She dubbed it “possibly one of the best swims of my career!” (which is saying something), but when Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky posted a video of her swimming a lap of the pool while balancing a glass of chocolate milk on her head it almost broke the internet last week. The video, part of a social media #gotmilkchallenge, has had almost three million views on TikTok so far—and plenty of triathletes have been asking, “How does she do that?”
Well, we have a few answers for you—but be warned, you’re not going to be able to recreate it overnight. It’s an amazing feat of skill and strength that Ledecky makes look easy thanks to her well connected core, perfect head position, and tautness in the water.
Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, reportedly increased her strength and conditioning work after the 2012 Olympic Games, going from two to three dry land workouts a week, which clearly seems to have paid off—not just with more gold medals, but lucrative commercial deals and internet fame too.
Kate Ligler, a strength and conditioning coach who works with scores of endurance athletes, said: “Swimming the length of the pool with an unspilled glass of chocolate milk on her head is a testament to both Ledecky’s strength and stability, which didn’t develop overnight. Stroke dynamics aside, she’s got a well-connected, highly-conditioned core. The ability to control rotation of your hips and torso, in addition to maintaining your body angle (pelvis) goes far beyond throwing a few planks onto the end of your swim set.”
Ligler said that to achieve the kind of stability seen by Ledecky, you’ll need glutes that communicate with the musculature of your thoracic spine, as well as obliques and lower abs that talk to your chest and shoulders, and pelvic/thoracic stabilization work that challenges your entire posterior chain. All of these parts of the body need to “talk” to one another and you need to develop neuromuscular pathways in order to achieve the body position and technique that Ledecky displays.
She added: “While developing mobility and connectivity from your posture, through your core, and into your glutes might not land the rest of us in a vid for chocolate milk, it still might help you take a few extra seconds off per 100.”
When it comes to swim technique, Ledecky’s head position is picture-perfect. Except when turning to breathe, your head should always remain completely still in the water—as it does here. In fact, moving your head after breathing is what leads to so many problems with body position and alignment. If you’re looking to improve or just check on your head position while swimming, there’s a great head position test in Gerry Rodrigues’ Triathlon Swimming book. This test, in short, involves you drawing a black dot on the top of your cap and having someone stand at the end of the lane and take a video as you swim toward them. You should not be able to see that dot moving up, down, or laterally. If it is, then you have too much head movement. If it is stationary, then you have optimal head position. One easy way to fix or improve head position is by using a front-mounted snorkel (as Ledecky is in the video), as it can help you learn better body position and alignment without needing to turn your head to breathe.
Another secret to Ledecky’s success is tautness, which is the foundation from which good swim technique evolves. As Rodrigues stated in Triathlon Swimming: “When we swim, we want to hold our bodies with just the right amount of muscular tension or tautness. Too many swimmers ‘noodle’ their way down the pool. Developing tautness, or proper structural integrity, takes time…Accomplished swimmers learn how to hold their bodies in the water with great posture and tautness through the appropriate amount of muscular tension. As you build awareness and learn more about your mechanics, you can develop this ability.”
If you’re practicing this week and, despite your marvelous core work and swim technique, you still can’t swim a lap without losing your glass of chocolate milk, take heart from the words of Ligler, who added: “Of course, Ledecky might also just be superhuman.”