How elite coaches and former Olympians in the Florida Keys are taking customized swim training to entirely new levels.
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The Race Club started with the mission to put swimmers on the podium at the Olympic Games. Cofounded with my son, Gary Jr.—who won 10 Olympic medals in three successive Olympic Games—the Race Club was designed to help athletes become the best they could be. Thirty-three Olympians and 23 Olympic medals earned by Race Club swimmers through that period of time provided a wealth of experience.

In 2008, the Race Club changed its mission to become a teaching business, using what we had learned. By that time, I had retired as an ophthalmologist to focus on teaching swimming: not just how to do it, but how to do it well. That required a deep dive back into the physics that I had studied in college and a better understanding of every aspect of the sport. It even required challenging some of swimming’s conventional wisdom and thought. Teaching has made me a much better student of the sport.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned is that swimming is not a “one-size-fits-all” sport.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned is that swimming is not a “one-size-fits-all” sport. It is complex because it takes place in water, a medium some 800 times denser than air. As such, the science behind the techniques we use to propel ourselves through the water come into play even at very low speeds. In essence, swimming is the most technique-sensitive sport out there—but ironically, few coaches seem to focus on swimming technique. It seems they prefer to beat you into shape.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no shortcut in the sport of swimming. Even with great technique, you have to train very hard to swim fast. It is not an easy sport to master. Both technique and training methodologies need to be customized for the anatomical, physiological and event differences among swimmers. However, there are some basic fundamentals of swimming that everyone who wants to improve should learn. That is precisely how we begin each Race Club camp. From that point on, the course varies for each swimmer.

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. Each camp begins with a discussion of the three universal laws that govern every swimming stroke we take: Newton’s three laws of motion revisited. It is important to understand where the forces that propel us through the water are coming from, how to reduce the powerful drag forces that slow us down and how we can take advantage of inertia. When it comes to augmenting the propulsive forces created by our hands and feet, a fourth universal law comes into play: the law of conservation of energy. We describe how certain movement patterns in the swimmer’s body, called coupling motions, apply this law and when timed correctly, add speed and distance per stroke to your swim. In freestyle, for example, coupling motions include body rotation and arm recovery.

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Swimming is a sport of detail and compromise. The details are the minute changes of shape, angles and timing that result in huge gains or losses in speed. The compromises come from the fact that the positions of maximum propulsion and the positions of least frontal drag are different. In swimming, we can’t have it both ways. So we must learn to compromise in order to come up with the best techniques for overall speed.

None of this would be possible without technology. Even as experienced coaches, our eyes on deck can only see so much. Therefore, we rely on three important technologies to help us improve your swimming speed: high-resolution video, the velocity meter and the power meter. Each of these tools allows us to study, analyze and recommend changes that would not be possible with observation alone. Most of our video is shot in 4K or HD resolution to allow you to see in great detail and in slow motion what you are really doing under and above water. There is often a disconnection between what you are doing and what you think you are doing. The velocity meter measures your body’s speed and acceleration at all times during your swimming strokes, allowing us to determine what motions are really causing problems—and at which times. I have learned more about stroke mechanics by using the velocity meter than from any other source. The power meter measures your propulsive forces and how well you can sustain them for 30 seconds or longer.

CUSTOMIZED APPROACH TO TEACHING. Our camps continue with a customized approach to each swimmer’s needs. In a step-by-step process, we start with one fundamental law and apply it to drills that help teach that fundamental. Then, we move on to the next. In this way we demonstrate how you can reduce frontal drag, increase propulsion and use inertia to your advantage with drills that you can practice at home. We then determine for each event distance the best freestyle technique for you to use: hip-driven, shoulder-driven or a hybrid. They are vastly different, yet each one has its place. We move on to determine your ideal stroke rate, breathing pattern and technique, and your baseline kicking speed. Then we begin training.

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If you are determined to become the best you can possibly be, you must not only create a swim, bike and run program that will enable you to do that, but you must also consider four other important disciplines in the process. Dry-land training, mental training, nutrition and recovery all require a well-designed program. You don’t necessarily need a coach in all four of these categories, as we provided for our Olympians, but you do need a program to follow for each one.

At the Race Club, we provide a dry-land program to improve your swimming, focusing on strength (particularly in the core and legs), flexibility (particularly in the shoulders and ankles) and stamina. We offer advice on nutrition and supplements, supported by our research and our own athletes’ experiences. We teach the techniques of mental training used by our swimmers and refer to specialists when more help is required. We stress the importance of recovery and all that it entails.

ONGOING COACHING. Whether you have attended one of our camps or not, the two worst thoughts you could possibly have with respect to improving your swim times are “I don’t need help” and “Hard work is all I need.” All swimmers, even Olympians, need help with their swimming technique every day. Good technique may not make you a champion of the swim, but bad technique will surely prevent you from getting much better, no matter how much work you put in.

The ongoing coaching needs of our Race Club swimmers range from none to all of the above. Currently we offer five camps per year in Islamorada, Florida, and two camps per year in Pacific Palisades, California. This is the first year we are offering camps specifically designed for triathletes. Since the camp experience is intended to get you started in the right direction, we feel an obligation to keep you going that way. For that reason, we offer private instruction year-round in California and Florida, whenever you can come. Over 90 percent of our campers come back for more instruction. For those who need more continuous help, we offer online coaching, where we set up a seasonal strategy, including goals, workouts and supplemental help, and schedule private Skype sessions to keep you accountable.

To further your understanding of swimming, I write a weekly Aqua Notes article on stroke technique that appears on Swimswam.com  as well as on our website. Every two weeks throughout the year, we release a new Swimisode containing four to five minutes of technical advice and support that appears on our website www.theraceclub.com/category/videos. You can find all of the videos we have produced over the past several years on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/theraceclub/videos  and on Vimeo at vimeo.com/theraceclub/videos.