In 1936, British zoologist James Gray described an inexplicable phenomenon: Dolphins were capable of swimming at 23 mph—700% faster than their power should permit. He called it the Delphine Mystery.
Seventy-seven years later, scientists still aren’t sure precisely how they do that, but are sure that a unique ability to avoid drag—they called it Active Streamlining–is the most likely explanation.
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In 1988, I attended a talk by Bill Boomer, swim coach at the University of Rochester. Bill stated a swimming efficiency principle that has influenced every stroke I’ve taken for 25 years: “The shape of the vessel matters more than the size of the engine.”By ‘engine,’ he meant muscular and aerobic power.
Boomer taught the science of human movement and coached soccer when the athletic director asked him to coach swimming. Boomer had never even seen a swim meet. But fresh perspective plus expertise in movement studies revealed an insight that had been overlooked for decades: For humans–even more than dolphins–evading drag is the secret to speed.
I was thrilled to hear a sports scientist confirm an observation I’d made 10 years earlier: While watching my team from an underwater window, I noticed that swimmers who held a sleek shape during pushoff traveled dramatically farther and faster than teammates whose shapes were only slightly less sleek.
And every swimmer moved strikingly slower as soon as they began stroking. Which points up how backward it is that traditional methods treat the pull and kick as the alpha and omega of technique, while entirely ignoring streamlining.
Reshaping (and re-thinking) the Swimming Body
All objects designed to travel through ‘thin’ air at high speed—bullets, bullet trains, supersonic planes and cars—share a streamlined shape. And serious cyclists meticulously master ‘aero’ positions–even testing them in wind tunnels. Given that water is more than 800 times denser than air, it’s evident that body-shaping (Boomer called it vessel-shaping) merits intense focus in swimming.
The human body has many ‘moving parts’ which change shape constantly as we stroke, creating profiles that could not be more different from, say, a barracuda or bullet train.
Thus a critical step in improving your freestyle technique is to rethink one of the most fundamental concepts of swimming.
Traditional thinking in technique, in effect, segments the body at the waist: Upper body pulls. Lower body kicks. Teaching and training methods engrain this way of thinking in swimmers.
TI learning sequences, training methods and language are all designed to reinforce a strikingly different way to think about freestyle: Streamlined-right, as show below, alternates with streamlined-left.
As with balance, streamlining is counter-intuitive. Thus, learning it requires a patient, thoughtful approach. But you will feel the difference in minutes.
Cumulative long-term energy savings will be massive. If you’re only 3% efficient before streamlining, you might be 6% after–a 100% gain in efficiency.
How to Become a Human Fish
Balance First If you feel unstable in the water, your arms and legs will be too busy correcting body position to execute streamlining skills. And you’ll be too distracted to give the focus needed to learn them. Establish balance at the start of all Streamlining drills.
Streamline Two Ways. Passive Streamlining exercises are designed to teach kinesthetic awareness and neuromuscular patterns to shape your body like the photo above. Active Streamlining focuses on minimizing drag while creating propulsion.
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Extend to Skate Skate is the ‘human-fish’ position in which you will start and finish every drill that follows. It’s the most ‘slippery’ position possible while swimming freestyle. Moving from Torpedo to Skate ensures a more balanced and stable foundation to Skate. The down-sloped arm angle contributes greatly to balance and reduces the need to kick.
Superman-to-Skate In this and the next exercise, you practice moving dynamically to your optimal Skate position. Check that you still feel as weightless in Skate as in Superman, needing only a gentle kick to maintain equilibrium.
Leaning Skate introduces the principle of using gravity as an aid to propulsion. Swing a ‘weighted’ arm (above the surface your arm weighs 10x what it weighs in the water) forward then fall into a Skating glide. This prepares you for a key skill in the ‘Switch’ drills that follow–drawing most of your energy and power for propulsion from the weight shift to take the load off fatigue-prone muscles.
Short-but-Sweet Every drill in your first several TI skill-building sessions is designed to be performed quite briefly—traveling only 5 to 6 yards. On these four, alternate one right and one left. Repeat 8 to 10x each. This insulates you from the two failure points that defeat most new swimmers–breathing and kicking. (You’ll learn skills for both in subsequent lessons.) It also ensures that your focus remains on imprinting optimal positions rather than getting-to-the-other-end. Travel a short distance on natural momentum and streamlining. Stop before it becomes a kicking exercise.
Skate-Stroke-Skate Bring balance and streamlining awareness into your whole-stroke. Start in Skate, take 3 to 5 strokes. Finish in Skate. Check balance and alignment sensations on every stroke in between.
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