In September 1988–nine months before the first Total Immersion camp–I heard Bill Boomer, who would become my most influential mentor, talk at a coaching clinic. Two sentences he spoke that day remain core beliefs for TI nearly 30 years later. One was on the value of ‘vessel-shaping’ over ‘engine-building.’

The second was: “Conditioning is something that ‘happens’ while you practice skills.” That was the first time I’d ever heard another coach state a principle that has turned out to be as important as any other in the TI Method.

Skill-oriented training should take precedence over aerobic-oriented training.

In 2005, I contacted Jonty Skinner for advice on how to achieve some quite lofty goals the following year, when I entered the 55-59 age group.  At the time, Jonty was Performance Science Director for USA Swimming’s elite program, and—in my estimation—one of the keenest and most progressive thinkers in the world of swimming.

Like Boomer, Jonty pronounced a principle for performing at your best. He said “Aerobic conditioning may win the workout, but neural conditioning wins the race.

I immediately grasped what he meant. In college, we swam over 6000 yards and two hours in our daily workouts. In my races—the longest on the college dual-meet program I swam 500 or 1000 yard, or between five and 10 minutes. All other races were much briefer—as little as 22 seconds. The requirements for success in racing must be very different from those for working out.

I distinctly recall that our workouts were designed mainly to help us work out better, not to race our best.  How to blend aerobic and neural training in a single practice is complicated and a topic for another blog—or several. However, the connection between Boomer’s statement of principle and Jonty’s is this.

Any skill is the result of an electro-chemical signal traveling from the brain, via the nervous system, to a group of muscles. To refine and encode that skill—make it impervious to fatigue, loss of focus, or the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere of a race—one must perform it in an exacting manner, thousands of times. Each repetition makes the neural wiring a bit more robust—meaning ‘signal strength’ is greater when it reaches the muscle.

Sub-optimal repetitions—those that are even a little bit off your best–not only fail to advance your neural conditioning. They actually degrade it, meaning you must work that much harder and longer to achieve your performance goal.

Neural-oriented training is always conscious of the skill you’re trying to improve or encode and employs unique principles, protocols and forms of feedback to keep you on course. Most of the time, the skill is a mini- or micro-skill, a tiny but critical component of a larger skill.

In contrast, aerobic training is designed to make you work harder and longer, trying to develop the cardiovascular ‘plumbing’ to . . . work yet harder and longer. In other words, just like the training I did nearly 50 years ago in college.

TI training methodology and programs are based on neural training principles. Other training programs—youth, school and college, Masters, and triathlon specific—are virtually all based on aerobic training principles.

Let’s examine the differences further and investigate how to train your brain and nervous system.

Training for the 21st Century.

Aerobic training is based on research conducted between the 1940s and 1970s on how the body metabolizes oxygen and glycogen into muscle fuel, and eliminates waste products—dependent on work intensity and duration. It essentially treats the body as a complex chemistry set.

This research—and the training based on it—seldom looked at efficiency measures. The core elements of aerobic system training—how far to swim, at what speed, and on what rest interval–remained little changed in over 50 years—from before I was in grade school until today.

The possibility of neural-oriented training first received mention during the 1980s, as in Boomer’s 1988 clinic talk. But it was the development, in the first decade of this century, of advanced tools for observation of changes to brain structures–fMRI and PET scans—that permitted research which led to far sharper definition of neural training protocols.

Rationale for Neural Training

  1. Swimming is a skill-oriented activity. According to Mike Joyner MD, director of human performance research at the Mayo Clinic, performance at the elite level—think Katie Ledecky–swim performance is determined 75% by skill and only 25% by aerobic conditioning. At the novice to intermediate level—you, me and 99.99% of everyone else–Mike estimates the contribution of skill to performance at closer to 90%.
  2. Energy is an incredibly precious resource. DARPA–the Pentagon’s research arm–estimated the energy efficiency of uncoached swimmers at just 3%. Elite swimmers convert just 10% of energy into forward motion. Even the amazing Katie diverts 90% of her energy into moving water around and other forms of waste!  Thus, the most logical focus of training—for elites as well as the rest of us–is to reduce energy waste, rather than continually “top up” a seriously leaky tank of muscle fuel.
  1. Speed is not a product of how hard you work or how fast you stroke. Rather it’s a ‘math’ equation: Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate, or V=SL x SR. In that equation Stroke Length is the foundation; Stroke Rate is a ‘trading chip.’ Creating an ‘unbreakable’ SL foundation–and effectively trading SL for SR to maximize speed, while minimizing fatigue—is an exacting skill developed primarily by neural-oriented training.

Benefits of Neural Training

  1. Converts generic workouts into precise and personalized training. Minimizes wasted time and effort. Maximizes sense of engagement and purpose.
  2. Completely transparent and measurable. While working toward aerobic development, you never know how much you’ve achieved, nor when you have ‘enough.’ Nervous system training employs simple metrics that let you know exactly how you are progressing. Seek incremental, measurable, week-by-week progress in those metrics.
  3. Can occur at lightning speed. While significant change in aerobic-system capacity takes months, measurable adaptations of brain and nervous system can sometimes occur in as little as 20 to 30 minutes.

Protocols of Neural Training

  1. Always focus on improvement. The goal of neural training is never to get in a certain number of yards, or test your tolerance for hard work or pain. It’s always to be a better swimmer at the end of the session.
  2. Set up ‘smart feedback’ to measure improvement. In traditional training, the primary—and often only–measure of performance is time. In neural training, time is but one of several revealing measures. The others include SPL or strokes per length (the simplest measure of Stroke Length); Tempo—another term for Stroke Rate (measured with precision by a Tempo Trainer). You must employ at least two measures—e.g. SPL + Time; Tempo + SPL; Tempo + Time—to have a complete understanding of how you performed during a swim or set, It may seem complicated at first, but quickly becomes second nature with practice.
  3. During practice, focus on finding the easiest way to perform a task or achieve a goal—rather than on testing how hard you can work. Remember, the biggest payoff from training is in reducing energy waste–not topping up that leaky fuel tank.

Sample Neural Training Set

  1. After a brief warmup, swim a short ‘benchmark’ set of 3 x 50. Count strokes and take time. Add stroke count to seconds for a SWAM Score. E.G. 45 strokes + 50 seconds equals a score of 95.
  2. Swim several series of 4 to 8 x Focal Point 25s–e.g. weightless neutral head; quieter entry; less kick. On these, your task is to devote your entire attention to a single, narrow aspect of technique. After each 25, assess both how close you came to the feeling described and the quality of your attention. (I.E. Make your mind work as hard as your muscles.)
  3. After completing the Focal Point series, choose your favorite Focal Point, or sensation—or try to blend two or more. Repeat the benchmark set of 3 x 50. Your goal is to match, or improve, your score, while expending less effort.

May your laps be as happy—and purposeful—as mine.

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