Firstpost Masterclass: 'Swimming is more mental than physical,' Srihari Nataraj decodes various aspects of sport

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

If not for the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown situation, swimmer Srihari Nataraj would've been training in Australia, trying to better his time and achieve the ‘A’ qualification mark in 100 metres backstroke, which would've confirmed his spot in Olympics. But Srihari has adjusted to the new reality. He's working out in his home in Bengaluru and all extra time means he's picking out new hobbies like learning to play guitar.

Srihari, who has achieved the 'B' qualification mark for the Olympics, has been a serial winner at various national events, making a habit of breaking national records in his preferred backstroke event. In this edition of Firstspot Masterclass, Srihari decodes the various aspects of swimming. He talks about the training methods, diet, mental strength, body language and more.

We'll start off with a generic question. Why should people choose swimming as their sport?

Swimming in general is a very good sport for fitness, be it for cardio or flexibility. It's safer than running or walking because is no pressure on the joints. And also, swimming is a life skill. It teaches you about water safety. Swimming as a professional sport is very tough, the training and races are demanding, both physically and mentally, but at the same it's really fun and interesting.

What is the right age to take up swimming? Is it advisable to start young?

Yes, it is advisable to start young. I started very young, when I was two and half. A lot of people around the world also start very young. But it doesn't mean that if you don't start early, you cannot get into the national team or you will find it difficult to perform at the international stage. It depends on what you are trying to achieve. You can be a swimmer at any age, be it two or 50, it doesn't make a difference.

Tell me about your training schedule.

I usually train 10 sessions a week. I train in the morning and evening four days a week and only one session on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I also do the gym session three or four times a week. My strength and conditioning program depends on the season, whether I have a competition coming up or not. My swimming program, when there are no tournaments nearby, is not very intense. It's about working on the endurance part and technique. In the morning,  I wake up around 6.45 am and I usually train from 8 am to 10 am. My training in the evening is from 6.30 pm to 8.30 pm.

Can you talk about your off-the-pool training. What does it look like?

My off-the-pool training program is taken care by my strength and conditioning coach. It depends on where I am in the season. If I am close to a competition, it will about building strength and power – heavy lifting and all. After my return from a meet, it will be about recovery and working on stability. But it's hard for me to continue with the recovery program because in the past two years, I had to participate in back-to-back competitions so we stick to the strength and conditioning program. After I return from a meet, we largely focus on the stability part – muscle endurance and submaximal training. It's similar to what I do in the pool. Closer to the meet, the training in the pool and in the gym will be all about strength and once I return, it's about technique in the pool and stability in the gym.

Can you tell me about your diet? Does it also vary depending on whether you are closer to competitions?

Regardless of competitions, my diet is almost the same – home-cooked South Indian food. If I'm not training that hard then I might reduce it. Like now, in this period, I have reduced my diet. When I'm doing intense training, I might eat little more than I used to. But generally the food part stays the same. When I have no tournaments, I let myself go and have little more junk than I should.

During race day, I should have as much energy as I can so I consume a lot of carbs. If I'm racing in my hometown (Bengaluru) then I have a bowl of cereal and maybe a coffee without milk. After the warm-up, I might have some idlis (rice cakes) or slices of bread. Lunch is usually rice, dal and potatoes. Immediately after the race, I might have fruits like banana. In the evening, or before the finals, there'll be juice, either beetroot or orange and there'll also be a tender coconut in between. So it's about keeping myself energetic and hydrated. If I am at home, dinner will be like pasta or maybe a stuffed parantha. 

When I'm abroad or participating in nationals in another state, breakfast will be a good spread buffet at the hotel. I'll have some pancakes, omelette, potatoes and fruits. Wherever I go for tournaments, I try to find tender coconut for the afternoon. If I don't get my usual lunch then I stick with pasta. Potatoes are available everywhere so I request them to get me boiled potatoes. I have been following this diet plan since I was young. I have a lot of carbs on race day and it's something that works for me so I stick with it.

You know in certain sports, by the time athletes reach the highest level, they say it is all about the mental aspect because the basics are covered. Is it the same in swimming?

Yes, swimming is actually more mental than physical. A smarter swimmer can get better result than the strongest swimmer. In a sport like swimming, the mind will give up sooner than the body. Because of our experience, we know that some of the races will hurt more than the others. So it's about convincing ourselves to take that pain and if we can stay strong mentally then swimming becomes easier. So yes, mental strength plays a big role in swimming.

