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Tom Pamperin 04-08-2016 07:21 PM

Two Contrasting Practices
Just had a very interesting experience this week: I've been swimming consistently 5 days/week since February, and have been directing almost all of my attention to SPL work--my goal was to take my initial "best" SPL (when I started after a lengthy break, I was at 14 SPL for 25m, and am now at 13 for 25m) and make it easy to do, then slowly extend distances holding SPL without worrying about tempo or speed for now.

As a result, almost all of my swimming for past couple of months has been extremely slow, focused repeats of very short distances (many 25m, some 50m, and perhaps one 100m repeat per session). This has been spectacularly satisfying, giving me lots of opportunity to focus on technique (balance, core activation, elbow-led recovery, patient catch, etc.).

This week I happened to be starting my session when a couple of VERY fit triathletes I know were starting their own workout. They invited me to join them, and in a fit of open-mindedness, I agreed to give it a try. Here was the workout:

3 times through this set:

1 x 200 (50m all-out, 150 recovery)
1 x 200 (100m all-out, 100m recovery)
1 x 200 all-out

On a whim, I decided I would resist the almost overpowering urge to "TI-ize" their workout by defining the all-out/recovery legs with SPL, giving me TI targets and tasks to aim for. Instead, I would merely try to go faster by increasing stroke rate as much as I could, without counting strokes (which I wasn't even sure I could avoid doing--I've been a compulsive stroke counter for ten years).

This is a long post already, so I'll continue in the next one with my reactions and observations.

Tom Pamperin 04-08-2016 07:40 PM

So, here's what I noticed:

1) I was able to turn off the stroke counter in my brain quite easily, probably because the aerobic workload soon was taking all of my attention. This makes it a little easier for me to understand how so many fitness-oriented swimmers and triathletes have never thought (apparently) of counting strokes for continual feedback. They are caught up in the "push through the wall of suffering" game, and once you're in that game, it rapidly becomes all-consuming. I had no mental room to think about anything else.

2) There was a great deal of muscle fatigue--much more than I have felt in swimming for a long time.

3) I'm not sure what it looked like to observers, but I felt INCREDIBLY sloppy with my form, as if I were desperately just trying to stroke faster and had no mental room left to monitor and adjust technique and body position.

4) I did not even look at a clock, but I'd guess my 50m sprint times were around 40-42 seconds each. I'd be very surprised if all my extra effort and exhaustion gained me even 1-2 seconds of time per 50m over what I could have achieved with a TI-oriented approach to the same session (e.g. I would have swum 18 SPL on the sprint legs, and maybe 14 SPL on the recovery legs--it would have been nearly as fast, but would have felt MUCH easier).

Here's what the triathletes I was training with noticed (one missed qualifying for Kona by 17 seconds last year, so they're very fit and train seriously):

1) "You're really fast," one of them remarked. I think they had assumed I'd have trouble keeping up, because most of the time when they are watching me, I'm swimming extremely slowly. But instead, I was faster by a body length or two on the sprints, and (interestingly) also much faster on the recovery legs, though I was trying to hold back (honestly, I desperately needed the rest aerobically).

2) They didn't seem to want to believe me when I told them I found the set incredibly difficult and exhausting. Apparently I did not appear to be working as hard as I felt like I was. I was way more out of breath than both of them after each repeat.

This suggests two ideas to me:

A. Some of the smoothness and technique I had focused on at slow speeds must have stayed with me at higher stroke rates, even where it felt like I was completely sloppy and out of control.

B. If A is true, then SPEED is not the reason I got fatigued, as I would have been swimming pretty close to those speeds with at TI-oriented approach as well. The real issue is getting caught up in the "push through the wall of suffering" mentality. Here's why I think that is:

If you have it in your head that you must "push through the wall of suffering" then you have surrendered control of the situation. You are a passive participant who is there to simply let the suffering happen to you.

With a TI approach, you retain control by consciously manipulating variables of tempo, stroke rate, and SPL to pursue your goals. I'd guess that the psychological aspect of CONTROLLING vs. BEING CONTROLLED is a huge factor in how you experience fatigue.

Has anyone else experienced this?

