UB Physiologist, Swim Coach Team Up to Develop Scientific Training Program, With Striking Results

By Lois Baker

Release Date: October 12, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo physiologist and a UB swim coach have developed a training system that results in performance improvements two to three times greater than those achieved by Division I men's swim teams using traditional training methods.

The system allows the coach to develop an individualized, computerized program for each athlete that measures his speed at various stroke frequencies, charts his performance and sets new performance targets, rather than applying a standardized program to all.

This approach has been applied equally well to other sports: Both the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres have used parts of the UB program successfully.

A four-year UB swimming study, presented this summer at the VIII International Symposium on Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming in Jyvaskyla, Finland, reported that the UB-trained group improved an average of 8.75 percent over four years, compared to a 2-3 percent improvement by other teams in the conference.

"This is one of the few models available of science and technology applied to sport research and performance in a very specific way," said David Pendergast, Ed.D., UB professor of physiology and biophysics.

"It's the only program where performance in training is actually quantified -- where you can measure the velocity achieved at different stroke frequencies. It's also the only program that provides precise individualized training and direct feedback to swimmers."

The program is grounded in scientific data obtained through a "swim meter," developed by Pendergast and Albert Craig, Jr., M.D., of Rochester. Training is enhanced by using a computer-programmed, underwater, light-pacing system. The pacing system was developed by Pendergast, UB men's swim coach Budd Termin, and equipment designers John Zaharkin and Michael Zaharkin, all of UB. A patent on the system is pending.

Termin clock each swimmer's speed at increasing strokes per minute, and measure oxygen consumption and lactate production. (Lactate accumulates in muscle and blood during intense exercise and impairs performance.)

The data are plugged into formulas and transferred to graphs, forming a baseline stroke-velocity curve, along with a metabolic-velocity curve, which monitors energy consumption at various speeds.

Once the baseline stroke-velocity data are known, new curves are plotted, representing each swimmer's immediate goal. The athletes are trained to match the higher curve, (called "shifting" the velocity-stroke curve in swimming jargon), by increasing the distance the body covers with each stroke, thus swimming faster.

The light-pacing system comes into play at this juncture: Swimmers appear to have no concept of how fast they are moving, making it difficult to know if they are hitting their target training speed. The pacing system solves this problem.

A strip of computer-programmed lights is placed at each meter along the training lanes on the pool floor. As each swimmer enters the lane, the computer adjusts the lights to flash consecutively along the lane at the swimmer's targeted speed. If the swimmer passes over the light as it flashes, he is on the mark.

Once the swimmer matches the new performance curve, another is set.

"This method provides individualized training for each athlete," Termin said. "That's unique. The mainstream approach is kind of 'one-size-fits-all.' But the mechanics of each person are different."

Pendergast and Termin have been developing and testing the system for eight years. UB men using the system have improved their stroke frequency-velocity ratio by as much as 30 percent over a college career, Pendergast said. The basic method (without the light system) also has been used successfully with competitive runners, the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres.