1606 HEADER root cause failure

This could be considered Part 3 in a series following Practice As A Puzzle To Solve and Using Failure To Solve The Puzzle.

Failure is a key ingredient in progress – it is something you actually want to provoke because it reveals more clearly where you need to work in order to keep improving. Though failure is detected in the products you measure and feel during practice, it has specific causes that you must also use your practice to reveal to you. When you encounter failure in the practice, you need to identify what is failing and why so that you can work on it. 

Which System Is Failing?

Let’s review our three performance systems and a way to identify each:


This is your ability to convert fuel to energy, to get enough energy and sustain the supply of it, and remove waste products from the system.

Question: Does my body have the energy to do this swim or set as I have designed it? Have I done something of similar distance, duration, or intensity before that tells me I should be capable of this?


This is your ability to convert energy into power, to generate enough power and to sustain it over the duration of your swim.

Question: Does my body obey my commands that I know it can follow under certain conditions?

Motor (i.e. neuro-muscular) 

This is your ability to apply power with skillful precision so that it is delivered right where it is needed, at the right moment, in just the right amount, no more and no less.

Question: Do I know which instructions to give to my body, and do I keep giving those instructions consistently?

Note: Of course these three systems overlap in reality – it is only one whole system after all. These categories are only conventions for identifying parts in the whole physiological picture – but putting things into categories like this is our way of being able to handle the complexity and learn how to work better with it. So please permit me to talk as if they were distinct, separate things which we might address independent of the others, but cannot.

When you are in the midst of a swim or a practice set and you notice something failing – inconsistency in a metric, slowing down, increasing discomfort, more turbulence, less quality of movement patterns, etc. – the critical thing to ask is: Which system is failing first? What does the data and the symptoms point to? How might failure in this system provoke failure in the others?

One system may start to fail some time early in the swim but does not catch your attention. Only after it pulls another system down with it, and symptoms build up, do you notice something is wrong. Though several kinds of failure may end up being jumbled together, you search for the one that fell first, like a domino.

1606 IMAGE root cause 800x500

When you are new to training with these three systems in mind the causes of failure may all seem like a blur. But you can practice looking at the signals your body is sending to see distinctions in the kind of failure you are experiencing. You can get better at reading the signals, at noticing subtle ‘micro-failures’ before they accumulate into a bigger, obvious one.

For example, I have mentioned before how often a swimmer might mistake a failure of motor-control for a failure in metabolic fitness. In other words, there was a failure in the strength of his attention long before before there was a failure in his muscular strength, but he only noticed the weakness in muscles once energy felt scarce. But why did energy suddenly get scarce? He did not notice how his attention wandered, how he gradually lost superior control over the quality of his body shape and movement patterns. This gradual change in shape increased the drag, which in turn depleted his energy at a higher-than-necessary rate because muscles were now having to work harder yet accomplish less. When energy dropped low enough, when muscles began to get clogged with waste products and he had less ‘umph’ in the stroke, he only then noticed that something was failing. It is common, but may be inaccurate to conclude that he needs more power training, when really, he needs stronger attention so that he can prevent wasting so much so early on in his  swim. It is possible that his muscles could work much longer, if only he did not allow so much drag to build up from a degrading body shape.

Root Cause

Let’s state something right here that you likely hear so much already:  You are far more capable than you think you are.

But you need to see clearly what is holding you back. It could be a weakness in fitness, and weakness in skill, a weakness in attention, or a weakness in perception.

It is possible that you have a deficit of physical resources – you are not so metabolically, muscular fit yet. Your body simply cannot supply enough energy and generate the power needed, or you cannot sustain it long enough yet. For this, you simply need more (smart) training time to build up those systems for this level of work. If you’ve swam at a high level of skill previously, but took a long time off for some reason, upon getting back in the water you know you can move nicely, but you can’t move with much strength – it takes time to get that back.

It is possible that you have a weakness of motor control – the power is there, but you just don’t know how to command the body well enough to get appropriate results for the amount of effort you are putting into it. That’s why you invest a good part of your season in building better motor control before doing power training on top of it. You may gain lots of power but it will always be limited by the quality of the delivery system you have in place.

It is possible that you have a weakness in attention – you may have the power, you may have the motor skill, but you can’t keep your mind ‘in the cockpit’ very long and pilot your vessel consistently, keeping it smooth and steady. If the worries of life or a normal wandering mind are taking your head out of the practice you may need to adjust something to get it back in the pool and back into your body. Your progress in motor-control is critically dependent on the strength of your attention.

And, it is possible that you may have a deficit in your perception. You may, in fact, have more than enough resources and skill to accomplish a great thing, but you need to learn to recognize deeper deposits of physical and psychic energy and dig into those. You may need to learn how to interpret signals from the body and respond to them in a more positive and product way under a wider range of conditions. You may need to recognize and work past your perceived limits because you are not working even close to your actual limits. You could be experiencing more satisfying things if only you realized they were truly accessible to you past fears of discomfort.

