Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
While one could argue that there is no true sprint in the sport of swimming, the 50-meter events come the closest. For the 20 seconds or so duration of this event, a swimmer relies mostly on his stored energy systems (available Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and Creatine Phosphate) and his anaerobic energy system. The aerobic system may come into play, but only in the final few seconds of the event, providing perhaps 5% of the total energy requirements. In freestyle, where a swimmer has the option of breathing or not breathing, that becomes important, as most of the gains or losses tend to occur in the last 5 meters to the wall.
When doing more continuous maximal exertion exercise (over 30 seconds), a swimmer uses all three energy systems to provide enough ATP for the muscles to sustain contractions. In any swimming event over 50 meters, swimmers rely heavily on developing a robust aerobic energy system. The longer the maximum effort event, the more dependent the swimmer becomes on the aerobic energy system to produce ATP. For the 50 meter events, swimmers must rely more on power, technique, an efficient anaerobic energy system and in the final few meters, for those that care to take a breath, an efficient aerobic system.
Because of the unique requirements of the 50-meter sprint, the training for this event needs to be highly focused on developing the anaerobic systems (alactic and lactate training). The technique for sprints must also be focused more on developing more propulsion (power) compared to the longer events, where frontal drag and building a better aerobic system are more of a concern.
Not everyone is genetically gifted to become a great sprinter. Having a higher percentage of fast twitch fibers and a fast kick are two of the most important components of a fast sprinter. Yet there is no mold for a sprinter, either. There may be advantages to height, for example, but two of the fastest male swimmers in the world today, Caleb Dressel and Vlad Morozov, are just 6 feet tall, considerably shorter than most of the other great sprinters.
Whether gifted for sprinting or not, everyone can get better at sprinting by training appropriately and by using the right techniques. The freestyle technique for the 50-meter sprint should be significantly different than the technique for the 100 meters and up. I call this sprint technique High Octane Freestyle because it demands more energy, yet produces more power. Technique is not only event specific, but also swimmer specific. Each swimmer must learn to best play the hand that he or she has been dealt. In other words, the sprint technique should be adapted to the anatomical and physiological conditions of the swimmer.
There are four characteristics of the technique that all great sprint freestylers seem to have in common. First, they are all shoulder driven. That means that the stroke rate is fast and the majority of the body rotation is coming from the shoulder rather than the hip. Second, their kicking speed is fast. The kick speed is more important in the sprint than in any other event. Third, they opt for a more powerful pulling motion than distance swimmers. That means that the pulling motion is deeper than with the distance swimmers. Fourth, they use the two coupling motions of freestyle, body rotation and arm recovery, extremely well.
In the next article, we will discuss all four of these common techniques of great sprinters in more detail, with suggestions on how you can improve in all of them. In the final article, we will discuss the types of training in and out of the pool that will help you improve your sprinting.
Yours in swimming,
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