Monday, December 24, 2007

Two books about swimming

The first, Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero, is full of lovely things, and I have read it in dribs and drabs over the past month or so.

Many people I have encountered during this period have had to listen to me rhapsodize about how the Boys Own Paper of 1879 directs the aspirational breaststroker to "place a basin half-full of water on the floor, put a frog in it, lie face downwards over a stool, and try and imitate its movements." The book's a loving anthology of swimming-related passages in literature, and has given me lots of ideas for further reading: how have I never read Swinburne's unfinished swimming novel Lesbia Brandon?!?

Sprawson, in a characteristic vein (swimming is heavily sexualized throughout the book): "Flogging and swimming became for Swinburne closely associated. Both experiences were more intense at Eton than anywhere else. Perhaps the liquid resonance of the savage rite contributed to his confusion, as the lash of the thick bunch of birch twigs applied to bare buttocks is reported to have sounded 'like the splashings of so many buckets of water.'"

Or quoting a satirical remark by the Victorian poet Clough: "'the world--at least the genteel part of it--acts very wisely in setting its face against swimming: for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes.'"

Also some lovely illustrations (this one is Hokusai's "Diving Girl and Octopuses" [1814], courtesy of a reader's blog):
However though Sprawson's is indeed a most lovely book, and has my high recommendation, it is too hedonistic in the end for my northern European soul, and the swimming book I have absolutely fallen in love with and devoured this weekend between stints of paper-grading is "Doc" Counsilman's quite, quite divine The Science of Swimming. This is a most enchanting book, I have never read such a thing, I was transported!

Everything about it is quite delightful, I am completely in love--the sequence of illustrations for the backstroke is pricelessly good (I am glad I waited to read it till I actually somewhat understood the stroke myself), the chapters on pace and training techniques are extraordinarily illuminating and in general it is full of priceless gems that made me strongly imagine my alternate-universe self as an undistinguished but enthusiastic collegiate swimmer with a subsequent career as a successful swimming coach at a Midwestern women's college...

Really it is just full of all sorts of good things, I can hardly select, but here are a few of my particularly favorite passages:
The experience of the Australians was all that was needed to send American and foreign coaches into the battle of the training schedules. Some figured if a little bit of interval training was good, and a lot was better, a tremendous amount would be best. Unfortunately, this attitude displayed more enthusiasm than discretion. During the late 1950's and early 1960's the battle ensued, with more and more emphasis being directed toward the number of repeats rather than to their quality. Such workouts as sixteen 440's with one to two minutes' rest were reportedly used by some world class swimmers; forty 100's with one minute rest between efforts by the German swimmer, Gerhard Hetz; and one hundred 50's with 30 seconds' rest by Hetz and others. In the summer of 1961 the writer tried the latter workout with his team on two occasions and, although two trials do not constitute a fair trial, decided that if it took this kind of workout for a swimmer to get in top shape, his team would have to remain mediocre. It did not seem logical that in order to train for a 100-, 200-, or 400-meter race, a swimmer should have to swim such workouts as 100 x 50. This workout, aside from being monotonous, could not be tolerated over a long period by athletes of normal intellect or above.

A swimmer uses not only his body, but also his mind while swimming. If he leaves his career in competitive swimming prematurely, it is usually for one of two reasons: lack of success or boredom. Many swimmers train and compete for as long as ten years or more. However, if a swimmer is exposed to the same type of routine day after day, year after year, he will not always be challenged either physically or intellectually. A coach should not be merely a person who assigns the difficult work that brings about maximum physiological adaptation; he should also be a person who educates and challenges his swimmers. He may be considered to be a teacher who always has a bag of tricks, and can approach the problem of training with intelligence and enthusiasm.

In order to illustrate best the different physiological changes which occur with the use of the different methods of training, let us turn to animal research. The superiority of animal research to determine the effects of various types of training programs over using only human subjects is obvious, inasmuch as we can dissect the animals to measure and observe physiological changes. Prokop, in experimenting with hamsters swimming with varying loads of 18 per cent, 36 per cent, 70 per cent, and 100 per cent, discovered that an experimental animal's heart developed to its maximum size when as little as 36 per cent of maximum training load in terms of intensity was applied to the animal in an interval training manner. When the load was increased to 70 per cent and then to 100 per cent (repetition training) there was no additional hypertrophy of the heart. In applying this animal research to human training for swimming, it would indicate that, so far as conditioning the swimmer's heart is concerned, a series of short swims at a moderate speed, such as the 24 x 50-meter swims with 10 seconds rest between each, described above, would condition the heart as well as would swimming the 50's at 70 per cent effort or at an all-out pace.

A review of the literature on dry land exercises for swimmers reveals a list of over 500 exercises. One book lists almost 200 such exercises. Most of them are of doubtful value; certainly the average coach or swimmer does not have time to wade through this miasma. Almost any form of exercise will contribute to the organic fitness and general strength of an individual, but the Herculean task of running through a long series of daily exercises which may or may not contribute to a person's speed and endurance in the water lacks appeal for the average competitive swimmer. He is interested in getting the most benefit from the time and effort invested, and for this reason should not engage in exercises of dubious merit.

In many respects age-group swimming is a preparation for life. The hardest worker in the pool does not always win the race, any more than does the student who studies the hardest always make the best grades. Every age-grouper can learn, however, that to get the most from his potential he must apply himself and work hard, intelligently, and consistently. The transfer of this principle to everything he does and will do later depends on the effectiveness of the program in which he is involved in achieving the objectives described above.

The important concept that conditioning is nothing more than physiological adaptation to the stress of exercise is constantly repeated to the swimmers. To get maximum adaptation the swimmer must, therefore, expose himself at least occasionally to near-maximum stress. In order to put across this idea, the terms hurt-pain-agony are used. For example, a swimmer must begin doing a set of repeat swims, such as 15 x 100, at a fast speed. These will hurt him at first, but after he does a few it will become even harder to keep each 100 at the same speed as he progresses into the pain area; finally, at the end of the repeat swims, it will be so hard to swim these repeat swims in the prescribed time that the swimmer will be in the agony phase of exertion. These terms are not scientific, but they do convey the idea of putting forth a hard effort, and they provide the mental attitude needed for this approach. We try to build pride in the ability of the swimmers to push themselves hard in this manner when it is requested of them. The other team members have contempt for a laggard or a person who does not put out in practice. Social pressure is thus imposed on him to produce in practice or be ostracized.

It is extremely difficult for an intelligent, mature athlete to form an identification with a coach who sets himself up as a dictator, and whose authoritarian manner must be accepted unquestioningly. Athletes of low intellect, weak or unstable personality, or those who are lacking in maturity, may respond to a martinet, but if, in a free world, we do not look upon such tactics with favor in other aspects of human relationships, certainly we should not in athletics.
It is strange to say, but something about Counsilman's writing reminds me of Leslie Farber, whose essays made the same kind of impression on me when I first read them...


  1. I thought this article from the Berkeley alumni mag would be of interest to you. It is about the Cal women's swimming coach, who has idiosyncratic and revolutionary ideas about training; I remembered it reading this post about the boredom of swimmers' training. Here's the link:

    Happy Holidays!

  2. And here is another, more complete article about the Cal coach and her methods:

    They include hip-hop dancing, yoga, Pilates and the like!

  3. Great stuff! I read a good book about Natalie Coughlin and Teri McKeever's coaching earlier this year--fascinating...