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What Floats Your Boat - You Or Your Suit?

Feb 19, 2009  - Craig Lord

Suit Week Sequel – Part 3: questions and answers with Milt Nelms on issues of flotation and how it affects swimming performance 

  • “When you put equipment into a sport that previously does not have equipment, then the non-equipment sport goes away, right on the spot. A switch is thrown, and everything changes. A different sport has replaced swimming, and really should be given a different name ... I do not feel that swimming has changed or evolved, simply that it is now extinct.” – Milt Nelms

Q: What's the first thing you do with a swimmer who comes to you to iron out inefficiency in the water?

A: Whenever I put someone into the water, whether the person is an elite swimmer, a non-swimmer, an athlete from another sport, or someone in the water for medical purposes, I try to figure out the individual's aquatic signature as the first order of business. It represents an individual’s fundamental relationship to the water. Knowing what the signature is guides teaching strategies, and for elite athletes, training strategies. 

Q: Where did the term Aquatic Signature come from?

A: “Aquatic Signature” was coined during a discussion between myself, Bill Boomer and Shane Gould at Bill’s farm in Pennsylvania in 2002. Like an autograph, everyone’s aquatic signature has the same character, but the individual characteristics vary from person to person. The term is classic Bill Boomer, who coined many of the descriptive terms commonly used in swimming today. 

Q: How important is the Aquatic Signature?

A: Basic stroke design is built around the Aquatic Signature. Each stroke has instances when it is most prone to slipping back towards the poor swimming position of the aquatic signature, and instances where it is most inclined to be in the more favourable horizontal position. Good stroke design minimises the effect of the natural signature moments, and maximises the effect of the natural horizontal moments. On an individual basis, two swimmers who are otherwise identical, but have different angles in their signature will use different amounts of energy to stay horizontal. This is an important difference when designing training. Managing the signature is key to taking advantage of training in order to be efficient in creating velocity, and efficient in endurance.

Q: How many world-class swimmers and programmes work from and with the Aquatic Signature? 

A: It is difficult to say, but I am certain of only a relatively small number. Because I have been including the information in all my presentations and clinics for years as an individual, and collaboratively with Bill for years, and Bill has been talking about balance derived from managing the signature for 30-plus years, I cannot say how many people have picked up on it. Lots of people have been exposed to the concept, but the obstacle to use it is in not understanding the principle, but understanding the methodology to teach and train the principle, which is a paradigm shift for a lot of people. I know four Olympic level coaches who are committed to the principle, who are all dedicated students and teachers. They are all former or present clients. 

Q: Is that work something that can achieve dramatic short-term gain; are we looking at long-term solutions that swimmers must work on for a number of years; or do the answers to those questions vary from case to case, depending on the swimmer?

A. Generally, the less that someone has trained, the easier to derive benefit. It is toughest for athletes who have trained a lot and are already good, because of ingrained habits from training, and an understandable belief in the correctness of what they already do. A rare athlete who is already at the top can gain benefits in a short time. I have seen people go from underdog or non-contenders to world-class, international medals, and Olympic medals (sometimes in new events) within in a very short time by making stroke changes. This happened chiefly because of transformations that came through recognising the strengths and weakness in their strokes because of their signature, then making adjustments in both stroke and race strategy. Of course, it is also important that the coach is as on board as the swimmer. Some day, these stories may end up in a book. I feel fortunate to have been around to see it happen.

Q:  A great deal of energy goes into achieving the right position in water. What kind of work do swimmers who don't have a suit to help them achieve a better line in the water have to do to find a smoother course through the element? 

A: Swimmers typically spend many hours kicking - at speeds much slower than full swimming speeds - to help make the legs stronger to help improve this leveling ability. This is the simple and logical way to make a forceful lever system stronger and able to work longer. One problem with this approach is that the kick is an integrated part of a system when it is in the stroke, and can be very different when separated and slowed down. Some swimmers have trouble re-integrating the kick into their stroke because they are merging two different learned patterns. Other swimmers work on the balance system, using first-class leverage, which requires that sensitivity and awareness are taught and trained. 

Q: What do you mean by the balance system?

A: The “balance” concept and terminology came prominently into swimming through Bill Boomer’s work 20-some years ago, but was unfortunately co-opted and misused, both commercially and in literature. The term balance is commonly used in swimming but does not really describe dynamic balance or first-class leverage as Bill intended. Athletes also benefit from fully functioning and healthy normal posture, which is rare in swimming, but is also part of some swimmer’s training designs. I feel that there is a large reserve of potential in swimming in shaping the training around signature-friendly strokes, development of first-class leverage, and restoration of healthy posture. This does take time because it means a new skill set and very hard work on the deck by the coach, and new methodologies, which includes fairly radical and unique land work. 

Q: Are there swimmers who have a much friendlier aquatic signature than others - and if so, how does this manifest itself? 

