Analyze your personal data for your best performance
As a swimmer, I love the fact that the techniques used in our sport are constantly evolving. It means that people are always discovering new ways to make me faster.
As a coach and writer, however, it means that everything I say or publish will eventually be outdated—sometimes before I even verbalize it. Sigh.
To make matters worse, much of the ongoing research is performed on elite young athletes, which is not a demographic to which I belong. Techniques that elicit personal records from a tall and limber slab of 20-year-old muscle may not produce the same results from my geriatric mashed-potato physique. Fortunately, there are some cheap and easy ways we can test the latest theories to see if they work for us.
Suggestions for Experiments
Start by recognizing that there are valid reasons for the techniques your coach is teaching. Research and observational data has shown that someone has had success with those methods. Your challenge is to discover how to best implement those findings into your own performance. Measure experiment results by counting strokes, using a stopwatch, or recording distance by counting tiles or placing a marker on the pool deck. Perform experiments whenever you’re curious about a specific technique, which might include the following:
- Kicks off the wall before breakout—How many (if any)? Flutter versus dolphin? How fast?
- Breaststroke underwater dolphin kick—Before, after, or during the arm pulldown?
- Race effort allocation—Try different race strategies (take it out hard versus steady pace) and analyze splits from meet performances.
- Flip turns versus open turns—Until you master the flip with good breath control, an open turn might be faster.
- Sprint versus distance—Which races are best for you?
Some experiments reveal more about the status of your training than about using a specific strategy. Examples include:
Dealing with Data
Use these ground rules for experiments:
- Isolate and measure a specific element for each test.
- Perform the test under realistic conditions.
- Repeat the test to reduce the likelihood of anomalies.
Isolating elements means that you keep everything the same except for the one aspect you’re testing. For example, if you test how many kicks you should take off each wall before your breakout stroke, keep your streamline and pushoff thrust identical on each trial. Wear the same cap, swim suit, and goggles.
Your ability to hold your breath on the last turn of a 200 breaststroke race is quite different than it is when you’ve just completed your warmup after a good night’s sleep. Results are only realistic when you perform your experiments at a race-equivalent fatigue level. It’s great to fine-tune your streamline when you’re fresh, but testing technique for competition requires a heavy workload to ensure validity.
Some days are better than others. Repeating experiments multiple times will give you a far better database from which to draw reliable conclusions.
As you design your experiments, keep in mind that you’re searching for techniques that get you to the finish wall as fast as possible. Staying underwater for 15 meters of kicking doesn’t make sense if your kick is slower than you swim on the surface, or if the resulting oxygen debt leaves you completely exhausted when you finally reach the surface. Poor kickers may be faster by not kicking at all off the wall. Flipping your back-to-breast transition may be wise in a 100 IM, but foolish in a 400. You’re not likely to sustain the same kick power for a 1650 as you could for a 100. Think about the big picture when you analyze your data.
That said, please do not think for one second that I am condoning slackerism. Your experiments may show that you’re better off taking a breath on your first stroke off the wall, but you can train your lungs to be more efficient. Fix your lousy kick by stretching your ankles and working your legs harder in practice. Stay after practice and do flip turns until your technique is flawless even when fatigued. You may not be able to perform every stroke just like an Olympian, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
- Technique and Training