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RER Value Guide

Slow (0.7)
A1 band - warm-up, recovery, cool-down sets
Moderate (0.85)
A2 band - aerobic capacity sets
Intense (1.00)
A3 band - aerobic power, VO2max sets

Data Source: Zamparo P, Bonifazi M (2013). Bioenergetics of cycling sports activities in water.

Coded for Swimming Science by Cameron Yick

Freestyle data

Total Cost

Quick Food Reference

48g Carbs
25g Carbs
Peanut Butter
16g (2 tablespoons) *

Inertial Sensors in Swimming

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education,
credentials, experience, etc.).

My name is Giuseppe Vannozzi and I'm a Computer Engineer, and I hold a PhD in Bioengineering. My thesis focused on the analysis of how the human body functions and moves with a special emphasis on the application of soft computing techniques to extract information from biomechanics data. I then held a post-doc position at the University of Rome “Foro Italico”, which specializes in sports and movement analysis, and now I am an Assistant Professor in Biomechanics. In these 15 years of activity, I have worked close to industrial partners as well as physical educators, clinicians and coaches to propose quantitative methods for capacity and performance assessment. Since 2009, I started my activity in swimming biomechanics in close collaboration with Dr. Giorgio Gatta and his staff at the University of Bologna. Mainly, we aimed at promoting the use of wearable technology devices to assess swimmer performance and monitor his/her activity.

2. You recently published an article on wearable inertial sensors in swimming. Could you explain what those are?

Miniaturized inertialmeasurement units (often called IMUs), commonly found today in trendy wearable technology, are an increasingly popular alternative to 3D video analysis. An IMU typically comprises a 3-axial linear accelerometer and an angular rate sensor, also called gyroscope. Output of the IMU are the 3D linear acceleration and the 3D angular velocity of the body segment to which it is attached. The physical quantities provided by each sensor are measured with respect to the axes of a unit-embedded frame, generally aligned with the edges of the unit case. Through smart algorithms, able to fuse the redundant information available and to compensate for sensor drift, 3D body segment orientation can be also obtained. IMU sensors are typically wireless, allowing for in-field quantitative measurements, easy to use and generally cheap.

3. What did your study look at?

Since an increasing range of inertial sensors and protocols have been proposed in the scientific literature for swimming performance assessment, we deemed of interest to examine how they were used and how well they performed with respect to traditional swimming motion analysis techniques. Therefore, our aim was to provide a systematic review regarding the current status of inertial and magnetic sensors for swimming performance assessment (Magalhaes et al, 2014). The main objective of this review was to provide a framework to fully exploit the recent advances in miniaturized wearable technologies to obtain biomechanical data related to sport performance.

4. What were the results of your study?

We found that IMUs are potentially capable of helping us evaluate the performance of swimmers throughout the swimming pool and for a whole duration of a training session; this overcomes the various limitations of traditional video analysis. For instance, in looking at the stroke patterns, while video analysis limits its observation to a single stroke cycle, depending upon the real capture volume of the cameras, IMUs can generally acquire continuously without specified spatial limitations. Thus, for instance, changes with fatigue may be potentially captured using IMUs. These results were supported by a comprehensive overview of the existing applications of inertial sensors in swimming science.

5. What were the practical implications for coaches and swimmers from your study?

Nowadays, there is a lively interest about IMUs in swimming motion analysis and researchers working in this area are continuously proposing new methods to estimate variables potentially useful for coaches and swimmers practice. We discovered that inertial sensors, including accelerometers and gyroscopes, can be invaluable in a multidisciplinary environment, in which sport biomechanists and engineers can work together to calculate the scores and indices – widely used by swimming practitioners –with the aim of progressively meeting the desires of coaches and trainers. Based on specific objectives of the analysis, you can appropriately select the sensor to include in your setup: an accelerometer to estimate linear kinematics (velocity) and body inclination; a gyroscope to estimate angles and body orientation; both sensors to estimate task phases, time parameters (durations, stroke frequency).

6. What inertial sensors do you use or recommend?

It is really hard to recommend any specific brand or product available on the market. Your best starting point to conduct your research is really any IMU device that possesses the appropriate sensor requirements (Picerno et al, 2011) and the suggested guidelines to improve outcome accuracy (Bergamini et al, 2014). Personally, I have used the technology offered by Newsens, which included a spin-off of our laboratory with which I have started to work on this topic.

