Overcoming Fear In Open Water Swimming

Part 5 of 9 – Automate Good Technique

Good technique enables you to swim with control over your speed and energy consumption, and to do this without injury. But to be of value under a stressful OW situation, that technique needs to be so ingrained that even under strain you can’t help but swim with good form.

Without going into the defense of the statement, excellent swimming is predominantly a neuro-muscular skill, in which the metabolic (fuel system) and the muscles act in support. [It’s interesting to note how many ‘retired’ young elite swimmers have stepped out of retirement and returned to elite level competition by taking up technique-oriented training programs. It makes me wonder what their first round swimming career would have been like had they begun in a technique-oriented program… ?]

Instead of suggesting how much one should spend on technique training in their practice, let’s just say a swimmer could not over-emphasize technique, and you cannot work on good technique without developing metabolic and muscle systems to support it. In open-water the benefit (the requirement even) of solid technique is magnified.

Imprint Good Technique

The goal is to imprint good technique so deeply that it becomes your default swimming style even under stress and exhaustion. Never practice poor technique, even for the sake of more speed temporarily (for with poor technique your speed will indeed be temporary, limited by physics, physiology, and/or injury).

Need more convincing? Click here for Terry’s comment on Sun Yang’s 1500 meter world record swim at the FINA 2011 Championships.

Deeply imprinted stroke efficiency is the key to distance swims and sprints. The neuro-biological fact behind this is that the brain will reinforce any circuits that are repeatedly fired by your movement patterns- good or bad. Practicing poor technique just to ‘get in the yardage’ is hindering your ability to develop good technique. It’s essentially digging neurological ‘ruts in the road’. Accepting your poor technique because you just want ‘a good workout’, hoping you’ll magically develop better technique because you have a bigger muscles is an enormous fallacy. What you practice is what you will perfect, and what you will fall back into under stress.

Slow Down To Speed Up

The counter-intuitive approach however is that precisely timed and placed motions must first be practiced at slow speeds- short, successful repeats of high precision, and tons of repeats- so the brain has time to build the circuits to support it (I always think of how I learned to play the guitar when I explain this- slow careful fingers eventually became fast careful fingers). As the circuitry gets reinforced the impulses between brain and body will fire faster, stronger, and more precisely- go read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle to better understand this biological fact.

If you are willing to slow down to practice technique and only apply more power or make those movements quicker as you can maintain that improved technique, you will, in the long run, reach a much higher performance level. Schools which produce a disproportionate number of elite performers in all sorts of sports, arts, and practices apply this principle in their training programs.

It’s not really a secret- recent neurological scientific research is just now uncovering how this works, yet these concepts have been practiced in other highly refined modern sports like tennis and golf, and ancient martial arts. It’s boggling to see how few swimming programs have caught on to this and apply it. Those programs that do have a serious advantage.

More importantly, for the sake of overcoming an aspect of fear in OW, the more good technique is deeply and exclusively practiced, the more automated those motions become. Then, under a stressful situation in open-water your conscious mind is free to deal with the conditions you are facing rather than trying to hold your stroke together- or worse, being flipped into survival mode and making poor choices, and wasting a ton of energy trying to stay afloat. Blub, blub, blub…

Deeply imprinted good technique will give you control over your swim under stressful circumstances.

Let’s talk about what we do with our mind now…

Here are the topics covered in this series:

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