Friday Interview Ricardo Jorge Pinto Fernandes, PhD Discusses Backstroke Starts

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1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).
My name is Ricardo J. Fernandes and my education is:
  • Habilitation in Sport Sciences (2013).
  • PhD in Sport Sciences (2006).
Current scientific and/or professional activities:
  • Head of the Swimming Department of the Faculty of Sport of the University of Porto.
  • Auxiliary Professor with Habilitation.
  • Member of the Centre of Research, Education, Innovation and Intervention in Sport:
  • Member of the Porto Biomechanics Laboratory (LABIOMEP), University of Porto, Porto, Portugal
  • Editor-in-Chief of The Open Sports Sciences Journal
Area of scientific activity:

Sport Sciences. Biophysical characterization specially centred on the availability and use of energy in aquatic activities (e.g. swimming, rowing and surfing): (i) determination of the athlete’s bioenergetical profile by understanding the kinetics of oxygen consumption and lactate production, which allow assessing the energy cost of the movement and, therefore, the definition of exercise economy profiles for athletes of different levels and gender and (ii) relationship of these physiological parameters with biomechanical and coordinative variables, particularly with the stroke parameters (stroke frequency, stroke distance and stroke index), the index of coordination, the intracyclic velocity fluctuations and the electrical muscular activity. Planning and periodization, and training control and evaluation of athletes in cyclic and team sports (e.g. swimming, running, cycling, rowing, kayaking and water polo).

Other skills/activities:

Author and co-authorship of 1 book, 16 book chapters, 211 papers in scientific journals with peer-review (from which 56 manuscripts indexed on SCOPUS/ISI Web of Knowledge), 20 papers in journals without peer-review and 271 full papers/abstracts in congresses proceedings. H index of 11.

Over than 100 invited manuscripts’ reviews.
  • Participation in several professional and scientific meeting with over 115 podium and poster presentations.
  • Supervision of 9 doctoral students, 15 master students, 5 license students, some post-doctoral students and 2 grant holders.
  • Integration in juries of different level academic theses, particularly of 11 doctoral (8 as opponent), 25 master (5 as opponent) and 87 license (25 as opponent) academic dissertations.
  • Awarded as the best podium presentations in swimming related meetings.
  • Swimming coach 1994-2008, in the Portuguese Age-Group National Team, the University of Porto Team and Club Teams.
  • Member of the Scientific Committee of the International Lifesaving Congress (La Coruña’ 2007), of the XIth International Symposium on Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming (Oslo’2010) and XXIX Annual International Symposium of the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports (Porto’ 2011).
  • Member of the Organizing Committee of the XXIX Annual International Symposium of the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports (Porto’ 2011), 4th International Conference Swimming Pool & Spa (Porto’2011), Xth International Symposium on Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming (Porto’2006) and Portuguese Swimming Coaches Association Congress (Porto’1998).
  • Director of Courses of Swimming Coaches Education (level 1 and 2 of the Portuguese Swimming Federation).

2. Your team has been the main drivers of research on backstroke starts [see their latest full article here]. Could you please explain your group's interest in the backstroke start?
Studies regarding starting techniques evaluation focused on the different ventral starts. Our group acknowledge the backstroke start as important as ventral starts, since small temporal differences in short and middle distance backstroke events might also be explained by starting efficiency. In the latte Barcelona 2013 Swimming World Championships the second-placed at men’s 100 m backstroke at was 0.20 s slower than the winner at the 15 m mark (after the start) and the final race time differed on 0.19 s; this demands higher attention from the swimming technical-scientific community. In fact, most studies dealing with backstroke starting technique were conducted based on FINA or NCAA old rules, and only our group has considered the effects of the new FINA actual rules, particularly on its combined effects with the recent starting block configuration, since several starting variants have been performed by backstroke swimmers.

3. What has your group found between feet in the water and out of water starts?
Firstly, we have analyzed some relevant biomechanical variables that could explain the reduction of the backstroke starting time when performing with feet parallel and completely submerged or emerged. Our main findings indicated that in both starting variants, swimmers should increase the horizontal velocity at the gliding phase: for the variant with feet positioned parallel to each other and completely submerged, swimmers are advised to increase their respective lower limbs horizontal impulse at pushing the wall, and, for the variant with feet parallel and completely emerged, swimmers are advised to avoid a great horizontal pool wall approximation during “set position” that might imply a flatter take-off angle.

Then, we aimed to compare the two above mentioned backstroke starting variants using a
more detailed biomechanical approach. We found that both variants had similar 5 m starting time, recommending that, irrespective of the swimmer’s feet positioning, coaches should emphasize the mechanical advantages of each variant during the wall contact phases. Moreover, we have suggested that the maintenance of those advantages throughout the flight should be stressed, aiming to better backstroke start performance.

Meanwhile, we are studying the underwater phases in the backstroke start, namely the gliding and undulatory underwater kicking cycle. We did not observe any statistically relevant difference between the starting variants with feet parallel and submerged and emerged. On the Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming Symposium (to be held in Canberra April’ 2014,, we will show our recent findings regarding the underwater phase of one of the most used backstroke starting variant, particularly that backstroke swimmers do not perform a gliding phase after the body is in full immersion (which was a surprise to us).

4. How much does comfort level or starting preference style play a role?
Beside our main research findings, we have recommended that swimmers should experiment different starting variants before the selection of a specific one. For instance, swimmers with higher height and mass might find more difficult to position their feet completely above the water surface, even though some proficient swimmers are using it. Furthermore, the actual FINA rules and the recent starting block configuration allow swimmers to assume several combinations of feet and hands positioning, evidencing that swimmers should experiment in their training sessions which starting variants fits the best.

