Hand Paddles and Parachutes on Sprint Swimming

Hand paddles are external devices used to increase propulsion. Parachutes are external resistance devices used to decrease propulsion. These devices are on every pool deck, but despite the common use of both external devices, minimal research supports or disproves their effectiveness. One study (Telles, 2011) studied four maximal freestyle resistance conditions: no equipment, hand paddles, parachutes, and hand paddles + parachutes. Relative stroke phase duration of each arm, swimming velocity, and stroke rate were analysed from video (60 Hz).

Specifically, these researchers had the swimmers perform maximal swimming sprints and looked at the lag time between each phase of freestyle swimming to determine if the index of coordination differed with the external devices. It was preconceived if lag time significantly differed between the various conditions, then the efficacy of the external devices would not be warranted.

Eleven male-swimmers (age: 21.9 ± 4.5 years; 50-m best time: 24.23 ± 0.75 s).

The authors noted:
"the stroke rate decreased in all conditions (P < 0.05) and swimming velocity decreased with parachute and with paddles + parachutes (P < 0.05). The coordination mode changed from catch-up in free swimming (-2.3 ± 5.0%) to opposition with paddles (-0.2 ± 3.8%), parachute (0.1 ± 3.1%), and paddles + parachute (0.0 ± 3.2%). Despite these variations, no significant differences were observed in relative duration of right and left arm-stroke phases, or in index of coordination."

This study was significant as it looked at the efficacy of equipment commonly used on the pool deck. Often times, equipment is used without proper evidence or knowledge. This should not suggest discontinuing use of equipment, but until research has confirmed the efficacy of such devices, they should be used with much scrutiny.

This study confirms the use of paddles and parachutes in sprint swimming. However, the study describes the transition from 'catch-up' freestyle to 'opposition' freestyle with external devices. This difference is important to note, as many swimmers are trying to improve 'catch-up' or distance per stroke. If improving distance per stroke is the goal of the athlete, perhaps using external aids is not indicated for this athlete in sprint swimming.

Keep in mind, this study only looked at sprints, not longer aerobic distances. The use of paddles is commonly used for aerobic sets without supporting evidence. Added resistance, that is, "parachute training," can be used for specific strength training purposes as long as swimming is performed near maximum velocity (Schnitzler, 2011).

Future studies need to look at the different types of resistance swimming (swim rack, parachute, and weighted rack) and the efficacy of paddles on longer distance.

  1. Telles T, Barbosa AC, Campos MH, Junior OA. J Sports Sci. Effect of hand paddles and parachute on the index of coordination of competitive crawl-strokers. 2011 Feb;29(4):431-8.
  2. Schnitzler C, Brazier T, Button C, Seifert L, Chollet D. J Strength Cond Res. Effect of velocity and added resistance on selected coordination and force parameters in front crawl. 2011 Oct;25(10):2681-90.
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator theSwimmer's Shoulder System.

Mouthpieces for Swimmers?

Every athlete is looking for the next “gimmick” to improve their results.  A while back many professional athletes were raving about a mouth piece with added results. The theory behind improvement was secondary to jaw relaxation and decreased teeth “grinding”.  This decrease in activity was believed to decrease stress and allow the athlete to relax.

At the time of release, minimal data/research was available to prove or disprove these theories. I honestly thought this company was going to be another Powerband, who endorses athletes/celebrities to wear their jewelery and “claim” improved results (I believe Powerband claimed improvement in balance, strength, flexibility and libido...maybe I made that one up). However, a new study from Garner 2011 suggests decreased cortisol levels following an intense bout of resistance training while using the mouthpiece. The Bite Tech Research Institute has also performed their own studies demonstrating an improvement in pitching velocity, reaction time and strength (see abstracts here).

I’m constantly skeptical of these devices because Powerband was not the first snake oil on the market.  If you explore sports performance and health in general there are million dollar companies who based their products along altered, fictitious, or biased data. Skeptism should be elevated when a company has their own research institute publishing data. However, this recent study is the first I’ve seen outside of their own institute and suggest improvements.  

Do you think swimmers should wear mouthpieces?  I don’t think it would impair breathing, but I’ve never worn a mouthpiece, what do you think?

By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration and head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club.

Ischemic Preconditioning

Methods to improve performance are plentiful, whether training methods (altitude training in CO) or chemical means (Furosemide...too soon?). One new method to improve performance is ischemic preconditioning or blood flow resistance training have become more popular secondary to favorable anecdotal and preliminary research. In fact, blood flow resistance training was discussed approximately one year ago on this website (read this website and you're ahead of the game).

A recent study with a co-investigator Dr. Greg Wells, friend of the website (Friday Interview Dr. Greg Wells) was published comparing ischemic preconditioning to a lower blood flow resistance. This study had a control group and a group who underwent four rounds of five minute ischemic preconditioning of 15 mm Hg above their systolic blood pressure prior to warm-up. Following the warm-up the athletes competed submaximal (repeat 200s) and a maximal efforts (100 fast). These groups were then switched and performed the opposite the opposite criteria (ischemic preconditioning or control). The results suggest submaximal results were unchanged, but the maximal effort was significantly faster with ischemic preconditioning improving by 0.7 seconds! This 1.1% improvement was highly significant and higher than expected.

Does ischemic preconditioning work for everyone? How does ischemic preconditioning physiologically work? These are only a few questions to be addressed, but this should not impede trying this training method, in fact some National teams are already taking these means into practice.


