As much as I’ve written about swimming more efficiently and adding more drill practice to your program, some coaches may think that I uniformly advocate for swimmers doing less yardage. It is not a Total Immersion goal to do less yardage. Instead, we’d like coaches to recognize that any swimmer (even the current world record holder), because they are human, can still find opportunities to improve their efficiency. By doing so they can shave a few more seconds or tenths from their current best much more easily and quickly than by looking for another training tweak or increasing their volume or intensity.
Anyone who has read Total Immersion or Swimming Made Easy knows that I think of Alexandre Popov as a great model for emulation. Why did Popov go undefeated in international meets for nearly a full decade? Because he was developed and has continued to train with untiring focus on techique and fluency. Popov, on occasion, does over 100,000 meters per week. Not for conditioning as his coach Gennadi Touretski explains but for “more opportunities to imprint perfect form on the nervous system.”
Gas on the ground: overfilling the fuel tank
In contrast to Touretski, most other coaches talks about the importance of the “aerobic base.” Few seem to consider is that the aerobic system isn’t a bottomless tank which you can just keep filling. For the most part, a swimmer’s “fitness fuel tank” has a finite capacity which can be reached surprisingly quickly. Whereas, nervous system training and imprinting – because every swimmer has Human DNA, rather than Fish DNA, and because even Ian Thorpe is only 10% mechanically efficient –CAN continue improving movement economy virtually without limit.
Popov and Touretski prioritize nervous system training because they recognize that it is simply not possible for ANY amount of conditioning to compensate for the extraordinary amount of energy lost to “ordinary” inefficiency. Even after years of world records and titles, they never cease working to increase his efficiency. During his 10-year unbeaten string, Popov swam many 100-meter races where he seemed certain to lose with 15 meters to go. But somehow, every time, he managed to sneak his fingertips onto the touchpad first. At the point where everyone’s form was breaking down, his remained a bit more accurate, just enough that everyone else was decelerating a bit more than he did in the final meters.
Meticulous training on the track
Maurice Greene, the current 100-meter dash World Record holder, has had a similar consistency of excellence, though for fewer years. His coach, John Smith described his athlete this way: “Technically, he’s the soundest sprinter in the world; when everyone gets tired and starts deteriorating in form, he deteriorates the least.” To get to that point, Smith has Greene practice technique, technique, technique. Greene always runs 100 meters in 45 strides. NEVER, 46 strides. Both coach and athlete maintain a tireless focus on using perfect form to get through the first 60 meters so they can delay maximum acceleration to 70 meters and, one day, stay at max speed through the final 10 meters, when others are slowing because of breakdown in their form.
An article about Marion Jones sounded almost the same: “She was endowed with the neurological on-off switches to take 47 steps in less than 11 seconds with no loss of power or form (the average person can only take about 35)...Grueling conditioning helps. More critical though is obsessive attention to the smallest details. Running 100 meters is a violent act, beginning with a gunshot. At the same time, the training involved is analogous to a concert pianist’s mastering Chopin; both are performances that require ferocious concentration and a fanatical regimen that reduces learned muscular actions to nearly automatic responses.... She trains with punctilious precision, systematically solving tiny biomechanical problems that keep her from running fractionally faster than anyone else. For the better part of three hours I mostly see her stepping over 10 hurdles set three feet apart — drilling into both mind and body to maintain perfect posture, which helps to keep her feet below the center of mass, which helps her explode through the hips.”
It’s striking how track athletes and coaches consider tireless imprinting of movement economy essential for a race that lasts about 10 seconds and takes place on land, where efficiency is far easier to maintain under pressure. How many swim coaches consider ingrained efficiency to be as critical in the pool, an alien environment, where the shortest race lasts twice as long?
Patience in the pool
Popov is the most prominent example of a swimmer developed and trained with the same tireless focus on mechanical efficiency and fluency. Four coaches of my acquaintance have watched him train for periods ranging from 2 hours to 3 weeks. They all reported that he did an astonishing amount of slow-speed, exquisitely efficient swimming and a tiny amount of fast swimming – all of which was done with astonishing precision and smoothness.
All saw him repeat long, seemingly monotonous, sets focused on doing one little detail just right. During a 2 1/2 hour practice in June, 2000 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Popov did almost nothing but slow, relaxed 100-meter repeats with his fingertips trailing lazily through the water, exactly under his arched elbow, on every stroke. Thorpe and other Australians who were there also followed a similar disciplined, exacting focus on efficiency. Another friend watched Peter van den Hoogenband, Inge de Bruin and the rest of the Dutch national team in Florida in December 1999 doing “lots of patient drill practice, lots of slow, beautiful swimming, not much fast or hard swimming.”
My first coach, Bill Irwin watched a 1996 pre-Olympic practice in South Carolina, during which Popov swam every stroke with slightly exaggerated Front Quadrant timing, every 50-m length done at 23-24 strokes. I watched him train in New York City in 1998 before the Goodwill Games. For about an hour, he swam nonstop 75-yard repeats: 25 drill - 25 superprecise (8 strokes) - 25 fast but with no visible loss of silkiness (10 strokes).
These elite swimmers and their coaches, clearly recognize that slow swimming is not “garbage yardage” but an important opportunity to practice higher level efficiency and more mindful attention to perfection than is possible when training with higher intensity, so they do them with extraordinary rigor.
I’m convinced that EVERY swimmer on every level should practice in the same way...for one reason. Swimming happens in a fluid environment and the penalty for movements that are rough or rushed is very high...higher than you can repay through more yardage. The reward for movements that are smooth, flowing and controlled is success. Good conditioning may help you maintain fluent movement longer, under higher intensity. But you have to have made fluent movement a habit first.