Record Evolution: It May Not All Be In the Suit

Guest editorial by David Guthrie

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 3. DAVID Guthrie, one of this year's runners-up for the Swimming World Magazine Top 12 World Masters Swimmers of the Year honor, provided today's guest editorial.

Why the Revolution?
Swimmers are getting faster. Lots of them. A quick review of the 2008 World Rankings boggles the mind, and 2009 is shaping up to be even faster and deeper. Clearly, swimming is in the midst of a revolution. Why the sudden change in the landscape of performance? Why do world records suddenly seem to fall with unprecedented regularity? This current evolutionary leap has many guardians of the sport confused and angry. They point to the new suits as the cause of the upheaval. "These suits are terrible for the sport!" they cry. "It's out of control. These performances are ruining the continuity and the integrity of the sport!"

Times are supposed to get faster, but apparently, only at some preconceived rate established through the sport's own brief history. Whatever that gradual rate is supposed to be, according to whomever it is who gets to decide, the improvements over the past year exceeded it. But is this kind of evolutionary acceleration really unprecedented? Or is it just our misperception of our own history?

It is true that this transformation coincides with the introduction of new suit technologies.

But it is a common human mistake to see two simultaneous events and jump to conclusions about their connectedness, to see cause and effect where it doesn't necessarily exist. In the case of the current record book assault, alarmed coaches and officials have made the assumption that high-tech suits have distorted the playing field. Zeroing in on the suits tends to be self-reinforcing and ignores the many other developments that are, in fact, much more influential in the recent performance leaps.

Too Much Credit (or Blame)
One American Olympic coach (and LZR advocate) recently lashed out at the polyurethane suits saying, "It's totally out of control. Now, we're into speedboat driving!"

But the data says something different: The suits are getting far too much credit (or blame) for the recent leaps in performance. If the suits are ersatz speedboats, physics would say that the longer the race, the greater the advantage. So, why haven't distance records been smashed proportionately? The 1500 records should be at least 30 seconds to 1 minute faster if the boost from the new suits is what the critics claim. But that expectation isn't supported by the data. An inventory of suit choices by male swimmers (almost all females wear full body suits for obvious reasons) in the 2008 Olympics reveals some interesting statistics.

* In the men's 1500 free final, 7 out of 8 finalists wore full body suits, yet the world record was not threatened.

* With the exception of the 50 and 100 freestyle, and 100 fly events, only about 25 percent of the male swimmers who qualified for the semis and finals in Beijing wore full body suits, and far fewer finished on the podium. In each of the men's breaststroke finals, for example, only 2 out of the 8 finalists opted to wear body suits. The vast majority wore leggings.

* Notably, even in the events dominated by full body suits, the gold medalists of the 400 free and 100 fly wore leggings.

* Wearing only leggings, breaststroke champion Kitajima swam within .13 of the WR he set earlier in the summer wearing a full body suit.

* Michael Phelps wore leggings in 15 of his 17 races when he accomplished his historic feat (exceptions: 4×100 free relay and 200 free final).

* Collectively in seven of the men's individual events—100 and 200 backstrokes, 100 and 200 breaststrokes, 200 and 400 IMs, and the 200 fly—the number of medalists who wore full body suits was a grand total of zero.

Another revealing statistic is the sustained rate of improvement by the same swimmers one year after the latest generation of suits was introduced. Many elite swimmers are smashing their own person records set a year ago wearing the same suits. How do the suit critics account for this widespread, sustained improvement?

In fact, at the Beijing Games, some swimmers wore multiple suits, layering them in an attempt to gain an advantage, an ethically questionable practice no longer allowed. Based on this rule change, times should be getting slower, not faster. Furthermore, if the performance boost from these suits is anything approaching what their opponents claim, the fact that several active world record setting swimmers have not set person records in the new high-tech suit era is inexplicable. Apparently, they are not good speedboat drivers.

Drag Coefficient
The new suit fabrics create less drag. That's really the most important thing they do.

Although the suits may make swimmers feel more buoyant, they do not float as many critics claim. It's not the so-called "air-trapping" quality that accounts for the suits' effectiveness. Drag is by far the greatest obstacle in swimming, not gravity.

The fastest swimmers are not the most buoyant. It is far more advantageous to be streamlined than to carry extra body fat. With nearly half of short course races swum underwater, it is hard to see how positive buoyancy would be helpful anyway. The tech suits reduce drag at the expense of feel for the water and range of motion, which is probably why most 2008 Olympic swimmers choose not to wear the full body versions.