7. What other technical advances do you see beneficial for swimmers?

As a swimmer-centric monitoring technology, these devices can increase the amount of information available to the athlete/coach. IMU technology can potentially put the coaches and athletes in a position to benefit from numerical feedback almost in real time. This is especially valuable if a swimmer or a coach wants to detect and correct specific performance-related concerns. Moreover, coaches at poolside can have individual indicators of the swimmer’s performance such as velocity, attitude and position of the swimmer for the length of the swimming pool (Le Sage et al., 2010b).
The engineering literature started also to consider the development of real-time feedback methods, even if these approaches are not ready for the everyday practical application. The main advantage of these methods is the low computational effort required. Therefore, once the communication protocols reach a useful real-time performance and the sensor fusion algorithms become more reliable in the aquatic environment, it would be reasonable to expect a decrease in the time gap between laboratory and training environments. In this manner, swimmer performance analysis based on biomechanics method can be carried out almost instantaneously after a swim trial.

8. How can a coach use inertial sensors for a large age-group (40 kids), a more elite high school group (20 kids), or an elite college group (10 kids)?

Inertial sensors have several advantages and allow for quick data acquisitions without cumbersome setups as you may experience using video-cameras, which makes it applicable to athletes of medium level and not only to élite swimmers. Depending on the team size, the coach may consider to include only one IMU device per swimmer to monitor cycle durations, stroke frequency and related parameters or to include additional sensors to monitor more complex indicators. A coach might consider partnering with an analyst who can then implement the right mathematical procedures following the scientific literature. Currently, there are no commercially available devices that directly implement some of the mentioned performance indexes.

9. Who is doing the most interesting research currently in your field? What are they doing?

There really aren’t many laboratories working on swimming biomechanics using IMU sensors. Groups from Australia, Switzerland and UK are very active carrying out the most interesting work about the topic as widely cited in our review article. Adding to our review, Farzin Dadashi from Lausanne (SW) recently published an interesting paper about the estimation of front-crawl energy expenditure using IMUs (Dadashi et al, 2014), which is one of the most promising application we foresaw at the end of our review article. In his study, he used a set of four waterproofed IMUs worn on forearms, sacrum, and right shank of eighteen swimmers and validated their methodology using indirect calorimetry and blood lactate concentration.

10. Which teachers have most influenced your research?

I had the privilege to work with Professor Aurelio Cappozzo, recognized internationally as one of the main experts in the biomechanics of human movement. In his laboratory in Rome, I had the opportunity to learn how biomechanical methods can be applied and used to assess the performance and capacity of human motion. Working with several sports science colleagues, I had the opportunity to approach the field and to better understand the needs of coaches and sport professionals; the collaboration with my colleague Giorgio Gatta was determinant for me to open to the swimming field which is one, currently, of my main scientific interest.

11. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?

I am always looking at how I can help coaches and athletes benefit from rich numerical feedback at the swimming pool. Currently, I am evaluating the feasibility of using IMUs to characterize block starts and turning mechanics, this will add yet another layer to my previous research and answer some of the questions coming out of the swimming community.


  1. Bergamini E, Ligorio G, Summa A, Vannozzi G, Cappozzo A, Sabatini AM, (2014). Estimating orientation using magnetic and inertial sensors and different sensor fusion approaches: accuracy assessment in manual and locomotion tasks. Sensors (Basel): 14(10):18625-49.
  2. Dadashi F, Millet GP, Aminian K, (2014). Estimation of Front-Crawl Energy Expenditure Using Wearable Inertial Measurement Units. IEEE Sensors Journal, 14(4): 1020 – 1027.
  3. Le Sage T, Bindel A, Conway P, Justham L, Slawson S, & West A, (2010). Development of a real time system for monitoring of swimming performance. Procedia Engineering, 2, 2707–2712.
  4. Magalhaes FA, Vannozzi G, Gatta G, Fantozzi S, (2014).Wearable inertial sensors in swimming motion analysis: a systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, Epub ahead of print, pp. 1-14.
  5. Picerno P, Cereatti A, Cappozzo A, (2011). A spot check for assessing static orientation consistency of inertial and magnetic sensing units. Gait and Posture, 33(3):373-8.

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.

Hydrodynamic Forces During Freestyle

To understand the mechanisms of propulsive force generation during actual human swimming,
several studies have been done so far. However it was very difficult to find out when, where and how do swimmers generate propulsive force associated with complex hydrodynamic phenomena, the mechanisms have not been clarified yet. Therefore, this study aims to clarify the mechanisms by which unsteady hand hydrodynamic forces during freestyle.
Measurements were performed for a hand attached to a robotic arm with five degrees of freedom (Fig. 1) independently controlled by a computer. The computer was programmed so the hand and arm mimicked a human performing crawl-stroke-motions. We directly measured forces on the hand and pressure distributions around it; flow fields underwater near the hand were obtained via 2D particle image velocimetry (PIV). By analyzing the forces, pressure distributions and flow field simultaneously, it is expected that actual propelling mechanisms can be elucidated and the findings will contribute to an improvement of swimmers’ technique.

