Recently at a camp a swimmer asked about the differences between Total Immersion Swimming and this or that other program, noting, “they seem about the same to me!”
Of course, I wouldn’t totally agree with that statement, that TI and Program X or Program Y are generally the same. Though I am sure the coaches in these programs all desire the same marvelous results for their swimmers, Total Immersion’s understanding of how to get there seems to diverge at critical points (from my outside perspective on those programs). But rather then taking up time to dissect and compare and debate, instead I offer a grid we can use to objectively examin the advice that would be offered by any other program giving swimming advice.
With this framework in mind a swimmer may have a way to evaluate whether that advice has thoroughly solved the problems we face as human swimmers.
I propose dividing up the examination into four zones, in order along a critical path:
- Universal Human Physiology
- Personal Physical Conditions
- Psychological Conditions
In swimming we have these problems to solve:
- how we can easily learn to swim
- how we can swim easily
- how we can swim farther and/or faster
- how we can enjoy swimming and training
Physics is the starting point of all discussions about swimming because these laws determine what can be done, what cannot be done and how much it will cost in terms of energy. Learning to swim, swimming easily, swimming farther and faster, and enjoying swimming all must first pass through the physics of the situation.
#1 – Physics
The stroke correction must first address the physics of the swimming problem.
Physics is totally impersonal. It does not care what color you are, what age you are, male or female, young or old, what emotional hang ups you’ve developed over the years, how cool your tattoo is, or what personality or body type you have. It is impartial. It does not grant favors and it does not negotiate. Every human athlete, however exceptional in genetics or talent, must first obey the laws of physics.
And, in practical physics the solutions to problems that we come up with are expected to be convergent. There may be many creative hypothesis for how to get the job done, but from scientific experience we now generally expect rigorous testing to lead to a single superior (and as scientists like to say, ‘elegant’) solution. The physics of motion and thermodynamics channel us toward a single superior solution to a movement-and-energy problem like swimming. We might see a revolution in how to move the human body from time to time, but what results, even from a revolution, is a jump over to a new and superior model – these revolutions do not broaden the market, but narrow it down by revealing the inferiority of the formerly-held ideas.
Consider the refinements in the front crawl stroke over the centuries, and some of the major revolutionary steps that led to the modern crawl: put the head down in the water, alternately revolve the arms, flutter kick. It is humorous to note that, in London in 1844, even though the Native American swimmers, using their native form of a crawl stroke, soundly spanked their British breast-stroking competitors – those British nobles were too proud to learn from the example and put their heads underwater in order to swim faster! It is a lesson to watch out for the pride in tradition, because tradition is meant to be corrected from time to time.
Note that we have now four valid competitive stroke branches: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. They are divided into four separate branches because the stroke styles are NOT EQUAL in terms of speed and efficiency. It is easily understood when you try them and we take those difference for granted. Many human swimmers, for whatever reason, gravitate toward one and specialize in it, and we readily accept that too. But we don’t compare the performance between those stroke because the stroke styles are not equal. Furthermore, technically, in ‘Freestyle’ one is permitted to use any of those stroke styles (hence, the word ‘free+style), yet everyone chooses front crawl because it is indisputably the best for going the fastest, farther for least energy. Enough testing has been done by humans to conclude this with no further debate… perhaps until a new stroke revolution comes along!
Looking at other objects that require extreme efficiency and speed – note the trend in how jet planes and attack submarines are designed. Over the years their shape has evolved toward a single distinct, superior design. These industries have a intense pressure to be fast and efficient and therefore their rigorous testing for speed efficiency has consistently pointed to a convergent solution in fluid-dynamic situations… the same fluid situation we have in swimming.
In other words, I am speculating that the variations we see in the fastest crawl stroke swimmers in the world will diminish, and we will be left with more subtle nuanced differences as the speed-and-efficiency pressures of world records force these solutions.A hundred years ago we would have seen a wide range of (now humorous) styles, which are clearly inefficient to our modern sensibilities. To the eyes of those back then, the styles of our modern competitors would all look nearly the same. But a hundred years from now, I can easily imagine those swimmers will be using a style refined to a much deeper degree, and all the swimmers will be using it. The subtle differences in those strokes would not be obvious to our primitive eyes.
This is my prediction – physics will force the stroke toward such a single, distinct technical solution to the swimming speed problem.
And why would physics force a distinct superior stroke style for humans?