5. Do you think dry-land exercises (resistance training or plyometrics) could benefit elite backstroke swimmer's starts?
Previous studies about this topic have only focused on the swimmers’ lower limbs (e.g. Kilduff et al., 2011; Potdevin et al., 2011). We knowledge that the high-velocity muscle actions characteristics of the backstroke start could benefit from specific resistance training, essentially the core muscles and the upper and lower limbs muscles, since we have analyzed the electromyographic activity of these muscles. In a near future, we will have data to share on this topic.

6. How much do you think the new Omega foot placements will help backstroke swimmers?
The metal plate with a non-slip coating for foot placement might really help backstroke swimmers, particularly by the increase of the friction force, allowing a better grip. However, swimmers along the years have developed strategies to avoid slipping when performing backstroke start, independently of the existence of the metal plate. Therefore, more research is welcome to assess the advantages of this new device on backstroke start performance.

7. When do you think we'll see another sub-:52 100-m back for men? When do you think a woman will enter the: 57 zone?
We are certain that those performances will appear in a short time particularly if during the training process the start performance can dispose of a little bit more of attention. In fact, the actual best female backstroke swimmers have around 7.5 s at the 15 m mark and 58.3 s on the 100 m backstroke race, and, as the best women’s 15 m starting time is under the 7.0 s (recently recorded at the 50 m event), it is evident that some amazing performances will come soon.

8. What are the common mistakes in backstroke starts?
Considering the most recently used backstroke starting variants (from the 2012 Olympic Games and 2013 Swimming World Championships), we have been surprised with the number of elite swimmers (from both genders) that perform a flat flight phase, leading to a high-resistance water entry. Thus, the combination of FINA rules with the new starting block configuration should be better explored so swimmers can take as much advantage as possible.

9. Do you think there will be any big progressions to the backstroke starting style?
We have noticed that elite swimmers use, at least, seven backstroke starting variants (combining different hands and feet positioning). Therefore, we think that with the application of new biomechanical tolls (e.g. automatic motion capture systems and underwater force plats), one or two main starting techniques will be selected in short time.

10. What makes your research different from others?
In general our research follows two main aims: (i) to conduct an integrated analysis of the phenomenon, particularly by carrying out a biophysical approach of swimming performance and training (here we suggest the readying of Figueiredo et al., 2013 for a better understanding of this physiological and biomechanical combined assessment) and (ii) to approach relevant topics to be used by coaches and swimmers in their daily work at the poll and gym (it is why we try to use a writing style as coach friendly as possible, and to participate in swimming science related events). In addition, we aim to implement innovative and appropriated biomechanical measurements and research methodologies to explain simple research questions that coaches and swimmers can use to better refine their training programs.

11. Which teachers have most influenced your research?
The contributions from Profs. J. Counsilman, E. Maglischo and D. Chollet, as well as from expert swimming coaches like B. Sweetenham, have been often considered regarding the backstroke start. Interesting descriptions of this specific starting technique exists since the 1960s, mainly included in books. Off course, as a researcher I have been influenced by several other personalities, but my academic mentor (Prof. J. P. Vilas-Boas) has been decisive in all my scientific path and in the sustained growth that our group has been presenting.

12. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
Our research group has recently submitted a literature review concerning the kinematics of the backstroke start, highlighting the gaps and limitations and defining topics for future research. We have written a manuscript describing the most used backstroke starting variants in elite level events, considering the FINA rules and the actual starting block configuration. So, next year we hope to publish some new texts regarding the new starting variants and corresponding advantages and disadvantages that are based on a home-made instrumented starting block for 3D upper and lower limbs force analysis, 3D kinematics (from the starting signal instant until the 15 m mark) and electromyographic profile. Other topics of swimming research are also assumed as focus of interest of our research group, both considering biomechanical, physiological, EMG and thermographyc approaches.

  1. de Jesus, K., de Jesus, K., Figueiredo, P., Gonçalves, P., Pereira, S., Vilas-Boas, J.P., Fernandes, R.J. (2011). Biomechanical analysis of backstroke swimming start. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 32, 546-551.
  2. Figueiredo, P., Pendergast, D.R., Vilas-Boas, J.P., Fernandes, R.J. (2013). Interplay of biomechanical, energetic, coordinative, and muscular factors in a 200 m front crawl swim. Biomed Research International, art. nº 897232. doi: 10.1155/2013/897232.
  3. Hohmann, A., Fehr, U., Kirsten, R., Krueger, T. (2008). Biomechanical analysis of the backstroke start technique in swimming. E-J Bew Train, 2008; 2: 28-33.
  4. Kilduff, L.P., Cunningham, D. J., Owen, N.J., West, D.J., Bracken, R.M. Cook, C.J. (2011). Effect of postactivation potentiation on swimming starts in international sprint swimmers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 25, 2418-2423.
  5. Martuscello, J.M, Nuzzo, J.L:, Ashley, C.D., Campbell, B.I, Orriola, J.J., Mayer, J.M. (2013). Systematic review of core muscle activity during physical fitness exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da.
  6. Potdevin, F.J., Alberty, M.E., Chevutschi, A., Pelayo, P., Sidney, M.C. (2011). Effects of a 6-week plyometric training program on performances in pubescent swimmers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 25, 80-86.
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  1. I've seen a fair amount of video of elite swimmers and I am equally surprised at how early some of them are starting their "double leg" kicking. The velocity off the walls is when we are at our fastest, so why interrupt that "free" speed earlier then we have to? It seems to me that breaststrokers are the ones who have it figured out the most.



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