5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

As a take home message:

  1. Some of the hot topics for elite swimmers are shared in this piece
  2. I will elaborate on what Science tell us on those topics and what we have yet to learn
  3. For further reading, I will share a few papers and interviews with leading researchers

We are on the road to two major international competitions: Kazan 2015 and Rio 2016. Everybody is looking forward for both competitions. Those that work on the backstage, such as analysts and researchers, hopefully are experienced, as hot topics can diverge training plans, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.

Here you will find five selected hot topics, based on my personal opinion, that several coaches and elite swimmers have been seeking advice. You are most welcome to add more topics on the bottom of this piece. Please, be my guest.

The piece is structured in a not-too-wordy FAQ style:

  1. What do we know so far? I.e., what is the solid scientific knowledge on the topic and the take home message;
  2. What we don’t know yet? I.e., what are the gaps that we still find in the Science, the grey zone, or the limitations reported by the researchers;
  3. Where do I find more details on this? You can have deeper insight on these topics referring to selected research papers or interviews with leading researchers.

And without further ado, the selected topics are……

5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

  1. High-intensity (interval) training & Ultra-short race-pace training

What do we know so far?

We do know that for low-tier swimmers, any training program is effective. Can be HI(I)T or any other program, including MICE (acronym

High Intensity Swimming Training

for “moderate-intensity continuous exercise”).

HI(I)T is on one end of the spectrum (High-intensity; low-volume) and MICE on the opposite end (Low-intensity; high-volume). USRPT is considered by some people as an extension of HI(I)T although including some extra features. We also find “mixed” programs with different Hi-Lo combinations of volume and intensity.

Mid-tier swimmers show the same performance enhancement regardless of the program being HI(I)T or MICE. Hence, HI(I)T can be considered as more efficient because they get the same outcome with lower physical and psychological stress.

What we don’t know yet?

We find anecdotal reports and claims that a few elite swimmers showed improvements or delivered good performances after a HI(I)T/USRPT program.

We don’t have solid scientific evidence that HI(I)T/USRPT is more or less effective in high-performance swimmers though. I.e., there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue HI(I)T/USRPT in elite swimmers.

Nevertheless, I am wondering if world-class coaches, at some point of the periodization program, include in their training sessions some of the HI(I)T concepts.

Where do I find more details on this?

Interviews to leading researchers on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Altitude

What do we know so far?

An altitude training camp should take roughly 4 weeks. The best times are posted 2-4 weeks after returning to sea level.

On the first week at sea level, performance might even impair. So re-acclimatization is a good moment for tapering before major competitions.

The duration of this recovery seems to be dependent on the event to be raced and individual characteristics of the swimmer.

Altitude training is related to the hypoxia effect, but also the fact of swimmers and coaches are completely focused on the training round the clock, with no need to juggle between different commitments.

Most of the times these camps are held at venues where swimmers can easily approach support staff (e.g., biomechanists, physiologists, Mireia Belmonte VO2 swimming test Altitude Trainingnutritionists, physical therapists, etc.) to be monitored, seeking their advice and thoughts (seems to improve performance at least by 3%).

What we don’t know yet?

There is an individual response to altitude, hence swimmers that are low-responders should be flagged beforehand.

The effect of intermediate- v high-altitude training is still a little bit controversial. I.e., what is the minimum altitude needed?

A lot of research will be done on the different combinations of Hi and Lo regimens.

The nocebo and placebo effects of being part on this kind of training camps is still to be studied.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Warm-up

What do we know so far?

Active warm-up has a positive effect on the swimmer’s performance. Bigger effects were found notably for middle- and long-distance (i.e. 200m onwards) than for sprint events.

Pre-race dry-land stretching drills are a common practice as a complement to the in-water warm-up; despite no effects preventing injuries or enhancing the performance. Clarification: I’m talking about stretching before the race and not about a well-designed program over time to enhance flexibility to an optimal range of motion.

The in-water warm-up should last for 15–25 min, including a moderate-intensity set, another of specific drills focusing also on the stroke efficiency, a set with reps at the race pace, starts and turns.

For the time-lag between the in-water warm-up and the race, passive warm-up should be considered.

What we don’t know yet?

The optimal design (e.g., duration, volume, intensity, type of drills and recovery period) according to the event to be raced is not yet fully understood.

Little is known on the effect of different passive warm-up strategies, although none should rise the body temperature above 39 degrees Celsius, otherwise performance might impair.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic: still to come. Stay tuned.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Strength & conditioning

What do we know so far?