#2 – Universal Human Physiology
Before we look at what makes humans unique and different from another, we need to look a what makes all humans the same. This solution must first address universal physiological realities before adapting to individual advantages and limitations. This is what we are referring to when we talk about practicing and mastering the fundamentals of the sport before working on the individual tricks to get an edge. Work on proper movement patterns that apply to all humans moving through water before looking for a short-cut with one’s unique physiological features.
Human physiology shows us how the various systems in the body work together in all humans. The human structure has distinct ranges of movement for each section, and movement patterns that can be safely and powerfully supported. When humans keep movement within this range and use proper movement patterns, they are the safest, the most powerful and can be sustained longest. Any deviation from this range and pattern introduce greater risk of premature wear and injury. This is the serious concern we have about all the stroke variations we see promoted in a swimming.
For some quick examples, here are three major areas of conflicting advice in swimming crawl stroke:
- the position of the head (looking forward versus looking down)
- the shape and path of the recovery arm (varieties of shape and trajectory)
- the shape, timing, and path of the underwater stroke (the ‘catch/hold’ in TI terminology or ‘pull/push’ in traditional terminology)
Yes, there are a variety of ways each of these body parts and movements can be arranged within the normal mobility range for humans. But arguably only one of those pathways is truly safest and strongest and get the most done for the least amount of effort, while the rest have some compromises in safety, power and/or efficiency.
For example, there is a variety of ways the arm/shoulder can be swung around on the recovery, but there is one pattern that is the safest and requires the least amount of energy. All are possible, but one is superior. The others introduce some compromise in safety, power and/or efficiency and therefore increase risk of injury.
All four stroke styles (crawl, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke) use the same shoulder design but each applies different loading and moves along a different pathway. Each stroke style has its common shoulder pains and some strokes are clearly more injurious than others. The strokes are not equal in their safety, their power, or their efficiency in regards to the shoulder health. So, following that logic, how can we assume a variety of crawl stroke styles are all equally good and safe and effective? There is just no physiological logic to support it – there are many variations we see in the crawl stroke among swimmers at all levels but they are NOT EQUAL.
Do ‘whatever feels good to you’ or ‘what fits your personality’, whatever you’ve been using for the last 10 or 20 years as a child champion is not a sound way to judge the safest, most powerful, most efficient movement pattern for a human. You can’t feel the risks you are taking now when the consequences of joint destruction are experienced years later. Since swimming is not an activity the human land-mammal was designed for, one should get some solid input on healthy joint mobility patterns before committing to a certain variation in the stroke. Unfortunately, most of us first learned our style under the (supposed) guidance of a traditional swim coach who taught us to do what everyone has been doing since he/she was a competitor, and used the same justifications (or no solid physiological explanation) for why we do it that way. Hence, the statistics for swimming injury remain scandalously high.
Quick happy story: a few months ago at a series of workshops we held in Moscow I had a former competitive swimmer and now fitness club swim instructor in one of those workshops. She had been suffering from neck/back pain for years while swimming, had been to many coaches and doctors seeking relief, but found none. In a few minutes I showed her how to release the head, put it into proper spine alignment by looking straight down (stop looking forward), which removed the local extension fault in her cervical spine and removed the subsequent chain reaction of tension down the spine, and 20 years of swimming pain went away immediately. Needless to say she was ecstatic with joy and relief – and swimming easier and faster because of it. Previously, no one had given her permission to move her head out of the traditional but faulty forward-looking position. Yes, looking down is strange because it is not the way we were taught and not the way we’ve practiced, but it is the correct (= safe and strong) position for the head according to physiology, and it conveniently happens to be the most hydrodynamic head position too.
The human body has developed as a land mammal working upright under gravity, and is designed to handle loads and movements in this orientation. It seems to be universally understood among physio professionals that the human body is indeed meant to bear loads and perform a wide range of difficult tasks, but does so in the safest and most powerful way under a relatively narrow set of patterns for proper movement. The human body is meant to be heavily loaded and to move under that load, but do so without causing damage only if loaded in certain ways and moved in certain ways. Deviate from that path and the body defaults to secondary or tertiary support solutions which seem to ‘work OK’ for a while… until they don’t work any more. Deviation from best movement pattern, even if they do not initially cause pain, dramatically increases the risk of premature wear and injury for the athlete. (Thank You Dr Kelly Starrett for making this crystal clear in your presentations and texts.)
With that said, let’s now consider the individual swimmer’s unique working conditions…
And, we’ll talk about that in the Part 2.
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