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

Coded for Swimming Science by Cameron Yick

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Aldo Matos da Costa Discusses Development of Youth Swimmers

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

I did my undergraduate and master's degree in Physical Education and Sport at the University of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro (Portugal). Later I obtained a doctoral degree in Sport Science at the University of Beira Interior (UBI, Portugal). I’ve started my career as a swimming instructor, coach and as a swimming technical director in a small local club. In 2008, I moved to UBI where I currently work as an Assistant Professor at the department of sports sciences and also as Vice President for Education and Quality Assurance at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities (UBI). I’m also an effective researcher at the Research Center in Sports Sciences, Health and Human Development (CIDESD, Vila Real, Portugal), scientific advisor at the Portuguese Swimming Federation and board member of the Portuguese Swimming Coaches Association.

2. You have done research on the relative age effect and performance in swimmers, could you explain what this is?

Most competitive sports are organized into age categories. Thus, the participants are grouped by chronological age to ensure equitable competition. However, in the same grade grouping, differences of age among individuals still exist. Some individuals born late in the competitive year (third and fourth quarter) and some born early (first and second quarter). Such age differences among individuals in the same grade grouping are referred as relative age effect (RAE).

One would expect that individuals born in the early part of the cut-off date would be taller, stronger and better coordinated. All those are important attributes for success in various sports including swimming (e.g. power and body size). RAE may be even more pronounced when there is a positive variation in the skeletal age.

3. In the states, most youth swimmers are grouped by every two years (ie 13 - 14), how are youths grouped together in Portugal?

In Portugal, swimmers are divided into five age categories. Like in the US, age groups (cadet, infantile and juvenile) for both genders are also grouped by every two years, keeping girls one year ahead of boys in all age categories (table),

4. What did you study look at?

Our purpose was to identify the existence of RAE in swimming, considering all competitive age groups and both genders. Using the top 50 Portuguese performance times we were able to analyze the RAE on swimming performance for the main swimming competitive events. This allowed us to clearly identify which age category and competitive(s) event(s) seem to be most affected by the cut-off birth date. To our knowledge, this type of analysis was non-existent in the literature, particularly in swimming, making this research quite original.

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

The existence of an inequitable distribution of birth dates by quarter in the top 50 ranking in nearly all age groups allowed us to assume that RAE can actually influence selection and probably the long term development of swimmers (although we have no data on sports dropout). Thus, selection procedures of swimmers (whether local or national level) should be more prospective and the way of grouping more equitable. The literature is scarce regarding the RAE on psychological parameters. However, a few studies are now showing some variation particularly on swimmers motivation. Thus, younger swimmers may require greater psychological and technical monitoring by coaches.

6. Why do you think there were more male swimmers born in the first two quarters of the year?

Younger and later matured promising swimmers are likely to be ignored by their lower competitiveness at a given time. So we were expecting to find an inequitable distribution of birth dates by quarter in the younger age groups but not among older swimmers. This seems to suggest the existence of a profound effect on the number of swimmers born later in the selection year that effectively reaches the elite.

8. You mention there being minimal relative age effect on swimming performance, is this different from other sports?

Other studies in different sporting disciplines are showing a clear physical advantage for athletes born in the first half of the year. Some recent studies are even showing differences in fundamental movement skills proficiency within children placed in age groups according to the school year (Birth et al., 2014). According to our results, RAE seems to influence swimming performance (except on front crawl swimming events), but particularly in the youngest swimmers of both genders. We probably didn’t find a greater REA on swimming performance in other age groups (and swimming events) because we have studied the best Portuguese swimmers (Top 50), whose overall performance is more homogeneous. In less competitive level swimmers, I believe we would find a much greater RAE on swimming performance.

9. Do you think there is a "best" way of grouping youth swimmers together?

I think the swimmers up to 13-14 years should be organized not by birth year but by birth semester.

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

In swimming I am currently working on three main themes: genetic polymorphism and sports performance (particularly in swimming); Aquatic environment factors that directly influence the organization of teaching and, therefore, determine their effectiveness (e.g. shallow water versus deep water teaching); the effect of aquatic experience in motor proficiency.

Dolphin Kicking

Take Home Points:
  1. Elite swimmers may not use a symmetrical dolphin kicking strategy.
The undulatory underwater sequence, dolphin kick, is one of the most important but unexplored phases in competitive swimming. Swimmers use this kick for butterfly and starts/ turns in freestyle and backstroke.

Unfortunately, we still have a lot of questions regarding the effectiveness of underwater kicking, as well the ideal kicking biomechanics.