A S&C program concurrent to the in-water training helps to prevent injuries and enhance the performance.

A S&C coach should also monitor anthropometric features and sometimes a preliminary assessment of the body posture and limbs’ alignments. However, physiotherapists can run more comprehensive clinical tests.

The program must be coupled with a proper diet according to the goals to be achieved (i.e. swimmer should refer to a nutritionist).12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) - Day Three

S&C can help when the swimmer pushes solid bodies (i.e. block-start; wall-turns) being explosive power a major determinant.

Performance can also be improved while he pulls a fluid body (i.e. water-swim strokes).

Dryland S&C does not have a direct effect on the performance. The earlier one will have an influence on specific in-water parameters and the later on the performance.

As rule of thumb, routines should change every 3-4 weeks (i.e., mesocycle or block) and training loads adjusted to remain effective and avoid injuries.

What we don’t know yet?

The challenge though is the transfer of dry-land strength & power to water and make the best use of it swimming, turning and starting.

More reliable in-water measuring techniques could be developed in the new future. E.g., handgrip testing is not specific enough and tethered swim has some hydrodynamic limitations. Obviously, these tests also have some pros, but I won’t elaborate on that today.

One concern that we cannot rule out is how to build-up power (that is based on maximal strength) avoiding the significant increase of body surface area and weight that affects drag force, buoyancy and underwater torque.

Should the S&C session be before or after the in-water training?

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here and here.

  1. Starts & turns

What do we know so far?Doha 2014 Dive

Starts plus turns can account up to 50% in a sprint.

Turns can represent up to 30% of the race time in middle- and long-distance events.

Streamline gliding and dolphin kicks are important phases in both race moments.

Over the start, underwater phase (i.e. gliding and dolphin kick) depends upon above-water phases (i.e., take-off horizontal velocity and optimal flight trajectory).

What we don’t know yet?

The body of knowledge on the start seems to be more solid and consistent than for the turns.

The big challenge for the swimmer is to understand when to stop gliding and begin the dolphin kicks, stop the kicking and start or resume the swim stroke.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

By Tiago M. Barbosa PhD degree recipient in Sport Sciences and faculty at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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Relay Starts: Technique and Championship Implications, Part II

Take Home Points
1) Male elite swim relay starts have consistently had faster relay exchanges than elite females
2) Relay exchanges are a skill that should be accompanied by measurement to optimize practice
3) Relay exchange time has been shown to be a more determining factor in female events than among males

With NCAA Championship season upon us (and the womens’ championship already complete), relay performance takes center stage more than any other domestic meet. Indeed, many teams are shaped with relays in mind due to the profound influence relays can have on overall standing (see NCAA Championship Relay Performances).

In previous posts we have addressed some key issues on relay performances. To recap some key points:
*Relay performance appeared more related to overall standing in the 2014 men’s championship than in the women’s meet
*Track to two feet jump start has been most common at by US Swimmers at international meets (Relay Starts and Championship Implications)
*The introduction of the kick plate to starting platforms has required technical modification to swimmers starting techniques. [C]onsidering a kick start technique in place of a traditional step-up relay start may lead to greater success for relay exchanges on these new starting platforms. (Omega Starting Blocks and Relay Performance)

One recent study from Saavedra (2014) has added to the body of literature on relay starts performance. Authors studied 827 relay performances at international competitions from a 13 year period in the 4 x 100 free, medley, and 4 x 200 free.

Some notable findings:
*Men’s exchange block times were shorter than those of the women
*Exchange block time was especially relevant for the women’s relay medalists in the 4 × 100-m freestyle and 4 × 100-m medley (this makes sense as we’d expect the start to be less important in a 200m event).
*The relationship between exchange time and placing for men in the 100m events was tightest among non-medalist teams

What to take home from this information? First, it may suggest there is more room for improvement among female swimmers in relay starts, as exchange time in relays is largely a matter of team coordination (a gender-neutral trainable skill). Another notable fact is how exchange times were more meaningful for the women’s races than for men. Interestingly, in our analysis of last year’s NCAA Womens Championship, U of Georgia captured the title despite performing worse than other teams on relay starts, though this may have been more a function of overall swimming performance than relay starts.

Future data collection should measure swim times in smaller chunks of each race to determine pace consistency. Now, this may be an inexact science without touch pads mid pool, but data may be useful to establish if swimmers are indeed approaching the wall at consistent paces. A good relay exchange not only includes a good exchange, but also a well swum race in which the swimmer paces himself/herself throughout the event to hold a consistent speed between the flag and the wall, rather than going out too hard any dying at the wall, no matter one’s best intentions to swim hard to the finish.

Relay Starts Summary

Relay exchanges are often overlooked in practice (much like starts in general) but can be the difference between winning and losing a race, especially in the shorter events. Though the swimming portions comprise a much larger percentage of the race, relay exchanges are more about skill and coordination between team members than physical capacity. Teams will have surely gained valuable experience with teammates during the regular season, but like any skill it must be practiced for constant improvement.


  1. Saavedra JM, García-Hermoso A, Escalante Y, Dominguez AM, Arellano R, Navarro F. Relationship between exchange block time in swim starts and final performance in relay races in international championships. J Sports Sci. 2014;32(19):1783-9. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2014.920099. Epub 2014 May 23.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

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Comparison of the Short Course Meters Woman’s 100 Breaststroke World Record

Take Home Message:

  1. The aim was to: (i) compare Ruta Meilutyte (LTU) WR in Moscow (October 2013) and Alia Atkinson (JAM) in Doha (November 2014), both with a time of 1:02.36; (ii) learn the effect of the taper on Alia´s performance (Singapore vs. Doha races, 5 weeks apart).
  2. Water entry and water break was not different comparing Ruta and Alia.
  3. Alia Atkinson showed a shift in the stroke kinematics between the Singapore and Doha events (decrease in the clean speed, stroke length and efficiency but increase in the stroke rate).
  4. Alia’s breakout was around the 8-9m and 9-10m distances in Singapore and Doha, respectively. She not only stayed underwater longer, but the turning speed was also higher (10.6% and 6.9% faster in the first and last turns).

A lot was already said about Alia´s WR and gold medal at the SCM World Championships held last December in Doha. It is great for her, for Jamaica and for the World swimming according to the reasons pointed out in a very comprehensive way in the specialized media. Let´s go back one month, November 2014. Early that month, a few weeks before the Championships, it was held here in Singapore the last leg of the 2014 FINA World Cup Series. Overall, the leg was fairly entertaining considering that: (i) most swimmers were away from home at several weeks to compete at the legs of the Asian cluster; (ii) each leg is a two-days meet packed with a lot of events; (iii) most swimmers race more than two events per day; (iv) there are claims that some of them still have training sessions between the morning and evening races; (v) probably they are looking forward to the World Championships in 4-5 weeks time. However, a couple of athletes posted very promising races, swimming at world record paces.

That time, my comment to a few friends and peers was that if Chad and Alia can race at WR pace 4-5 weeks before Doha, after a good taper, probably they will smash some records in December. So, we must keep an eye on them. Surprisingly, at least for some people, that did happen. So this bring us to today´s post: (i) compare Ruta Meilutyte (LTU) WR in Moscow (October 2013) and Alia Atkinson (JAM) in Doha (November 2014), both with a time of 1:02.36; (ii) learn the effect of the taper on Alia´s performance (Singapore vs. Doha, 5 weeks apart).

Race analysis was done as reported in my previous posts on Ruta Meilutyte’s 100 SCM World Record Race Analysis. The Doha race can be found on YouTube® and the one in Singapore I recorded on the stands.

Ruta is well known to be very quick on the blocks (i.e. reaction time). However the water entry and water break is not so different comparing RM and AA (table 1). Between Singapore and Doha, Alia covered one more meter fully immersed but only spent an extra 0.13s. Hence, one might consider that she improved the first and second glides in the start (RM: 2.43m/s; AA: 2.30m/s and 2.44m/s; an improvement of 5.8% in 5 weeks).

table 1

AA was slightly faster in the first split than RM (AA: 29.46s; RM: 29.56s) but that paid-off even though she was slower by 0.1s in the following one (Table 2). In Singapore, AA did the first split at the WR pace (29.58s). I am not sure if she was only testing paces, really wanted to break the World record but was too tired, saving energy for the remaining events of the session because she raced back-to-back two finals: the W100Br (at 06:24pm) and the W200IM (at 06:53pm). Only she and her coach have the right answer to that.

table 2

Surprisingly the Atkinson´s stroke kinematics were slightly lower than the one performed by RM (table 3). Clean speed, stroke length and efficiency (i.e. stroke index) are lower, but the stroke rate higher. Interestingly, the same trend can be verified comparing the Singapore leg with Doha´s final. In Singapore, 81.8% of the speed was related to the stroke length, while in Doha only 35.34%. So, it seems that she had a strategy based on the stroke rate in Doha, a nice and “smoother” technique in Singapore.

