New Book: The Grownup's Guide to Swimming Faster - Chapter 1
As promised, I will post most excerpts of my next book (to be released as an ebook fairly soon) here. Partly to reward the loyalty and enthusiasm of Forum members. But also, selfishly, to seek feedback from the most thoughtful group of swimmers -- the prototypical surrogates for the audience I hope to find with this book. Here's Chapter 1.
I'm anxious to receive feedback and constructive criticism which I am certain will result in a far better end product.
The Grownup’s Guide to Swimming Faster
Age has its perks. Swimming smarter ought to be one of them. Stop training like a kid. Instead of relying on capabilities that peak in your teens and 20s, work with the stuff that gets better with age.
Why We Need Speed
Not everyone cares about swimming faster. Actually I have little idea what percentage of those who do swim worry at all about how fast they’re going. Or even have much idea how long it takes them to complete, say, a mile. The typical beginner is too concerned with just making it across the pool to worry about how fast. And it’s likely that many lap or fitness swimmers give little thought to lap speed, being focused mainly on completing their appointed 30 or more minutes.
What percentage of runners and walkers time themselves? I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s relatively few. So it may be with fitness swimmers.
Still, those ubiquitous pace clocks hang on pool walls for a reason and it’s not just competitive swimmers using them. The motivation to swim faster comes from two experiences or desires – Racing the Clock, and Racing Another Swimmer. I don’t mean racing literally, but the effect is similar.
Racing the Clock: For many swimmers, once they have the basic skill to swim without stopping at each wall to catch their breath, it becomes natural to measure progress by (a) how far they can swim in certain period -- often 30 minutes to an hour; or (b) how fast they can complete a given distance -- usually between 200 meters and a mile. Aiming to improve is unquestionably a healthy instinct. And few can think of ways to measure improvement beyond time-for-distance.
Racing Another Swimmer: This often occurs semi-innocently -- possibly while trying to squeeze another 50 yards into your 30-minute lap session. You take a breath and there’s someone right there one lane over. They’re passing you, but not so fast that you can’t entertain thoughts of staying with them. Race on! Or, as happens to thousands each year, you do your first triathlon and have the disconcerting--and often harrowing—experience of being left behind by nearly everyone around in the swim leg.
We seldom think of these as related, but we face a common problem when racing the clock or another swimmer. We can’t control our ‘opponent,’ but we focus on the opponent, not ourselves. And one of the most common causes of frustration and anxiety is focusing on things we can’t control. When we feel frustration or anxiety, our response is nearly always emotional or instinctive rather than rational. And as we’ll repeatedly see, human instinct is a poor guide to better swimming.
Swimming Faster: First Attempts
Whether it’s one swimmer passing by in the next lane, or dozens in a triathlon, our natural response is never coolly analytic. Rather, we do what comes naturally: Pull and kick faster and harder. Instinctive responses work on land – because humans are terrestrial mammals. They don’t work in the water. Terrestrial mammals have poor instincts in an aquatic environment.
Case in point -- what happens when we want to run faster. What do race horses, greyhounds, lions on the savanna, Usain Bolt, Paula Radcliffe and most of the 1.1 million who ran a half or full marathon last year have in common? According to video analysis, all members of the animal kingdom that have evolved with a natural running ability maintain relatively constant stride rates (how fast the legs move) at a variety of speeds. When they want to run faster, all lengthen their strides.
Human swimmers–the aquatic equivalent of fish out of water--do just the opposite. Arms and legs go faster. Strokes get shorter. I.E. They cancel each other out. We work much harder but gain little speed, and before long, we’re hanging on the wall panting. That’s when we go in search of coaching.
New Book: the Grownup's guide to Swimming Faster
Hi Terry, Pat from Australia
I think your opening remarks could include a little more.
Age has its perks. Swimming faster through swimming smarter ought to be one of them. Instead of relying on capabilities that peak in your teens and 20s, work with stuff that gets better with age. Age better with stuff that works.
I haven't had time to think through the rest but will be back in touch later.
The age better with stuff that works is intrieging and will lead into the aging well factors associated with mindful swimming.
Perhaps another motivation could be that swimming faster is more fun.
You need a certain speed to establish a rhythm that leads to that exhilarating feeling of flow state, to me at least.
