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What is a fast pool

“When you’re talking about 0.01 of a second deciding a gold medal instead of a silver, any and all extra friction matters,” says Jud Ready. (Credit: Georgia Tech)

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  • athletes
  • Olympics
  • speed
  • swimming

It’s not just fit, strong, and elite athletes competing at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo that make a swimming pool fast. Structural engineering and materials used at the venue factor in, too.

Everything—air flow, depth, and more—are in place with speed in mind.

In the United States, there’s no greater example than the McAuley Aquatic Facility at Georgia Tech. The facility hosted the Olympics in Atlanta 25 years ago. The pool continues to be one of the fastest in the world.

“There are three primary reasons why the Georgia Tech pool is still among the fastest, even after a quarter century,” says Jud Ready, an adjunct professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering. “Two are at the bottom of the pool and the other is at the sides.”

What is a fast pool(Credit: Georgia Tech)

The first is the depth. The McAuley Aquatic Facility pool, just like Tokyo’s, is 3 meters deep (about 9.8 feet).

“When you’re talking about 0.01 of a second deciding a gold medal instead of a silver, any and all extra friction matters.”

“When swimmers dive in to start a lap or strike the surface with their hands and feet, the compression waves they create rebound when they hit the bottom of the pool,” says Ready, who is also a principle research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

“If the pool is too shallow, the wave energy is able to bounce off the bottom and reach their competitors, negatively affecting their speed. Three meters is deep enough that the reflected wave cannot reach the surface.”

The second reason is the pool’s return jets, which are built into the bottom of the lanes. A typical hotel or backyard pool installs the jets on the side walls. But recirculating about a million gallons of water from jets every four hours would create a tremendous current either favoring or opposing the swimmers. So the facility returns the water by spreading it along the bottom of the pool through the use of rosettes.

What is a fast pool(Credit: Georgia Tech)

“All that water needs somewhere to go, and the gutter system is the third reason why our pool was built to be fast,” says Ready. “When swimmers produce waves that hit the side of the pool, the oversized gutters capture water rather than bouncing that energy back to the athletes and slowing them down.

“When you’re talking about 0.01 of a second deciding a gold medal instead of a silver, any and all extra friction matters.”

The gutter system must be wide and deep, which is important at the beginning of a race. When all the swimmers hit the surface at the same time, the pool overflows, not unlike dropping several ice cubes into a full glass of water. The gutters can handle the overflow because of the oversized dimensions.

What is a fast pool(Credit: Georgia Tech)

“Water goes in, but doesn’t come back out,” says Ready. “If the gutter system was shallow, it would fill up, bounce water back into the pool and make the surface choppy. This would create resistance against the swimmers, slowing them down.”

Other things at the venue aren’t as noticeable. For instance, the air systems are constructed to stream air down in a laminar flow from the rafters, across the water surface, and toward large fans installed on the opposite end of the pool. This removes chloramines and keeps the air fresh and odor free during competition.

“The water is also cold: about 77 degrees,” says Ready. “Olympians are working hard and generating heat during competition. Warm water would quickly fatigue muscles, so the temperature is kept lower than what is comfortable for a typical family day at the pool.”

Swimsuits have also come a long way in Olympic competition. Swimmers wore wool suits in the early Games, then went to silk in the 1930s. Nylon and Lycra would soon follow. Suits that mimicked shark skin were unveiled four years after Atlanta at the Sydney Olympics of 2000.

“A controversy occurred in the Beijing Games when non-textile polyurethane suits were introduced,” Ready says. “Numerous records were smashed because the suits greatly increased buoyancy and reduced drag. They’ve since been banned, and swimmers in Tokyo are in microfibers of nylon and spandex.”

25 years after the Atlanta Games, Georgia Tech’s pool remains among the world’s fastest

What is a fast pool

What makes a swimming pool fast? It’s not just the fit, strong, and elite athletes competing at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The speed of swimming is also created by the structural engineering and materials used at the venue.

In the United States, there’s no greater example than Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Facility, which hosted the Olympics in Atlanta 25 years ago. The pool continues to be one of the fastest in the world and will host the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s national championships this coming March.

Everything — air flow, depth, and more — are in place with speed in mind.

“There are three primary reasons why the Georgia Tech pool is still among the fastest, even after a quarter century,” said Jud Ready, an adjunct professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering who teaches a class about the materials and engineering concepts of sports. “Two are at the bottom of the pool and the other is at the sides.”

