All right. Can everybody hear; can you hear in back? Thank you very much for showing up today. I’m already thinking of things I should’ve done, like have somebody wander through the aisles, maybe with a costume? Maybe next time? (I got my volunteer.) This is a talk I’m really excited to give, and I do want to emphasize that… you’re giving a gift to me by listening. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to be in this position, and to have your time, and to be able to talk about something that is really exciting to me. That’s kind of another dimension of competitive Swimming.
I’m starting off with this photograph because I think in some ways it describes the beauty and the danger and the exhilaration that comes with our sport. We’re operating in Swimming in a sacred medium. It’s a medium that we have this relationship to unlike anything else. In fact, we are water; water is us. I read a description where somebody said, “We are water; muscled water.” Muscled water, that’s incredible.
Water has the power to crush us; water will also cradle and support us. It has this tremendous kind of archetypal power to human beings. But what I mean by that is it operates on our subconscious in ways that I don’t think we understand and we don’t always realize. In fact, we seldom realize it.
Imagine what this surfer [on slide] feels right now. Imagine what that surfer is conscious of right now, and then imagine what is going on subconsciously. Right now he—I am pretty sure that it is a he—is feeling a speed, joy, exhilaration. But there is also some part of him that knows and senses that he is surrounded by a wall of this stuff. He’s riding it right now; he is using that water in exactly the way he wants. But he doesn’t really appear to have very many options for dealing with the power that’s coming in the next few seconds. So he better be right; he better be doing the right thing right now at every instant. There’s danger here. And his sense of safety is about to be tested, if it’s not already.
Now let me reframe this for swim coaches. What energy system is he in right now? What energy system is he using? And I ask that because the title of the talk I think was supposed to be something along the lines of Expanding Energy System Models to Include and Consider the Nervous System. And I think that I overshot a little bit when I chose that topic, because it’s a little bit more ambitious than I feel like I’m about to give you. What I’m going to give you is just scratching the surface. What I’m going to give you is also my ideas on where we go next, and questions that we need to be asking. And I would love to have feedback and I’d love to have this at least stimulate a discussion among coaches, because there hasn’t been a whole lot that’s at least been talked about in this sense.
We don’t really care, and he doesn’t care, what energy system he is using right now, because that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening right now is he is about to learn something. Okay? Training is based on stimulus or stress, and then recovery and then a response. That’s how a change happens, that’s how learning happens, that’s the basis of training. Is stimulus and stress and then recovery and then a response and growth. So it’s easy for me to imagine that this guy is about to grow; this experience is going to be a part of his life that he is not going to forget. But it’s not because he’s training an energy system.
His nervous system is being absolutely assaulted right now. And when your nervous system is assaulted, you will adapt. So what are we doing in our training that’s analogous to this? And then, what should we be doing?
This is a general scheme that I’ve operated under for a long time; these are the pieces to the puzzle of performance. Training is about practicing skills, it’s about motivating the athlete; it’s about wrapping myelin—if you want to think of it that way—so that movement patterns can get solidified. And it’s about getting the energy systems right. So much of our training is based on applying stress to the proper energy systems in the proper sequence and building a performance that is the culmination of all these events.
These different elements we all know are related: skill development, motivation, getting the energy systems right, getting them to practice well, and getting them in the right physiological state for the right durations and using that to build a performance. Here is a not so subtle shift: what happens when we start to recognize that all of this activity is under the guidance of the nervous system, and governed by the brain? It’s not a real stretch to imagine that. But I think it does start to stretch the imagination when you go down that path, and really start to explore and really start to wonder.
This isn’t about psychology. This is about being human; it’s about dealing with human beings. And dealing with all of the history that we, as a species, bring to this particular moment—the evolutionary history. And again I can tell you that I’m just barely scratching the surface in my understanding of how this works and looking at training in this way. But I’m really excited about what I’m seeing and the way I’m seeing it.
So I’ve got a question for you: when you think of swimming, how many different dimensions of swimming do you imagine? And: do you allow for the possibility as a coach that you or we or all of us are missing one dimension or several dimensions or many dimensions? Well in my own kind of transforming the way I’m thinking about this, I had a transformative experience. I think a good way to describe it was given by somebody in recounting a book called Flatland. Okay? So I’m going to take you to Flatland.
Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures, and the protagonist in this book is a square. Now right now, we’re looking down on the square (the square is at the top of your screen). And so looking down on it, we’re looking at it in that one dimension. If we were where the circle is, we would see it as a square; but right now we’re looking at it essentially as a line. Okay, has everybody kind of got that perspective? We’re taking an aerial view, right above the square, and the square is in two dimensions.
So one day the square was visited by a sphere. And the sphere is from a 3-D world, predictably called Spaceland. The sphere moves in three dimensions, including in a dimension that the square absolutely cannot comprehend. The two dimensions (down at the bottom) we’ll call energy systems; and then the third dimension, we’ll call the nervous system. (This is my experience.)
So this sphere is moving in-and-out of the two dimensions, and is enjoying him- or herself moving in-and-out of these two dimensions, and moving through that third dimension. Which the square is not tuned into at all. When the sphere tried to explain this to the square, that he was moving back and forth, the square couldn’t understand.
In fact, what the square saw was this. The square could see this dimension, and then could see the sphere, not moving toward it, but just growing. And continuing moving toward it, but not seeing it that is moving towards it, it is shrinking. So growing and shrinking. And was incredibly confused, but just thought okay this sphere is growing and shrinking. And the sphere is saying, no, I’m moving towards you and away from you. And it just wasn’t sinking in.
So finally the sphere got really frustrated, and grabbed the square and pulled it way up into the third dimension. And the square all of a sudden saw this thing, this whole other world, that he had no concept of before. Something like this: go from flat to this, and this is what it feels like. This is the way the square described it: “An unspeakable horror seized me. There was darkness and then a dizzying sensation of sight that was not like seeing. I saw a space that wasn’t a space. I was myself and not myself. When I could find a voice,” and this gets a little dramatic (I didn’t really feel this way, but it’s good stuff), “I shrieked aloud in agony: ‘Either this is madness or hell!’ ” “ ‘Well it’s neither’, calmly replied the voice of the sphere. ‘It’s knowledge, it’s three dimensions. Open your eyes once again and try to look steadily upon it.’ ”
So there’s an old Yiddish saying: to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. From the Earth, the world can appear to be the Earth. Unless you’re aware of what surrounds the Earth, which is either the solar system or the rest of the universe. And so, I think it’s time for us to really start to expand the way we’re viewing training; the way we’re viewing our experience in the water. And imagine the nervous system as being primary.
And this is not a new thought. Roger Bannister in 1956 said, “It is the brain, not the heart or the lungs, that’s the critical organ. It’s the brain.” The nervous system is after all the brain—plus several other things. In 2002, also, a man named Timothy Noakes wrote a paper on what he termed the central governor model of pacing, where he essentially challenged the traditional model of pacing which says that: the limiting factors in any sustained effort are physiological, energetic. And those would be things like the buildup of waste, the lack of oxygen to skeletal muscle, or the lack of oxygen to heart muscle.
Noakes claimed that the limiting factors in pacing are actually a function of the brain protecting us. Long before we reach physiological limitations, our brain is slowing us down to, in his terms, prevent a catastrophe. And this makes sense; it should make sense to all of us. What makes the muscles contract? The nerves. What sends signals to the nerves? The brain. The nervous system is in charge, and it is pulling the levers, determining your physiology.
When we look at energy systems, we’re looking at one dimension. But the rest of the universe rises, in my mind, above and beyond it. I think of the nervous system in that way, with the main component being the brain. Energy production is essentially contained inside that system. And we need to know it: if the brain is pulling the controls, we’d better turn some attention to the controller. Energy production is secondary to the main control, the nervous system. We’re always training the nervous system, whether we know it or not.
So this is a diagram that came from Dr. Noakes’ paper. I just want you to kind of imagine it; I wouldn’t start writing this stuff down. You can find that paper, it’s Timothy Noakes 2002, online, I think. But it gives you the general idea of the scheme and the model. So on the right is the system of evidence that the brain is limiting the output of skeletal muscle; the brain is governing the output of the skeletal muscle. Those are a number of facts supported by research that supports that theory.
