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Old 02-08-2012
terry terry is offline
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Default Replacing the Anaerobic Threshold with a NEURAL Threshold

This is a followup to the recent thread I started which critically examined the popular T-30 (30-minute timed) swim coaches give as the foundation for 'Energy System Training' (EST). My criticisms of this approach were:
1) It's given to many swimmers who can't perform it effectively, meaning it becomes an exercise in plodding, struggle and lack of purpose. (Or Time Spent Not Learning.)
2) The theoretical premise of EST is unproven.

However, even if I were to concede that there might be some modest training adaptation from sets such as anaerobic threshold, I would still want to know if there's a better way to use that time and energy. I think there is -- replacing an anaerobic threshold set with a Neural Threshold Set.

The best arguments for the Neural Threshold approach are:
1) It precisely targets the capacity that's been documented as critical to racing success - the ability to maintain Stroke Length while increasing Stroke Rate.
2) It's 100 percent personalized.
3) It takes advantage of the human brain's most notable strengths--its ability to do concrete problem-solving.

As I've written elsewhere, a key principle of cognitive science is that the human brain has been wired by evolution to be an awesome problem-solving machine, but does poorly with abstraction. You activate large areas of the brain when you give it concrete tasks to execute. When the brain lacks concrete activities on which to focus neurons, it tends to shut down.

For the swimmer, an Energy System repeat set is mostly an abstraction; the brain has little or nothing to do between starting and finishing a repeat. It wakes up for a few seconds to look at the clock, then shuts down for the minute or two of actual swimming. Between starting and finishing the repeat,the swimmer receives no consequential feedback. And throughout the set--and indeed for weeks or months on end--the swimmer has no tangible sense of adaptations occurring.

In a set that targets the Neural Threshold, all those weaknesses turn into strengths. To design a Neural Threshold set you do the following:

1) In EST, you're usually instructed to swim at a specific pace-per-100. Convert that into a stroke count/tempo combination. This is simple math.
2) Even better, find your pace organically through any one of a variety of assessment swims or sets.
2) Convert the assigned task for the set from maintaining a prescribed pace, to maintaining a particular SPL - with tempo preset.

While swimming, your conscious focus is on finding, and raising, your neural threshold. But aerobic effects still 'happen'.

Raising your neural threshold is as simple as pressing the left button on the TT once or twice (increasing tempo by .01 to .02 seconds), then strive to maintain SPL.

The unquestioned advantages of Neural Threshold Training are
1) It's personalized and individualized instead of one-size-fits-all. Each athlete can pinpoint their ‘neural threshold’ of SPL/Tempo -- the point where control breaks down.
2) It's a task with unmistakable sensory feedback and mathematically-specific metrics. While swimming, the athlete can sense--in the very moment it occurs--a slightly ragged catch that signals SPL for the lap will increase. And as soon as they reach the wall, they receive confirmation--rather than waiting to check time at the conclusion of the repeat.
3) On every length--indeed every stroke--they have a clearly-defined 'mission'--to avoid adding strokes by maintaining the effective-stroking sensations and synchronizing them to each beep.

If the athlete sets a particular goal – say to improve from 30 min to 27 min for 1500m—they can easily convert their present speed and desired speed into SPL/Tempo combinations and narrow the gap with mathematical specificity.
Terry Laughlin
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist

May your laps be as happy as mine.

My TI Story
Old 02-08-2012
Joe Novak Joe Novak is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2012
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Joe Novak
Default Neural Threshold

I absolutely love this!!!

I've got a few questions:
1) What's are some of the best way to find swimmers' paces? And then how do we convert this to a specific SPL and tempo.

The tempo part seems like I could figure out (do 50's at descreasing tempo until their time gets slower), however, how do we know what Stroke Count to assign to the swim?

2) It's exciting to think of the goal being to maintain the same number of strokes at decreasing tempos over time. Would it also be the goal to see if a swimmer could decrease the number of strokes at the same tempo? Is there a way to determine which side of the equation to attack?

