a body length lead, but after passing the 1000-meter mark, Mike started creeping back up on Windeatt. At 1200 meters, Mike caught the leader and over the final 300 meters extended his lead to win his final Olympic gold medal by 6 meters. It was the most courageous comeback I had ever seen in a swimming race.

That night, I went out with Mike to celebrate his victory. I was so awed by his race, at the end of dinner, I had to ask him this question.

“Mike,” I asked. “How did you do that?”

“What do you mean?” he responded.

“I have seen a lot of swimming races,” I continued. “But I have never seen anyone take it out fast, like you did tonight, get overtaken, and then come back to win so decisively. Where did you find the strength to do that?”

He looked at me like I had just asked the dumbest question possible.

“Gary”, he said. “I have never, ever given up in a race in my life….and I was not going to start tonight.”

When Mike Burton looked at himself in the mirror, he did not see a 5 feet 9 inch swimmer with small hands and feet. He saw a giant. He saw a champion.

What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Vertical Arm Recovery in Butterfly

Recently, I wrote an article on the benefits of a more vertical arm recovery in butterfly, pointing to the techniques used by Rikako Ikee of Japan and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, as elite examples. Another example of an elite swimmer using this higher arm recovery in butterfly is Olympic gold medalist Mireia Belmonte Garcia of Spain. I can assure you that all of these swimmers share the common trait of having highly flexible shoulders; being able to extend the shoulders backwards easily and far.

As coaches, we sometimes find young swimmers that demonstrate this extraordinary and remarkable shoulder flexibility that would enable them to use this butterfly technique. The question is should we be teaching the high vertical arm recovery in fly to them? I think we should.

There are two primary questions that we should ask ourselves. Is this technique faster than using a more horizontal arm recovery? Is there more risk of shoulder injury using this technique?

With respect to being faster, I believe that it is. Using gravitational forces, a more vertical approach of the arms to the water will result in more kinetic energy as the hands and arms strike the water. This event should occur precisely at the same time as the second down kick. The greater the kinetic energy in this hand/arm motion, the more propulsion is generated by that down kick. We have tested the butterfly recovery motion both ways using velocity meter technology and have found a higher peak acceleration rate and a greater increase in velocity at this moment from using the higher arm recovery. Laszlo Cseh, one of the fastest butterflyers in the world, doesn’t even use a first down kick, yet generates such a surge in speed from his strong second down kick, coupled with his vertical arm recovery, that he swims really fast.

Does the higher arm recovery in butterfly increase the risk of shoulder injuries? I doubt it. According to Dr. J. Pieter Hommen, an Orthopedic specialist in Miami, Florida, specializing in sports knee and shoulder injuries, most of the shoulder injuries in swimming are categorized as either tendonitis or impingement issues. Both injuries are related to overuse. The tendonitis problems seem to be more related to the pulling motion underwater, where most of the torque on the shoulder joint is applied. Impingement issues seem to be more related to recovery motion or improper placement of the arm in the water after the recovery, but before the pulling motion begins. In his opinion, most of the impingement shoulder problems occur in tight shoulders, not in hypermobile shoulders such as we find in the swimmers doing high arm recovery.

I honestly don’t know of enough swimmers using this vertical technique to be absolutely certain, but at this point, I don’t believe that this recovery motion will put them at more risk of injury. The only downside to using this technique is that it requires more work to do. Like any other technique, the more a swimmer practices it, the better they get at doing it.

I recently had a young swimmer at The Race Club that was able to use the vertical recovery technique really well. Upon returning home, her coach insisted that she not use it, preferring the more conventional horizontal recovery. He insisted that she was not old enough to use that technique.

I would have preferred that the coach would have called me to discuss the matter, but that didn’t happen. If you are a coach and have a swimmer come to one of our camps at The Race Club and return home using some technique that you don’t agree with, are not familiar with, or perhaps don’t understand, please call me. You may be right and I may be wrong, but it is always best to discuss the matter coach to coach. This is not a one-size-fits all sport, yet we try to base all of our teaching at The Race Club on science-based evidence, not just opinion.

This week, in Lanes 2-4 of our Race Club subscription, you will find a webisode highlighting one of these extraordinary Race Club athletes using high arm recovery in butterfly. In this webisode, we also compare her to her sister that does not have such great flexibility in her shoulders using a more conventional arm recovery.

