Some times, when discussing practice results with a swimmer, I get the impression that this person has a persistent expectation for improvement in one particular way, even if the practice set was focused on other metrics.
Here is a common example: in the first stage of training we have swimmers to pay close attention to Strokes Per Length (SPL), to notice the affect of changes to body shape and movement patterns have on the length of the stroke. Since, by far, most struggling swimmers have too short of a stroke length (indicating enormous drag), we start by helping the swimmer develop a longer, more balanced body line which naturally results in longer stroke length – that means traveling more distance with less energy expense. When that swimmer reaches a certain level of skill in balance and lengthening of the body, we expect that to produce an SPL count that falls within a certain optimal range (known at the Green Zone in Total Immersion). But then, upon reaching this desired SPL some people become fixated on holding that stroke length no matter what (or making it longer and longer), to the detriment of other variables in the swim speed and endurance equation. They think they have arrived at the ultimate variable, when they have only begun to explore them all. After reaching an optimal range of SPL, in the second stage the swimmer learns to switch stroke ‘gears’ and use SPL, Tempo, and Effort level as variables, as interdependent components in these gears. Just as a cyclist switches gears to suit his pace on a certain kind of terrain, we train a swimmer to have this stroke/effort variability in order to be able to adapt to a wide variety of events and conditions.
When a swimmer is ignorant of or blinded to the bigger picture of how speed works, to the complex interdependent relationship of these variables, he is more vulnerable to being fixated on a single variable. His training may become too tightly focused on that one variable, and his performance and his enjoyment of practice may suffer because of it. But when the bigger picture is understood and he has some idea of how to work with those variables to touch all performance systems in each practice set, his practices sets become an intriguing, problem-solving activity. Performance can be measured in a variety of useful ways, with excitement at what he will learn from the results.
The Speed Equation
These are the main variables we use in working on speed:
- Distance – how far one is going to swim
- Stroke Length – how far the body travels forward in each stroke
- Tempo – the amount of time taken for each stroke
- Effort – the amount of energy used to get it done **
Stroke Length x Stroke Rate = Speed
But this equation has no regard for energy expense. It is efficiency-neutral. When you insert the concern for Effort into that equation, you then get an equation for Efficient Speed. You can generate speed in an energy-expensive way or an inexpensive way. How you train and what you pay attention to determines what kind of speed you generate.
** Effort is determined by the arrangement of muscle contraction/relaxation throughout the body, which combination of muscle units are fired and at what intensity level. It is complex, it is internal, and because it is detected indirectly through the swimmer’s own nervous system it is quite subjective.
An example of fixation on Tempo could be given as well. Or a fixation on always swimming at a certain intensity level – high, medium, or low – with no variation. A fixation on one variable will result, by nature of their interdependence in the performance equation, in a neurological rut for the other variables, since they are always put into the same subordinate role. The swimmer’s performance will get stuck at a spot and go nowhere, and any attempts at generating more speed will be exorbitantly expensive in terms of effort.
So, your training path needs to account for all systems working and developing together – designing practices that touch all systems, and measuring changes in all relevant variables through your collection of objective data (measured externally by observation or device) and subjective data (measured internally, by means of your own nervous system).
Training All Three Performance Systems
The practice sets I design for my swimmers follow the principle of proportionality and the principle of variability – all the performance systems (metabolic, muscular, motor) are going to be brought into balance, then developed together, and stimulated in different ways and under different conditions aiming toward the swimmer’s specific achievement goal.
- Metabolic – your body’s ability to make energy available to your systems
- Muscular – your ability to convert energy to power
- Motor – your ability to direct power with precision, to get the job done
Each practice set is going to have a clear motor and metabolic demand – it will focus on building a certain skill under a certain metabolic intensity level. Then it will assign a certain variable to be held constant, another variable to be adjusted, and another variable to be monitored (but not controlled – just observed to note how it might be affected). There will be a ‘quantity’ objective (= how far you will swim, in what time for work/rest, at a certain Tempo perhaps), and a ‘quality’ objective (= how well you used your energy).
Then the product (the data we collect) of the practice set, in terms of both quantity and quality, will tell us a lot about what performance systems are strong and which have weak spots in need of attention.
These practices, over the weeks, also follow the principle of incremental increase in challenge. The next practice set in the series (on the next day this assignment is given) will be nearly similar to the first, but with an increase in challenge in just one of the variables. This enables the performance systems to adapt together as stress on the systems increases in small amounts – much like the months-long process Mt. Everest climbers go through in preparing their bodies for the summit effort during the staged journey up the mountain – the preparation for the peak is built into the process of going up it in altitude and steepness. As the challenge increases another step, one of the systems might experience no noticeable increase in stress, while another system certainly will. This approach restrains the stronger system from going too far ahead, giving the weak system time to adapt and catch up. This keeps all the performance systems relatively balanced, and reducing risk of injury and stagnation.
So, when a swimmer is working through a series of practices, he needs to be aware that progress can be registered in a variety of ways, not just in the one variable he is so concerned about. Progress must be monitored in terms of both the quantity and quality objectives. All three systems will experience improvement at certain moments in the process, not just one of them all the time. As challenge increases one variable may not change, or even appear more stressed than before. But when looking at the whole performance equation, he may notice that another variable has indeed improved. It might be a small change in a quantity which points to a quality improvement. Or it might be a small quality change which points to a quantity improvement. By following a carefully designed, sequential series of practice sets, by keeping track of relevant data from those sets – we can compare results and see progress in subtle variables he would not otherwise be aware of. With this awareness of the big picture a swimmer will find genuine cause for being encouraged by progress in one area even when progress is not seen in another area. It’s like getting excited to see the tree’s roots grow deeper in winter before spring comes and new leaves appear.
There are multiple ways to look for progress in a series of practice sets.
Let’s say you set up a series of practices that will have you start with 4x 200, at 1.36 tempo, with 30 seconds rest. You expect SPL to stay around 19 (for 25m). When you do this set the first time you feel tired between the repeats, but you can do this set with 2-Star quality (1 Star = Inferior; 2 Star = Acceptable; 3 Star = Superior). You may notice improvement in the next practice when you can…
- do 5x 200, with same tempo, same rest (achieved same quality at more distance, more metabolic stress)
- do 4x 200, with same tempo, with 25 seconds rest (achieved same quality with slightly less rest, more metabolic stress)
- do 4x 200, with 1.34 tempo, and 30 seconds rest (achieved precision quality at slightly faster tempo, more neurologic stress)
- do 4x 200, with same tempo, with same rest, and hold SPL more steady than before (achieved better motor control, repeated same level of stress)
Effort will most easily be measured in terms of breathing ease and holding attention easier than it felt before (the brain doesn’t have to compete for more scarce oxygen). By doing the exact same practice again, within a day or so, and holding all the variables constant, you can get a sense of how internal conditions in the body have increased their adaptation under the repeated stress – the same swim situation just feels better, easier to do. If you can do a slightly more challenging practice set than before, but with the same or easier sense of effort – that is definitely a sign that good things are developing inside your body! (Then it may be time to increase the challenge slightly.)
By holding all the variables carefully, then changing just one of them, you can then compare results and more easily see the subtle markers of improvement. It is confusing and frustrating to make changes in two or three of those variables and then expect improvements in two or three of those metrics. That’s not good practice – that’s just chaos. The basic scientific approach is to hold all conditions constant between experiments, change just one variable, test it again and record the result, compare to the previous result, interpret and then decide how to adjust the next round of experiments based on what you’ve learned.
Thankfully, making steady progress in your swimming performance isn’t exactly rocket science, but it is full of science.