The Biggest Advantage in Swimming: The Start

Column by Kevin Swander

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana, September 9. THIS week, Swimming World introduces another new intern for the year. Kevin Swander joins Kristen Heiss as U.S. Olympic Trials finalists who will be providing commentary for our web site as part of our internship program this year. Swander finaled in the 100 breast at U.S. Trials and is a master's degree candidate at Indiana University.

Here is his first column:

There is something that I have noticed when I watch international swim meets; Americans tend to be the fastest swimmers off the blocks. While there are some exceptions, in my experience at these events, Americans have the fastest reaction times, underwater kick outs and best break outs.

This experience led me to thinking, why is there such a disparity on how much Americans focus on their starts versus those of international swimmers?

I carried this curiosity over into one of my classes this past year. Our entire class was based around a semester of research and analysis of a sport that interests us…needless to say I chose the swim start.

Now, in my research, I discovered that up through the 80s everyone in the world was using either a two-footed start, or "the leaner." The leaner is a two-footed start in which the athlete leans forward on the block while holding onto the handles (and yes, I finally figured out why there were handles on top of the block).

By leaning forward, it was discovered that the amount of time an athlete spends in the air is greatly reduced. This is why coaches used to preach about getting off the blocks and into the water as fast as possible. It wasn't until the mid 90s when research from Australia surfaced and people began to experiment with the track start.

In the 90s, a lot of research was done on starts and which technique resulted in the fastest swims.

Here's a brief synopsis of what was discovered:
* The two-footed start resulted in slower reaction time when leaving the block, but because the athlete could set up their entry angle better, it led to a faster 15m time.
* "The leaner" was found to have the fastest time both in leaving the block and from the blocks to the water, but the slowest to the 15m mark.
* The track start resulted in the fastest reaction time off the blocks, and came in a very close second to the 15m mark. (This data is inconclusive now because the athletes in the studies had been doing the track start for a week before they were tested. The athletes doing the two-footed start had been doing it all of their lives).

Many athletes chose to do the track start now, and in my opinion, they've made the right choice.

After reviewing the research, I began a quest to try to identify the "perfect" start based off biomechanical analysis of hundreds of athletes. This research included both track and swimming since it is a very similar movement.

Here are the main characteristics of the "perfect" start:

The athlete's hands should grip the front of the block with all fingers. The thumbs in particular should NOT be placed on top of the block but rather wrapped around the front edge. This is done because it actually increases the surface area of the hand, and allows the swimmer to rip the block more powerfully.

Arms should remain completely straight and tensed. Not flexed, but tensed and ready to react as soon as the horn sounds. The elbows should ideally be facing backwards, and the athlete should pull down on the block with these straight arms.

The legs are where I have seen the most diversity in a start. The legs should be in a COMFORTABLE position on the blocks. The best way I have found for teaching this is to have the swimmer do a two-step vertical jump test. This is where the athlete takes two steps forward then jumps for maximum height. Then have the athlete just take two steps, wherever their feet are before the jump is approximately where they should be on a block. Lastly, the athlete should evenly distribute the weight among both legs. There should be no wobbling or lack of balance on the blocks.

Angle of Entry:
The last, most important part of the "perfect" start is angle of entry. The angle of entry, for an athlete, needs to accomplish two things. The athlete needs to maximize velocity, and minimize resistance. The best way to explain this concept is to take a broomstick or pool torpedo like the ones you played with as kids, and throw it into a pool. If you throw either object at the wrong angle, it will do a nose dive or it will take off to the sides.

However, if you hit the angle just right, the object will actually increase in velocity as it attempts to surface. This concept hold true with human beings. The best way I have found to achieve this, and I'm sure there are many other ways is to pike when you leave the blocks.

By maintaining the body in a pike position even while entering the water, the athlete will hit the water, and the impact forces the body to straighten out into a rigid object. This object, when streamlined, looks eerily similar to a torpedo. Thus, maximum velocity is achieved by entering the water in a pike position. If a swimmer were to enter the water in a straight position, the same impact forces act upon that swimmer and forces their body out of alignment. We all know what happens when our bodies are not streamlined!

If anyone would like to pick my brain or offer insight into these thoughts, please respond via Reaction Time below.

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