1606 HEADER practice as puzzle

For the swimmer or triathlete who is trying to figure out how to design his own practice sets, it might be a confusing task. Even experienced swimmers who are no longer competing or training for a specific achievement may find themselves aimless in choosing random sets just to break the boredom.

How much distance should I do? What length of repeats should I use? How many repeats? How much rest between repeats? What effort level? What time should I aim for on each repeat? What focal points should I use? What stroke count? What tempo? How will I measure success and failure?

Those are all proper questions to ask. But I acknowledge how overwhelming it can be when one has little formal experience for doing this, or for one who has no particular direction in mind.

Let me offer a different way to think about practice design which may make these decisions a bit easier to think through.

Practice As A Puzzle To Solve


1606 solve the puzzle 800x500

Design your practice set in a way that makes you swim into a puzzle that you must then work your way out of.

It can be a big puzzle or a small one. It could be a complex puzzle or a simple one.

The puzzle is to swim a certain distance with a goal of achieving a certain level of quality while you do it:  a) with a bit higher level of quality than you have done before, or b) holding a certain standard of quality under more challenging conditions.

For example a):

Last practice you could do a set of 4x (25+50+75) with 15 seconds rest, focusing on a ‘sneaky’ breathing to the left at 2 or 4 stroke intervals on one round, and then breathe to the right on the next round (alternating per round). Next practice you could increase the repeat distance to 4x (75+100) while keeping the same quality standard.

For example b):

You could take the same practice set of 4x (50+75) with ‘sneaky’ breathing and then require bi-lateral breathing on every 3 strokes.

On the first example, you kept all things the same and slightly increased the repeat distance and the total distance of the set (an increase in quantity). On the second example, you kept the distance the same and slightly increased the difficulty of the breathing standard (an increase in quality).

Your Puzzle

Let this puzzle fit your level of skill and fitness, not that of some other swimmer. ‘Workout’ sets are defined by quantities you must fulfill. So many of the workout sets available give you lots of ideas for quantities that apply to some mysterious, generic swimmer/triathlete out there in the imagination of the author – and then maybe offer you a bit more ‘personalization’, by suggesting different quantities for ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’, and ‘advanced’ swimmers. What are the chances that generic person a lot like you?

And, in those generic workout sets I bet too few give you any sort of instructions about the exact quality you need to reach or maintain in that set – how to measure success qualitatively. So I urge you to take charge of your own training and arrange the variables of quantity and quality to provide just enough to challenge for your brain and your body, not too much and not too little.

To do this you can adjust any of these Quantity variables to make it slightly more difficult or slightly less:

  • Distance of the repeat
  • Total distance of the set (to provoke more tiredness or less toward the end of the set)
  • Rest interval (the number of seconds or number of breaths)
  • Breathing pattern
  • Stroke count per length (add one, remove one, or hold constant)
  • Tempo (add tempo trainer or remove it, make it slightly faster or slower)

And you can adjust any of the Quality variables to make it slightly more difficult or slightly less:

  • Stroke pressure (adding a bit more power or less, or hold it consistent)
  • Focal points (one that is slightly more complex or slightly less)
  • Blending focal points (holding attention on two at a time)
  • Precision of a specific movement

In this way you can adjust the balance between how each performance system – metabolic, muscle and motor – is being challenged in the set.

You may choose to emphasize a challenge for the metabolic system, by putting yourself in a situation where you must perform when you feel tired, or breathing harder.

You may choose to emphasize a challenge for the muscular system so that you must apply more power than usual or sustain power for a longer duration than usual.

You may choose to emphasize a challenge for your motor system, by requiring yourself to be even more precise with each movement, or more consistent with a movement pattern.

All three systems will be involved in each set – you simply choose to hold a standard in two of them, then incrementally increase the challenge in the third system.  The puzzle is in the difficulty you face to hold both your assigned quantity and quality standards TOGETHER when the challenge level is slightly increased in one of those systems. Failure is when you allow one requirement to drop below the standard.

Yet, you actually want to have enough challenge so that you encounter some failure in your practice set in one of those systems. This failure will help you see where you need to work and where you are making progress. That failure can be provoked by tiredness, by the discomfort of higher power, by the difficulty of holding attention longer, or by requiring a higher level of precision than before.

If you are not failing a little, then the challenge level you have set is likely not enough to generate a satisfying pace of improvement.

Quantity And Quality

In our kind of high-performance-through-skill-mastery practices (as opposed to ‘workouts’) there are both quantity and quality objectives in each set, as I have pointed out.