Hope you enjoy!

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Goosebumps Moments in Sports

As swimmers, parents or coaches, we all have our goosebumps moments in sports; moments when we are overtaken with pride and elation over having accomplished something or having witnessed something extraordinary. Goosebumps may have occurred over crushing a goal time, winning a championship race, being elected captain of the team, overtaking a competitor on the anchor leg of a relay….or a million other possible moments. The point is that these moments are the ones we relish the most during our careers. It is from these moments that we look back and say, “Yeah, it was all worth it.”

I have had many goosebumps moments in my life. Three of the most notable were watching my son, Gary Jr, win an Olympic gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle twice. The other was carrying the Olympic flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games of Montreal Canada in 1976. That was an indescribable feeling of honor and the highest one I have ever received.

You may wonder how an Olympian gets the honor of carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Games for the United States. Well, here is how the process works.

First, you must be talented enough to make the Olympic Team. Since there are approximately 600 other extremely talented athletes on the same summer Olympic Team, that alone is not enough.

Second, you must have done something extraordinary as an Olympian. In Michael Phelp’s case, who was selected to be the flag bearer in Rio in 2016, he simply won more Olympic medals than any other human being in history. Others have been selected for qualifying for numerous Olympic Teams (I was just the second person (behind Duke Kahanamoku) to qualify for three Olympic teams in swimming…which today is nothing unusual). Other Olympians, such as Cliff Meidel (2000 Canoeing) and Lopez Lamong (2008 Athletics) were selected on the basis of having made a heroic comeback or overcoming a tremendous obstacle to reach the Olympic team.

Third, you need to be a little bit lucky, being in the right place at the right time. In the two prior Olympic Games of 1972 and 1968, a woman had been selected to carry the USA flag. Perhaps that may have influenced the decision to select a man in 1976?

On the evening before the Opening Ceremony day of each Olympic Games (summer or winter), all of the team captains from all sports are summoned to a meeting room for the purpose of selecting the flag bearer. Not all of the captains of the sports that are represented there will nominate an athlete for that honor, but many do.

In 1976 there were 12 athletes nominated by various team captains to carry the flag and lead Team USA into Montreal Olympic Stadium. Each of those team captains presented his or her arguments as to why the nominated athlete should receive that honor. All nominees were deserving. Since I was one co-captain of the men’s swim team, the other co-captain, Steve Furniss, presented my case. He must have done a great job, because he made me sound a lot better than I could ever remember being. I do recall blushing somewhat during his presentation.

Then we voted. After the first vote, eight candidates were eliminated and we were down to four. Each nominating captain spoke again about their selected candidate. The second vote came down to two athletes, Willie Davenport, a renowned hurdler, and me.

Willie Davenport was competing in his fourth Olympic Games. He had won the gold medal in 1968 in the 110 meter hurdles. A year or so before the 1976 Olympic Games, Willie had suffered from a pulmonary embolus that had nearly killed him. Yet he came back from that adversity and qualified for his 4th Olympic team. It was an amazing story.

When I heard all of that, I knew I was not going to win. I was still pretty honored to be standing up there with him on that ballot. In fact, the only two votes that I thought I could count on were from Steve and an Olympian named Jan Palchikoff. Jan was captain of the women’s rowing team, but had been a young swimmer on the same team as me in California, years earlier. We were still good friends.

After the final vote, it was announced that I was the winner. I almost fell off my chair. I stood up, and with tears welling in my eyes, told the entire group of captains how proud I was to have been given that honor. It meant so much to me then and the honor of being our standard bearer in the Olympic Games grows greater every year. To have been selected by my peers to lead the greatest group of athletes from the greatest country in the world into the Olympic Games is an indescribable feeling. It is a goosebumps moment.

As we walked out of the meeting, I put my arm around Steve and thanked him. Without his persuasive words, I would never have been elected. I told him that the only two people that I thought would vote for me were him and Jan Palchikoff, who was seated next to Steve.

“I hate to break the news to you, Gary”, he said. “I looked over at Jan while she was casting her vote. She voted for Willie.”

The following afternoon as we prepared just outside the Olympic Village for the march to the stadium, I clutched the flag pole tightly with my arms, with the end of the pole planted firmly against my chest. The red, white and blue stars and stripes waved continuously above my head from the light breeze. We marched for nearly a mile from the Olympic Village before we even reached the Olympic Stadium. The few hundred spectators standing alongside the road on the way clapped favorably as we marched by.