In the past, I've written a lot about dolphin kicking. In these posts, I've discussed ideal depth, as Marinho (2009) looked at drag coefficients at different depths.

I've also discussed ideal kicking tempo, referencing great work by Coach Bob Gillett and Russell Mark, as well as Cohen (2012). Coach Gillett has analyzed elite male and female swimmers and suggests both groups should have a kicking tempo around 0.45 (Gillett 2013), where Russell Mark (2012) notes a tempo around 0.40 is utilized. Many feel this kicking tempo is extremely fast, but one study by Cohen (2012) indicates faster kicking tempo is correlated with net higher streamline force.

Russell Mark has even analyzed the amount of kicks by elite swimmers, noting the following kick number and time.

I've  also discussed the importance of dolphin kicking with Scott Colby, in his "pseduo-study" or elite youth swimmers, finding the 5-meter streamline, the range (depending on age) of the top times was 2.3-3.1 for boys and 2.7-2.8 for girls. For 15-Meter Dolphin Kick the ranges were 6.1-6.9 for boys and 7.1-7.3 for girls.

In another case, I've broken down a case study of dolphin kicks:

"Case Study #1

You have a 5"2" 16-year old female swimmer who goes :58 100 back and is known for her good underwaters. Her results from the aforementioned test were:
  • 0-5 m: 2.8 seconds
  • 0 - 15 m: 8.0 seconds
  • Kick Count: 16 kicks
  • Kick Tempo: 0.35
Intervention: This is a clear case of a swimmer who performs too many kicks to 15-m. For her, changing her tempo isn't needed, as high tempos are correlated with kicking speed, but instead decreasing her kick total by encouraging her to follow through her kick was advised. "Short kicking" and not following through prevents a full activation of her quadriceps and impairing forward propulsion. She was challenged to progressively decrease her kick total from 16 - 12 kicks over the course of several weeks, not progressing until she mastered her new kick count at the same or faster pace which would be tested at frequent underwater kicking tests.

Case Study #2

A 6'1" 15-year old male swimmer who goes a :49 in the 100 back. His results were:
  • 0-5 m: 2.7 seconds
  • 0-15 m: 8.2 seconds
  • Kick Count: 12
  • Kick Tempo: 0.75
Intervention: It is clear he has too slow of a tempo. However, simply giving him a 0.4 tempo will discourage and potentially impede progress. Instead, gradual increases in tempo is necessary during progression, increasing 0.05 after mastery during kicking trials.

Swimming Science has also had the opportunity to talk with some of the great minds in research of dolphin kicking Ryan Atkinson and Marc Epilot.

Dr. Epilot breaks down top speed from pushing off the start, 1.9 - 2.2 m/s and when to begin dolphin kicking. He also discusses three errors in dolphin kicking:
"To my point of view, there are 3 main mistakes that swimmers, even top athletes, do. First of all, many swimmers initiate or try to initiate underwater kicking way to soon. As I said a bit before, such mistake has huge consequences on swimmer’s efficiency. Moreover those swimmers don’t even know that they start kicking so early. They are sure to have a long and efficient gliding phase, while they start kicking immediately after water entry.

A second common mistake is to produce to large kicking movements. During a long time, trainers thought that swimmers had to push on the water with their feet, underwater propulsion being the result of that action on the water (Action-reaction Newton law). An increasing number of studies, made on different mechanical simulations, on fish swimming, or on swimmers, have shown that underwater propulsion is mostly explained by a mechanism, named the formation of a reverse Street of Karman Vortices located in the trailing edge of the swimmer. Those vortices create a backward ejection of water that leads to project the swimmer frontward. To create a coherent and propulsive street of Karman vortices, swimmers have to adjust their amplitude/Frequency ratio; usually by decreasing the amplitude and increasing the frequency.

The third mistake I would point out is the undulatory movements of the trunk and arms. In many swimmers, we can observe that their whole body is undulating, which has deleterious effects on the propulsive efficiency. The upper part of the body has to stay streamlined not to absorb the energies produce by the lower limbs. Moreover swimmer’s upper limbs have to be aligned to the orientation of his path. If the swimmer is swimming under the water straight forward, his upper limbs have to stay horizontal. If the swimmers is returning to the water surface with an angle of 30°, his upper limbs have to be at 30° regarding to the horizontal."

Ryan Atkinson mainly discussed symmetry between the downkick and upkick. He said: "Symmetry between downkick and upkick phases is highly related to high UDK velocity, and

swimmers who are more effective at the upkick phase tend to have a faster UDK velocity. Specific movements that are highly related to faster UDK are: greater peak vertical toe velocity during the upkick phase, reduced upkick duration, and less knee flexion at the end of the upkick/start of the downkick."

