By Russell Mark // National Team High Performance Consultant | Tuesday, February 9, 2016
The act of running and racing each other has existed as long as mankind. Compared to swimming, running has been studied and perfected more because of that innate nature, and it’s easier to measure the interaction between the body and the ground as opposed to the body and water moving all around us.
The idea of learning from our land-based sister sport isn’t a new one, but I’ve personally never explored it. Track & Field’s Olympic tradition in the U.S. is just as rich and successful as swimming. In October 2015, I set out to learn from the best at a USATF Sprint & Hurdles Summit. The summit was attended by the best sprint coaches in the country, and while I wanted to learn about training methodology, I was very surprised to be enlightened about technique.
Here are some basic principles of biomechanics for track sprinters that I found relatable to swimming:
Front Side Mechanics
In running, there’s a point on the backside of your leg stride where the time and energy you spend moving your foot further back becomes less and less worth what you gain from it. Therefore, a major focus is not driving the foot as far back as possible and actively driving your knee forward once you reach that point of diminishing returns. Track folks call this “Front Side Mechanics”.
A strong emphasis on Front Side Mechanics and not pushing the foot back for the maximum finish motion goes against natural tendencies. When you sprint incorrectly without coaching, you instinctively want to keep your foot in contact with the ground as long possible. In fact, even some top high school sprinters in the country don’t have ideal technique. To continue their success and make it to an elite level, those runners would have to be taught how to run properly.
Minimize Vertical Force
Coaching an athlete to run with ideal “Front Side Mechanics” optimizes the force created to move an athlete forward, but driving the knee forward can potentially make someone jump slightly upward, too. The goal is forward movement, and doing so without wasting energy and time jumping up.
How does this relate to swimming? It reinforced a lot of thoughts I’ve had about swimming mechanics recently:
- Front Side Mechanics – The catch is the most important aspect of the stroke and should be coached and emphasized much more than the finish. Too much focus on the finish can potentially compromise the catch while having minimal impact on forward movement (relative to the catch). Instead of focusing on flicking the wrist and a complete extension of the arm out the back, focus on the catch and mid-phase of the pull.
- Youth Mechanics – The best swimmers all have very solid mechanics with a lot in common, and young swimmers need to be taught the same techniques that will be effective throughout their entire career.
- Minimize Vertical Force – Every movement in swimming should be with the end goal of moving the athlete forward through the water. The arm stroke has obvious implications on forward motion. However, a movement like body rotation that on its own won’t make the athlete move forward should be thought of in the context of how to best put the arms and legs in a position to move the body forward.
Thanks to Dr. Ralph Mann and Robert Chapman of USA Track & Field for opening their doors to allow me the opportunity to learn from them and their coaching community. I hope my interpretation of these concepts did them justice. Best of luck to all USATF athletes this summer at Olympic Trials and Rio.