3) How would we know if it were appropriate to raise the stroke count at some point instead of lower it? Could this ever be the case?
Old 02-08-2012
CoachSuzanne CoachSuzanne is offline
Join Date: Mar 2010
Posts: 2,453

Terry, for TI swimmers I don't think you have to replace anything. For the stubborn mainstream, allowing them the "anchor point" of the threshold set, T-pace, T10, T20, T30, 1000yd TT or 1500TT or whatever they are using can help them bridge to these new ideas.

As you know i have a lot of controversial ideas about training, at least as compared to the mainstream books much of my audience reads about training (Triathletes training bible, big book of endurance training)

If my first comment is "No that's wrong", I'll typically never get that person to listen to me again. But if I allow them the idea that, "Yes, that will work but consider this in addition..." then I have a more open mind to work with and havn't lost someone.

joe asks where to start... (I'm paraphrasing). For a mainstream triathlete reading "workouts in a binder" a standard test is the T-pace test. Instructions are to swim 3 x 300 w/ 30 sec rest as fast as possible, and make each repeat time within 10 seconds of each other. The avg 100 speed is the theoretical "Threshold pace" from which all other workouts are assigned.

Over on the forum I love to hate, just this week was a thread, How do I know if I'm swimming at my T-pace? He had actually purchased a tempo trainer...and asked about how to set it. One fellow said to set it for every 1 minute 27 secons (his t-pace) for feedback. What a waste!! That same fellow said that the purpose of the tempo trainer isn't to help the swimmer set a swimming tempo per stroke. So you see thre is a much larger uphill battle to fight in just getting people to open their eyes to new ways of thinking.

If we allow that swimmer to do his t-pace test (he's already done it anyway), then challenge him to swim at his t-pace and count strokes, play with the tt and estimate tempo...and arrive at a first set of TT & SPL parameters this way...from the pathway of a more traditional test, then suddenly we have them in a space where they can connect the neural to the physical.

It's asking many people to make a big leap straight to training the brain. But at some point I blieve that nearly every TI swimmer has "crossed over" from energy systems in some way and we need to find that common ground to help them place these new ideas in context. Coronado, I knew what a good 100 pace was for me based off many threshold swimming sets I'd done, but had never worked with a tempo trainer. After the first day I did some quick math to arrive at my first target SPL/tempo combination to match what I was already doing...and I was hooked.
Suzanne Atkinson, MD
Level 3 USAT Coach
USA Paralympic Triathlon Coach
Coach of 5 time USA Triathlon Triathlete of the Year, Kirsten Sass
Steel City Endurance, LTD
Fresh Freestyle

Old 02-08-2012
CoachBillG CoachBillG is offline
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Posts: 30

I don't think the 30 minute time trial has much to do with anaerobic conditioning but but more so aerobic threshold, or the ability to maintain a certain power output consistently for long periods of time. 30 minutes it way too long of a duration to be anaerobic, at least in the water.

The only benefit I see for doing an arbitrary prescribed time / distance is to be able to mentally focus and precisely perform for that duration (neural threshold). Meaning, holding a thought patten for 3 minutes is easier than holding it for 30 minutes. However, if you can't hold it for 3 minutes, than you have no business trying 30 minutes.

Developing mental focus / improved concentration (neural threshold) is a skill that has to be developed, just like any other skill. That is what is so beneficial about the TI approach, it is broken down in to short intervals which allows the swimmer to maximize their intentions, hold it and then build on it. Just as a swimmer tries to decrease their stoke count for efficiency, increase their cadence with exact precision using a Tempo Trainer, swimming for longer durations and holding focus should be trained in a gradual manor.

In my opinion, building up to a 30 minute TT could be done by say, doing a TT once per week starting with a duration that can be done relatively comfortably with optimal cadence and stroke count. Then increase that duration by 1 minute per week so long as they can maintain focus, cadence and stroke count. When the swimmer can’t do one of the above mentioned (hit their neural threshold), end the TT, record the time, distance, cadence and stroke count. Go back to the drawing board and do it again the following week.

One thing I hear over and over is the concerns of a swimmer / triathlete being able to complete a certain distance that they will inevitable have to do. By allowing them to once per week focus on getting to that duration / distance (which might be 10-20% or their total practice time) is a huge confidence builder, decreases their anxiety and gives them a feeling of achievement.

