By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS
RYAN LOCHTE may be the best American male swimmer not named Michael. At the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens, he won a silver medal in the 200-meter individual medley, losing only to that Michael (Phelps, of course).
He also earned a gold medal as part of the 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay in Athens. And at the 2007 World Championships last March, Lochte shattered the world record in the 200-meter backstroke on his way to capturing a gold medal, serving notice for what may come at the Beijing Olympics this summer.
Lochte (pronounced LOCK-tee) swims 3 to 5 miles most days, sometimes even twice a day. Few non-Olympic hopefuls could, or would want to, replicate that kind of distance. But other aspects of the 23-year-old Lochte’s training (such as his use of fins and buoys) and routines (his dryland exercises) can be adopted by recreational swimmers or athletes, and perhaps even by parent coaches facing a rough patch with their teenage protégés.
Even though Lochte has been swimming since he was 9, he has not yet perfected his strokes. “I spend more time on stroke mechanics now than I ever have,” he said.
He also spends part of each practice slowing things way down.
“The only way to really work on technique is to swim very slowly and really think about every little thing that you’re doing,” he said. “How your body is positioned, what your hips are doing, the positioning of your shoulders and hands and feet.”
His coach is mindful, too.
“I always make sure that he’s very straight and streamlined off the wall,” said Gregg Troy, the head coach of the University of Florida men’s and women’s swim teams in Gainesville, Fla., and Lochte’s personal coach. Lochte, a former Gator, still trains with the team.
So Lochte tries to streamline underwater for at least 15 meters off each flip turn.
“If a swimmer pushes hard off the wall and remains streamlined underwater,” Troy said, “that means you’ll transition into your stroke with much more momentum. It’s almost as if you’re swimming downhill, not uphill. That’s very important.”
So is body position.
“I work a lot on staying high in the water, not fighting the water, moving with the water,” Lochte said.
To that end, he concentrates on keeping his belly above the water during his backstroke and he also frequently practices with a piece of buoyant foam (or pull buoy) between his legs. Using a buoy, Troy said, can be useful for swimmers, because “you start to feel proper body positioning, then you replicate that” without the buoy.
Grab the Kickboard
Perhaps the single biggest change in Lochte’s swimming routine from days past is the amount of pure kicking he does, sometimes with fins (his are standard, long fins) or a kickboard, sometimes without.
“Kicking stabilizes the body,” Troy said. “You achieve correct body position far more with the legs than the arms.”
Leg muscles require far more oxygen than the arms do, he added, so the legs “must be fit” or a swimmer risks early exhaustion.
“The amount of kicking that most elite swimmers do in practice has gone up at least 20 percent in the past few years,” Troy said.
He said that coaches used to have athletes kicking less because “it takes more time in the practices to kick than to swim,” so you get “less overall swimming volume.” But most of them have come to realize that less volume with more kicking produces world records.
Unlike many young swimmers, Lochte did not work out with weights in high school. His father, Steven Lochte, who coached him for five years when Ryan was a teenager and who remains the head coach at Daytona Beach Swimming, a competitive swimming club, didn’t believe in it for such a young person. “You should wait until the bones are fused and skeletal growth is finished,” Steven Lochte said.
Now the 6-foot-2-inch Ryan Lochte turns up, if not avidly at least punctually, in the weight room at the University of Florida pool complex. “Three times a week,” he said, “for an hour and a half, two hours.”
Using free weights and machines, he concentrates on his shoulders (which have tendinitis), his legs and his back. “I was already pushing myself in the pool as hard as I could,” he said. “So I had to find another way to make pushing myself possible.”
Before every pool session, Lochte (below right) and his Florida teammates pass around the medicine ball, do multiple sets of push-ups and 500 abdominal crunches.
“Ryan does probably 30 to 45 minutes of core body exercises three times a week.” Troy said. For mortals, “20 minutes probably twice a week should be fine.”
Bring It On
“I love competition,” Lochte said. “I always have. That’s my idea of fun, to compete against your teammates, to compete in races, to compete against yourself.”
Competition was necessary, in fact, to keep him engaged during practice as a teenager.
“He’d coast through the easy parts” his father said, sighing even now. “But the minute I said we were going to do time trials or races, he’d be the first one in the water.”
Now, Lochte is his own best rival.
“Every day in practice I like to see if I can maybe kick an extra meter farther underwater than I did yesterday or beat something that I did before,” he said.
He also advises setting attainable goals, perhaps one of the more overlooked elements of a fitness regimen.
“After the 2004 Olympics, I went and sat down in my coach’s office and we listed all the goals I wanted to meet before Beijing,” Lochte said.
On the list was setting a world record, and defeating Phelps, at least a few times. Done and done.
The moral: Even if you’re a fitness swimmer, incorporate competition and goal-setting into your routine. You don’t necessarily have to sign up for races, but aim to reach the far wall a smidgen faster than you did the day before, or try to break a minute in the 100-meter freestyle, a good benchmark for speed. Lochte’s best time in that event is 49.04 seconds, a mark he set Saturday at the USA Swimming Sectionals competition in Orlando, Fla. He said he would like to bring it down to 48.2.
“There’s a lot of doing the same thing in swimming,” Lochte said. “I’d go crazy if I didn’t race parts of it.”
“Of course,” he added wickedly, “it helps that I usually win.”
This is the first in a series featuring Beijing Olympic hopefuls, who will offer training tips and fitness advice for recreational athletes.
here is some more advise for drills
These drills, adapted from the workouts at Florida, should improve any swimmer’s kick, Troy said.
Sprinkle a few into your usual swim routine — but don’t do all of them on the same day. Use whatever kicking stroke you wish to improve.
Troy said that the drills can also be done with swim fins or a kickboard (above), but if you don’t use a kickboard, lock your arms straight above your head, fingers tented, like Superman in flight.
If you need more time between repetitions, take it. As you become stronger, reduce the rest interval between sets.
• 100-meter repetitions (or 100 yards in a 25-yard pool). A good basic drill. Kick 100 meters at a speed as fast as you can maintain, rest for 20 seconds, then kick for another 100 meters. Try to keep your pace consistent. Do 10 repetitions or work your way up to 10.
• 25-meter sprints. Kick 25 meters (or yards) four times, going faster each time. Rest for 10 seconds. Repeat, increasing your tempo with each repetition. Aim to do the entire drill two to four times.
• Speed work. Kick as hard as possible for five minutes, rest for one minute; repeat two to four times.
• Continuous kicking. Kick nonstop for 20 minutes, alternating hard 25-meter sprints with slower 50-meter recovery swims.