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This is a continuation from the previous post The Speed You Must Earn.

Race day (if you like racing) is the great test of your abilities – this is the event most competitive athletes are focused upon. On that day you want to succeed in everything you have trained to be capable of. You are looking for positive results. And, periodically during your training cycle, you may do race simulations to see what you are currently capable of before race day.

But, there are another kind of test – test swims in the context of practice are about finding your weaknesses so that you can design practices to strengthen those. They are an essential piece of the feedback loop you need to make continual improvement. These test swims are designed in such a way to bring out your weaknesses, and these are different than race-simulations which are designed to bring out your best.

Though you should be pleased with the positive results in your test swims, what you really want to pay attention to are the points of failure. Therefore, the main emphasis of analysis of the test results is to look for the failure points and think about how those occurred in terms of your motor control:

  • When and where did you start to lose your ability to control your stroke length and rate?
  • When and where did you allow more drag to form?
  • When and where did you allow power to leak more rapidly?

Drops in external quantities, in the externally measurable products of your swim (i.e. stroke count, tempo, time) are caused primarily by failures in your internal qualities (i.e. your ability to control your body). You do start failing when your energy drops, because you need energy to control your body. But when power capacity drops it is does not diminish evenly in all places around your body. The failure is specific to your motor system, not general to your metabolic or muscles – to distribute scarce energy the brain will preserve control on some parts and let go on others. The brain will favor the control points that are dominant, and sacrifice the control points that are weak. The weaker points of control get sacrificed first. Strengthening those are your major improvement opportunities.

Treat Causes, Not Symptoms

It seems too common now. It happened to us recently while taking our daughter in for examination on some imbalance that showed up in a blood test. But the doctors involved put their attention on treating her symptom without seeming to put in the effort to identify the cause. We were told something like this, “This problem might be [this], and it will probably not go away. Let’s put her on this treatment to boost things and perhaps it will normalize, the body will keep up, and she will feel better.”

It is definitely great to feel better, but what if this problem comes back because the underlying cause was not found and addressed directly?

Well, we would have just gone along with the gamble if it were a low-cost, low-impact intervention. But when we found out the treatment was not covered by insurance and we were going to be charged over $1000 for the temporary treatment of a symptom, we woke up and realized we could do a lot better than this for ourselves. For that $1000 we could do quite a few tests with an outside specialist to actually find out was causing the problem. If we were going to spend the time, money and effort, which would we want more: guess-work and temporary relief from the symptom? Or test-work and knowledge of the cause by which we might make a more certain treatment plan?

Follow The Clues To The Cause

The data results from your test swim will give clues about where you need to work. Soon after the test swim, you’ve got to replay it in your mind to see how a change in an external results may be related to a specific change in your motor control. For example, you may recall that something changed in your body on that particular lap when stroke count shot up. Finding these connections between cause and effect is crucial.

If you want to improve pace (making it more consistent, or stronger), you need to improve your control over how you spend energy. How you shape and how you move your body determines how energy is spent. By testing you’ll find out where you are wasting it, and where you are actually converting it into forward motion.

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Yes, you will notice strength diminishing and it will show up in the test swim data – but resist the urge to first blame your ‘fitness’. Beyond the vague sense of failing strength, determine exactly what part in the stroke is failing when strength is waning. Look for which specific parts of stroke control your brain lets go of because it can’t manage so much precision after a certain point. That is the technical question behind this perception of failing fitness. This requires searching out the weakness in qualities hiding behind the weakness in quantities. Fitness is only as good as the technique which directs it into forward motion.

Everything, including your fitness, is constrained by the quality of your motor control. (That’s the reason superb runners and cyclists can’t jump in the water and swim as well without training for it.)

For example, during a test swim you may see at some point a more dramatic shortening in your stroke length (= the stroke count goes up). This means that something in your stroke control is failing at that point during the swim to cause the body to travel less distance per stroke – specific movement patterns, with certain muscles, with certain neuro-motor circuits controlling them are weak and failing. When energy gets scarce, the brain wants to reduces output to some part of your stroke, and those happen to be the parts which you have the weakest motor program for. Those parts of the stroke which fails first under scarce energy becomes the focus of your Level 2 practices. It could be any part of the stroke, or several.

Once you start doing test swims to measure the effect of your training, you will be able to see how an improvement in this one part (or many) translates into an improvement in your stroke length (in terms of improved length, or maintaining consistent length), which, coupled with steady tempo, translates into a more steady pace control during the test swim. You may be surprised to learn how much your ‘lack of fitness’ is actually a lack of strength for a specific point of motor control, not the whole act of swimming.

Put Your Technique To The Test

You do not leave technical training behind at Level 1. In Level 2, you put technique to the test to find out where it is weakest then build those points up under precisely designed, incrementally increasing challenges – these are self-limiting practice sets. You can lift weights (in the gym or with kick boards, pull buoys and hand paddles) all you want, but your sustained speed in the pool will always be limited by your ability to convert that power through technique into forward motion.

So, if you are discontent with your pace improvement, and suspect that you have now graduated out of easily-gained speed, you are invited to step into the realm of ‘testing for technical weaknesses’ under more challenging swims to find out at what specific points your stroke control needs strengthening. Please insist on treating specific causes, not symptoms.

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