As results, the data revealed two mechanisms that generate unsteady forces during a crawl stroke. In the case of curved path (upper drawing in Fig.2), a vortex was shed from the hand when it changes from in-sweep to up-sweep. Before shedding the vortex, the thumb side was the leading edge and the direction of the bound vortex was clockwise; after shedding, the direction of the bound vortex becomes counterclockwise, in accordance with Kelvin’s circulation theorem. By adding this circulation to the moving velocity, the surface velocity increased, the surface pressure decreased, and a lift force was produced. At that time, the leading edge was the little-finger-side, and the resultant flow (V) was inward from the little-finger-side, as shown in the Fig.2. Since the lift force acts perpendicular to V, the lift force must contribute to an increase in the thrust force. This phenomenon is known as the unsteady mechanism of force generation that insects apply for flying.

In the case of Liner Path (lower drawing in Fig. 2), when the hand moved in a linear manner with a large angle of attack (α), a Kármán vortex street was generated, and clockwise or counterclockwise vortices were alternately shedding from it. At that time, the pressure on the palm side was large and positive, and the pressure difference between the palm and dorsal sides increased, producing a drag force. This drag force must contribute to an increase in the thrust force.

We presume that professional swimmers benefit from both mechanisms. To understand these mechanisms for generating hydrodynamic forces must bring significant benefits to coaches and swimmers and might lead to the development of a new stroking technique.

  1. Takagi, H., Nakashima, M., Ozaki, T., & Matsuuchi, K. (2013). Unsteady hydrodynamic forces acting on a robotic hand and its flow field. Journal of Biomechanics, 46(11), 1825-1832.
  2. Takagi, H., Nakashima, M., Ozaki, T., & Matsuuchi, K. (2014). Unsteady hydrodynamic forces acting on a robotic arm and its flow field: Application to the crawl stroke. Journal of Biomechanics, 47(6), 1401-1408.
  3. Takagi, H., Shimada, S., Miwa, T., Kudo, S., Sanders, R., & Matsuuchi, K. (2014). Unsteady hydrodynamic forces acting on a hand and its flow field during sculling motion. Human Movement Science, 38, 133-142.
  4. Matsuuchi, K., Miwa, T., Nomura, T., Sakakibara, J., Shintani, H., & Ungerechts, B. E. (2009). Unsteady flow field around a human hand and propulsive force in swimming. Journal of Biomechanics, 42(1), 42-47.

Written by Hideki Takagi, PhD Faculty of Health and Sport Sciences, University of Tsukuba

Swimming Sensory Integration

I know many of you expect to read about elite swimming training on Swimming Science. If you are only here to read about elite swimming, this post may not be for you. However, today's guest post is an amazing post on an under appreciated topic: sensory integration. Many of you have heard of autism or children being on the spectrum. This is one type of condition that benefits from swimming and sensory integration. If you are truly interested in swimming and how swimming can help many different people, this post is for you, enjoy! 
-John Mullen

Jump into your suit, grab your coffee and leave for work! This daily ritual takes on a very literal meaning if you choose to work in the water with children on the spectrum. Many of us have experienced the sensory seeking child who loves the pool. 

Let’s talk about this phenomenon first. 

The hydrostatic pressure of the water provides a blanket of deep pressure to the child’s largest organ:  the skin. Because she is in a swim suit, the skin is exposed to the viscous fluid, giving CNS messages about where the body is in space. Unique properties of the water allow children to work on developmental skills such as crawling, walking, rolling and jumping. Buoyancy can assist, support or resist, depending on the therapy goal. The child who likes his bath and has had positive experiences in the pool will be highly motivated to learn in the aquatic environment. Motor planning, self-regulation, speech, oral motor control, strength and coordination are just a few areas that are likely to improve as a result of therapy in the water.

A typical scenario may be the child who arrives shaking his hands, walking on his toes and diverting his gaze, but leaves the session organized and ready for the next routine. Often, children of all abilities are scheduled for academic, behavior and OT/PT/SLP following a pool session because of their improved ability to engage and participate.

When a child feels happy and confident in the water, it is time to increase the demand by adding a partner. This provides the opportunity to incorporate social interaction and interpersonal skill acquisition. Children can copy each other, trade toys, offer ‘high fives’ to one another and work together while talking, pointing and using gestures for play. Even better, when the pool activities are well established, a third child could be added. The result is a group of three children who are having fun while working on a variety of skills: vestibular, proprioception, social interaction, motor planning, core strengthening, re-patterning of reflexes, respiration, cognitive skills and much more. Often, this small group provides a bridge to genuine leisure activity, a swim class in which they are integrating with their peers.

