If you regularly read my posts you’re probably aware of the DARPA study which showed that human swimmers are only 3% efficient–as compared to the 80% efficiency of dolphins. (I.E. Dolphins convert 80% of energy expenditures into forward motion; in contrast humans divert 97% of energy into moving around in the water and moving the water around.)
But the subjects in that study weren’t even the least efficient swimmers. They at least could swim well enough to participate and all probably thought their swimming was ‘OK.’ It’s also been estimated that elite swimmers are between 9% and 10% efficient. Yes, Virginia, even Sun Yang wastes over 90% of his energy.
This is far better than the rest of us, but still way short of the efficiency of land athletes (nordic skiers, runners, cyclists) which can be as high as 36%.
Most of us are in a somewhat nebulous middle. Is it possible to estimate your own efficiency? Are you 4% efficient. 6%? Maybe even 8%?
I’ve done a thought exercise to estimate my own efficiency. I estimate that I was probably around 5% efficient 20 years ago, as I was just beginning to transform my own stroke from human-like to fish-like. Today I optimistically estimate I’m somewhere above 8% — based how well I can substantially increase my speed with relatively moderate increases in effort.
I’ve drafted a set of experiential descriptions–how your swimming feels, more than a time you may swim for a particular distance–that I believe are fairly good gauges of the level of efficiency you’ve reached. I.E. At any level of efficiency, how are you likely to experience swimming, or what capabilities are you likely to possess. Here’s what I came up with.
Efficiency Index of Human Swimmers in Freestyle
(Note: Some, but not all, of the experiences listed in each category, can qualify you. E.G. You might be 5% efficient, but not yet feel fully comfortable in open water.)
1% to 2% Swimming crawl for even the shortest distance (a few strokes) is unpleasant and exhausting. (Though you may be able to swim a bit farther, and even feel reasonably comfortable, using breaststroke.) You experience considerable difficulty and discomfort with staying afloat (you feel your legs sinking) and it’s always a struggle–or even panic-inducing–just trying to breathe.
3% to 4% You can swim for a minute or two continuously. You can extend that distance–up to perhaps as much as 1500 meters—with artificial support from a pull buoy or wetsuit, or with regular rest breaks, but feel somewhat drained afterward. If you do triathlon, you spend part of the cycling leg recovering from the swim—or feel the entire rest of your race is compromised by the difficulty of the swim. Swimming faster seems too much to hope for since even slow paces are so tiring. You never improve, no matter how much you swim. Swimming may feel like a ‘good workout,; but you do it more out of obligation than enjoyment.
To reach the next level you need: Balance.
5% to 6% You feel great comfort in the water. You can swim a mile with sufficient ease that it seems plausible to complete a 5k (equivalent of a half-marathon in running) or more. You feel confident about swimming in open water. If you do triathlon, you feel quite fresh at the conclusion of the swim leg and regularly achieve a respectable, mid-pack position. Your kick and breathing both feel relaxed and controlled. . You can achieve small increases in pace with reasonable effort.
To reach the next level you need: A more stable and sleeker body position.
7% to 8% You feel more at home in the water than anywhere else, and swimming feels better and is more satisfying than any other physical activity. Your stroke—including both catch and 2-beat kick–feels integrated and seamless up to about 85% of maximum effort and heart rate. You can swim faster, whenever you choose, with a reasonable amount of effort. Swimming a marathon distance seems completely plausible, if you devote a concentrated period of 10 to 12 weeks to preparing for it. If you compete in open water swimming (inclusive of triathlon swim legs) you regularly place in the Top 5% to 10% of your age group.
To reach the next level you need: Highly effective propulsion skills–particularly a firm catch and well-tuned 2-Beat Kick.
9% or more If you had youth and athleticism, your efficiency would probably put you among the elite. But, in middle age or beyond, you enjoy something more valuable—a sense that you swim with a skill (even artistry) and awareness shared by few. You regularly experience psychological Flow States in practice—and occasionally in competition. You virtually always feel you work with the water, even at close to maximum effort. When you lose effectiveness, it’s minor. You quickly sense the cause and can easily adjust your stroke to get back in flow. You have a clear sense of your Kaizen opportunities—no matter how subtle—and know how to achieve them. You can consistently and proportionately convert an increase in SPL or Tempo into an increase in Pace.
How are you swimming?
Do these descriptions ring true for you? Do you use other indicators to estimate your efficiency? Have you created Kaizen benchmarks on skill development that help chart your progress to higher levels of efficiency–and enjoyment?
Post your comments here, or join a discussion on this topic on this thread at the TI Swimmer’s Forum.