Interpreting Stroke Examples In Context

Interpreting Stroke Examples In Context

When we are viewing swimmers who are suppose to be examples for how we are to swim, we need to make sure we understand the context in which that person is swimming. Among the features that we may imitate, some features of the stroke might be suitable only for that context, some are suitable only for that person and some might be errors.

If you watch Coach Terry swim this way on a training video, Coach Shinji swim that way on Youtube, Michael Phelps swim another way on a World Record race, and then watch any other swimmer in a different situation, you start to notice differences in shape and differences in how they move. With all these variations becoming apparent, how do you know which example to follow?
It all takes some careful thinking, but your assessment is made easier when you follow a system that provides a structure and pathway set by orderly principles and logic. Such a system will necessarily lead to you toward a distinct way of shaping the stroke in certain situations. But even within such a system, and among those model swimmers and coaches, among those who are suppose to demonstrate the ideal, you will notice variations in how these principles are applied. What do you do with those variations? Who’s example do you follow?

In this 15 minute video I share my approach to this dilemma.

And below I will write out the essence of that talk…

Identify Principles First

First, there are principles in physics in water and physiology for all standard-equipped human bodies that all humans need to conform to. These principles will channel all humans swimmers (for each stroke style) to acquire certain similar body position and movement patterns. 

In TI we have these three general principles to start with: Balance, Streamline and Synchronized Propulsion.

Is your stroke model conforming to these principles? 

Consider Imperfections

Second, humans are not natural swimmers. Water is extremely unstable environment. These ideal body positions and all the details of the movement patterns are impossible to perfect even for the best swimmers in the world but every swimmer is rewarded for inching closer to that ideal.  No one is perfect, but it makes much more sense in terms of physics and physiology to put effort into perfecting technique than into increasing strength to make up for inferior technique. 

So, do not assume everything you see in your favorite swimmer is ‘correct’ or even superior to another. You should use a principle to evaluate whether what you see if closer or farther away from the ideal. Even the best swimmers in the world are displaying obvious inefficiencies. It just goes to show that even the best have room to improve. They are limited in time and energy too. They can’t do it all.

Is your stroke model putting effort into solving his improvement gap with more power or more technical excellence? Does that match how you want to go about it?

Identify The Context

Third, ‘the ideal stroke’ is not a single, one-size-fits-all situation thing – in each stroke style there is a variation of the ideal at different velocities – the swimmer needs to make slight adjustments as velocity increases or decreases. And, to adhere to the principles, the stroke needs to be adjusted further when swimming in different kinds of water situations – pool or open water, fresh or salt, flat or wavy, still or current, etc.

What is the context of that stroke demonstration? Does that match your context? Do the features of this person’s stroke apply to your situation?   

Notice Individual Conditions

Lastly, what are the individual circumstances that might give advantage or disadvantage to this stroke model? Age is a factor. Male or female is a factor. Athletic history is a factor. Personal physical or medical limitations are a factor.

The goal or values for swimming are a factor. What is this person willing to pay to swim that way?

The young people swimming in the Olympics and World Championships are paying a price in time, in effort, in risk with extreme technique, in wear-and-tear on the body to get the to top that virtually no older adult is likely willing to pay. And, the competitive system they have grown up in has filtered out the bodies and minds of thousands of very hard working people who could not survive the grind. Only the luckiest few make it onto the videos we now watch and admire. This is not to rule out all their examples, but only to recommend that they be evaluated with a healthy amount of critical thinking. 

It would be best to look for role models among those who match your situation and aspirations in as many ways as possible.


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BOLT Breathing Measurement

BOLT Breathing Measurement

As I study The Oxygen Advantage book I will share some insights and exercises with you from it.

From Chapter 2, some explanation of why you may be experiencing heavy breathing during what should be moderate exercise.

When your breathing receptors have a strong response to carbon dioxide and reduced pressure of oxygen in the blood, your breathing will be intense and heavy. Your body will have to work much harder to maintain this increased breathing volume, but because over-breathing causes carbon dioxide levels to drop, less oxygen will be delivered to working muscles.