(I'm sure you can articulate this much better than me)
I'm sure this will come up in your writing later but, a few examples of elite swimmers who swim fast but exert to much wasted effort would help me. What I mean is, you have already shown examples of Usain Bolt and Paula Radcliffe striding down the road in track shoes, please give an example of someone in the pool who is fast but extends to much wasted energy. I'm excited about tis idea keep it up!
I'll probably avoid calling out examples of bad technique by name. No need to raise hackles unnecessarily. On the other hand I will give credit where due.
Pat - Those two opening sentences weren't meant to be exhaustive on the question of what it means to age better. There will be at least a chapter on that topic, and countless allusions all through.
Aerogramma I'll be giving many benefits and motivations for swimming faster in a later chapter, which addresses a higher purpose - beyond having a best time of say, 25 rather than 26 minutes for 1.5k - for seeking to swim faster.
Lou - I will.
All - Thanks for your interest and feedback. Keep it coming and so will I. Hoping to add to it at the rate of a chapter a day. Most chapters will be similarly succinct - i.e. 800 or so words.
A friend at the pool had a term for trying to beat someone in a lane near you. He called it "secret racing," referring, of course, to the fact that they are not aware that you are racing them. I'm quite certain it is common.
In sailing we say 'two boats and it's a race'.
I remember being very amused by reading that Dara Torres had realized she needed to get back into competitive swimming when she was swimming while pregnant ( for health reasons) and found she couldn't resist racing the swimmers in the next lane.
In the pool that I swim at there are two relatively fast swimmers, who both swim non-stop for about an hour and cover about 2,500 meters. One of them claims to have no competitive instinct at all, but the other says that if he swims faster than him for a length the other chap just speeds up. It must be deeply ingrained in the human psyche.
I swam next to Dara Torres, in adjacent lanes, at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex many mornings between Dec 6 and 17. The Masters finished at 0730 and the "National Team" started at 0800. I would get in the end lane about 0740 and swim until about 0850. Dara got in next to me most mornings when the national team started. She's very fit, but I'm not sure how fast at the moment. She spent an awful lot of time doing what I refer to in my current blog series, reviewing the usual lot of training tools as the 'cake recipe' approach to workout planning.
First she'd swim with fins.
Then she'd swim with paddles.
Then she'd swim with a snorkel.
Then she'd swim against the resistance of a rubber tube.
The recipe seemed to be displayed on a piece of paper plastered to the pool wall in her lane.
Same unimaginative routine, day after day after day. The Masters group did much the same thing.
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.
Terry, when I read an acronym I tend to say what it stands for as I read, instead of just saying the letters. Finding myself saying the f word while reading a book on swimming seems strange. I am not a prude and have been known to swear (years in construction). If I could offer another way to get your point across I would. Just my two cents, not worth a ton.
response to "Speed" intro
I've read this first excerpt from "Speed" and have a couple of questions, as I would like to offer constructive feedback on the subject. First, is the target audience, termed "Grownups" for this book primarily adults, age 18 & up, older adults (middle age & up,... ie, maybe 40ish & up), baby boomers, and/or seniors? Perhaps all? To me, the term Grownups conjures up images of those middle age, non-athletic folks, or at least more those who swim for health and fitness maintenance, rather than the type of improvement fostered by adult-competitive swimming (ie, Masters, open-water swims, triathlons, etc.). This may very well just be my impression of that word and I might be well off the mark.
Yet the content of the excerpt does seem to apply also to mature triathletes, new or seasoned vets..... as well, which is 99% of my students so far. Is a more specific target for this book "anyone who has a desire to swim faster as part of reaching their untapped potential, whether for competition (Masters, open-water swims, triathlons, etc.) or just for their own personal achievement and satisfaction??
Since we all seem to guage others based on our own personal reality, my interpretation is (hoping) that this book "Speed" is being generated in order to move TI swimmers past 'technique alone' practice, into another level of challenges based on the objective measurements of time/distance/speed.
I'm hoping this is the case for 'Speed' because I am experiencing a bit of a 'stall' as I seek practice methods to move me forward beyond stroke technique practice into the competitive world of studying how these technique improvements affect my "times". For me, I will always be competing with my own PB's, and hopefully will evolve into more competition with others. I certainly look at others swimming times to find performance benchmarks for myself.