What is a fast pool

What is a fast pool

The first is the depth. Georgia Tech’s pool, just like Tokyo’s, is 3 meters deep (about 9.8 feet).

“When swimmers dive in to start a lap or strike the surface with their hands and feet, the compression waves they create rebound when they hit the bottom of the pool,” said Ready, who is also a principal research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. “If the pool is too shallow, the wave energy is able to bounce off the bottom and reach the competitors, negatively affecting their speed. Three meters is deep enough that the reflected wave cannot reach the surface.”

The second reason is the pool’s return jets, which are built into the bottom of the lanes. A typical hotel or backyard pool installs the jets on the side walls. But recirculating about a million gallons of water from jets every four hours would create a tremendous current either favoring or opposing the swimmers. So, the Georgia Tech facility returns the water by spreading it along the bottom of the pool through the use of rosettes.

“When you’re talking about 0.01 of a second deciding a gold medal instead of a silver, any and all extra friction matters.” — Jud Ready

“All that water needs somewhere to go, and the gutter system is the third reason why our pool was built to be fast,” said Ready. “When swimmers produce waves that hit the side of the pool, the oversized gutters capture water rather than bouncing that energy back to the athletes and slowing them down. When you’re talking about 0.01 of a second deciding a gold medal instead of a silver, any and all extra friction matters.”

The gutter system must be wide and deep, which is important at the beginning of a race. When all the swimmers hit the surface at the same time, the pool overflows, not unlike dropping several ice cubes into a full glass of water. The gutters can handle the overflow because of the oversized dimensions.

“Water goes in but doesn’t come back out,” said Ready. “If the gutter system was shallow, it would fill up, bounce water back into the pool, and make the surface choppy. This would create resistance against the swimmers, slowing them down.”

Other things at Georgia Tech’s venue aren’t as noticeable. For instance, the air systems are constructed to stream air down in a laminar flow from the rafters, across the water surface, and toward large fans installed on the opposite end of the pool. This removes chloramines and keeps the air fresh and odor free during competition.

“The water is also cold — about 77 degrees,” said Ready. “Olympians are working hard and generating heat during competition. Warm water would quickly fatigue muscles, so the temperature is kept lower than what is comfortable for a typical family day at the pool.”

What is a fast pool

What is a fast pool

During his MSE3300 classes about swimming, Ready also teaches about swimsuits, which have certainly come a long way in Olympic competition. Swimmers wore wool suits in the early Games, then went to silk in the 1930s. Nylon and Lycra would soon follow. Suits that mimicked shark skin were unveiled four years after Atlanta at the Sydney Olympics of 2000.

“A controversy occurred in the Beijing Games when non-textile polyurethane suits were introduced,” said Ready. “Numerous records were smashed because the suits greatly increased buoyancy and reduced drag. They’ve since been banned, and swimmers in Tokyo are in microfibers of nylon and spandex.”

Ready was a Georgia Tech graduate student during the Atlanta Games and has fond memories of visiting the Olympic Village, which was housed on campus, and playing laser tag with the Romanian wrestling team.

“Hosting the Summer Games certainly has its privileges. And 25 years after the Olympians left, Georgia Tech continues to reap the benefits of amazing facilities that are used by our student-athletes and campus community.”

Most of us think that pools are just for summer fun. But for an Olympic swimmer, pools can affect their entire career.

Pools are giant designs and engineering plans brought to life. There are two main types: slow and fast. A slow pool is the pool we would go to during the summer to relax, cool off, and have a good time. However, athletes, especially Olympic- caliber swimmers, prefer fast pools. Nick Arakelian, captain of the men’s swimming team at Queens University of Charlotte and a member of SwimMAC Elite, says a fast pool features unique characteristics that fit the needs of competitive swimmers.

Most swimming events take place during the first week of the games. Pool characteristics are important for many Charlotte-based swimmers.

“Depth is important,” Arakelian says. “Usually the deeper the better—around 9-10 feet. If it’s too shallow, you’ll worry about hitting the bottom during underwater turns.” Drainage systems are also important. These are supported by overflow gutters, which make sure “the water is constantly flowing out of the pool so you don’t have pushback from waves up against the wall.” This helps ensure that the swimmer cuts through the water smoothly. Temperature is also important, as is the right amount of chlorine to keep the pool sanitary and the swimmers comfortable. USA Swimming recommends a pool temperature of 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit for competitive events.