In fact, a couple of the main ones are: the facts that the VO2 max and muscular exhaustion both occur below maximal muscle recruitment. So before you’ve recruited all of your muscles you’re failing. Okay, so what’s behind that? Why in the world would we have excess capacity? Or why would we stop before we reach that capacity? Well again, it’s to prevent a catastrophe.
On the left is feedback information from the skeletal muscles that inform the brain. And that’s things like: heat, level of CO2/level of oxygen, glycogen stores, muscle soreness/fatigue/damage. So the brain is getting feedback, obviously, from the skeletal system also.
And then at the very top is what I find really fascinating as well, and that is what he termed: centrally acting performance modifiers. So things that act directly on the brain and that seem to affect the level of control that the brain is going to exert over the muscles. And the very first thing up at the left-hand side is music. And we all know this, right? You can listen to the right song, and you can access a level of performance that is difficult to access without it. Mental fatigue, sleep deprivation, those things weigh us down. Monetary rewards or other types of motivations.
So all that stuff is more of a model of what limits performance. And it’s a real different model that reflects the nervous system than the old models, which were basically completely energetic, absent the brain.
So I’m going to go through in this hour or so, ways that we… I think we need to consider the nervous system in our planning. And ways that I think we need to realize that this stuff is primary. Meaning, if you don’t get it right, you’re going to have to deal with the effects. Again if our energy production and motivation and skill development fall under the umbrella of the nervous system, we need to honor that fact and make sure we’re not getting in our own way.
So I’m going to talk about training design in single practices; especially spend time on the way we prepare to practice, getting in the right brain. Talk a little bit about safety, the need for starting from a safe point. And then planning for risk. We’ll also talk a little bit about phase planning, including some exploration of cyclical and serial training, the idea of neural density, especially as a way to mitigate fatigue, and then talk a little about a model or a seasonal plan for skill acquisition.
So what stimulated this change for me was this incredible privilege I’ve had for the past year, 15 months now, to work with Bill Boomer. I think most of you know who he is. It’s impossible I think to fully state the effect that he’s had on Swimming and the effect that he’s had on people in this room that have never met him. He was a coach at the University of Rochester for a long time ‘62 to 1990. Had exposure to high-level Swimming every year as a judge at NCAAs. (Marty, you were there; that’s right. We’ve got some of his buddies here I think.) And he went back and worked on his own team everyday. He worked side-by-side with one of the great physiologist in the sport of Swimming, Al Craig. He has revolutionized Swimming vocabulary.
And our relationship started at the NCAA Championships a year and a half ago. When I went up into the stands at Auburn University and saw him, I’d know him a little bit through the 20+ years I’ve been coaching, but we sat together and talked about Richard Quick for a while. He said he’d been out of Swimming for a while, and he wanted to come back and we just spent time remembering Richard. So we sat and talked, and he congratulated me on the way our athletes were swimming.
In the beginning of that year I wrote down some goals for myself, and one was to make an extraordinary commitment to turns and another was to make an extraordinary commitment to underwater work. And he told me that we were the most competitive team there at the meet. And that was the kind of thing that was said and there was an implied but afterwards. So I said, “But?” And he said, “Well, your wall work could really improve.” And I was so proud of our turns, up until that moment.
So I’m going to talk a little bit this afternoon about how we kind of redoubled that effort. But that was a challenge, and I loved the fact that this guy just challenged me. So we had a great conversation and we kept talking. And eventually he said, “I want to come down and see what you’re doing. This is kind of interesting.” And so to me, that was like Christmas. So he came down, and then said he had a great time wanted to keep coming back. So now he comes and visits us about once a month for 5 or 6 days, and it’s been incredible for me.
And I view him as kind of my guide to my next destination as a coach. Not everybody viewed it this way. At Olympic Trials in June (I like this story), Boomer was with us for the third time. And he’s helping us at Trials; I’d just been given the men’s team a few months before and felt like I was kind of buried, so I wanted all the help I could get. And he is on-deck doing his thing and I’m on-deck doing my thing, and we’re kind of making it work. We ended-up having a pretty successful Trials.