Then we entered into a darkened tunnel which led us onto the track of the stadium. As I was leading the team through the tunnel, I began to see the light of the opening of the tunnel and my hands began to tremble. “God,” I prayed to myself. “Please don’t let me drop this flag”.

The Stars and Stripes were the first thing to appear coming out of the tunnel. Once the crowd saw our flag, all 80,000 spectators stood and let out a deafening roar of approval. I shook like a leaf. Goosebumps formed everywhere. Yet I smiled all the way around that track. I even gave a short wave to Queen Elizabeth who was seated in the crowd. We were told explicitly not to dip the flag to her, as it is a US federal law that we are not to do so for any foreign king, queen or kingdom. I obeyed.

Whenever your goosebumps moments in life occur, relish them. We don’t get that many and you should cherish every one. I know that I do.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

What Octane Rating do you have on your Freestyle Recovery?

At The Race Club we use the analogy of Octane ratings in gasoline to describe the different arm recovery motions in freestyle. Octane is a low molecular weight hydrocarbon that is an additive to gasoline, and which helps the engine run more efficiently, particularly at high compression. Metaphorically, the words High Octane have become synonymous with powerful or dynamic in the English language.

Low Octane

The easiest way to get the arm back out in front of you after a freestyle pull is by bending the elbow, relaxing the wrist, and allowing the hand to barely clear the water as it moves forward through the air. We refer to that technique of arm recovery as Low Octane, because it requires the least amount of work to get the job done and produces the least amount of kinetic energy.

Most swimmers first learn to do freestyle with a Low Octane, bent-arm recovery. Most distance swimmers and triathletes use a Low Octane, bent-arm recovery to conserve energy for the many pulling motions they will need to do during the longer races. Examples of elite distance swimmers using this technique include Katie Ledecky, Zane Grothe, Sun Yang, and many others.

Medium Octane

As the races shorten to 100 meters, we often see the swimmer’s hands elevate from the water’s surface with a straighter recovering arm. We refer to this less bent-elbow recovery as Medium or Medium-High Octane recovery. This recovery technique requires more work and produces more kinetic energy during the recovery motion. There is only one reason why we would want to make the recovery more difficult and that is to swim faster. With the correct timing, more kinetic energy in the recovering arm will generate more propulsion in the pulling arm. We call that coupling and that leads to a faster swim. Examples of elite athletes using this recovery technique would include Nathan Adrian and Simone Manuel.

High Octane

In the one sprint event of swimming, the 50-meter race, we often see the swimmer’s arms completely straight or nearly completely straight on the recovery motion. We refer to this as High Octane freestyle recovery. Similar to a high combustion engine, the sprinter typically has more fast twitch fibers in the muscle composition than the distance swimmer. They then benefit from using this higher energy recovery technique to generate greater propulsion. Examples of elite sprinters using High Octane freestyle recovery include Florent Manaudou, Anthony Ervin, Ben Proud, Abby Weitzel, and Pernille Blume.

While there are many exceptions to using these different recovery techniques, we also find some swimmers that will use different arm recoveries with each arm. Lotte Friis, the elite Danish distance swimmer, is a notable example of that, using High Octane recovery with the left arm and Low Octane recovery with the right arm. Other swimmers will change their recovery technique (and stroke rate) during a race. Nathan Adrian is quite famous for finishing his 100-meter freestyle races with a High Octane freestyle recovery; something coach Mike Bottom taught him to do at The Race Club in 2008.

In conclusion, while most swimmers learn to swim freestyle with a Low Octane, bent elbow recovery for sprinting or mid distance races, elevating your Octane Rating on your recovery may be a good technique to try. You may just win a few more races.

This week, in Lanes 1-4 (complimentary) of The Race Club subscription, you will find an excellent webisode showing various swimmers using the different recovery techniques. We hope you enjoy it.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

What is your Baseline Freestyle Speed?

At The Race Club, we look at the freestyle kicking speed as the baseline speed for your freestyle. In other words, your all-out kicking speed for 50 yards is your baseline freestyle speed for 50 yards, before you add in your pulling and coupling motions. It is true that the shorter the race, the greater the contribution the kick makes to the overall freestyle speed. Therefore, the more important the kick becomes. However, the kick is meaningful for most fast swimmers, no matter what the distance and particularly when you want to put your freestyle into high gear at the finish.

