Ask the Scientist: Am I a hopeless swimmer?

Best. Question. EVER.

One of the best parts of writing Faster has been the conversations it’s started.

I have not only received questions from several athletes, but stories of their own personal experiences and how reading the book helped them confirm suspicions they had of their techniques and equipment. There have even been a few very smart athletes who have shared their own research, which looks very promising for the future of sport research.

But the question I received last week is the cherry on top. Robert F. wrote in with one that really tested my ability to come up with a good explanation. It also demonstrated the underlying passion that defines the athletes I wanted to reach. So despite the difficulty of the challenge, I couldn’t resist sinking my teeth into it.

FASTER swimming drag vs. lift

Here’s the question:

What is the state of the art for understanding how good swimmers swim? I keep hoping someone will put a distance swimmer in one of those motion capture suits with all the dots that are captured by the cameras and used subsequently for 3D animation. Put the swimmer in a transparent endless pool and capture the result.  Compare an efficient swimmer with an inefficient one and have both position and timing data. Why is that so hard?   

What questions should I be asking of a potential coach to ascertain whether they can actually instruct?

I’m a 51 year old frustrated “adult-onset” swimmer who has been unable to find a coach to help me swim more efficiently. I’ve been to Total Immersion clinics, drilled endlessly, read the “Pose Method” book; bought several types of fins, paddles, gloves, timing devices, and watched countless free-style technique videos on YouTube. And in 6 years I’ve gotten to the point where I can generally sustain 2:00 100s regardless of distance. I can do it in the pool and in open water. (The benefit of a wetsuit is countered by sighting and other issues.) I completed my first Ironman® back in September with a swim split of 1:38. My stroke count is generally 24 for a 25 yard pool. If I were to sprint that 100 yards, my time would be 1:40 and my stroke count would be 30. If, as I’ve been told, I take fewer strokes, I go slower. One coach I recently enlisted told me “your stroke looks fine. Perhaps you’re just a slow swimmer. After all, I’m just a slow runner no matter how much I run.”

Typically when I meet with a coach, all I get are vague instructions. No one has been able to define “getting the feel of the water” in a manner which has made a difference to me. I couldn’t care less about understanding the physics of swimming. I just want to a way to model someone who swims well. Put me in a motion-capture suit to generate the position and timing data and a pair of Google-glass type swim-goggles so I can monitor (overlay) what I’m doing versus the model, and I’ll get better.  

Now my answer:

There is a lot going on with this question. Robert is obviously pretty frustrated with his progress, and even more so with the prospect that there’s really no way to break through his barriers. From a physical performance perspective, it will take a knowledgeable coach to help him improve his technique and speed. But it’s now reached a point for him that it’s also a question of science and faith. It’s a real bummer when you ask someone for help, and they tell you that you might be beyond help.

So let’s make that the first issue we address: Robert, any coach who’d look at you and suggest that you might just be a slow swimmer isn’t much of a coach to begin with. Coaches are human performance engineers. It’s the coach’s job to listen to a problem and develop a solution. Imagine if the NASA engineers during the Apollo 13 mission had told the astronauts “Maybe your spaceship is just too busted to get you home alive.” People who really care about and take pride in their job as problem-solvers don’t hand a problem back to you and say “it’s too hard.” They at least take a shot at solving it.

As to the other elements of your question, let’s break down the concepts to better understand them:

  1. You want to know the difficulties of modeling the motion of a swimmer in the water. This is based on several assumptions that might not be accurate or even helpful to you.
  2. You discuss the desire to become both a “more efficient” and a faster swimmer. These are not necessarily the same thing.
  3. You specifically mention stroke count and 100m splits as your metrics for technique and performance. However, you then throw in some “fuzzy factors” such as age, relative experience, and “sighting and other issues.”

Let’s start with the motion-capture idea, which is actually quite good. In fact, it has been accomplished.

As you can probably tell from the video link, the technology necessary to do it is sophisticated and expensive. It’s also somewhat limited. Based on what I’ve seen, the technology can model your position, velocity, acceleration, and form. These are all things your body does. What it can’t do is tell you what the water around you is doing. How much propulsive force are you generating with your hands? What is your drag coefficient? These are based on interactions between you and the water. While the software is probably able to extrapolate some guesses on these things, it would still take the engineers and a coach to figure out what’s working, what isn’t, and how to get you into a better swim stroke. At anything less than Olympic-level competition, spending less than one week a year (and thousands of dollars) with this type of equipment would be nearly pointless. We can do better.

Sadly, I’m forced to use the one thing you said you’re not interested in. I hope you’ll bear with me while I employ a little (yep, you guessed it) physics.

