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science of sport

Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 1500m freestyle in Beijing, China in 2008, talks with Head Coach Randy Bennett between sets as he prepares to compete in this year's summer Olympics in London,UK, during a training session at the Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria, BC.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

On the third floor of a concrete building nestled in a Saanich hillside, 16 people sit in a conference room, their laptop computers at the ready; a wall-sized screen awash in digits.

For more than an hour there has been talk of hemoglobin mass numbers, micro-cycles, training blocks and anthropometric test results. With the click of a mouse, there is data that dates back six years.

As the meeting winds down, the call goes around the table. It plays like a NASA prelaunch sequence with each department answering, "go or no go." Physiology, medicine, biomechanics, mental wellness, nutrition – everyone answers to the affirmative.

"We got a chip under his skin yet?" someone asks.

All this science and information dissemination is about one thing: putting Canadian swimmers on the Olympic podium – and the one most likely to get there is Ryan Cochrane, the hometown pride of Victoria's Island Swim Association and Canadian Sport Centre Pacific.

Cochrane was a rising star even before he captured a 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 1,500-metre freestyle event. Since then, he's won Commonwealth gold, Pan-Pacific gold and three silver medals at the world aquatic championships.

To stand atop the Olympic podium at this summer's London Games, the 23-year-old and his coach, Randy Bennett, have embraced CSCP and its Integrated Service Team of laptop-crunching, number-munching experts, all of whom are as passionate about their science as Cochrane is about getting wet.

It's a marriage of mutual conviction. Cochrane wants to do everything he can to outswim Chinese rival Sun Yang, the current 1,500 world-record holder, while Cochrane's IST wants to prepare him in ways he never imagined, all of them inspired by the late CSCP vice-president Gord Sleivert, who died suddenly in April after the Olympic swim trials in Montreal.

Prior to his death, Sleivert had said: "There's so much we can offer and we're in a good place. It's all about pursuing the dream."

Pursuing Olympic dreams is now a high-tech, systematic endeavour involving many fields, many voices. In Cochrane's case, there's a lot to consider.

His race is the longest in the pool. It's part endurance, part speed, part technique, all strategy. There are 30 turns, which means all are important but not critical.

"You can recover if you make a mistake," Cochrane explains during an afternoon break. "In the 1,500, there are so many races in one race. That's the challenge. That's why I like it."

Getting the 6-foot-4, 176-pound swimmer streamlined for the 1,500 involves a massive amount of work. Bennett says in hard training Cochrane "averages somewhere about 80,000 metres a week over 30 weeks, and about 14 or 15 weeks at 70,000. He gets a mental lift knowing he's doing a pretty significant level of work compared to anybody in the world."

But as Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine tells it: "It's not just swimming up and down the pool any more."

What makes Cochrane so good is his attention to detail and what he's doing when he's swimming all those metres. Specifically, he is concentrating on his stroke and maintaining elbow position on his catch (the hand that goes into the water). Proper positioning gives him a stronger pull and the better the pull, the more efficiently he can move through the water.

He's also thinking about other things, thanks to his IST adviser with a thing for numbers.

The Biomechanist

Allan Wrigley has done the math. Here's what the keeper of the technique has come up with based on six years worth of Cochrane's performance data: After examining swimming speed, stroke rate and stroke length over 10-metre-by-10-metre splits, Cochrane is at his best when he's averaging 1.71 metres per second in the pool.

If he does that over 1,500 metres, he'll clock in at 14 minutes 30 seconds, break the world record and win the gold medal.

"How do you swim 1.71 metres per second?" Wrigley asks. "You can do it a whole bunch of different ways. But consistently, when Ryan is going 1.71 metres per second, he's usually holding around a 40-stroke cycle per minute. He's usually holding 2.5 metres per stroke. If you do the math on that, that equals 1.71 metres per second. That works out to be no more than 35 strokes per lap. For Ryan, his size and the way he swims, we know he needs to hold down 35 or under to have a nice, strong and efficient stroke to hold enough water."

Wrigley is the man who video records Cochrane at the pool, analyzes what he's doing in the water then helps Bennett, the coach, go about fixing it. The beauty of swimming, Wrigley says, is it's evolving ever so rapidly and yet "we're not even close to the human potential yet …"

But to get Cochrane to swim his absolute best, Wrigley has more than numbers on his side. He has the tools.

In the gym, Cochrane and his Island Swim teammates get to train on the swim bench. They lay stomach-down, insert their hands through straps attached to pulleys then pull themselves up and down along a bench. Sometimes, there are mirrors placed below the bench so the athletes can see a different angle of their stroke.

"Like your elbow position on your catch; to make sure that you don't drop your elbow as soon as your hand goes into the water," Cochrane says. "When your arm goes into the water, you drop your elbow you miss the entire top 30 per cent of your stroke, where if your elbow is up you can have a strong pull. Its things like that where as soon as you get tired it drops off."

