Without a sufficient tune-up you might run into the problem I had today in practice. The following story will show you both my mistakes and my reasoning on how to correct it next time.

When I arrived the pool was (finally) a pleasant cool temperature rather than the hot, exhausting spa it had been last week. I was looking forward to repeating my practice from last week in the cool water, and making the set a bit more challenging since I would not risk over-heating.

I did my relaxed 10 minute ‘warm-up’ which included a ‘tune-up’ with focus on balance and lateral stability. However, last week, before I started the main set I also spent time trying to correct some specific trouble spots that had crept into my stroke – adding both extra drag and obstructed flow of force . In that tune-up I finally felt the magic and unlocked my stroke length further (back to where it should be). Today, I was too eager to get to my main set, assuming I would immediately recall the improvements I made last week. With the water being pleasantly cool, I thought I could just use the first part of the main set in place of the tune-up I did last week. I was wrong…

I used this Pace Matrix (below). My objective for this set was to expand my ability to relax at each Pace Combo- IOW lower heart rate, or make it feel easier.

I had assigned myself to start at  18 SPL x 1.17 Tempo = 24 sec / 25 meter Pace.   (Given a 6 meter glide from wall to first stroke, 3 seconds for turn and push off to first stroke at that 6m mark.) The set was to do 25m, 50m, 75m for each Pace Combo on the Matrix, working left to right, bottom to top. Starting first at 18 SPL, then 17 SPL, and finally at 16 SPL.

24 sec Pace 23 sec Pace 22 sec Pace 21 sec Pace
16 SPL 1.31 tempo 1.25 tempo 1.19 tempo 1.13 tempo
17 SPL 1.24 1.18 1.12 1.06
18 SPL 1.17 1.11 1.06 1.00
Last week, I had a magical tune-up and then started into this Matrix in a different sequence, and was accomplishing my targets with relative ease, usually finishing each length with 1/2 stroke to spare. But surprisingly, today, I was struggling to meet my SPL target from the beginning!

Now what was going on? Why could I accomplish this last week but not today?

  1. Was there enough energy in the system? Yes. If anything I had more energy today than last week.
  2. Was there enough muscle tone to convert that energy into force? Yes. I proved it last week.
  3. Was that force being delivered with precision? Obviously, No.

I ask Question #1 to see if there is any reason why I might be low on energy today.

I might be low on energy if I had exerted myself earlier in the day and had not replenished my strength. Or if I did something strenuous yesterday and was not recovered well enough. If I did not get good sleep last night. If I had waited too long after eating and was low on fuel in my system. If my body was diverting energy to take care of something else- like my immune system fighting an illness.

I ask Question #2 to see if there is any reason why I might not be ‘strong’ enough to do this assigned task.

Have I been able to accomplish this level of challenge before recently? Is there an injury? A knot in the musculature? Have I added a level of complexity that was not there before?

I ask Question #3 to start looking for where the transfer of force through the body is breaking down, where it is being wasted in poor timing or in poor placement.

I had enough energy. I had enough muscle power. But my brain was not in control of my best stroke today.

Here are my ideas for what went wrong:

The cool water allowed me to work at a higher heart rate with less discomfort. What this means is that I could get away with wasting energy without feeling the consequence of it internally. I felt ‘fine’. I only noticed this waste externally by seeing the affect on SPL and Tempo.

Therefore, I had the illusion of being ‘ready’ for the main set when, in fact, I was not. I did not make the warm-up enough of a tune-up: I did not count strokes and compare to effort so see if I had my stroke magic in place yet. I was warmed-up but I was not tuned-up.

As I finished the first row – 18 SPL Pace combos – I knew things were not right.  But I was curious about what would happen as I lengthened the stroke to 17 SPL and slowed the Tempo. Maybe I could find the magic after all, if I slowed that Tempo down. But still, I couldn’t find it. I had taken on too much complexity too soon with the longer stroke and the tempo beep. I was struggling to hit my targets after the first length on each cycle. Yes, something was definitely wrong. I should have stopped then and gone back to a simpler Tune-Up task.

But at that moment I felt the old instinct to finish the set anyway. Why? Well, in the old system of training, satisfaction comes from being tough, from finishing the assignment regardless of the consequence or waste. In that old system I was perfecting inefficiencies every time I permitted a stroke less than my best because I was loyal to effort instead of quality effort. In the new system satisfaction comes from from being smart – from interpreting the messages of failure accurately so that the practice can be adjusted in the moment to deal with the specific problem hindering me and make true progress, rather than illusory progress. In the new system I am completely loyal to efficiency.

I have no problem being tough – I don’t need to prove that to myself (or anyone) anymore. A high threshold for suffering has led me to injury after injury. But I do have to constantly work on being smart, so that I can keep making true progress without injury. I need this body to last, not just the rest of this swim, but the rest of my life.

I tried very hard to hold my targets on each length and finish the entire set with some success, but when I saw that I was surrendering SPL I either had to exert more force or lower drag. What questions should I ask at this moment???

What is my objective for this set? Higher heart rate or lower one? Was I training for power or for efficiency?

Efficiency. Lower heart rate. Use less force to travel faster.

So if I couldn’t find the solution to lowering my stroke count with a lower heart rate then I should stop.

I knew I was more than capable of lowering the drag – I should be able to hold a longer stroke at this tempo with relative ease. If I wasn’t able to it is not because I wasn’t working hard enough, it is because I was not working smart enough. My brain was not tuned-up. I couldn’t find my solution. I piled on too much challenge too soon in the practice.

I did finish the set to confirm I failed, then put the Tempo Trainer aside to just see if I could go find that magic stroke again. But I think it was too late at that point. I had too much tension in my body which made it both hard to relax and lower drag, and made it hard to let force flow smoothly. I needed more time to get there than I had left for practice.

Next time what will I do?

I must always start with tuning up Stroke Length – if its not happening as I know it should, then why would I not fix that first? Why would I move on to exert myself while running force through a less-than-my-best stroke? It’s like letting the strings on the guitar remain out of tune, or like letting the engine run with no oil and bad spark plugs.

I know where my stroke count should be at various effort levels. If I am not hitting it, then something is wrong. I have to figure out what that is and address it properly before I increase the challenge or stress on the system. Otherwise I don’t know if that stress is helping me or hurting me.

All this can be addressed in the Tune-Up.

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