Chapter 3 ENERGY SMART SWIMMING Part 1
Chapter 3 Energy-Smart Swimming
If you swim a mile in the pool, you can take a rest break every 25 yards or meters. Indeed, that’s how we all -- me included back around 1968 -- progressed from our first lap to our first mile – swim a bit, take a breather swim some more. For those with enough determination, following that course for several months may increase their nonstop-swimming range from a minute or two to 30 or more, until they join the relatively small “club” of humans who can swim a mile. Far more never break into that club.
However, a “nonstop” pool mile really isn’t, because you stop stroking 60 to 70 times to turn, push off and glide. Over the course of a 30-minute mile those non-stroking interruptions will consume between six and seven minutes. Put another way, in the pool, you’ll stroke for 20 seconds or so, stop stroking for five seconds, stroke for 20, stop stroking for five, etc..
In open water, the same mile will not only take longer (because push offs are faster than swimming) but you’ll take 1200 or more uninterrupted strokes, as compared to 15 to 20 in a 25-yard pool. So it’s only natural to think you’ll need a lot more endurance to swim in open water. This chapter explains why “energy-smart swimming,” a systematic focus on reducing energy waste will be far more effective than the usual emphasis on conditioning. I learned this while training to swim 28.5 miles around Manhattan.
In 2002, I decided to tackle the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS), to celebrate turning 50 a year earlier. I knew that most MIMS swimmers prepare by training 30 or more miles per week for several months. When I registered in February 2002, I’d done relatively little swimming for several months, but my goal was to see if I could complete -- and enjoy -- an “ultra” event with “ordinary” training. I intended to do so by training for maximum economy, rather than maximum fitness…like tuning your car to get 100 mpg instead of adding a larger fuel tank.
Over the next four months I swam 12 miles per week, about 25 percent more than usual, but only a third to a half of the mileage others did. My focus was two-fold: (1) to increase my stroke efficiency so I could complete the swim in fewer than 27,000 strokes (the rest of the field would average nearly 40,000) and (2) to minimize the muscle and effort expended on each stroke.
As well, I would give equal emphasis to mental endurance – my ability to focus on one stroke at a time, while ignoring any of a thousand possible distractions -- not least of which was the imposing task of swimming around Manhattan. My increase in training volume was intended mainly to provide more opportunities to imprint efficiency and practice relaxation. I didn’t consider cardiovascular conditioning unimportant, but chose to keep it a secondary focus. Besides which, I knew it would “happen,” regardless of whether I focused on it.
In the end I finished the swim in 8 hours and 53 minutes (fast and favorable currents during half of the race helped propel me to a pace of under 20 minutes per mile, far faster than I could swim under my own power), felt good the whole way and – though I did tire in the last hour or two -- my stroke rate dropped only from 49 to about 46 per minute. I felt no fatigue or soreness the next day.
The reason my MIMS “economy experiment” was so successful became fully clear six years later when Popular Mechanics published an article about what a group of physicists and engineers learned while designing a swim foil for the Navy Seals. After comparing the swimming efficiency of humans with dolphins, these researchers calculated that human swimmers average only three percent efficiency! I.E. 97% of our energy and “horsepower” gets diverted into something other than forward motion.
For comparison, elite swimmers are less than 10% efficient -- that’s right, even Michael Phelps wastes over 90% -- whereas dolphins are 80% energy efficient.
What we should take from this is the invaluable awareness that the opportunity to gain endurance (and speed) by saving energy is far greater than what you can gain by getting fitter. Put another way, if you can improve your energy efficiency from, say, 3 percent to 4 percent, that translates into a 33% energy gain for you. From 4 percent to 5 percent is a 25% improvement. Efficiency improvements in this range can often be attained in 10 to 30 hours of focused practice while it would take many months to raise your fitness by a similar amount. (But even when you do, well over 90% will go to waste.) Fortunately the virtually universal causes of inefficiency are easy to understand and thus allow for relatively straightforward solutions.
See next post for Part 2 of Chapter 3 -- couldn't fit all in one post.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
My TI Story
Part 2 of Chapter 3 - Energy Smart Swimming
Three Solutions to Energy Waste
Energy Problem #1: Help, I’m sinking!
Actually, sinking is normal (even helpful as I’ll explain below.) The natural position for a human body is 95% underwater. The only naturally-buoyant part of the body is the chest cavity; your lower body tends to sink. As gravity drags your legs down, buoyancy pushes your lungs up. That “uphill” position hugely increases frontal resistance, or drag. Even worse, our brains interpret that sinking sensation as life-threatening causing you to do whatever it takes to stay afloat. “Survival” strokes are exhausting and massively inefficient – and they cause muscle tension that magnifies your sinking tendency.
Energy-Smart Solution #1: Cooperate with Gravity
Because gravity is an irresistible force, it makes far more sense to use it than fight it. Do that by relaxing into the water. When you do, you’ll discover that you feel more comfortable, and can even move more easily: Not only will you save energy, but there’s less drag below the surface (where fish swim) than at the surface (where humans try to swim.) Here’s how:
1) Let yourself sink. Instead of fighting to stay on top, let yourself sink into a more horizontal – and lower drag – position. When you relax your buoyant upper torso into the water – while extending your bodyline from fingers to toes -- your hips will respond by rising a bit. And as we’ve often seen when teaching novices, as soon as they stop fighting gravity, the resulting relaxation increases their general buoyancy. The ability to “swim relaxed” helps explain why elite swimmers, even with low body fat, have great body position.
