Just follow the beat
The difference between winning and losing can be very small in elite swimming. Because of this, preparation for a race day is a matter of details. Expertise in swimming is associated with a consistent reproduction of stroke rate, stroke length, and swimming velocity. The better swimmers seem to be able to produce more constant stroke characteristics. A major contributor or determinant in this reproduction consistency is fatigue. When a swimmer gets tired, it’s harder to reproduce a constant stroke. Can we delay these effects of fatigue? Or can we make swimmers more aware of their (in)consistency?
Music vs. swimming stroke: more similarities than you think!
A very interesting approach to making swimmers more aware of their stroke rate is to do this by means of music. Music is known to have several performance-enhancing effects. Music may delay the onset of fatigue, enhance work capacity and provide swimmers with acoustic feedback. The latter may be very useful in improving motor skills, like stroke rate!
Music can be categorized into two types: synchronous and asynchronous music. The performance-enhancing effects of asynchronous music are mainly psychological, for example by increasing arousal. Besides psychological effects, synchronous music might have additional benefits. When hearing synchronous music, an athlete or any person for that matter would be able to synchronize their movements with the beat of the music. A movement template might be created which can be used to improve swimming technique. The process of movement and music synchronization is called entrainment. This might be useful to train talents in swimming to become more consistent in their stroke execution.
The theory is promising. But is it really possible to train swimmers with music? And when that͛s possible, are they capable of transferring the improved stroke consistency to a race without music?
The study included three 200m ͚time trial͛ races. During the first race, the average stroke rate was determined for each participant. Using an actual DJ application and waterproof MP3 players, the tempo of the music (BPM) was individualized to this average stroke rate and recorded on the MP3 players.
During six training sessions, half of the participants swam with this MP3 player and were instructed to synchronize stroke rate to the beat of the music. The other half of the talent group was instructed to train on a constant stroke rate without the aid of the MP3 player.
The results: promising, but not conclusive
After the six training sessions, the participants swam a second 200m time trial race. Were the participants capable of producing a more constant stroke rate? Unfortunately not. There was no difference in stroke rate consistency between the first and second 200m time trials. In addition, no differences were observed in race time between both races. However, measurements during the training sessions did suggest an effect of the rhythmical training on stroke rate consistency. When swimming
with a musical aid, swimmers tend to improve this consistency. Although we cannot state this with 100% certainty, it surely is promising!
So, the auditory rhythmical pacing seems to result in an increased stroke rate consistency during training sessions. However, the short training period (6 sessions in two weeks) likely resulted in a low transfer to races without this auditory rhythmical pacing. The time to learn simply seems to be insufficient. Possibly longer and more intensive training periods with rhythmical music would result in the desired outcomes.
Nonetheless, a lot of question remain unanswered. Did we use the correct individualized musical tempo? Is it truly beneficial to complete a race with a constant stroke rate, or should we implement pacing strategies? Is music truly beneficial, or would a simple metronome suffice? It͛s safe to say that follow-up research is necessary before jumping to any conclusions…