Next post: my contrasting solo TI session from today.

Tom Pamperin 04-08-2016 08:11 PM

So, here is the contrasting TI practice I enjoyed this morning:

Since this was just one day after my trip to the "dark side," I wanted to direct my attention back to getting things as close as I could to perfection. I decided that not only would I swim nearly the entire session at my current "best" SPL of 13 strokes/25m, but I would start with short repeats and consciously try to maintain the ease of a 25m repeat as I added distance.

TUNE-UP: 525m

I almost always begin with a full 25m underwater swim, no breaths. Not only does this help me relax my mind and move deliberately, it's also a nice benchmark to check streamlining and balance underwater. A normal day takes me push-off + 6 strokes; a good day takes me push-off + 5. Today was a +6 day.

Next, 10 x 25 alternating various focal points.

Today I decided not to count strokes for 5 repeats, but to monitor something I haven't paid much attention to lately: how many bubbles are formed at each hand entry. This isn't quite correct full stroke swimming as I have to lift my head (thus dropping my hips a bit) to see my hand entries.

I was able to have almost zero bubbles today on some repeats--mainly by focusing on feeling the extreme tip of my fingers touching the water before completing the entry. This was an incredibly relaxing and satisfying focal point today--it really got me in a nice flow state.

On the other 5 repeats (again not counting strokes), I focused on elbow lead during recovery. I imagined a string tied to each elbow, and the string pulls the elbow forward (not really up, just forward). Today I really tried to extend the elbow lead as far forward as I could, and as I maintained the elbow-forward position farther forward than my head, my recovering arm seemed to "fall" effortlessly forward with a motion that seemed to include the entire arm/shoulder assembly, all of it relaxed and floppy.

Then finished the tune-up with a favorite SPL set:

1 x 25, 1 x 50, 1 x 75, 1 x 100 all at 13 SPL

I had a couple of 25s at 12 SPL here, which was nice.

MAIN SET 1: 500m

4 x 25, 3 x 50, 2 x 75, 1 x 100, all at 13 SPL

My goal here was to make the 25s feel ridiculously easy and smooth, going as slow as necessary, and then maintain that ease as I added distance. Mostly successful, though I had one length at 14 SPL when I lost focus during a 75. But again, I had a couple of lengths at 12 SPL.


(seems odd to call it "recovery" with such an easy, restful set--maybe "Recalibration?")

2 x 50m at 13 SPL

These I swim as slowly as possible while still swimming and not drilling--I set a MINIMUM time of 1:00/50m, and try to go as far OVER that 1:00 as I can. Today I managed a 1:01 and a 1:05. These ultra-slow repeats are great to build awareness of body position, balance, and core activation.

MAIN SET 2: 1,000m

I hadn't felt quite as easy as I wanted to during the main set, so I repeated a shorter version next:

4 x (4 x 25, 3 x 50 all at 13 SPL)


2 x 50m ultra-slow swim


By now I was feeling really smooth and easy at 13 SPL for 50m, but checked my time and saw I had been swimming a bit slower than my normal pace for 13 SPL at 50m (I was doing :52/:53 instead of my normal :48/:49). I was curious how much speed I could add while maintaining 13 SPL and keeping that smooth, easy feeling. So:

1 x 50 @ 13 SPL

This felt smooth, strong, and easy, and came in at :47--a drop of :06!

1 x 50 @ 14 SPL

Again, I hit my SPL target and kept the ease and smoothness, but got :45 instead of my normal :47.

1 x 50 @ 13 SPL

Missed the 13 on the second 25, finished 13/14 SPL at :45.

Conclusions/observations in next post in case anyone is reading these super-long entries...

Tom Pamperin 04-08-2016 08:32 PM

So again, the idea is to contrast the two practices, one non-TI and the other TI oriented. What do I think?

1) I didn't learn anything during the non-TI session. I'm sure my aerobic fitness would improve if I kept practicing like that, but I don't think I'd get better at swimming. Partly this may have been my fault--perhaps other swimmers who do traditional sets like this are more mindful as they swim. However, I don't see evidence that they are consciously manipulating variables to achieve goals--they seem to be very clock-oriented and guided by a pre-written workout session from a magazine or website (I think).