The bench is one thing; the "power tower" is something altogether more fiendish. It stands like a guillotine at the end of a pool. Swimmers wear a belt that's attached to pulleys designed to raise a large red bucket. As the swimmers swim away from the tower, they raise the bucket, which can be filled with water to offer resistance. Some swimmers can raise as much as 83.91 kilograms of water while merrily working on their stroke.

Cochrane loathes it.

"I get so frustrated sometimes because I go so slow," he says. He doesn't like to go slow.

"[Bennett] is using it as a technical adaption tool," Wrigley notes. "You can do a lot of strength training in the gym; do a lot of miles in the pool. But how do you marry the two? Fill these buckets up with water and start pulling on them. You'll feel it. When your hand slips and you're no longer hauling water, you get a jerk from the bucket. Neurologically, the athletes harness their power."

Wrigley does more than study Cochrane's every move and elbow positioning to catch more water. He also follows the competition. Video analysis of Sun's races is used to give Cochrane a sense of what to expect in the water. Sun, for example, likes to start slowly; Cochrane likes to get out in front early.

Full-on preparation is knowing when to challenge an opponent and anticipating the response.

"We can provide information to Ryan, 'When you turn at the 200-metre wall, likely if you look to your right, and Yang is on your right, you will be here on his body based on how you typically swim," Wrigley says. "How do you get Ryan head to head and really push him? You play to your strengths and you let [Sun] know tactically you're in that race."

The Physiologist

Liz Johnson's job is maximizing Cochrane's health and stamina to swim the race he wants, which makes her the keeper of the body. She tests Cochrane regularly – sometimes daily, sometimes weekly – depending on whether he's in a hard block of training, recovering or at a meet.

"With Ryan, we'll look at all the performance factors – times for the 100, 200 metres, his stroke rate, stroke count. From a physiological perspective, heart rate then blood/lactate concentration would be the two main physiological variables we'd monitor," Johnson says. "Both of those are indications of how hard and efficiently he's working."

For the past year, Cochrane has been giving blood and having his hemoglobin mass numbers charted and discussed. The Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary was the first to do the test in this country; CSCP is the only other doing it.

The test, says Johnson, "allows us to determine the absolute volume of red blood cells an athlete has. If you think about red blood cells, the hemoglobin part of that red blood cell is your oxygen-carrying capacity for the body. So in theory, the more red blood cells you have, the better you're able to supply oxygen to your muscles during exercise."

The hemoglobin mass number is used to determine how effective all the aerobic training has been. The number comes with an absolute range of 300 grams to 1,800 grams. World-class athletes aspire to become members of the so-called 1,000-grams club.

Cochrane's hemoglobin mass counts are a confidential matter.

As for his anthropometric test results, skin-fold measures are taken on eight specific parts of the body then calculated to tell if an athlete has gained or lost fat, or lean mass. Suffice it to say the guy who can swim 1,500 metres in less than 15 minutes is in fine working order. And Johnson plans to keep it that way, even to the point of enforcing the stay-healthy program with its hand-washing, crowd-avoiding practices.

"The one time someone gets sick it can completely wipe out four to eight years of work," Johnson says. "So it is incredibly important and I often feel like a bit of nag, 'Have you used hand sanitizers? Have you had enough fluids?' We try to cover off every detail."

The Athlete, Coach

In the end, it's up to the coach to channel all this science and make it successful. Cochrane and Bennett have worked together for eight years.

Bennett knows his athlete's moods and personality, when to push and when to back away.

Cochrane has matured as a swimmer and knows what feels right. Getting poked, prodded, pinched and measured doesn't always feel good, but it's the premise that counts.

"For me, it's nice to know that they're doing everything they can from a sports science side of it," Cochrane says, "that there's nothing that goes undone."

While some coaches could feel threatened by so many hands stirring the water, Bennett is eager for every bit of feedback he can get. His take is academic: He has a collection of PhDs at his disposal and they're all keen to calculate what Cochrane should eat, what dietary supplements he should avoid, how he feels and why it's important for him to discuss those emotions with his IST sports psychologist.

"I've worked on a lot of that," Cochrane says of his mental state for the 2012 Olympics. "Motivation was a huge thing for me this year, knowing why I swim, because I used to always say, 'Oh, it's a job. It's what I do.' That helps you get through the hard times … but to get on the top of the podium, it can't just be a job. It has to be a passion. So with all the sports science and having utilized it, it's important to prepare myself mentally as well."

Minus the computer chip under the skin, it's all there for Cochrane.

With weeks to go before his first swim in London (he'll compete in the 400-metre freestyle before the 1,500), there are still training efforts to tweak, blood to give and metres to swim. As the keeper of the athlete, the coach likes what he's seeing.

"I thought the 800 [metres] free he swam at the worlds last year and got second was probably the best race I've ever seen him manage," Bennett says as his prized pupil torpedoes through the water. "I definitely don't think he's swam his best race yet in the 1,500. That's what we hope to see in London."

This is the fourth story in a 10-part weekly series on the science behind the athletes' preparation for the London 2012 Games. Next week: Trampoline