A. The angle of the signature is a significant indicator of the energy and/or attention needed to become horizontal. There are many other factors as both the human being and the stroke itself are complex systems, and the signature, while important, is just one element. However, there are some generalisations which are very accurate. At the elite level, people whose natural signature is more horizontal tend to end up in endurance events, and people whose signature is more vertical tend to end up in short events. Bill (Boomer) suspected that more explosive people tended to be denser in their tissues (bones included), and more aerobically inclined people tend to be not so dense in their tissues. I agree with his suspicions, and my experiences support his point of view. Very certainly, flotation added to anyone will improve the effect of whatever training they have done, especially if the flotation manifests itself in the leg angle, raising it closer to the surface. It will make a swimmer both faster, and able to swim faster, longer. 

Q: Nature throws up exceptions to rules all the time. Is that the case with aquatic signature?

A: I would emphasise again that there are many factors other than the basic signature, but it is a very significant factor. There are always exceptions. Two athletes that I have worked with extensively are former world record holders, one in the 800 and the other in the 800 and 1500 and both are almost vertical in the water. However, both were multiple event swimmers, and also held world or other international level records in shorter events and other strokes. However, both of these athletes had a high content of first-class leverage in their strokes, unusual metabolic capacities, and were very strong-willed. These athletes were exceptions. For most swimmers at the elite level, I think that you will find that their angles match their events - the closer to the surface, the longer the event.

Q: Setting aside the issue of performance-enhancing suits for a moment, how much scope for improvement in swimming speed is there to be had from better understanding of and working around the Aquatic Signature? 

A. I think that there is a huge reserve of potential in swimming in a number of areas. However, understanding and manipulating the signature is a key area. The signature concept, once you see some sketches, or get into the water and play around with it, seems simple. But there is a lot in there. For one thing, there are exercises using the basic forms of the signature that will light up many different parts of the brain. This can actually be done by design. Anecdotally, people who are neurologically impaired, using exercises designed around the signature and it’s principles, have made big changes. These cases relate directly to elite swimming because an organism is an organism, and improved performance is improved performance. In a way, I think that some manipulation of the strokes around the signature was already starting to happen as an evolutionary part of swimming. Bill and I talked in 2007 and both thought that this was the case - we could see it in the strokes. Independently of mine and Bill’s discussions, Forbes Carlile told me that he had the same perception, that swimming was on the verge of a shift. Flotation [achieved artificially] will eliminate the need for a lot of these skills, because there will be less inclination to fall backwards during the vulnerable parts of the stroke, and an always-present tendency to stay in the performance-friendly horizontal position. Basically, it is one less thing for the swimmer to have to deal with when racing, a little like training wheels on a bike.

Q: If you had to put in a nutshell what you feel the fast suits of 2008 did for performance, what words would you choose?

A: They created impressive performances, but not in swimming. I want to be careful about how I say this, because I would not want to be misunderstood and be thought to be disrespectful to the athletes who did the performing. Putting years of effort and work on display in each race is pretty much an ethos in swimming, and this did not change in the past year. An almost universal sincerity of effort in racing is what makes it pleasurable to be around swimming and swimmers. I am sure that not one of the 100 plus “world records” of the year was set by someone who did not try. But performances were affected dramatically by the suits, my feelings about this are strong and virtually certain. 

To answer the question, I feel this way: swimming has always been about the athlete’s direct interaction with the water. FINA statutes support this principle, forbidding the use of equipment for the purpose of enhancing performance. These rules are unambiguous and clear. The new suits that have popped up since February of 2008 are clearly equipment, so in order to allow the suits there has been abandonment of the rules that were the firewall that made swimming uniquely an interactive sport. 

When you put equipment into a sport that previously does not have equipment, then the non-equipment sport goes away, right on the spot. A switch is thrown, and everything changes. A different sport has replaced swimming, and really should be given a different name.  

So, in reality, any performance with one of the 2008 suits is not a swimming performance, it is a performance in the whatever you want to call the new equipment–based sport that has replaced swimming. It is as though people suddenly and abruptly started racing with fins. Sure, they would still be racing, trying to win, and trying to go as fast as possible. Again, seeing human endeavour is always impressive and laudable no matter what the sport. However, in this comparison, it would not be correct or respectful to celebrate the fin performances in comparison with standards that were set by the non-fin swimmers. 

I do not feel that swimming has changed or evolved, simply that it is now extinct. The fundamental interactive and non-equipment aspect has changed. It is tough to adjust to this idea, because the new sport still takes place where the past sport used to, at the same pools, with the same people, etc, but it is, in fact, different. At this point, I am in the process of adjusting my own world view because of this situation. As I understand, steps will be taken by FINA to adjust the statutes in some way in the near future to clarify the future.

Q: What were your thoughts when you saw events unfolding February 2008 to December 2008? 