Just my opinion :-)
Old 02-08-2012
haschu33 haschu33 is offline
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Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Hamburg, Germany
Posts: 787

Interesting posts.

I want to add a few things that unfortunately crossed my mind. Hope it doesn't get too long.

point 1 - don't try to convert anybody. We human beings obviously have the strong habit of holding strongly to adapted ideas. If you look closely you find out that some people tend to hold on very strongly to their ideas - opinions - while others are more relaxed. We usually call this 'being open'. Or not.
Two quotes come to my mind, one is from Albert Einstein: 'It is more difficult to change a preconceived opinion than splitting an atom'. And splitting an atom is really difficult.
And the Zen master Suziku Roshi: 'In a beginner's mind there are many opportunities, in an expert's mind there are few'. I think being able to maintain a beginners mind is an art and basically can enrich our life immensely.
If you meet hardcore Tri's they might not want to listen to you anyway so leave them alone - it only creates trouble. And to stay friendly and open to someone who has ignorant ideas in your opinion is a good exercise anyway.
For those who are a little more open there is a chance, but you need to be skillful, and you have to start where they are, not where you are. And, I think this is of crucial importance, you have to keep in mind why you want to convince the other one, is it for their good or your own?

2. The myth of the poor neurons. This of course is a little provocative. I absolutely agree with Terry's point but believe that his argumentation in fact is a bit fuzzy, not that mine is better or less fuzzy, just a slightly different viewpoint.
Whenever you swim your neurons are active - there is no way around it. It would be a myth to think you can swim with neuronal activity and without. As soon as you move your brain works - it checks your position in space, it checks all the sensory input, it coordinates the movements down to the smallest muscle fibre - it's an absolute amazing process that is so complex that it might be impossible to ever create a computer program that can simulate human movements in the same perfection. So you cannot stop your brain, it gets active as soon as you move. So what's the point then? The point is what you provoke your brain to do. If you are a (quote by Doc Sue:) 'stubborn mainstream' swimmer and get in the pool and do your usual number - your usual stroke rate, usual speed, usual turns, and so on - you also program your neural system. In fact it knows the program already and you drive your neural system only in the beginning, after a while it will take over and it drives you. The brain runs into a habitual pattern and at the same time you also program your neural system and it further deepens that already good situated pattern. The effect is that you get very good at this one pattern, you can almost sleep while you swim like this (while your neurons don't sleep but still actively move your body) but it gets harder and harder to move outside this pattern. It feels so weird and uncomfortable to swim outside this well habituated pattern that you are not going to do it without a very good reason (like needing to become faster, or being able to sustain a longer distance).
When you in contrast to that - and that is basically the same that Terry says - you challenge your brain and move out of the comfort zone, try TT sets with different values, swim slow and fast, do some drills and some full stroke laps, pyramids and all that magic stuff that we call TI - you prevent your neural system from falling into habits, you force it to learn new patterns, you also train it to learn. And that is really great. It keeps it young and flexible. Those patterns might not be so strongly habituated like the ones of the poor 'stubborn mainstream' folks, but might give us a great flexibility, a broad range of motion and movement and a neural system that is well trained to learn and adjust fast. A multiple win situation.
It has a price though: it takes more energy. To move in habits saves energy. When you do a long or very long swim you need to rely on habits to a certain extent I believe.
Did you notice when you travel and you arrive in a different city in a different country and everything is new, you have to discover everything - it is so tiring. You have to find out every detail - it is constant work.
Then you suddenly run into a McDonald's. You rush in, you feel at home, you recognize the smell, the menu, how and what to order - what a relief! You didn't even want to go to McDonald's and usually never go there, of course - but suddenly it's such a joy. Well - that is the McDonald's principle - basically exploiting your brains tendency to follow habits and your personal laziness to not keep up enough awareness to decide yourself where you move your feet.
That's the situation of the poor mainstream swimmer - falling back into the same pattern where it feels like home.
Which brings us to the other point - the mental processes. When moving out of your comfortable habit zone you need awareness, you need to keep a focus. That is a mental process. You cannot leave your habits and not being focused - it simply doesn't work. You have to pay attention. When you swim the TI way you need to focus. You swim with your eyes open but when you watch closely you find out that you start to move your focus to your inside - away from the outer objects. It is not that you don't notice those objects any more, but you are not so entangled in them and your focus in fact is on your inner sensations. This is the opposite of being distracted and is something that in general gets perceived as a nice, a somewhat peaceful, warm, sometimes exciting state that gives you a physical and mental feeling of well being. It makes you feel positively - in a genuine way - and you get a positive attitude towards others. And I think it is the reason - or part of the reason - why some people get so addicted to swimming. It becomes maybe their sole activity where they aren't constantly distracted, where they get a feeling of 'fully living' - might even experience 'flow states'. In spiritual traditions - and the word 'spiritual' in a way doesn't mean something fundamentally different from 'mental' - these inner processes that we now refer to as flow states are known since a long time. It's like 'when the meditator(swimmer) dissolves in the meditation(swimming)'. We lose a bit our egocentric grip and see ourselves with a little distance and that gives us a peaceful and joyful feeling. Isn't it funny when you swim and suddenly you are the witness of the scene and not the doer?
But in fact it has nothing to do with swimming itself, it has to do with keeping a focus, being aware and 'forgetting' yourself. So I think when at least swimming brings us to this state where we for a change are not completely distracted but can maintain a better experience of ourself, I think that alone is worth it. But, to follow that path, it is very unlike in 'stubborn mainstream' swimming, you ought to be a TI swimmer. A stubborn one.