  1. Jean-St-Michel, E., C. Manlhiot, et al. (2011). "Remote preconditioning improves maximal performance in highly trained athletes." Med Sci Sports Exerc 43(7): 1280-1286.
By G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration and head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club.

Butterfly Breathing

Many swimming races come down to hundredths of seconds. How could anyone forget the Cavic vs. Phelps battle. Phelps' won by .01 or in scientific terms, a hummingbird's heartbeat. Cavic's biggest deterrant was lifting his head at the finish, similar to a breath.
Often times, out on a Saturday night, typically at a concert, I will think to myself, how much does breathing influence butterfly? Specifically, how does breathing effect arm and leg coordination? Thankfully a team of researcher's in France had a similar thought (except they probably thought of this at techno club in capri pants).

Every swim coach knows breathing inhibits butterfly velocity, but some swimmers are influenced more than other with breathing. Sometimes Phelps' breathes every stroke during butterfly without a hiccup, while a 9-10 age group swimmer will drown and require an exercise belt to keep his hips on the surface. For this reason, I question the applicability of the study, but I still find it interesting. The researcher's broke down the technique of 12 elite swimmers into four phases “T1 (hands ’ entry in the water / high point of first kick), T2 (beginning of the hands ’ backward movement / low point of first kick), T3 (hands ’arrival in a vertical plane to the shoulders / highpoint of second kick) and T4 (hands ’ release from the water / low point of second kick).”

The results showed the swimmers had an 4.3% increase in total time gap (sum of T1-4 mentioned above). The researcher's stated “This was due to the shorter downward leg kick and longer arm catch and upward leg kick that led to longer glide time.”

To conclude, the study had no mind blowing, ah-ha conclusions. However, it is cool to say to your kids, “hey re-run, limit the breathing, it is slowing your stroke down approximately 4%”.


Stress and Anxiety

Pre-competition anxiety is an issue for every swimmer which can be seen behind the blocks before every competition. Pre-competition anxiety is presented in a variety of forms: excessive stretching, goggle modifications, swim suit tightening or hyperventilating. Stress occurs when a perceived situation and abilities to handle the perceived situation are not equal1. Anxiety is associated with a state of apprehension or fear. Stress and anxiety are interlinked, when an athlete feels stressed the situation is too much to handle they begin to question their abilities and are apprehensive causing anxiety. Performers in every venue (music, dance, or sport) undergo “state anxiety” which is a subjective experience of apprehension and uncertainty accompanied by elevated autonomic and voluntary neural outflow and increased endocrine activity. I know that sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but at the end of this article, you will understand why an athlete undergoes these psychological effects and if they provide a positive, negative or indifferent effect. Last, the top techniques to decrease negative stress will be addressed.

Physiological Adaptation to Anxiety

The most common adaptation to stress in seen in a performers heart rate. Behind the block, when a
swimmer becomes nervous, the feeling is described as their heart “racing” or “fluttering”. These descriptions are not far from the truth. During stressful circumstances the heart rate is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has three subsystems: sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems. Two of these three subsets are important in pre-competition anxiety, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is described as the fight or flight system which corresponds with arousal and energy generation. This system elevates the heart rate and diverts blood flow from the digestive system to the muscles during times of stress. The parasympathetic is the yang of the sympathetic nervous system. This system is described as the rest and digests system, when activated the parasympathetic nervous system increases blood flow to the digestive system and promotes calming by decreasing heart rate. During stressful situations (pre-competition states) heart rate can double compared to practice conditions which was noticed in a study of musicians prior to a performance2.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Most athletes and coaches view stress as a negative consequence. During times of negative stress a lack of physical and psychological efficiency is typically initiated. At least three important factors are usually present:

A high degree of ego involvement, in which the athlete may perceive a threat to self esteem A perceived discrepancy between one's ability and the demands for athletic success A fear of consequences of failure (such as loss of approval from teammates, coach, family, or peers).

These three factors, and possibly more, put an unnecessary stress on the body putting the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive causing the skeletal muscles to tense, the heart to race and negative thoughts in intrude. On the other side of the coin, stress can be used to one's advantage. Eustress is defined as a state of positive stress. Eustress is essential and all great athletes who “step” up at the right moment are able to channel their stress into positive effects. The main positive effect from stress is elevated arousal alertness which prepares the body for an intense situation.

Mechanisms to Reduce Anxiety

There are multiple techniques utilized by sports psychologist and coaches. The most common techniques are diaphragm breathing, visualization, muscle relaxation meditation and or mouth guards. Diaphragm breathing (aka Dan Jeon breathing) is performed by breathing and expanding oxygen intake into the diaphragm (stomach) instead of breathing through the chest. Diaphragm breathing is simple and is easy to learn by following these steps from wikipedia.com:

1. Sit or lie comfortably, with loose garments.

2. Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.

