Any group of swimmers at any level is an interesting case study of their preconceptions about the do's and don'ts of swimming fast.
Denial and justification of specific training methodologies are the most fun to observe and debate. Having swum competitively for 20-some-odd years and coached now for over 15, I have witnessed some interesting concepts.
It was my interest in these debates that led me to get my MS in exercise physiology and apply it to my sport of choice, swimming. It is from my education and my experimentation as a National Team athlete and coach that I share with you a few of my favorite ongoing misconceptions:
1. Don't eat within two hours of swimming. You will certainly cramp!
Whoever coined this phrase or gave birth to this concept certainly didn't have my body. There is a significant percentage of swimmers whom I have trained with and have coached that need to eat right up to training time.
Have you ever tried to train on an empty stomach for three hours when you're only carrying 4 percent body fat? It doesn't work well. I'm not a huge advocate of jalapeno poppers or nuclear chicken wings prior to training, but I've found peanut butter and jelly or energy bars work great.
The sacrifice of tasting anything during warm-up, due to reflux, is counterbalanced with a solid block of energy to help you with prolonged duration at high intensity.
2. I'm not a great swimmer, nor will I ever be. I am a sinker, not a floater.
I love this one! This bit of philosophy tends to be used more as an excuse to not put in the time to adapt to an aquatic environment and learn to work with water, as opposed to punishing it.
Having worked with numerous Masters swimmers and multisport athletes who struggle with this concept, one thought always enters my mind: Relax!
Having swum or coached internationally for over 15 years, I can honestly say that the majority of world-class swimmers could be classified as "sinkers" due to their low body fat percentage. When trying to move through water at high speeds, body fat rarely can be regarded as an asset. Marathon open-water swimmers may have an argument, but the rest of us need to accept the fact that adding an extra layer of insulation won't assist us in achieving world-class status.
I realize that elephant seals and a few other aquatic mammals seem to excel with their elevated adipose tissue. What mother nature gave them in the form of high fat content was counterbalanced with incomparable hydrodynamics and skin composition. We're not so lucky.
Sorry about the lack of justification for holiday and weekend feeding frenzies. Let me reassure you that swimming has evolved to the point where the added buoyancy achieved through an increase in body fat is outdone by the unfavorable decrease in a strength-to-weight ratio.
3. Pulling with paddles is the quickest way to become a better puller, thus a better swimmer.
Paddles can be a dangerous tool to the inexperienced or technically challenged swimmer. The increased surface area that they provide has the potential to put undue pressure on parts of the shoulder that are sure to produce overuse injuries.