He also stressed the importance of "reducing the amplitude of the UDK, especially at the upper body segments (torso, head and arms) and increasing kick frequency. Particular attention should be placed on maximizing toe velocity during the upkick and limiting the duration of the upkick. Similarly with beginners, swimmers should be encouraged to recruit the muscles of the posterior chain without excessive lower back flexion or knee flexion. This can be advanced on the land by performing single leg lifts in a plank position, paying close attention to recruiting the gluteal muscles for leg lifts and keeping the hips level."

Ryan Atkinson's work feeds directly into the topic today. The results are somewhat contradictory to Ryan's statements, nonetheless a very important topic and discussion point.

The aim of this research study was to demonstrate the formation and interaction of forces near the swimmer’s body and in the swimmers wake during the dolphin kick in hopes of finding energy-saving mechanics.

What was done

A female swimmer with a 200-m butterfly time of 2:12.0 was selected. Her body was scanned with a 3D laser and subdivided into joints of the arms, torso, upper legs, lower legs, and feet. The swimmer underwater kick from a push was recorded and analyzed


Maximum thrust was generated during the down kick, and was approximately twice the maximum
thrust recorded for the up kick. Both maximum values were reached at the instant when stroke velocity was at its highest within the kick cycle. The results indicate a slight increase in propulsion of 8% over the six cycles. Maximum drag was during an active dolphin kick, 208 N (~46 lbs), and at the same speed drag was ~16 N (~3.6 lbs) during the gliding motion.

Transitioning from the gliding phase to the first kick cycle creates two vortex structures, an upstroke (upper ring) and a downstroke (lower ring). Theses vortexes are shed into the swimmers wake at the end of each cycle. These forces grow in size and strength with each cycle, with cycle 6 demonstrated larger values than cycle 2 of the underwater dolphin kick.


Optimum performance was only reached after a number of kick cycles. The dynamic drag force was ~12x higher during the kick than during the gliding phase. The mean drag and mean propulsion in cycle 6 were about 8% higher than those in cycle 2 of their dolphin kick. During the kicking cycles, the vortex created was recaptured along the body’s surface to a position where the feet would hit the vortex with the next kick

Practical Implications

Additional research is needed, but this case study shows that optimum performance was reached after 6 kick cycles, in which propulsion forces reach a constant value. This 8% increase may be explained by vortex recapturing; which may be increased with fine-tuning of body kinematics off the wall/turn.

Overall, the results are somewhat conflicting towards Ryan, but not really. Although this swimmer demonstrated a much stronger downkick, we don't know if a more symmetrical kick would improve this swimmer's dolphin kicking velocity. Looks like we need more research!


  1. Pacholak S, Hochstein S, Rudert A, Brücker C. Unsteady flow phenomena in human undulatory swimming: a numerical approach. Sports Biomech. 2014 Jun;13(2):176-94. PubMed PMID: 25123002.
  2. Marinho DA, Reis VM, Alves FB, Vilas-Boas JP, Machado L, Silva AJ, Rouboa AI. Hydrodynamic drag during gliding in swimming.J Appl Biomech. 2009 Aug;25(3):253-7.
  3. Cohen RC, Cleary PW, Mason BR. Simulations of dolphin kick swimming using smoothed particle hydrodynamics. Hum Mov Sci. 2012 Jun;31(3):604-19. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2011.06.008. Epub 2011 Aug 12.
  4. von Loebbecke A, Mittal R, Fish F, Mark R. A comparison of the kinematics of the dolphin kick in humans and cetaceans. Hum Mov Sci. 2009 Feb;28(1):99-112. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2008.07.005. Epub 2008 Nov 4.
  5. von Loebbecke A, Mittal R, Fish F, Mark R. Propulsive efficiency of the underwater dolphin kick in humans. J Biomech Eng. 2009 May;131(5):054504. doi: 10.1115/1.3116150. 
  6. von Loebbecke A, Mittal R, Mark R, Hahn J. A computational method for analysis of underwater dolphin kick hydrodynamics in human swimming. Sports Biomech. 2009 Mar;8(1):60-77. doi: 10.1080/14763140802629982.
  7. B. Gillett Underwater Kicking and Foil Movement Personal communication. 2013 February 24.
  8. M. Russell Dolphin Kicking. USA Swimming. 2012 April 12.
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.

Us Old Swimmers...