3. Slowly inhale through your nose or through pursed lips (to slow down the intake of breath).

4. As you inhale, feel your stomach expand with your hand.

5. Slowly exhale through pursed lips to regulate the release of air.

6. Rest and repeat.

This technique is believed to decrease the drive from the sympathetic nervous system subsequently decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and induce slower and deeper breathing. Visualization is a technique used by coaches during various points during the season. I remember visualizing my races during taper time and thinking to myself what the hell I was doing! However, research suggests a moderate improvement in performance associated with mental imagery and is used by many top athletes. One study found mental imagery had improved results when the athlete used internal imagery which is imagining the performance as if the view is in the athlete’s eyes, opposed to external imagery. External imagery is viewing the race as if you were being video recorded. It is essential to remember mental imaging of positive effects enhances performance, as negative visualization has been shown to decrease performance4. One study found diaphragm breathing and visualization resulted in more accurate shooting in air pistol shooting5. Muscle relaxation meditation is another common technique used to decrease anxiety. A common technique to optimize muscle relaxation is performing the relaxation prior to bed and then implement using the same body relaxation techniques prior to performance. An example of a muscle relaxation meditation can be seen below:

The last mechanism I will discuss is a new device that is suggested to reduce stress. This device is used in contact sports (football, rugby, rock ‘em sock ‘em humans), but is publicized to help in swimming. The device I’m referring to are flexible mouth guards. These are not typical mouth guards, but custom fit guards to reduce clenching of teeth.

A New York Times article looked at the new sports equipment, here is an interesting quote from the article: “There is research to support improved breathing mechanics and reduced jaw fatigue,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “Depending on how you look at it, there is some truth to the claims6.” UnderArmour is largest company in this market and sells the devices around $500 plus additional fees for fitting. My friend Eric Teske the blogger for Kast-a-way did a great piece about the mouth piece(http://kastawayswimwear.com/Blog/index.php/looking-into-performance-enhancing-mouthpieces-for-swimmers/), The claim behind these pieces of equipment is prevention of teeth clenching and approximation of the tempromandibular joint (TMJ) which causes stress and the release of stress hormones. Eric reported “UnderArmour literature reports that their mouthwear endured independent testing conducted at some of the nation’s top universities. The results? An astounding 17% increase in strength, 25% less lactic acid build-up after intense exercise, improved reaction time and decreased stress.” I have not seen this research (and cannot find the research), but the amount of improvements seems high. If they are true, their effects are much greater than high-technology suits taboo. These are the main techniques used to reduce anxiety, but they are by far not the only techniques7.”


This is a lot of information, but the psychology of swimming is poorly understood and avoided by many coaches. These resources are proven (most of them) to improve performance and reduce anxiety which is essential for every swimmer. Ross from http://www.sportsscientists.com/ has reported the difference between many athletes is less than 1% and this 1% does not associated with work ethic, “wanting” it more or ability, but other factors that can cause an athlete to perform to their maximal capacity and in swimming where tenths make the difference between 10 places, coaches should take every allow their swimmers to achieve greatness.


1. Wettig, J. Stress and Anxiety. The Sport Digest. http://thesportdigest.com/article/stress-and-anxiety Accessed March 5, 2010.
2. Yoshie M, Kudo K, Murakoshi T, Ohtsuki T. Music performance anxiety in skilled pianists: effects of social-evaluative performance situation on subjective, autonomic, and electromyographic reactions. Exp Brain Res. Nov 2009;199(2):117-126.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaphragmatic_breathing. Updated March 4 2010. Accessed March 4 2010.
4. Hill KL. Frameworks for Sports Psychologists: Enhancing Sport Performance. 1st Ed. 2001.
5. Kim J, Tennant L. Effects of visualization and Danjeon breathing on target shooting with an air pistol. Percept Mot Skills. Dec 1993;77(3 Pt 2):1083-1087.
6. Shea, SB. A Device to De-Stress your Workout. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/health/nutrition/17fitness.html?_r=2. Updated December 16 2009. Accessed March 4 2010.
7. Teske, E. Looking Into Performance Enhancing Mouthpieces For Swimmers. Kast-a-way blog. http://kastawayswimwear.com/Blog/index.php/looking-into-performance-enhancing-mouthpieces-for-swimmers/. Modified January 28 2010. Accessed March 4 2010.

Do Ice Baths Work?

Ice baths and cold water baths (cyrotherapy) are commonly seen in sports medicine. From experience, ice baths are cold…obviously, but after a few minutes you are able to relax. At the Beijing Olympics ice baths were frequently used with swimmers, but do ice baths really work and how do they work? Ice baths are proposed to help the athlete recover faster, reduce pain/soreness, and prevent injuries, but what does the literature indicate.

Proposed Method to Madness

During a bout of exercise muscle undergoes microtrauma (tiny muscular tears). This damage promotes muscle resynthesis to become stronger and make bigger muscles (hypertrophy). Cyrotherapy is believed to:

  • Sting, burn and freeze your ass
  • Constrict blood vessels to flush waste products
  • Decrease metabolic activity
  • Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown

Following an ice bath (5-10 minutes at 12-15 degrees Celsius) the athlete is supposed to re-warm up to accelerate circulation to enhance recovery. Cold water baths are proposed to cause the same physiological changes, but the temperature is typically warmer (24 degree Celsius).

Do Ice Baths Work

Research is split on the effectiveness of ice baths and cold water immersion. One study took 10 national level swimmers and had them complete a 100-m sprint. Five minutes following this maximal effort, the swimmers sat in a cold water bath to their shoulders for five minutes at a temperature 14-15 degree Celsius. Prior to the race the swimmers re-warmed up and completed another 100-m sprint within 30 minutes of the first race. This short rest period mimicked the conditions every swimmer has experienced. The researchers found the swimmers who performed the cold water immersion between races performed worse than swimmers who did not perform cold water immersions between races. Heart rates in the swimmers following the cold water immersion did not rise as high as swimmers who did not enjoy a cold dip in freezing water. This lack of heart rate elevation was the researcher’s hypothesis on the decreased time, indicating the swimmers could not achieve as high cardiac output. Cardiac output determines the volume of blood being pumped by the heart each minute and is calculated by multiplying heart rate by stroke volume (volume of blood being pumped with each beat). Athletes are able to raise their cardiac output 6-7 times higher than non-athletes giving them the blood circulation and oxygen needed to perform optimally.