Several years ago, I was coaching a 34 year old sprinter from Northern Ireland, Andy Hunter, who was trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. His goal was to reach 23.0 for the 50 meter LC freestyle. His PB was 24.6 and I had 6 months to try to help him reach his goal. That is like trying to drop a minute off of one’s 1500 time. But I was committed to try and so was he.

He arrived from Ireland overweight, out of shape and with a 50 meter kicking time of 50 seconds. I told him he wouldn’t reach his goal of 23.0 unless he could kick 50 meters in 35 seconds or faster.

In one of the first test meets in Ft. Lauderdale after he had arrived, Andy swam the 50 free LC with Cesar Cielo in the same heat. Cesar swam a 22.0 and Andy finished about 7 meters behind him in 25.2. Andy left the pool feeling very dejected. He felt even more so after I showed him the video of the race with him around 7 meters from the wall when Cesar finished.

“How in world can he beat me by 7 meters in a 50 meter race,” he asked? “How can that happen?”

I explained it to him this way. By the time he raced in Ft Lauderdale, Andy’s kick time had dropped to 45 seconds, which is 1.1 meters per second. Cesar could kick the same distance in around 30 seconds, which is 1.67 meters per second. After adding in the pulling and coupling motions (stroke rate of 120), Cesar boosted his swimming speed to just under 2.3 meters per second in order to swim 22.0. Andy boosted his swimming speed with a 140 stroke rate to 1.98 meters per second to swim the same race in 25.2 seconds. In other words, Cesar added .6 meters per second to his baseline speed while Andy added nearly .9 meters per second to his baseline speed.

Good for Andy! Unfortunately, because his baseline speed was so low, he was still over .3 meters per second slower in overall speed than Cesar. So I asked Andy, how long was Cesar swimming?

“22 seconds,” he responded.

“And what is 22 x .3”, I asked?

“6.6 meters”…..which is precisely where Andy was away from the wall when Cesar finished.

After 5 months of training and lots of ankle stretching and hard kicking sets, Andy improved his kicking time for 50 meters to 38 seconds. In his shaved, tapered meet he swam a 23.2 for the 50 freestyle, just off of his goal time and narrowly missing making the Commonwealth Games. In spite of that, I was pretty proud of him and that bit of coaching.

The bottom line is if you want to swim faster, whether it is a 50 sprint or finishing a 1500 meter race with after burners on, work on your kicking speed. To do so requires extraordinary plantar ankle flexibility, tremendous leg strength, proper kicking mechanics, and lots of kicking work.

Part of the proper biomechanics of freestyle kicking entails how much to bend your knees. This week, in Lanes 3 and 4, you will find an interesting webisode that compares three techniques of normal, overbending, and underbending the knees in freestyle kicking. This is using Velocity Meter technology with a 13 year old age group swimmer. We hope you enjoy!

Yours in Kicking,

Gary Sr.

Understanding the 4 Basic Sciences of Fast Swimming


Swimming fast is primarily the result of the effective application of four broad basic sciences, Physics, Physiology, Kinesiology and (lumped together) Neural, Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences. All four of these basic sciences interact and, to some degree, overlap and are extremely important in helping an athlete swim fast. In order to become the best swimmer or swim coach possible, we need to develop an understanding of all four sciences and how they inter-relate. The following is a simplistic description of the four sciences.

Physics in swimming relates mostly to Newtonian and Fluid Mechanics. Our ability to quantitate frontal drag in both active (while swimming) and passive (fixed positions) forms, and to understand how the fluid dynamics and flow (vortices) of a swimmer affect his ability to generate propulsion largely influence the swimming techniques we should teach. Of all four basic sciences, the application of physics is perhaps the least understood or studied in the sport of swimming.

Physiology in swimming relates to our ability to provide sufficient energy, and from the right systems, to enable the muscles involved in the ideal biomechanical swimming motions. This will sustain propulsion for the duration of the competitive event. It also relates to our ability to develop the right muscle composition in order to maximize and sustain propulsion. Physiology involves a large number of human organs and systems, most of which can be improved with training. Some cannot. The best swimming coaches in the most advanced swimming nations of the world have done an incredibly good job at improving the physiology of swimmers through conditioning and training.

