You know, there is a guy at the pool I work out at and he has paddles for crawl and backstroke, snorkel, fins (2 sets mind you), and other assorted goodies. I am usually in the same lane with - at best - fist gloves and my tempo trainer and yet every time I swim I either run into his fins after giving him a more than half a pool lengths head start or pass him several times if I am going non-stop. Seems like a lot of wasted money too me. Just my two cents.
Perhaps I'm lucky that at the local pool they don't permit fins or snorkels during public sessions. They do seem to permit paddles because I've seen some swimmers use them, but only the small sort. I was considering investing in a snorkel but abandoned the idea when I found out that they are not allowed unless under the supervision of a qualified instructor.
I'm still thinking of getting a pair of finger paddles, although I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that they are no better than swimming with fists or fist gloves.
I find that the pull buoy provides feedback on the lack of efficacy of either my body position or kick in backstroke. When I can swim backstroke as fast without a pull buoy as with it, I will know that I have solved the problem. Currently I am several seconds per 25m length slower without it than with it. I am trying hard to replicate the same feeling without it but so far it hasn't worked.
I suppose this would be better in the backstroke section, where it has already been discussed.
The Grownup's Guide to Swimming Faster: Chapter Two
What We Learn from Coaches
When we seek professional coaching, what we receive is remarkably similar to instinctive self-coaching. And why not: Common sense tells us we’ll swim faster by moving our arms faster. We quickly learn that swimming fast hurts more than swimming slow, and we get tired quicker.
In hard-to-argue logic, we figure that training should increase our tolerance for pain and fatigue. On one triathlon web forum I frequently see the acronym HTFU, which I learned stands for “Harden the F**k Up.” Coaches say we should learn to “push through pain barriers.” Less primitive but the same meaning.
When our version of HTFU stops making us faster, or we’re looking for new workout ideas, we go in search of coaching. Our hope is that we’ll receive Training, which we perceive will be superior in some way to the Hard Work we give ourselves. (Or at least less boring; in on-line triathlon forums “Swimming is boring” is as ubiquitous as “How do I get faster?”)
Athletic Training comes in three forms: Metabolic, Muscular and Motor.
Metabolic When we swim harder, the demand for muscle fuel – oxygen and glycogen – increases. Aerobic training is designed to create more robust ‘plumbing.’ The metabolic processes of exercise were documented exhaustively from the 1940s onward. Virtually every swim coach working today – and a good many curious athletes – have been exposed to the training theories that resulted. The basic idea is that we increase metabolic capacity by increasing work duration (how many yards or minutes) and intensity (how many heartbeats) while generally decreasing rest. You can also make it numbingly complex by pursuing Aerobic Base, Lactate Threshold, Maximal Oxygen Uptake (VO2max) etc. with formulae specifying how many 100-yard repeats (or should you do 200s instead?), heart rate, ratio of work to rest, etc. Oft-heard coaching phrases like “get the yards in” are hallmarks of Metabolic training.
Muscular It’s widely known that swimming faster causes significant increases in drag. It seems to follow that we need to generate more power to swim faster – some of it with weight training and some of it with ‘overload’ training in the pool. Muscular training includes pulling with buoy and paddles to strengthen arm muscles, kicking with boards and fins to build leg muscles, swimming against the pull of rubber tube – or sometimes with clothes on – to strengthen everything.
Motor If Metabolic training is designed to improve the plumbing, this targets your body’s wiring. Actually software would be more accurate. Every movement originates as an electrical signal that traverses brain and nervous system to activate specific ‘motor units’ in the muscles. To learn any swimming skill we need to ‘burn a new circuit.’ In Motor (or neural) training your focus is on creating, optimizing and ‘hardening’ those circuits. The metabolic and muscular systems still have to perform the work – and therefore get trained. The critical difference is that neuro-motor training is based on understanding how the brain processes information. Aerobic training is based on understanding how the body metabolizes energy.
When we seek out coaching whether at the local Masters group, or someone with USAT credentials, or downloading a workout from the Active Tri or Swim newsletter – or virtually any source – it’s overwhelmingly certain that the workout you get will focus heavily, if not exclusively, on Metabolic and Muscular training.
Here’s a sample I downloaded from the Active.com web site:
10x50 Kick. Descend 1-5, 6-10
3x400 Descend 1-3
4 x200 Pull 1 easy, 1 fast
If you’ve trained with a Masters group, were emailed workouts from a personal tri coach, or gotten them from a magazine or on-line, this probably looks very familiar. Nearly any element is interchangeable with any other. Swap the pull, kick, and swim around. Transpose easy/fast with descend. Do 2 x 400 and 6 x 200 instead of 3 x 400 and 4 x 200. It makes little difference. The same effects still occur – expend heartbeats, burn glycogen, fatigue muscles.
What’s also highly characteristic about this set is the complete absence of anything that will lead to neuro-motor development -- or ‘improve a circuit.’ When standard workouts include that, it’s usually peripheral and pro-forma I.E. Drills – with no defining detail -- in place of the 10 x 50 kick. Or perhaps a reminder to ‘lengthen your stroke’ on the easy 200s.
