Swimming Science #1: Sprint vs Distance Free Mechanics
There is a major difference between the mechanics of sprint freestyle and distance freestyle mechanics. Many swimmers are taught to swim with one freestyle technique that is typically geared towards distance. I believe that in the early developmental stages of an athletes career that they should be taught both techniques because it is easier to learn as the early stages than when they have developed only one habit. We will look at the difference in the strokes in this article.
The hand path for distance and sprint swimmers are very similar but the changes in the in the path of the hand occur at different times in the pull. The maximum depth of the hand occurs 10% later in the stroke for the distance swimmer compared to the sprint swimmer. This is likely due to the longer entry phase of distance paces. The vertical and horizontal displacement of the hand also tend to be greater at distance paces than in sprint paces. This is likely due to the greater hip and shoulder rotation at distance paces causing the hand to go deeper and wider.
The angle of the elbow throughout the stroke is very important for optimizing speed and efficiency at various paces. During sprint paces the arm enters with the elbow in a more extended position to allow the swimmer to better transition to the pull phase of the stroke. The hand enters with the elbow in a more bent position to allow the arm to extend upon entry which allows the swimmer to get in a streamlined glide position and maintain a sustainable stroke tempo. At the catch position the elbow angle does not differ between sprint and distance paces. As the hand travels toward the shoulder the elbow angle also does not differ between paces. As the pull phase ends and the push phase begins the elbows reaches greater extension in sprinting than in distance swimming allowing for more propulsion to be produced at sprint speeds. This part of the stroke also requires more energy which is most likely why distance swimmers choose to not reach the same level of elbow extension as sprint swimmers.
Stroke Phase Duration
The swimming stroke is divided into 4 phases. These phases are the entry, pull, push, and recovery. The time spent in each of these phases is different based on the demands of the event distance. In sprint swimming the entry phase is shorter while the pull, push, and recovery are all longer than distance paces. This allows the sprint swimmer to spend a longer time in the propulsive phase of the swim stroke. The longer time in the entry phase of the stroke allows the distance swimmer to reduce stroke rate and increase swimming efficiency. The have been 3 types of freestyle swimming based on arm coordination. The first is catch up which has lag time between the propulsive phases of each of the arms. The second is opposition which is one arm is starting the pull phase while the other is finishing the push phase. The third is superposition which is an overlap of the propulsive phases for each arm. Catch up is the most common type of freestyle for distance swimming while opposition is the most common for sprint swimming. Although the best sprint swimmers displayed a superposition for of freestyle. The best swimmers in both distance and sprint events showed no change in arm coordination when taking a breathe while it did change for less skilled swimmers.
Shoulder and Hip Rotation
Swimming at distance paces produced a greater shoulder and hip rotation than sprint swimming. This is likely due to the less aggressive kick and longer time spent in the entry phase of the stroke. Swimming at sprint paces does not allow enough time to produce larger rotations of the shoulders and hip because of the speed of the tempo and the more aggressive kick. The larger rotation of distance swimmers produces a more economical stroke while the flatter sprint swimming produces more power and speed.
There is a difference in the kicking action of sprint and distance swimmers. The distance swimmer has less vertical displacement of the foot than sprint swimmers. This allows the distance swimmer to reduce frontal drag and allows the sprint swimmer to increase propulsion.
What does this mean to me?
The information above clearly shows that there is a significant difference between the technique differences sprint and distance swimming but does that mean you need to teach stroke different based on specialization? Well the answer is complicated. For teach younger kids it is more important to teach them the basic techniques that are common between distance and sprint swimming. As swimmers age they will begin to specialize in different distances most likely based on genetics and personal preference. The physically stronger athletes will tend to lean towards the sprint events while the swimmers with more slow twitch fibers will tend to lean towards the distance events. At this point performance in their primary events becomes a greater concern and more specialized technique can be adapted for each athlete on an individual basis.
The difference in technique for distance and sprint swimmers brings up the issue of the principle of specificity. If a sprint swimmer trains a different stroke in practice are they actually preparing themselves to race with the desired technique? I believe that they are not. Much of swimming training today is based on training the energy systems which does help improve their metabolisms but does not train the metabolism with the same neuromuscular demands of the desired race. I believe it is possible to train the necessary energy systems but with the same neuromusclar demands of the distance. Allowing the athlete to swim distances in practice in which they can maintain the desired technique but adjust the rest interval based on event that the swimmer is training for. This will allow the swimmer to train the neuromuscular system while also training the energy systems in a way that are specific to their event distance. I do believe that early in the season there is a place for swimming at speed not specific to the distance of the race as well as maintenance though the season.
Next week I will cover more indepth on the difference on the training demands of sprint swimming and distance swimming.
Let me know in the comment what you think about the differences in sprint and distance swimming. I would love to continue the conversation their.
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