Lifetime-Improvement Swimming

by Terry Laughlin
March 23, 2009

Among Total Immersion coaches, the word Kaizen - Japanese for "continuous improvement"--has become a mantra for a sense of optimism and aspiration about improving as we age that we hope to inspire in every swimmer we teach. This mantra is well suited for any Masters coach, because guiding mature swimmers through the aging process is a special opportunity. You might say we have a key to the fountain of youth, the ability to help athletes perform better as they age, a lesson I've learned both coaching and swimming.

I tried out for my Catholic grammar school swim team in 8th grade but didn't make the cut. As a high school swimmer, by 12th grade I still hadn't qualified for the NYC Catholic High School championships. However I was excited to swim in the novice meet, mostly with 9th graders. As a college senior, I qualified only for consolation finals in our conference championships (though the competition was Brooklyn, Lehman, and Hunter, not Texas, Auburn or Arizona.) Yet, since turning 55, I've won USMS Long Distance National Championships, broken national age group records and been the top-ranked open water swimmer among 55-59 year olds. What accounts for my evolution from utterly undistinguished during my first decade of swimming to what might be termed "elite" in middle age?

In part, one could credit the "10,000 Hour Rule," described in Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers. As Gladwell explains, "experts"--in fields ranging from music, to chess, to computer programming--are made, not born, through a massive investment in time, averaging about 10,000 hours in most cases. At some point in my 50s, after practicing some 300 hours per year for 35 years I finally passed 10,000 hours myself.

But, as Gladwell writes, simply putting in time isn't enough. Rote repetition-i.e. unvarying sets of 10 x 100--simply ingrains the skills and habits you already possess. To improve continuously-and eventually achieve mastery-you must embrace what's called Deliberate Practice--exacting tasks, designed to move you steadily and incrementally beyond your current level of comfort and competence.

Relatively few swimmers experience continuous improvement. Those who are new to swimming, or haven't trained in years, usually improve their times for the first year or two, then stagnate. Many experience what one rueful swimmer called "terminal mediocrity," swimming for years without improving. And yet, I believe a powerful case can be made that virtually every swimmer has the potential to improve year after year, specifically because swimming offers learning opportunities unmatched by any other sport.

During the past 20 years--a period contemporaneous with my participation in Masters--I've taught tens of thousands of past-their-prime athletes, most of whom were "adult-onset" swimmers. This posed challenges I'd never faced in 16 years coaching younger, more accomplished athletes on club and college teams, forcing me beyond my own comfort zone. It also informed my own practice in ways that produced continuous improvement.

The two key lessons of these experiences are: (1) Humans in water-with rare exceptions (Michael Phelps and similarly "gifted" swimmers)--are like fish out of water; and (2) Most of what we "know" about swimming actually makes improvement less likely; the techniques and intentions that made the greatest positive difference have all been counter-intuitive. The thoughts that have guided my swimming in my 40s and 50s are utterly different from what I focused on in my teens and 20s . . . and continue to evolve each year.

I received confirmation of these insights from an article in Popular Mechanics, which revealed what a group of physicists and engineers learned while designing a swim foil for the Navy Seals. After comparing the efficiency of humans with dolphins, these researchers calculated that humans typically convert only 3% of "horsepower" into forward motion, while dolphins convert 80%. For comparison, elite swimmers are about 9% efficient (that's right, even Michael Phelps wastes over 90%). But even this relatively low efficiency is "superhuman" -- over 300% greater than recreational swimmers. The critical insights we should take from this are: (1) The most valuable outcome of the thousands of hours elite swimmers spend training each year is greater efficiency, not greater fitness; and (2) For the rest of us, the opportunity to gain endurance by saving energy is far greater than what you can gain by getting fitter.

If you've spent much time working with novices (or been one yourself), it's fairly easy to relate to the efficiency problem highlighted by those research findings. The reason is that water is an utterly uncooperative medium for skilled movement. We spend 99% of our lives in an environment in which we have solid ground under our feet for support and stability, achieve balance vertically, and most overcome the resistance of "thin" air as we move. And we can breathe that air at will.

In water, we're utterly unstable, we "hang from" our balance, which is horizontal, rather than vertical; we're constantly at the mercy of a contest between gravity and buoyancy; every movement is resisted by a medium that's a thousand times denser than air, and we have virtually no traction for propulsion. Finally, breathing is suddenly an exacting skill. Compared to moving on land, swimming is like cycling uphill on an icy slope, while forced to breathe hurriedly and intermittently.

As coaches of aging athletes, we should view all those conditions as opportunities, not problems. Here's why: On land, where energy efficiency is far greater (and where elite athletes are only 20% to 25% more efficient than recreational athletes-as compared to a 300% differential between elite and recreational swimmers) performance is most heavily influenced by aerobic and muscular power, both of which decline inexorably with age, making it exceptionally difficult to avoid declines in performance.

In the water, with energy efficiency so low to start with, and skill challenges so considerable, the potential to learn new skills and improve efficiency is nearly limitless. With a real commitment to improving every year-indeed every practice-Masters swimmers and their coaches can look forward to the inspiring, yet realistic, possibility of swimming better and better with age. To do this we need only improve efficiency by a slightly greater margin than what we lose to aging. The qualities that make this possible-patience, self-awareness, relaxation-should all improve with age, particularly through Deliberate Practice.

Two things are needed to start on a Kaizen path: (1) Expect to improve; and (2) Know how to improve. Above I've provided arguments to create that expectation among your swimmers. In a series of articles, I'll examine all the fundamentals of swimming performance in a way that can provide the know-how for improving your swimmers. Here are some of the topics I'll cover in upcoming articles:
Endurance: Why we should replace the conventional definition -- "the capacity to do work" with a broadened definition - "the ability to maintain an effective combination of Stroke Length and Stroke Rate for a duration of your choosing."
Three Kinds of Endurance: What are the relative contributions of Metabolic, Motor and Mental Endurance?
Aerobic Training: Why it's more valuable as an aid to recovery than for increasing fitness.
Speed: Why reducing drag is more important than increasing propulsive force, and why sustainability matters more than velocity.
The "Math" of Speed: Why the only absolutely dependable way to swim faster is by programming your nervous system for particular combinations of Stroke Length and Stroke Rate.
Strength and Power: Why the underappreciated spinal (or midline) stabilizers are the most important muscles in swimming.

Terry Laughlin is the founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming. His latest book is Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body.

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