The lengths they'll go to for an Olympic gold

January 2, 2004

The key to Britain's recent success in international swimming lies in the appliance of science. Ben Carlish reports

The waters of the Dublin swimming pool have barely settled after the Great Britain swimming team's most successful European short-course championships in Ireland last month, where they landed seven gold medals, six silvers and a bronze.

Yet for Henryk Lakomy, manager of Science and Medicine for World Class Swimming and his team of Loughborough University-based sports scientists, there are no self-congratulatory slaps on the back. It's business as usual.

And that business is to gather and analyse an array of scientific data covering every detail of every elite swimmer's fitness levels, physiology, performance and technique to help transform them into serious Olympic contenders.

"The European Championships, for us, was all about the Olympic Games. All the swimmers trained throughout without 'tapering down' their training, which normally happens before competitions. It was all about Olympic preparation for them and information-gathering for us," says Lakomy, a lecturer in sports science for some 17 years at Loughborough's highly regarded School of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

Lakomy manages a dedicated scientific support team of six full-time staff who cover the areas of physiology, biomechanics and land conditioning. Two volunteer doctors and 11 sports science MSc students provide back-up.

Funded to the tune of about £160,000 a year by British Swimming, the UK Sports Institute and the English Institute of Sport, its scientific-support structure is unique in the nation's sporting fraternity.

Utilising Loughborough's state-of-the-art facilities, the team has played a pivotal role in the British swimming revolution engineered by Bill Sweetenham, the tough-talking, charismatic national performance director who came to England from Australia three years ago.

"Bill came from an ethos of quality support. He came into British swimming when the support was pretty ad hoc and kick-started the whole process. He wanted to put in place a support team that wasn't a replica of the Australian model, but one that, in his experience, was going to be even better. The belief is now that that is what he has achieved," says Lakomy, who in addition to his academic and scientific achievements is also a successful volleyball coach.

But if Sweetenham has been the revolution's commissar, Lakomy's team has been its shock troops. "It comes down to enabling the coach," Lakomy says.

"What the coach needs to know are the swimmers' characteristics, their fitness levels, the biomechanics, the stroke technique and the flaws in their performance - so that's what we do. We will look closely at the technique itself and analyse starts, turns and finishes, the economy of swimming, the idiosyncrasies that need ironing out. We will identify the weaknesses in the technique and we'll monitor the fitness of the swimmer."

This obviously requires the flow of consistent and comprehensive communication between coach and scientists, and this is where Lakomy's own coaching experience proves invaluable.

"In my job supporting the coach, life is made much easier by speaking his language and being able to understand what he is trying to achieve. Then, wearing my science hat, I can try to convert what he is after into the language of the scientist, explaining to my team what we need to do and underpinning what it requires," he says.

But like any scientific methodology there are no magic formulas to shortcircuit the systematic collection and analysis of data monitoring each of the 194 swimmers on the GB team's world-class swimming programmes.

So, every six weeks on the same day, every swimmer on the programme across the country, from 11 years old up, takes a water-based fitness test day involving a series of seven intensity-increasing 200m swims. In between swims, which start at five-minute intervals, the swimmer's heart rate is measured and blood samples taken. During the swim, trained observers measure their stroke count and the number of stroke cycles per minute.

"This enables us to establish the relationship between heart rate and swimming speed, between blood lactate and stroke efficiency in terms of count and rate and swimming speed," Lakomy explains. "Thus we can look at economy as well as the contribution of aerobic metabolism - the energy derived from oxygen - because that is the biggest single component of energy provision in swimming."

Lakomy has been keen to ensure that a key element of the programme is coach education, giving tools of interpretation not just to Sweetenham, but to all club coaches who work with GB team swimmers on a daily basis.

Practically every local coach working with elite swimmers now has the computer software and the know-how to interpret these data locally - but they are also fed through to the nerve centre at Loughborough.

"My fax machine goes berserk for about 24 hours," laughs Lakomy, "While there is an immediacy of feedback locally, we meet with the national coach and the performance director as a group to look at the performance swimmers - those 60 or so swimmers who at this time are going to make an impact at international level - and discuss issues in relation to each case."

While the fitness tests can provide the picture of where the swimmers are at, the data gathered does not necessarily improve their performance. This is where the other components that the support team can offer come into play. And at this stage - six months from the Athens Olympics - building swimmers' strength and improving their physical conditioning are vital.

Bob Smith, the team's land-conditioning consultant, works one-to-one with Loughborough-based elite swimmers daily, while others travel to receive advice and attention on a regular basis. He sets them free-weight programmes geared to swimming, core-stability exercises linked to the body's movement through water and daily stretching and injury-prevention work.

Smith has shaped his approach around research gleaned from university study. He says: "What we are really doing here is applying the sport science and working with elite athletes one-to-one and putting it into practice. I guess in some contexts it remains theory, whereas with us it's definitely applied.

"In a nutshell, the kind of movements we look at are movements linking various parts of the body called kinetic chains, because swimming is a complicated interactive movement that has its own implications on strength, so we replicate that movement in the exercises."

Some areas they look at are developing the start, the turn or elements in the stroke. The aim is to develop "a very strong link or transfer from what we do on land and what happens in the water - otherwise there's no point in doing it".

The strong indicators are that this and all the other elements of the team's work are beginning to have a significant impact on results, and while Lakomy would not be drawn on individual Olympic medal prospects at this stage, he is justifiably ebullient when it comes to the team's performance as a whole.

"We've had the most successful European Championships in the history of British swimming, the most successful World Championships in its history, the most successful Junior European Championships and the most successful Junior Olympics, all in the past 12 months. I would say sports science is only one element of that support, but it has made a significant contribution."

But he remains scientifically astute and sportingly savvy enough to know that he and the sports science team are nothing without Sweetenham.

He says: "Sports science fails miserably when it's done in isolation. It has to work in tandem with the coach, and the more knowledge the coach has in terms of understanding what science is interpreting, the more you move things forward."

The THES will follow the work of the sport scientists for the Great Britain swimming team in the lead-up to this summer's Olympic Games in Athens.

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