I was working with ‘Ray’ in a private lesson. He presented a good example of how we could use the Checklist For Easier Breathing to diagnose his breathing complaint and pinpoint the possible solutions.
To review, here are the four main features of easier breathing:
- Fundamental Stroke Skills
- Breathing Technique
- Swimming Specific Fitness
Review The Foundation First
Ray was practicing diligently the last couple months, but came humbly, expecting me to find something in his stroke or breathing skills that was causing his troubles. But honestly, during his warm up swim of a few 25s, the fundamental stroke skills on non-breathing strokes were looking really good to me. The common errors which typically make breathing difficult were not present.
And, when he did execute the breathing stroke, the critical features were in place also. Yet, after just 1.5 lengths in the 25 yard pool, he felt he had to stop and collect his breath. If he tried to swim more than a length at a time, he would run into problems.
We did a bit more testing and I interviewed him about his internal experience as he approached that 35-40 yard mark in the swim. What was happening inside?
Before this point, he was feeling fine and the stroke was looking fine. But as he made the turn and began the second length he explained how he was feeling increasingly anxious. That’s when he started to choke on water a bit, and just before that moment is when I noticed certain small details in the stroke lost precision. What was the root cause?
At the time of this lesson, Ray, in his mid-30’s, had been swimming for just 2.5 months, with no prior swim training experience. He started swimming right when he took our Freestyle Technique, 4 week, 4 lesson series and had been practicing 3 times a week, 45 or more minutes per practice, since then. Though I would not expect him to be 1K race-ready with this history and modest amount of training in his bag, I could expect a person in his position to be fit enough to swim continuously for 10 or 15 minutes.
My assessment led me to suspect that he was having a psycho-somatic reaction to the normal stresses that emerge from moderate swimming exertion. A change in his body chemistry was provoking a change in his attention, and subconsciously that was provoking a change in the qualities of his body position and movement patterns.
I built a hypothesis for what may be happening that we could test: as he made the turn he was feeling some discomfort from the increase of normal, healthy waste products in his blood stream, breathing was a bit heavier as a result. He pushed off and held breath until that first stroke and this made him start to feel anxious for respiration. He agreed. I would describe this as a normal, healthy land-mammal reaction to heavier respiration in water. The survival brain is saying, “PUSH DOWN AND GET YOUR HEAD UP OUT OF THE WATER TO BREATH MORE!” The loyal land-mammal brain takes that message seriously and starts urging the body parts to shift priorities in their movement patterns. Ray explained how he was feeling more tension in his body and could feel how this was changing how he was interacting with the water. The brain, without his conscious consent, was beginning to make a subtle but disruptive shift from swimming forward smoothly to survival.
But did he really have a reason to be alarmed, or was this an old habit, a programmed warning that he could now safely override?
Search For Failure Points and Specific Causes
We ran another experiment on a few repeats. He was going to apply some focal points while swimming 25 and beyond and see how those focal points affected his sense of calm and control in breathing. For the first length he was to observe how relaxed and smooth he felt and pinpoint a couple specific internal focal points that contributed to that. Then, as he turned at the wall and began the second length, he was to focus on holding those specific relaxation focal points, trying to extend that sense of ease farther than he had before.
And, as Ray did this, he turned at the wall then passed his previous failure point looking as in control as he did on the first length. His breathing was slightly heavier, but he held critical position. He turned again and made it half way down the third lengths – about 65 yards – before I noticed those small details of his stroke start to deteriorate and he ended up choking on a bit of water. He was pleased with how well it worked!
I pointed out the particular places in his stroke that appeared to be more vulnerable to deterioration when anxiety took over. Those are parts of the stroke movement pattern that are not strong enough to keep going on auto-pilot when his attention is diverted. And, we added those to the short list of relaxation focal points he had already made to protect himself as the discomfort of normal exertion built up during the swim and the old program would mistakenly try to get him to shift priorities.