But about halfway through, one of our country’s great coaches came up to me, and this is a guy that I’ve never talked to before, and he said something very nice. And then he started seething in anger, and spewing venom. And said, “Now that you have Boomer, your program is a joke! Everybody is laughing at you. I’ll never send anybody to you.” Like wow, where did that anger come from? So I dodged his anger with questions for a while, which made him even angrier. And then when I felt my own anger starting to take over, I walked away. And I was pretty shaken to be honest. I had a number of thoughts, like how dare he. He has never sent me his swimmer anyway, so I’m not sure that this is going to hurt. But it’s still stuck with me and kind of bugged me, sort of like a pebble in my shoe.
And then the pebble disappeared, peace kind of fell over me. And then I got excited. I went and told Boomer what had happened, and asked him what his history was with this coach. And he shook his head, and he said, “You know, he yelled at me once. I’m not sure what I did to him, but he went off on me.” And he paused, and it was almost sadly, and he said, “That’s just a pity to go through life with that kind of anger.” And I got even more excited. And I thought: ‘Okay, this is awesome. I’m in the middle of a war. It’s a war of ideas. In swimming!’ You never expect that; you can have disagreements, but this is a war.
And at the core of this coach’s anger, I thought, was a sense of uncertainty that’s absolutely shaken him. So this quote came back to me from an old favorite book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: You are never dedicated to something that you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow; they know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to a political or a religious faiths, or any other kind of dogma or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are a little bit in doubt.
So I thought: let’s go to battle. I’m going to commit to listening to the ideas of this man, which have obviously shaken this other great coach. Because he’s not shouting from the rooftops; he’s offering advice, like somebody offers you a piece of gum. He is not going to be offended if you don’t take it. But at the same time, when have you ever taken a piece of gum from somebody and regretted it? That was what I was thinking.
So first practice… back-up a little bit. He comes to Tennessee and he looked at us kicking and he said, “Do you kick a lot?” And like many coaches, where kicking is a badge of honor, I say, “Hell yeah, we kick a lot.” And he said quietly, “Why are they using kickboards?” And I said “I don’t know.” Why they are using kickboards? I actually don’t have a reason, that I’m proud of, other than that’s the way we’ve always done it. Why, what else is a kickboard for? You’re supposed to get on it and kick, that’s the reason to have a kickboard.
And he said, “Well, it’s affecting their body position in a negative way.” I’ve heard that before. I said, “How can that be? What does kicking on a board have to do with swimming? Which is what we’re going to do next; so I’m not pretending this is swimming, this is kicking on a board. This is conditioning, aerobic endurance.” And he said, “Well, because it’s making them think of freestyle as a second-class lever system not a first-class lever system. There is a dramatic difference in the way they’re approaching the water.” I didn’t have an answer to that.
[Note: an example of a first-class lever is a see-saw; an example of a second-class lever is a wheelbarrow.]
So first-class lever system. (It’s hard to see… oh, there we go.) At the top is a model of first-class lever system. You’ve got a fulcrum in the middle, load on one end. And then you apply effort or force on the other end, around the fulcrum, and that’s how it’s essential balanced. First-class levers, that’s what he is talking about. If we think of swimming as a first-class lever system, that’s a certain way of being in the water, where we’re trying to balance around the lungs. The lungs are the fulcrum, we’ve got a load up top, we’ve got a load at the back, and we’re trying to balance.
Second-class lever system is where we’re reinforcing with the kickboard. We’ve got a kickboard in front, a load in the middle, and then we use the legs to keep the back-end up. And that is being ingrained in your nervous system as a way to be in the water. So if we’re not going to think of it as a first-class lever system and we think of it as the second-class lever system, then the goal of swimming is to keep our legs up—that’s the first goal. And we’ve got to work to do it. And this affects breathing and it affects balance and it affects energy use; it affects every element of the stroke.