This was an article submitted to Swimming Science. Although it lacks scientific literature or
references, it's anecdotes provide an necessary look into the possible long-term effects of the sport. Although the writer is just one person, so is Michael Phelps. Although opposing ends, Phelps and the writer are just one, uncommon result, with the author having a more likely result than Phelps.

 Coaches, parents, and swimmers remember exercise is a life-long journey. For some, you'll have great success during adolescents and teenage years, but always question...will this add up when I'm older? Coaches, realize you can help swimmers in the short- and long-term, just ensure safe programs and healthy environments for long term success. 

I have added some editor notes, which are indicated with brackets, enjoy!

Take it Laura

Warning to all coaches and swimmers,

Bodies break down. It may take only a few years, but when the former swimming athlete is progressing into middle age his/her body will scream out for pain relief. When doctors tell you, “swim, itʼs a non impact, great exercise" or  "It's good for you”, watch out.

Some of you know know that swimming is probably the last thing you should do, as the mere thought sends pain throughout the body. If you feel as though a nice easy thousand yards would be the right ticket for your swirling mind, then you realize the agony of pushing off of the walls and twisting your neck turns you into a blithering pain ridden fool and stops you.

Hear me out.

This is my story of the body versus mind and whatʼs become of a relatively honed body.

I was never a top ranked swimmer. I was among the thousands of girls who had very few athletic opportunities in the 1950ʼs-60ʼs. My father, who ran swimming pools throughout New Jersey, private country clubs, public pools and taught swimming at Seton Hall University introduced me to swimming at birth. He taught me and many others, and he introduced the “swimming meet” to the clubs. One day after I suffered a bad asthma attack my doctor told said. “Get her on a swim team. The humid water and breathing rhythm will help with the asthma. And it did. I remember the first day, at age 7, like it was yesterday [there is some conflicting research on asthma and swimming, despite the common physician recommendation].

Boylan Street Pool in Newark, 50 meters x 25 ydʼs. It was BIG! Lots of girls swam up and down the pool. The coach, “K”, greeted me and said, “You stay in the outside lane, and if you need to hold on there is the wall”....

“Are you kidding me!”

Thus began the years of up and back....

In those days, we didnʼt have weight training per say. We had K. Under Kʼs leadership we did pull ups from the pool to the deck. She filled buckets with cement and attached them to a rope and spindle, which we curled up and slowly let down, and we dragged each other on our pulling lengths. She used cut off broom handles for sticks to keep our hands out in front swimming freestyle. She had us meet at a local university in the “off” season to run the track, throw discuses and shot puts, and hop over hurdles. K was an Olympian runner! She yelled, she screamed and we did lots and lots of miles. K taught form in stokes. We did starts and turns for what seemed forever. We never thought we were wearing out our joints. No one did. Until...

Now, I have participated in many sports since then. I played basketball for the CYO, tennis when allowed at the clubs, and many pick up games of whatever was playing in the streets and parks of Maplewood, so my cross training was all on my own. I have sprained my ankles many times, broke a nose from an angry bat wielding brother, and flown off many a bike. But when, in the midst of a awesome beach volleyball game, I swung my arm to spike a shot, it stuck there....


I tried to just go with it for months, I finally saw a doctor, who is a well known specialist in Boston who says, “Where you a swimmer?” [personally, this is a bold prediction by any physician, but whether it is from swimming or another overhead sport, there is a common shoulder presentation.]

Ah yes.

Hmmm swimmersʼ shoulder, he diagnosed! He knew from the tests that I had over used my shoulders from swimming, not from all the other sports. We scheduled the operation to clean out the shoulder of calcium deposits, bone chips and shave down the acomion to give rotation some room. He removed the bursa sack sewed me up I was good to go, until the next shoulder gave out.

He did the other side. Same procedure. The explanation for all this was “When you were swimming, those years, you didnʼt do the correct exercises to pull your shoulders back. You needed to do back strengthening exercises. Overall, youʼll be fine. You can swim, but use fins to eliminate the pressure on your shoulders while swimming laps." He then asked, "How are your knees?” Really! “Pretty good”.

Perhaps I spoke too soon, ten years later I had my left knee meniscus trimmed. This was the second time a doctor said to me, “Were you a swimmer?”
“Bet it was breast stroke.”

He then told me I could swim if I didnʼt push hard off the walls [as a Physical Therapist, I'd be more worries about twisting the knee or large knee flexion].

