Thursday, April 23, 2009

Phelps changing his technique?

There were a couple of comments on floswimming recently about Michael Phelps possibly changing his freestyle technique. I decided to google it and see what was up. Apparently, at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Omega, he said "you will be able to tell exactly what I did as soon as I take my first stroke."
It is a pretty easy assumption in my mind that Michael might be playing around with the straight arm free technique that is becoming more common in world class sprinting. The French seem to have built an entire system around it. If you have ever seen Fred Bousquet bust out an 18 in the 50 free scy, you know it can be something really phenomenal.
Jonty Skinner spoke on this at SwimNews. He made some interesting points about tech suits changing technique on the world scene, and this type of freestyle was a great example. To quote:

"A few years ago, I wrote an article about freestyle in which I argued that, in terms of broad technique, there are two main options, and that our infatuation with short-course yards (SCY) racing was leading us down a path of diminishing returns in long-course (LCM) swimming. My rationale at the time was the fact that, while swimming with a straight-arm catch versus a high-elbow catch was more powerful, it had a greater metabolic or energy cost. Using this technique in LCM seemed, to me, to limit the swimmer’s options beyond 100m free.
A swimmer can be very successful with the straight-arm option in SCY because the actual time spent swimming as opposed to turning was very small (cost issue). That changes dramatically in LCM. Enter the suits and their effect on metabolic cost—it lowers the cost substantially—and suddenly swimmers can sustain straight-arm technique easily over a 100m long course. This past Olympics was a testament to that fact. You used to see the odd high-elbow swimmer in the thick of the 50; now you don’t. They used to be in the thick of the 100; now they’re rare. You used to have 200-meter swimmers competing in the 100m—and in many cases winning that event—but not anymore. 100m races are dominated by straight-arm, 50-meter guys."

I have to wonder. How many other changes like this will come about in the next few years as the sport continues to evolve? We have all seen swimmers with crazy front end speed who never seem to maintain. Haven't there been a few great short course swimmers in the past who just couldn't break through on the world scene because they didn't excel in long course at the same level? Are we going to start studying their technique through different glasses?

I personally can't wait to see Phelps focus on sprints. Even if it doesn't work out to be as spectacular as his 8 gold performance, or as awesome to watch as his 400 IM in Beijing, it will at least add some spice to the world swimming scene. Everyone wants to be the one to beat Phelps at a major meet, and the sprints are still wide open as it stands now. It might take a major change for Phelps to rise to the top in the world of the fast-twitch. Fitness won't be the issue for him, nor will be his ability to maintain technique. Generating sprinting power and explosive speed is where he will see his greatest advances and it will be fun to see what he is doing to reach the next level.

Of course, I am making a pretty big assumption here about the straight arm thing, and we all know what happens when we do that. :)

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