2) “Hang” your head. When you release your head’s weight into the water, it will naturally sink into a neutral -- aligned with the spine -- position. This reduces drag in two ways: (a) as your head sinks, your hips should rise even more, and (b) positioning your head to travel through the same “water space” as your torso, reduces water resistance a bit more. Relaxing your head tends to spread relaxation into shoulders and upper back, which helps in many ways.
Though I’ve emphasized that “cooperating with gravity” reduces drag, for many novice swimmers, an even greater impact is the reassuring sense of support that transforms a harrowing experience into confidence and comfort…even optimism! It breaks the survival- stroking cycle, and gives you the freedom – and presence of mind -- to use your arms and legs more effectively and efficiently.
Energy Problem #2: Water is a wall.
The hunched positions of bicycle racers and the shape of both bullets and “bullet trains” tell you how essential avoiding air resistance is to moving fast and efficiently through “thin air.” Now consider that water is almost a thousand times denser than air, and ponder how much thought you’ve given to “active streamlining” vs. pulling-and-kicking in your swimming.
What every low-drag body, from NASA rockets to barracuda, have in common is a “fuselage“ shape -- tapered in front, sleek behind. The pointy leading edge gradually separates air or water molecules before the thicker part comes through. When the leading edge is blunt, or the body unsmooth, the molecules move crazily, creating waves, turbulence and momentum-sapping eddies.
A fish body -- unitary, balanced, propelled by oscillation or undulation – is perfectly designed to minimize turbulence. A human body – independent head and limbs, protruding shoulders and hips, flexing elbows/knees/ankles – is almost perfectly designed to maximize it. Our swimming style – head-whipping, arms-windmilling and legs-churning -- not lack of fitness, is the prime reason we swim slowly and tire too easily.
Energy-Smart Solution #2: Take the path of least resistance
From our very first attempt to get from this end of the pool to that end, our most basic thought is about pulling and kicking. And in Red Cross lessons, what we were taught was mostly on how to kick and pull. Thus our traditional concepts about “freestyle technique” can be summed up as “Arms pull me forward. Legs kick me forward.” This creates an upper-body/lower-body division.
Total Immersion technique emphasizes active streamlining via a core concept for freestyle swimming of Right-Side-Streamline alternating with Left-Side-Streamline. Visualize parallel “tracks” extending forward of each shoulder. Spear your arm forward along its track then align torso and legs to follow it through that “channel.” Active Streamlining shifts your focus from pushing on the water molecules behind you to separating those in front of you. When you do , you’ll swim farther and faster…easier.
Energy Problem #3: No traction.
Water may act like a “wall” when you try to move a poorly-streamlined body through it, but it just swirls away when you try to push it back. And your hand is puny compared to the body mass it’s trying to propel. Even when you do it perfectly, pushing water back is a terribly inefficient form of propulsion: Propeller-driven boats run circles around paddlewheelers. And finally, the arm-and-shoulder muscles we use to push water back are highly prone to fatigue.
When you combine the challenges of a sinking, unstable body, high drag, poor traction, and fast-fatiguing muscles, swimming is like trying to pedal a bicycle up a ski slope. At best, pulling and kicking offer poor solutions to those challenges. At worst – when done by low-skilled swimmers – even the minimal efficiencies that are possible are undermined by energy diverted in the wrong direction – downward and sideways, rather than forward and back.
Energy-Smart Solution #3: Swim with your body.
Traditional thinking about technique (an “arms department” that pulls you forward and a “legs department” that pushes you forward) turns the torso into inert “baggage” to be dragged through the water. In the TI method, you swim with your body, instead of your arms and legs. Here’s how: (1) Your right arm is poised for entry. You’re mentally “aiming” it down its track. (2) Your right side is rotated slightly above the surface. (3) Use your “high” (right) hip to drive that arm down the track. (4) As you do your right side gets longer and sleeker – like a human torpedo. When you shift your thinking from “use my lead hand to push water back” to “drive the high side down” you combine gravity, body mass and every-muscle-in-the-body-working-together in a powerful movement that uses remarkably little energy. Harnessing “free” energy creates what we call Perpetual Motion Propulsion.
Improve your stroke first.
While these solutions may seem straightforward, it’s essential to understand that each is counter-intuitive. I.E. It’s a rare swimmer who will instinctively let themselves sink, or separate water molecules. Second, changing habits imprinted by millions of “human-swimming” strokes over years or decades won’t happen easily or quickly. And finally, each of the three solutions is built on several foundational skills. For most people these skills have been acquired via a patient and devoted effort, employing drills and focal points in particular sequences, which are most often learned from a TI Coach or from our self-coaching videos.
Lessons 1 and 2 of our Easy Freestyle DVD teach you to Cooperate with Gravity. Lessons 2 and 3 teach you Active Streamlining. Lessons 3 and 4 teach you to Swim With your Body.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
My TI Story