By Carl Valle
When I saw the 1080 Sprint on video, I wanted to be among the first to test it. For many years, swimming performance was reduced to splits in races, and now the future is maximizing swimming velocity with smarter approaches and using the right technology.
Time for a change from Pace clocks
I love pace clocks. They formed the backbone of swim training for decades. I see some today that are older than I am and still function perfectly. Every time I am in the pool they remind me how efficient coaching swimming is because everyone is synchronized to the near second. Pace clocks are perfect for intervals but they are not the end game. The problem with pace clocks, though, is that they show time but don’t get time. A pace clock is often used to eyeball a split in training, or coaches do a half-hearted time trial with a one-off hand-time measurement with a stopwatch. In order for the sport to improve, innovation is going to come from having a better reading on problems and challenges of improving mean swimming velocity, not just if an athlete is making the workout intervals.
More Precision, More Possibilities
Coaches ask me about the key benefit of moving from interval timing, or send-off times with pace clocks, to getting velocities. The answer is precision. When training, athletes and coaches want improvements in mean swimming velocity, not just an indication they are “making the times” or even getting a time. The main point of this article is to value mean velocity, measure it, and then improve it. Just getting the total duration of the swim distance isn’t going to work anymore.
An increase in mean velocity is about training better, not about race analysis. I will review the differences later. The different phases of the race make mean velocity inappropriate for evaluation, but it does matter for global or raw training, day in and day out. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the core of swimming: the ability to maneuver above the water in a more efficient and effective way.
The ability to time each length to fractions of a second opens doors to countless opportunities. By adding heart rate or physiological effort, even a simple workout now gives information that in the past was too much of a burden to worry about. Coaches and athletes can get valuable insights into training—far more than just a random assessment—and every interval is now captured.
History of Velocity Concepts and Swimming
History, if properly documented and recorded, is part of the proxy to truth like science. After using the video camera become widespread, history became more and more real because it could document what others could not be present to see.
In swimming, important history lies in the American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA) World Books. They provide my favorite reading because they are transcribed manuals of presentations from some of the masters. I say this over and over: to become a better coach, buy a few their world books and expand your knowledge. For 50 years, ASCA has made coaching a true art form with science as a beacon of light.
In 1985, pioneering swim coach Bill Boomer presented velocity concepts. He did an amazing job of getting everyone exposed to the underlying factors of distance per stroke and cycle count. Swimming is more technique and artificial compared to sprinting, an event that is very reflexive. He showed how teaching and training improve mean velocity. In 1995, ten years after Bill’s presentation, my thoughts started migrating to body speed, since most measurements are about rate, not total times. It wasn’t until 2000 that I actually used velocities in training after seeing Inge de Bruijn dominate the Olympics.
Parametrix Race Analysis and Software
After the 2000 Olympics, a few smart coaches started talking about race evaluation beyond splits. Soon race modeling became far more powerful with software that could measure the metrics behind the race. Instead of looking at splits every 50m, the new normal was looking at details such as how they swam every length versus what they swam velocity wise. I was coaching both high school swimming and track and wanted something that could help me get into root speed development versus just conditioning athletes with “hard workouts”.
My assistant, a genius in business intelligence and deep knowledge of sport, started pushing me to see more granularity behind why some people are fast and what can be done with their slower counterparts. My assistant to this day is my biggest influence when an innovation drought occurs and I need growth in areas most are not even aware of. His mantra of always breaking new ground when the rest feel like they reached pay dirt or rock bottom is my new guiding principle. Dig deeper.
The early 2000s was a perfect evolutionary caldron of brains and ideas that produced some state and school records over a 10-year span. I wasn’t so much of a coaching mind but was clever enough to find innovation outside my own limited abilities. My core belief with long-term development is the following:
Many athletes get better from any training with just time alone, but the name of the game is knowing the best way to maximize the probability of having athletes reach their full potential.
I have been gifted with talented kids who got better because they got older and didn’t get hurt along the way, but that is a waiting game, not coaching. I am not too big to admit that winning the genetic lottery a few times and that attracted more talent, but getting better is getting grounded truth or deep insight.
As sport science moved from the 1990s to the early 2000s, so did the rise of data in sport. Moneyball was part of the evolution, not its cause. Since the dawn of time, recordkeeping—be it tally marks on a bone or the best database in the Australian Institute of Sport—data and analysis have always been there. Coaches must know that the human element is a starting point, not something to be proud of.
