A member of our online training site, the Mediterra Swim Dojo, has been noticing that after a certain distance in a training set, his stroke quality deteriorates which results in his stroke count (strokes per length of the pool) going up uncontrollably. He asked a question like this:
When I am fatigued, what makes my brain feel that giving in to a sloppy stroke is less effortful than holding attention and keeping my best stroke form?
And here is my answer…
Good swimming form is not a natural (default) movement pattern for humans. We land mammals don’t have a genetic program for moving effectively in water and our body design is not even close to ideal for good hydrodynamics. Good form has to be learned and that takes a lot of time and energy, and once acquired it has to be maintained which is what our ongoing training is about.
Then, when the body gets fatigued the brain’s priority is energy conservation, not speed, so it goes searching for the land-mammal default pattern that requires less energy even though it is far less effective for forward movement. This is why, under fatigue it gets so hard to hold onto good form and the urge to slide back to default-and-inferior form is nearly irresistible for the swimmer that is not fully developed.
Stages Of Development
Even those who seem gifted at moving well in water still have to train intensely to make the superior-but-unnatural pattern become so robust that it will hold up under racing stress. Just being able to move with a superior pattern for a few strokes is one thing – the first steps of skill building. Being able to do it for thousands of strokes is a level above. And then being able to do it for thousands of strokes at high intensity is another level above that.
We have lots of examples where fatigue shoves the athlete or artist out of superior form. Fatigued runners slouch or move asymmetrical. Fatigued musicians hit bad notes. Fatigued martial artists react more slowly and throw sloppy punches. Fatigued swimmers spin arms faster, make more splash and waves, and travel less distance per stroke as a result.
Good swimmers learn to use good form. Great swimmers train to hold that superior form under all sorts of race-like stresses, for longer duration. It does not come easy to anyone.
So, when you are swimming along in the first part of your practice with good form, that is a good first level of achievement. You can hold good form under easy conditions, when energy is abundant.
In the second part of practice, when you cross the line into fatigue, when energy feels scarce, you are in position to do the necessary work that will lead you to the second level of achievement: becoming able to hold good form under the discomfort of fatigue, for longer duration.
After that, you increase the demands on your stroke length, and stroke rate (= increase speed) and train to hold that form under more intense fatigue and discomfort.
When The Important Work Begins
When you feel fatigue, that is when the really important work of training begins. To improve from practice to practice, strive to hold good form – which will be measured by holding a consistent stroke count and/or consistent tempo – for a bit longer than you have done before. Hold it a bit longer in the repeat. Hold it for one or two repeats more than you have done before.
And, there is good news – if you set such a high standard for your stroke form for several years, if you always insist on your best form, and you never tolerate using the old inferior form, eventually the old inferior pattern will atrophy and disappear from disuse, and only the superior pattern will remain. Superior form will become the new default. It will feel relatively effortless to hold that superior pattern because there is no other pattern for the brain to revert to when it wants to find an easier way to move.
Let me reiterate: Every time you use the old pattern the neural path is stimulated and it is kept strong and attractive to the brain. So, if you want that old pattern to disappear from the menu of options, you have to quit using it completely.
Shift Emphasis From Form To Power
Now, in this situation, with only one (superior) pattern for the brain to choose from, at some point in a properly designed training set you may still get fatigued and your stroke count may start to go up as a result. But, instead of being caused by a drop in attention or a deterioration in form, it will be because you simply do not have enough strength (fitness) to maintain power. The superior form remains but there is just less and less power available to flow through that pattern so you can’t travel as far per stroke or you can’t move the arms as fast. You’ve paid the price to get the neural part of your performance system dialed in. Now all you need to do is challenge the metabolism and the muscles more.
Then it becomes relatively easy to intensify the load on the muscles by demanding more power per stroke, or demanding power sustained for longer duration. (This is what just about all other swim and triathlon training programs focus on anyway. They just ignore or neglect to make a full investment in the neural part first). The muscles will only be able to fire in a very specific pattern because you have trained for years in such a way that the brain has only one option for how work – use the superior (now default) pattern or quit. And, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably got what it takes to push a bit farther before quitting for the day.
That’s a really nice place to be, but you’ve got to pay the price in setting that high standard and sticking to it for a few years before you can work in that way.