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I received a request from one of you to talk about building stamina.

Stamina is defined as ability to withstand hardship, to maintain strength over a longer period of time. I might add to this by saying stamina is the ability to be stronger than the hardship facing you and maintain that strength longer than the ordeal lasts.

What Is Stamina For?

Stamina is obviously critical for swimming, short sprints or long distance. But there are different kinds of stamina and your training approach determines which one you get.

First, what do you want your swimming stamina to do for you?

  • Do you want to be able to repeat thousands of rough rhythmic movements to burn energy indiscriminately – like churning a path plowing through the water with a plow?
  • Or, do you want to be able to repeat thousands of precise rhythmic movements which conserve energy meticulously – like slicing a path through the water with a scalpel?

One swimmer may have the stamina to swim 1000m fast. Another has the stamina to swim 1000m fast and efficiently. They both require stamina, but of a different kind. One requires normal stamina in order to get the job done using a lot of energy. The the other requires specialized stamina to get the job done with a lot less energy.

One spends his time in the pool doing something called a ‘workout’ where he is training the brain to tune-out the pain signals so he can push muscles and metabolism to get tougher and stronger. This is hard work.

The other spends her time in the pool doing something called a ‘practice’ where she is training the brain to tune-in to the pain signals, interpret their meaning, respond with wisdom, and improve in such a way to reduce pain and suffering which frees up more energy for even farther/faster swimming. This is even harder work.

A Special Kind Of Stamina

Developing the ability to swim farther/faster is hard work for everyone, any age, any talent or skill level, using any method. To swim farther and faster with minimum energy expense is even harder work because it requires absolute focus of the mind, as well as the careful effort of muscles and metabolism. The wonderful bonus of mindful training practice which is taught in Total Immersion is that even-harder-work can be more enjoyable than the merely hard-work .

So, it has never been a question of whether you have to work for it or not. It is a question of how you are going to work for it. If you are going to have to work for it no matter what – wouldn’t you like to know if there are more options available? There are – and one of them is more effective at achieving efficiency and it happens to be more enjoyable too.

What we build in advanced TI training may be called specialized stamina (versus normal stamina) which will support the specific technique that enables swimming farther/faster at minimal energy expense. It is ‘specialized’ because the sustained production of power in swimming must be combined with skill for delivering it with precision, otherwise there is a lot of waste and there is premature exhaustion. It is precision of position and movement pattern which keep unnecessary drag at a minimum. It is not enough to just have a strong cardio system and strong muscles – just observe the wonderfully fit triathletes who get out of the swim leg stressed and exhausted far more than the should be. (Being ‘first out of the water’ is not by itself a thing to admire in a triathlete, if he is only going to get spanked by the others on the next two legs because he could swim fast but not efficiently.)

Special Stamina then is not merely strength to endure, but intelligent strength to exploit ways which reduce the hardship one is enduring, to reduce the amount of strength necessary and then use that savings to increase performance.

Put in plain swimming physics terms, normal stamina is your ability to overcome both unavoidable-drag (created by any vessel, any shape moving through water) and unnecessary-excess-drag (created by deficiencies in your technique) to swim farther/faster. Special stamina is your ability to overcome unavoidable drag while resisting poor position and movement patterns which would create unnecessary drag so that it takes less energy to swim farther/faster. The first requires great strength to endure. The second requires great attention to detail, along with that strength to endure.

Quantity And Quality

Let me review the two features required for efficiency training (which I talked about previously in Two Essential Measurements) which build this special kind of stamina. 

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Every special-stamina-building practice set need both a quantity and quality objective – efficiency that lasts longer is built only when both are required, developed and measured in these practice sets.

Only in this way can improvements in external product (results in speed) be clearly connected to the more efficient use of energy inside the body. Speed can be generated in a more-expensive way or a less-expensive way – what you require of yourself in practice determines which one you get to use on race day.

In this kind of a practice set you choose a quality to improve or strengthen – this is some stroke control feature that you know you need to work on. These can be any improvement in body position or movement patterns which:

  1. reduce drag, and
  2. improve leverage for power without increasing drag to do it.

Here, I won’t bother to list any or all of the Total Immersion standard focal points because they are all designed to do one or both of those objectives above.

Then you set the variables of challenge conditions in which you will work on that stroke control feature – a quantity:

  • Physical Intensity (such as Rate of Perceived Effort or RPE)
  • Distance/Duration
  • Task Complexity
  • Water Conditions
  • Energy Zones

By thoughtfully arranging these variables to fit your current ability level, to challenge that ability it in just the right amount, you have a way to increase the challenge on your motor control skills and on your fitness at the same time – the quality control requirement becomes a ‘self-limiting’ tool which magnifies the metabolic training effect of the quantity variable. Success is determined by achieving both the quantity and the quality requirement of the practice set – hitting only one of them doesn’t count – because both are required to induce the brain to make a more efficient solution for the task. And you can make a short set or a short practice a lot more difficult (as needed to stay within your optimal training zone) just by increasing the complexity in one of these variables.

Special stamina is present when you are able to maintain that quality while swimming under more challenging conditions. The only way to get it is to practice for it with both a gradually increasing demand for quality under a gradually increasing quantity challenge.

In this way, special stamina becomes totally specific to the motor control skill that is being developed – making them integral to each other and efficient with limited energy. Training them separately is training the body to be wasteful of energy. Only in this both-together way do more efficiency motor control pathways and more efficient use of muscle units get learned and memorized by the brain and muscles. This is the way you develop special stamina.

Part 2 coming next week…

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