Importance of Swimming Efficiency — The Dreaded 3% Problem

Want to become a faster swimmer and enjoy swimming more?  Start by figuring out how to swim effectively in the water rather than immediately trying to build up your training volume.  The reason that it’s more important to focus on how you swim rather than how far or how hard you swim is what Terry Laughlin, head coach and founder of Total Immersion Swimming, calls the “3% Problem.”

The fundamental problem facing human swimmers is that our bodies are simply not shaped to be effective in the water.  A team of engineers from the US Navy compared a dolphin to average human lap swimmers and found that the dolphin converted 80% of its energy expenditure into forward motion while the human subjects converted just 3%.  Yes, you read that right:  only 3%.  That means that 97% of the energy that the average lap swimmer expends is wasted rather than put into forward momentum.  And this person is someone who can go to the pool and swim laps for exercise.  Even World-Class swimmers, like Michael Phelps, convert less than 10% of energy expended in the water to forward momentum.  The “3% Problem” is further compounded by the law that drag, or push-back from the water, increases exponentially with an increase in speed — increase speed by 2%, drag goes up by 4%; increase speed by 10%, drag increases by 100%.

The “3% Problem” has important implications for how you train yourself for your next triathlon, Masters competition, or youth swim meet.  The traditional swimming paradigm focuses on putting in training volume, conditioning your arms and legs to do more cycles, and pushing up the heart rate to train the physiological energy systems to sustain the exercise intensity.  This paradigm works on building up a swimmer’s energy capacity to sustain training.  However, the “3% Problem” tells us that the vast majority of this hard fought energy capacity will be wasted in the water due to bad body shaping.

What Total Immersion coaches like me will tell you is that you need to be work on both parts of the training equation:  (1) Increasing Energy Capacity and (2) Reducing Energy Expenditure.  By working diligently on your stroke mechanics, you improve the shape of your “vessel” and reduce your energy waste.  If you can go from 3% to 4% efficiency, you increased your efficiency by 33%.  From 3% to 6% and it’s up by 100%.  You can go faster by exerting more force on the water.  You can also go faster by reducing drag and energy waste.  As the late, great women’s coach from Stanford University, Richard Quick, said:  “You go faster by slowing down less between strokes.”  A smarter view of training is:  (1) learn to swim with greater efficiency for short distances and then (2) train your body to maintain that efficiency for longer distances and at faster speeds.  As a lifelong swimmer and a coach for almost 15 years, this approach has always made more sense than swimming hard and grinding out yardage in the hope that I would figure out how to swim efficiently under duress.

If you are a triathlete, a fitness swimmer, or a young swimmer moving from Short-Course to Long-Course seasons, take the time now to learn to shape your vessel better in the water.  By learning to reduce drag before racing season, you set yourself for improvements in your racing season by training to move a more hydrodynamic body through the water.  Why spend time training to compensate for bad form?  Why not just go faster in the first place?

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