Not very slowly, but quite surely, swim gurus around the world, are reaching a consensus that swimming fast isn’t merely slapping the water as hard as you can, with prodigious long arms. While the oar-like limbs make the maximum visible splash, the real speed in water might well be down to the propulsive strength of the torso.
Dr Genadijus Sokolovas, a swim biomechanics expert who travelled to Bangalore recently to work with top Indians, noticed this as a fairly competent swimmer himself when growing up in Lithuania, along the Baltic sea.
“I was a swimmer myself. It is a beautiful and lifesaving sport. I started to study it wondering why are we swimming so slow in comparison with fish, dolphins and other water animals. Humans are built differently, but we can swim much faster,” he told the Express. While at the Dravid-Padukone pool working with backstroker Srihari Natraj and 800m freestyler Kushagra Rawat, Dr Sokolovas would drill in repeatedly about not over-using the arm to swim, and using the body instead to get faster.
Swimming expert #GenadijusSokolovas analyses Indian swimming sensation @srihari3529 as he takes the swim power test. @PMOIndia @KirenRijiju @IndiaSports pic.twitter.com/pp5dY5vVFx
— SAIMedia (@Media_SAI) February 19, 2021
“Both Srihari and Kushagra have a lot of potential to improve their swimming technique and times. One area they need to focus is the “connection between arm and body muscles”. Using body muscles is important in swimming. No fish has arms to swim fast. That’s why we need to teach swimmers to use their body muscles. I developed multiple drills for them to improve in this area,” he said.
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While details of their collaboration are not too well known, Dr Sokolovas is known to have helped swim legend Michael Phelps max out his medals, using his bespoke SwimPower technology. Phelps was an established name by then, destined for greatness, by the time coach Bob Bowman consulted with Sokolovas. The biomechanist’s insistence on summoning the body muscles to power a stroke would have augmented what is one of Phelps’ lesser-known, but far more crucial anatomical asset – he has a larger torso than what would be considered proportional to his legs.
Phelps’ 80-inch wingspan (202 cm) and double-jointed elbows and ankles that are said to aid as flippers are of course dubbed a natural advantage. But quite a few swimmers like Kosuke Kitajima (178 cm) and Joseph Schooling (184 cm) recently are not as tall and have still won big. It underlines that reach (corresponding to height) – while being important – might not be the only determinant.
Srihari Natraj would vouch for immediate differences he felt when buying into Sokolovas’ ‘more body than arms’ approach. “Using the body muscles to generate power does increase our stroke efficiency and distance per stroke which would help us swim faster,” he said about the specific correction that Sokolovas recommended.
The coincidence is a hoot, but there exists a species of ants called Polyrhachis sokolova, that were discovered living amidst water tides, and swimming or ‘walking on the surface of water.’ So it’s not just the snappers or water snakes that seem to be gliding quickly through water without any arms to flap about.
As a big fan of how fish swim, Sokolovas would flag the interference of arms in humans that can potentially cause a drag – increase resistance in water.
“Both swimmers are pretty fast already, but to reach the next level, they should start doing drills regularly. Srihari should focus on keeping arms shallower during the stroke and Kushagra on the beginning of the stroke,” he would say, while stressing on high-intensity workouts that he’s helped around 120 Olympic champions with.
Srihari would note: “Basically the analysis showed that my backstroke pull finishes very deep in the water and that I could have a much more efficient, powerful and faster stroke when it’s shallower and also save time per stroke cycle. And have better rotation which would also help reduce resistance.” Minimising the drag caused by arms lurking a second too long underwater, and allowing the torso instead to push forward is Sokolovas’ trick to go much faster. While Kushagra’s arms had been pulling in improper direction, Srihari’s deeper pull was taking up too much time, hampering his frequency.
He would also work on turns and breakouts, adding that Indians tend to linger on for extra seconds pushing off the stomach on the turns, rather than the vertical kick. “Many Indian swimmers aren’t fast enough in turns due to rotation in two planes, instead of one vertical plane,” he said of what could prove the difference between winning and losing. “American swimmers are very fast doing turns. One of the reasons is training more in 25-yard pools. As a result, swimmers can do twice as many turns when training in 50-m pools.”
India’s top coach Nihar Ameen would see merit in Sokolovas’ SwimPower test which superimposes the calculated velocity of every swimmer on the actual visual of every stroke. “That was most impressive. Swimmers can actually see where they are losing power because simply telling them doesn’t always work till they see it for themselves,” Ameen said.
The swimmers would also train with weights attached to their feet, helping correct mistakes and overcompensate.
While talk is rife about Dr Sokolovas helping Indians for long stuck on ‘B’ standard to achieve the ‘A’ mark, the expert has entered the training program at the right time for Indians, still rookies on the pool. While arms can continue doing their thing, the chunk of the power, Dr Genadijus Sokolovas believes ought to come from the core – the body or torso. The advice to use the body more than arms’ might well prove the silver bullet that Indian swimming is badly looking for.