Drag is the Enemy

A note from Badger Parent Advocate, Mike Conaton:

I was at a swim meet last spring and one morning after a particularly fast finals, the parents were all visiting with each other in the hotel lobby, enjoying their coffee and marveling at the American record they all witnessed the night before. Not to mention, by the way, that record breaking these days is so much more impressive after all the new standards were set during “the suit-era”. A very simple question was asked by one of the mothers – “how do these kids keep getting faster”? The conversations went on, acknowledging the “fast pool”, the very deep competition and the high stakes of the championship meet. “Yes but how??” she persisted, as the banter moved on to the next topic…and I moved on to the next cheese Danish.

I found myself thinking about answers to her question. I have written in the past about the mental aspect of swimming, which I truly believe in and try to read up on when I can. But it occurred to me there also has to be a more literal answer to the question. Clearly at the college level anyway, there has to be a physical aspect to the answer. I can’t believe how big and strong some of these guys are these days. But even that doesn’t explain it all as there are plenty of examples of fast swimmers with different gift sets.

So I’m sitting in the stands at this same meet, and I’m talking to one of the dads. Turns out, by total unbelievable coincidence, he has written a book entitled The Parents’ Guide to Swimming. Dr. Alan Arata wrote his book in 2003 while a Professor of Biology and Physical Education, at the University of Colorado. He was also a former Division I coach in both swimming and the modern pentathlon and earned his PhD in Biomechanics. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about.

I later enjoyed reading Dr. Arata’s book which, no surprise, has a very scientific and literal view of swimming. And while he covers a lot of topics, including the mental aspects (even using the same four minute mile story I’ve used!), Dr. Arata does a great job explaining the mechanics and kinetics of all four strokes, starts and turns. One of his messages resonated with me the most –

“Drag is the enemy of all swimmers in all strokes”.

The literal answer to the mother’s question at the meet is in the book, demonstrated in a derived mathematical equation:

(Swimming Speed)squared= Drag

I will spare you the details, but this simple equation was derived from a more complicated formula taking into consideration other variables including water density and the body’s surface area in the water.

Dr. Arata writes, “If swimming speed is one unit, drag is one unit. But when swimming speed is two units, then per the equation above, drag becomes not two, but four units! (Light bulb moment for me). If swimming speed goes to four units, drag increases to 16 units. The only way a swimmer can combat this exponential increase in drag is to lower their coefficient of drag (another variable of the longer equation).”

According to Dr. Arata, the only way a swimmer can reduce drag is to focus fanatically on stream lining and efficient stroke technique. By the way, with this formulaic explanation, you can also start to understand the profound effect “the suit-era” had on the record books as the new aged materials and body suits reduced said drag dramatically.

Dr. Arata concludes, “The next time you’re at a swim meet and think that a certain swimmer won a race because he or she was bigger and stronger than the rest of the field, think again. Someone who couldn’t produce as much force, but who produced less drag could easily have beaten that swimmer.”

We parents should know that the Badger coaches reinforce this message of stream lining and stroke efficiency all the time in practice. Understanding the reason and science behind the coaches’ messages may help us appreciate how the finer points can actually have a huge effect on our kids’ performance.

Michael Conaton, Badger Swim Club Inc. and Badger Swimming Inc. accept no liability for the content of this article, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided.
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