How do you work on your mental strength? 

For me, and this what I think works the best, it is about knowing that I have done my work before going into the pool. I have already done the work and there's nothing to worry about.  We just have to go and do the race as fast as possible. Also, I have to be very honest with myself in terms of efforts I have put in during the training. Everybody has to be honest with regard to their efforts because at the end of the day, we are doing this for ourselves. Usually when I go to the meets, I am very confident because I know I have done the work.

Why did you choose backstroke as your speciality? Was this entirely your decision? 

I actually didn't like backstroke at all. But in my first ever nationals in 2010, I swam the 50m fly (butterfly) and 50m backstroke. I trained only for the butterfly but I didn't make it to the finals. I hardly training for the backstroke but I came fifth. Then my coach made me focus on the backstroke and soon I broke the backstroke sub-junior national record. That's how backstroke started for me. I didn't find backstroke exciting. I like swimming butterfly, even now. It's one of the toughest physically. I know all strokes have aspects which are tough but butterfly is the most demanding physically. Backstroke is more technical. In backstroke, the one who has a better technique will have an edge over others.

What is the most important technique in backstroke swimming?

In all the strokes, the most important technique is 'the catch'. It's about how we enter, grab the water and push it. In backstroke, the balance of both the arms in the pool is very important. Because if one arm goes wide and the other is close to the body, you will start going to the one side of the track and will end up swimming extra metres which you don't have to. It's all about finding the right balance in the backstroke. Technique-wise, the arms play a huge role in backstroke.

What specific muscle groups do you target to get better at swimming? Do swimmers rely on weight training too or is it all skill-based?

It's mostly skill-based but weight training does make a difference. Depends a lot on the body size, genetics and even age. I have been weight training for quite a while. It also depends on the stroke. For backstroke, I try to maintain a balance. If I'm working on the legs, I also try to work on my shoulders, chest, arms and my back.

What is a backstroke ledge and why it is important for athletes?

So what used to happen is that athletes used to slip on the touchpad during the start of the backstroke. In 2010, the swimming governing body (FINA) made a ledge for the freestylers, so that you can generate the momentum from the back leg while jumping into the water. There was nothing for backstroke until 2014 and a lot of athletes used to slip. So FINA decided to make a ledge at a 10 degree angle with an anti-slip surface. Our toes should touch the wall, but the part of the foot behind toes is on the ledge so when we come up and jump, we get a leverage and don't slip. The backstroke ledge is about ensuring the swimmers not slipping and at the same time getting a good push off the wall. I have been training with a backstroke ledge for about two years and my dive with the ledge has become a lot better and I think I have forgotten how to dive without a ledge.

How important is a good start in swimming? Is it similar to sprinting in athletics, like a good start means you have an advantage?  

Yes, because in swimming, the fastest part of any race is the first 15 metres. If we have a good start then we will have a good momentum for rest of the race. If we can get a lead, it can boost our confidence. A good start can lead to a good race. In a 50 metres race, the start can make a big difference. The start and the underwater part of swimming after the turn can make a huge difference. I have been working on my start since last two years so yes a good start is important.

Breathing technique is also an aspect in your sport. How do you work on this? Do swimmers have any particular method or technique?

It depends on the athlete. In backstroke, swimmers usually take quick, short breaths, depending on their rhythm. In freestyle, a few swimmers take breaths every other stroke or every four strokes. It is completely up to the athlete. I used to do yoga but not anymore. We work a great deal on our lung capacity. When I'm in the water or working in the gym, I try to hold my breath when we work on the endurance program. For backstroke, we don't worry a lot about our breathing.

Michael Phelps has, in past, talked about the importance of aggressive body language for swimmers. Do you think a certain degree of aggression helps you swim well?

Again, it depends on the athletes. For me, yes. I am a bit aggressive. Also, it depends on the race as well. For 50 metres, I try a bit aggressive but for longer races, I tried to remain calm. Before the race, I'm usually calm. I focus only on the race, getting into a zone that helps me to concentrate. It changes race to race, tournament to tournament and my mood.

Do you visualise? How important is visualisation in swimming?