Take Home Points

Even though this study did not find a benefit with the cold water immersion, it does not mean it is a total hunk of junk. The researchers poorly describe the re-warmup after the cold water immersion. An adequate warm-up after the cold water immersion is essential. The temperature of the water used in this study may have been too cold, other researchers suggest using water temperatures at 24 degree Celsius. Many swimmers use cyrotherapy after a day of competition, not in between races. One study indicates improved cycling time, but these cyclist performed long duration cycling which is not closely related to swim meet conditions (more like swim practice). This indicates cold water immersion may increase recovery following practice compared to passive recovery (I don’t know why they didn’t look at active recovery!) Lastly, try it for yourselves, this study looked at ten athletes who can be different from your swimmers, use this information to get some guidelines of what is expected to work, but you never know until you try it!

Have you ever tried cold water immersion in between races? Did it work?



Vaile, J.; Halson, S.; Gill, N.; Dawson, B., Effect of Hydrotherapy on Recovery from Fatigue. Int'l J. Sports Medicine, July 2008.

Kylie Louise Sellwood, et al. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomized controlled trial Br. J. Sports Med., Jun 2007.

Parouty J, Al Haddad H, Quod M, Leprêtre P, Ahmaidi S, Buchheit M. Effect of cold water immersion on 100-m sprint performance in well-trained swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol. Feb 2010

Swimming Starts in Elite Sprinters

Track, two footed, sling shot, and lean forward are various starts swimmers utilize. The optimal start has yet to be determined and should be individualized to fit the swimmer, but an article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research was published this past month which analyzed the aerial start phase in elite freestyle swimmers. In the study, the researchers had the opportunity to work with 11 elite sprint male sprinters (average participant was 94.5%, in swimming terms is 49.56 100 meter free). The researchers did an outstanding job defining and comparing numerous variables and durations during four different start styles seen in these 11 athletes. 
The article classified the four start styles as: (a) In the first profile, swimmers favored a long flight time that enabled them to delay the time when the body would have aquatic resistance to overcome, resulting in a ‘‘pike’’ aerial trajectory; (b) A second profile was characterized by a short block phase that gained time but led the body to quickly overcome aquatic resistance, resulting in a ‘‘flat’’ aerial trajectory; (c) The swimmer with the third profile optimized this double constraint (short block phase and long flight phase) at takeoff by his capacity to apply great force with his leg extensors in relation to an arm swing, resulting in a ‘‘flight’’ style; and (d) The swimmer showing the last profile used a ‘‘Volkov’’ style, that is, the impulse was provided by the shoulder instead of an arm swing at takeoff.
At meets reaction time is the most commonly variable used to determine start effectiveness, but a fast reaction time is not correlated with a fast time to the 15 meter mark. Many other variables were assessed in this study and most can be calculated with a video camera and a stop watch. The variables termed by Seifert et al. are:
_ The 15 m start time was the time between the starting signal and the moment when the swimmer’s head reached the 15-m mark.
_ The block phase was the time between the starting signal and the moment when the swimmer’s feet left the block.
_ The flight phase was the time between leaving the block and the hand’s first contact with the water.
_ The entry phase was the time between the hand’s first contact with the water and the foot entry.
The duration of each phase was measured for each dive with a precision of 0.02 seconds. The absolute duration of each phase is expressed in seconds, whereas the relative duration is expressed in percentage of the 15 m start time.
_ The distance to entry was the horizontal distance measured between the block or starting wall and the hand entry, expressed in meters.
_ The hip velocity at hand entry into the water was calculated from the hip position 3 frames before and 3 frames after the hand entry. Therefore, 6 instantaneous values of hip velocity were obtained within 2 frames and then averaged. These calculations were made for the horizontal and vertical directions and were averaged to obtain the resultant velocity.
_ Two body angles (lower limbs/trunk angle: angle between the ankle, hip, and shoulder; upper limbs/trunk angle: angle between the hip, shoulder, and wrist) were analyzed at the takeoff and at hand entry.
_ The takeoff angle: the angle between the horizontal axis, the ankle, and the hip.
_ The entry angle: the angle between the horizontal axis and the body. This angle was quantified at 3 points (Figure 1): hand entry (angle between the horizontal axis, the wrist, and the hip), shoulder entry (angle between the horizontal axis, the shoulder, and the hip), and hip entry (angle between the horizontal axis, the hip, and the ankle).
The results from the study indicate no particular start style correlated with a superior 15 m time.
However, this study suggests each individual must be assessed to determine their optimal start. Similar to a swimming or weight lifting program, one size does not fit all and certain variables should be weighted when determining the diving style for the swimmer. Variables that impart this assessment include: ability to have the swimmer enter the same point in the water with their hands, hips and feet (small hole), vertical leap ability, reaction time, underwater kicking ability, flexibility, leg power, and last but not least comfort .
How do you assess swimmers starts? How do you determine which style of start is best for a swimmer?
  1. Elipot, M., G. Dietrich, et al. (2010). "High-level swimmers' kinetic efficiency during the underwater phase of a grab start." J Appl Biomech 26(4): 501-507.
  2. Seifert, L., J. Vantorre, et al. (2007). "Biomechanical analysis of the breaststroke start." Int J Sports Med 28(11): 970-976.
  3. Seifert, L., J. Vantorre, et al. (2010). "Different profiles of the aerial start phase in front crawl."J Strength Cond Res 24(2): 507-516.
  4. Seifert, L., J. Vantorre, et al. (2010). "Different profiles of the aerial start phase in front crawl."J Strength Cond Res 24(2): 507-516.
  5. Slawinski, J., A. Bonnefoy, et al. (2010). "Kinematic and kinetic comparisons of elite and well-trained sprinters during sprint start." J Strength Cond Res 24(4): 896-905.
  6. Takeda, T., H. Ichikawa, et al. (2009). "Do differences in initial speed persist to the stroke phase in front-crawl swimming?" J Sports Sci 27(13): 1449-1454.
  7. Vantorre, J., L. Seifert, et al. (2010). "Comparison of grab start between elite and trained swimmers."Int J Sports Med 31(12): 887-893.
  8. Vantorre, J., L. Seifert, et al. (2010). "Kinematical profiling of the front crawl start." Int J Sports Med 31(1): 16-21.
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator theSwimmer's Shoulder System.