So go back and look at these kids, what are they learning right now? What are the ideas about balance that are being put into their nervous system? Well there are some really specific ideas about how to be in the water that are being put in the nervous system right now. Can you change it; is this permanent? Of course not. But what are they going to do next? What are they going to carry into the next thing? If the next thing they’re going to do is swim and imagine that balancing is about first-class levers, then we’ve got to reprogram that right after the kick set.
So we haven’t used a kickboard since, at least for this—we’ve used it for other things. I’m not saying that this is the right thing to do. But what I’m telling you is: this is one of those moments where all of a sudden I’m out of Flatland and I’m into 3-D-land and it’s hard to catch my breath. So I’m not doing it because somebody told me to do it; I’m doing it because all of a sudden I see things a little bit differently and I’ve got to do something about it. As a coach, I’ve got to do something about it.
So this is the way that we kick right now. We do a whole lot of kicking and swimming. We do a lot of kicking in what we call a restart position. We kick within the stroke. (That was the restart position.) And we may do something all practice long that involves kicking in a restart position and then moving into swimming. But it’s always with the idea that we’re kicking within a first-class lever system; kicking within a balanced stroke that’s balancing weight forward in-front of the lungs and backwards behind the lungs.
So balance is also important on land, and so is posture. If those things are ingrained, if those things are going to be programmed into the nervous system, then we better pay attention to it on land as much as we can also. So at the beginning of practice, we focus on moving to an aquatic posture; we focus on balancing exercises, especially lengthening forward of the lungs: creating length with the head, creating length with the neck, with whatever limbs are in front. (I’d like to tell you that I moved the camera to that angle, so that you could imagine it in the water, but I had somebody else filming it and I don’t know what he was doing. But you could imagine that right? Now they’re in the water.)
So if we’re in the habit of creating this aquatic posture around the pool, then it’s easy to imagine that that trigger—seeing the pool and being around the pool—is going to help our athletes create the right posture and start thinking their balance. We try to give them as many experiences as possible around the pool and thinking about posture and balance.
Balance in the water and orientation, these are ideas and concepts that are ingrained in your nervous system. Swimming is not like this exercise here. Balance, in this case, losing balance in this case, is going to have some disastrous consequences. Losing balance in the water has no disastrous consequences. So balance is a continual process, whether we’re aware of it or not. So it’s another case where we’d better take control of it.
So in order to do that, we do a lot of kicking in a restart position. A restart position is what you saw before, and that is essentially: one arm up, one arm down, we’re right on the side. The arm that’s down is in tight to the hip (this position here). And the eyes are down for freestyle; in backstroke the eyes are up and the hand is on the top of the hip. We can put the hand across in freestyle to keep the arm away from being a balancing tool, so they’ve got a balance internally. And even though in freestyle we never want to be completely on our side during the stroke, we will come off the wall, we’ll be on our side for the underwater portion. And more than that, if they can learn to balance on their side, they have a sense of comfort in the water and a sense of control in the water.
We do a lot of vertical work. You can do a whole lot of swimming and get to some pretty high-level energy systems vertically. We push off the wall at different angles.
The reason that I have this compass is… I’ll show you a little bit of this later, but if you think of a swimmer, we’re looking through the head—so they’re coming right through the screen at you, like a 3-D movie. We’re looking through the head. The stars of the compass represent the shoulders, we’ll say. The horizontal position would be horizontal: either facing-up or facing-down. The vertical position is either facing to the right or facing to the left. This is pushing off the wall in these orientations. And then facing-up at 45°, right and left down, right and left at 45°. We’ll ask our swimmers to push-off in these different positions about once a week, so that they experience balance. And all they’ll do is push off, go as far as they can, and then try to balance up in a straight line.
And the first time you have your swimmers do this, they will be very unsteady in some of these positions because they haven’t oriented themselves this way. The next time, they’ll be better; the third time… and I’m just talking about a sequence of three in two minutes, they’ve got it. So what just happened there? We programmed the nervous system; we put information into the nervous system that allowed them to be oriented in the water differently.
We asked them to balance in the water in different body postures and shapes, and then to gradually sink to the bottom. Not quickly. Well, how do you gradually sink to the bottom? Well you’ve got to have a controlled release of air, and use your lungs, your air, to control buoyancy.
