Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Less Doesn’t Mean More

When I openly declared Dara Torres, the forty year old American swimming phenom, a cheat there was a strong and angry reaction. Much of it was directed at what was perceived to be my obvious ignorance of all things swimming. Apparently there are many who hold there is nothing more natural than an ex-Olympian who never medaled in an individual event until her second comeback at thirty three to return from retirement yet again, this time after recent motherhood and several more years away from the pool, to go even faster than before and rank as one of the world’s top female sprinters while nearly twice the age of the rest of the competition in less than two years. And yes I agree, that last statement’s a mouthful. One justification I gave for thinking she’s doping is the fact she trains less than thirty kilometers a week, half that usually seen by a swimmer at the Olympian level. This was jumped upon by several as proof I didn’t understand the training of a sprinter where the saying, “less is more” is often used to describe their regime. Well they have a point, not that I don’t understand the training of a sprinter, just that I should have made my reference to the time Torres spends in the pool instead of her kilometrage. Because the more time we spend in water the more we become used to moving about in it, and a better feel for the water translates into faster times. For most Olympians this means lots and lots of meters, thousands of kilometers of the stuff, where not only their strength, endurance and technical skills are honed to perfection, but stroke technique is imprinted to the point where little or no degradation occurs with fatigue. All this applies to sprinters too, though obviously with significant differences in emphasis: endurance needs are minimal and imprinting is not to counter the effects of fatigue but rather to mitigate the adverse affects of their high stroke rates. So their training rightfully incorporates a higher tempo to enable speeds which will bring their stroke rate closer to the actual turnover they’ll see in a race. Shorter distances, harder swims (which also better trains their fast twitch muscles) requires longer rest periods in between reps and consequently less overall kilometers swum, but certainly no less effort or time expended in training. And the expression ‘less is more’ is born. This knowledge isn’t some recent innovation; it was well appreciated by track sprinters back in the early part of the twentieth century. Since then we’ve continually refined and improved upon that knowledge and so can now better tailor a scientifically based program for swimming around a specific individual, but the basic understanding to race fast you must train fast is still unchanged. For example Bill Sweetenham, one of the most highly regarded swimming coaches in the world, incorporates this into his own programs by having his sprinters train up to a quarter less kilometrage than the rest of his charges. He's Australian, however, hailing from a country which has traditionally placed a huge premium on high kilometrage so he may well have a bias towards distance training. There are other internationally respected coaches who believe going even higher tempo with still less meters is the way to go. It will take some years to sort all the empirical data out to find out who’s closer to the mark and why. The really interesting thing about Dara Torres’ training is her approach doesn’t fit into either philosophy. It’s well documented she trains only five times a week, swimming between five and six thousand meters in the two hour long sessions which constitute her workouts. With less than half the number of practices normally seen by our elites everyone can see she’s got the less part down pat; I’m just having problems finding the more part. I say this because a workout between five to six thousand meters is standard training for non-sprint events, not the sort of minimal distance practice reflecting the speed the ‘less is more’ crowd considers appropriate. Once you rule out any possible advantage from her training, factor in her less than dominating performances at her first three Olympics, consider her age and the remarkable short time she's taken to make her comeback ... and I think there's only one rational explanation. Is there another?

Update: On November 18, 2007, three weeks after the above article was posted, the New York Times published an article interviewing Dara Torres and her coach Michael Lohberg among others which goes into some detail about her current training practices. There are some differences from what had been previously disclosed about her training as described above. She's training only ninety minutes a practice, not the normal two hour workouts I had assumed based on her statements about averaging between five to six thousand meters a workout. In addition the article makes it clear in the opening paragraph Torres is working a different program than the rest of the elite sprinters of the Coral Springs Swim Club, something much more in keeping with the needs of a pure sprinter and therefore considerably less kilometrage than would be the case for just shorter practices. So it appears Torres may be swimming only a third or less of the mileage of a typical Olympian, but at least she's training as a sprinter. The article, not surprisingly, does not go into detail about the changes her training regime has seen in the past few months. Consequently this new information may reflect a recently new program rather than provide a better description of her training from the beginning of 2006.


Anonymous said...

In light of recent events and Dara's openess about testing, I think it is safe to assume that she is not doping!

Scott said...

