Reply To: Ugly but fit swimming

Home Forums Coaching Swim Ugly but fit swimming Reply To: Ugly but fit swimming


Glenn Stephens

The notion that there is no relationship between the beauty of movement and performance is simply wrong.

While in graduate school and later as a professor at UCLA, I had the opportunity to watch some of the worlds best runners run at UCLA’s Drake Stadium and some of the world’s best swimmers (including Mark Spitz) swim at UCLA’s pools. And in many instances, these world class runners and world class swimmers were running or swimming alongside people running or swimming for fitness, triathletes, and cross training athletes.

It is seldom – if ever – the case that the faster swimmers or runners were moving ugly, but the slower people are around them were moving beautifully. The beautiful flowing effortless runners and swimmers (like 800 meter star David Mack) were also faster than the non-elite people working out around them. I once watched David Mack run a 51 second 400 (his 800 race pace) and it looked like he was running 60 pace.

Or for example, UCLA’s elite college swimmers swam more beautifully for example, than triathlete Ray Browning or life guard swim champ Craig Hummer, who trained at UCLA.

There are many reasons for the general close correlation between the aesthetics of movement and the efficiency of the movement. Genetics plays a role. Training in the sport from an early age plays a role. Coaching plays a role.

But one of the most important reasons that faster athletes look better doing it is – relaxation. Efficienct movement requires both the recruitment and use of some muscle groups and the relaxation of other muscle groups. Visually this manifests as a relaxed look. The athlete isn’t fighting their own muscles.

If you doubt my theory that prettier is nearly always faster, watch the final portion of a track race. Particularly in the sprints, the order of finish is nearly always pretty closely related to the relaxed appearance of the athletes. Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt invariably looked more relaxed than the athletes around them.

In contrast, as sprinters tighten up and tire, they strain their necks, grit their teeth, which generates rotation in their shoulders, their arms tighten, they clench fists, and all of this upper body “noise” reduces the power and efficiency of their strides.

No one in middle distance running history showed this mix of speed and relaxation and beauty than Seb Coe. Watch this video – Notice Coe’s relaxation compared to Cram’s?

Another runner who stayed relaxed and running pretty as others tightened was Lasse Viren. Look at this video of the Montreal 5000. Viren looks better than the people around him. Quax rigs, Dixon is running ugly, Hildebrand has his head sideways.

What is the practical training point of all this? Rather than telling triathletes that it is okay to swim ugly (which is a prescription for them ignoring the need to stay relaxed and swimming pretty as they tire), you should be counseling athletes, whether running or swimming to always practice good form, to always relax as much as possible at a given pace, and to imitate, as much as possible, the form and beauty of elite swimmers and runners.