Kinesiology relates to our ability to understand the ideal motions that maximize a swimmer’s velocity for the duration of the event. Kinesiology includes more than biomechanical motions, however. It also considers how the physiology, anatomy, and psychology influence the ideal motions of an athlete. One might assume that the ideal biomechanical motions of a swimmer also produce the maximum amount of propulsion, but that is not necessarily true. A swimmer’s acceleration or deceleration at any moment is determined by the net difference between his propulsion and his frontal drag forces. To reach maximum sustainable velocity, a compromise often needs to be reached between the motions that produce the most propulsion and those that reduce frontal drag. The biomechanics of any swimmer’s motions are often determined and/or restricted by a limited amount of flexibility in key joints, such as the shoulder, hip, or ankle.

Neural, Cognitive, and Behavioral Sciences in sports relates to the power or ability of the mind to enable the body to perform at the highest possible level. Virtually every cognitive function we perform is controlled by our minds. Swimming is no exception. Neuromuscular adaptation and responses are two of the most important aspects of training and competing. Mental training in the sport of swimming is still in its infancy, compared to what is known about improving the physiology and biomechanics of swimmers. I believe that there is a great opportunity for improvement in these sciences.

This week, our Race Club subscribers in Lanes 2, 3, and 4 will find a webisode showing an excellent technique to improve stroke rate for the 100 backstroke. Hope you will enjoy!


Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

Physiology for Swimmers, Coaches and Parents – Part III Muscle Composition

Whether we turn out to be a better sprinter or endurance athlete is largely determined by the composition of our muscle fibers. There are three types of fibers; slow-twitch (type I) and two types of fast-twitch (types IIa and IIb). Slow twitch fibers are more suitable for endurance events and fast twitch fibers are better suited for short bursts of power and speed. Type IIa fibers have the ability to convert more toward an endurance function (similar to type I) or toward a power function (similar to type IIb), depending on how we train them.

While our composition of muscle fibers is largely genetically determined, we have the ability to increase the size (hypertrophy) and numbers of muscle fibers (muscle mass) and to a smaller degree, alter the function of our type IIa fibers through appropriate training and nutrition. Larger and/or more type II muscle fibers will increase the contractile strength of the muscle. More type I fibers increases our ability to sustain contractions over a longer time.

The paradox of building too much muscle mass is that it can begin to affect our shape (morphology), making us bigger, which increases frontal drag forces. In most sports, getting bigger and stronger will make us better. In swimming, that is not always the case. At some point, if we continue getting bigger, we will get slower. The additional power will not overcome the additional drag force we create from the added size.

In summary, a simplified understanding of the physiology for swimmers, coaches and parents includes the following:

  1. Identify the anatomical composition of the swimmer’s muscles (this can be estimated by experience in racing or training or by doing a vertical jump)
  2. Build the energy systems according to the duration of the events to be swum (most of the swimming events require a robust aerobic system, while sprinting requires more attention to the anaerobic system and stored energy)
  3. Teach swimmers to use an appropriate respiratory rate to properly utilize the aerobic system (when required)
  4. Design appropriate training in and outside of the pool to improve the composition and size of swim-specific muscle fibers for the targeted events

In the past 2 weeks we have released 3 webisodes on appropriate dryland and strength training for swimmers featuring Indiana University coach Coley Stickels and some of his outstanding post-grad swimmers. Lane 1-4 subscribers will find a great video on strength training, while those in Lanes 3 and 4 will also find a video on boxing for swimmers and another video on some unusual dynamic warm up exercises. We hope you will enjoy these new webisodes!

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.


*Special thanks to Dave Costill, PhD for his contributions to this article

Part I – How We Create Energy to Swim Faster
Part II – Energy Systems and How to Breathe to Swim Faster


Improving your Swimming Race Starts off the Blocks

The Three Techniques of a Clean Entry for Swimming Race Starts

When a swimmer’s hands first strike the water on the swimming start, the speed of the swimmer will never reach anywhere near that level again in the race. Whether a swimmer simply falls off the block or has a huge vertical leaping ability, like Caeleb Dressel or Brad Tandy, the vertical speed at hand entry will be similarly near 13-14 mph, thanks to gravity. Both swimmers will also reach the water at exactly the same time. The difference is that Caeleb and Brad will reach the water over 4 meters from the wall.