Features like these are included in the pool at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Arakelian’s SwimMAC teammates tell him it is a fast pool, and includes extra features for Olympic athletes. “One thing we can expect to see is backstroke wedges,” Arakelian says. “They’re retractable platforms that backstrokers can brace their feet on for a more consistent push, and they don’t let you slip down the wall.” Designs like these help swimmers feel more confident.

“The physical features of the pool can put the swimmers more mentally at ease,” Arakelian says. Fast pools enable swimmers to focus on their technique rather than their setting.

What is a fast pool

Perforated bulkheads and overflow gutters help water constantly flow out of the pool, preventing pushback from waves against the wall. This makes pool faster for swimmers.

If you dread the swim, here are some simple tips to help focus and energize your training.

If you are lucky enough to have pool or open water access right now, you are likely wondering how to maximize your time – especially if you have to make reservations or fit your training into a 30-60 minute blow. This article gets right to this with my seven top tips for getting faster in the pool.

Quality Over Quantity

You do not get faster by simply swimming more, you get faster by swimming well more. Swim speed is determined by approximately 80% technique, and 20% fitness. So, it’s crucial that your technique, or swim economy, is good if you want to be a fast swimmer.

If you are a beginner, it’s worth getting some lessons from a swim or triathlon coach, or you can send your coach some videos above and below the water. If you can, continue taking lessons every few months to make corrections and track progress. If you can’t continue with lessons, then continue to video yourself so you can critique your stroke on your own.

Frequency Over Volume

The more often you can get in the water (and swim well with good form), the better. I often say swimming twice per week is good for maintaining your swim, while swimming three (or more) times per week is good for improvement. Three swims at 2000 yards each is better than two swims at 3000 yards each, first because you’re swimming more frequently (fewer days out of the water) which will help maintain your feel of the water. It’ll also allow you to feel less-fatigued during those shorter sessions, which will help you maintain better form.

Become a Student of the Sport

There are many resources available, including websites, Youtube videos, and books, to learn proper swim form. Learn as much as you can about technique and swim training from the reputable online resources, and also from the best athletes and coaches available to you. Ask questions and reach out to your coach.

You can also save videos of Olympic or other accomplished swimmers demonstrating proper form, and rewatch them before your swim workouts so you can visualize them while swimming (this is something I like to do myself).

Love the sport

This is a really important one. Not everyone loves swimming to start, but you will likely never reach your potential at swimming if you don’t learn to enjoy it. A positive attitude will help keep you engaged with learning about technique and training. If you enjoy swim training you’ll want to work harder while in the water and you will be less likely to miss workouts, especially in the off-season.

Drills, Drills, and More Drills

Drills will make you faster. They will help improve your balance and your feel of the water—and improve your technique. Every new drill will feel awkward and hard the first time you do it, but keep at it: it’ll get easier each time you practice. Some of my favorites include six count drill, single-arm freestyle, and fist drill.

Kick It

Becoming a proficient kicker is also a key piece to being a fast swimmer. The kick not only propels you through the water, it also helps balance your stroke. It is crucial to learn an efficient, strong kick to become a competitive, fast swimmer, and this will require plenty of kicking sets during your workouts.

Work Different Energy Systems

Just like we do for the bike and run, it’s important to work different energy systems in the water, doing aerobic work, threshold work, and VO2 work at different parts of the season. Swimming straight for an hour can be good for building endurance, it is not ideal for improving swim speed or raising threshold or VO2 max. And on the flip side, if you’re doing several master’s practices per week which are primarily short, fast sets, be sure to also do some workouts that focus on aerobic endurance.

You can also figure out where your weakness is by swimming different distances, like a 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 at best sustainable effort, and see how your speed compares among the distances. If there is little difference between your 50 and 800 speed, it’s time to work some VO2 efforts. And on the other hand, if you have great top-end speed, but fade on the longer sets, start adding in more aerobic endurance work.

No Pool? You Can Adapt!

If you don’t have pool or open water swim access right now, swim cords are a great alternative for keeping up the muscle memory of swimming, and also for learning proper technique.

I’ve been leading weekly swim cord workouts for our team since March, and several athletes have found the cords helpful to maintain swim-specific strength and to learn the correct vertical forearm position out of the water. If you can’t hold your arm in proper position out of the water, you won’t be able to do it in the water, so doing the cords can be great for body awareness and also for building swim specific strength.

Those are my top tips for improving swim speed. I believe everyone can improve their swimming with the right focus – from the novice athlete to the athlete with a college swimming background. Happy swimming!