We do a whole lot of somersaults daily, and land in different positions. So they have this since of: these somersaults are fast. They may be off the bottom; they may be in the middle of a length. They’re real quick, and they’ve got to know exactly where they are in the water to unfold into a line and then keep going. That’s information; that’s awareness. Again it’s something that you will see improvement in very quickly.
And what does that tell you? Well it tells you that until they do it, they don’t have that information. And so they’re operating with a nervous system that is not programmed fully to let them deal with all of the possibilities in the water.
This is another exhilarating photo. I think the next thing to address in terms of the nervous system is their sense of safety. Which means safety in the water, breathing, orientation and balance. And how are we addressing these daily.
Well, let’s take a look at the model of the brain. This is one model, there are many. But this is a model of the brain in three parts. Okay, this category system treats the functions of the brain from an evolutionary standpoint—I’ve got to be careful of that in Tennessee; I guess you have to be careful that in New Orleans also. But that’s the angle we’re taking here. The model does not hold up completely to new science, but it’s not bad.
The idea is that the middle here, this is the reptilian brain, okay. That is responsible for safety and sustenance and the most basic drives. Moving out one layer is the mammalian brain, and that’s also the limbic system. That’s the home of emotions: love, affection, fear. And then of course on the outside, we have the forebrain, the modern brain. The home of thought, words, language, voices inside your head, logic.
And most of the time we’re working with all three parts integrated and we don’t know it. In fact, the reptilian brain doesn’t allow us to really know it. And that’s what we will refer to as the primal brain. It functions largely outside the realm of consciousness, but it functions nonetheless. Okay now that we have that physical model of the brain in mind, let’s think of this in terms of what drives the brain. What makes it go?
When we talk about human needs, this is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is a model of human needs. And I’m talking about the absolute ground level, the basis of motivation for being. If we have needs, then we are always driven to try to fill them. That’s constant; that’s the definition of a need. For instance hunger: have you ever heard of anybody getting burned-out trying to fill the need for hunger? That doesn’t happen. Same for sleep, water, and even connection. We’re always motivated to fill these needs, if we have a deficit.
Maslow developed this hierarchy as a theory to explain human motivation and behavior. He is known as a humanist, and that was a movement in Psychology that set out to address what they thought of as the deficiencies of the behaviorist—the people who looked at human beings as a black box, saw the human mind as a very sterile entity that was were shaped by stimulus and response. And then also an answer to the psychoanalysts, who were essentially focusing on the subconscious: the past, sexual drive, as the main determinants of behavior. The humanist wanted to address more complex issues like: human dreams, creativity, potential, individuality and meaning.
So this hierarchy represents the idea that the most basic needs must first be met for the person to move up and fill more complex and maybe lofty needs. We move from the basic—food, water, shelter—up to safety. To belongingness. We move up to esteem and confidence. Swim coaches we’re part of all of this. Esteem and competence. And we move up through a need to understand, a need to appreciate beauty, order, symmetry. And then the final goal of: self-actualization, or reaching one’s potential.
I’ve always found it fascinating that we as coaches talk about this so openly, this final goal: reaching our potential. This is the highest human need. It’s not a want, it is a need. And we name it, and it’s essential to our sport. It makes our sport noble. In fact you can look at Swimming as the perfect proving-ground to address every basic need from the very bottom level, and it starts with safety.
Don’t forget, though, that the theory states that: each need has to be met in succession before you get to the next one. So there is no self-actualization without any of the needs being met below; and nothing happens, no needs are met, without safety. And connection is right above that. And all of this is in the realm of the brain: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and then up to the neocortex.
This theory holds-up relatively-well even to this day; I think he developed it in the ‘70s and ‘80s. [Maslow developed it in the ‘40s and ‘50s.] It reminds us, again, that our actions must ultimately fit within the scheme or realm of the needs that our brain drives for some kind of relief or pleasure from satisfying. Like: we have to fill these needs. Okay, so back to the model of the brain.