Indicators Of Failure

So, when you reach a failure point in a swim, don’t go blurry-eyed under the wave of unpleasant body signals and emotions – instead, scan your body, scan your mind, quickly replay the moments leading up to that failure point and see the sequence of events that transpired. A jumble of failure types might have collected by the time you noticed, but that those did not happen all at the same moment. Something started it and one led to another, in sequence, like a domino effect. Look for the first, or ‘root’ cause that may have triggered the others to fail also. That is likely your bigger weak spot and it deserves your attention and care today.

Indicators of metabolic failure:

  • I felt weaker than normal when I started the practice, and it didn’t get better as I started the main sets
  • My heart rate was higher than normal at this level of work
  • I was out of breath even at an easy effort levels or short distances
  • I felt the overall energy-level drop through my whole body (versus only in one area)

Indicators of muscular failure:

  • It became harder to make my arms move through the full stroke range of motion
  • My muscles would not obey my commands with normal precision
  • My movement quality seems high, but I am simply not going as fast as I think I should be at this effort level

Indicators up motor failure:

  • I couldn’t figure out how to make that movement as I intended
  • I wanted some sensation, and I ‘had it’ for a moment but then I ‘lost it’
  • My attention was drawn to less important parts of my stroke because those are ‘easier’ to deal with under stress
  • A critical part of my stroke fell apart because it only works when I concentrate on it

Indicators of attention failure:

  • My attention wandered outside my body
  • I tried to concentrate on too many things at once, and couldn’t hold any of them
  • I was paying attention to this focal point, but got upset that something else was falling apart.

When you have an idea where the root failure may be, now you are in position to do something about it in how you design your practices.


When you look at the sequence of failures back to the root you may then see how a failure there could, like a domino effect, lead to other failures. When one system fails it pulls on the others. It drags them down with it eventually.

You may increase your appreciation for how all these systems are interdependent and why all of them need to be acknowledged in your training approach. It them makes more sense why training the weaker system needs to be emphasized in your practice so that all the systems can eventually work more evenly with each other – like three members of the team all doing their part of the work proportionally.

You can read more about Strengthening The Weaker System.

Situational And General Failure

We can have two kinds of failure in these systems:

One kind is situational – one of those systems may be weakest today because of the circumstances in your body or life. The immune system could be working overtime to fight or recover from illness. The muscles could still be recovering from some previous exertion. The nervous system could be tired from other high-motor-concentration activities. The mind could be tired from dealing with complex, stressful situations outside the pool.

The other is general – though you are eager to do more, when you look over all your practices this season, one of those systems may consistently hold you back from accomplishing more.

When you have a situational failure, you need to adjust your practice so that you can give rest to what needs rest and take action with the other systems in such a way that will give you refreshment. A practice with low-physical demand but high attention demand can be used as a great recovery practice – allowing metabolic systems to keep recovering, but still work on wiring the brain for better control. A challenging physical swim that allows you to rely only on what skills you’ve already automated can be used to flush your body and refresh you for the next high-concentration (i.e. stressful) activity of the day.

When you notice general failure in a particular system you need to give emphasis to that weaker system during the entire season. I suggest that you refrain from increasing the challenge on the other systems until you get that weaker system caught up to the stronger systems so that they are able to work more proportionally with each other. The systems are inter-dependent, so not only does a disproportionately weak member hold back your overall progress, it may set you up for injury too. It is worth the time – and certainly not a ‘delay’ in your progress in the long-view of things – to reduce emphasis on training one system while you help another catch up. An unbalanced partnership in these members will eventually create more problems for you.

This warning of injury is easy to explain in when you may have have high-muscular strength with poor motor-control. Such a situation begs for a physical injury. But when you have high motor control with pool muscular strength – beware of other kinds of injury. You may acquire an illusion of skillfulness when really you can swim nicely only under a very mild and tightly-controlled conditions. This can lead to a false sense of capability for a ‘big’ swim challenge when your metabolic and muscular systems are not ready for it – (that illusion is a race director’s nightmare!) Or you may be in danger of discouragement, when you wonder why you are no longer making gains from all your technical training – because you never actually challenge your metabolic and muscular systems. Once past the early stages your progress in motor control requires gradual increase in the loads you place on the metabolic and muscular systems – fitness supplies the power that your technique employs. Eventually you must increase loading to increase the strength of your technique. The training for these is inseparable.

So, look for which system is holding you back the most and spend some time working that system to bring it to a higher level, more equal to the capacity of the other systems. Then you will experience more performance and more satisfaction in your training.

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