    Conversely, having a greater tolerance to carbon dioxide not only reduces breathlessness but also allows for much more effective delivery of oxygen to your working muscles during exercise. When breathing receptors are less sensitive to carbon dioxide levels, you will experience a reduction in breathlessness as your body is able to work harder with far less effort; breathing will be lighter during both rest and physical exercise. p.33

It appears that for breathless athletes, our problem is not about getting more oxygen (more frequent and bigger inhalations during swimming) but to train the body to handle higher levels of CO2 and lower levels of O2 in the blood. Through certain kinds of training we can lower our sensitivity to this, which not only lowers the discomfort, it actually lowers our body’s response to that condition, so we just don’t feel the need to breathe as heavy. 

    It has been said that one of the main differences between endurance athletes and non-athletes is their response to low pressures of oxygen (hypoxia) and higher levels of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia). In other words, endurance athletes are able to tolerate a greater concentration of carbon dioxide and lower concentration of oxygen in the blood during exercise.

    In order to attain outstanding performance during sports, it is essential that your breathing does not react too strongly to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and decreased concentrations of oxygen. p.34

So, how bad is you situation really?

It would be disingenuous to expect breathing to be efficient during sport if breathing during times of rest is inefficient. p.36

Here is the main test that gives us the measurement that all subsequent choices for breath training are based on.

The Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT)

As far back as 1975, researchers noted that they length of time of a comfortable breath hold served as a simple test to determine relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical exercise. The Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) is a very useful and accurate tool for determining this relative breathing volume. BOLT is simple, safe, involves no sophisticated equipment, and can be applied at any time. p.37

  • You will hold breath for a length of time until the first definite natural desire to breathe (air hunger).
  • You are measuring how soon the first sensations of breathlessness appear.
  • Measuring maximum breath hold is not objective because that time can be influenced by willpower and mental override.
  • The lower the BOLT score = the greater the breathing volume (which is a bad thing); the greater the breathing volume = the more breathlessness you will experience in exercise.

The most accurate BOLT score is taken first thing after waking. p. 47

Instructions for taking the BOLT Test

  • Rest for 10 minutes before measuring.
  • When ready, take a normal breath in through your nose.
  • Then allow a normal breath out through your nose.
  • Pinch the nostrils to prevent air coming into lungs.
  • Count seconds until first natural urges to breathe – sensations include need to swallow, constriction of airway, involuntary contraction of breathing muscles (in abdomen or throat).
  • Release the nose and inhale through the nose.
  • Inhalation should be calm – if you need to take a big breath at the end then you held too long.
  • Then resume normal breathing.


What do the numbers mean?

… a problem arises when a BOLT score is less than 20 seconds, as excessive breathing will eliminate more carbon dioxide than the amount that is produced through exercise, leading to a net loss of CO2, reduced oxygen delivery, and constriction of blood vessels and airways.

    The lower the BOLT score, the poorer the match between breathing volume and metabolic activity, hence the need to control breathing during rest and physical exercise. The closer the BOLT score is to 40 seconds, the better the match between breathing volume and metabolic requirements. p.44


… the vast majority of individuals, including athletes, have a comfortable breath-hold time of about 20 seconds, often less. p.40

The ideal BOLT score for a healthy individual is 40 seconds, and according to the book, this is a reasonable goal for most people, when following The Oxygen Advantage program. During the TOA training, in every 5-second increase in your BOLT score you should experience noticeable improvements in how you feel resting and in exercise.


BOLT score of 10 or less

  • This person will often experience a hunger for air even when at rest.

BOLT score of 20

  • This person’s breathing may be regular but heavy. There may be a natural pause of 1 to 2 seconds between breaths.

BOLT score of 30

  • This person’s breathing is calm, gentle, soft, effortless, and quiet. The natural pause between breaths is longer.

BOLT score of 40

  • This person’s breathing is calm, gentle, soft, effortless, quiet and minimal. The natural pause between breaths may be 4 to 5 seconds. The number of breaths during rest may be 6 to 10 per minute.