All was going well until I turned sixty, and all hell broke loose in my body. I donʼt know if hormones are to blame, but doing workouts to stay in some kind of shape to avoid the dreaded weight gain, caused injuries that I couldnʼt shake. First a torn hamstring, then a strained Achilles tendon, and now a massive amount of arthritis in my right knee [all uncommon injuries in swimming. When asked Laura reports golfing, weight lifting, and officiating during this time period.]. Now the right knee!

So I see my knee guy and he sends me to his top surgeon and he says to me, “you were a swimmer right, bet a breaststroker!”

Ahh come on guys.

So, they canʼt give me anymore shots into it, cortisone or synvisc, or use any other delay tactic. Walking is wicked painful bone on bone and the wonder how I even can walk and when I'll soon need a total knee replacement.

I am throwing this out there because we need research to pass on to the new generations of swimmers. We need data from all us olʼ folks who swam and swam for preventing short and long term effects of swimming. I am a big believer in doing multiple sports. Overuse is hurting out bodies. Some of the techniques and equipment being used by coaches with their swimmers is hurting them. I officiate meets and watch young children walking around with ice packs wrapped on their bodies.

This is not good.

Knowledge and science is available. We need to pass it on. Parents and coaches need to develop their athletes without causing injuries.

Written by Laura Menza Wanco. Born and raised in New Jersey. She swam with the Watchung Lake
Swim Club an AAU team under the coaching of Catherine D Meyer, long time AAU Coach and Official with the US Olympic Committee. Laura coached summer club teams, was a lifeguard, and swim instructor in summer clubs. She started along with a group of former swimmers the Women's Swim Team at Seton Hall University in 1968 after a year of swimming with the men's team.

She started the Women's Basketball Team at Seton Hall University in 1971, from the Intramural teams. Coached Tennis at Summit High School, Mens and Women. Coached High School Swimming Team at Columbia High School.

She moved to Cape Cod, MA. where she started a team in the local health club and became an official. She has 
 officiated local, sectional, and state tournaments, swimming and diving and officiated at the NCAA Womens D1 championships.

Do Elite Swimmers Train in the Last Century, or the Sport Science Up-to-Date?

The following is a guest submission from Gian Mario Migliaccio PhD. It is a case study of how elite Ukranian swimmers are being monitored on land and in the water throughout the season. 

Overall, individualization is becoming more apparent from the literature, specifically for dryland and recovery. However, information is sometimes an overload, thus frequent monitoring and assessment of progress is still needed for siphoning the important data. Enjoy the short case study!

Swimming Innovation or not? 

Some athletes, some coaches and some expert thinkers think that nothing particularly innovative has happened within high competitive swimmers in the last 30 years. Is it true?
In the last 30 years, and in the last decade with an impressive increment, the research in the Sport Science area is growing very fast, and the evidence, of course with elite athletes involved, is now a new approach in order to achieve new competitive results.

New evidences from research

The swimming environment seems static, but the sport, and swimming in particular, is constantly

changing and the evidences resulted from recent advances in science, technology and so on are applied just in few parts of the world. In the past, the comprehension of one  research swimming-related was simply hard for a coach, not for his knowledge but for the general hypotheses of the researchers. Not related to the field, not useful for the performance. In the last decade a new generation of researchers, coming from the field with a PhD knowledge, has created a new and completely different line of research where the sport's elite has become the basis of work.

Start with numbers

One of the starting points is the “physiological Assessment”, technique and conditioning are supported by a strong psychological platform, appropriate tactical awareness an  healthy body and of course a general athletic conditioning. The key to success requires that a swimmer’s yearly plan is monitored with respect from the starting point to the final time with a complex strategy. The physiological factors of basic and specific endurance, anaerobic power and capacity, muscular power and flexibility are the basic point of attention for a coach, from what number is the athlete and where he/she can arrive?

Interpretation of numbers

The physiological Assessment can produce a lot of data: VO2, Lactate, Glycogen but also %Fat, skinfold results, Heart Rate Variability and so on, in and out the water. The interpretation of the numbers after testing are specific to an individual swimmer and should account for a wide range of factors that can influence results. Early season results may differ from the last test, but of course related to the state of performance in that moment. The coaches have some expectation, but any different way can have different results: improvement, maintenance or degradation in the level of physiological values.

Ukraine case study

In the early season of 2014, the International team of Energy Standard, recently known for both the quality of swimmers and the presence of well-known Russian businessman Konstantin Grigorishin, has launched an advanced program of sports science to their team in Ukraine. A three-day of Physiological Assessment were provided with an advanced protocol for strength, power, force and also agility, ability, coordination. All the parameters collected by the staff and referred for each athlete goal, for example, the measurement of VO2 (reflects the aerobic physical fitness of the individual), and the body composition (reflects the assessment of physique) are both related to the max performance of a swimmer.