2) I learned a lot from the TI session:

By prioritizing ease and smoothness, I can maintain a tempo sufficient to swim a :47 50m @ 13 SPL at my current fitness level--that's much better than I expected. I think it's time to break out a TT and start gradually working to hold 13 SPL at higher tempos. I want to be incredibly stingy with SPL now while I have time to be patient and have no events looming. Later when I race at 15-16 SPL I expect to have a significantly lower perceived effort along with higher speeds.

Elbow lead during recovery aids relaxation and smoothness. I've known this for a while, but during my tune-up I discovered that if I visualize a wall just in front of my head as I swim, I want to keep pulling on the elbow string until my elbow bangs into the imaginary wall before I let the forearm come forward for hand entry. This is a new, effective visualization cue for me.

Leaning on an armpit with an activated/tensed core lifts my feet and hips. I also started to feel a nice skating motion as I shifted weight from one armpit to the next.

Staring directly downward and not forward is a major component of good balance. I really started noticing how often I fail to do this during my slow repeats, and once I was aware of it, I was able to correct it. This also led to breathing much lower in the water, with one eye below the surface and my head pillowed by the water. I had been lifting my head subtly without realizing it. This reminds me to revisit cues for low head/weightless head periodically, as I'll probably always revert slowly to lifting my head to some degree.

Overall, then, I definitely prefer the TI approach to swimming. The social aspect of the traditional workout was fun, but it was nowhere near as engaging as my TI practice. I think a big part of the reason is that with the traditional workout, we were working to a script; with my TI session, I was working from a principle (maintain ease and smoothness while holding 13 SPL), and problem-solving creatively along the way to find ways to make that possible.

I'd be curious to hear what people think--you may notice things about my posts here that I haven't thought of. Thanks!

Zenturtle 04-26-2016 09:39 PM

Hi Tom,

I think you look at non TI hard swimming in a rather black and white manner.
Swimming is all about control and you can give yourself the challenge to have total control over your stroke at any speed.
Slow speed balance overruled swimming requires a slight shift in focus compared to faster swimming but the challange is to feel just as controlled at faster speeds as at slower speeds.
If you swim relaxed and long all the time, jumping to a sprint feels horrible.
If you sprint all the time and have to swim ridicously slow suddenly it feels horrible too.
If you always breathe to the right and have to breathe on the left it feels horrible.
You get the point.

When I only swim relaxed for a month I cant speed up anymore. Everything falls apart. Legs and arms are not syncronised anymore, hips rotate to late, arms want to pull to fast.
Only swimming in a certain manner trains swimming in that manner.
Adding more sprints lets you slowly gain control over your stroke again.
Every sprint you learn a new detail to make the stroke better and after a while everything comes together again at a much higher speed.
Its building a certain skill, just like long relaxed comtrolled swimming is a skill.
You can work toward perfection in your sprint mindfully just as you can work on perfection on a lower effort level.

Add some 2x5x25 sprint meters to you regular workout and try to swim as smooth and with the longest stroke possible as fast as you can.
It will feel more normal after a while.
It can also give some thrills and learning experiences, although I have to admit, I often am also too lazy to almost swim my brains out.

You are very focussed on strokelength, but I find it actually harder to achieve good timing, rhythm and stroke mechanics in a shortened stroke with a deliberate fast catch.
Changing swimming patterns gives you a wider perspective on the freestyle stroke and builds more general swim awreness, just as adding another stroke to your swim repertoire.

Tom Pamperin 04-26-2016 11:55 PM


thanks for the comment here. Based on your reaction, though, I think maybe I didn't explain my comparison between the two practices well. I am not at all against training with higher SPLs and higher SR, though as you say that has not been my main focus lately.

My normal TI sessions actually cover a pretty wide range of speed and stroke length, so despite my feeling of a loss of control/technique in the non-TI session, I was not swimming faster than usual (longer repeats, but not faster). My SPL pyramids in a normal TI session usually end up at 16 SPL on the upper end, with a :41 or :42 for 50m. Occasionally I go to 18 SPL, which on a good day brings me in at :39 or :40 for 50m. I get those speeds by CHOOSING to increase SPL.

