I want to keep confronting the false notion that fitness training and technical training are two separate activities in the pool. Fitness and Technique are truly inseparable, and should be regarded as such in every practice activity.
All repetitive movement is training movement patterns, and the movement of swimming is extremely repetitive. When that repetitive movement is loaded with intensity – either in the form of higher power per stroke (speed work) or longer distribution of power (distance work) – the movement pattern being used is being empowered to become the dominant pattern – the pattern your brain will select under stress. In other words, all that loaded repetitive movement is programming the pattern that will be available for auto-pilot swimming mode.
Disproportioned Performance System
A problem in training arises when the athlete perceives that she has a disproportionate amount of fitness compared to her technical skill, or vice-versa, a higher technical skill than fitness, then thinks she needs to work on them separately.
Sometimes we see a swimmer who has practiced her technical skill extensively, but only in low-intensity conditions. This can lead to a false sense of mastery, because skills that have not been tested under a wide variety of swimming stress (in terms of longer distance, higher speeds, more challenging water conditions, etc) cannot be relied upon. We can usually correct this misunderstanding by showing the swimmer how to design practices with gradually increasing variety and challenge so that growth really happens, and we teach a mindset for those practices that make it enjoyable.
But more often we encounter an athlete who realizes he has a lot of fitness on board, yet he knows he has been wasting a lot of energy and not going as fast or far as his effort deserves. He realizes he needs technical improvement, but there is a fear that he will lose fitness if he concentrates on technique too much – because he views these two as separately-trained systems. This same athlete may be aware of the truth that performance and sustainable training is only as good as his weakest link. But in practice he still treats these as separate systems that must be trained independent of each other.
They are not separate systems – they are a single whole performance system. The pieces cannot be trained independent of each other (especially in the highly specialized context of swimming) because they are interdependent. The function or dysfunction of one aids or hinders the others.
Another problem arises when the swimmer confuses general conditioning and fitness, and the specialized fitness that swimming specifically requires for the type of swimming she will be doing. ‘General’ means the conditioning the human body needs to support itself with strength and safety in all normal human movement activities – sitting, bending, walking, squatting, lifting, running, pulling, etc. Every athlete should have a solid foundation in general conditioning before attempting to build super-conditioning for a specific sport application. So many injuries and degredation are due to gaps in this general conditioning. Good general conditioning is what sets the athlete up for safe and successful (= injury-free) training. But too many people (adults and youth) are jumping into swimming and triathlon thinking they can just hack the specialized training these sports require without paying the price to build a general conditioning first. This is a terribly misguided approach.
Training The Whole System
So, self-limiting exercises in swimming deal with the holistic view of training. They acknowledge the whole performance system, and expose weaknesses hidden behind alleged strengths and then work on those weaknesses until they no longer hinder the whole system. And self-limiting exercises are meant to reveal where a swimmer lacks general conditioning, where she lacks a sufficient and safe foundation for the loading she plans to put on her body in this sport. Those weaknesses in general conditioning usually need to be addressed outside of swim practice, and perhaps even before serious swim practice is started.
Self-limiting exercises make us think, and even make us feel more connected to exercise and to movement. They demand greater engagement and produce greater physical awareness. Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a fitness machine.
Self-Limiting Exercise — Naturally Correct Exercise from an excerpt from the book Movement by Gray Cook MSPT
Self-limiting exercises force you to measure not just the amount of work accomplished, but to also measure how you do that work.
Self-limiting exercises require you to apply only as much power as your technical skill can handle, and perhaps just a bit more to provoke some failure and reveal those weaknesses clearly. They combine a quantity requirement with a quality requirement and push you to the hidden limits of your performance system as a whole. You are only successful in the task if you accomplish both requirements, yet failure becomes an important result to examine. Actually, when the practice is designed just right for you, you should reach some failure point during that exercise.
And, need I mention mindfulness in this equation? Accomplishing quality is totally dependent on the strength of your attention.
Self-limiting exercise demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.
Finding The Real Limitations
If one were performing a self-limiting squat with loaded weight, the athlete would put on only as much weight as he can handle and still perform a technically correct squat. Then he does several to see at what number his motor stamina breaks down. The athlete, and coach, can then record these failure points and design practices which then gradually challenge and expand that lifter’s technically-correct capabilities.
This weight-lifter could possibly adjust his posture into a secondary support arrangement which may actually feel more comfortable to him, and then do a few more reps or handle a higher load. The body will prefer the posture it is used to, not what is best, if it has not trained for best posture. With this secondary arrangement in place, what would he then be training his body to do? A secondary supportive arrangement is by definition an inferior one. An inferior pattern may seem to have an initial advantage but lead to a lower peak capability. An inferior pattern leads the athlete toward higher risk of injury. This means a troubled or shortened career as a weight-lifter. Such extreme loads on will reveal the faults in the inferior structure eventually.
Can you see the application to swimming? Though there are a variety of stroke styles demonstrated throughout the ranks of swimmers, those stroke styles are not equal. They do not hold up under loading the same. These various patterns do not treat the shoulder joint the same. This is a major reason we don’t let swimmers just choose what ever stroke style feels good to them and got them so far already – there are superior stroke patterns and inferior ones, judged not by their ability to make a few lucky ones win races, but judged by how many people those stroke styles injured on the road to the top.
