We all do it. We size up the competition. We scan the field during warm-up, perhaps even at the start.
At open water races, I rarely worry about super-fit or muscular competitors if there is something about their mannerisms or gear that lets me know they don’t come from a lifetime of swimming.
No, the ones I worry about may even have a paunch and little muscular definition, but there is something about their equipment or the way they stretch that lets me know they have a deep swimming background.
Why would I worry more about a seemingly less fit athlete over the others?
Because an out-of-shape former college swimmer will almost always be among the fastest in the field, even with a fraction of the fitness and training of other competitors.
How can that be?
In swimming, technique trumps training.
Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. Of course, elite swimmers and the rest of us who compete in open water races or triathlons need to spend many, many hours training, sometimes logging extraordinary yardage each week.
To be sure, training is important.
But technique is what allows a swimmer to be able to create and apply forces against the water.
And efficiency is key:
As your speed increases, the resistance you face in the form of drag also increases. But it’s not a one-to-one ratio. Resistance increases proportionally to your velocity – to the second power. Think about it this way: If your speed doubles, resistance forces increase by a factor of four.*
Dwell on that. It becomes exponentially important to be efficient the faster you go. That’s why the tiniest details matter the most to Olympic-level athletes. They are moving so quickly, that a small bit of extra drag will have a magnified negative effect.
So in the example of the two types of swimmers in our imaginary race, even if the super powerful athlete is able to generate significant force, if he or she can’t minimize resistance through body positioning and streamlining, they won’t be able to convert those forces into speed.
The proficient swimmer, on the other hand, is able to rely on a lifetime of technical experience to generate power. That, coupled, with a high level of efficiency trumps strength alone every time.
I like how the authors of the book “Science of Swimming Faster” break down the two components of training – training and practice. Training is directed at the cardiopulmonary aspects of performance and practice is focused on the technical aspects.
Both should have a place in a well-designed coaching plan.
* “Science of Swimming Faster,” (Riewald, Rodeo 2015)