Today’s post weaves together strands from two posts from last week What is Neural Training and Why do it and A Rare Peek into a Champion’s Mind (Katie counts strokes!which also provided a peek into my mind, as I raced a mile (1650y) in the pool on March 11.

Despite having just 2 weeks of practice following a 7-week layoff, my 1650 felt absolutely exquisite. I never fatigued. I swam the middle third (550y) faster than the first third–and the final third faster yet. I maintained a highly efficient count of 15-16 SPL throughout. I also maintained laser-like focus, and experienced Flow nearly the entire time, meeting every goal I’d set for myself.

I’ll swim my next 1650 two weeks from today, on April 7, four weeks after my last. Despite that short time frame, I’m highly confident I can significantly improve on my last performance.

Before talking about performance, I want to emphasize how essential these races are to my all-fronts, give-no-quarter battle with cancer. There’s incontrovertible evidence that regular exercise doubles survival rates for those with cancer. As typical survival time for men with my kind of cancer is about 30 months, I’m literally fighting for time as each year I can add to survival will bring promising advances in treatment.

Second, I’m convinced that—despite swimming significantly slower than a year ago—enthusiastic pursuit of performance goals gives a measurable boost to my physical and mental health compared to simply getting regular exercise. I continue to train for, and race the 1650 not only because I have cancer. In the last decade, Kaizen–devoting every practice to making measureable improvements—has come to define me as much as anything else.

And, on this count, neural-oriented training has become absolutely vital. So let’s review the differences between two modes of training—traditional aerobic training and cutting-edge neural training, which I firmly believe is the wave of the future.

Metabolic or aerobic. Swim coaches call this ‘energy system’ training (EST). EST is organized around duration of work, heart rate, and work:rest ratio, combinations of which put you into a particular ‘energy zone.’ Put more simply: How long and how hard must you swim . . . in order to swim longer and harder?

EST is overwhelmingly embraced by swim coaches—age group, school, college, and Masters–and consequently by tri coaches too. Seeing the ‘experts’ train this way, those without coaching tend to use a version of EST.

Here’s an irony: While there’s reasonable correlation between energy system measures (like VO2max) and performance in land-based sports, there is no correlation, and often a negative correlation between these measures and performance in swimming. Yet swim coaches follow energy system protocols more slavishly than any others–some with a high degree of organization, most in a much less organized manner.

In EST, there’s never a guarantee that quality neural training takes place. And in the less-sophisticated approach most take—swim harder and harder, longer and longer–the neural impacts for the great majority of swimmers is strikingly negative–i.e. ‘practicing struggling skills.’ It also tends to be one-size-fits-all and offers little opportunity for meaningful feedback.

Neural  Neural training focuses on two things:

  1. Honing proven-critical skills–Balance, Streamline, Integrated Movement, Breathing; and/or
  2. Working the formula Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate. (V=SL x SR)

In either case, the swimmer strives to incrementally improve and imprint a specific element of one of those measures. Both are skill oriented, completely personalized, and much more precise. Aerobic training still ‘happens,’ but is specific to the swimmer’s current level of neural development–i.e. the skill level they possess at the moment.

The swimmer works patiently on a level of task difficulty to which they are currently adapted, striving to strike a fine balance between the skills they currently possess and the difficulty of the task.  a threshold for moving to the next level. Unlike the measures for energy system training, those for neural training (SPL, Tempo, Duration, RPE) are completely transparent and known to the swimmer at every moment.

More contrasts:

  • Neural training includes elements that teach Mastery habits, follow the principles of Deliberate Practice–and can even improve mental acuity as we age. Energy system training violates nearly all those principles.
  • Neural training focuses on capabilities that are limitlessly improvable. Energy system training adaptations are limited by genetics, age, and athleticism.
  • Neural training also focuses on capabilities that can adapt at lightning speed, often within 15 minutes. Energy system adaptations occur at a comparatively glacial pace—seldom less than several months.
  • Finally, neural training puts the world’s most powerful organ–the human brain–at the center of its focus. It focuses the brain on concretetasks–the type which it has spent millions of years adapting. Energy system training puts billions of neurons to sleep, and focuses on tasks that are mostly abstract. This is because most swimmers experience EST as tedious rote repetition . . . with no evident purpose other than to make you sweat.

Preparing for my next 1650

My goal for my next 1650, two weeks from today, is to experience it just as much as a work of art—an experience I’ll remember with appreciation for years—while also swimming 30 seconds faster, if not more.

If I were training aerobically—focused only on the distance and time of my repeats–this much improvement in a matter of weeks, especially while enduring cancer treatment, would be out of the question. But with neural training, it feels eminently achievable—even inevitable!

Here’s my process:

During my last 1650, I counted strokes on every lap. This may seem hard to some but wasn’t, because (1) I count strokes on every lap of training; it’s become a habit almost like breathing; and (2) A good friend, Lou Tharp, counted laps for me. (And I counted for him.)

The meet organizers provided my final time and all splits.

These two pieces of information allowed me to calculate a third critical data point—Tempo.

  • My average stroke count per 25y was 15.5 (62 strokes/100).
  • My average pace per 25y was 24.3 sec (26m47s divided by 66 lengths).
  • My stroking time (lap time minus estimated turn-and-pushoff time of 4.5 sec) was 19.8 sec.
  • My average Tempo (stroking time/# of strokes or 19.8/15.5) was 1.28 seconds.

Central Pattern Generation

That combination of 15-16 SPL at a tempo of 1.28 seconds represents a specific movement pattern in my central nervous system (CNS). That 1650 felt so easy and pleasurable because my brain and CNS were so well adapted to that pattern. I.E. They activated–and turned off–just the right muscles in just the right sequence. As a result I consumed minimal oxygen while doing it. That’s the secret to swimming an impeccably paced distance event on only two weeks of practice.

In the four weeks between swims, I’m focusing the bulk of my training on adapting my brain and CNS to a new pattern, actually a series of new patterns, in the tiniest of increments.

A little more math illustrates.

On March 11, I took approximately 1203 strokes to complete the 1650 (15.5 avg SPL x 66 lengths = 1203.

On April 7, every hundredth (.01) of a second increase in tempo will result in a savings of 12 seconds (.01 second x 1200 strokes).

At 1.27 tempo, and the same stroke count, I’ll save 12 seconds.

At 1.26 tempo, I’ll save 24 seconds.

At 1.25 tempo, I’ll save 36 seconds.

And each of these combinations represent a unique new pattern in my CNS. The neuroscience term for this approach to training is Central Pattern Generation.

I have a better term. Because I go to the pool each day with a galvanizing sense of mission and clear purpose, I call this Nirvana.

As of today, I already feel very relaxed at 62 strokes per 100 and 1.2 tempo on sets of 100y repeats. I feel confident that in two weeks time I can nudge that effortless feeling down a few more ticks in tempo—at least to 1.17.

Someone training aerobically would be trying to work harder and longer. In contrast, each time I push the left button on my Tempo Trainer—increasing tempo by .01 second—I’m focused on recapturing the sense of swim-all-day ease I enjoyed at the previous tempo.

If this seems like a daunting amount of math, it probably would be if you tried to leap right into it. But it’s really simple arithmetic, once you’re familiar with the formulas I outlined above. And to start, all you need to do is count those strokes.

And for me this is far more than math. I’m convinced it’s literally a lifesaver.

In two weeks, following my next 1650, I’ll let you know how my ‘math problem’ worked out.