Many 'blocks', both mental and physical seem to be occurring that I feel I need some 'hands on' TI instruction help. For me, speed is the next rung of the ladder, the natural progression following many hours of diligent stroke technique work, though technique will always be a major focus when I swim. With TI, one of the most consistent and Kaizen experiences for me is entering the 'Flow' state, or the 'Zone', which can only occur when one is challenged sufficiently, as well as being very focused on the process of practice and 'in the moment'. I feel TI provides the ideal foundation for constant improvement, which absolutely leads to faster, easier swimming for the same effort.
Depending on how long I'm expecting to live, I may *be* middle aged, but I prefer to be described in a more glamorous light.
What does "grownups" convey to you
This feedback from Mark and Katie about Grownups in the title is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. I have informally used "Swimming for Grownups" as one of the succinct phrases I use to convey how TI is different from traditional swimming.
I think of much of what happens in mainstream lessons and instruction as oriented heavily toward the needs, goals, learning styles, etc of younger people, from 20+ max down to adolescents and teens. Swim lessons have always targeted kids far more than adults, and the idea of adults training seriously at swimming is a pretty recent development. So swim workouts, training, whatever is also youth-oriented.
Most of those who teach or coach adults gained their experience working with young people and the approach reflects it.
TI, in contrast, is the first widely-recognized organization-cum-method that was launched explicitly to serve adults. Thus our methods have evolved with the powerful impact of accommodating the goals, needs and learning styles of adults. To me, grownups is a less formal, and even more hip, term.
But if few others feel the same way it would be a poor choice for inclusion in the title.
For now, let's call this the 'working title' and perhaps as I connect the rest of the dots from here to the closing some better suggestions will emerge.
Chapter Four: It's Worth the Effort
Swimming Faster: It’s worth the effort
In the 1970s, when I was coaching age group swimmers, I wrote: “It would be hard to justify a life’s work spent turning kids into outboard motors.” That’s even truer for coaching adults. So before we explore smart, effective solutions to the problems described in Chapter 3, let’s pause briefly to consider what makes this pursuit worthwhile – even if you’re not training for a triathlon or Masters meet, even if you’ve previously given little thought to timing yourself.
As Chapter One describes, our motivation to swim faster usually arises from small bruises to the ego, and those momentary discontents often grow into gnawing vexation. But the real reason I’ll make a concerted effort to swim faster this year is that I’m absolutely convinced that I’ll be happier, healthier 60-year old if I try to find and exceed my ‘speed limits.’
There’s a growing body of evidence that goal-oriented adults live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Swimming improvement goals are among the most salubrious of all. Knowing how efforts expended toward swimming faster can benefit you outside the pool will not only increase your motivation. It should help ensure that your actions align with your values and intentions.
Swimming Faster is good medicine
Trying to swim faster is undeniably hard work. Though Chapter Three made the case that programs based solely on how hard you can work are likely to make you tired before making you fast, the TI program doesn’t avoid intensive efforts. The difference is that your focus will always be on swimming well, rather than hard. Maintaining a longer stroke at a higher rate requires such skill and focus that your brain and nervous system are likely to work harder than they ever have. The physical work your body must perform to support that combination will raise your heart rate and overload muscles bringing physical benefits.
Physical Health Because the 85+ age group is growing faster than any other, older athletes are increasingly studied for longevity clues, including the effect of intensive exercise on mitochondria, the cell’s power plants. As we age, there’s normally an increase in defective mitochondria, robbing us of endurance and strength. Recent research suggests that performance-oriented training does more than gentler exercise to stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme that helps keep genetic information intact when cells divide, and activates a stem cell that seems to rejuvenate mitochondria.
Chapters that follow will outline skill-intensive forms of training that will raise heart rate and load muscles in ways that bring greater certainty of improvement and help slow the aging process. Both will benefit far more when your training is targeted rather than generic.
Brain Health Some brains age more quickly, others quite slowly. It’s partly genetic but also a function of how we live. To age well, it’s just as important to push your brain, as your body. Traditional training taxes the body but asks little of the brain. TI Training demands as much of your brain as your body, because it takes a problem-solving, rather than just physical-training, approach. The human brain is programmed by evolution to engage with and solve practical problems.
While Lactate Threshold is an immeasurable abstraction, our program will present you with concrete, thoughtfully-designed problems at every stage, including:
• Raise your skills from good to expert – then keep improving.
• Learn your best range of stroke counts and how to move among them as easily as you change gears on a bike.
