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Streamlining – more speed for no extra effort

7 August 2018 No Comment

If we look at the cars in the picture, one is designed to slip through the air with the least amount of drag. The other just busts a hole in the air to go through. Both vehicles are designed for different roles, but each one has to use a portion of it’s power to overcome drag caused by simply travelling through our atmosphere.

If we use the analogy of the two different shaped cars and apply it to athletes it’s most relevant in the swim and cycle portions of our race. It’s widely accepted in swim coaching that 70% of our energy goes into overcoming the drag of the water on our body. If we were more streamlined, like the car closer to the camera, we could go faster with less energy than a swimmer who is just busting a hole in the water to push through while using the same amount of energy.

Sadly I see too many swimmers trying so hard to go faster, but using the Hummer method rather than the Aston Martin method. We all spend a lot of accumulated hours swim training, some of us are disappointed at the end of a build up by not swimming faster. If instead of just becoming fitter and stronger, we focused on becoming “slipperier” or more streamlined, like a dolphin, we could actually get faster with less effort. This is not a new concept, swim teachers have been teaching kids to be streamlined right from beginners classes, through to junior squads.

This is why a strong 70-80kg male swimmer can be humbled by a slightly built 14yr old girl. We see it all the time. The adult male swimmer may have twice the strength of the 14yr old girl, but she has possibly only 30% of the drag that her older, stronger friend, who didn’t start swim training until he was in his forties. The young girl is most likely far more relaxed than her bigger stronger friend.

If every session incorporates some drill work, and some alternating 12m kick 12m freestyle a lot can be gained with little effort. Another bonus is that while we’re practising  streamlining drills, we’re gaining aerobic fitness at the same time. Half of the reason many adult swimmers are not streamlined is because their legs don’t follow through the same hole they have smashed through the water with their body. In the swim leg of a triathlon I often swim past swimmers whose legs are spreading apart up to a meter with every breath they take.

To avoid the leg spreading, which is usually done unconsciously for balance, we need to work on becoming more flexible in the shoulders and upper thoracic spine. Working over a keyboard is not good for flexibility in this area. It can be improved, it may take a whole winter/off season to improve it, but it can be done. Using a foam roller between the shoulder blades and stretching the arms over head. A simple movement which takes little or no energy, just commitment.

If we stand with our back against a wall, with our heels against the wall, we should be able to reach above our heads with straight arms and touch the backs of our hands on the wall. This test can be done regularly to check progress, and also while the back is against the wall, turn the head to each side to check neck flexibility.

Spending three months with a swim coach while working on your flexibility can produce as much as a 10% improvement in times, without any extra strength or fitness. You don’t have to be strong to swim fast, you do need to be loose and relaxed, and if you can improve your flexibility the PBs will follow.  If we take the approach that a pro golfer takes, that’s to go and practice, instead of going to train, we will probably make more progress.

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