Let’s switch gears and talk about the opposite type of child. Your family wants to swim but no matter what you try, your little buddy is clinging for life around your neck, screaming, "Take me to where I can touch my feet." Gravity is gone and he is not staying in for long. Techniques for grounding and helping your child understand the absence of gravity will most likely get those fingernails out of your neck. Sequenced systematic activities with weights or canvas shoes can therapeutically provide the feedback that avoids the fight or flight response. Parents and other people working in the water with this child need to accept that once a fight or flight response begins, neurochemistry kicks in. It is as if someone is following you and you feel like you are about to get robbed. You feel your body heating up, preparing to defend. This is the feeling your child is experiencing! No one can learn to swim, enjoy the water or participate in therapy in this mode. How do we help him to learn where his body is in space? The properties of the water are just as powerful for this child, but require different ritual, routine, social stories and firm progression.

Some kids really want to be in the water but their system works against them. Giving the vestibular and proprioceptive systems the input they need to guide the progression, is key to their success. Cadence, rhythm and timing of movement, is crucial to arousing the necessary centers for cooperation. Whether the avoiding response is severe or mild it is important to work with someone who understands what this adverse response is all about.

One child may need one OT or PT session with the appropriate progression; others may need several. For example, a child recently attended a set of 6 private swim sessions at a private swim school. This nonverbal, 7-year-old, child with autism endured 2 sets of these sessions (12 times). When the instruction did not work, the parents were told the swim instructor had done everything they knew how to do. This child is a perfect candidate for a different approach with a trained aquatic therapist who understands the properties of the water and how they affect a child with sensory processing dysfunction.

Another child may have attended years of swimming but has a specific issue, i.e., putting her face in the water. An experienced aquatic therapist can help her overcome this sensory aversion of water splashing on her face, alleviating her fear of submerging.

An eclectic treatment approach encompassing many different frames of reference in the water will result in children who not only enjoy the water but are able to participate in a leisure/recreation activity with peers. Brainstorming pool sessions regarding the incorporation of approaches such as reflex re-patterning, play project techniques, sensory integration and NDT result in individualized therapeutic responses to each child’s specificity. Working as OT/PT teams, aquatic therapists examine movement, experiment with equipment and handling while sharing ideas and observations. This cooperative approach is crucial for the creation of the aquatic tool box and learned tricks of the trade that will help children enjoy the water. The pool provides options for private, semi-private and small group therapy.

Children can work parallel with noodles and dumbbells, retrieving objects while lying on their bellies, then sitting up and giving them to the therapist, or throwing them on the command of, "ready, set, go!" Eventually, this parallel play evolves into the kids trading objects. Small groups form when the goals change.

A parent may want strength, coordination, endurance and social skills as they relate to the swimming experience for their child. Together, a swim instructor and therapist can provide the specific combination of activities that will improve motor planning while motivating social skills. Many parents describe the bridge that this provides from therapy to community as miraculous. They exclaim, "My son has limited language and now he is on the swim team!" Additionally, many parents rave about an amazing family vacation because their child swam every day, even engaged others in the pool. More importantly, the child was at an optimal level of arousal, able to participate in family activities throughout the day, minus usual difficulties. Stories like theses will keep you marinating in the pool.

Written by Cindy Freedman and Ailene Tisser of Angelfish Therapy, LLC. Angelfish Therapy is an OT/ PT team of therapists who specialize in aquatic therapy. We have recently expanded from Westchester and Fairfield County to the Lexington Aloft hotel. We provide private, semi private and small group therapy. We also offer training DVD’s and courses. For more information please visit our website or call 203-545-0024.

Eating Disorders in Swimmers

Take home points

  1. Disordered eating is a common problem in swimming and other aquatic sports
  2. The issue is complex going beyond nutrition
  3. Awareness by coaches is key to providing the right guidance to athletes and directing them to appropriate professionals
It’s no secret that food is tightly woven into the swimming culture. From pre-meet carbo load sessions to post-practice gorges to some swimmers wanting to cut weight, it’s almost impossible to avoid the presence of food in swimming rituals. But a less talked about, and often taboo subject in the swim community, is the presence of eating disorders in swimmers. This is hardly a new topic, but recent research deserves review in this context. Further, many coaches, athletes, and parents are simply unaware of the problem while others retain a balance of ignorance and denial.

Swimming, by its nature, carries a higher risk of athletes developing eating disorders. “Athletes in leanness-demanding sports have an increased risk for RED-S and for developing EDs/DE. Special risk factors in aquatic sports related to weight and body composition management include the wearing of skimpy and tight-fitting bathing suits.” (Melin 2014) Though many swimmers are proud to showcase their sculpted bodies with minimal clothing, the constant display has a psychological cost for many, particularly females.

