This continues from Should You Be An Augmented Swimmer? Part 1…
New technology will certainly bring augmented capabilities to humans, but we risk losing the innate capabilities of our nervous system that could atrophy from disuse. I wonder if in certain skilled realms, masters of an art that came to it by feedback from external devices will differ in their form or quality from those who came to it by exquisite development through their own attention and nervous systems.
Is there is difference between swimmers who rely upon their gadgets to put their body in position and upon their watches to tell them what’s happening and those who rely upon their own nervous system and brain to track position and numbers while swimming?
Supernatural Or Extinct Skills?
This makes me think of the way that Wayfinding among the Polynesian Islanders nearly became an extinct skill set as modern navigation technology took over maritime travel. Ancient Polynesian sailors had what may now seem like supernatural ability to read the stars, the wind, the waves and all sorts of subtle and complex forms of data coming in from their environment and they had unique way of mapping that information to find their way with precision to island separated by thousands of miles of open sea. But these skills disappear from the culture from disuse, from lack of expectation that that it is even possible.
Consider the possibility of sensing your heart rate, your stroke rate, your stroke length and your pace, let alone keeping track of your laps, just using your own nervous system and brain. Sound extraordinary? It’s actually quite common among those who deliberately train their brains to do it, using some technology only to confirm or correct their senses, but never to replace them.
Limiting Your Senses To Strengthen Them
Another way to trick your nervous system into finer awareness is to increase the neural challenge, or increase sensory deprivation in a certain way for a period of minutes, then reduce the challenge or open up the sensory information again, and feel how much more aware your nervous system became. These are called self-limiting exercises in the therapy world. Do this often enough and the temporary enhancement becomes permanent.
Using fist gloves is one way to do this. With the hands covered, the brain searches for sensory input from other parts of the arm that are still exposed to the water. When the gloves are removed the hands feel enormous, which is a sign that the returning flood of the sensory signals from the hand are added to the sensory information of the rest of the arm that was kicked up into consciousness when deprived of the hands for a while.
Another challenge is to swim several strokes with your eyes closed and see how straight you can actually swim by feel alone. Obviously, you need to be in a lane by yourself, with lane lines to keep you from colliding with another swimmer. But it is an amazing (if not frustrating) test of how aligned or not the stroke actions are with the direction of intended travel, when your ability to micro-correct by sight is removed. The direct consequence of smacking the hands into the lane line can be useful incentive for the nervous system to figure out how to keep the body going straighter.
Until you expose it through self-limiting exercises, you don’t realize how much your brain has to work harder to continually compensate for imperfections in your movement patterns, and that compensation costs you in efficiency. You have to restrict some part of your senses in order to expose the weakness in another part.
Forced Or Voluntary Sensory Restrictions
There are some people who have to adapt to the loss of one of their sensory or control organs, and their ability to resume their sport is a testament to the power of neural adaptation. In the past couple years, I have coordinated with a distinguished neuro physio therapist, Mike Studer, to help our mutual client restore his swimming capabilities after being knocked out of athletics some years ago by Miniere’s Disease, which destroyed the vestibular balance controls in his ears. (This is my second student with this particular condition). His brain has to rely more on visual cues and other sensory information to track and control his body’s position in the water. We have to be very careful with head movements, which can quickly trigger vertigo and nausea when his brain loses track of body position with his limited sensory input.
The advantage for this man is that his condition forces him to develop these adaptations in order to avoid the immediate, direct consequences if he doesn’t. The disadvantage to other swimmers without sensory impairment is that the consequences in inefficiency are delayed or indirect and thereby assumed to be negligible. But the fact is, sensory-dull swimmers are likely paying a great price in inefficiency because they are not aware of what their body is doing while in the act of swimming. It does little good to look at the watch data after the swim is done. Fully-equipped swimmers must voluntarily enter into self-limiting exercises in order to gain the benefits of them.
Start With Simple Challenges
You can restrict some part of your capabilities and work under normal conditions or you can take your full capabilities and subject them to more difficult conditions.
Working on your stroke at slightly uncomfortably fast tempos, while maintaining great effort on your attention to certain focal points, will really push you, making you feel failure more easily. Do this for some minutes. But then when you slow that tempo back down or remove it, the stroke seems to be going in slow motion, much easier for the brain to notice little details that it couldn’t catch up to easily before.
Then you can work on the opposite extreme, working on your stroke at slightly uncomfortably slow tempos. This will stretch your body’s ability to maintain balance and stable, streamline position.
1-Arm Swimming is another useful self-limiting exercise. Either tuck one arm snugly to your side, or put something small and slightly weighted in your lead hand (like a golf ball size stone), keep that arm extended on its track in front of the shoulder, at ideal target depth. Then use only the other arm to stroke with through the entire stroke cycle. First do short repeats with no breathing to test how well you can keep the body moving linear on each side. Then do short repeats with introducing a single breath on the stroking side and see how that may threaten the stability and positioning of the body. Compare performance on each side. Look for specific ways to make the weaker side become more like the stronger side. Using your strong side as a reference point and template for the weaker side is a useful self-coaching technique also.
Try A Dose Of Increased Restriction Or Increased Challenge
People will share with me that their progress has stalled and are wondering if they should get a watch or use certain popular training devices to make a breakthrough. I often wonder what they might be neglecting the use of sensory information they already have available, if only they knew how to notice it and use it.
I would ask how much variety you have in the ways you challenge your skills. It is good to have a training diet that has variety in it – a variety of tempos, a variety of intensities, a variety of sensory deprivation experiences, a variety of more challenging swimming conditions. Some of your skills might seem adequate for your needs when you use them in normal training conditions, but have you really put them to the test? When you apply them in more difficult conditions, you that can provoke increased sensitivity which leads to increased control – especially when you come back to easier, more normal conditions.
I am not against training devices, just in how they are too readily reached for to solve problems that a better trained sensory system is more suited to help you with. We should consider resisting the overuse of devices like we should resist overuse of antibiotics, and look for more natural interventions to promote stronger natural capabilities rather than a weaker ones.
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Great post Mat. My recent experience has suggested that both swimming at (for me) unusually slow tempos (1.6 or so) and unusually fast (again for me) tempos (1.1 or so) is resulting in improvement in the range that’s far more typical for me (1.3-1.35). If they don’t become overwhelming or frustrating I think most challenges lead to progress,perhaps not immediately, but definitely in time.