How do we target neuro-motor development? Well, virtually everything that follows will explain. But first let’s examine how effective Metabolic and Muscular training are in making you faster.
The Grownup's Guide to Swimming Faster: Chapter Three
My goal is a chapter a day. Reviewers will need to read fast to keep up with me.
Why Solutions to the Speed Problem are Elusive
One way to assess the effectiveness of traditional metabolic-and- muscular training is to ask: If swimming harder made you faster, why are so many people pleading “How do I get faster.” Virtually every person who has tried swimming harder has discovered the only thing it always does faster is make you tired. Lactate Tolerance, VO2max, etc. are simply over-complicated versions of the same thing.
To find a better solution, we need to take a closer look at the problem.
The Speed Problem
The problem we face in swimming faster is the need to find ways to overcome three speed-limiters that are as inevitable as Death-and-Taxes: Energy, Resistance and Age.
In 2005 DARPA (a Defense Dept. agency responsible for developing military technology) was tasked with designing a swim foil to allow Navy Seals to move much faster, with less effort, underwater. The DARPA engineers began by comparing the efficiency of human swimmers with dolphins – the first time anyone had done so. They discovered that while dolphins convert 80 percent of energy into forward motion, humans convert only 3 percent!
In other words, a human swimmer is almost perfectly designed to be an energy-wasting machine. This simply reflects what I pointed out earlier: As terrestrial mammals in an aquatic environment, we’re essentially fish-out-of-water. What allows us to survive at all is that, unlike fish, we possess a brain that’s ‘wired for problem-solving’.
This makes it clear that Metabolic training is aimed at solving the wrong problem. Rather than make more energy available, we have an almost limitless opportunity to waste less. Only Neuro-Motor training can do that!
As I noted earlier, water resistance goes up exponentially as we swim faster. Considering this the findings of two studies of swimming speed should cause anyone who wishes to swim faster to immediately rethink how they train.
• Those DARPA engineers also discovered that dolphins actually managed to swim at speeds that exceeded what their calculations said was possible, given their estimated ‘horsepower’. Unable to explain it any other way, the researchers theorized that the dolphins possessed a unique ability for “active streamlining.”
• In a study of all competitors in the Mens 100-Meter Free -- always considered swimming’s ultimate ‘power event’ -- Jane Cappaert, Biomechanics Director for USA Swimming, found that the finalists (the eight fastest swimmers) produced an average of 16% LESS propulsive power than the swimmers who failed to advance from prelims. The more powerful the swimmer, the slower they swam! Cappaert’s conclusion? What sets apart the fastest swimmers is “superior whole-body streamlining.”
This confirms that Muscular training is also aimed at solving the wrong problem. Increasing power won’t make us faster. Reducing resistance will. Again, only Neuro-Motor training is capable of that!
The final speed-limiter we face is for all of us who are in our mid-30s or beyond each passing year means a slight loss in aerobic capacity and, a bit later, muscular power too. Assiduous training can reduce, but not stop, those losses. Thus, if we focus exclusively or even primarily on working hard, all we have to look forward to is the prospect of steadily losing speed.
In contrast, recent research has shown that the brain and nervous system can continue to optimize at least into our 70s – four extra decades of potential improvement. While nothing guarantees that Neuro-Motor training will result in swimming faster as we age, it markedly improve our chances of improving in middle-age (particularly if we began swimming in adulthood) and minimizing age-related declines. Not only can we hone skills decades longer than we can improve aerobically, as shown above neural training is also far more accurately targeted on the capabilities that actually make us faster.
Why Does Everyone Still Focus on Hard Work?
By now you must be wondering why do 99.99% of all swimming workouts still focus more on getting fitter, rather than faster? It goes back to sports research conducted 50 and 60 years ago. When swim coaching began to advance from pastime to profession in the 60s, all the research that seemed applicable at the time was about energy-and- muscle metabolism. This research suggested an approach to training that was systematic rather than ad-hoc.
Before long the world’s best swimmers were coming from programs based on books like Doc Counsilman’s The Science of Swimming. Over the past 40+ years a vast amount of comprehensive, authoritative and formal documentation has emerged about how to work harder systematically and gradually filtered down to every coach, swimmer, and more recently triathlete.
Research by Jane Cappaert and DARPA was still decades in the future and, when it was finally published, had the approximate effect of a dinghy encountering a supertanker. It was – and remains – overwhelmed. And in just the last decade groundbreaking work in neurobiology labs has shown that the brain and nervous system are even more adaptable than muscle tissue. Virtually none of that has yet filtered down to the average coach or athlete. Consequently, while knowledge about how to train the body is universal, insight into how to train the brain and nervous system is rare.
You may ask “If working hard is so ineffective, how do you explain that every elite swimmer does physiologically-oriented training?” Well, if everyone in Nascar still drove a 1960s-era race car, the best drivers would still win. But if a driver of middling skill pulled onto the track with a 2010 supercar, game over.