What about the next step?  

The Ukraine project is now proceeding with a monthly check in order to be sure that the transfer of the effects of the dryland workout is effectually working in the water, with an increment of performance. All the athletes have also a specific professional for recovery and not just for training, the quality of the sleep, the HRV parameter and the general fitness level are continuously monitored. The staff of Sport Science Lab, an UK company with professional from the World, is connected, in real time every day in order to have a complete citation of the improvement of the singular swimmer.

Gian Mario Migliaccio PhD is Sport Science, University of Rome Tor Vergata.

He is the Scientific Director of the CONI, Italian Olympic Committee in Sardinia (Italy).
Has published as author and co-author dozen of researches sport science related all over the world.

He is also adjunct Professor in Strength & Conditioning in an Italian University and has international cooperation with other Universities for lectures and research from Spain to Hong Kong.

With the Company Sport Science Lab Ltd has international agreement with severals clubs of Elite Athletes

Is "Swim Specific" Dryland Really "Swim Specific"?

Take Home Points
  1. Many dryland methods touted as swim specific really are not swim specific
  2. Mimicking the swim stroke on land may contribute to overtraining, motor confusion
  3. Dryland can be used to teach basic movement patterns (especially at the individual level), but consider the doses in which it is delivered
Swim specificity is a common justification for many dryland activities. And it makes sense that we might use gym time to impart techniques that may be difficult to teach in the middle of a crowded pool with no ability to verbally coach instructions. This is not unique to swimming, as many coaches try to replicate sporting demands in the gym away from the sometimes chaotic environment of the competitive arena. But is this really a “best practice,” especially at advanced levels?

Swim specificity takes many forms from bands, swim bench, balls, and even improvised contraptions such as the one shown below.

Let’s explore this closely as an example. Now, there may be some elements of this exercise which are “swim specific”: long axis alignment, early vertical forearm, body rotation. However, these elements are mitigated by non-swim specific elements such as fixed dorsiflexed ankles, no head rotation for breathing, and the fact that you are on land.

There may be benefits from using dryland to teach parts of the stroke such as early vertical forearm, pointed ankles, hip internal rotation, as self-awareness can be a major hurdle in the early stages of skill acquisition. But once a swimmer is proficient, does performing mimicry exercises actually aid the stroke in the water?

Bearing a resemblance to the stroke is insufficient justification for mimicry. For example, many coaches attempt to mimic early vertical forearm on land, as it is a difficult skill to communicate in the water for many swimmers. Early vertical forearm is not just early vertical forearm…how each individual’s forearm moves is often predicated upon imperceptible microadjustments. Forcing the shoulders into high repetitions of exercise stressing the shoulders can cause problems, especially with injury risks so high in the sport.

"A lot of emphasis is put on “sport-specific” movements (swim bench, cable crossovers, straight arm pulldowns, etc.). Unfortunately, the transference of these movements is uncertain and likely minimal to the sports of swimming. Every land exercise you create is far from the demands in the pool. Despite visual similarities, every swimmer uses unique yet imperceptible microadjustments in their strokes to optimize balance, force, and deceleration. It is impossible to replicate these movements on land and attempting to be too “sport specific” may lead to confused motor programming." (Mullen 2012)

“The intent is not to produce mimicry of sport during training. Of utmost importance during training is that key dysfunctions are improved. The goal of training is not to teach perfect patterns, but to correct the key fault that is causing trouble.” As to the key fault in swimmers, this may be shoulder range of motion, scapular stability, asymmetries, or pain, among other general physical traits that can be addressed on land. (Lewitt 1999, Liebenson 2014)

Further, is “swim specific” dryland the best use of time? Many choices exist on how to spend dryland time, from general strengthening, recovery, mental practice, plyometrics for starts/turns. With sometimes more than 20 hours in the water, is a few minutes of land based swim mimicry going to create meaningful improvements (if so, I’d suggest you analyze room for improvement in the 20 hours spent in the water.)

A related point is with unstable surface training, which is often presented as “swim specific.” But as noted by Behm (2012)

"Some of the characteristics of IRT exercises that are not conducive to optimal strength or power training for athletes, may be favorable for rehabilitation. The instability‐induced deficits in force compared to traditional stable RT exercises, which dampen the strength training stimuli in trained individuals, can be of sufficient intensity for a recuperating muscle." (Behm 2012)


This is ultimately one area where reasoning and common sense must prevail as classifying “swim specific” versus general would be difficulty for research as a qualitative classification. Also, because there are a finite number of possible movement patterns, there will always be cross over between “swim specific” and general exercises. It is one thing to troubleshoot a particular stroke deficit that you believe is better addressed on land, but it is quite another to fill your dryland workout exercise plate with exercises that merely look similar to swim mechanics.