This psychological cost often drives eating disorders, often considered a taboo subject. Because eating disorders are more than a food issue, coach and athlete communication are key. Yet this is often an issue with gender overtones, and many male coaches are unable to communicate effectively with young female athletes, no matter their best intentions. (see Female Coaching Opportunities in Swimming) In one recent study in high school sports (not only swimming), “Significant differences were found between male and female coaches in certain attitudes and communication behaviors related to eating and menstrual irregularity. (Kroshus 2014)

However, misunderstanding is not restricted to gender, as “Coaches knowledge [of the Female Athlete Triad] was limited; however, most (9/10) were comfortable discussing menstruation with their athletes. Barriers to Triad screening/education were coaches' insufficient time, knowledge, and educational resources.” (Brown 2014)

Yet the reasons for eating disorders are varied, ranging from non-athletic (aesthetic, body image) to a desire for better athletic performance. “Individual changes in the desire to be leaner to improve sports performance were associated with individual changes in disordered eating. Furthermore….a desire to be leaner to improve sports performance was predictive of disordered eating and not vice versa. The results of our study indicate that athletes are more at risk for disordered eating if they believe it is possible to enhance their sports performance through weight regulation." (Krentz 2013)

Though eating disorders can spiral into physical and psychological depths, physical performance can be negatively impacted at the early stages. “[Disordered eating]-positive compared with DE-negative athletes presented a higher percentage of body fat and fat mass, lower protein consumption in the 11- to 14-y-old group, and lower calcium intake adequacy in the 15- to 19-y-old group. Greater attention should be given to the nutritional state of these athletes, considering the number of adolescents with anemia and an inadequate dietary intake.” (Da Costa 2013)


Like many issues outside the pool, awareness is most important. While coaches and parents may lack certain expertise to intervene if problems reach clinical levels, everyone has the expertise to create the right environment to prevent problems. Though swimmers are often known to eat with impunity to refuel from 4+ hours of practice a day, a dark underside of eating disorders exists among a subset of athletes, particularly females. Awareness is the first key step to ensuring swimmers are healthy both mentally and physically to thrive in the pool.


  1. Krentz EM1, Warschburger P. A longitudinal investigation of sports-related risk factors for disordered eating in aesthetic sports. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Jun;23(3):303-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01380.x. Epub 2011 Aug 18.
  2. Melin A1, Torstveit MK, Burke L, Marks S, Sundgot-Borgen J. Disordered eating and eating disorders in aquatic sports. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Aug;24(4):450-9. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2014-0029. Epub 2014 Mar 25.
  3. Brown KN1, Wengreen HJ2, Beals KA3. Knowledge of the female athlete Triad, and prevalence of Triad risk factors among female high school athletes and their coaches. J Pediatr Adolesc gynecol. 2014 Oct;27(5):278-82. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2013.11.014. Epub 2014 Jul 9.
  4. Kroshus E1, Sherman RT, Thompson RA, Sossin K, Austin SB. Gender differences in high school coaches' knowledge, attitudes, and communication about the female athlete triad. Eat Disord. 2014;22(3):193-208. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2013.874827. Epub 2014 Jan 23.
  5. da Costa NF1, Schtscherbyna A, Soares EA, Ribeiro BG. Disordered eating among adolescent female swimmers: dietary, biochemical, and body composition factors. Nutrition. 2013 Jan;29(1):172-7. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2012.06.007. Epub 2012 Sep 28.
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.

Adam Kiefer Discusses Motor Learning

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education,
credentials, experience, etc.).

My name is Adam Kiefer and I am the director of the new, state of the art Training Enhancement and Analysis of Movement Virtual Reality (TEAM VR) laboratory in the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. I am also an assistant professor in both pediatrics and psychology at the University of Cincinnati. I earned my BS in Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Wisconsin – LaCrosse and during my undergraduate training I served as both the head boy’s and girls varsity tennis coach and also the head freshman girl’s basketball coach at Holmen high school in Holmen, WI. After completion of my MS in Movement Science/Sport Psychology at Barry University in Miami FL, I earned a PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cincinnati where I studied perceptual-motor control and development with research focussed on both expert athletic performance and rehabilitation following injury. This work led me to a four year post-doctoral research fellowship at Brown University in Providence, RI where I utilized innovative virtual reality technologies to examine perceptual-motor deficits to inform rehabilitation practices in patients with low vision, and I have continued my work in virtual reality and associated technologies in my current position at Cincinnati Children’s.

2. You recently published an article on motor learning and electroencephalography (EEG). What do we know about these two subjects (ie what area of the brain are responsible for motor learning)?