• Experiment to find the combination of stroke length and rate that provides maximum speed with minimum effort.
• Seek weak spots and develop strategies to improve them.
• Create feedback loops that let you know, in real time, how you’re doing.
Finally, this is a program that turns age into an advantage, rather than impediment. You’ll be less dependent on physical capacity – which diminishes with age --and far more on awareness, intuition, insight, subtlety, synthesis and judgment, all of which improve with age.
Four E’s of Happiness
The highest purpose of Swimming Faster should be the Pursuit of Happiness. When faced with any choice, it’s hard to go wrong if you ask “Will this make me happier?” If it will, there’s a good chance you’ll find a way to use it to make you faster as well. I strive at all times to imbue my training with four qualities, each starting with E.
• Enjoyable. I strive to make training so enjoyable that I’m always pulled to do it, eager to do it, and never feel I have to push myself to do it. If I don’t feel that pull on any day, I don’t train. Feeling pulled to train ensures I’ll do it with joy, passion and commitment, and never go through the motions.
• Engaging I design training that requires me to stay fully present and engaged. The opposite of this is the folks on treadmills and elliptical machines at the gym, reading magazines and watching tv while they expend heartbeats or those at the pool ‘following the black line.” If my training were obligatory and joyless, I’d lose the motivation to continue.
• Empowering I want to have complete confidence that I make the best possible use of my increasingly-precious time. This means having the tools and knowledge to decide what I want to do, and then make it happen.
• Empirical I want every step to be logical, rational and measurable. I want to be able to link efforts and outcomes. When I can’t do that commitment is weakened.
Chapter Five: What Can We Learn From Elites
What We Can Learn from Elites
In 39 years as a swimming coach, I’ve attended dozens of coaching clinics. A standard feature of such clinics has been a talk by a prominent coach on how he or she trained their fastest swimmers. I also subscribed to Swimming World magazine for 20 years. Each issue included “How They Train” articles outlining sample workouts for an elite swimmer -- in addition to other articles analyzing the training of one or another top coach or team. And finally there are seminal books by coaches like Doc Counsilman, Ernie Maglischo, Mark Schubert, Cecil Colwin. Cumulatively these contain thousands of pages of highly detailed analysis of the training of elite swimmers.
Familiarity with how many yards they swim, how much kicking they do, how long their sets are, how much is VO2max, etc. has filtered down to every corner of the ‘serious’ swimming world – and influenced how Masters, triathletes and even more casual swimmers work out.
A curious omission has been a similarly detailed analysis of how they race. But that analysis has long been available to someone who dug a little deeper, as I’ve done in conversation with coaches of elites, studying technical race analysis on the USA Swimming web site, and even a small amount of direct experience coaching elites, prior to starting TI.
What that analysis reveals is that elite swimmers face Speed Problems too. They encounter them at far higher speeds than the rest of us. But solutions have proven nearly as elusive for them as for everyone else. Understanding elites’ Speed Problems will give much more valuable insight into how anyone can swim faster than knowing how many yards they swim.
Are you surprised to learn that elites have Speed Problems? After all consider their advantages: They’re young and fit, strong and supple. They’re usually among the most gifted athletes in the world. They’ve had thousands of hours of expert coaching. And finally, by the time they approach elite status, swimming fast is practically a full time job
There are two reasons why solutions have proven so elusive for the most advantaged swimmers in the world:
1. Problem-solving is still an alien concept in much of sports culture, as it’s mainly a mental, not physical process, requiring introspection and experimentation with untested approaches.
2. Their coaches saw the problem -- but through the lens of what they know best. If you lose a race, the other guy must have been in better shape. The solution for that is longer, harder training.
It’s not a Going Faster problem. It’s a Slowing Down problem.
A penetrating analysis of what actually happens during races shows the reason why winners separate themselves from also-rans: Patterns of Stroke Length and Rate make the result inevitable. It holds true at all distances that require pacing (i.e. leaving out the 50 Free which lasts only 20 seconds)
How to Win the 100 Meters
I first met Eddie Reese in 1978 when he was the coach at Auburn University. I visited him there after being impressed with how he had nearly won the NCAA Championship the previous year with a team of unheralded swimmers, outperforming teams with more recognized stars. Still in his future were 10 NCAA championships at the University of Texas and five stints as a US Olympic Coach from 1992 to 2008, the last two as Olympic Head Coach. Today Eddie is acknowledged as having a matchless knack for coaching fast swimming.
