I can’t emphasize this enough, because it is a cornerstone of our care for adult athletes: we train for superior technique because that is what is going to keep our body pleasantly functional into our oldest age .  

Taking off from the way it was said in the article linked below, consider that…

Great swimmers learned to swim great

Great runners learn to run great.

I would define ‘great’ as not only being able to swim or run faster right now, but more importantly, I would define ‘great’ as in being able to swim or run pain and injury-free to a ripe old age. Sounds good, doesn’t it? 

But is this the core value that guides your training? Is this the core value behind the popular advice that is offered in the popular swimming, running and triathlon world? 

If swimming and running pain and injury-free when you are 90+ was to be your chief goal, how might this change the way you set goals this year, change the way you train, and change the way you live and move in general? What would you do more of? What would you do less of? Who would be the more suitable advisers to guide you toward this goal? 

In this context, we realize that mastering good technique is not just about becoming ‘efficient’. Becoming efficient is not just about being able to go faster, to go farther in a single event or a single season. Becoming efficient is about making sure your body is working well inside, using energy wisely, in the most constructive, least destructive way. This is measured by how smooth it feels and looks, how little conflict is felt inside the body, how quickly your recovery happens, and how long you can sustain the activity pain and injury free for months, years, decades. 


Defining Efficiency

Not all claims of efficient technique are the same.

There is ‘local’ efficiency – when the body adapts to the inferior patterns you’ve forced upon it (or the default pattern that no coach bothered to correct) so that it can get the work done as easily as possible. Some of these patterns actually make you faster. You can get away with these for a while before the bill is delivered. There are many champion athletes who get away with this, by the way, but it is likely they train and race with pain and their bodies revolt after the competitive season of life is over. Their champion technique may be fast, but not safe for the joints for a lifetime of swimming. Some coaches like to point out pro examples, using their accomplishment as a point of authority for following their technical advice. But you can only see what’s happening on the outside. What those coaches don’t point out is the internal price those athletes are paying to use those fast-but-risky techniques- risky in terms of joint health. They certainly don’t notice or acknowledge the multitudes of athletes who have destroyed their joints trying to imitate them.  (I have been around enough yoga teachers now, hearing their stories, to realize this is happening in that field as well).

Then there is ‘global’ efficiency – when you carefully train the body to find and prefer the safest and strongest movement patterns (that applies to all standard-equipped humans) which then allow your body to keep moving pain-free a long time – for decades. The body does more than merely adapt to these patterns, once discovered it prefers them because they truly are the safest and most energy-efficient way the human body can perform the task. Establishing global efficiency through good form should be the first and highest priority for any adult who is intends for his body to last. 

This article – Gray Cook: Self-Limiting Exercise and The Movement Principles  – will explain why just moving faster is not a good enough indicator that your movement is correct, which means both safe and strong. 

Self-limiting exercises do not offer the easy confidence or quick mastery provided by a plastic-encased fitness machine.
That’s a good thing. No, that’s a great thing.
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, shuffling the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor.

For all of us who care about keeping the body injury free and moving well for as many years ahead as possible, self-limiting exercises should become the center piece of our training activities. We use technically-demanding activities to put ourselves into a situation where the body must use superior form to accomplish the task. The brain is forced (in the most positive way) to change movement patterns and expand motor skill as your body is pushed out of its comfort zone.

Previously, I cited Grey Cook and wrote more extensively about Self-Limiting Practice Sets. These concepts apply to our running as well and just about any other skill-oriented athletics we may enjoy. 


Apply Self Limiting Principles To Your Training

Here is a simple way of applying this to your training in swimming or running. You choose a distance (both the distance of the repeat and the number of repeats which add up to the total distance) and a a very specific quality of body position or movement. Require yourself to maintain that quality during the set. You are to be more loyal to maintaining the quality than you are to finishing the quantity. When quality fails and you can no longer restore it you are done, because continued work would reinforce inferior patterns.

A Quantity + A Quality

Let’s say you want to swim 1000 continuously. You might physically be capable of swimming 1000 or a lot more… without requiring your best technique. But when you require yourself to maintain a specific quality, now how far can you swim before you can no longer protect or correct that quality? And when it starts failing, what part of the movement pattern is failing specifically? You must pay attention to that.

That distance at which your quality failed becomes the measured limit of your specific technical fitness, and, if you made the observation, you know exactly what part of the movement pattern needs to be strengthened to swim farther than that next time. That distance marker becomes the line you strive to cross with superior quality on each subsequent practice. That point of weakness in the body or the stroke becomes an object of your training effort. 

Stroke Count Requirement

You might set a stroke count requirement to hold 20 strokes (for example) per 25m on every length of a 1000 swim. That kind of consistency will be a big challenge for many who don’t normally hold themselves to such standards, but really, it is a very reasonable expectation that you should be capable of this… if you train for this kind of specific technical fitness. At a certain point in the swim, if your stroke count wavers, or it starts to go up uncontrollably, observe what specific part of the stroke or body position started to fail. By engaging in such a self-limiting exercise your specific point of muscular or neural weakness will be revealed.


You might ‘fist swim’ 10x 100 in a 25 (m or y) pool, with a requirement to hold your normal stroke count plus 2 (or less) – we would label this “fist swim 10x 100 maintaining N+2 SPL or less”. With your hands held in a gentle fist – creating the ‘anti-paddle’ effect – you have far less surface area on the hand with which to get a grip on the water. Even without being instructed on superior catch shape, your brain is going to search for more effective way to get that grip because it can’t rely as much on the hand. The brain will likely urge you to turn your forearm into a more planar position to get a better grip on the water. This will urge your catch arm in a better technical direction even without knowing how. Whereas, hand-paddles do nearly the opposite – they tend to cause the swimmer’s brain to emphasize the hand and de-emphasize the advantageous role of the forearm.

If you really want a stronger, more effective catch, chuck the paddles and swim with fists (hold the fist shape gently). The fact that it feels frustrating (at first) is the sign that it is actually doing more good for your nervous system, taking you out of the comfort zone so you have to build better skill to get the task done.

Tempo Requirement

You might set a tempo requirement to hold 1.00 second per stroke (using a Tempo Trainer) and swim 8x 150 at tempo, and then swim 50 easy between each one (so you can keep swimming continuously). If you’ve chosen the right amount of challenge in tempo and distance, at a certain point in the set you will start to feel rushed and not able to consistently keep your arms moving with the same precision and maintain the tempo – your stroke count will likely start to go up as a result. Double your concentration on correcting and protecting that precision at tempo a bit longer. Then, when even with your best effort you can no longer hold it together at tempo, you are done. This would reveal a clearly measurable limit to your muscular endurance for a specific movement pattern. Then you know the line you must strive to cross in each subsequent practice. 

See how that works? And, these are just starting ideas for how you can build self-limiting exercises into every practice.

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