What’s operating when our kids come on to the pool deck? And what do we want to be operating when they get into the pool? Well, when they come onto the pool deck, I can guarantee you that every one of them, no matter what time of the day, every one of them has looked at their phone—they’ve all looked at their phone. And so all of a sudden, we’ve got the enormous complexity of social relationships that are on their brain: who contacted me, who texted me, what just happened, what’s going to happen? They are planning, and that cortex is humming.
And what is that have to do with being in the water? Well, at this point it doesn’t have anything to do with being in the water. What we’re looking for when we get into the water is this new sense of balance and orientation. So we as coaches, I think, have got to find a way to help them quiet that really-loud mammalian brain, even quiet the limbic system, the emotions; and engage their primal brain, which is going to allow them to really tune-into the water. And to do this intentionally is a challenge. How do we do this?
Well, over and over again, and this is a journey I feel like I’m on. Over and over again the idea of meditation presents itself. And this is how we start a lot of our practices, in the water. It’s an absence of sensory input. They’re not trying to do anything; there is no trying right now. They’re floating. And this is what Boomer calls the aquatic signature; it’s the way that your body sort of naturally hangs in the water when you give yourself away to the water. Zero management; they are not managing anything, ideally. And then once we get to zero, we build swimming from there. That’s what we call getting into the correct brain.
Breathing. Breathing has everything to do with our sense of safety. And it’s important we understand what drives respiration. What are the primary… what makes us breathe faster? Is it lack of oxygen or an excess of CO2? I’ll give it away: it’s excess of CO2. Normal CO2 levels, let’s say, is about 40 millimeters; your alarm goes off at 43mm. That’s about a 7% increase. Normal levels of O2 in the blood is about 100 millimeters partial pressure; the alarm doesn’t go off until you get down to about 75. So what’s triggering breathing anxiety? It’s not a lack of oxygen; it’s a build-up of CO2.
And so we’ve got some real dangers in breath-holding. Because that anxiety is real; it is programmed into us to fight or flee, when we feel that kind of anxiety. And the fight-or-flight response triggers 1,400 chemical changes, at least—that’s as much as they know now. That kind of anxiety changes head position and posture; in the fight-or-flight response, you look toward the horizon.
Okay, what does that mean for swimming? Well it changes everything. They look for the horizon, their head is up; no matter what you’ve told them, no matter how badly they want to please you, no matter how badly they want to balance. Get that head forward, eyes down. Not when I’m anxious: I’ve got to look for the horizon. That’s programmed; that’s not a fight you’re going to win. It also increases cortisol levels, which inhibits growth of muscle and other tissues.
So imagine this over a long period of time; imagine somebody who holds their breath through an entire practice. They experience a low-level/moderate-level of anxiety through an entire practice. They’re never exhaling CO2, they’re holding onto what they think of as the most essential part of the breath, and that’s the oxygen; but they’re actually not getting rid of the waste. And that affects their entire two hours—or however long you’re going to have them in the water.
It decreases relaxation and rhythm. When are trying to haul-ass away from a saber-tooth tiger, there’s not a lot of relaxation and rhythm; you are moving. And that may be great for a high-level performance, if you can start to manage that, but it’s not great for learning.
So this CO2 anxiety is something we’ve got to come to terms with and manage. And if not, it can lead to: adrenal fatigue, increased fat storage, constant cortisol excretion, compromised immunity and then other issues. So how do we address this? Well in a practice, we start each practice with some exercises that allow them to control their buoyancy with their breathing; in fact, that gives breathing a new function. Okay, they control buoyancy with their breathing.
We also talk about the first 3 to 4 cycles off the wall as exhale cycles. They’re not reaching-up and trying to get a breath; they’re coming to terms with the idea that the first thing they need to do when they feel the anxiety coming-out of the underwater part of the swim is to exhale. And that is a whole lot easier to do on the first stroke. If you’re thinking got to get a breath, there’s a primal reaction to lift the head; that’s disastrous. If you’re thinking exhale, you don’t even need to turn your head.
We do exercises on the bottom of the pool. We give them tasks like: play games, make shapes, rock-paper-scissors; where they experience anxiety, but their mind is on something else. And they know, if they want to, they can come up to get a breath. But they start to feel CO2 anxiety and they learn to manage it.
