Can Swimmers learn anything from Olympic Speedskaters?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 12th, 2010

With the Vancouver Olympics starting today I thought it would be timely to share an excerpt from an article  about US speedskater Shani Davis, published earlier this week in the NY Times.

“A starter’s gun fired, and Davis sprinted off in the 1,000 meters, one of two distances at which he holds the world record, atop blades that were 17½ inches long and just one-sixteenth of an inch wide where they met the ice. Speed skating is a highly technical sport in which competitors want to be able to ‘feel’ the ice and therefore have as little as possible between its surface and the nerve endings of their feet. Davis’s boots, like those of most elite speed skaters, were custom made from molds taken of his feet and surprisingly low-cut — not much higher on his ankles than a pair of Converse canvas sneakers. He wore no socks. He was skating, essentially, on two long knives fastened to a pair of snug-fitting slippers.

I stood at the first turn of the 400-meter oval, just on the other side of the protective wall, as Davis whooshed down the straightaway. His knees were bent, his upper body low and still and his left arm wrapped behind his back as he leaned into the counterclockwise turn. Movement in the torso robs a skater of speed, while ‘force delivered to the ice and not going up into the air is what creates maximum velocity,’  as one of the U.S. national-team coaches explained it to me.

The scoreboard in the arena registered the speeds of skaters from a small chip attached above their boots. Davis hit 56 kilometers per hour (35 miles per hour) on the corner, which might have been terrifying to watch if he were not in such perfect balance. A young Canadian skater, Anastasia Bucsis, stood at the turn with a cluster of competitors, all of them watching intently as Davis blew by. I asked what in particular she was focused on. ‘Everything,’ she said. ‘Shani is the prototype. He’s as efficient as it is humanly possible to be.’ “

I’m always drawn to descriptions of how efficiency is viewed and achieved in a wide range of sports. Speedskating has at least one obvious parallel to swimming – both involve water which is not particularly cooperative to creating propulsion, because traction is far harder to achieve than on land. I dare say that the traction of a skate blade, on the foot of a high-skilled skater is far greater than that achieved by the hand of a high-skilled swimmer. And swimmers encounter far more resistance – water is 880 denser than air. The skater’s top speed of 35 mph compared to the 5 mph achieved by a world-class 50-meter sprinter is evidence enough of that.

Therefore I’m struck by that phrase of “force delivered to the ice and not going up into the air” and the degree to which speedskaters and their coaches dedicate themselves to the fine details of skating technique to maximize the force delivered to the ice.

This brought to mind an article published in Popular Mechanics in Nov 2007 which reported that a group of engineers who studied human vs dolphin swimming reported that typical human swimmers manage to apply only 3% of their force  toward creating forward motion, with 97% being diverted to something else. Dolphins, by comparison are 80% efficient. (A study by USA Swimming in the 1990s found that elite swimmers are less than 10% efficient, but that still means they’re 300 percent more efficient than the average human.)

If you watch any of the speedskating over the coming week, look for even the slightest variation from that “upper body low and  still” form. You’ll need an exceptionally keen eye to discern even the subtlest individual idiosyncrasy in technique. Indeed, watch other sports – alpine or nordic skiing, figure skating, etc. and note the profound uniformity of technique.

For me, this raises the question: If the entire speedskating community has arrived at universal agreement on the best way to deliver force to the ice and not into the air, why do we see so much individual idiosyncrasy in swimming form – when we face monumentally greater challenges in delivering force to the water?

6 Responses to “Can Swimmers learn anything from Olympic Speedskaters?”

  1. pat gallant-charette says:

    Olympic caliber swimmers and speedskaters have one thing in common — perfect technique. It makes me realize that each day I need to focus more on my technique during my swim training for my next marathon swim. Thank you Terry for such an insightful article.

  2. Lawrence says:

    Well put, Terry. I was myself watching the skating from Vancouver on TV earlier today. More than any other sport, the sight of those long and elegant strides taken by the elite competitors puts me in mind of TI freestyle: glide, catch and switch, glide, catch and switch…

    I took up TI a year go and am fascinated by the variety of freestyle stroke patterns you see at the local pool. More than that, I haven’t seen a single person outside TI circles who seems to know what they are aiming at when swimming freestyle, and I include here the members of my local competitive swimming club. When I watch them train, each person’s technique is different to that of all the others, and the emphasis is clearly on physiological as opposed to mental conditioning. The coach stands at one end of the pool and seems uninterested in commenting on technique or form.

    I can’t think of another mass participation sport or activity where almost everyone lacks a basic understanding of what they are meant to be doing. Go to your local tennis, football, basketball, etc. club, in contrast, and invariably you’ll find people with great technique who work just as much on developing their skill as they do on fitness.

    If I had to guess, I’d say the reason for this is that most of the action in swimming is obscured from view – both the coach’s and the swimmer’s. So without mirrors, video feedback or a coach in the pool and under the water, the only way to progress is by thinking one’s way to correct form, with “eyes shut” so to speak. But for that to work, one needs to understand what one is meant to be doing! (TI provides the answer.)

    I would go so far as to say that this issue should be raised as one of public policy. Here in London, UK, there are generous schemes providing free access to pools for a range of age groups. The assumption seems to be that free access is enough for people to learn to become proficient swimmers. The evidence is very much to the contrary, however.

  3. Lawrence
    What an insightful post. Thanks for contributing. I first thought about this when I took up the skating, or freestyle form of x-c skiing some 10 years ago. (You would have seen this in the coverage from Vancouver too – they used this form in both the biathlon and nordic combined yesterday – in which French athletes won both gold medals, and the US finished in the medals in nordic combined for the first time ever.) No discernible variation whatsoever in form among all these athletes. Only a difference in stride rate.
    I had previously done the classic style for another 8 years. Skate-skiing involves much more exacting skills and is much harder to learn. I took lessons from 4 or 5 different teachers in as many different ski areas. What struck me was the absolute consistency of the instruction in both methodology and quality. Each instructor worked from a common set of principles and I finished each lesson as an improved skier.
    Afterward I thought about the irony of this. At the time I began studying skate-sking, that style was only about 25 years old. Yet in that time the quality of instruction had completely outstripped what you typically find in swimming instruction – a discipline which has been formally taught for some 50 years longer.

  4. Terry, I was struck by this article as well and posted about it on Facebook. Perhaps the answer to your question is a lack of coaching education? Even to this day, I still find myself swimming with leftover techniques from when was 8 years old…when I distinctly recall our swim coach getting in the water and correcting our form…I got yelled at for looking at the bottom of the pool incidentally…so I’ve practiced looking forward for over 30 years!

    If there had been agreement in best form 30 years ago…perhaps I’d have had different luck on swim teams.

  5. I think it’s a combination of the failure of coaching education to provide a comprehensive foundation to coaches and the powerful hold that the aerobic conditioning methodology has on the entire community and culture tends to create blind spots with regard to other ways to improve.

  6. Suzanne In fact I do focus on relaxation when I swim. I start every practice and set by establishing a state of relaxation because the absence of tension helps me swim with more grace and freer movement. And I consistently finish practice with a pronounced and enduring sense of well-being. This is produced by experiencing flow states while practicing, which is an outgrowth of my emphasis on self-improvement. So the focus on improvement does result in relaxation, as an outgrowth. Definitely not a binary choice.

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