Current Swimming Performance Methodology and Evaluation
As we approach the 2016 Rio Olympics, the margins among swimmers internationally are narrowing. Every inhabited continent is now a player, and the US and Australia are not the only powerhouses. After a disappointing 2015, the US needs a wake-up call. Some are saying that the results were a fluke, or that people are waiting for 2016. Time will tell, but the truth is that US swimming needs to innovate or find itself—like the early 1990s—in a period of transition.
With Europe using better swimming technology than the US and most of North America, the consumer sports tech is throwing a hat into the equation with data and sport science. Coaches must start doing the following:
- Gather novel data that is valid, precise, and accurate
- Create key performance indicators for their athletes
- Create benchmarks and milestones for their program
- Monitor and manage training daily and weekly
- Evaluate the training system annually
Many possible avenues coaches can take, but a straightforward and more probable approach is to assess velocity components. A smart perspective in modeling is measuring simple qualities and see what can be done to improve the components, and see if the transfer happens when athletes are racing and training.
What the 1080 Sprint Measures and What it Trains
Several coaches asked in swimming if the 1080 Sprint could be used for aquatic sports, and the news was clear. The overspeed and resistance of their speed trainer is not thing new, but the real evolution was the concurrent sampling of stroke-by-stroke data live during training. In the past giant elastic cords or old selectorized weight stacks would create assistance and resistance, now a high precision motor could dial up to any velocity one needs. While buckets and other options have been around for decades, coaches are looking for “precision medicine” and not dated solutions. Simply summarized the 1080 Sprint offers the following training benefits:
Resistance Loading — Most coaches are comfortable adding drag or resisted load in swimming. Just like coaches on land adding resistance to sprints, swimming has always been about the dichotomy of adding resistance and increasing efficiency. The unique and differentiating aspect of the 1080 is the smooth resistance can be variable during the swim and instantly change from a tablet. Those doing rep after rep sprints can throttle up or down the resistance to fine tune the training stimulus.
Assisted Pacing — A less commonly known benefit is going at a high velocity with a lowered effort to learn rhythm and relaxation at demanding speeds. The velocity is not faster than normal, it’s just fast but easier than normal and this can be an opportunity for some intriguing motor learning changes.
Overspeed Options — Some interesting theories exist with greater than volitional speeds and how that transfers without the assisted towing, but the reality is we don’t know the exact science behind it. Anyone with enough towing force can swim faster than world record pace, so the true winning formula is to see why less than world beating swimmers are not hitting specific velocity. Many near elite swimming athletes may learn to accommodate the speed by exposure, but the key is that the coach must decide this process with care and experimentation.
In addition to the training features, the 1080 Sprint system is a mini-sports lab, designed to be very practical and extremely portable. While training the athletes, data from every surge or propulsive stroke is captured with tension sensors to collect the essential (and elusive) power readings. Coaches are always tinkering with stroke technique, and the idea is to see how power surges can create a mean velocity that is higher and more efficient for races.
At this point some coaches are already ahead of the curve and have the advantage of what is possible, but expect a Cambrian explosion soon as the instrument grows in adoption.
Modeling and Improving Velocities with the 1080 Sprint
Distance and sprint swimmers, serious triathletes, and recreational fitness enthusiasts can learn a lot about the relationship between velocity and the physiological response from the strain of it. Using time, distance, and cardiovascular response are a direct way to get answers to basic questions. I’ve already discussed modeling in an earlier blog, so I will be brief here.
Coaches need to know how quickly swimmers can reach maximal speed above the water and how to conserve it over time. Some are blessed with faster speeds, some with better endurance, and both can be improved with better swimming practices.
Michael Phelps is probably the best example of long-term development. Since he was a child, he has worked with the same coach. The combination of his innate talents and consistent coaching direction from his coach explains why he is the most decorated Olympian.
No one may ever replicate those feats, but we need to do things a bit better by obtaining pertinent information. If you ask your average swim coaches how fast their swimmers are, most rattle off an event time. Down the road I think people will get velocities and show how they are improving both the peak and mean outputs.
A simple step of knowing basic peak and mean velocities, along with the counterpart heart rate metrics, can go a long way. Familiar workouts with the same speed but higher effort hint at fatigue, so decide if you are pushing for deeper adaptations. Lower velocities with higher efforts can mean overreaching. Chronic poor velocities and inability to bring about effort could reflect overtraining.
