I want to describe two essential measurements we must include in every performance training set. If one is looking for genuinely efficient speed then there are two essential measurements to make in every swimming action:
- How does it feel?
- What does it produce?
The problem with noting how fast a swimmer went (or what place he/she got) in the race is that it doesn’t tell us what it cost that swimmer to produce that speed. Speed can be obtained at high cost or lowest cost (relatively speaking), and technique determines where each swimmer falls between those two. To some it didn’t matter how much it cost- the only thing that mattered was that she won. That may be fine for a one-off win, but that ignorance is not going to work for a career of winning and a lifetime of swimming. Competitors, and age, will eventually catch and crush an energy-wasteful athlete.
Time, pace, tempo, stroke length, etc – these only tell us what has been produced on the outside of the swimmer. They don’t tell us how well the swimmer used energy to produce them. For an assessment of the cost, the swimmer has to look inside the body.
Speed = the external result, what was produced by effort
Efficient = the internal cost, what was expended to produce that result
So, to evaluate efficient speed, to train for it, the swimmer has to work on both improving how it feels at the same time as improving how fast he goes.
How Does It Feel?
I don’t think much explanation is required for external results – how fast, how far – because this is so common and so easy to recognize and every program is aiming for it. Traditional swim programs have championed this cause for decades and countless swimmers have been indoctrinated into those traditions, not realizing there was any more to the speed equation than ‘hard work’. But measuring internal quality and emphasizing its importance requires some continual promotion because it appears to be so rarely discussed and taught by coaches. So let me talk a bit more about that (as if I rarely do).
Most of the measurements for the internal features of efficiency are taken indirectly, through subjective feedback in the body and in the mind. I wrote some more about the complexity of this in Judging An Efficient Stroke. In measuring internal quality of the action, the swimmer needs to look for (a few examples):
- it feels easier
- it feels smoother
- it feels more powerful (easier to generate more)
- it feels more slippery
- no pain*
* Note: we are talking about injury-pain or warning-of-injury pain. If this kind of pain is present it means there is a conflict inside the body and something is going to break down if not corrected. Recognize the difference of this kind of pain from the uncomfortable-but-healthy sensations that come with higher intensity activity.
These subjective sensations are indicators of how well or how poorly the body is generating and transferring force. These can’t easily be seen from the outside. They are ‘subjective’ because the swimmer must use his own nervous system and mental processes (versus using an objective external observer, or technology device) to detect and interpret these sensations. They are just as valid and authoritative as external measurements when the swimmer has been trained to use them. And these are the only instruments the swimmer really has to work with when swimming outside the controlled environment of the pool and away from coaches who are skilled in reading those signs from the outside.
It takes trust to develop and rely upon these subjective internal measurements. One must believe that they are:
- a) related directly to objective, external reality, and
- b) they are of critical importance to his swimming performance
If a swimmer trains to use these sensory tools they can be extremely reliable and empowering. They are essential skills when external feedback is hard to get in the middle of your big swim, or training on your own.
Here is the take home point: When you design your practices require measurement and achievement in both feel and product in each performance training set. Now, some additional theoretical discussion…
Analogy: A fundamental subatomic particle (like photons, electrons and quarks) in quantum physics has two simultaneous states – it behaves as both a wave and a particle at the same time. But when a scientist measures for one of those states it automatically collapses the other state (= it can’t be detected at the same time). There is no way known to science to measure both states at the same time (hence, Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle). It is assumed the object is in both states simultaneously… until it is disturbed by an observer trying to take a measurement.
That is the analogy that has inspired my way of discussing how to train for efficient speed, but you don’t need to understand (or even care about) quantum physics to use the concept. Just keep this idea: in swimming faster we have these two states we need to achieve at the same moment – internal efficiency (= using energy well) plus faster speed (= getting more work done).
When you enter into performance training you must prepare to achieve both at the same time, with equal value, (though my blog is filled with explanations for why efficiency skills should be developed prior to speed skills – like this one). Failure to achieve either of them is failure in the performance training set. If you are training for efficient speed you don’t sacrifice one state in order to increase the other. Rather, you discipline yourself more to reach and maintain both states. You require of yourself greater patience and greater persistence in the process to train both together. By this you gradually achieve more efficient speed because the efficiency you build at that speed creates the energy reserve by which you can jump up and start working on the next level. Fail to achieve a reserve and you have nothing to leverage to go to a new level.
Consider for a moment how a champion sets a new world record – where did that extra something come from to go faster than he/she had ever gone before???
They never swam that fast before, not even in practice. Yet, it was not magic that they suddenly did. My theory is that their special kind of practice (intentionally designed to do this or accidental) produced a reserve of energy through efficient-speed training (opposed to power training) and that reserve became available at the critical moment, at the race they scheduled to be in peak form for.
Power training simply consumes available power while efficient-speed training finds ways to use less power to get the same amount of work done, and then makes that saved energy available to accomplish more.