Body Roll in Freestyle

Body roll is essential in longitudinal axis strokes (backstroke and freestyle), but where does this roll come from? Is it dominate from the hips, shoulders, or both? Legendary coach Mike Bottom has released a DVD on the subject where he gives his expert opinion on these styles of freestyle, but quantitative research lacks in this field. The Journal of Sports Sciences published a review paper dissecting this topic.

Overall the paper states the need for more research in the topic, specifically with swimmers of different speeds, gender and swimming duration. Here are the main points from the article:
Buoyancy contributes significantly in generating body roll Kicking seems to play a role, but further research is needed to confirm this notion.
Shoulder roll and hip roll are significantly different and must be calculated separately when calculating body roll.
Freestyle swimmers tend to roll their hips more as they fatigue.
Shoulder role is less in elite swimmers throughout a 200-m race.
Difference between shoulder roll symmetry and shoulder roll dominance are suspected in freestyle, but no research has correlated these quantities to swimming performance.
Research on university-level athletes did not support the claim that increasing shoulder roll could reduce the risk for injury.

In my humble opinion, I feel hip rotation is essential for elite freestyle. Similar to boxing if a swimmer can generate force and drive from their shoulder roll will follow. However, I have no evidence behind this other than the swimmer's I coach/coached and my personal experience.

This is what is known from research, but everyone knows coaches swimmers are typically ahead of researchers in trends and ideas. What do you think about body roll? What aspect of body roll do you feel is the difference between mediocre and elite swimmers? Do you think elite swimmers can use any three rotation dominate strokes like Coach Bottom believes?

1. Psycharakis S, Sanders R. Body roll in swimming: A review.J Sports Sci.Feb 2010:1-8.

Inspiratory Muscle Fatigue

The respiratory system is not typically associated as the limiting factor in maximal exercise, and the influence of inspiratory (breathing inward) muscle fatigue during maximal exercise is unclear. Studies suggest long and short duration high intensity exercise causes inspiratory muscle fatigue leading to impaired performance. Breathing during swimming is especially important since breathing frequency is limited. The constraints of swimming make breathing harder and place higher stress on the inspiratory muscles compared to land sports. The study in review looked at the influence of different breathing frequency (breathing every two strokes vs. every four strokes) on inspiratory muscle fatigue during a high intensity (90% of best time) 200-m front crawl. Inspiratory muscle fatigue was measured by maximal inspiratory pressure, which is measured by breathing as much air in as fast as you can. The study also looked at the swimmer’s heart rate, blood lactate, and time levels following the swim.

Ten male collegiate swimmers each swimmer swam the 200-m breathing every two and four strokes with a day in between trials. The results indicated the inspiratory muscles were more fatigued breathing every four strokes opposed to breathing every two strokes (10% difference in maximum inspiratory pressure). Blood lactate was 15% lower after breathing every four strokes than breathing every two. Heart rates were not significantly different between trials, either were their times (however, breathing every two was .4 faster). 

These results are counterintuitive. If you breathe less, shouldn't the inspiratory muscles be less fatigued? It is believed holding one’s breath leads to alveolar hypoventilation (alveolar are the air sacs in the lungs) causing carbon dioxide retention stressing the inspiratory muscles. Taking fewer breaths increases the amount of air one takes in and expands the chest wall, hyperexpanding the wall and putting them in a disadvantageous position. 

A higher lactate is believed to stem from the same physiological adaptation. The increased carbon dioxide impairs the lactate disposal from the muscle to the blood. This impairment is relieved once normal breathing occurs and the researchers should have taken lactate values longer after the performance to see a rise in blood lactate. Also, even though the times were not significantly different, the 0.4 time difference could account for some lactate variation.
The main point from this study is that inspiratory muscle fatigue does occur during swimming. This fatigue is greater with less frequent breathing.  

  1. Jakovljevic D, McConnell A. Influence of different breathing frequencies on the severity of inspiratory muscle fatigue induced by high-intensity front crawl swimming. J Strength Cond Res. Jul 2009;23(4):1169-1174.

By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restorationhead strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator of Swimmer's Shoulder System. 