One thing Eddie told nearly 30 years ago has stuck with me ever since: “In the 100 meters, everyone is slowing down the last 25. The one who slows the least wins.” At the time, I was coaching mostly early to mid-teens swimmers, an age when I focused much more on technique and pacing than short-term speed, so I didn’t have an urgent need to apply that insight.
In September 1996 I began coaching the varsity sprint group at West Point, soon after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I had just read an article about track sprinter Maurice Green and his coach John Smith which described the strategy they’d employed to win the 100-meter gold medal.
Like Eddie Reese, John Smith had analyzed the races of elite sprinters and seen a nearly universal pattern emerge. They tended to accelerate over the first 35 meters, maintain top speed over the middle 35 meters and be decelerating during the final 30 meters. The same pattern Eddie Reese had observed in swimming sprinters.
John Smith recognized a problem-solving opportunity here and together he and Maurice Green developed a strategy that involved slightly slowing his rate of acceleration in the first 25 meters, to maintain top speed a bit longer, and delay the start of deceleration by 10 to 15 meters. Those subtle adjustments were enough to make Maurice Green the World’s Fastest Man in Atlanta.
I shared that with the sprinters I’d just begun coaching at West Point and asked “If end-of-race deceleration is that significant a problem -- and solving it that great an opportunity -- in a race that happens on land, and is over in less than 10 seconds, how significant might it be in races that happen in water and last four to five times as long? I proposed that we devote our season to an unconventional and untested approach to sprint training. Rather than focus on “building the anaerobic threshold and muscle power”, as everyone else did, we would learn to solve the slowing-down problem.
They agreed to participate in my experiment. Over the next three years, Army sprinters dominated all competition they faced. (I’ll reveal more about our training later.)
How to Win the 1500 Meters
Things are essentially the same at the other end of the spectrum of Olympic swimming, the 1500 meters. For decades the prevailing pacing pattern of elite distance swimmers – and one that’s are among lesser swimmers -- has been even to negative splits. Those who win swim the second half of their races at the same speed, and often faster, as the first half. Those who fall short swim slightly slower in the second half. Their loss of speed is not as pronounced as a sprinter’s because the extreme effort of sprinting produces extreme levels of acidosis – a change in blood chemistry which irresistibly slows muscle contraction. Distance swimmers may also experience this, but at more moderate levels.
Negative splits are also common in 1500-meter running, but there, it’s common for race directors to recruit a ‘rabbit’ – a runner whose job it is to set a fast early pace who will drop out when the top runners take over in the last half or quarter in a race that features a record attempt. Swimmers, in contrast, have to do it themselves. But even in swimming, there’s a strategic and psychological component to negative splitting. It’s far less comfortable to spend much of the race looking over your shoulder, than to breathe down someone’s neck. Strategically, it helps to keep key competitors in view, particularly if you have a plan for outpacing them in the end. And finally, there can be small drafting opportunities, if you hug the lane on the side where an opponent may be swimming slightly ahead, and unknowingly drift toward your side of his or her lane.
The bottom line is, at all distances, swimming fast isn’t a Going-Faster Problem. It’s a Slowing-Down Problem. And be assured, at the elite level, also-rans are not slowing down because they’re less fit. Rather, more successful swimmers use more advantageous patterns of Stroke Length and Rate. And because Practice Makes Permanent, not Perfect, they’re imprinting their success patterns in practice. Let’s learn what that is.
If the pace clock is the only measuring tool available, and you can't eek out any more speed just by working harder, what do you do? TI teaches people how to measure and improve in smaller, more manageable increments. More effective (empowering), and less frustrating (more enjoyable).
There are so many books, articles, forum posts, etc. out there that say "Do this, and you'll be stronger/faster/skinnier/healthier/live longer/look better that don't offer any empirical data to back them up. Or, they quote a study (that may or may not be relevant), but you have no way to measure whether that tip is working for *you*. TI is a standout in this area.
Until TI, I never approached fitness as an athlete. I always cared about getting enough exercise to stay healthy and look good, but I had no interest in pushing myself.
I've always thought of swimming as fun, exercise, relaxation and meditation. After practicing TI for about 18 months, I now also think of it as a sport. Now that I need to work a little harder to achieve my goals, I realize that a little extra physical exertion feels amazing. I get a feeling of euphoria from a hard workout.
