Here is a guideline for how to take a neurological perspective into your advanced performance training. So many students ask for advice on how to structure their practice times so we’d like to offer at least one idea for how to do that, though we could propose many paths. This is merely intended as a starting point, and as you practice you will develop you own improved and customized training plan based on all you learn from the TI principles and other sources.
DRILL – TEST – INTENSIFY – EXECUTE
We begin with Drills so that we can achieve the necessary neuro-muscular control over our movements. To swim at a certain speed or achieve a certain distance, comfortably, we need to be able to hold a certain pattern of movement under stress. We start slow and careful and build from there.
Then we move to the Test phase so we can objectively measure our current stroke skill, and set some goals for where we would like it to be. Then we begin a process of intensifying the challenge upon the neuro-muscular system, so that it will be incrementally challenged, given time to adapt and strengthen, then grow resilient under stress, and improve even more. Then we are ready to Execute our swimming goal.
After this, we can cycle through this path again to raise the standard for our swimming excellence.
We will propose some % of how to divide your time in practice, but we will not suggest how many days or weeks you should spend in each phase. The whole idea is that you are following your body and brain’s pace of learning, and with consideration to how much time you have available to train, and all keeping within your own intrinsic motivation. You will be in the best position to know when it’s time to move on to the next phase- if done well your body and your heart will draw you into the next level.
During your practice time spend approximately 80% on drills, 20% on whole stroke.
- Identify the problems in your technique.
- Break problems down into root skills that need to be learned.
- Use drills designed to build each one of these skills.
- Slowly start experimenting with these new skills in whole-stroke swimming between drill sets- just enough to see how they affect your stroke and what other skills you need to develop to make a new stroke work well.
When you are comfortable with the drills (and probably getting bored) and the skills are starting to feel natural it’s time to move on to…
During your practice time spend approximately 60% on drills, 40% on whole stroke.
- Get familiar with measurements of stroke quality by counting strokes per length (SPL) and by using a Tempo Trainer (or have a friend on deck do some stroke counting/timing to calculate your tempo) to get familiar with your tempo. [link to SPL and SR calculations]
- Set some training goals for the next several months of a certain distance or event, and a certain pace or time you want to swim.
- For your swimming goal (the event or distance) determine what your current average SPL range is, and what you need it to be for your goal. Also determine what your comfortable SR (tempo) range is, and what you need it to be for your goal. [link to swim metrics calculator or table]
- Do practice sets that involve lengths of drills, followed by lengths of whole-stroke so that you can carry the same sensations into your whole-stroke more and more easily.
- Determine what your limits are on distance that you are able to hold a certain SPL and a certain tempo before your stroke starts to deteriate or your effort level becomes exhausting. When your stroke count becomes too high, or the tempo starts to feel too fast to maintain, you’ve reached that limit.
During your practice time spend approximately 30% on drills, 70% on whole stroke.
A general principle to explain first: SL is the hardest skill to develop and the most dramatic difference between a good swimmer and an under-trained one. SR on the other hand is easy to develop yet does not necessarily reveal the difference between good swimmers and under-trained ones. The goal is to have a long SL, then be able to hold it as higher tempos, for longer durations, but not necessarily at the fastest tempo possible.
So in an overly simplified way the basic training strategy is: decrease SL as the highest training priority, then increase SR (while maintaining SL), then decrease Effort level as distance is increased and rest intervals decreased.
However, simply going for the lowest SL and the highest SR is not the ultimate goal. Each swimmer, for each event and stroke style, in various water conditions will have a different optimal combination of SL and SR. This is where it gets complicated and some professional analysis and advice can be very helpful.
But we would like to suggest a radical idea for your training plan: set a SPL range (for your desired distance or event) and promise yourself to never swim a length outside that constraint- this will discipline you to ALWAYS maintain focus on quality of every stroke. The idea here is that by disuse you will cause the circuits in your brain that supported poor swimming patterns to deteriate, and from persistent use cause the circuits that support superior stroke to become dominant, to such an extent that under extreme stress (distance, exhaustion, intensity, etc) you will have no poor stroke pattern to fall back into. You may slow down a bit, but you will remain balanced, long, and smooth even when exhausted. This is proven by so many other highly-technical (neuro-muscular oriented) sports, and it applies to swimming as well.
- Work on lowering your SPL by applying the skills you’ve learned from Balance, Streamline, and Propulsion.
- Acclimate your stroke rhythm to faster tempos with incremental increases in tempo- experiment and get familiar with how you will need to increase the recovery speed and fine tune the timing of the catch, with an earlier exit from the catch to accommodate the faster tempos. You can do this work without holding within your SPL limits when you make minimal effort your focal point for the fast tempo sets. You’re simply warming up the joints and neuro-muscular system to move quicker, but not straining them.
- Start training with certain specific SPL constraints and within a certain tempo range, conditioning your muscular system to support high-quality swimming.
- Gradually, increase the challenge on Effort, by increasing distance, and decreasing rest intervals. NEVER compromise your SL constraints so that the neuromuscular control develop to a superior level.
During this phase you are whole-stroke swimming 100% of the time, while applying various Stroke Thoughts and Focus Points mid-swim, even during a race.
By this time you should have familiarity with your SPL and with tempo and are confident you can swim your desired distance because you’ve practiced at that distance, and trained your system to maintain its stroke quality under stress, and achieved the skills and conditioning necessary to reach your goal. Even better, you will have such a deep intuitive familiarity with your well-trained neuro-muscular system that you can set your SPL and tempo BY FEEL, so in open-water without walls, or in the pool without the Tempo Trainer, you can set your stroke SL x SR combination with precision as a driver would shift gears in his race car.
This may be a race event, or simply a season of un-bounded swimming. Now you have the skills to asess, problem-solve and apply corrections to your stroke mid-swim.
New goals or finer sensitivity to quality may prompt you to cycle back through this process again in the next season, and hopefully by into an improved process you’ve modified to suit yourself and all the new discoveries you’ve made.
There are tons of advice that could be shared and and endless ideas for how to train. But this is where we will leave this essay for now and encourage you to learn as you go and seek out assistance often. We welcome your feedback, ideas and experiences so we can continue to learn as well.