When you are working on improving your stroke length (stroke count) or stroke rate (tempo) there are neural tricks you can perform to get your body to make a fairly quick improvement in a single practice. But, in many cases, those improvements hold up for only a few minutes of swimming, just after that exercise, then the capability seems to fade away.
More Than A Trick
The good news is that the trick/exercise show you what you can be capable of. The bad news is that it takes more than a trick to get that improvement to stick, to become the new normal for your swimming.
You can do a set or exercise we call a ‘pyramid, such as a stroke count pyramid or a tempo pyramid and over the course of maybe 600 to 1000 meters, you can trick your body into swimming with slightly longer strokes or slightly faster tempo than you could previously. But just after doing a pyramid set try swimming for 5 minutes or longer with that improved stroke length or stroke rate. Your ability to maintain it likely won’t last long and will drop back to your default (what is currently preferable to your body).
A temporary adaptation happens when an exercise alters your perception, making the task seem easier than it was just a few minutes before. There are tricks we can use to cause the brain to perceive the body and water differently, to perceive the task differently, then choose a better arrangement of motor circuits from among the options that are already available to your brain from training. But the exercise, in just a few minutes, or in just a single practice, did not go on long enough to actually provoke a change in the physical structures of the motor circuits or muscles and cause new capabilities to emerge. It just made better choices from the ones you already have, and kept it up only until it got tired because you had to keep concentrating on it in order to execute that action. Once the brain got tired it switched back to the default pattern which takes a lot less energy, and less attention to execute.
A permanent adaptation goes beyond a mere perception adjustment. It goes beyond the menu of options you already have to make new ones. This happens when an exercise is persisted in long enough, over days, weeks and months to provoke physical structures in the body to change and become more suited to the task you require of it. Like providing cycles of water, sun, fertilizer over time to make grass grow taller, the body needs repeated cycles of stimulation/stress-rest/repair-restress over time to create new circuits and to become more efficient at recruiting muscle units, and eventually (after a couple months) it will also build more muscle mass to support that increased work load. This will take you beyond what you have been able to do previously, it will add new options to your motor menu. You’ll become capable of holding that longer or faster stroke for the whole distance as easily as you could with the shorter or slower one. But it will take many, many weeks of persistent work.
So, if you are going to work on achieving longer strokes, or faster strokes that become your new default, (default = your body’s preferred way to swim), and you want this to happen this year, you need to set up process of stimulation that lasts at least a couple months or more, and has you working three or more days per week on this particular task (better muscle recruitment and mass increase cannot tolerate many days off). You need to assign yourself sets that challenge you to use a slightly longer stroke or slightly faster stroke than what is comfortable. There is some art and science to designing the right FIT (Frequency, Intensity and Duration of the sets and the practices in that series) and choosing the best stroke qualities to focus on, but the basic idea is that you need to gradually increase the challenge by a small increment, work on it several times a week, for a few weeks, then increase the challenge again.
Persistent, Frequent Challenge
Over these weeks and months of persistent, frequent challenge, the body will build new motor circuits to control the movements better than before. Your perception (of your body, of the water) will expand and deepen accordingly. Your muscles activation will get more economical (doing more with less), and eventually stronger in terms of real muscular strength. By this, you will not only become capable of those longer or faster strokes occasionally, you’ll become stronger at holding them for the entire test distance. The temporary improvements you occasionally experience after tricky sets will eventually become permanent traits.
But I don’t want to diminish the importance of using those exercises that trick you into suddenly (though temporarily) swimming better with what feels like less effort. Those are there to help you see what you are already capable of, but has been hidden by mis-perception and mis-activation. The results of these exercises give you motivation. You then know this capability is within reach and will become regularly accessible to you if only you will do the work to build better circuits and more strength to transform it into a permanent capability.
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