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Interview With Ernie Maglischo

a fascinating discussion with swimming's most influencial coach

Swim Smooth are very excited to welcome famed author and award winning swim coach Ernie Maglischo. Ernie's teams have won 13 NCAA national championships in the USA, he's been national coach of the year numerous times and has authored and co-authored five textbooks on competitive swimming including Swimming Faster, Swimming Even Faster and Swimming Fastest. He has also authored 47 periodical publications including reports of original biomechanics and physiological research.

The chances are you have been influenced by Ernie's work in some form whether directly or indirectly, so it is a pleasure to interview him here on the site.

--- Interview Begins ---

Interview date: 26th July 2010

SS: Hi Ernie, thanks for being part of the blog today - I know our readers are going to get a lot from what you have to say!

EM: Paul, thank you for the kind introduction. I have been most impressed with your website and anxious to contribute in any way that I can.

SS: I'd like to split today's interview into two parts if I may - the first part focused predominantly on stroke technique mechanics and the second part focused more on suitable training sets for triathletes and open water and / or endurance swimmers. We ran a blog back in February 2010 posing the question "What Is An Efficient Freestyle Stroke?" where we looked at how and why top swimmers swim the way they do, even when sometimes their strokes don't appear conventionally "efficient".

One of the swimmers in the video was a top female age-group triathlete who swims with a very high stroke rate and seemingly "swinging" arm recovery. In the pool she appears to be quite choppy and anything but smooth, and yet in the open water is very effective indeed, especially when it's quite rough. She normally takes ~55 strokes to complete a 50m lap but her previous coach had always been nagging at her to get this number below 40 and if she couldn't she simply wasn't being efficient (apparently). This led her to become quite frustrated at she felt this number was totally elusive and in fact when she did get down below 48 strokes per lap she felt like she was swimming incredibly slowly and without her usual rhythm.

In your past 35 years as a coach have you personally seen other swimmers and triathletes trying to overdo the stroke length angle of their swimming possibly to the detriment of their speed, or would every swimmer be best advised to still pursue a long, smooth freestyle stroke? Can you share any data or ideas that you've been working on in this area, especially with respect to distance freestyle swimming and triathlon.

EM: Yes! Overdoing stroke length at the expense of rhythm and speed has become one of the most common mistakes swimmers are making today. The first thing a swimmer should do is establish an inertial rhythm that feels smooth and comfortable. After that, they should try to increase their stroke length WITHOUT losing that comfortable stroke rate. The combination of stroke rate and stroke length together determines swimming speed. One or the other must increase commensurately more than the other decreases in order to swim faster.

It is, for most swimmers, easier to increase stroke length than to increase stroke rate, hence, the emphasis on the former measure. However, some swimmers, particularly those who are overemphasizing the long glide in front, may improve more at race speed by reducing stroke length and increasing stroke rate.

SS: One of the things that seems to go hand-in-hand with swimmers with faster stroke rates is a two-beat leg kick. We've had some interesting discussions over on www.swimsmoothforum.com for how best to develop a two-beat kicking rhythm and we know personally that it can be very effective but takes a huge amount of technique training to get it honed down and feel coordinated. Do you see 2-beat kicking as having a place in open water and triathlon swimming and if so, can you expand a little further on how you would personally coach that with a swimmer. Any top drills or swimming sets you can share with us?

EM: That is a most difficult aspect of swimming to comment on. I am not sure what to recommend so I will simply share some thoughts on the subject. On the one hand, the six beat kick fits the freestyle armsroke like two soulmates who belong together. There is one leg beat that accompanies each arm sweep. In most swimmers, these beats are timed so they begin precisely at the start of the corrsponding armsweep and end exactly as that arm sweep ends. I have generally observed that, when a leg beat is missing or abbreviated, the corresponding arm sweep is missing or abbreviated. Having said that, we know that the energy required to maintain a propulsive kick is as great or greater than the energy required by the arms. It seems, therefore, that it would be wise over long distances to deemphasize the kicking effort in favor of the more effective armstroke. This would be especially true in salt water where the swimmer's buoyancy is greater.

Whether the swimmer should simply reduce the kicking effort and amplitude or actually eliminate kicks from the stroke cycle is the question I cannot answer at this time. The advice I would give a swimmer at present is to do the following drill. Swim a long set of repeats, i.e. 10 x 200 at an even pace. Gradually reduce the kicking effort with each repeat until you notice your legs sinking. (Your stroke rate may need to increase to maintain your swimming speed as you reduce the kicking effort and this may feel more difficult at first. That feeling will pass, however.) When your legs are sinking, gradually increase the kicking effort until you are using the minimum effort with the legs that is necessary to keep them near the surface. Once determined, that is the kicking effort and amplitude you should use in races. Don't be concerned if some kicks are "smaller" than others, or if some kicks disappear, or if your legs tend to cross or hesitate. Find an easy inertial rhythm with your arms and let your kick fit in where it may.

