Swimming Science: Recapping What We Learned in 2013

By Dr. G. John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS of Swimming Science, Owner of COR PT , Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, Swimming Troubleshooting System , and Mobility for Swimmers System , Swimming World correspondent

SANTA CLARA, California, January 2. Looking back at what I have learned in the past year is quite entertaining, as I’ve learned some amazing things and simply can’t believe some of the things I thought I knew.

Overall, 2013 was an amazing for me, both professionally and personally. I figured I’d compile a list of noteworthy information for things that have morphed me in only one year. This is not a complete list, but some highlights:

Self Myofascial Release (SMR) research suggests SMR doesn’t decrease force … at least not yet!
I’ve been using myofascial releases since I started my Doctorate in Physical Therapy, but didn’t start using SMR until I started working with athletic teams. Since I started prescribing SMR, I’ve noticed some amazing improvements in pain levels, soreness and ranges of motion. However, like all forms of mobility, I wondered if prescribing SMR before a performance was ideal or if it would decrease force production like static stretching. Luckily, MacDonald (2012) and his team have been doing a lot of SMR research (specifically on the quadriceps) and it seems SMR doesn’t decrease force production. It is important to keep our eyes glued to the research, as more research is definitely needed on this subject, but as someone who has used and taught SMR, it is exciting to finally have some research to support the claims! ***Shameless plug: Learn all about SMR research in the Mobility for Swimmers System , buy now for a $10 discount!

Breathing is the forgotten aspect of dry-land.
CrossFit, Olympic lifts, plyometrics, breathing? Perhaps all the strength and conditioning hoopla gets the best of us, as simply working on our breathing, specifically our maximal inspiratory muscle strength may provide as much, if not more, benefit for swimmers. Now, it makes sense, as during swimming there are frequent periods of hypoxia (not breathing), where the inspiratory muscles are contracting isometrically to hold one’s breath, but who would have thought inspiratory muscle training could provide such bang for your buck! New research looked at inspiratory muscles in well-trained young swimmers and significant improvements in 50 and 200 meters resulted (more improvement compared to not using the respiratory training in the 50m vs. the 200m). Unfortunately, the researchers did not have a comparison group performing weight training or extra swimming to see if respiratory muscle training is truly the best use of extra time, but it clearly warrants consideration and implementation!

Equipment progressions cloud swimming improvement
This is going to sound like a knock on swimming, but it is just a note. Personally, I was upset about the banning of the hi-tech suits, as I felt it brought more excitement and sponsorship to this great sport. Now, I admit they were getting a bit out of hand, as each meet unveiled the next latest and greatest suits, but still I think the complete ban was a bit harsh and not well thought out. However, progressions in swimming are still occurring and I find it funny how these are rarely discussed! I mean the Omega OSB 11 kick back start fins are suggested to improve a swimmer’s performance by at least 0.2 seconds, yet no one talks about this huge margin (especially in the 50 free)! Now, Omega is releasing the foot holds for backstroke … don’t be naive, these are similar to the suits and may cloud time improvements and inflate time improvements when actual improvements in swimming did not occur. Unfortunately, sometimes technology gets the best of us, like when there is a current in a 50-m pool.

Injury screening is a simple tool for all coaches!
I’ve been fortunate to give some talks at coaches’ clinics about shoulder injury prevention and rehabilitation. No matter how much injury prevention you do, swimmers will get injured. High levels of stress are the consequences of high-level athletics. In swimming, the shoulders, low back and knees undergo high volumes of stress, making it essential for a coach to have a few basic tricks for improving these spots. For the shoulders, most of the time a swimmer will have pain during certain motions (like the catch of their freestyle). If they have pain during the catch, have simply have them replicate this motion on land and see if it causes pain. If this aggravates their shoulder, have them perform SMR to the infraspinatus for three minutes and re-check. I bet you (if they did the spot correctly), they will find an immediate reduction and often full alleviation of pain. Having these simple tools in your bag as a coach will build confidence with your swimmers, and more importantly keep them healthy and able to withstand the stresses associated with the sport.

