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This post was first published as Part 4 of the Swimmer Speed Curve Series, but I have got the impression that it was mostly overlooked as tail-end of that series. It is an important topic in the conversations I am having with my athletes, so I feel I should call more attention to it by reposting again, under a more descriptive title. 

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Maintaining best form when energy is abundant is a great Level 1 accomplishment. That is really a good functional goal for recreational swimming, and that may be as far as some want to go – those who don’t intend to swim under common stressful conditions (think ‘getting tired’ in open water, long distance, racing, etc).

But if you intend to swim with good form, and maintain it under stressful conditions then you must train that good form in those stressful conditions.

Let’s divide a challenging swim into two zones – the Abundant Energy Zone and the Scarce Energy Zone.

When you first start your practice or your swim, you feel an abundance of energy and ease. But as the practice progresses, you use up that energy and the body starts to feel the scarcity. It gets more and more difficult to perform as you did at the beginning.

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So, what’s happening as we train?

It is challenging to develop superior form for the first time – while in that private lesson or workshop you may have an abundance of physical energy but the brain is really taxed while building new motor circuits for these new body positions and movement patterns. Eventually, those get ‘hard-wired’ into the brain (automation) and you can keep working on them for hours with relatively low physical energy demand. To make it easiest to build those new circuits for the first time this learning method deliberately limits you to working within the Abundant Energy Zone. When energy gets scarce the brain and body will compete for the diminishing energy – often the old physical patterns take over again and are reinforced, while the new patterns are neglected.

Once you can consistently apply your stroke skills to swimming a variety of distances or speeds within his Abundant Energy Zone you may regard that as a good Level 1 success. It is a fact that many people are content to stop progress there, for many acceptable reasons. They simply don’t want to drain all their energy in a swim practice – they have other things to do with their energy that day and don’t want a longer recovery.

However, you, like many others, may not be content to stop progress there because your intentions for swimming, your performance goals require more. Those goals will most likely require you to enter the Scarce Energy Zone and that’s going to be tough swimming, good technique or not. The only way to improve performance in that Scarce Energy Zone is to train in it.

Swimming in the Scarce Energy Zone is uncomfortable for everyone. But your training determines how much discomfort you will feel. You have to enter into that discomfort in your training time in order to learn how to remove it. When you train for physical efficiency under difficult conditions you experiences less physical discomfort. When you train for mindfulness under difficult conditions you experiences less mental discomfort.

When you start entering into the Scarce Energy Zone your skills will be probed more deeply, your weaknesses will be exposed – weaknesses that were not seen, or perhaps were easily tolerated with low consequence when energy was abundant. When energy is scarce, you are compelled to strip down the stroke even further to essential position and movement patterns to preserve and extend what energy is left. It is in this zone that you  really become sensitive to which details waste energy and which preserve it, which details enable you to get more work done for less expense. By training in this zone you will appreciate the details which truly achieve efficiency and become loyal to them.

In my interpretation Total Immersion training in Level 1 is meant to extend your duration in the Abundant Energy Zone (you can swim further and faster than you imagined with those fundamental skills, using just the power you already have available) – this is where you develop Easy Speed. And then Level 2 training is meant to extend your duration in the Scarce Energy Zone – this is where you develop Smart Speed, where you learn to generate more power and apply it with precision and intelligence.

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Level 1 training will extend your Abundant Energy Zone, allowing you to swim there longer than before.

Level 2 training will extend your Scarce Energy Zone, allowing you to swim there longer than before.

Now, add the two together and you become a swimmer who can go faster, for longer distances, as you please.

Improvement in one zone supports your improvement in the other. By working smarter in the Abundant Energy Zone you delay your arrival into the Scarce Energy Zone. Working smarter in the Scarce Energy Zone makes you even more sensitive to energy conservation when energy is abundant, which extends your energy further.

See how that works?

Take up a positive attitude about working your way into that Scarce Energy Zone where you intentionally go to find discomfort and weaknesses, so that you can learn how to remove those. It is there that those of you on the mastery path can work on those deeper levels to raise your swimming performance and experience to higher and higher realms.

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This topic of Energy Zones emerged out of a bigger discussion about the difference between developing Easy Speed and developing Smart Speed that I laid out in the Swimmer Speed Curve Series. From these attempts to explain the reality of the work is ahead on the path to marvelously fast and enduring swimming I hope you will catch an encouraging vision to work diligently toward your goal, in the smartest way possible. 

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