  1. Mullen, J. Five Considerations When Training Swimmers.
  3. Lewitt, K. Manipulative Therapy in Rehabilitation of the Locomotor System. 3ed. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann, 1999.
  4. Liebenson, C. Functional Training Handbook. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer, 2014. 

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.

Weekly Swimming Round-up

Each week we aggregate recent swimming journals and blog posts relating to
swimming biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, psychology, etc. If you wish to add, please add an article in the comments section.

Journal Round-up

  1. Unsteady hydrodynamic forces acting on a hand and its flow field during sculling motion.
  2. Acute hormonal responses before and after 2 weeks of HIT in well trained junior triathletes.
  3. Train the Brain: Novel Electroencephalography Data Indicate Links between Motor Learning and Brain Adaptations.
  4. Effects of endurance and high-intensity swimming exercise on the redox status of adolescent male and female swimmers.
  5. Association of the MTHFR 1298A>C (rs1801131) polymorphism with speed and strength sports in Russian and Polish athletes.
  6. Comparison of starts and turns of national and regional level swimmers by individualized-distance measurements.

Blog Round-up

    Cammile Adams Discusses Training and Biomechanics

    1) Since your last interview you began training at SwimMac Carolina. What have biggest
    transitions with your in-water training?

    I'm actually still in school. Im in my last semester right now. So being back in Aggieland has been great! I really missed the girls team this summer so it’s been fun being back!

    2) Currently, what are the biggest biomechanical aspects you're working on in your butterfly?

    I’ve been working mainly on getting more out of my kicks and keeping that second kick in my stroke throughout the race. David had me doing some different things this summer and I’m still working on those things back here at school.

    3) What specific training aspects are you working on for your 200 fly (improving take out
    speed, finishing, etc.)?

    I’m working on trying to get a little more front half speed. I’m usually really good back half so just trying to lay in on the line a little earlier has been my focus here lately.

    4) Has your dryland training changed in the past few years, if so how?

    It has quite a bit! Haven’t done a lot outside of the water besides dryland, cardio and weights. This summer I added in some yoga and pilates and really loved both of those. I felt like that really helped my body position in the water and I had a ton of fun doing it!

    5) What about your meet preparation behind the block?

    Meet preparation behind the blocks kind of changes depending on the meet. Some international meets you’re in the ready room for 20 or so minutes before you actually race. So then I try to just stay relaxed…I usually bring my music with me so that helps. I also like to stretch a bit before and just make sure I’m feeling loose. As far as right before the race starts…I usually splash some water in my face and just take in the atmosphere of the meet.

    6) Last time you only took iron supplementation, has this changed at all?

    Hasn’t changed at all.

    7) What are your goals for 2015 and 2016?

    My goals for 2015 and 2016…I’m really excited to have made the Worlds team! So that meet will be my main focus for the summer. Ill be going to SC words here pretty soon in late November so that will be a great time racing short course meters. As far as after that, I just want to continue training in order to put myself in a good place to medal in 2016.

    Daniel Marinho Discusses Finger Position in Swimming

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

    My name is Daniel Marinho, I was a swimmer and a coach for many years. I started my PhD in 2005 regarding the analysis of swimming propulsion using CFD methodology. Since then we have been able to participate in several research projects but also to work in straight cooperation with the swimmers, the clubs, namely with the Portuguese Swimming Federation.

    At this moment I am working at University of Beira Interior and at CIDESD Research Center, in Portugal.

    2. You recently co-authored a paper regarding finger position during swimming. Has there been much research on this subject?

    In the past there has been a great interest under this field, namely with the studies carried-out by Schleihauf. However, recently there has been again an increase interest on the analysis of the best finger position, namely with the use of CFD.

    3. What did your study look at?

    We analyzed the effect of finger spreading and thumb abduction on the hydrodynamic force generated by the hand and forearm during swimming. We would like to understand what could be the best finger position to increase the propelling force.

    4. Did your team consider any other methods for monitoring finger position?

    At this moment we were very interested in using CFD to conduct this study, especially to improve our previous studies regarding this field, although we believe the combination of different methods and different studies could be the best solution to improve our knowledge under this field.