I recently heard a lectio magistralis by Carlo Vittori a world class athletes coach (He coached Mennea the olympian who held the 200mt sprint record for 20 odd years and he himself what a national champion sprinter).
Vittori says that far from being an impediment emotions are what make an average performance great. Is the physiological response to them that leads the body to produce those hormones (notably testosterone) which are crucial for a better performance under stress.
It might be that the psychological side of swimming should be taken into consideration too.
The positive emotions are unquestionably important. I may need to find a clearer way to express this, but motivation to swim faster, and the way we respond to it, often comes from an emotionally needy place, a sense of frustration or inadequacy.
As Katie articulated so well in her post, the fact that TI provides a logical rationale for its practice methods, and shows multiple concrete ways of measuring your progress, of linking efforts to outcomes, makes it empowering and satisfying.
I'll find a place to distinguish between positive and unproductive emotions.
How to Not Slow Down
The most dramatic and memorable race at the 2008 Olympics was the final leg of the Mens’ 4 x 100 Free relay between Jason Lezak of the U.S. and Alain Barnard of France. Barnard held the 100-meter world record. Three days later he would win Olympic gold in the 100 meters.
Barnard began the final 100 with a body-length lead and increased it to .82 seconds when he swam the first 50 in 21.27 seconds – a hundredth of a second faster than the world record for 50 meters. Barnard was clearly not suffering from an inability to Go Fast. But he was about to experience the highest-profile Slowing Down problem in swimming history, with its consequences witnessed by a global audience in the hundreds of millions and likely to be talked about for decades.
Make up more than eight-tenths of a second? In 50 meters? Against the world record holder? Improbable, but Lezak somehow closed the gap, reaching the wall a fingernail ahead (and kept alive Michael Phelps’s shot at 8 gold medals.)
Describing Lezak’s swim as herculean barely does it justice, but there’s another description that can help the rest of us ‘crack the code’ of our own speed potential. That description is mathematical. The most revealing way to understand a swim of any speed or pace is via the math of Stroke Length and Stroke Rate.
All of us saw Lezak creeping up on Barnard, but few of us understood how. Even Lezak said afterward "I don't know how I was able to take it back that fast.” But the Math of Speed offers a very simple and clear explanation.
The Math of Speed is based on this equation: V = SL x SR. Velocity equals Stroke Length – how far you travel on each stroke – multiplied by Stroke Rate – how fast or frequently you take them. This equation represents the only path to greater speed that offers absolute predictability. When you work the math effectively, your speed is guaranteed. Any other way of trying to swim fast is just guesswork.
Just as elites can offer us valuable insights by showing us that disappointing results are virtually always due to a Slowing Down problem, they point us toward the best solution when we analyze how they slow down.
V = SL x SR is similar to a more familiar equation V = L x W. The Volume of a square equals Length times Width. Without both Length and Width, all you have is a line. Without Length and Rate, no speed. If one increases and the other decreases similarly, speed is unchanged. If one increases and the other decreases more, you go slower. Those patterns determine winners and losers in swim races.
Elite swimmers (like everyone else) stroke faster in the latter stages of the race. Some of this increase in Stroke Rate is intentional but a lot just happens. As Rate increases, strokes become a little rougher, the water a bit more turbulent. Lungs burn, muscles falter, hands slip. Strokes are faster, but shorter too. Whoever does a better job of maintaining Stroke Length will win.
As Eddie Reese said, the swimmer who slows the least in the last 25 of 100-meter races will win. They do that by holding Stroke Length better than others. In the 1500 meters as well, everyone strokes faster as the finish approaches . Also-rans lose Length and either maintain the same pace or slow down. Winners pull away by holding Stroke Length better than others.
One the climactic lap of the Olympic 4 x 100, Barnard swam the final 50 meters in 25.4 seconds and 46 strokes, Lezak in 24.5 seconds and 34 strokes. Discounting pushoff here are Stroke Length (in meters per stroke) and Stroke Rate (in strokes per second) for each:
Stroke Rate Barnard 1. 8 Lezak 1.4
Stroke Length Lezak 1.5 Barnard 1.1
Barnard was stroking 24 percent faster than Lezak, but Lezak traveled 36 percent farther on each stroke. Barnard was mostly moving water around with his strokes. Lezak passed him and won the race because his strokes were moving him forward.