Also, remember what Jane Cappaert’s research revealed: In 1992, all swimmers were being trained to maximize power. None were being coached to prioritize streamlining. But the most gifted (any Olympic medalist has rare talents), those with acute sensory awareness, had instinctively found a better way to swim -- despite being coached like those they beat. The smartest thing the average athlete can do is emulate what they did differently, rather than what they did like everyone else.
Aerobic Formulas: Workable Systems or Junk Science?
One more thing you should know about the physiology research on which aerobic training formulas (how many repeats, what duration, what heart rate) are based. It was conducted on treadmills and exercycles. A pool is too challenging an environment for monitoring heart rates and collecting blood gases. Across a half-century, the physiological markers that emerge from those studies have tracked fairly closely with performance levels in running and cycling. A particular Lactate Threshold or VO2max level can predict, with up to 75% accuracy, how a sampling of runners or cyclists will rank.
Those same metrics have never correlated with performance in swimming. The Olympic gold medalist not only is likely to produce less stroking power than an also-ran; he or she is also likely to have an inferior VO2max. The reason for the disparity is that a swimmer who creates drag has to work harder every single stroke than one who avoids drag. And day after day of hard, yet ineffective, work will often result in better ‘scores’ on fitness measures -- but seldom on the timing clock.
Despite the fact that physiology markers do correlate reasonably well with running times, Michael Joyner MD, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic, still refers to aerobic-training formulas as “pseudo science.” Joyner, who -- outside the lab -- has run a 2:25 marathon and swum a 21-minute 1500-meters, points out that the most successful running coaches coach rely most heavily on an organic, not formulaic, approach. They closely observe the athlete and intuitively adjust the work based on those observations. Canned workouts can never work as well as observation and intuition – the most critical neural component of the training you're about to embark on.
Outside of the TI world, how do people achieve speed? How much faster could someone get by simply practicing the HTFU method? I'm always *thrilled* to find myself anywhere near the middle of a pack of masters swimmers. A lot of them have ugly form and kick like crazy, but they can still swim faster than I can. Do they have an inborn sense of how to compensate for inefficiency that led them to the sport in the first place?
On this forum, there is a lot of discussion about imperfections in elite swimmers' strokes. I think, though, that those imperfections tend to be relatively minor. In other words, those swimmers could probably be even faster if they corrected those imperfections, but their form is still really great. How did they get there? What's the difference between the coaching they receive and the HTFU method? Or, do they just have an innate ability to swim well, despite the coaching they've received?
What happens when an out-of-shape former college swimmer gets back in the pool after a years-long break from swimming? How much speed has he/she lost due to poor fitness?
Great questions as usual. I'll give very brief responses, because I anticipate great input from others too.
1. Swimming faster increases drag. But so does stroking faster - in most cases -- because it increases turbulence.
2. Ugly, yet fast, swimmers have the advantage of muscle -- and aerobic -- memory. Years of hard training give their aerobic systems an edge. Also they are have more experience dealing with discomfort. What 'feels hard' to you doesn't to them. Finally, years of swimming inevitably teach you a few implicit lessons about moving a body through water. They usually do a number of things well that are more subtle than the easily observed rough spots you see.
3. Elite swimmers were 8, 10, or 12 years old once. They took millions of strokes with less balance and flow at that time and many vestiges of those habits remain. However elite athletes are also 'geniuses at compensation' too so they've learned to accommodate inefficiency better than the rest of us. Indeed, if they diligently worked to acquire the preternatural grace and flow that Shinji has, I'm confident virtually all could swim even better.
Why don't they? (A) They've always been the best on their teams. Coaches are little inclined to 'mess with success.' and (B) When you're training 80 to 100k a week, who has the time to examine your stroke minutely?
4) I WAS an out-of-shape former college swimmer when I took up Masters swimming in my late 30s -- 17 yrs removed from 'serious training.' I had a clear sense that a kind of aerobic foundation remained out of reach until I'd been training 3 to 4 years and I began to feel a 'work capacity' similar to what I recalled in college. I wasn't as fit, but there was a sensation of ability to train that was similar. And it did take that long for my stroke and my swimming to also start feeling good. At the same time, even after regaining my sense of fitness, I would feel unmistakable 'rust' after as little as 10 days off.
In contrast, with the far stronger neural foundation I have now, I've missed up to 3 months of training - following injury or surgery - and returned to form, and nearly my usual level of performance, within days. That difference has been really striking to me.
I am a little surprised at the use of acronym HTFU. Caught me by surprise.
HTFU is ubiquitous on the USMS forum, as far as I can see. It was new to me at first,too.
There does seem to be a great reverence for pain in the world of competitive swimming and a general belief that it's bound to do you good.
It's good to improve and swim faster times, but it's also good just to keep on swimming and enjoying it. There's always going to be someone who can swim faster than you, sometimes a lot faster. Hardening up isn't going to change that.
I'm actually quite surprised to hear HTFU has migrated from the beginnertriathlete forum (and it is so NOT a salutary idea for any real beginner) to the USMS forum. Again, wildly unsuited for middle-aged bunch. But it shows how ingrained those ideas are. And no one ever really questions them.
So LilBeav do you think I should omit that from the final version?
For what it's worth, I don't think it should be omitted.
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