So far, we learned that Alia Atkinson start was quite good, and there was a shift in the stroke kinematics. This lead us to the question on how did she performed during the turns and the finish.
table 3

Over the three turns, AA increased the distance to the water break (table 4). She was doing the water break around the 8-9m and 9-10m distances in Singapore and Doha, respectively. Not only she stayed longer fully immersed but the turning speed was also higher (10.6% and 6.9% faster in the first and last turns). Regarding the finish, the difference between RM and AA is 0.06s. AA showed a slight improvement by 0.04s (1.2%) between November and December. Therefore, it seems that the turns were determinant for Alias Atkinson World Record.
table 4

table 5

To wrap-up, comparing RM and AA WR at the W100Br by the same time of 1:02.36, it seems that the start and the turns were determinants for the later swimmer´s performance. Over that race, the clean swimming relied more on the stroke rate than the stroke length or swimming efficiency. That improvement on the start and turns did happen between the race delivered in Singapore and the final in Doha. Moreover, there was a slight shift in the swimming mechanics (higher SR, lower SL).

Can’t wait for the long course meters woman’s 100 breaststroke world record showdown, any predictions?

By Tiago M. Barbosa PhD degree recipient in Sport Sciences and faculty at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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3 Tips for Elite Swimming Turns

A swim race is broken down into a start, turn, and free swimming phases. Although shorter, the start and turn are vital aspects of the race, especially races of shorter distances. Practicing the start and turn can improve ~0.1 seconds per phase, a large sum in longer races.

The easiest method for measuring start and turn performance is to measure speed and time to a fixed distance, typically 7.5 and/or 15 meters from the wall. Unfortunately, these methods do not isolate the start and turn, as each swimmer must perform stroking before the 15-meter park. If using the 15-meter distance overestimates the start and turn race segments.

Veiga (check out his great interview on backstroke turns) has a new produced for individually measuring the distance on the start and turn. This method measures exactly when the swimmer’s head breaks the surface of the water. Previous work using this individualized turn method have not analyzed elite swimmers or race situations.

Differences in Turns between Elite and Regional Swimmers

Knowing differences between elite and regional caliber swimmers is essential for helping regional swimmers become more elite. Veiga (2014) analyzed races from the 2008 Open Comunidad de Madrid for 100 and 200-m events (long course meters). The elite swimmers had FINA scores between 700 – 900 points and the regional swimmers had FINA scores between 500 – 700 points.
  1. Traveled longer off the walls during butterfly and backstroke start and turns and the 200-m breaststroke turn.
  2. Male swimmers had longer distances in all race segments, regardless of skill.
  3. The start and turn distances represented less than 24% for the 100-m and 22% of the 200-m races.
  4. The average velocity was faster for all the elite swimmers than the regional swimmers during all races.
  5. Differences in average velocity between race segments were obtained for all the events, regardless of the swimmers’ performance level or gender. The starting speed was 0.5–0.8 m/s faster than the free swimming speed, and average turning speed was 0.1–0.3 m/s faster than the free swimming speed.

What the Individual Test Demonstrated

These results showed measuring simply to 15-meters accounts for 2 – 5 meter of excessive measurement.

Another important observation was that swimmers traveled longer than previously reported. This difference may be from the evolution and greater stress on dolphin kicking over the past few decades.

3 Tips for Elite Swimming Turns

  1. If you are a butterfly or backstroke specialist seeking improvements, improving your dolphin kick speed and distance is essential.
  2. Also, swimmers can improve their underwater kicking by starting their kicking after gliding in the speed range of 1.9 – 2.2 m/s. This could enhance their kicking distance ~1 meter.
  3. For breaststroke swimmers, perform longer glides during your underwater phase for the 200-meter distance.
However, it is likely these elite swimmers only maximize the start and turn distances when a net gain in average velocity results.
  1. Veiga S, Cala A, G Frutos P, Navarro E. Comparison of starts and turns of national and regional level swimmers by individualized-distance measurements. Sports Biomech. 2014 Sep;13(3):285-95. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2014.910265. Epub 2014 Jun 13.
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, Strength Coach Consultant, Creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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