I see a kind of quantum relationship between ‘efficiency’ training and ‘speed’ training to boost one to the next level. I can describe this as a bundle of reserve energy (a quanta, or packet) that must be stored up before the swimmer can jump to the next level.
I propose that the problem in swimming is like that in quantum physics, but fortunately a lot easier to overcome – the problem is that focusing on one state tends to collapse the other.
When one trains only with emphasis on external results he invariably gets expensive speed, and hits a speed limit far short of his true potential – he is working as hard as he possibly can, but his inferior shape, poor precision, and excess tension simply do not allow more speed. And when one trains only with emphasis on internal quality he gets easy-but-slow swimming. He may have wonderful shape and precision but he does not ever pump more power, more signal complexity through his system so it doesn’t grow. When one achieves only one state or the other this does not qualify as the compound state of efficient speed.
So, the essential practice design is to write in a requirement for both quality and quantity achievement on each speed-building set, and the essential discipline is to resist this tendency to allow one state or the other collapse; rather require both in order to declare success. Efficient speed training is the pursuit of both, together, always.
The reason this dual-state problem is far easier to solve in swimming than in quantum physics is that we are training a whole biological system and there are many physiological principles we can work with. It doesn’t require a strict linear training approach but laying it out this way it makes it easier for us to study and plan and keep sight of the priorities. However, these principles do urge a certain sequence, a stage-by-stage progression which I will offer this over-simplified summary of:
- First stage of training should aim toward making swimming easier.
- Second stage of training should aim toward holding that ease over longer distances (continuous and/or by intervals).
- Third stage of training should aim to hold that proportional ease as power is increased.
In this third stage one is more deliberately training for speed performance, though the two previous stages establish the critical foundation for efficiency that cannot be achieved otherwise. The swimmer builds an understanding, sensitivity, and control over internal body position, stroke quality and precision features which then can be monitored and maintained while increasing difficulty in the speed training stage.
In your performance practices join together both quality and quantity, internal feel and external product and let no one separate what physics and physiology require for truly efficient speed. Always discipline yourself to produce more speed in the easiest way possible – then add more power when you feel the reserve building up and are ready to challenge yourself to achieve this dual state on a new level. This is the both hardest and smartest training there is, and I argue, the most productive. This efficient-speed-building process is initially slower and requires patience and trust in the process – but that is why only masterful athletes achieve it. It is the only way a swimmer can genuinely achieve maximum speed potential within his personal budget of energy.
This is my latest way of explaining this process and the theoretical understanding behind it. I hope it challenges you to think in new ways about what you are doing, why, how it all works, then consider how you might do it even better.
Bonus: Practice Examples
Here are two pool practice sets pulled out of a 3-week series of them that I did a month ago that applied requirements for both internal quality (feel) and external speed (product):
4 rounds (3x 150 FR + 10 sec rest) with 100 BK easy active rest between rounds
Tempo Trainer at 1) 1.09, 2) 1.09, 3) 1.06, 4) 1.06,
Resist SPL change [results: 15, 15, 16-17, 16-17]
Quality control: make SPL easily consistent
I was a little run down this day, but didn’t know how much until I started the practice. So I set a starting tempo and then I felt how much I could hold SPL with ease. If I settled into a rhythm and felt I could swim more reps easily, then I would allow myself to increase tempo on the next round. If not, then I would remain at same tempo for the next round and give myself more time to establish that ease. This is how I provide time for my brain/body to adapt to the faster tempo.
In this set you can see that I remained at 1.09 for two rounds, then went to 1.06 and remained there for two rounds. I jumped more than 1+ SPL when I went from 1.09 to 1.06. I know by math that this 1+ SPL increase was not a good enough trade-off, but I would not allow myself to increase effort level disproportionate to my pace – that would mean I was training for waste, not efficiency. So, this day I realized I was struggling with energy and therefore with ease and so I did not push to faster tempo when I could not maintain proportional quality. I adjusted my expectations for the day and then took better care of myself that evening to prepare for the next day’s practice.
A practice from a week later:
4 rounds 500 FR with 100 BK easy active rest between rounds
Tempo Trainer at 1) 1.09, 2) 1.06, 3) 1.03, 4) 1.00,
Timed [results: 7.57, 7.46, 7.40, 7.31]
Quality control: keep it smooth at RPE 3, 3+ 4, 4+ (don’t go above high aerobic level)
I felt good this day. During each 500 I initially felt a little rushed then fell into a rhythm and it got easier. My general quality question was “Could I keep going another 500 with this tempo and ease? If so, I would increase tempo in the next round.
I didn’t count strokes because I was taking time measurement instead (two of three variables in the SPL x Tempo = Time/Pace equation will allow me to solve for the third variable). I glanced at my watch at 250 mark to see that I was on track to achieve a faster time for the swim. Combine that with my sense of ‘I could do another 500 in this state’ and I new I was achieving both of my dual-state performance goals – internal and external.
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