So, it is quite late, and I am sorry that this got quite long, god, in fact terribly long, and even worse I am not so sure what I wanted to say with this. Something that Terry said triggered it, but in fact I am not really contradicting Terry in any way, it seems. Which is ok.
So if it's helpful, ok, if not - sorry, just forget it ;-)

Anyway, stay in the uncomfortable zone (it's the only place with 'real' comfort) and hang on in there...
Old 02-09-2012
andyinnorway andyinnorway is offline
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Join Date: Mar 2011
Posts: 1,680

Terry's opening post in this thread seems to sum up what I think I have gained most from following the TI path the last year.

Regardless of how fast I improve, I have a full understanding of how to get there.

e.g. to swim my target of a 26.40 mile I need to hold an SPL of 18 @ a tempo of 1.14 for 64 lengths with military precise turns and push offs.

How many triathletes or masters swimmers know how to improve their 1500 time by a minute. 90% of them will reply, go to the gym, drink some protein shakes and try to go off fast and hold on?

once I have succeeded my 26.40 I will attack 25.36, or a second a length over a mile. How to do it. Take my TT down to 1.09 and hold 18 SPL, job done (through a series of neural threshold training sets).

Even though my 1600m times haven't changed in the last 8 months, my ability to hold SPL over longer distances has jumped from 1 or 2 lengths to 32 or more, enough so that as we approach the racing season I can devote some time to conditioning and endurance in order to reach my goals.

PS - special note to Terry, your ability to communicate detailed information and ideas in a manner that I can understand on first read is remarkable.
Old 02-09-2012
ian mac ian mac is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 194
ian mac
Default Always mindful

Ah haschu33, I so enjoy your posts. Since I am in an endorphin enhanced flow state after a demanding 2 hour mindful swimming routine with some TI and many not yet converts, that at times was metabolically challenging as well as focussed and beautiful and am about to enjoy my 2nd glass of red wine, I actually seem to get your point(S?).

The act of swimming itself is such a common denominator. A swimmer is a swimmer is a swimmer. I love the TI bloggers and the whole TI community. Whenever I have the joy and pleasure of sharing the pool with others, it matters not if they are fast/slow/accomplished/TI oriented or not.

Although I can be a very competitive,driven focussed A- type when it comes to my own swimming, I enjoy the whole warm and fuzzy part just as much and am quick to offer friendly advice when warranted.

While I am very much in agreement with the idea of neural threshold, it seems to me that we should put it in a larger context of overall purpose. The raison d'etre of swimming will be different for all swimmers.