Weight-lifters work near extremes because of the massive loading. Swimmers work near the extremes because of the massive repetition. Weight-lifters run a risk of tearing tissue under a single extreme loading. Swimmer run the risk of wearing and tearing tissue under a moderate loading done thousands of times. Errors in movement patterns are costly to both.
In our case in the water, we have great options for creating self-limiting exercises which train the muscles to apply their power through safer, stronger movement patterns. These exercises force technical skill to rise to the level of muscular fitness, and they train the brain to channel muscular power only through technically superior motor patterns. This is the way to ensure safety for the swimmer’s body and longevity in the sport, as well as allow them the best chance to reach their ultimate potential.
Self-limiting activities should become the cornerstone of your training programs, not as preventive maintenance and risk management, but as movement authentication—to keep it real. The limitations these exercises impose keep us honest and allow our weakest links to hold us back, as they should.
The initial approach with this kind of self-limiting training can slow down a swimmer’s progress in terms of distance or speed, because it is forcing the swimmer to deal with weakest links in the system before fully loading it. If the swimmer persists in loading the uncorrected system, she allows the power leaks to remain and sets the stage for injury around that weakness. If she disciplines herself to address weakness now, it’s a short-term loss for a long-term gain.
Here are a couple examples of self-limiting sets you can do. Of course, you need to modify the quantities to fit your starting point.
Stroke Length Set
- 4 rounds or more (in a 25m pool)
- 50 + 100 + 150
- Require yourself to alternate per length 25 at SPL N, then 25 at SPL N-1, where ‘N’ is today’s baseline stroke count (measured as your best comfortable stroke during warm up). [SPL = strokes per length, or stroke count per length]
- Affect N-1 through shape control and timing adjustment in the moment of the arm switch.
- Do more rounds until you reach failure in quality.
Now choose your level of motor complexity:
- Level 1: No tempo constraint. Just accomplish the assigned stroke counts.
- Level 2: Set Tempo Trainer to a comfortable tempo ‘TC’.
- Level 3: Start TT at comfortable tempo TC, then speed it up by -0.02 on each round (e.g. TC, TC-0.02, TC-0.04, TC-0.06, etc).
The quantities in this practice set are the distance assigned, and the N and N-1 stroke counts. The qualities are found in how you go about generating that N-1 result, especially as you get tired. You can either apply more power, or you can more carefully shape your body and time the switching of your arm strokes. In this case, quality comes from the solution which requires more attention but less power.
- 5 rounds (or more)
- 75 + 75 + 150
- Start Tempo Trainer at the ‘fast side’ of your comfortable tempo range.
- Aim to maintain your best precision and rhythm over the total distance, despite fatigue
Choose your level of motor complexity:
- Level 1: Keep steady tempo
- Level 2: Speed up tempo by -0.02 on each round
- Level 3: Speed up tempo AND require yourself to hold N SPL on every round
The quantities are the distance, and the tempo that was assigned. The qualities are found in how smooth and precise your movements remain over distance, and even as tempo gets faster. In this case, quality comes from more intense relaxation as fatigue arises or as the intensity of tempo increases.
Deciding Your Steps
In self-limiting practice sets like these where quality is being demanded and measured, at each new round you have to decide your next step based on your performance in the current round:
- If you are holding your quality standards consistently, move on to the next round.
- If quality is inconsistent, if failing a little, repeat the round again to give yourself another chance to adapt.
- If failing a lot, reduce the difficulty level by one variable (like more rest, less distance, or slower tempo, or add a stroke to N) and give your body more time to adapt at lower complexity.
- If you cannot solve the puzzle, even with more time or lower complexity, then consider this your limit for the day. Record it, and compare to next day’s results.
Where The Real Work Begins
Swimmers with a disproportional fitness-to-technique ratio will experience ‘neural-fatigue’ somewhere along in these sets. If there were no quality constraint, the swimmer could easily accomplish the distances and even swim it ‘fast’ – which would show he has the fitness to accomplish distance, but it does not show that he has accomplished it with efficiency. What will happen is that at some point in this set (if it is designed to fit his technical limits), his motor-strength will start to fatigue and it will become difficult to maintain the technical quality that is required. This means he cannot remain efficient past this point and that is the true marker of his current abilities – it reveals the weakness. It is at this failure point that the real work of the practice set begins. The swimmer who works harder at this moment to demand more qualitative success out of his fatiguing motor circuits will improve his skill from practice to practice and gradually bring it into proportion with his muscular strength. The swimmer who gives up the qualitative demand and just finishes the set with an inferior patterns is training himself to resort to those patterns under stress – nothing will improve on technical side.
Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.
Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.
Anyone can force his body to push through a difficult quantitative set. One may be able to hack his way through a set of physically demanding work. But it takes a higher level of resolution and mental maturity to push through the difficult self-limiting sets where quality is required on top of quantity. One cannot hack his way through such technically demanding work. A mastery-mindset is required.