Individualized recovery … the next frontier
The principle of individualization is finally gaining traction, mostly due to Dr. Brent Rushall and his teachings. Yet, one forgotten aspect of many coaches is recovery, a truly individualized variable. I think everyone would agree swimmers react differently to workouts and training. Some can handle more intensity, while others can handle more frequency. On top of this, some swimmers drive five minutes to practice, while others drive 50 minutes. Then, some swimmers are up until 1 a.m. doing “homework” while some get nine hours of sleep. All of these variables influence recovery and as of now, monitoring recovery is quite subjective. Luckily, methods to monitor recovery are coming to fruition, providing objective data to the coach to help monitor the overall stress of an athlete. One method for monitoring fatigue is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV measures the distance between the change in distance between subsequent R waves in your heart rate. (Example of heart rate variability) These changes in distance is an objective measure for sympathetic nervous system activity (fight-or-flight system) and stress. I truly think this is the next big step in coaching, as each coach can find the sweet spot to maximize the training effect.

Soreness isn’t always good!
This may seem obvious, but with all the laborious training in- and out-of-water training programs it must be stated! Soreness impairs biomechanics, which impairs training capacity, which impairs improvements! A recent study by Doncaster (2013) had nine physically active male participants perform six minutes of arm cranking at ventilator threshold (VT), followed by a time to exhaustion (TTE) trial at 80% of the difference between VT and VO2peak 48 hours after bench press exercise (10×6 repetitions at 70% 1-RM) or control (20 minutes sitting on a couch). This study found much greater ratings of fatigue and lower training capabilities until exhaustion after the bench press. One must question the use of dry-land to create soreness in swimming, as it clearly impairs work capacity and likely biomechanics (Hooper 2013). Plus, arm cranking is less biomechanically stressful than swimming, suggesting swimming likely has greater impairments. This isn’t the end of the story, as studies must next look at highly trained individuals.

Pain is never good!
Everyone loves the “no pain, no gain” or more humorous “know pain, no gain” slogans, but other than being catchy they are quite dubious statements. Pain is an individual process which greatly modifies the perception of difficulty, as well as the motor performance and biomechanics. One study looked at the effects of experimental pain on exercise performance. Deschamps (2013) had 13 healthy participants (~28.7 years) perform maximal and estimated single-leg hops before and after an episode of acute pain induced by bolus injection of hypertonic saline into the vastus lateralis (a quadrceips muscle) of one leg. Both estimation of performance and actual performance were smaller during pain, than before and after the painful stimulus. This decrease in estimation and performance pain was apparent for hops using both legs, but was greater for the painful leg. Simply put, coaches should do everything to prevent and resolve acute pain immediately as it greatly impairs performance, in both the painful and nonpainful limbs.

More expenses don’t equal better results!
If you want to get results during dry-land, find a motivating coaching environment — not a country club where you have unqualified interns supervising you on four-exercise 3 x 10 circuits. On top of this, you can’t fall for every exercise product shoved in your face. One of the latest fads, the bite-aligning mouthpiece is losing credibility in the research, almost as fast as the Powerbands from a few years back (Allen 2013). Don’t fall for the hype, and I’ll leave it at that!

Macdonald G, Penney M, Mullaley M, Cuconato A, Drake C, Behm DG, Button DC. An Acute Bout of Self Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May 10.
Lemaitre F, Coquart JB, Chavallard F, Castres I, Mucci P, Costalat G, Chollet D. Effect of Additional Respiratory Muscle Endurance Training in Young Well-Trained Swimmers. J of Sports Sci and Med. 2013 Dec; 12, 630 — 638.
Doncaster GG, Twist C. Exercise-induced muscle damage from bench press exercise impairs arm cranking endurance performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Dec;112(12):4135-42. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2404-y. Epub 2012 Apr 24.
Deschamps T, Hug F, Hodges PW, Tucker K. Influence of experimental pain on the perception of action capabilities and performance of a maximal single leg hop. J Pain. 2013 Nov 22. pii: S1526-5900(13)01368-0. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2013.10.016. [Epub ahead of print]

By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the owner of COR PT, strength and conditioning consultant, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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