How To Be a Master Athlete (Gold Medal Not Required) Part III: Tension/Relaxation


For this, the third and final installment of my three-part series, I will be discussing a critical trait shared by all high-level athletes: the ability to not only generate high amounts of strength (aka tension, or the ability to generate tension) and relax completely, but transition from one to the other in an instant.

This principle applies all across the sporting world, not just our aquatic wonderland, and I will be citing examples from other sports to help get the point across.  It requires both an outstanding work ethic and a solid mastery of the basics…the topics covered in my two previous articles, so if you haven’t read them, be sure to check them out before proceeding any further!

With that in mind, I’ll begin with a question: Do you ever watch the Olympics and marvel at how those swimmers make their events look so effortless and easy?

In a sense, what they are doing is easier: it takes less strain and effort for them than for a swimmer of lesser caliber, so let’s dive in and talk about why.

That’s not to say that they aren’t working hard – one need only witness their heavy breathing and exhausted expressions as the camera pans in on them after the finish – but they are doing so in a manner that is both efficient and powerful and enables them to generate so much speed and power over the course of their race.

Let’s consider some simple physics: the formula for Power (P) is Strength (Str) times Speed (Sp):  P = Str x Sp

Knowing that Speed equals distance divided by time, we can say:  P = Str x (d/t)

In plain basic English, this means that in order to generate large amounts of power, you need lots of strength, but utilized in very short bursts, as denoted by the variable “t” in the denominator.

Recalling basic division, we know that the denominator cannot be zero, but the closer you get to zero in this equation, the greater the total power output, especially when combined with a large value in the strength variable.

In swimming terms, the strokes and kicks of Olympic-caliber athletes are the epitome of efficiency, generating maximum strength/tension in minimal time.

To help drive this point home, I’m going to use boxing as a quick example, as it may be a little easier to understand and visualize.

Like I said, a master athlete is an expert at seamlessly going from maximum tension to total relaxation and vice/versa, and there is none better than Muhammad Ali.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was one of his many famous quotes, and when contrasting his relaxed and fluid movement with the oftentimes stiff and nervous stance and technique of his opponents, it’s obvious why he was so successful, and was referred to as “The Greatest.”

He would dance around the ring, loose and floppy…up until the point of impact, when every muscle in his body would tense up to deliver incredible amounts of power.

To delve into that even further, I’m going to paraphrase a famous karate practitioner, Dave Lowry, who suggests visualizing a single punch as a 10-frame video.  A novice will tense up (i.e. generate strength) in one of the earlier frames, while a more advanced athlete will only tense up in Frame 10.

Breaking down Frame 10 into ten frames of its own is where we enter the realm of the true masters, who only tense up at the tenth frame of the tenth frame.

I repeat what I said earlier: ”maximum strength/tension in minimal time.”

Master-level swimmers are experts at the same thing.  Each of the four strokes has both a propulsive phase and a recovery phase.  For kicks (pun not intended), let’s just replace the word “propulsive” with “power,” and you can easily see how our earlier equation applies.

When a swimmer (regardless of age) first learns a stroke, they are typically very tense for the duration of every stroke, in both the power and recovery phases.  They try to muscle their way through the water.

Needless to say, they neither go very far nor very fast.

There is a reason why it is called the “recovery” phase of the stroke – rushing and straining through it does nothing but drain energy, so take advantage of that and relax!

A true master, be they an Olympian or simply a dedicated athlete who has spent years honing their craft, generates the explosive power they need only during the power phase of their stroke, and completely relaxing during the recovery phase.

Consider the “dreaded” 200-fly, and the importance of this principle becomes obvious.

Granted, all of this is dependent on owning the basics of each stroke, which can only be attained after applying a great work ethic over many years of training.

This article has covered the what, but to delve much deeper into the how is a much larger topic that would most likely require many more articles, and possibly even some clinics or seminars.  Suffice it to say that if one wishes to become an expert at this tension/relaxation principle, one must spend a good deal of time and training; this is very difficult to try to consciously apply to the strokes, as they each happen so quickly.

That said, with the aforementioned time and training, the body will naturally become more efficient, just like when a kid learns to walk: at first, they are very tight and tense and don’t make it very far, but over time, they naturally learn to relax and loosen up.

Aside from that, having a well-rounded strength training regimen, learning how to tense/relax in other endeavors, and becoming a better all-around athlete will ensure a quicker mastery, aside from the many other benefits.

I hope that these three articles have proven useful, and feel free to reach out to me with any questions that you might have!

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