1511 test progress weakness header
Here is an excerpt from the instruction in the12-week Master Class 1K course inside our Online Coaching Program. It is describing the role of the test swim and guiding the swimmer’s response to it:

To test progress and reveal strengths and weak spots you need to take a test swim periodically. You will have one at the beginning of each stage, and then you will have your final 1000m test swim at the end, of course!.

Remember that the results – both successes, and more importantly, your failures – are just information which will show you how well new skills have been integrated into your swimming system. Data that reveals weak spots is good news because it shows you where you need to concentrate your effort in your precious practice times.

Success in this program is defined as improvement, not perfection. More specifically, success is indicated by an improvement in your external results because of a specific changes you’ve made in your internal control. Improvements in quality (it feels better, easier) come before improvements in quantity (it makes me move farther, faster), so don’t overlook those internal improvements when looking at your external results in the test swims.

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And, coincidentally, I just happen to be listening to the audio book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Peter C. Brown

book cover - make it stick

This quote came up at minute 17:53, in chapter 1 (underline emphasis mine):

It is true that we start life with the gift of our genes. But it is also true that we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create. In other words, the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. Understanding that this is so enables you to see failure as a badge of effort and a source of useful information ; the need to dig deeper or to try a different strategy; the need to understand that when learning is hard you’re doing important work; to understand that striving and setbacks (as in any action video game or BMX bike stunt) are essential if you are to surpass your current level of performance toward true expertise. Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.

The first main point they’ve made in this book is that testing is a tool that is very effective for learning when used frequently. It forces the brain to recall and strengthen the synapses where information and skills are wired, and to reveal which information and skills are not wired well – weaknesses – so the student (and teacher/coach) knows where to focus further effort.

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In another book I am studying right now – “Easy Strength” by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline, there is the discussion of Four Quadrants of Sports Training (and they emphasize the strength part of it, of course).

book cover - easy strength

From Chapter 2, location 1490 in the Kindle ebook edition:

Improvement in quadrant IV is all about assessing and addressing weaknesses. To acknowledge weakness is simple to say… Dealing with this realization to the point that the issue disappears is a whole different story, however.

The cliche’: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”… successful athletes seemed to have some inner guide that allowed them to constantly hone in on this simple insight and find ways to deal with their weaknesses.

In this book the authors describe four quadrants for training athletes (read it to find out about Q1, 2, and 3 – most of us are in Q1 and Q3 as swimmers). Quadrant IV is the realm of those who have a singular focus on one event to excel in (and specifically it is not a team sport – that would be Q2). Many reading this may not be in that elite realm but it is the right attitude to have for any aspiring athlete. It is certainly the Kaizen mindset and methods we practice in Total Immersion swimming.

In every training event and with online students I carefully monitor comments that reveal a negative attitude about weakness and failure. To train a healthy and positive relationship with challenge and failure is one of the chief objectives of our mental training agenda. Failure is a valuable ally, nothing to stir up an emotional storm for. (Need help with your emotional storm? Ready more about it in Mindfulness In and Out of Water.)

Note: Mind you, like with the ‘easy’ in TI’s Easy Speed concept, I think the ‘easy’ in Easy Strength needs to be taken in context also. There are smarter ways than others to get what you are after, and that is the point of the word easy, if I understand their intent correctly.

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Guidance For A Regular Test Swim

Choose an attractive, yet challenging test swim distance that you will do periodically (once a week, twice a month, each month, etc). It could be 50 to 5000, continuous or with intervals – it’s up to you.

For example, when in open water I like 3k or 2 mile test swims. (or some consistent course I set up in spot I visit regularly). When in the pool I like the 1500 distance.

Choose 1 or 2 focal points that give specific instructions to some part of your body or mind that you will use to direct and hold your attention during the swim. You may switch or blend those focal points at planned intervals in the swim. You may choose new focal points for each test swim.

Choose at least two external measurements (quantities) to take:

  • Total Time
  • Time Splits
  • Stroke Count
  • Stroke Tempo

Choose at least two internal measurements (qualities) to take:

  • Rate of Perceived Effort (check our Resource page for an RPE chart you can use)
  • Consistency of Attention (how well can you hold attention as intended)
  • Ease of Control (over those actions your focal points are directed on)

Do the same test periodically, keeping the same distance and the same conditions, as much as possible. This will allow you to compare the results and identify probably causes from changes inside your body and mind, rather than from changes in external conditions.

Your objective in this swim is to start out at a suitable pace which you will hold consistent for the entire swim – and that is your primary challenge – consistency on every single length.

You can choose to swim at moderate or high intensity – but consider what you are testing – absolute speed or speed efficiency?

If your goal is to test for an increase in absolute speed capability then you want to see how much more work your body is capable of (in terms of faster speed) compared to last time. More energy available means more work can be accomplished (or so one hopes). So, to expend all the energy available pick what you feel to be your highest sustainable pace (easily done by slightly adjusting your SPL x Tempo combo constraint) for that distance and do your best to hold it.

If you sustain a higher average pace than last time and feel you gave the same effort (RPE), then you can consider what factors in your training was effective for increasing your overall level of strength. By looking at your data, consider where weaknesses still remain. What weakness in internal control is still hindering external results?

If your goal is to test for an increase in efficiency for speed then you want to do the same amount of work (in terms of same speed) and see if you are able to use less energy to get it done. Pick the same pace for a series of test swims (easily done by setting the same SPL x Tempo combo constraint) and then measure for increased ease in holding that same pace. Subjectively measure ease using one or more of those internal measurements noted above.

If you sustain the same pace you did last time with less energy, less struggle, less resistance, less distraction then you can consider what factors in your training was effective for reducing the resistance working against you. By looking at your data, consider where weaknesses still remain. What weakness in internal control is still hindering external results? 

Keep in mind that it does not necessarily require more technical skill in order to become stronger as a swimmer. But it definitely does require more technical skill in order to be a more efficient swimmer – where resistance working against you (inside the body as well as outside) is reduced, enabling you to achieve the same speed with less energy. There is a time when a serious athlete must train for each, technique and strength. In TI we have strong recommendation on which one you should master first (as I discuss further in Two Essential Measurements) before going very far in the other.

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