This might be a little out there, but humor me for a minute. Imagine you know nothing about the sport of baseball, and by nothing I mean you have never even heard of the sport. Moreover, you don’t know how many players are on a team and you don’t even know what equipment is used. So I take you to a baseball game to let you experience and learn all about the sport. Except that I can’t allow you to see anything or talk to anyone. The only method I can use to help you learn about the sport is to let you listen to the cheering crowd. Throughout the game the crowd cheers when good things happen, boos when things go poorly, is quiet during some high stress moments, and is loudly encouraging during others. Over the course of the game you build a limited understanding of what is happening through the cheering pattern of the fans. This is the same way that EEG works. We are essentially learning about a process by listening to the “Cheering patterns” of neurons—more specifically, the electrical neural activity—and then drawing conclusions from these patterns.

This is an important consideration, as it then makes the identification of specific areas of the brain that are responsible for various processes (movement, vision, etc) very tricky to truly localize for a given task. Over the years, algorithms have been developed to better identify specific areas, but just like we can’t listen to the noise of a crowd and figure out exactly what noises every individual person in the crowd is making or, more importantly, exactly how many people are in the crowd, we also can’t tell exactly which specific neurons are firing or even how many are firing. What we can get is a general idea of where the cheering is coming from (i.e., left field vs. behind home plate) so we are able to make generalizations to regions of the brain. For example, the occipital region is known to be more active during visually-dominant tasks as measured by electrodes placed at occipital sites, where as the integration of sensory information from a variety of sources might lead to changes in activation as measured by electrodes placed at central sites (typically in-between the frontal and parietal lobe) near the middle of the skull, above and slightly in front of the tops of the ears.

3. Do the areas of the brain during motor learning change on the skill level of the performer or the difficulty of the task?

As in the “cheering neuron” example, EEG’s strength is that it can tell us whether the electrical activity of the brain changes before, during or after learning. The electrical activity is generally broken down into different waveforms, or components, that each tell us something different about the activity itself. For example, there is a large body of research on the effect of learning on target shooting of marksmen that has demonstrated that one kind of EEG alpha activity—waveforms that are usually most prominent when someone is awake and relaxed—tend to be higher in skilled marksmen prior to shooting compared to less skilled marksmen. It is believed that this is due to a more relaxed performance state prior to a given action or behavior. So the amount of this particular alpha activity can indicate the mental state of the athlete. For example, a less experienced athlete may exhibit a decrease in alpha activity that coincides with more stress prior to performance of a difficult task, while a more experienced athlete would tend to stay more relaxed and maintain a more stable level of performance.

4. Is there an ideal age for motor learning?

My colleagues and I have written about this in another paper, titled: Training the developing brain, part I: cognitive developmental considerations for training youth. We have defined the term training age. Training age is an age that represents the child’s prior experiences of context-specific training (e.g., swimming) that is partially, but not wholly, dependent on the child’s time course of natural physical development. We advocate for starting children early in generalized and integrative neuromuscular training to advance the development of the child’s general motor skill proficiency; however, the initiation of training at an earlier age is not always easy because it is dependent on the child’s cognitive and perceptual-motor development. In other words, the child must be physically and/or mentally prepared for training and the training must be geared toward the child’s capabilities and level of understanding. Starting a child in more generalized training at a younger age has the potential to allow for more sport-specific training at an earlier age as well, and both are advantageous given their brains tend to be more “plastic”, or responsive, to training. To be clear, I am not advocating for sport specialization but rather making a case that a strong foundation in neuromuscular control will provide a large number of benefits in early childhood, adolescence and throughout adulthood. So unfortunately it is not as simple as saying, “Charlie is 5 and now he is ready for training.” Instead, parents should discuss their child’s capabilities with a certified strength and conditioning specialist, or well-educated coach, and based on an assessment decide what is best for their child at a particular age.

5. What did your study look at?

This particular study looked at how adults learn to perform a completely novel task. We used a mirror-star tracer, which requires the performer to only utilize the reflection of his or her hand in a mirror as he or she traces the outline of a five point star. As you can imagine, it is difficult to find a task that adults have never performed. But when studying motor learning, it is beneficial to have people start at a similar level of task familiarity, and the mirror star tracer task is one that has been used quite a bit in psychology/motor learning research.

We were also interested in whether practicing the entire task (e.g., tracing the entire star over and over again) or only practicing parts of the task (e.g., tracing each point of the star over and over in a random order, but never tracing the entire star) would lead to more efficient learning. People may recognize these as the “Whole” and “Part” practice techniques. We also had a third group that did not practice the task at all.

We collected EEG data in three star-tracing tests prior to the intervention, and then three star-tracing tests after the practice intervention (either whole, part or no practice).

6. What were the results of your study?

As is true with a lot of research the results weren’t as clear cut as we would have liked, but they do provide a window into motor learning at a very basic level. The main takeaway from the study was that we saw greater alpha power following practice, compared to EEG activity when performing the star tracer task prior to any practice. These results may indicate a familiarization with the task and/or more efficient perceptual-motor activity in the brain following practice. This replicates the work of others and also builds on previous findings.