So the winning strategy – and the secret to speed – is unquestionably to create and maintain Stroke Length. The reason why swimming fast is so difficult is that Length is devilishly hard, while Rate is sinfully easy. Increasing Stroke Rate is a universal, emotional and almost overpowering instinct. Increasing (and maintaining) Stroke Length is an oncommon, strategic, and rational choice.
[quote=terry;15831]The positive emotions are unquestionably important. I may need to find a clearer way to express this, but motivation to swim faster, and the way we respond to it, often comes from an emotionally needy place, a sense of frustration or inadequacy.
Very wise observation Terry. When motivation comes from a needy place it is very often soon replaced with an opposing or different need.
Motivation arising from a journey towards mastery, from an experience of wholeness, will have a much smoother, enjoyable pathway.
Happy New Year everyone.
May we swim with ease at the speeds we choose.
Pardon my pedantry but the French swimmer you are talking about is Alain Bernard, not Alain Barnard. I do believe I've heard him called Barnard on a video commentary, which may be the source of the error.
Here's a link to his Facebook page:
/ˈpɛdntri/ Show Spelled[ped-n-tree] Show IPA
–noun, plural -ries.
the character, qualities, practices, etc., of a pedant, esp. undue display of learning.
slavish attention to rules, details, etc.
an instance of being pedantic: the pedantries of modern criticism.
why is that swimmer pointing at that swimmers butt!
i guess he was pointing out the tiny details in his swimmers trunks...
they were truly enjoying themselves too!
slavish attention to detailing!
and always learning from Richards Post!
why wouldn't i be learning ... :) i hope your still learning too!
What about complementary exercises
reading your interesting chapters and your recent blogs it seems like the best training is by various series of full stroke swimming. Now I am wondering wether you recommend any complementary training like weight lifting? Last year I got a training program from our university fitness coach when I asked him for some exercises tuned for swimming. By, various reasons I haven't used that program for a lengthy period and I now wonder if it is time to start over using it to prepare for next years challenges. It is weight lifting done with modern training machines.
I also used to do Pliates and I recently read the Therese Alshammar changed her training from weight lifting to Pilates and that she thought that was one of the secrets behind her recent success.
I'm following this with interest. I joined a Masters swim club here mainly for social reasons - new city, don't know anyone - and find the one workout that I do with them frustrating. There's little warm-up, certainly not enough for a 52 year old. (The older I get, the longer it takes me to warm up.) We're expected to all be on the same point in the workout at the same time, but this assumes that everyone is the same speed for every stroke. So I fall way behind on kick lengths and overtake on front crawl sprint lengths and frequently don't have a clue why it is I'm no longer in sync with the others after starting with them.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that it is a "workout". No technique work at all. There are a few people who show up for this session who can barely swim. They are advised to put a pool noodle under their hips to keep their legs from sinking and wear fins. That's about it. I gave one of my older T.I. books to one of them, but I don't know if he's read it or gotten anything from it yet. He's a 20-something male, so working hard and getting strong are going to seem more logical to him, I suspect.
Maybe I should just show up for the coffee and donuts afterwards and do my swimming elsewhere. :-D
Sounds very like the club that use my local pool, Rhoda. Lots of orders barked from a coach, generally limited to specifying stroke and distance, and lots of slightly clueless conversation among club members when resting between sets. I often arrive as they are finishing and am always tempted to ask them: what are you lot actually doing?
Well, I must admit, in addition to the social aspect, I was secretly hoping to learn some tips for getting faster. I don't think it's going to happen. These people all come from a traditional swim club background, so I don't think they know of any other way to train. Perhaps I should advertise in the paper for fellow T.I. enthusiasts and people interested in trying T.I., and see if we can get together on a casual basis to help each other train. There must be a few in town somewhere.
The Grownup's book to swimming faster
Pat TI Coach Melbourne
I am glad to see that swimming fast and happiness have been linked as that to me is a feeling many experience. Going fast is fun.
When talking about age in chapter 3 you mention that adults who begin swimming in adulthood will benefit more from neuro motor training . I presume that would be because they do not have years of swimming under their belt and have an existing entrenched motor pattern for swimming that has to be unlearnt. Are you going to address the process of unlearning motor patterns ?
Many do not have the willpower just to stop swimming the way they always have and concentrate exclusively on the new. Does anyone have any tips to help swimmers in this transitional stage?
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