Kick Velocity and Upper-body Contributions in Sprint Freestyle
An article by Hall of Famer Gary Hall Sr. about baseline kicking speed and swimming performance captivated me. Since Olympic champions Alex Popov and Michael Phelps can kick 27 seconds or faster in 50m, the anatomical and genetic gifts that make superior kicking are interesting. Underwater kicking is faster than above-water swimming on average—hence the rule change—but the relative contributions of the upper body and lower body are somewhat murky.
Many theories and ideas have been expressed with regards to improving kicking, but time and talent represent most of the equation. Some changes are possible with ankle range going beyond 90 degrees of plantar flexion, but I don’t know any good clinical studies that discuss whether manipulating this joint is good or bad in the long run. The USOC has a lot of this information, and a great resource is Dr. Nabhan who is arguably a secret weapon in Olympic sport. Some areas of the body, like the knee, don’t change from any intervention period, but all of this is still early.
A good protocol is to test kicking speed in a long course since the push off from walls taints the scores. This test should gauge how swimmers are improving. If they don’t improve kicking velocity over a career, how are they getting better? If you don’t know absolute kicking metrics, why are we focused on volume as a way to improve faster velocities? Upper-body power and the resulting speed should be manifest with adding speed to a great kick. Some athletes have had average kicks and amazing performances, but the requirements in the upper body can contribute to added speed only to a point. Both qualities are necessary to reach ultimate performance and the research isn’t very conclusive on how the great ones put every thing together.
The raw upper-body contribution can be calculated by getting the entire swim speed and seeing the contribution, and getting basic weight performances. I have seen a variety of swimming devices attempt to get power, but speed is the ultimate goal and getting meters per second on both kicking, and total body swimming is far more valid. Swimming needs to add resistance (drag, not weight room training) to get more propulsion. It’s a Catch-22. Upper-body mechanics has been always an educated guess of why things work and why things don’t change, and much of the science is hard to measure without some heavy math. The solution is measuring what can be done in practice and creating models by looking at all of contributing variables and structuring metrics that should be feeding higher speeds.
Merging Velocity Training and Conventional Interval Training
Jumping away from the traditional approach of distances and rest periods is not going to happen, and isn’t necessary. Velocity metrics adds granularity and clarity, meaning the data is more detailed and more insightful. Someone able to complete 20x100m on a typical send-off is helpful, as it’s likely the entire lane can do the session, but it’s better to know how they are making the interval. An athlete making an honest effort and pushing hard may start out fast and slow down during each send-off. An athlete may game the interval and go just fast enough to get a 5-second rest. What is important is that coaches get velocities and time intervals since small changes in speed are hard to eyeball, and intervals are going to be able to tease out the information requested.
A good perspective is to look at year-versus-career on core metrics like kick velocity, maximal short speed velocity, decay rates, and recovery indices. I have already explained kicking speed and maximal race speeds so I will get into the decay of speed, pacing, recovery, and adaption.
Managing Velocity and Decay Rates
Stamina is a little vague, as most people think about the duration of work versus conservation of speed. Most endurance athletes can’t achieve sprint speeds because they are not designed genetically to do so. Their training isn’t about achieving maximal speed, but maximal mean velocity instead. While strategy with a kick at the end is pacing and racing, endurance events involve a conditioning strategy. Even the 50m requires conditioning, so every event needs to conserve a percentage of someone’s speed.
An example in track is the 400m and mile (1600m for convenience). An athlete who runs 50 point-something in the 400 and holds 85% speed for four laps is much more interesting than one who runs 49.5 and holds 80%. Holding 95% of 60 seconds isn’t helpful unless you are trying to run for hours. Swimming works similarly. How fast can someone swim and how much speed can they hold, based on longer distances?
What makes this more complicated is the obvious need to know how much resources are being put into getting faster presently and in the long run, and how much into holding the existing velocity. Using velocity concepts is a management of decay and trying to find a combination that works both acutely and in the long run. Several past endurance swimmers had lousy strokes because they could get away with their superior fitness. Sloppy mechanics is nearly obsolete now because everyone has the ability for maximal conditioning.
Getting Started Means Getting Measured and Profiled
Coaches need to dive in and test one athlete with the 1080 Sprint before moving toward the entire team. Adding a few hours a year in number-crunching means the difference between making the finals versus being on the podium. I have used this approach in sprinting on land with similar success. Every athlete has improved by being aware of what matters: improving velocity.