During the non-TI practice, I purposely resisted my instinct to manipulate SPL in such a controlled fashion, and just tried to "swim fast." What happened was a much greater increase in stroke rate, but also a big increase in SPL. I was probably swimming 20-22 SPL for :40-42 per 50m on the fast legs.

So, similar speeds, much higher SR and SPL in the non-TI practice, and MUCH greater perceived exertion in the non-TI practice. The only difference was in the TI practice, I was consciously controlling variables and swimming mindfully. In the other session, I was focused only on "swimming fast" in a vague sense, without a specific plan about HOW to swim fast (i.e. increase SR without letting SPL get outside my green zone).

You said this, which I totally agree with:


You can work toward perfection in your sprint mindfully just as you can work on perfection on a lower effort level.
I can't read minds, so I don't know for sure how mindful the non-TI people I trained with were in their approach to their session. But based on conversations I've had with them and other non-TI triathletes at our pool, they seem to focus only on the clock and the desire to "swim fast" without a mindful and deliberate plan for gaining that speed. They do not seem to have a repertoire of focal points and subtle adjustments in timing and technique--they just "swim fast" (usually following a pre-printed workout rather than an individual plan that focuses on HOW to hit the speed you want).

I'm convinced that mindfulness is the key, whether it's officially TI or not. But TI provides lots of guidance about WHAT to be mindful about, and it certainly suits me!

Zenturtle 04-27-2016 09:56 AM

OK, Its hard for me to imagine swimming without taking notice how every stroke feels and how balance is disturbed etc.
It could be there are swimmers who swim totally automatic, able to do other things at the same time just as driving your car on automatic pilot.
If your stroke is good and you have swum a lot, thats not a bad place to be.
Than you can swim like you run or bike.( I wish I was at that stage.)
But most peoples strokes leave a lot of room for improvement and if they start to swim only focussed on time with no interest in stroke mechanics they leave speed potential unused obviously.
In my experience this group is rather small.
Most people want to swim better than they are currently doing, and not only faster.
Its true though that the first thing they are discussing is the arm movement, catch etc.
Its just there seem to be a lot of people in the pool who dont really know what they are doing and what are the best things to focus on.
Doesnt bother me anymore. Let everybody do his personal thing in the pool.
Looks like we are swimming a lot of the time with similar mindsets Tom,although my focus is more intuitive than guided by numbers like strokelength, rate and times.
These numners improve automatically (with stops and slow progression) as an outcome with enough swim time, mental and physical input and continual reference to a mental image of good stroke mechanics.
At least . thats my preferred method. Different folks, different strokes. Happy swimming.

descending 06-03-2016 03:07 PM

I'm not sure I will answer this right but here goes.

I can't relate b/c I think by the time you have say a million yards under your belt all these things just start to happen. I think I'd drown if I analyzed myself that much honestly or I wouldn't want to swim. I still look at swimming as a sport, sure it's skill, but I let the athlete in me take over in many respects. Rhythm and flow are what tell me if things are in order. My 'stroke thought' is push off, nail my balance point out of break out and let my rhythm for that set and effort level take over. Not that I don't think at practice I do it takes great concentration to hold it all together once the volume gets turned up. Stoke counting? Could not care less what it is my stroke is put together around rhythm and core driving the bus. So whether or not I'm warming up at 50 or racing hard at 80 it's all the same thought process I just speed up my core rotations and get myself ready to feel discomfort. Meaning my arm action is just along for the ride with what my rotations tell it to do I don't have to think about catch, pull or recovery. Breathing just happens as a result of my core rotation and when my blow hole is in the trough I gobble air.

Sorry I can't wrap my head around your observations. It doesn't make them any less valid or real I just can't go back in time 30 years and think about what I was doing when I started to take swimming seriously.

If I could offer one tiny piece of advice to put on your list somewhere. Don't forget swimming is a sport and let yourself be an athlete. In it's simplest form I like to think of my stroke as walking down the sidewalk on my elbows. That simple. That may also be b/c I'm a huge moron and that's all my pea brain can handle.

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