Inspired by what we just experienced this week at our distance training camp in Kaş Turkey, I wanted to share a bit how we set up our training at these kind of events.
At swim camps we have a special opportunity to work with our swimmers for several consecutive days – its an ideal situation for affecting transformations in each person with a refreshing blend each day of warm water, sun, food, social support, training and rest. A training theme has been set for the camp (such as ‘distance training’ or ‘introduction to ow skills’) which attracts people interested in that kind of training. Leading up to the event we correspond with these folks to make sure it is a good fit for their needs. If one is not already familiar with Total Immersion we also want to see that there will be good cohesion with our philosophy and methods of training, yet we do not discriminate according to one’s speed or motivation. Some people are faster, some are slower. Some are younger, some are older. Some are newer to swimming and some are quite experienced. Some are preparing for races and some just want to swim longer and feel better.
Once our group of swimmers arrive at camp, we get to work customizing training for each one in the midst of our prepared activities for the whole group. Each swimmer has some sort of improvement goal in mind. Through interview, observation and video analysis, we then help them identify a few, very specific, high-priority skills that will move them toward their goal. To create appropriate challenges for each swimmer we look at, not merely how far or fast they can currently swim, but their ability to make changes in their movement patterns. An accomplished swimmer could have a hard time learning new patterns while a fairly new adult-onset swimmer could make changes rather quickly. In other words, one person might have gone far with a deeply ingrained habit and yet be resistant to change, while another person may have few habits but be readily able to change or adapt to new instructions.
We can quickly test and see at what step each swimmer may need to start in order to grasp and then integrate the new skills during the week. This may involve a blend of both physical and psychological activities. Regardless of the swimmer’s goal, any and all improvements in technique and fitness have to go through the brain so we take care to recognize what neural training needs to take place to affect their breakthrough.
Four Step Progression
To organize how we can take one skill topics and customize it for several people we work with these four steps in our training progression.
Acquire the basic technical control for this part of the stroke or body.
We use drills and sensory techniques to help the swimmer improve their proprioception – to connect the wire, so to speak, between intention and execution and feedback at a particular part of the body – so that they can clearly feel the difference between a movement that is getting close to the ideal and one what is getting farther away. This is the crux – with this feel for contrast between a superior movement and an inferior one the swimmer is in position to keep making progress on her own after camp. Without this feel for the skill she will be training ‘blind’ to the necessary feedback coming from her body. We must gradually reduce the swimmer’s dependence on external feedback (the coach’s eyes) and start to rely on their own nervous system to tell them what is better and what is worse – after all, they can’t take their coach with them everywhere they swim!
We will slow things down and simplify the action (usually with drills and short or slower motion swimming) as much as necessary to get to a point where the swimmer can actually detect what is going on, and recognize superior or inferior patterns. And, we must take whatever time is necessary to do this, because advanced development depends on such proprioception. In the training session the coach can confirm how the movement looks and make sure the swimmer associates a certain internal sensation with it.
If you would like to study further, here are more articles in our blog on feeling and feedback:
- Feel For Feedback
- Coach, Is It Correct?
- Thinking Or Feeling?
- Training Your Internal Coach
- You Must Feel It Part 1 and Part 2
Carefully stimulate this neuromuscular pathway in short repeats, in a way that allows easy, repetitive success.
Now that the ‘baby wire’ is connected in the body, the swimmer needs to run a lot of successful signals through this wire to stimulate the brain to wrap this circuit with myelin insulation and get it ready for more loading – loading in terms of using it over longer distances or with higher intensity movements. ‘Short’ repeats can be as short as a few strokes while holding breath, or ‘swim 10 strokes out and 10 strokes back’ (when we are in open water situation), or maybe a loop around a nearby floating dock. We’ll use whatever short repeats allow our swimmer to make many successful, high quality (high attention) repeats without distraction, disruption or exhaustion.
At this step we want hundreds, even thousands of successful actions so that the nervous system gets quite familiar with the pattern and the swimmer can feel like she has memorized how to do it as a basic level. In the next step, if she is swimming along and loses grasp of the pattern, she can immediately switch back to this more simple ‘reset’ activity to quickly reacquire the pattern and then resume the more complex activity.
Brenda, winner of her age-group in the Bosphorus Cross Continental Race in Istanbul, is dialing in superior form during a swim around some of the Kovan Islands during our boat tour trip in Kaş, Turkey.
Stimulate the pathway for longer durations (longer repeats), under fairly calm conditions.
Now it’s time to build very specific muscular strength around this movement pattern and ‘hard-wire’ this pattern deep into the brain so it becomes resilient, ready for more loading. We want the muscles, big and small, that are involved in this specific choreography to work in a unified way for longer periods of time, even to the point of feeling some fatigue. In this state the weaker members gradually get stronger and the whole team of muscles in each movement pattern get a lot of practice working together for longer uninterrupted periods of time.
This could occur in a short swim of a few hundred meters, or a kilometer or two. We would break it up that longer swim into mental stroke-count intervals something between 50 and 150 strokes, so that the swimmer can focus upon and work one part of the stroke for a limited segment of time. She may choose 2 or 3 focal points (A, B, and C) for the swim and cycle through these one-by-one on the stroke-count intervals. Rather than rest by stopping all action, she may simply switch focus, allowing one point to ‘rest’ while another is being stimulated consciously.
As an example, an 800-stroke swim might be organized like this…
Swim continuously, with 2 rounds of stroke counter intervals:
- 100 strokes with focal point A
- 100 strokes with focal point B
- 100 strokes with focal point C
- 100 strokes blending two focal points
We might even introduce a Tempo Trainer at some point to help the swimmer maintain a comfortable and consistent stroke tempo. The intention here is not to challenge her with a tempo that feels uncomfortably slow or fast, but right in the comfortable middle, because the purpose here is to use the BEEP of the Tempo Trainer to draw her attention to a particular part of her stroke at a precise moment, on every single stroke. It is very effective at enhancing awareness, and thereby increasing control of that moment of the stroke.
Test and strengthen this pathway under more challenging conditions.
Those challenges could be provided by a single variable or combination of the following:
- swimming longer, uninterrupted distances with a single focal point (up to 300 stroke count)
- using a more demanding stroke length (SPL) requirement (by feel in open water, or by count in a pool)
- shifting through a small range of SPL while maintaining movement precision (in the pool, of course)
- working with tempos that are uncomfortably slow
- working with tempos that are uncomfortably fast
- shifting through a range of tempos while maintaining movement precision
- training in cool/cold water
- training in rough water, or with waves and currents
- swimming longer in the ‘scarce energy zone’ (= while feeling fatigued) while maintaining movement precision
As you can see, the whole point is to maintain movement precision under conditions of incrementally increasing difficulty. This is how economy is wired into all movements in all conditions. When the swimmer loses precision she increases drag and increases leaks power – like poking holes in the fuel tank – and thereby falls into a downward spiral of fatigue. To prevent this she learns to protect critical aspects of movement precision at all costs, in all conditions.
Continued in Part 2…
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