Does High Altitude Exposure Work?

Altitude exposure is associated with improved results in all aerobic training sports. The United States national team does altitude training in Colorado Springs, the Australian national team in Arizona, but is altitude training effective for these extensive measures? Previous studies have cited improvements in physiological adaptations (most notably increased hematocrit) and time trials, but studies have not looked at the effects of altitude exposure on race performance. Hematocrit is the portion of blood that carries red blood cells that carry oxygen.

The Australian national team looked to see if high altitude exposure was effective indicated by results from the National Championships and Commonwealth Games. The study had 9 swimmers allocated to altitude training and 9 swimmers who did not receive altitude training, mean age 21.1. The groups were composed of men and women and the race results were compared using the IPS points and rankings which can be seen on http://www.swimnews.com. The altitude training group used the live high train low (LHTL) approach to altitude training, which means sleeping in high altitude and training in low altitude. The altitude group trained four 2-week training blocks while sleeping in high altitude with 5 days on non-altitude training in between the 2-week training blocks. The LHTL group were exposed to high altitude while they slept for 9-10 hours daily.

Results showed that the altitude training group did not perform substantially faster compared to their swims from the previous year at the National Championships and swam slower at the Commonwealth Games. The non-altitude training group swam substantially faster in the National Championships, but swam substantially slower in the Commonwealth Games. In both groups, some swimmers swam substantially faster and some swam slower, indicating high variability. On average, the multiple altitude exposures lead to a average .9% increase in hematocrit mass.

These results indicate a 4x2 LHTL altitude training is not effective in competitive performance in national-level swimmers. However, there are multiple reasons this was not effective:
1.The daily altitude exposure was not adequate. Studies that showed great increases in hematocrit had the swimmers in the high altitude condition for >12 hours each day, in this study the swimmers were only exposed for 9-10 hours.
2.The overall altitude exposure was not enough. Previous studies that showed high results from altitude training had participants in high altitude for three continuous weeks. The 4x2 training paradigm may have caused repeated acute changes from high altitude which were detrimental.
3.The training group that did not train in high altitude was chosen by the coach. In a study with high level athletes, it is impossible to randomize who participates in each group, which is a limitation. Most likely, the younger athletes did not training in high altitude, therefore they had a more likely chance to have a large time drop.
4.The hematocrit changes were not large enough to show improved performance. This could have gone without saying, .9% is minimal, but studies that have showed improvement had changes up to 10%!
5.The training effect may have worn off for competition. The study did not indicate how long after the training were either of the competitions, therefore the changes from altitude training (minimal, but still changes) may have been masked.

To conclude, the 4x2 training protocol is not effective to improve performance in national level swimmers, but other studies need to be analysed before the assumption of all high altitude exposure in ineffective.

Have you ever used the LHTL altitude training protocol? If so, what did you experience? Is the bang there for the buck?

1. Robertson E, Aughey R, Anson J, Hopkins W, Pyne D. Effects of simulated and real
altitude exposure in elite swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. Feb 2010;24(2):487-493.

Sprint Swimming Recovery

Post race recovery is needed for every swimmer. How much do you do? How fast do you do it? Do I wear my hi-tech suit...well I guess that doesn't apply anymore. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared passive recovery, recovery with low intensity (40% of best 100 meter time) and high intensity recovery (60% of 100 m time). Moreover the paper states “however, improved performance after AR (active rest) has been reported only when long duration maximum intensity bouts were applied (i.e., 60 to 120 seconds but not after short duration sprint swimming bouts (i.e., ;10 to 30 seconds)." The study “hypothesized that using duration resting interval in combination with a low intensity of AR (active recovery) during an ‘‘anaerobic-lactate production’’ sprint training set may result in a beneficial effect on swimming performance”.
The study looked at 10 male swimmers average age 17.9 whose best 100 meter free time averaged 54.90. The swimming set included 8x25 meter sprints with 120 seconds rest followed by a 50 meter sprint 6 minutes later. As stated the swimmers used a passive recovery, low intensity active recovery or a high intensity active recovery during the rest periods.
The results from the 8x25 sprint indicated that passive recovery and active recovery low intensity had better overall times. The results of the 50 meter sprint indicated no statistically significant differences in time, but recovery with low intensity group had the best results by .2 seconds. Blood lactate values showed no statistically significant differences, but the passive recovery group had a consistently higher lactate following each sprint.

The main points from the article:
  1. Recovery intensity should vary correspondingly to the duration of the event.
  2. In short sprints low intensity, ~40% , of 100 meter top time or passive recovery is indicated.
  3. The other extreme, in a race of 10 minutes-15 minutes it has been suggested a recovery intensity of 60% is optimal.
These differences in recovery are due to the different energy systems corresponded with the duration of the race. In non-human subjects, the creatine phosphate energy system becomes impaired following low intensity exercise, which may be the reason why less intensive or passive may be optimal to higher intensity recovery after a 50 free which mostly utilizes the creatine phosphate system.  Keep this in mind during repeat sprint training. However, the results were only .2 seconds different in a 50, therefore more research needs to be done to justify this relationship.
What do you all think? Do you warm down differently or require your swimmers to warm down differently after different races?
Toubekis AG, Adam GV, Douda HT, Antoniou PD, Douroundos II, Tokmakidis SP. Repeated Sprint Swimming Performance after Low- or High-Intensity Active and Passive Recoveries. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan 21.