The advantage these suits provide is real, but overstated. The polyurethane suits are not disproportionately faster than the previous generation of suits. Polyurethane is more slippery than lycra and maintains this property far longer because it cannot become waterlogged.

Making suits that are more streamlined and more slippery is a time-honored tradition in our sport. Polyurethane and other hydrophobic materials are the next logical step in a long progression of fabric and suit design. This evolutionary step is arguably no more than the advantage of nylon over wool, and lycra over nylon. Who gets to decide that fabric evolution must stop now? Why should swimmers be required to compete in waterlogged materials? How does that make the sport more "pure"? Is FINA working with a coherent and consistent framework and prepared to handle the nuance of sorting out emerging technologies?

If not the suits, what is it?
World records are falling with uncommon regularity. But why? It's not just the suits (although they certainly play a role) and it's not rampant doping (although there is undoubtedly some drug boosting going on somewhere).

A more rational explanation for the swimming revolution is found in the swimmers themselves—which is ironic because the most vocal critics of advanced suits claim that they want to protect the sport, while refusing to give swimmers the credit they deserve.

Let's look at a few other recent developments that have undeniably played a significant role in reshaping the sport:

The Phelps Effect
One important factor is the Phelps Effect. Michael single-handedly restructured the sport, even before his monumental 2008 Olympic achievement. Several years ago, as he matured physically, his performances literally redefined the sport. He swam times in the 200 IM and 200 fly that put him in a universe of his own. No one was even close, which left a huge vacuum in Phelps' wake. Although he continues to steadily improve, the rest of the world, led by Ryan Lochte and Laszlo Cseh, responded to his challenge and closed the gap. Phelps rarely enjoys the margin of victory he did a few years ago. Chasing Michael makes the whole swimming world faster. Much faster. The Phelps Effect is a continuing series of quantum leaps for the sport.

Stroke Innovation
The evolution of stroke rules and technique plays a major role in the improvements in times throughout the sport's history. Race footage from the Sydney Olympics already looks like a nostalgic, by-gone era. Technique has evolved so rapidly that comparing races from Sydney and Beijing almost looks like two different sports. The two most prominent recent technical innovations are the "straight-arm recovery" for sprint freestyle and "underwater dolphin kick." Together, these developments are nothing short of revolutionary in their effect on swimming training and performance.

Straight Arms
Most of the top male sprinters in the world are using a straight-arm recovery. The swimmers at the top of sprint freestyle are very well established. Their times didn't take one huge drop as soon as they put on a polyurethane body suit. They have steadily improved over the past two years or more. A survey of top performers indicates that the straight-arm recovery is clearly superior to the old-fashioned high-elbow stroke preferred by previous generations and most Americans, still. Faster technique equals faster records. Now that Michael is experimenting with the straight-arm technique, the rest of American swimming is sure to follow.

Underwater Kicks
A large measure of the genius Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps is their willingness to change, to take calculated risks and experiment with technique. To stay ahead of the pack, the two collaborators spent the years between the past two Olympics developing Michael's underwater dolphin kick. When Michael broke his own world records with regularity in Beijing, he didn't do it because he wore a body suit. He did it largely because he dominated the turns.

His underwater dolphin kick gave him a knockout punch in nearly every race. If you take away the improvement in his underwater work, Phelps is pretty much the same swimmer he was in Athens. Although Michael is the best at using this underwater weapon, practically every swimmer at the Olympic level used it to get there.

This dolphin kick epiphany was a long time coming. Back in the early 80s Indiana University flyer, Jim Haliburton, pioneered the underwater dolphin kick as an effective backstroke technique. Misty Hyman took it to another level, culminating in Olympic Gold. But coaches were slow to embrace the strategy and for years it remained an anomaly.

Not so today. Bowman and Phelps may not be the inventors of the technique, but they certainly exploited and popularized it. Before the summer of 2008, most swimmers did not take "underwaters" very seriously. That changed dramatically when Phelps and others proved beyond all doubt what a devastating and essential weapon underwaters has become. Age group coaches everywhere now emphasize mastering underwater dolphin kicking as an essential "5th stroke". In the most successful programs, executing underwaters in training is no longer encouraged, but required.