What About His Fitness?
Up to this point, although swimming regularly, Ray’s fitness development had been limited due to the fact that he was not doing many repeats longer than 50 yards because of this tension and choking experience. He may have been gradually increasing volume in his training by doing more number of repetitions, but his distance-specific fitness would require swimming longer, uninterrupted distances. Though we now had some solutions for what was keeping his repeats so short, he would still likely run into neural fatigue (loss of attention, loss of precision) and muscular fatigue (loss of power) not far past that 50 yard point because his body was simply not used to working continuously for distances longer than this.
I suggested a pattern he could use to gradually increase volume while developing both neural and muscular fitness together. In this way he could acquire genuinely efficient endurance.
Practice Series To Build Easier Endurance
Since we found his new failure point to be somewhere between 50 and 75 yards, we would start his repeats distances with this.
Ray would choose one or two focal points to imprint on each set. If using two focal points, he would use one of them for half the set and the other, or the two blended, for the second half.
For at least three practices in a row he will swim 8x 75, where failure is expected somewhere before 75. Failure, in his case, is described as the loss of attention which leads to the loss of relaxation, which leads to the deterioration in stroke quality, which leads to choking on water, which forces him to stop swimming.
75 yards is the assigned quantity objective. His quality objective is to either improve upon that failure point, or at least hold it consistent for the full number of repeats. This would provoke the building of neural strength over the set and over the series of practices. When he starts to feel the first subtle signs of fatigue that is when the hard work really begins in each repeat. He is considered successful in this set only if he achieves the quality objective inside the quantities assigned.
When he is successful at holding consistent or improving that failure point for all 8x 75, then he can increase the volume of that set to 10x 75 for a few practices until successful. Then he can increase it to 12x 75 for a total of 900 yards.
Then he may increase the volume of the repeat. He will start with 6x 100 for a series of practices, then increase to 8x 100, and then to 10x 100 for a total of 1000 yards.
Then he may increase the volume of the repeats again. He will start with 4x 150 for a series of practices, then increase to 6x 150, then increase to 8x 150 for a total of 1200 yards.
Patience And Persistence
As he goes along in this efficiency building process there is no point in Ray swimming longer repeats or more number of repeats if he is going to imprint failure under fatigue. Failure would be defined as being able to hold his quality standard only 40% or less of the distance. If he is mostly failing, then its time to rest or time to stop.
When seeking efficiency in fitness, he gets no points for swimming more distance if he cannot also achieve the assigned qualities within that distance. What pattern would his brain then be imprinting for fatigue-state swimming? To hold attention and extend quality a bit longer than before is the whole point of the set. But if he cannot hold attention and extend quality any longer, then that’s when he must rest a bit longer or stop. That’s where understanding, patience and persistence is required for such a process of incremental increase in neural challenge.
It may be that he breaks through sooner – doing just a couple practices at that first level – and can start doing longer repeats while holding the quality standard he has set for himself. He may arrive at practice and find that he can easily do the assigned 6x 75 and tries to do 2 more repeats. He may find out that he can suddenly swim 85 yards before failure and should start doing 100 yard repeats. He can always accelerate according to his neural strength.
But he must also be ready to be patient and gradual in his increase in neural challenge if it is going slow. He may have anticipated doing 8x 75 for only three practices, but maybe it will take five. Occasionally, the swimmer may have a breakthrough and improve in big leaps. At other times the breakthroughs take longer and improvements are more subtle.
This is what makes the efficiency training process personal and organic – it responds to the actual state of the swimmer from practice to practice. High quality practice must be tailored to address that specific swimmer’s weaknesses and failure points, and expectations adjusted in the moment by the feedback he receives during that practice.
Breathing ease will come when you can pinpoint the specific causes of the trouble and tailor your practice to work on those points, with an appropriate level of challenge so that qualities remain higher priority than quantities. But you must also gradually increase those quantities!
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