Thanks for your input. I've been neglecting this thread for the past while, but not the swimming.
In fact, I had a change of tactic slightly over the last few weeks. I got some good advice to help me out of a rut I was stuck in concerning improvement in distance per stroke, times, effort & reward. A summary of it:
1) Be hyper attentive to drag any place you can find it: head position, splay of legs as you kick (drag component vs propulsive force), cleanliness of rotation, posture.
- I realised I have a little fishtailing when my kick isn't useful, stability wise or propulsion wise. Spent some time correcting this over several practices.
2) Tinker with timing: the relationship of lead arm to recovery arm changes as tempo increases or decreases.
- After a fair bit of practice and experiment with this it was clear that my stroke timing was well honed for tempo's around 1.00, but not appropriate for faster tempo. Still a work in progress, but slowly getting to a timing I'm happier with and feeling less taxed because of it.
3) Swim outside your comfort zone on shorter repeats. You may find that you can manage 50s on fairly short rest while holding your mechanics mostly together at faster tempos. Don't worry that you can't sustain these tempo/stroke count combos on longer swims yet. Stick to the 25s, 50s, 75s, maybe 100s until you adjust to :02-:05 faster than your current best tempo.
4) Don't be afraid to go fast. What may seem fast and sloppy is often just "unfamiliar." The feeling that you've abandoned your skill set doesn't always mean you HAVE abandoned it. Sometimes it just means your body is unaccustomed to how reliable mechanics feel at higher intensities.
I was grateful for the advice for 2 reasons. The first is that it re-iterated where to turn when one reaches a plateau. The 2nd was that I was overly aware of the perceived effort during practice. So, I'll say it gave me a kick in the behind to get after it.
With all this in mind, recent practices on the whole have been learning/refinement orientated, much harder in places, and rewarding. There have been failures too; and days when I didn't feel up to it at all.
2 recent practices:
10x50 tune up
5 x (3x100 with TT + 1 x 100 active recovery, ignore TT)
TT1.03 - 1.00, and 0.98 on the last.
Rest 10 between 3x100's, rest only enough to change TT after recovery.
A few 100's mixed SD.
It was pretty hard on little rest, but form and stroke counts remained consistent. I learned that I need to be conscious of my breath timing EVEN MORE when I get tired because it falters and I start to breathe too late.
same WU, drill-swim, tune up
3 rounds of (8 x (75m with TT + 25m active recovery, ignore TT))
There was no rest, take just enough to change TT between rounds.
A few 100's SD.
This was tough and I was knackered after it. But my reward was I haven't felt so connected in the water in a long time in terms of my profile, kick timing, rotation and breathing. And stroke counts held up very well over 75m.
Spent each Saturday over the past few weeks doing only the WU and easy lengths for about 45mins - long stroke, perfect technique etc etc.