What I am trying to suggest is the notion of neural threshold is a great method for training, and one that I embrace wholeheartedly. For someone just starting out in TI and reading some of these thoughts and posts, it must seem daunting. Maybe I am wrong, but I think that we need to bring in another idea- that of periodization in training.

Some years I and many other masters swimmers set lofty goals for ourselves, Terry included. Whether we knew what it was called or not, most focussed TI swimmers who have set certain goals have already been using neural threshold training.

For a variety of reasons, some years my goals are less lofty. It's just nice to get in the pool and swim-mindfully and with focus, yes. Nowhere near neural threshold though. Right now I am in an intense period of neural threshold training preparing for a 1500 and 800 swim. I am 54 and have set times for myself that if achieved will put me in the ballpark for NEXT year to make world top ten in the new age group. So I am personally in a two year meso-cycle of focussed training.

No athlete can be at his best always. Periodization requires that we mindfully use rest- active and passive to reinvigorate ourselves. Neural progression takes time and planning. Terry has given me many important comments throughout this year and it has been important for me to incorporate his and other of my mentors' ideas into my training plan and overall outlook.

Most TI swimmers probably do not wish to aspire to what I dream of. Many just want to learn how to be more fishlike without ever needing or wanting to use a TT. Just becoming more graceful in the water is sufficient.

The artfulness of swimming and the spirituality you allude to are very important to me. I have had out of body experiences while swimming and it really is an exalted state. This may seem way to alfalfa sprout/hippie-ish for some but I agree with you on its importance within the context of what we do and are trying to achieve.

When I watch Shinjii in his videos, I am happy to enjoy the beauty of it for its own sake. I don't wonder what his time is for the 1500, or what his SPL or SR are. I just enjoy the gracefulness.

So getting back to neural threshold, let's remember that it is a training mechanism within the context of periodization and goal setting.

Happy laps to all and for those who imbibe," Sante".
Old 02-09-2012
CoachSuzanne CoachSuzanne is offline
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Posts: 2,453

Originally Posted by CoachBillG View Post
I don't think the 30 minute time trial has much to do with anaerobic conditioning but but more so aerobic threshold, or the ability to maintain a certain power output consistently for long periods of time. 30 minutes it way too long of a duration to be anaerobic, at least in the water.
The term "aerobic threshold" is a physiologically made up threshold that you cant measure and is more along the lines of an effort you can hold for hours at a time...very easy effort. You are confusing maffetone's mythology with real physiology. ;)

Hence the difficulty with the terminology being used in general. (and why I don't like Friel's books). a 30 minute max effort has some anaerobic activity, but it's mostly aerobic. A 20 minute max effort has mostly aerobic and a little more anaerobic. A 10 minute has more anaerobic still, but mostly aerobic. It's not till you get down to 3-5 minutes that you become mostly anaerobic.

however....that exertion level at your max effort for 30 minutes (30-60 minutes depending on who's talking and what test) is termed your Anaerobic threshold/lactate threshold/ventiliatory threshold. They each have different definitions, yet represent a similar point in physiology.

So even the term used in conventional physiology is very confusing...and how we are trying to replace it with a philosophy whose underlying mechanism is even more difficult to measure.
Suzanne Atkinson, MD
Level 3 USAT Coach
USA Paralympic Triathlon Coach
Coach of 5 time USA Triathlon Triathlete of the Year, Kirsten Sass
Steel City Endurance, LTD
Fresh Freestyle

Last edited by CoachSuzanne : 02-09-2012 at 06:19 AM.
Old 02-09-2012
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CoachStuartMcDougal CoachStuartMcDougal is offline
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Posts: 1,353
Default Anerobic and Neural Threshold

Terry, great piece and all other posts provide valuable insight. But I had to revist anerobic threshhold for a minute and the importance of periodization to get some framework. AT changes throughout your season and whatever you decide your peak race you are training for. You slowly push up that zone so your body can work at increased speed while burning more fat stores rather than immediate glycogen stores. Even a very lean person has enough fat stores to run two IM's, but only 90 or so mins when we rise to and above AT; knowing and managing AT zone in long endurance races is critical. Operate too far above AT for a long period of time - the infamous "bonk, "hit the wall", or "crash" occur and your day is over. I think we've all been there - and it sucks. But our body has a way of adapting to the bonk, by pushing up the anerobic threshold after "hitting the wall". I've heard it characterized as reset++, good to "bonk" sometimes (although I don't quite buy that).