A: Initially, I was incredulous, but not at the performances. I simply could not believe that there had been such a clear abandonment of the rules. As time went on, I became less and less interested in what was happening. Because I had spent time with athletes and coaches who had worked very hard to get their bodies and nervous systems ready for 2008, some for many years, it was difficult to watch their work wiped out or compromised. They were already doing difficult and challenging things to be better in a different way, and the suits handed the crude version of some of those qualities over to the other athletes who had not done the same kind of work. Basically, an aware and tuned up athlete with a lot of first class leverage and postural control will benefit much less from the suits than athletes who are deficient in those areas.  As the year went on, it was sort of like watching professional wrestling, more of a curiosity, but not enough to really hold your interest. Times got faster, but the suits are clearly equipment, or devices, so it became ho-hum. This bothered me to feel this way, because it felt like a disrespectful attitude to have towards the athletes, who were still doing with spirit and intent what athletes in swimming have always done: put years of work and effort on display in each race. I began to feel that the quality of effort on the part of the athletes was not the issue. I doubt that any one of the 100 plus world records was achieved by someone who did not try, it was just a matter of trying to figure out, in each swim, how much was the swimmer, and how much was the equipment?

Q: Are there examples of swimmers who have benefited enormously from learning about their Aquatic signature and working with it?

A: Yes, there are, but at this point I have either formally written or handshake confidentiality agreements with the coaches and athletes that I work with, so I cannot name names. 

Q: Is it true that some swimmers float better than others? 

A: Yes, it depends mainly on two factors. As already mentioned, density of tissue, including size and density of bones, is one factor. The other is the amount of air in the lungs. Simple flotation is different than the aquatic signature. Native, or inherent, flotation is only one of the many qualities that you read in the signature.

Q: Do you feel that suits can be made to benefit specific morphologies? 

A: Not precisely, but if I can change the question a bit I can elaborate. The suits will act as a prosthetic device in some cases. This means that maladapted or pathologically impaired parts of the body can be helped, but mainly only while the suit is on. Certain morphologies that are inherited physical traits could have suits made to benefit that particular morphology. An example would be a swimmers legs that are atypically long in relation to that person’s torso, for which a suit could be designed with extra flotation near the end of the leg to compensate for the unusual length.

Q: Your work is geared to helping swimmers and coaches understand human interaction with and movement through water. To what extent would you say that a swimmer's connection to the element is lost through the use of supportive suits?

A: This is interesting. I think extent of effect is different for different people, but overall I think the swimmer’s connection to the water is affected a lot. As an example, one critical trait is affected; in swimming there is a lot of attention paid to the arms and legs, and logically so, because the hands and feet do a lot in the swimming strokes. The hands and the feet have large dedicated to their awareness in the primary sensory areas of the brain. However, it is clear that gifted swimmers do more with the other parts of their bodies; they are more nuanced and responsive in say, their torsos or upper legs. This is part of what makes them look so graceful and rhythmic in the water. I think one of the big reserves of potential in swimming is to activate the sensory pathways from the parts of the body that are generally considered to be non-propulsive, like the torso, and get those regions to be more interactive with the water. We are talking about molecules here, which collect into patterns and streams in a myriad of vectors, pressures, and rates of flows, lots of information. 

Make a slight adjustment in rhythm or technique, or add a millimeter per second of speed, and everything changes, and the information changes, so the variables are virtually infinite. This means that to get accurate information from the water you either need skin, or material that allows some of this interaction to still occur, porous material that moves with the skin at roughly the same tone and elasticity as the tissues underneath. In order to get this process of awareness to grow, there are methods and exercises that need to be done. The brain and the nervous system need to learn to process the information that is in the water-tissue interaction of these usually less interactive body areas. All of these learning activities are dependent upon skin contact with the water.

In this context, the suits that are on the scene now, cut this process off, dampen it, or alter the information. If more of the body is covered by flotation-type materials, the more that the amount of information from the interaction with the water is reduced. When a swimmer is more sensitive and developed, they are more likely to be affected by the suit.

One of my clients broke a world record this past year, and he found the experience frustrating. He said two interesting things in respect to connection to the water when he called to tell me about the race. One was that the suit was in the way - while his time was fast, it did not feel like it was him that was doing the time. The other was that while it gave him support in the middle of his body, it was not as good as what he could do himself, because he had trained for years to do so, and it was clear that, when he moved, the suit was a prosthesis. He said it was like the difference between walking barefoot in the sand at the beach, or wearing hiking boots in the sand. The boots would not affect his ability to walk up the beach, but they affected his experience of walking up the beach. His body could not interact with the water in the same way that his feet would not be able to interact with the sand. I though was an interesting way of putting it. He is spending a week with me after the FINA Bureau meeting so that we can adjust his training for the summer in response to what they do. This will be done to address what you asked about, his level of contact with the water, depending upon the suit. 

This was a long answer, but to sum it up, interaction with the water goes down significantly with the suit, but flotation and prosthetic support are added. The swimmer needs to switch his brain and nervous system from a focus on interacting with the water, and begin focus on interaction with a tool.

END of Q and A.

SwimNews wishes to thank Milt Nelms for giving of his time and knowledge, particularly at this watershed moment in swimming history.