Let’s talk about the second part of your problem; the idea of efficiency versus speed. It comes pretty intuitively to most athletes that becoming more efficient makes them faster. I even make the same case with research and math several times throughout the book. However, we need to distinguish between the two in this case because of your circumstances. You mentioned that any time your 100m split time decreases, your stroke count goes up. That means you’re getting the speed you want, but at the cost of some efficiency. The possible confusion that might result is that you’re not considering the possibility that other factors might have changed.

In general, there are two ways to go faster in any situation. You can either reduce the amount of resistance against you, or you can increase your propulsive power. That’s a constant theme throughout the book, which you’ve latched onto here. Your description of the two cases suggests that you took the second option. By increasing your turnover, you pushed through the water more. However, you make the dangerous assumption that that’s the only thing you changed in your speed experiment.

Let me ask a dangerous question: When you increase your stroke rate or turnover, does that influence the other elements of your body position? In other words, did increasing propulsive force also cause you to increase the resistance against you? If so, you’re like a cyclist who stands on their pedals to push through a strong wind. You’re doing harm to your own cause. Extremely good swimmers need fewer than 18 strokes to cover a length of 25 meters at top speed. By reducing the amount of movement associated with an arm pull and getting the most out of each stroke they do use, they incur less drag.

Swimming, swimmer, pool, imageThe converse is true as well. A swimmer’s technique is like Tai Chi or ballet. No one gets it right the first time and speed is the natural enemy of form. The body has to be taught to move the correct way slowly before it can do it quickly. At least in the initial stages, increasing efficiency is likely to cost you speed. That Olympic-level swimmer is able to maintain top speed at 18 strokes per pool length because they swim ten miles a day, every day of the year. Their motion is consistently as close to hydrodynamic perfection as possible, regardless of how fast they throw their arm through the air. It comes second-nature to them.

That sounds like the potential root of your problem. If things like sighting are countering the advantages of a wetsuit, then you have the earmarks of a novice swimmer. This gets away from the raw physics of speed and into the koans of Bruce Lee and Phil Jackson. To wit, there’s a difference between stuffing your head full of swim clinic info and forcing your will to perfection throughout the sinews of your arms and legs. Knowing fast and being fast are two different things. As Vince Lombardi said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In short, you may be trying to go too fast too soon. That’s a judgment call you have to make, though.

That judgment should be framed by your expectations and history. In a world where Dara Torres returns to the Olympics and Diana Nyad finally makes it to Florida, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t hit a sub-hour Ironman swim at your age. However, goals require work to hit them. Are your goals reasonable in comparison to the hours you put toward them each week? Is your practice obeying Lombardi’s edict? Do you have any musculo-skeletal imbalances, strength issues, or “holes” in your overall fitness that would hurt your swim performance? Also consider things like body dimensions. Michael Phelps has extremely long arms, narrow hips and short legs. As great an athlete as he is, he’d be at a disadvantage for the other two-thirds of a triathlon. Do your body dimensions suggest a similar disadvantage for swimming? Again, these are factors that only you know, but don’t leave anything out when you make these judgments.

swimming, coach, professional swimmer, imageFinally, let’s talk about the one hole you clearly seem to have identified: coaching. For whatever reason, it seems pretty clear that you haven’t been able to find a coaching relationship that’s benefitted you over the long term. I’m not a coaching expert, and there are multiple factors for you personally that will influence the coach you choose.

But for my money, I’d give them a quick physics quiz. Use the principles I’ve described in the book and discussed on this blog to see what their grounding in technique is.

  • Is kicking important to propulsion?
  • What are their thoughts on sculling versus deep-catch stroke technique?
  • What are the various forms of drag and how do they influence a swimmer?
  • Do they think a textured suit will help you?
  • Do they understand the usefulness of drafting in an open water swim?

A good grasp of the fundamentals associated with their profession indicates that they read about developments in the sport and are interested in keeping up with the latest information. Even if they disagree with each other, someone who can cite research backing up their methodology is at least more proactive and likely to consistently evolve their training to meet your needs than someone who simply falls back on a certification clinic they attended eight years ago.

In the end, seek not the state-of-the-art. Put your faith in the fundamentals. Find a coach who understands them comprehensively, and can use them to outline a clear path to get you to where you want to go. Be realistic with them and yourself. And, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask. It was thoroughly enjoyable to answer this one. Like the ideal coach you’re bound to find, no problem is too difficult for me to at least try to solve.

If you’re interested in getting faster, you’ll be fascinated by FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed. In Faster, astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist Jim Gourley explores the science of triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and slow down your racing. With this knowledge on your side, you can make simple changes that add up to free speed and faster racing.

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