Skill training: What you need to know
Hi everyone ,
Well, I’m back in Beijing now and hard at it with Team China. One of the groups I’m doing a lot of work with is the swimming team. I’m lucky to work with some fantastic coaches and world-class athletes with this team and have learnt so much from them, particularly regarding the skill training that they do here.
I’ve always looked somewhat quizzically at swimming training and how the swimmers will trace the black line for kilometres each session, even if their event is only 50 or 100 metres. On the surface, this seems to go against the specificity of training principle. Certainly we could make the argument that the athletic capacities that the swimmer needs would be best developed with a less volume-based approach to training. Indeed, there have been some very good studies that have shown that high intensity swimming training is just as, if not more effective in aerobic capacity development than high volume training.
At the elite level, however, it is not the person with the best aerobic capacity or the most arm strength that will win the event.
"The more streamlined the swimmer, the smoother and more gradual the change in shape of the swimmer from head to toe, the less turbulence. The less turbulence, the easier it is to pass through the water."
Swimming is very much a skill sport and the fastest swimmers are the best ‘technicians’ in the water; they maximise their propulsion whilst minimising the deleterious effects of drag. Many think that in order to swim fast, it’s a matter of moving their arm through the liquid as fast as possible. In actual fact, the best swimmers use their arms and hands to search for still water to be able to ‘grab hold of’ and propel the body forward. Obviously, water doesn’t stay still for long and so it’s not a great platform for force application. This is where the skill of swimming comes in and it is this that swim coaches refer to as having ‘the feel’ for the water.
The other task of the swimmer is to minimise the negative effects of drag. Friction drag can be reduced by shaving body hair and technological advances in swimsuit design. This is the least significant of the drags in swimming though. The other drag forces that must be negated are form (profile) and wave drag. Form drag is the most important one for us to minimise because it involves streamlining. The more streamlined the swimmer, the smoother and more gradual the change in shape of the swimmer from head to toe, the less turbulence. The less turbulence, the easier it is to pass through the water.
Wave drag occurs at the air-water interface and drops off significantly at about 1 metre below the surface. It’s the energy lost when forcing a bow wave up against gravity. The taller the swimmer, the less the bow wave. It should come as no surprise then that these days, the top Olympic swimmers are all pretty tall guys and girls (think of Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps and China’s own 800m freestyle world record holder Zhang Lin).
So, with all this in mind, it can be seen that swimming is not simply a case of the best ‘machine’ winning the race. It is a highly skilled pursuit seeking to apply force at the same time as minimising drag. It is for this reason that the swimmers train for miles. They are ‘grooving’ their technique and this takes lap after lap.
‘Til next week,
Stay robust, amigos!
Sports Medicine and Performance Consultant for Team China leading up to the London Olympics. Holds Masters degrees in both Sports Physiotherapy and Exercise Science and lectures on the MSc in Sports Physio course at the University of Bath and on the MSc in S+C at Edith Cowan University.