SS: We don't like using the word "glide" when we teach efficient freestyle swimming. So many swimmers try to overdo this long glide at the front of their stroke and in many cases you can visually see the swimmer slowing down between strokes. Have you done any research into this acceleration and deceleration between strokes and if so what can we learn from it?

EM: I have not done any research on this matter. I have noticed, as you have, that the long glide in front can be overdone. The important thing here is to keep the arm in front "out of the way" while you are applying propulsive force with the stroking arm. That is to streamline on the front arm, keeping it extended, within the body line and near the surface while you are applying propulsive force with the other arm. Once the "stroking" arm releases pressure on the water in back, the extended arm should begin "searching" for the catch in front with no hesitation.

There will be a period of deceleration while the front arm searches for the catch. This cannot be avoided. If the front arm were to reach the catch position simultaneously with the release of pressure with the stroking arm, even more speed would have been lost as the stroking arm worked against the drag created by the front arm as it (the front arm) moved down through the water to the catch. The additional propulsive speed achieved by streamlining on the front arm while stroking with the other apparently outweighs the deceleration between the end of one arm's propulsive phase and the catch of the other, resulting in greater average velocity per stroke cycle.

I have noticed that many distance swimmers who use de-emphasized kick rhythms change the timing between their arms in order to reduce the decelerative period prior to the catch. They tend to enter one arm later in relation to the other, thus, reducing the time it is in the water while the other is stroking. In this way, they can move the front arm into the catch sooner after entry without interfering with propulsion from the other arm. Wow, that is a mouthful. Let me explain it differently. Most swimmers enter the arm in front when the other arm is at the catch or early during its insweep. A distance swimmer with a deemphasized kick will enter her/his arm in front when the other was in the latter half of the insweep.

So, when swimmers de-emphasize their kicks they should be aware that the timing between arms will change as concerns distance under the body of the stroking arm when the other arm enters the water.

SS: We're in favour of swimmers being able to breathe to both sides. Typically in the pool during steady training sets we encourage the development of standard bilateral breathing (i.e. breathing every three strokes). Bilateral breathing can really help the balance and symmetry of a swimmer's stroke, though some report that bilateral breathing feels challenging due to either the feeling of running out of breath and/or the inability to clear the face well enough out of the water on the non-dominant breathing side. What are your view points on bilateral breathing - is it a useful skill to acquire and what would you suggest to those who are currently struggling with it?

EM: I believe bi-lateral breathing is a good way to teach beginners because they will tend to be more rhythmic. But, I am of the opinion that competitors should breathe to only one side when racing. Oxygen consumption should be greater when more breaths are taken during the race. Having said that, swimmers in races should resort to breathing to both sides on occasion in order to check their direction and the position of their competitors. As for using bi-lateral breathing in the training of experienced swimmers, I have found that it is a waste of time. They will swim more symmetrically in training when breathing to both sides, however, they will revert to the same somewhat lopsided stroke when they breathe regularly in competition.

There are swimmers who are faster when they breathe bilaterally in competition because they tend to rotate more equally to both sides and because they tend to get more propulsion from an armstroke when they are breathing (or not breathing) during its execution. For those swimmers, I would recommend a rhythm where they breathe twice or three times to a side before changing. By doing so, they will be getting four breaths every five strokes or six breaths every seven strokes rather than two breaths every three strokes. (Ed: Ernie is referring to a 'stroke' as a stroke-cycle - a cycle of both arms).

SS: Can you share with us your current line of thinking on how the catch in freestyle should be performed, how it should feel and how forceful it should be? Can you provide us with any useful drills or techniques we can practice to develop a better feel for the water?

EM: Feel for the water is an elusive concept that we all believe is possessed by skilled swimmers whose elements remain unknown. It probably has to do with two aspects. First a sense that the body is moving forward in a straight line despite the fact that the arms and legs are moving up and down and the body is rotating from side to side. Secondly, a sense that the forward motion is as continuous as it can be.

Regarding the catch. Many swimmers try to apply pressure to the water as soon as the other arm releases. Swimmers must be disciplined to wait until the arm in front is approximately one third of the way through its underwater movement before they begin to apply force. The hand, forearm, and upper arm should be facing back, and the arm should already be flexed at the elbow before they begin to apply force.

Swimmers do not begin to apply force with an extended arm and then gradually flex it during the first half of the underwater armstroke. They should position the arm backward by flexing their elbow and then begin to apply force. Actually, I have observed that the amount of elbow flexion changes very little during the propulsive phase of the stroke. That is, swimmers do not flex their arm during the first half of the propulsive phase and then extend it during the second half. Instead, they position their arm by flexing the elbow, then they apply force. They do not continue applying force until the arm is fully extended behind them. They generally release the water while the arm is still flexed somewhat so they do not push up with their forearm and hand as they finish their underwater armstroke.