Quantities are the things that can be measured by an external device, like distance, time, number of strokes, etc. Qualities are the things that relate to input coming through your nervous system – a sense of energy- economy in its various forms, like sense of effort, sense of fluidity, sense of relaxation/tension, strength of attention, ease of movement, precision of movement, ease of breathing, etc. When you think about it you see that Quantity and Quality are intertwined, interdependent, circular in cause-and-effect – that’s why both categories need to be addressed and developed together in practice. They cannot be separated because they each affect the other. This gives proper respect to the fact that both the somatic and the neurologic systems must be developed together in training.

So, you first choose a quality you want to either improve or strengthen. Improving a quality means you want some part of it to be more precise, to feel easier (i.e. it feels more automatic). Strengthening a quality means you want it to hold up over longer distance or in higher intensity swimming so that it becomes resilient under more difficult conditions.

Next, you choose starting quantities (listed above) where you can successfully achieve that quality standard. Over the course of the practice set you increase the challenge in the condition in which you must achieve that quality standard, until you reach a failure point. Then you keep working around the failure point until you solve it – whether you can do it in one practice, or it takes a few.

Provoke Some Failure

Let me emphasize this point – when you reach a level of challenge that starts provoking failure (which should be sooner in the set than later, otherwise you started too-easy), you can stay right there and work it for a while until your brain solves the puzzle and starts succeeding more frequently. Then, if you have time, attention and energy, turn up the challenge level a bit more.

If you are establishing a new skill, or some movement is below your standard for precision even under very mild swimming conditions, that is the puzzle itself – work on gaining that precision before turning up the challenge on the quantities. You have enough challenge on your motor system as it is. So you should choose a starting point that is as simple as you need it to be – use a rehearsal, a drill, or super-slow-motion swimming – so that you can just barely make the movement the way you want to. Your failure rate may be high at first, but if you can do it better even a few times you can stay right there and work it a while. Give your brain time to solve it and improve control – it takes time for the brain to build the support structure for those new signals. Your objective is to touch success and then repeat it, and then repeat it successfully with more frequency to give the brain time to build the circuits to support this repetitive movement.

Strengthening a skill for which you already have some basic control over requires increasing the challenge of the conditions in which you use that skill. You may be able to reach your standard consistently when conditions are easy, so now you need to learn to do it when conditions are a bit more difficult. Once the conditions of your swim set provoke some failure you know you’re working in a more suitable (for growth) level of challenge.

Open-Ended Practice

As you may notice, this creates an open-ended, organic style of practice. You have an objective in mind for the set, but you don’t think only of an endpoint fixed by some external quantity (e.g. “I must swim 800 meters in this set, good or bad!”). Rather you have laid out a path and you have chosen a quality you intend to develop over a certain amount of time available. You may not know how many meters it will ultimately take for you to make a breakthrough on this day. You keep going, either holding the challenge level until you solve your puzzle, or gradually increasing it until you reach a failure point farther along than previously. You have a process of stress–rest-adaption that you intend to follow over a series of practices, and in any single practice set in that series you may only know how far you could or should go for that day once you are working in that set.

Over the months and years, with more experience in doing this you will get pretty good at choosing the right amount of quantity and quality challenge, and finish sets closely to how you planned them. At first though, you may be doing a lot of trial-and-error in your choices. That is ok – it is part of the mastery process.

And, this becomes a component in an organic style training path – a series of open-ended practices that take you towards a specific performance goal. You have a skill-improvement objective in mind. You know where you are at right now in terms of performance (in terms of those metrics you are measuring in practice – you are measuring, aren’t you?), and you know what metric quantities you must be capable of to reach that goal. You have a process of gradually increasing the challenge on your three performance systems – to affect the metabolic, the muscular and the motor systems – so that you become capable of achieving those metrics. You understand that all three must be developed together. However, you don’t know – and no one can know, not even the most educated and experienced coach out there – how long it will take for your body to adapt to the demands of your goal. Yet there is a more intelligent and personally effective path for you to follow and there are many that are less.

Achieving certain quantities can be forced to some extent, and that approach, over time will lead to premature wear and tear on the body. The qualities of swimming are there to prevent that premature wear and tear – they protect your health in body and mind. But achieving these qualities cannot be forced. You have to work it at the pace your brain can build the circuits. The higher the quality your practice sets are – in terms of choosing just the right amount of challenge for all three systems in a proportional way – the faster and the safer you will be able to improve at your body’s best potential rate of development. 

So, for any given day, you have a puzzle to solve – a puzzle that fits your brain and body uniquely. Your brain needs to figure out how to achieve the quality requirement while your body, by automatic necessity, builds the fitness to support the quality standard you have set for yourself under the conditions you choose to swim in.

~ ~ ~

Part 2 coming next week!

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