Warming up for swimming success

Warming up for swimming success

Sarina Talip

16 December 2013: For a country that prides itself on its swimmers’ superhuman performances in the Olympic Games pool, the results from the London 2012 Olympics were, well, fairly depressing.

Australia took home only one gold medal at the Games, compared to six in Beijing 2008 and seven in Athens 2004. London was the worst Australian Olympic swimming performance in two decades.

But Courtney McGowan, a PhD candidate with the University of Canberra’s National Institute of Sport Studies, hopes to turn the swimming squad’s ailing fortunes around.

Courtney McGowan

UC PhD student Courtney McGowan is looking at giving Australian swimmers the edge by using warming jackets between swims. Photo: Michelle McAulay

The 24-year-old is researching ways to make swimmers swim faster, through technology outside of the pool.

Ms McGowan is trialling the use of 'hot jackets' with heat filaments sewn in to help swimmers keep muscles warm in the marshalling area during the crucial time between a swimmer’s warm up and race.
Great Britain’s Olympic track cycling team unveiled tailor-made, battery-powered 'hot pants' as their secret weapon at London – and won seven gold medals in the process.

Ms McGowan and her University of Canberra supervisors, Ben Rattray, David Pyne and Kevin Thompson, began by asking swimming coaches what disadvantages swimmers faced compared to other athletes.
The coaches cited having to remain in the marshalling area as one of the barriers for swimmers. They also mentioned the rapid cool down between a swimmer’s warm up and race. Ms McGowan, a track cyclist, also drew on personal experience to compare.

“Swimming is not like other sports. In athletics, athletes can kind of just run around, and in my sport, track cycling, I can finish a warm up 10 minutes before I get on a track,” Ms McGowan said. “With swimming you can’t do that. Swimmers usually finish a warm up 45 minutes to an hour before a race. This is a big problem, because research shows you should try to finish a warm up five to 10 minutes before a race.

“Another problem is that when swimmers dive into a pool they’re cooling down quite a bit as the water is 27C, and our bodies are 36C, 37C.”

From that preliminary survey with the swimming coaches, Ms McGowan developed four conditions to test among 16 teenage competitive swimmers from the Ginninderra and Telopea swimming clubs. The swimmers swam single 100m freestyle laps at a time for the research.

The first condition replicated what the Australian swimming team did at the London Olympics, and is still doing: a normal pool warm up followed by “getting into their tracksuits and just sitting down”.
For the second condition, Ms McGowan had her young swimmers put on a hot jacket after their pool warm up. For the third, she had them do a “dry land” exercise routine of medicine ball throw downs and box jumps for four minutes after their pool warm up.

And the fourth condition was a combination of wearing the hot jacket and doing the dry land exercise routine after their pool warm up.

Ms McGowan found the fourth condition – the combination of wearing the hot jacket and doing the dry land exercise routine – maintained the core temperature of the swimmers the best, and by doing so helped them swim faster.

“In terms of how much faster it made them swim, we were looking at half a second to three quarters of a second,” Ms McGowan said.

“Half a second doesn’t sound like very much, but James Magnussen lost the Olympic final by one one-hundredth of a second. It’s the difference between first and fourth place.”

But her most significant finding was that “what swimmers are doing at the moment – the pool warm up, wearing the track suit, doing the arm swings just before a race – is just not the best,” she said.

Ms McGowan also found the dry land exercise routine was as effective as the combination of the swimmers wearing the hot jacket and doing the dry land exercise routine.

But interestingly, she found that using the hot jacket by itself did little to improve the core temperature of swimmers and keep their muscles warm.

“So if swimmers want to go faster and want to use the hot jacket, they also need to use it in combination with the dry land [exercise] routine,” Ms McGowan said.

Ms McGowan, who received $1,000 by coming joint second in the University’s Research Festival’s Big Ideas Pitch for Funds competition in October, said that her next research project will look at swimmers swimming several races at a time.

“Our initial research tested [our theory] with a single race, but in swimming, no one swims just one race,” Ms McGowan said. “There’s always a heat, a semi-final and a final at least for that one race, and swimmers can usually swim two or three races in a session.”

Ms McGowan’s next research project will focus on how to use the passive heating of the heat jackets to decrease the total distance swimmers swim so they don’t get as fatigued.

As for Rio 2016, Ms McGowan has high hopes. “It would be amazing for Australia to become world number one again in swimming. And really, with swimming the most highly-funded sport, we need to win more than one gold medal.”