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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Use Your Brain to Swim 100 Meters In 30 Seconds

According to Michael Chorost who wrote an enlightening article for Wired Magazine, 1.6 million Americans live without an arm or leg. And there are many more millions of people around the world who are also missing a leg or arm, hand or foot.

Some of these individuals participate in open water swims and are always well-deservedly supported and cheered on by their fellow swimmers and spectators.

In order to help these individuals, the American military is spending money to study limb replacements. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has a program to develop an arm that is directly controlled by neural signals with an ability to function almost identically to a natural limb.

With US$153 in funding, the scientists came to some surprising conclusions. MIT bioengineer Rahul Sarpeshkar describes the human arm as "...amazing. It does a lot of very intelligent local computation that the brain doesn’t even do. We don’t understand the coding schemes that biology employs. We don’t understand how its feedback loops work together."

Open water swimmer and podiatrist Dr. Lyle Nalli of the Talbert Medical Group concurs about the complexity of the human foot. "The foot is an engineering marvel. It can hold our entire weight and propel it and without pain or callouses. Try walking on your hands for a length of time; that hurts as does the blisters you'll get. Yet the foot has a delicate sense of touch such as anything sharp, rough, hot, cold, etc. Assuming a similar delta of signal speed between foot to brain and foot to spinal cord, the sensory input to the foot, like the hand, is also being handled locally.

Thus, those events in the water that require more usage of the foot could futuristically have a quantum leap in performance should we learn how to fine tune or harness this local neural activity. For example, the breaststroke has the greatest technical demand on the foot of the four competitive strokes. Could we statistically get the greatest percentage improvement compared to other stroke events?

What about water polo? Players extending higher out of the water. Will the goal size have to get larger to adapt? Will ball speed increase due to better leverage? So too could we see improvements have a great impact on open water swimming. It is not always a simple flutter kick, but at times one must tread water, do breaststroke kick, or transition from swimming to running."

So while coaches teach, video-tape and explain how to properly swim through the water, and swimmers think about what they do and how to get better, if the arm and legs employ intelligent local computation on how to move precisely, fluidly and efficiently, the swimming community has a long way to go before it truly understands how to swim faster and streamline better in the water.

At the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, researchers study what the brain does when limbs move. The neuro-scientists do not know how these neural firings form and influence thought, but also how they interact in instructing arms, legs, hands and feet how, when and where to move.

Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute’s Center for Bionic Medicine in Chicago described the body’s inner workings and proprioception to Wired Magazine. "There are muscle receptors. There are tendon receptors. There are capsule receptors, even skin receptors, all contributing in a very complex way that we don’t understand."

Scientists know that signals from the arm to the brain take 300 milliseconds vs. 30 milliseconds from the arm to the spinal cord. Gerald Loeb of the University of Southern California explains, "The moment-to-moment timing of the hand’s muscle contractions is dependent on sensory feedback that is never going to the brain. It’s being handled locally."

So as scientists, engineers, researchers, coaches and athletes learn more about how the limbs work and move as a result of neural activity locally, in the spinal cord, in the brain and remotely through artificial tools, one possible long-term benefit may enable swimmers to move through the water much more efficiently and powerfully. If directly our limbs either consciously or subconsciously in the optimal pattern and pace becomes possible, then the speed and strength, balance and endurance of swimmers will continue to incrementally increase.

Thinking about the future, how will coaches of the latter part of the 21st century coach their athletes? The mind, as open water swimming community is fond to state, may truly be 80% of swimming. If the mind and body can cooperate in currently undefined ways, perhaps swimmers of the future will be able to swim 100 meters in 30 seconds or across the English Channel in four hours?

Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines, but it took centuries for his ideas to be implemented by mankind. Likewise, moving through the water like dolphins is only a dream of contemporary swimmers. But who really knows how fast and streamlined swimmers will become?

Let’s see how scientists and coaches pick the brain of swimmers in future generations.

Photo above shows Natalie du Toit, the only amputee to qualify in an Olympic final, the Olympic 10km Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source

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