How Much Should You Change Your Technique – Minimum Effective Change

person swimming on pool
Often swimmers ask how much they should be changing their stroke/swimming – especially if they have races coming up. This is where I like to talk about Minimum Effective Change. It’s not dissimilar to the medical ideas of minimum effective dose – why use a sledgehammer to crack a nut! The issue comes with how much you can remember and make into a habit.

Path Of Least Resistance

When I coach I see that everyone moves and swims in their own distinct style. It’s why you can pick out particular athletes at events without being able to see their faces. Your swim style (or any other movement pattern for that matter) is a dynamic expression of your combined:
  • Limb lengths
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Areas of Restriction
  • Areas of Mobility
  • Stability & Instability
  • Neuromuscular Control / Co-ordination / Timing (or lack thereof)
  • that’s just for starters…
Not to mention the habits we pick up along the way through pain (current or previous) and daily postures we hold ourselves in. Taking all the above factors into account: as we swim or move, your body will try to follow the path of least resistance. For example in terms of mobility, finding the movement from the areas most willing, or strength-endurance, often emphasising imbalances…

Biomechanical Efficiency And Performance

As a coach try not get too hung-up on subtle changes in efficiency (real or perceived) that come with changing an athlete’s stroke. Minimising resistance to the water will increase efficiency (and speed). Increasing contact on the water will increase power (assuming the strength is there to manage it). There are plenty of fast and theoretically inefficient swimmers. Hell Ian Thorpe was not the technically most sound freestyle swimmer and neither was Michael Phelps; in both cases as a coach or a swimmer could look at either and theoretically make changes. But to make changes in either of these swimmers, would it really have made a difference?  
Minimum effective change

You’d suggest that Thorpe is crossing the midline here, and potentially even clawing at the water too. Didn’t stop him breaking the WR for 200 and 400 though!

  Biomechanical efficiency doesn’t automatically make a given swimmer faster… CONSISTENT TRAINING DOES Thus we should be more concerned about what we can do to affect a positive change to the athlete. In order to not over complicate things, we want to make the smallest changes possible for the largest impact.

Minimum Effective Change

Firstly, consider these points in combination:
  1. Most people struggle with swimming because they are creating large amounts of resistance to the water – almost as much resistance as the forward forces they are trying to create. This makes life tiring
  2. Many swimmers struggle with breathing, for two reasons; firstly that they are in a poor body position – so getting the mouth out of the water is challenging. And secondly, because they aren’t able to slow down or ease off – potentially for the same reason.
  3. Given that the athlete’s previous patterns demonstrated their body’s path of least resistance, the further away from this we deviate, the harder it’s potentially going to be for them to sustain the desired changes… at least in the short to medium term, while they should also be working on improving the physical traits that dictated their path of least resistance in the first place!
We have to ask ourselves not just why we’re coaching each athlete to make any given change, but perhaps most importantly to what extent we need the given change to occur to make life easier. If we take a given athlete, understand their current and historical training status and individual biomechanics, then work towards the concept of Minimum Effective Change to elicit the desired outcome, we can reduce the effort required on a given part of the body while achieving a modified swimming style that they can sustain effectively. Take a swimmer who is struggling to do more than 25 metres at a time for example: Once they get more comfortable in the water and able to swim lighter or easier – is what their stroke looks like important? Assuming no injury and they are happy, I would argue not. Obviously, if they are looking to swim further and faster, then we can build on those foundations, and add new things to work on. But until that point, stick with minimum effective change – ie getting the swimmer higher in the water. For me, the sweet spot is the change we can make to an athlete’s stroke which does enough to reduce stress and strain on their ‘weak link’, yet is subtle enough to sustain in the long run… after a bit of practice, of course If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages. See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

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