Well that's not an unreasonable conclusion but the cynic in me says its because she has faith that the performance enhancing drugs she's using, and which were designed to be undetectable by the current testing techniques, will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Anonymous said...

You are right to question her. See more details on her cheating at

Andy Geisel said...

You're of course welcome to your opinion, but consider this: First, she tests not only in urine but in blood as well. Second, if you have charges to level at her, and think she's using some particular type of "undetectable" drug, I suggest you forward whatever information to the Olympic Committee, as I'm sure they'd be interested in seeing it (not to mention Torres herself). Third, she only won silver, showing that another athlete beat her...I suppose we should look into the gold medal winner as well in that case. Lastly, many who actually know her (my sister being one) have stated that if she says she's not using, she's not. Her workouts speak for themselves and could easily have lead her to where she is. She's said herself, and I think this is a great point, that she's worked hard for what she's earned. Also, as an athlete (to date an honorable one as well) what makes you think she doesn't get that it would be a disservice to the sport for her to cheat, as you've implied? Personally, to me, this borders on an insult to her.

Not only that, but she's 15 pounds lighter today than when she set her previous records, and she's also using state of the art suit technology, which helps her (and other athletes) in the water. As a swimmer, you should know this.

All you've purported on this blog is your own opinions and extrapolated observations. Ultimately, you're not dissimilar to other conspiracy theorists, who love to assert things, but can't back any of them up with facts.

Bottom line: make the charge and back it up - don't sit here and hide behind a blog because of some personal agenda you have about Torres. Otherwise, drop it.

I've heard and read enough about Torres and how she's supposedly cheating. Not one of those rants has ever - EVER - put up anything that could counter her side of the story, yours included. This needs to stop and here's as good a place as any.

Come on...prove it or move on.

Scott said...

I stopped thinking things in this world were black or white when I was six. You seem to exhibit a distressingly American attitude to treat attempts to question any orthodox understanding of an event as the ravings of a ‘conspiracy theorist’. I hold that to be manifestly wrong and contrary to rational thought. Then, in the same way a radical Christian touts ‘Intelligent Design’ as a legitimate argument against the Theory of Evolution, you demand I either provide the proof which neither side can provide or relinquish my claims. I will do no such thing. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming she’s either cheating or has discovered immortality. Your choice of course, but personally I’m going with undetectable steroids.

My comments borders on an insult? My comments go way beyond insulting her. You think I don’t know about her participation in USADA’s pilot “passport” or “longitudinal” testing program? Let’s just hope they’ve frozen enough samples for the next eight years so they don’t run out. But to have the temerity to trot out she’s ‘only’ won silver as a justification left me gobsmacked. She’s forty one for gawds sake, only trained for two years after a six year hiatus, had shoulder surgery in November, her knee operated on in January – but despite all this is swimming faster now than she ever was. She’s the world’s second fastest sprinter at forty one, second only by a mere one hundredth of a second, when the ages of the women’s individual gold medal winners at this Olympics range from 19 to 25. Winning only relay medals and never representing her country in an individual event until her fourth Games her initial Olympic career can only be considered mediocre by most American standards. And who would dare argue with your sister who claims to know her and believes she’s not using PEDs? That’s an argument? I’d like to point out that this post argues at the very least her workouts are unimpressive, and to say she’s worked hard to get her medals is to ignore the far, far greater efforts of literally thousands of American swimmers, not to mention the rest of the world’s female elite. Do a search of my blog for Dara Torres, read all my related posts and their comments (including several who have made serious attempts to disprove my arguments), and then come back if you can with something I haven’t heard before. But don’t waste your time here with an opinion heard dozens of times before because it just doesn’t wash.

Anonymous said...

my geography teacher warns us not to waffle in anything we write as to not lose the interest of the reader. i'm afraid that is axactly what you did. i was looking for information on Dara and i get reams of waffle about sprinter's on tracks

Scott said...

Dear Anonymous: you seem to be confused. In this post sprinter is almost always used in reference to a swimmer who sprints (50 and 100 meter races only) compared to all the other swimmers who race distances from 100 on up. I only mentioned track sprinters once. As for your geography teacher she's perfectly correct if you want to write entertainment, but there are times in making an argument when some meandering is required, and the complexity of leveling charges of doping at Dara Torres with only circumstantial evidence at hand is definitely one of those times.

Anonymous said...

Well I acquiesce in but I think the post should have more info then it has.