Difference in Size Between Boy and Girl Sprint Swimmers

Size of athletes is often associated with event specificity. For example, when most people think of sprinter’s they have a specific image of a taller, leaner athlete. An older study found that 12-13 year old sprinters were taller and heavier than their distance counterparts. However, a study at the University of Nebraska looked to analyze the differences in boy and girl sprint swimmers, whose average age was 11.03 for boys and 10.45 for girls. For this study, the researchers analyzed 69 athletes and a variety of different measurements which can be seen below:

The study found statistically significant differences in body fat percentage and endomorphic rating. Endomorphic rating is another test used to analyze body type. An endomorphic rating simply means the person contains more body fat and gains weight easier than mesomorphic or ectomorphic.

The present study also compared their findings to similar studies. The current studies findings were similar to past studies of boy and girls swimmers, but the current study notes boy and girl swimmers had a lower body fat percentage than past studies. However, all of the other studies looked at a different population which ranged from: older swimmers, typically 12-13, distance swimmers, or swimmers in general. This studies comparison to other studies can be seen below:

Overall, this study does a good job analyzing the body differences between boy and girl swimmers. However, at the end of the study the researcher’s state “[t]hese findings suggest that the swimming performance for girls may be improved through training programs designed to reduce parameters of body fatness including % fat and endomorphic rating”. These recommendations must be scrutinizes as:

  • Males are supposed to have more body fat percentage than women. In adults, males have a minimum of 2-5% body fat and women have a minimum of 15% body fat percentage. I understand these are children and they have less body fat percentage, but drastic body fat reduction training is not indicated in a sport where training is typically adequate and often times excessive.
  • Encouraging weight loss and low body fat percentages to improve sport can lead to the female athlete triad. Implementing the notion of weight loss in young women may lead to an eating disorder which already has an incidence of 20% in elite female athletes (Sundgot-Borgen 2004). This eating disorder can lead to amenorrhea (irregular menstrual cycle) which will lead to an increased risk for osteoporosis (Hoch 2009). Therefore, this devious notion that weight loss will improve performance needs to be vanquished due to long term disorders!

What differences do you see between male and female athlete body types? What about sprint and distance athletes?


  1. Sundgot-Borgen J, Torstveit MK. Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clin J Sport Med. 2004 Jan;14(1):25-32.
  2. Zuniga J, Housh TJ, Mielke M, Hendrix CR, Camic CL, Johnson GO, Housh DJ, Schmidt RJ. Gender Comparisons of Anthropometric Characteristics of Young Sprint Swimmers.J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan 21.
  3. Hoch AZ, Pajewski NM, Moraski L, Carrera GF, Wilson CR, Hoffmann RG, Schimke JE, Gutterman DD. Prevalence of the female athlete triad in high school athletes and sedentary students. Clin J Sport Med. 2009 Sep;19(5):421-8.

What Made the Hi-Tech Suits Effective?

With USMS following FINA’s lead and banning body suits, the talk about body suits, polyurethane and transparency has gone down. However, the physiological changes that came with the suit is still an addressable topic and earlier this year the Biomedical Research Journal released a short expert opinion on a physiological reason the suits benefited that is often not discussed. However, this expert opinion is incorrect. The article states “suits are so tight that the blood circulation of the swimmers is depressed”. However, physiologically, a tight fabric on any extremity speeds up micro-circulation in the body. Similar to compression garments worn by patients with edema (form of swelling), the swimsuits increased the external pressure causing an increased circulation. This increased circulation allows cellular chemicals (metabolic chemicals, latic acid and inflammatory cells, macrophages) to flush more rapidly.
I believe this is the main reason the suits were successful. The suits were most effective in shorter races and less effective in longer races and physiologically it makes sense. The energy system (glycolysis) creates the most lactic acid and hydrogen ions that cause a decrease in performance and this energy system typically lasts from 30 seconds to 3 minutes of exercise. In the more aerobic energy system (oxidative phosphorylation), lactic acid is not readily produced since fat is the main energy source. Clearly, the suits had many beneficial factors (decreased drag, increased body position, etc.) but, increased blood circulation is the primary reason why I feel this was the biggest factor in the effectiveness of the suits.
What do you think was the main benefit?
References: Kainuma E, Watanabe M, Tomiyama-Miyaji C, Inoue M, Kuwano Y, Ren H, Abo T. Proposal of alternative mechanism responsible for the function of high-speed swimsuits. Biomed Res. 2009 Feb;30(1):69-70.

Does Caffeine Ingestion help short-term high-intensity Exercise?

Take Home Points:
  1. The mean improvement with short term caffeine ingestion was 6.5-9.4%.
  2. Individual variation influences caffeine effectiveness.
Caffeine, who doesn't drink it? Whether you consume a Red Bull with a 4-hour energy
drink stirred in or a Quadruple Mocha Cap' with 12 double shots of espresso, most of Americans consume caffeine in one form or another. However, caffeine is a banned substance and although the 120 mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee will not cause a positive test, it is estimated that three cups of coffee directly before competition can exceed the urinary caffeine limits of 12 micrograms/milliliter permitted by the International Olympic Committee. (For a more detailed and humorous look at the NCAA urinary caffeine limits visit my high school friend's blog at http://www.kastawayblog.com/2009/12/how-many-mocha-frappuccinos-does-it.html.)