When Caeleb swims the 50 freestyle, his average speed is about 5.5 mph. As the hands enter the water after the start, swimmers are traveling at nearly 3 times the world record speed. Since frontal drag is proportional to the square of the speed of the swimmer, the swimmer had better find the most streamlined position possible. If not, he or she will pay a huge penalty.

One of the most important techniques of a great swimming start is to not lose all of that momentum derived from the high velocity off the starting block. To do so requires a very clean entry, which means very little splash. The bigger the splash, the more frontal drag is caused at entry, and the more the swimmer slows down.

The three importance techniques or nuances of getting a clean entry at the swimming race start are:

  1. Hyperstreamline the front end of your body
  2. Point the toes at entry with a very slight knee bend
  3. Lift the hip before entry

We have written extensively about the use of the hyperstreamline position in swimming:

It is interesting to note that, although there continues to be some controversy about the best way for swimmers to streamline, virtually all swimmers get into the hyperstreamlined body position for the entry off the swimming race start. Chins are tucked all the way to the chest. Arms are placed behind the head and hands are wrapped together, wrist over wrist, with fingers pointed forward and squeezed together. At such high speeds that are achieved on the starts, swimmers have learned that this hyperstreamlined body position results in the lowest possible drag coefficient.

What swimmers are not so aware of is what is happening at the back ends of their bodies, with their feet and legs. The feet and legs enter the water at nearly the same speed as the hands, yet swimmers are often simply unaware of what is happening at that end. Failing to point the toes is one of the most common mistakes we find on the start. With our Propulsion/Drag Meter testing, we found that having the feet hanging will add 41% more frontal drag compared to pointing the toes. In other words, if your feet are hanging down on the start, it is like putting a parachute out.

In order to get the feet in the water cleanly, the toes need to be pointed backwards like a ballerina and the knees should be bent very slightly. Bending the knees slightly enables the swimmer to point the toes skyward and to slip the feet into the water with very little splash. Overbending the knees results in too much frontal drag from the legs and not bending them at all results in the feet being too horizontal at entry. Getting the legs and feet into the water cleanly will result in the swimmer sustaining greater momentum.

Finally, the third important technique involved in getting the body into the water cleanly is called the hip lift. With this technique, the swimmer flexes the hip slightly (about 15 degrees) just prior to entry. If the swimmer maintains a straight body line at entry, the swimmer tends to go too deep. If the swimmer over flexes the hip (more than 30 degrees), he also tends to go too deep. With the right amount of hip flexion, the swimmer can get into the water with the least amount of drag and at the right depth. Virtually all elite swimmers will lift their hips slightly just before entering the water on the start.

This week in Lanes 2, 3 and 4 of The Race Club subscription, you will see a video on how we progress our swimmers through the process of getting a clean entry for the swimming start. Learning these three important techniques of a clean swimming race start entry is the first step toward getting a fast start like Caeleb and Brad have. We hope you enjoy!

Since Race Club strength coach Tim McClellan began using Marshal Arts techniques to teach our elite sprinters how to gain swimming power, speed and coordination in 2000, we have believed strongly in these types of exercises to benefit swimmers. This week in Lanes 1-4 (complimentary) you will find a fascinating combination of strength exercises using Martial Arts by Coach Coley Stickles with his Indiana University post-graduate athletes. You will love this video!

Subscribers to Lanes 3 and 4 will enjoy a deeper-dive video into some of the many boxing exercises that Coley uses for his athletes.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

Butterfly Stroke: Why I like Rikako Ikee’s Butterfly Technique

Rikako Ikee has already proven to be one of the fastest women butterfly swimming competitors in the world. Watching Rikako swimming butterfly, you will see that she has very high recovering arms on both sides; a very vertical arm recovery compared to most. Her hands are well above her elbows on her recovery. Lazlo Cseh of Hungary has a similar recovery among the men’s butterfly swimming.

The advantage of a more vertical recovery in swimming butterfly is that the gravitational force assists in the arms coming down to the water more forcefully when compared to a more common horizontal recovery. The higher kinetic energy of the arms at entry couples with the second down kick and enables the swimmer to surge forward faster after this second butterfly kick.