As for teaching the catch, my two favorite drills are the catch up drill and the one-arm drill. In the catch-up drill, the swimmer concentrates on making a good catch, pull, recovery and return to the water before taking another stroke. The one-arm drill is really two drills. When the swimmer swims with only the arm on their breathing side, they keep their other arm up in front and streamlined. When they swim with the arm that is opposite their breathing side, they keep the other arm back at their hip. They should always breathe to the same side regarless of which arm is stroking. The second part of the drill is most important for teaching smooth swimming and breathing. The swimmer should be sure to return their head to the center line after breathing, AS they reach the catch position with their stroking arm. In this way, they will have their body lined up during the propulsive phases of the arm stroke. One of the most common mistakes swimmers make is to lay on their side breathing late while they stroke with the opposite arm. With their body out of alignment, they insweep and upsweep of the opposite arm will be less propulsive.

SS: OK, so now onto some discussion on appropriate training sets for triathletes and endurance swimmers. We use a system called Critical Swim Speed (CSS) for helping a swimmer define a pace representative of threshold pace. It's a simple test involving two time trials (400m and 200m) each performed during the same session and from a push start. The calculation used is a regression of your swim speed over the two distances to calculate your sustainable threshold speed over longer distances. It does not require any blood lactate sampling and as such is quite a simple test and gives swimmers a clear goal pace for a given distance.

In our squad sessions we usually set the swimmers up with a Wetronome to help them pace out this target efficiently and avoid going out too fast as the pace often feels relatively steady for the first 100 to 150m but then becomes progressively harder to maintain. Have you ever used this CSS system or something similar and if not, what method do you prefer to use for ascertaining a goal threshold pace for swimmers?

EM: I know the CSS test. Are you aware that research has shown that the test tends to overestimate threshold pace? That is not to say it is not a good estimate of same. There are more accurate tests, however. Actually, after years of blood testing and training athletes at threshold pace I have come to believe that it is not very important to train at some critical speed which approximates the anaerobic threshold. And further, that determining the threshold pace is not a necessary factor in training effectively.

I've come to believe that athletes need to train at speeds which are both slower and faster than threshold pace and that it is not important to train exactly at threshold pace. Training slower improves circulation, respiration and the aerobic capacity of the slow twitch muscle fibers. Training faster improves the aerobic capacity of fast twitch muscle fibers and lactate removal from those same fibers. Training both slower and faster than threshold pace does not require that an athlete know their exact threshold pace only a rough approximation of it. That approximation can easily be made with heart rates, less than 150 bpm or greater than 160 bpm, or perceived exertion, 10 to 14 for swimming slower than threshold pace and 16-18 for swimming faster than threshold pace. I don't believe anything is lost by training with these approximations of threshold pace versus training with more exact parameters.

SS: How important of a skill is it for swimmers to be able to evenly split a longer interval or even negatively split it? Again, we ran a fun blog back in September 2009 where we secretly filmed and then analysed the data of a harder interval swim session in Perth to show the swimmers just how poor their pacing typically was. This surprised all of them. What was really interesting though was during our recent UK Swim Smooth Clinic tour, only 6 out of the 120 swimmers on the courses performed the same set well enough to class them as "pacing experts", despite all having seen the same video clip immediately before they tried the exercise!

Sometimes it seems people cannot tame that competitive drive to be in front or equally that the sensation of setting off at the correct pace sometimes just feels too slow. Can you offer any advice on this?

EM: Once again, my views seem to be contrary to mainstream. I believe it important to pace distance swims as evenly as possible but I prefer athletes to sense this pace by stroke rate (rhythm) and subjective feelings of effort rather than by time. My advice when seeking the proper pace would be to start a race at a stroke rate which, from previous experience, you have determined is sustainable for the entire distance.

SS: Finally then Ernie, what would be your number one session do you think for a swimmer wanting to improve a) their 1500m swim time and then b) their 3.8km swim time? How regularly should these two sessions be performed and what markers for improvement can we look for to ensure that the swimmer is developing as we would hope?

EM: There is no one type of set I could recommend for this purpose. I would recommend three general types of sets instead:

The first would be long straight swims or short rest repeats at total distances of 3000 to 4000m. These should be done at speeds slower than threshold (HR less than 150 bpm). This type of swimming should comprise about 50% of the total weekly mileage.

The second would be a set of repeats totaling 1500 to 2000 m on short rest at speed which are faster than threshold speeds (HR of 160 to max). This type of swimming should comprise about 10% of weekly mileage. The third would be a set of short rest repeats totaling 1500 to 3000m that is swum at present to predicted race speed (race stroke rate). This type of set should comprise 7 to 8% of weekly mileage. Provide enough rest between repeats so that athletes can approximate the pace or rate you desire. Try to reduce the rest interval week by week. When it is no longer feasible to reduce the rest interval, increase the number of repeats and return to the original rest interval.

The remainder of the weekly mileage, approximately 32% should be made up of stroke drills, kicking drills, pulling drills, sprints, and warm up.

SS: Thanks then Ernie, it's been great speaking to you. If people want to read more about your work and even pick up a copy of one of your books, where should they go?

EM: Thank you for the thought-provoking questions and comments. Copies of my books are available through Amazon.com, Swimming World Magazine and the American Swimming Coaches Association.


--- Interview Ends ---


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