Enough about what it takes to be in violation, does caffeine work? There is strong evidence that caffeine is beneficial in long endurance events and this drug is most abused by distance athletes, example triathletes. In trained athletes, caffeine’s main effect is glycogen sparing (which is simply using fats as the primary fuel source instead of glycogen, which is important in endurance athletes because glycogen creates lactic acid and is not as energy efficient as fat).

Today’s study was a systematic review (a study that reviewed other studies) that addressed the efficacy of acute caffeine ingestion for short duration, high intensity performance (less than 5 minutes). Studies have found a multitude of results from short term caffeine ingestion in sports performance and this paper looked to look at generalities from these papers. Unlike endurance events, high intensity short duration events use gylcogen as their primary fuel source, but do not use all of this fuel, therefore it is important not to utilize fat as its fuel source.

Of the 28 studies analyzed, the mean improvement with short events that utilize glycogen sparing for benefit, glycogen needs to be the primary fuel source in high intensity events, therefore a different mechanism needs to be utilized for improvement, proposed mechanism to the right.

Of the 28 studies analyzed, the mean improvement with short term caffeine ingestion was 6.5-9.4%, but variability across studies was great and the amount of caffeine ingested varied greatly (1-5 mg/kg of body weight). As a 160 pound male, 75 kg, 1 mg/kg of body weight keeps me way under the legal limit and is less than one coffee consumed, but 5mg/kg of body weight, 375 mg of caffeine ingestion is on the upper limit of legality (should be legal, but you never know) and is about three cups of coffee. One proposed reason for the variability in results is due to the athletes' training status. Of the studies reviewed, athletes that were highly trained (typically college athletes) showed the most consistent improvement with acute caffeine. Another variable is whether the subject regularly drinks caffeine. Unfortunately, this variable has not been studied greatly, but it appears that subjects who ingested coffee on a regular basis had a more positive effect with the acute ingestion. The last variable is that the subject’s genes. Science time!

Caffeine is metabolized in the liver by cytochrome P450 1A2, but this is remarkably different in individuals. This difference variables the metabolism in individuals, more specifically if a person who is heterozygous (two different alleles) metabolizes caffeine slowly, whereas a person homozygous for this allele is a fast metabolizer which is optimal.

Overall, the physiological effects of caffeine use for high intensity short duration exercises is uncertain, but seems to work best in highly trained athletes (modifiable), who consumes caffeine regularly (modifiable), with a homozygous P450 1A2 allele (modifiable… at this present time). Therefore, this short term ingestion works variably for everyone and should be trialed at workouts prior to competition with various legal limit loads.

Just keep in mind, red bull and/or coffee does not equal caffeine. These drinks have many other ingredients, possibly altering the effects.

Check out:
Friday Interview: Dr. Ricardo Mora-Rodríguez, Ph.D.
Supplements for Swimmers


  1. Astorino, Todd A; Roberson, Daniel W Efficacy of Acute Caffeine Ingestion for Short-term High-Intensity Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:January 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 1 - pp 257-265.
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.

Arm and Leg Power Output with Simulated Swimming

Take Home Points:
  1. In simulated swimming, the arms and legs generate similar peak power.
  2. Simulated swimming likely doesn't transfer to real swimming.
Today’s article is a little older, 2000, however I find it applicable to comments on the website. In the discussion there have been questions about methods to analyze how much a swimmer is grabbing water with each stroke, specifically Cesar Cielo. Unfortunately, there are no "gold standard" in-water systems that look accurate or cannot even differentiate the power output from the legs and arms. This is embarrassing for the sport of swimming, but don't worry we have something better... Swim Bench (high sarcasm). These researchers looked to establish reliable values during simulated freestyle using swim bench (figure a) and a leg simulated device (figure b), doesn't that contraption look like something from Saw XXV?

The subjects included 18 year-old men that had limited experience with the either of the testing devices. The study had the swimmers perform five 10-second all out exercises on the swim bench to determine the maximal pull velocity (1.75, 2.0, 2.25, 2.5, 2.75 m/s). Then the subjects performed a maximal pull test for 30 seconds at the optimal velocity determined from the 10 second pull tests. The results from the 30 second test indicated that the peak power output (PPO) of the arms was 300 watts and legs were 425 watts and the mean power output (MPO) was 225 watts for the arms and 310 watts for the legs. It may be surprising that the leg power output is higher in a simulated freestyle swim because many view they provide minimal propulsion compared to the arms. However, the legs are a large muscle group and it makes perfect sense if you think about it: you can squat a lot more than you can bench, which is due to the larger muscle mass associated with the legs. Unfortunately, having a greater peak power in this device likely doesn't transfer to the pull, making it hard to extrapolate.

Overall the study determined that the arm and leg power output on these two simulated machines provides a reliable means to measure power when the subjects were provided the five 10 second trials to determine an optimal setting.

Although it is the "best" means of out of water power testing, the swim bench hardly simulates swimming.

Think about the flaws with swim bench: 
  1. It doesn’t allow body rotation 
  2. It doesn't take into account drag, Žydrūnas Savickas, the world’s strongest man, could get on the swim bench and post ridiculous power output, but can he do that in the pool? (if so give him a textile suit!) 
  3. The direction of power is not taken into account for the arms or legs. 
With these flaws, I find it hard to associate swim bench with water power, but it is best method as of now due to lack of competition.

What do you use to measure power output in or out of the water? Does your team use swim bench?


  1. Swaine IL. Arm and leg power output in swimmers during simulated swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1288-92.
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.