Yes I do visualise. It's very important for me. I go through all the outcomes, I go through the best way a race can go, I go though the most realistic way and also I go though the worst case scenario. I am used to doing this since a very young age. I tried to stay positive, I always hope for the best and visualise the same.

What are the possible injuries that a swimmer needs to be wary of, considering it is a non-contact, zero-equipment discipline?

We have to take good care of our shoulders because we rotate it so much. For me, if I feel any kind of pain then I back off. If I pull a muscle or get a cramp then I usually back off. It's important to stay safe and injury-free. The first rule of training for me is to not get injured. If I'm not injured then it doesn't matter to me if I have got three months of training or just a month, I'm pretty sure I'll do my best if my body is at 100 percent. So far, I haven't had any kind of big injuries.

Where do you think India is lacking when it comes to swimming?

 Firstpost Masterclass: Swimming is more mental than physical, Srihari Nataraj decodes various aspects of sport

'I usually train 10 sessions a week. I train in the morning and evening four days a week and only one session on Wednesdays and Saturdays.'

For me, I think it's about facilities. There are a few swimmers who get access to good facilities like the ones staying in Delhi or the ones training at the Padukone-Dravid centre (Padukone-Dravid Centre For Sports Excellence). Funds were an issue till 2017 but now I'm a part of TOPS (Target Olympics Podium Scheme) and I don't have much to complain because I have the support that I require. I was planning to go abroad around this time for better training and facilities but the lockdown situation changed that.

I want to say though that financial rewards and appreciation for the sport from the media was low but now it's increasing. Swimming is not a very visible sport for public. It's not very popular or important sport, but if you look at Olympics, swimming events produces many medals. Imagine if could get a 10-15 member team for the Olympics and if we can get medals from 50 percent of the team then India can significantly climb up in the medals tally. But yes, facilities are important.

Swimming doesn't need a lot of equipment, but are swimmers particular about the minute ones like say the brand of goggles?

So again, it depends on the athlete. Back in the day, before 2010, the swimmers used to wear the swim suit. Those suits used to make big difference to the performance so the governing body had to ban them. Whatever we use right now doesn't make that big of a difference. In terms of costumes, I have my preference and I don't like to experiment much.

I would say goggles are very important because it is about our vision. Goggles are about comfort, how well it fits around our eyes and how how well we can see out of it. A lot of swimmers wear mirrored goggles because it is really good. Even I used to wear it but now I have reached a point where I wear completely transparent goggles. It would look like my eyes are popping out but I get the best vision. I can see clearly and it doesn't make me feel uncomfortable. Some would say that wearing sleek goggles or low profile ones are better because it cuts the resistance but it doesn't work with me. It can cut resistance but if I can't see properly then it doesn't matter. So comfort is the most important thing for me.

Swimmers you look up to and why?

I have been fortunate to see a lot of India's greatest swimmers train. When I was two or three, I saw Rehan Poncha and Shikha Tandon train but yes, I don't remember much of it. And then I saw Virdhawal (Khade) and Sandeep (Sejwal) train at the KC Reddy Swim Centre in Sadashiva Nagar (Bengaluru). I remember having a conversation with them back then. I really looked up to Rohit Hawaldar. I read a article about him in a swim magazine and I used to keep that really close to me all the time. Once I came to know about swimming from around the world, I started looking up to Michael Phelps. Because of his work ethic and how he personified perfection. Now in swimming, I consider everybody my opponents, even the world record holder is my opponent.

Outside of sports I have a few role medals. Steve Jobs, again because how he demanded perfection. Also, Muhammad Ali. I would say he was one of the greatest athlete and human beings to live. I find inspiration in everything I watch or read. Lionel Messi is someone I really enjoy watching and I look up to him as well. He makes sport look like an art. That's what I try to achieve. When I swim, my strokes should look, good it should be beautiful. Michael Jordan too. Nobody played the game that Jordan did in terms of skills. Michael Jordan was the most complete player.

Any advice to young swimmers?

Swimming at the young age is just about having fun, that's what I did. For me, it about being the fastest. I used to treat every practice as a competition. I used to go, swim fast everyday and come back. That was fun for me. Keep it simple and listen to your coach. Everyone will come to a point where they have to take a decision on how to train and all but at the young age, it's just about having fun and learning the technique well.

Click here to read other articles in this series.

Updated Date: May 22, 2020 12:30:35 IST



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