    5. How did you ensure the swimmers had the same finger position throughout their trial?

    It is the advantage of CFD analysis. As we are using computational simulations, one can add some input data into the system and to be sure that this input data will remain the same during the analysis. We used 3D models of the swimmers, obtained with a 3D scanner, so after that procedure one can manipulate and insert the desired data into the system and verify what is the result.

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

    I would state that finger and thumb positioning in swimming is determinant for the propulsive force produced during swimming; indeed, this force is dependent on the direction of the flow over the hand and forearm, which changes across the arm’s stroke. Therefore, coaches should be aware that the most appropriate technique must include changes in the relative positions of the fingers and thumbs during the underwater path.

    However, when referring to finger spreading, it seems fingers should be grouped or even slightly separated to maximize lift and propulsive drag force production for most sweepback and attack angles.

    7. Do you think ideal finger position varies on the swimming stroke?

    Yes, we do. The geometry of the hand circumstantially used by a swimmer, especially the position of the thumb, appears to be dependent on and determined by the predominance of the lift and drag forces in each phase of the propulsive action, aiming to best orient the resultant force and thus the effective propulsive force. Thus, thumb abduction and adduction tend to favor propulsive drag or lift under different conditions. It is interesting to notice this situation in high-level swimmers, who changed the position of the fingers, especially the thumb, during the stroke cycle (for instance, Alexander Popov seemed a good example of that).

    8. How do you recommend teaching finger position from age-group through Olympic level swimmers?

    Coaches should be aware that the most appropriate technique must include changes in the relative positions of the fingers and thumbs during the underwater path and that attention should be paid to the training of swimmers’ specific sensitivity to the hydrodynamic effects of water flow over the propulsive segments.

    In age-group swimmers it is very important to allow the swimmer to test different finger position,
    different hand position, different “sculling” and propelling drills, to allow improve the “feel of the water”. We believe this is the most important part regarding this issue. Later on, they will be ready and prepared to change the finger position, to be aware of the importance of these small changes during the stroke cycle to improve swimming velocity.

    9. Do you think finger position varies much during a stroke cycle or is it static?

    Yes, as stated before, we do believe there are important variations during the stroke cycle, allowing the swimmer to improve the capability of producing propelling force, especially regarding to changes in thumb abduction/adduction.

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

    There are a lot of good works in swimming research. Fortunately swimming community is very active, as noticed in the last Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming Conference (Canberra, April 2014). Each year one can observe different research groups with good ideas, using interesting methods to allow a better understanding of swimming performance, thus it is always very difficult to highlight someone or some research group because at this moment it can be appearing an interesting study on a specific field.

    Nevertheless, if you allow me I would like to say that I am very proud to be part of the Portuguese Research Team Network who has been doing very interesting works on swimming research.

    11. What makes your research different from others?

    Basically, one can point out two main things: (i) the use of CFD with realistic models, and the use of different hand/forearm models, and (ii) combining different finger spreading and different thumb positions within the same CFD simulation, which was a step forward in the analysis of swimming propulsion.

    12. Which teachers have most influenced your research?

    A lot of people have been influencing my work, some of them were my teachers and some cooperated with me in different research projects. All of them played an important role on my education process and I have the pleasure to keep working with them in different projects.

    I would refer by a chronological order professor João Paulo Vilas-Boas and Professor Ricardo Fernandes, from the Faculty of Sport in Oporto, who were very important during my undergraduate studies and the ones who integrated me in swimming research projects. Later on Professor António José Silva and Professor Abel Rouboa, from the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro and CIDESD Research Centre, for allowing me to be part on the CFD project applied to swimming research and supervised my work during the PhD. I would also indicate my colleague at CIDESD Research Centre Professor Tiago Barbosa and my colleague at University of Beira Interior (where I am working nowadays) Professor Mário Marques for the sharing of new ideas regarding swimming research and training methods.

    I can not forget my father (Fernando Marinho), a swimming coach and teacher, who helped me think out of the box regarding swimming training, and my swimming coach professor António Vasconcelos (Tonas) who were always up to date regarding swimming training methods and enjoyed to share his knowledge with the others.

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

    We want to continue improving the use of CFD in swimming research, and this should be one of our main focuses in the following years with some PhD students working under this scope and with some projects shared with different Research Centers.

    On the other hand, we are very interested in developing and testing new ideas regarding swimming training methods, especially related to strength training and the effects of the use of different warm up routines in swimming performance. We have at this moment at University of Beira Interior and at CIDESD some PhD and Master degree students working under these topics, so we believe in a new future we can present some interesting results.