In order to do this vertical recovery in swimming butterfly, the swimmer needs to have extraordinarily high extension flexibility of the shoulders. At The Race Club, we grade all of our swimmers for flexibility in all of the important joints used in swimming. In the butterfly swimming stroke and the freestyle swimming stroke, the ability of the swimmer to extend the shoulders backwards is a key advantage. With both of these swimming strokes extension of the shoulders helps in the recovery motion and in the high elbow pulling motion.

With the arms held at shoulder level height, back straight and palms facing downward, we extend the arms backwards holding the arms near the elbows until the force produces some discomfort to the swimmer. If the elbows are a few inches apart when that occurs, we would score that as a 6. With one inch of separation, it is a 7. Barely touching the elbows together would be considered an 8. Overlapping elbows is a 9 and when the elbows can move past each other, that is a 10.

Every swimmer that I have seen that can use Rikako’s butterfly technique has an 8, 9 or 10 score on shoulder extension. Even those swimmers that have the extra shoulder flexibility may still be challenged with this high arm recovery technique, as it requires more attention and work to accomplish than a lower arm recovery.

I do believe that coupling with the arms and head (and to lesser extent the shoulders) can be a powerful technique in butterfly. The extra effort of Rikako’s high arm recovery, for those able to do so, may be well worth the effort.

This week in Lanes 2, 3 and 4 you will find a valuable webisode on another important coupling motion for freestyle swimming, body rotation. For those in Lanes 3 and 4, you will find some very good data on distance ace Zane Grothe on why the body rotation is so important in freestyle swimming. We hope you will enjoy them. In Lanes 3 and 4, American record holder Zane Grothe will show you why you need to keep your toes pointed coming off the walls on your turns.


Yours in butterfly swimming,

Gary Sr.

Peak Performance Sports Psychology Mental Toughness: Are you Anchoring to improve your Swimming Performances?

At The Race Club camps, our fifth and final point of peak performance mental toughness training is called anchoring. Anchoring is sports psychology that the swimmer does or says or thinks either standing behind or on the starting block, just seconds before the start of an important race.

The Anchoring effect to the swimmer is what the switch is to the light bulb. It is what the curtain-rise and spotlight is to the actor. Without anchoring techniques, the swimmer’s brain simply doesn’t get quite the same message that it is showtime. Anchoring psychology is the final and critical piece in the process of peak performance mental training. Without the positive thinking anchor, the peak performance is likely not going to be as good.

Every elite swimmer has a peak performance anchor. Some anchoring techniques are obvious. Some anchoring methods are not so obvious. I can assure you that each elite swimmer is saying or doing something right before that big race begins to get into the zone required of great performances. Anchoring is essential.

The fun part about anchoring is that each swimmer gets to design or invent his or her own peak performance anchor. It doesn’t matter too much if other swimmers in a race know what your anchor is, or even that you are anchoring. It is only important that you know.

An anchor can be as simple and subtle as licking the inside of your goggles or saying a few key words to yourself. Or the anchor technique can be as flamboyant as kissing your biceps (be ready to back it up!). You get to create your own. Just be sure you do that and don’t forget to use it before the big race.

Here are some of the most memorable anchors of all time:

  • Michael Phelps’ dynamic stretch arm swing on the block. You might have thought that this famous stretch was just a stretch. Not only did it tell Michael that he was ready to pounce on the competition, the loud slap on his shoulders of his hands also anchored to every one of his competitors that Michael was ready.
  • Usain Bolt’s ‘To di World’ Lightning victory pose. From the origin of a Jamaican dance, this pose became the fear of anyone that considered challenging Bolt’s title of the fastest human being on the planet.
  • Gary Hall Jr’s shadow boxing routine. Through his career, the boxing progressed to the raising of his clenched hands to both sides, then finally to kissing of his biceps, accompanied by the red, white and blue, Stars and Stripes boxing robe and shorts. Boisterous? Perhaps, but he always backed it up.
  • Amanda Beard’s teddy bear. Since the time she was a young swimmer, the teddy bear accompanied her to the starting block and waited there until she finished. Important? She probably couldn’t swim fast without that bear, but she did manage to win a few Olympic gold medals with the teddy bear on the block, cheering her on.
  • Michael Jordan’s bounces of the basketball at the foul line, followed by a single backward twirl of the ball in the air. He once hit 6 out 10 free throws with his eyes closed using that anchor
  • Stephan Curry’s biting of his mouthpiece sideways before every free throw to be over 90% successful.


What is your peak performance anchor going to be?


Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.