7. What were the practical implications for coaches and swimmers from your study?

This was a research study designed to uncover basic processes inherent to motor learning using a very simple task, so we have to be careful about making broad generalizations to more complex activities. What I will say is that we want our athletes to be efficient in their athletic maneuvers, whether it be a particular stroke in swimming or driving the lane in basketball. In swimming even small changes in movement efficiency can have large impacts on overall performance and, especially at elite levels, might be the ultimate difference between finishing first or second. If we can optimize the neural activity for a given movement during skill training, we can better optimize movement strategies for a given sport context. The more important question is: How do we optimize movement strategies? Well, one way to utilize this information is to understand when alpha activity decreases and if there are observable performance outcomes associated with these changes. This allows a coach or trainer to know that the athlete may be more relaxed with their current movement patterns and to appropriately challenge the athlete in practice.

7. Do you think the results would be different if you had a different task or different skill level of the participant?

Skill level probably would influence the results more than a different task. A higher-level performer would likely already exhibit similar alpha activity to what we observed, even before practice. This is why we chose the task that we did. We wanted individuals to perform a novel task so that everyone was on an even playing field from the outset. A different task would only matter if someone had expertise in that task already.

8. If you were looking to maximize learning a new aspect of swimming (ie a different hand entry position), what would be the ideal method of implementation and frequency of feedback?

It certainly depends on the complexity of the movement and the training context, and the question really is about internal vs. external focused feedback. Internal focused feedback is utilized to teach precise techniques and encourages the athlete to explicitly focus attention on specific bodily movement patterns. While this technique has been classically utilized, research indicates that external focused feedback—feedback that directs the athlete’s attention externally toward the consequences of their movements rather than on the movement itself—generally is more robust in its transfer of complex, learned skills to competition in the pool, or on the field of play.

9. Is there an ideal type of feedback (verbal, tactile, visual)?

All things equal, visual feedback is the most powerful and can be processed extremely fast. It is also dominant in the sense that it can even override proprioceptive or tactile feedback. There is a famous study that had people perform really difficult polyrhythms (e.g., 3 taps with the right hand while simultaneously tapping 7 times with the left). The participants were not able to perform a variety of complex rhythms when they viewed their hands. However, when they were unable to see their hands and visual feedback was given that only directed participants to move their hands in such a way that a shape was drawn on a screen in front of them (the shape was only drawn correctly when they performed a 3/7 rhythm), the participants were able to execute the task. So why are we able to do this?

Well, we are information hungry beings. In other words, our bodies are always craving any kind of sensory information we can get our hands on (no pun intended), and will utilize it whenever we can. We will even make use of it when it misleads us or when it is incongruent with other sensory feedback. For this reason, I would advocate for a multi-faceted feedback approach that utilizes all of the components of the sensory-motor system. This is advantageous because it allows for redundancy in the system in the case that, during the heat of competition, one type of information is unavailable then the athlete can utilize other perceptual modalities (I.e., proprioception instead of vision) to continue movement efficiency. It also teaches the system to be poised and ready to utilize all types of information quickly and efficiently.

10. Who is doing the most interesting research currently in your field? What are they doing?

Well I am definitely biased, but my colleague Dr. Greg Myer is one of the most well-published researchers when it comes to training youth for performance enhancement and injury prevention. Outside of our team, I think probably Gabriele Wulf out of UNLV. She has conducted a lot of important research on external focus and what it means for skill acquisition and retention in motor learning.

11. What makes your research different from others?

My own work is a hybrid of perceptual-motor research from my training in psychology and performance enhancement/injury prevention. I work to find ways that athlete’s can exploit information, whether during performance or when given feedback, that will make the learning of specific movement patterns more efficient and protect the athletes from injury. I also utilize cutting edge technologies, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), to put athletes in “safe zones” where we can challenge them in a variety of ways through VR, or provide them feedback using AR, while letting them move freely as they would in their over-ground sport.

12. Which teachers have most influenced your research?

Wow, there have been a lot of them. Gualberto Cremades (Barry University) and Jay Lee (now at the University of Houston) first got me interested in psychophysiology, and research in movement science more generally. Mike Riley at the University of Cincinnati really gave me the technical skills to analyze data in extremely novel ways, and to think about perceptual-motor processes very differently than the majority of the existing classic research. Bill Warren, at Brown University, really pushed me to think about human behavior in ways that are completely novel, and to utilize VR to probe the visual system and to ask the right questions about how humans utilize perceptual information to drive behavior. The influence of both Bill and Mike is probably the most dominant theme in my current work, and my experience working with Bill in his Virtual Environment Navigation Lab is the reason I am pushing hard for the development of VR applications to enhance training in sport. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be where I am today without any of these people.

13. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?

Our general focus is on injury prevention and we have a lot of exciting research on the horizon. We have a newly renovated research center that is going to be opening in early spring, 2015. It will house multiple labs and have about 2000 square feet of space for wireless VR with full-body motion capture technology to assess biomechanical variables related to movement performance. It will be the only lab of its kind in the world. We are partnering with the military simulation software company VT-MAK to help us develop realistic sport-specific virtual environments, and also with Tobii Technologies to utilize their cutting-edge eye tracking technology to understand athlete’s attention and functional deficits associated with injury. In addition, we have a partnership with ElMindA, a technology company based in Israel that has developed a Brain Network Activation analysis that utilizes EEG to assess recovery from concussions, among other things. We are also in the middle of development of some very novel strategies to deliver visual feedback that is externally focussed through heads-up wearable displays (e.g., google glass) so that athletes can be anywhere in the laboratory space, train with our strength and conditioning specialists and interact with their peers, but have individualized external-focussed feedback in their field of view whenever they want to access it. Our goal is to be the world leader in injury prevention for sports medicine and I believe we are well on our way.

Tension of Kinesiotape Doesn't Matter for Floor Touch Improvement

Allan Phillips has discussed kinesiotape (KT) in two previous posts:
  1. Kinesiotape and Swimmers Part I
  2. Kinesiotape and Swimmers Part II
In his first post, he concluded:

"[o]verall the evidence is incomplete, but not definitive in either direction. Most notably, Kinesiotaping has not been tested thoroughly in combination with other procedures. It’s possible that taping may have different effects done as a standalone treatment versus when used to reinforce a clinical procedure (spinal manipulation, massage, dry needling, etc).

My personal opinion is that Kinesiotape may have actual effects but the mechanisms are still unknown. It may take several years to separate taping from the methods that it is frequently paired with. It is still too early to call it a placebo or alternatively, a miracle treatment. That said, because much anecdotal evidence exists with very little observed side effects (other than tape addiction), Kinesiotape deserves consideration as a method to improve muscle length, strength, and timing, especially when used to support other interventions."

Luckily, research is surfacing about KT and questioning the use of this tape, particularly the scientific reasoning behind its principles.

The study below analyzes how KT is applied and as Allan has said previously: 
"[k]eep in mind that research does not account for nuances in how tape is applied, as I can tell you firsthand that the craftsmanship of trained clinicians far exceeds “locker room” self-application. This may be one area in which clinicians are ahead of researchers. I’ve recently spent a lot of time volunteering in a clinic recently that frequently uses Kinesiotape. One point noting is that clinicians with formal training from tape companies have far more techniques in their arsenal than someone who just throws tape on areas that feel tight or sore. If you fully immerse yourself in the system, there’s actually quite a depth of thought in the techniques, even if those techniques have not been tested by formal research."

Does Kinesiotape Application Matter?

Thirty-nine females (18 – 27 years) performed the Schober test, marking the midpoint of the two posterior-superior iliac spines (S2 level) and then other two points 5 cm below and 10 cm above the initial level. The distance between the three points was measured in the standing and bent over position.

The subjects were split into three groups:

1)    Control.
2)    Kinesiotape without tension (just laying down the tape).
3)    Kinesiotape with tension (applying 15 – 50% tension on the tape).

Subjects were assessed 24 hours with the tape one, 48 hours with the tape on, and 30 days after the tape removal. The tape was applied for 48 hours.

Results of Kinesiotape Application

The average Schober test results before KT was 6.07 cm. No significant differences were found between the averages obtained from the Schober test before applying the KT, 48 hours with the tape on, and 30 days after the removal in any of the groups.

However, there were significant improvements for the KT with tension and without tension for the fingertip-to-floor distance at 48 hours.

Results of Kinesiotape Application

It seems KT with or without tension improves fingertip-to-floor mobility. This suggests the method of application may be over complicated and unnecessary for improvement in range of motion. The mechanism of improvement is still speculative. 

If looking to improve fingertip-to-floor mobility, consider applying KT with or without tension. These results may differ in people with low back pain or other conditions.

  1. Lemos TV, Albino AC, Matheus JP, Barbosa Ade M. The effect of kinesio taping in forward bending of the lumbar spine. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Sep;26(9):1371-5. doi: 10.1589/jpts.26.1371. Epub 2014 Sep 17.
The Swimming Science Research Review educates coaches with ongoing sports science literature. With the influx of online information makes it difficult to stay up-to-date with informative, accurate research studies. The Swimming Science Research Review brings you a comprehensive research articles on swimming, biomechanics, physiology, psychology, and much more!

This monthly publication keeps busy coaches and swimming enthusiast on top of swimming research to help their programs excel, despite being extremely busy.

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.