Applying that same physiological concept to neural threshold seems a bit odd. Can we actually push ourselves to NT just before "red-lining" into mental overload? Is NT where we've pushed ourselves far enough to rewire circuits and motor skills to imprint better balance, streamline and position? Or perhaps the opposite, wrong position and technique. Like AT can we run constantly above NT and something drastic happen, like a "brain bonk"?

I had a tendency to dismiss NT at first, but if you have taught someone (TI) for an entire weekend - I think "hitting the wall", or "brain bonk" actually occurs, complete overload- and I think this is a good thing. Much more brain activity occurs than physical, even though we're in the pool swimming 8 hours. If you ask a student at the end of day-2 what was the best thing they learned in the process, you will likely get a blank stare and some mumble that sounds captured from the initial coach presentation. Granted there is physical exhaustion, but surprisingly no muscle soreness, but mentally - the student is done for the day. But give a student a couple days to recover (mentally), she/he will recall the workshop in surprising detail, their (new) motor skills that felt very awkward and struggled with in workshop all of a sudden imprint two days later in the pool - and then they're saying, "I get it now!"

So I can see NT has a lot of merit. The neural system, like muscle, needs to be pushed and at times pushed to its limits over NT - and then needs to recover and rest. And this recovery is where you get the most gain whether it be big muscle, endurance, or a big brain - and I don't think they are mutually exclusive.


Coach Stuart
Old 02-09-2012
ian mac ian mac is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 194
ian mac
Default Neural Threshold and race pace

Terry et al,
In reading Stuart's first comments, he seems to allude to my contention regarding periodization: the idea that within a training program a swimmer, through gradual adaptation will continue to improve their neural threshold.

But what is the difference between race pace and neural threshold? In post #87 of "Formula for a Faster 1500/1650" I recorded a particular set that I recently did: 6 x 50m @ 1min
Results in 6 sets of 10 x 50:
1. with TT@1.05, SP50-27 avg time: 39sec
2. TT@1.0, SP50-29 avg time: 37sec
3. TT@.95 SP50-30 avg time: 36sec
4. TT@.90 SP50-30 avg time: 35sec
5. TT@.95 SP50-29 avg time: 36.5sec
6. noTT SP50-31 avg time: 35sec

My goal for the 1500 is to swim 18:30 ( a pace of 37 sec/50 ). In set 2. I accomplished that pace at a stroke rate/50m that I felt to be comfortable. As part of the process of gradual adaptation, I was curious to see what I could do beyond that race pace.

My reasoning was twofold:1) what is the cost/benefit of increasing stroke rate in relation to stroke length and time; and 2) can I maintain a faster than race pace progression for a sustained period in order to make set 2. become "easy speed".

In a comment from post #91 of the above stated thread you write:"We have great respect for athletes with the capacity to swim effectively at and beyond their 'red line' and agree it's critical to develop that capacity to reach one's full potential." That was my successful attempt at this process and further to other comments you have made, it was not my intention to swim 'hard' per se, although the results did cause a necessarily elevated heart rate.

The sense of accomplishment from this gradual adaptation is most satisfying. Knowing that one can continue to push the neural and kinetic chain within a mindful plan is very, very satisfying, and I thank you for your continuing support.

Getting back to neural threshold and race pace - aren't they the same thing? I appreciate that using the newly coined term speaks to the process of how it is achieved and your blueprint in the original post on this thread I take to heart. However, my neural threshold is going to be different for every type of swimming distance, is it not? My SPL & SR will be significantly different at 100m than it will for 1500m. So how exactly are 'neural threshold' and 'race pace' different?
PS - I shall now post in 'A formula for...' my latest adaptive set.
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