Earlier in this series I cited a study by Defense Dept. engineers which documented that a typical human swimmer is only 3 percent efficient. This tells us that our most significant opportunity to improve at swimming will always be to waste less energy. To focus on that, we need a simple way of telling whether any given practice lap – or practice choice (how far to swim, how hard, how much rest) – is accomplishing that goal.
The Darpa engineers estimated Energy Utilization in their study, something that takes advanced math to quantify. Average swimmers need simpler measures. Stroke Count is the best available stand-in: If you take fewer strokes, you’re doing a better job of moving your body forward. If you take more, you’re diverting more energy into moving water around.
The first of two videos in this segment shows swimming in a low-pressure, calm-water practice setting. The second shows swimming in a higher-pressure, rough-water race setting.
The intended lesson is that it’s essential to practice efficiency – literally to encode it in muscle memory – in thoughtful, intentional and organized ways, if you hope to swim efficiently in a race setting.
The first video segment illustrates the contrast between a stroke that emphasizes Balance and Streamline and one that’s oriented to Pulling and Kicking.
Efficiency is Conscious and Kaizen – not Natural
Nothing in the stroke I demonstrate here is ‘naturally occurring.’ For over half my life I moved water around much like my companion in the far lane. I’ve spent the last 20+ years patiently and consciously learning to move my body forward with the balanced, streamlined bodyline and patient, fluent propulsion I demonstrate here.
Elite swimmers generally have an inborn knack to swim with balance and efficiency. The rest of us need to acquire that habit as I did — through practice. Mindfully and thoughtfully practicing that, illustrated in open water by several TI Coaches, will do far more to improve our swimming than workouts that focus only on how far and how hard, and fail to include ways to measure efficiency.
The final video clip here is from the 2006 World Masters Open Water championship in relatively rough conditions in San Francisco Bay. Note that all of the swimmers I pass in this brief clip are stroking at a much higher rate, making a lot more splash. Moving water around, rather than moving forward, IS the normal human-swimmer condition.
Less Bubbles Means More Efficiency
In the head-on bit of the side-by-side underwater comparison, I note how much of the other swimmer’s energy goes into making bubbles.
In July 2009, for three days prior to Ironman Lake Placid, I swam in Mirror Lake in the company of dozens of triathletes doing their final pre-race tuneups.
As I swam along the cable-marked course, I noticed a atriking difference between faster and slower swimmers. If I swam into a mass of bubbles, I would quickly pass the swimmer leaving that bubble cloud. If there were fewer bubbles, it would take me longer to pass them. Those rare swimmers who left the fewest bubbles in their wake were uniformly the fastest.
Watching for – and trying to eliminate — bubbles in your stroke is a surprisingly simple way of knowing whether your practice is encoding greater efficiency. If you make fewer bubbles, you should also find your stroke count improve.