Over the years I have worked with the widest range of bodies I can image – young and old, tall and short, large and small, very buoyant and very not, muscular and frail – all sorts. When one is working with a body at any of the extremes several disadvantages of that body type become more pronounced.

Naturally, these folks come to me seeking to make swimming faster, or easier, or last longer, and we begin our work with what they’ve got. Some features of that body are improvable and of those some respond more quickly than others to the treatment. Other features are not improvable and they’ve got to pick up ways to compensate.

Here is a way to describe the swimming puzzle from the viewpoint of physics – you want to move your body forward in the water – or more specifically, your body is made up of billions of molecules and you want to move your mass of molecules forward. But there is a mass of water molecules, equal to yours, blocking the way in front of you. The more molecules you have in your body, the more molecules of water you are required to move out of the way in order to move forward into that space. The more uniformly, the more quickly you can move those molecules, the faster you can move into that space. There is no shortcut – after maximizing skill, your body composition determines the amount of work you must do, and strength is your ability to do that work.

Using this perspective on the puzzle, here are the ways you can possibly move forward faster or more easily:

1. You can reduce the number of molecules in your body to reduce the number of water molecules you must move out of the way.
2. You can improve the shape of your body in order to move water molecules away more uniformly.
3. You can increase the specific muscle strength you have for moving your body mass forward, whatever it is, to move water molecules away more quickly.

Here is another thing to consider in swimming…

By combining the first and third solutions, you can increase the strength-to-mass ratio to one that is more suitable for swimming.

Note: Before I go further, I will point out that I am using the term ‘mass’ instead of ‘weight’. When the body is resting at the neutral point in water, it is virtually weightless – however, it still has all the mass, equal to the amount of water that would fill that space the body is occupying. The larger the mass the larger the amount of water that is displaced. So, in water, you are not pushing weight around, you are pushing mass around, and this distinction is important because it ties into how much work you have to do.

If one has a body composition that is more buoyant, this means there is a higher fat to lean muscle mass. This means the body will ride (slightly) higher in the water, and less likelihood of the lower half sinking low under the press of gravity. This higher and more naturally parallel body position does reduce drag on the swimmer in many ways. However, there is a trade-off – this higher buoyancy means there is a lower strength-to-mass ratio – the greater mass of the body with lower proportion of lean muscle mass to move it around means a slower swimmer.

If one has a body composition that is more lean and very muscular, this means there is a lower ratio of fat to muscle mass. This means the body will ride deeper in the water, with more likelihood of the lower half sinking even lower under the press of gravity. This lower and more angled body position (unless one has the internal framing skill to correct that imbalance) makes it harder on the swimmer in many ways. That higher amount of lean muscle could possibly mean the swimmer has more swimming specific strength available, but any muscle mass that does not contribute directly to efficient swimming action, any excess muscle beyond that, is part of the excess mass this swimmer must move through the water. A strong land athlete does not necessarily translate into a strong swimmer because only the strength that is specific to swimming is useful and all the muscle mass beyond is dead weight that needs to be moved around.

Consider for a moment the great aquatic mammals – seals, walruses and whales. These are not usually offered as complementary metaphors for human swimmers. But in fact, these are examples of mammals who are extremely strong in the critical strength-to-mass way that I have described, and they are much more efficient at moving their mass through the water than any humans are. Seen in this light, it would actually be a compliment to be called a ‘whale’ or a ‘walrus’.

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

If you are on the large side of body size and you want to go faster, consider how you can toggle those variable to improve your physics situation. You might already be quite strong compared to smaller bodies, but because you have to move around much more mass, you don’t see as much benefit from that strength as you could. But there are things you can do to improve that.

If you are on the small side of body size and you want to go faster, then you need to consider what you can do to improve your swim-specific strength. You don’t have much body mass to move forward, but you may actually need to increase your swim-specific mass. Skill level considered, if you are moving slower than you think you could be this suggests that you are much weaker than you realize.  No matter how skilled you are, you still need strength to move those water molecules out of the way and the stronger you are the easier it will be to do that.

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