The underwater revolution is even more pronounced at short course events like the NCAAs, where the best swimmers from just a few years ago would have trouble competing with today's crop, regardless of the type of suits they wear. Swimmers who have not mastered the underwater dolphin technique cannot compete with swimmers who have, especially in short course competition.

Amaury Leveaux's :44.9 SCM 100 free world record has more to do with his "straight-arm recovery" freestyle technique and his underwaters than whatever suit he was wearing. When he set that record, everyone in that elite field used pretty much the same equipment and arm recovery. The difference was Leveaux's underwater advantage on the start and turns. He simply devoured the pool and everything in it with his powerful dolphin kick.

For some inexplicable reason, the suit critics do not seem to recognize just how revolutionary this underwater tactic is and how thoroughly it has transformed the sport. If these guardians of swimming's historic continuity really want to control the progression of times and return them to pre-2008 levels, they should outlaw the underwater dolphin kick, not the suits.

Strength Training
In the early 90s, Mike Barrowman trained like few swimmers before or since. His legendary dryland workouts focused on developing core strength using a variety of tools, including a medicine ball. Conventional swimming routines neglect this key aspect of strength development.

Dara Torres has redefined age and performance through a similar approach to strength training. A comparison of photos of Dara Torres from each of the past three decades clearly shows her physical transformation. Although she always maintained a high level of conditioning, the photos from 2007 onward show a markedly different and superior physique.

Before her latest comeback, Dara started training with methods adapted from a high-speed, contact sport: pro hockey. Her intense dryland workouts allowed her to develop a new source of strength and power based on core stability and muscular integration. The traditional swimming workout by itself won't do that. Water simply cannot offer the same kind of resistance as weight training.

And unlike the typical blunt tool approach to weight training used by most swimmers, the strength developed through a highly specific dryland program is 100 percent usable.

The intelligent strength derived from "unconventional" dryland training also allows changes in the approach to pool training. It is far more effective to train neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems in the gym. For sprinters in particular, it makes sense to use pool time to concentrate on speed and technique, to simulate racing as much as possible, and allow plenty of recovery time.

A similar age-defying example is 38 year-old Mark Foster's remarkable performances in the 50 freestyle in 2008. Foster's personal record times are the result of a similar approach to strength training. His time in the pool is focused on quality and technique, while he develops his strength and cardio endurance outside of the pool in the weight room and on a road bike.

Now, many programs around the world have switched to quality-oriented training instead of hammering out mega-yardage the old-fashioned way. As a result, swimmer bodies look very different than they did just a few years ago. Female swimmers are leaner and stronger than ever, and male sprinters have morphed into superheroes. Their power is undeniable.

Core Strength
Interestingly, straight-arm freestyle and underwater dolphin kick have something in common: core strength. The training required to develop each of these techniques has created an unexpected and under-appreciated by-product, the core swimming revolution.

One reason that straight-arm freestyle is effective is the mechanical advantage generated by throwing the arms with core rotation. The windmill motion creates maximum hand speed and momentum with no effort from the arm muscles. The core drives the stroke, just like a powerful golf swing generates club speed by uncoiling the body. The fastest backstrokers know how to use the mechanical advantage of throwing their arms, so freestyle is learning from backstroke.

One difference between straight-arm freestyle and underwater dolphin kick with regard to core strength is that one uses it and the other develops it. Sprint freestylers are developing their strength in the weight room, then applying their power in the pool. Traditional swimming workouts cannot effectively develop maximum core strength and stability, but training for a fast, underwater dolphin kick can.

Swimmers are almost accidentally developing enormous core strength and muscular integration as a by-product of the new emphasis on underwater dolphin kick. This core stability improves every aspect of their performance, regardless of whether or not an event involves dolphin kicking. Technique has altered training methods and transformed the swimmers themselves. Swimmers are far stronger than they were just a few years ago, and better equipped to use their power effectively.

The entire landscape of swimming is changing. Not just suit technology. Not just training methods and technique. Everything has changed. Today, world record holders emerge from a wide array of countries on every populated continent. The competitive field is no longer owned by one race from two or three national super powers. Geographic, cultural, and racial diversity now define the sport at the highest levels. Only a devout chauvinist or cynic would argue that the recent worldwide emergence of elite swimmers is due to magic swimsuits or some other nefarious or illegitimate means. The power structure of the sport is shifting. The elite levels of swimming reflect more inclusiveness and diversity than ever, which is something to embrace and celebrate, not stifle.

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