I have a couple swimmers in one of our weekly practice groups who are members of a local masters swim group that meets on a two different evenings each week. They came to me some months ago because their coach is great at making them work hard, and work harder, in nearly every practice, but he has done virtually nothing to improve anyone’s technique on the whole squad. These two swimmers value the social element and the opportunity to be pushed hard each week, but they have realized that technical changes were needed for them to rise above their current abilities. Constantly pushing the aerobic and muscular system was not taking them any farther.

Now that we’ve been working together for about three months – they took a little time away from their masters workouts and have now resumed – it comes up in our conversations how difficult it is to take the new and still fragile improvements in motor control and have those stand up in the constant high intensity of those masters practices. They are caught between wanting the benefits of both the improved technical precision and the high intensity workout.

What occurred to me is that these two swimmers actually have a useful scenario in those high intensity workouts. When the assignment is to go hard through a series of repeats, the swimmer is working at the edge of her strength and can feel fatigue building, threatening to shut her down before the end of the set. Under this kind of stress, in what I call the Scarce Energy Zone, the swimmer is under pressure to find a way to hold on and finish the set and maintain her dignity among the squad.

To hold on, she must preserve speed to make the send-off times. But energy is dwindling. Muscles are burning and getting sluggish, less precise. The harder she swims the worse her stroke gets. What should she do?

There are only three ways to carry on and finish these tough sets:

  1. she must find a way to generate more power to make up for increased drag and power leaks caused by fatigue
  2. she must find a way to lower drag to reduce the amount of power required to maintain speed
  3. she must find a way to plug the power leaks in her stroke to get a bit more out of the power that remains

#1 appears to be the only solution that coach and this typical kind of group have at their disposal to solve the problem. And that is what the go-hard culture values: go hard, and then go harder, at higher and higher cost.

But she realizes she can’t go any harder, without a cost in injury and longer recovery her older body is no longer willing to pay. There is only the other two solutions available – which require her to find a way to go smarter. That culture’s workout pressure actually provides great incentive – desperation! – for her to find ways, in the midst of fatigue, to reduce drag, to plug leaks.

What’s likely happening is that as she fatigues, drag is increasing because her movements are less careful, less precise. Power leaks are increasing because individual body parts start moving out of tight synchronization, when weaker members succumb to neural and then muscular fatigue before stronger members do.

And, this is the moment in the set where the opportunity for deeper efficiency training begins – the one who recognizes what is happening and accesses these two neural solutions is able to take this path to develop greater efficiency. The others who only recognize #1 miss it. This is the silver lining in the monolithic go-hard-go-harder workout environment, for those who’ve invested in acquiring the understanding for solution #2 and #3. The swimmer who has been equipped with an intimate understanding of how balance, streamline and synchronization work to create economical speed, can call up that knowledge and scan her movements to find where her stroke control is breaking down and allowing power and speed to fail more quickly than it needs to.

Although there are these two extremes out there – programs that go hard but teach you little about technical excellence, and programs that may teach better technique but never challenge you with increasingly more difficult sets – you don’t have to be a passive victims to the deficiencies of either one. You need elements of both – fitness (able to go harder) and technique (able to do it smarter) – blended, and developed together.

If you find yourself in a workout group that seem to go too hard without concern for technical excellence, but you don’t want to let go of the benefits you get from it, don’t give up on it (yet). You may be able to alter your perspective and draw from your technical training to find better ways to do the work assigned in those sessions. Not only will you discover ways to keep up, you may become one of the few who actually keeps improving her times.

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