Doc Counsilman’s Curiosity Lives on at Indiana University’s Counsilman Center

Feature by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 10. THE recent trend of swimmers downing chocolate milk after workout to aid in recovery was a hot topic for Joel Stager and his team of researchers at Indiana University's Counsilman Center as early as 2004.

But that's only one subject of interest Stager has been studying intensively since the Counsilman Center was officially created in 2000. Racing start velocity, body shaving and drag forces are just a few of the subjects that the Counsilman Center has pored over for more than a decade.

But if Stager and his crew knew about some of these breakthroughs long before the general public caught on, why did it take so long to reach the masses? Stager says his team isn't focused on disseminating their research to the general public. Peer review and publication in scientific journals are their primary goals.

“We've been criticized a lot for that,” said Stager, who has spent a lifetime deeply immersed in swimming as an athlete and coach. Despite not immediately sharing his knowledge with the world, Stager is a proponent of it, which is why his findings have always been available on the department's website (Click here.).

The department gets its name from James “Doc” Counsilman, regarded as one of the revolutionary coaches in swimming history. If you think of any modern training technique or device that swim teams use today, chances are that Counsilman either invented it or pioneered the practice. From interval training and pace clocks to underwater cameras and streamlining, Counsilman made it his life's goal to marry the science and art of swimming. His expertise helped Indiana University win six consecutive NCAA championships from 1968 to 1973, and put Gary Hall, Mark Spitz, John Kinsella and others on the Olympic team.

It was a paper on the effects of the bodysuits in 2000 that got Stager and Indiana University some acclaim, and led the university to start a center within the kinesiology department that would allow Stager to continue to bring innovations to the sport in the same fashion that Counsilman did in his prime. In fact, it was Counsilman who suggested that Stager run the department.

“I was fortunate enough to come here, literally at his (Counsilman's) urging,” Stager said. “He felt like his big legacy was merging science to the preparation of athletes at the elite level.”

To that end, Stager has been working to find ways to help athletes of all levels reach their potential. Take the chocolate milk study, for example. He discovered that, as a coach in Bloomington, his swimmers were not recovering well between morning and afternoon workouts. Many were not eating right during the day, and approaching the afternoon session feeling groggy. After drinking a nutritional supplement, his swimmers started to perform better in the afternoon, but the cost of the supplements was high, and Stager went to the grocery store to find an alternative.

“Basically, the supplement was powdered milk with added vitamins and proteins,” Stager said. “And the funny thing was that a carton of chocolate milk did the trick just as well. Within 10 days, our afternoon practice problems disappeared.”

Some of the research Stager and his team conduct has not required more than a laboratory and the use of the campus pool. But the untimely death of Fran Crippen sparked an idea to look into the effects of hot water on a swimmer's performance, which turned into a need for a pool that could have the temperature adjusted quickly.

“We couldn't ask the folks at the (Counsilman Aquatics Center) to bring the pool temperature up to 90 degrees just to use it for a few minutes,” Stager said. “But with an Endless Pool, we can absolutely do that.”

United States Masters Swimming stepped in to help fray the costs of purchasing an Endless Pool for the department. Newly installed, Stager is anxious to get his research going.

“We want to see what happens to an athlete when they swim at a pace about 49 seconds per 100 freestyle,” Stager said, “so we use national-class athletes to sustain a given workload and look at the important characteristics they show when they are hooked up to our devices.”

The Endless Pool will be a part of many more research projects, Stager said. One that he is excited to start is a study that will result in an algorithm that will enable a swimmer to instantly know how many calories were burned in a workout. Stroke frequency and distance per stroke, he said, will be the two main elements that will guide this study.

Though Stager has been the mainstay at the Counsilman Center since it opened in 2000, many of his research assistants have moved on to work as coaches at age group clubs and universities, applying the knowledge they gained in Bloomington to swimmers across the country. Josh White, now an associate head coach at the University of Michigan, is one such graduate. Other prominent coaches include Tom Ruston, Chris Brammer and Josh Skube.

If Counsilman were alive to see the progress the center has made in the past decade, Stager is certain “Doc” would be proud.

“He'd be right smack dab in the center of it all,” Stager said. “He loved to innovate and experiment. Nothing was outside his realm of curiosity.”

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