Between repeats, instead of just hanging on the wall, have them go up and down, fully exhale.
Another way that we honor, or prime, the nervous system in swimming is to make maps. And this is, again, addressing safety. So if I were to take you into an auditorium, most of you might be familiar with a scene/a view like this. It comes with a set of expectations. Like, you’ve got a role in this space; your role is audience member, you’re looking at the stage.
If there were people in there, then you’d probably stay in a very confined space. You’d go right to your spot, and that’s your spot and you’re at home there, and that’s where you’re at home. Okay. It would make you very uncomfortable if somebody called you up onto the stage, because you haven’t been there, you don’t view that as your role. Even though you’re in that room, there is no threat, you’re going to get nervous going into a space that you’re not familiar with.
However, if you take this view, which is from the stage, your role is really different. And then, if you go back out and sit in your seats, you’ve got a completely different map of the room. You’ve had a different perspective, and the stage isn’t quite so threatening to you; you’ve got a new role.
So in a pool, when you see a pool, or your swimmers see a pool, what space do they imagine they’ll be using? (And I don’t know if… can you guys see that top layer there? It’s hard for me to see at an angle.) Okay there is a kind of a darkened top-layer now, and if that’s the space that our swimmers are used to occupying, then everything below that is kind of off-limits to them. If that’s the space that they….
And they haven’t mapped-out the bottom; they know it’s there, but they don’t view it as theirs. When in fact the whole pool is a column of water, and it’s important for us to treat it as a column of water. So that then, they’re at home… if they want to come off that last wall in a 100 or 200 and go 15 meters and find the right depth, they’ve been there, they’ve experienced it. It’s theirs, that’s their water. It’s safe. If they haven’t been there and they get there, then they’re on-alert their safely is being threatened. And again we have no control over this, unless we decide to use it.
So this is how we use it. One of the things we do in a warm-up is just an exercise where we’re changing depths; we’re using the whole column of water. You may call these dolphin dives, we call this Nelmsing. Named after Milt Nelms, who kind of came up with this exercise as a way to help people explore their buoyancy in the water. Like what happens when you put your weight below your lungs, right above your lungs. How can you allow that to help you drive down into the water? And then: how do you change to come back up? And then how do you use your breath to change depth? So we do exercises like this to use the whole column of water; beginning of most practices, at least we do it everyday.
Okay so we’ve established that it’s important to be safe. But learning doesn’t really happen if you’re safe all the time. So now we have to plan for challenge and even assault. Assault, that is where change happens. So comfort and safety, if we stay there, that leads to boredom and stagnation. So what we want to do is create a safe base where they can start to move outward and take risks, okay. When they move-away from safety into risk, they’re on-alert, there is learning there. And if they can come back, all the much better. And if we’re involved in constantly moving from risk and then back into the safety zone and then back out into risk; they’ll explore further and further, and that zone of risk will continue to grow.
The rider being on this wave is likely here because he’s taken bigger and bigger risks. He didn’t start on a big wave; he started on small ones and the risks grew. What’s about to happen to him is almost certainly an assault. And that’s not tragic, that means this experience is going to be memorable.
The danger of moving outside a risk, continue to move out into risk and not back to safety, is panic; and that’s not something that we want to experience regularly. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it happen—I’m even pretty sure that it exists in the color red. As a staff, we have committed to providing two or three assaults per week on our team.
Today, in a couple of hours Coach Tyler Fenwick is going to have everybody do a dive off the 3-meter, a cannonball off the 5-meter, a jump off of the 7-meter, and then a pencil jump off of the 10-meter. And that is going to be memorable for some people, especially because they’ve got to do it in teams and they are timed. That’s a way to get their attention. Last weekend we had another assault: we went and did over an 8K or 9K open water swim, after our longest workout in a short-course pool had been 3,000 or 4,000. So no walls for rest, continual movement, nothing hard; but that was a big shock to the system, and change. An assault: it got their attention.
(I’m running out of time; I’m going to move through some of this.)
Planning. Our first 45 minutes now looks something like this. We do a 15-minute dynamic warm-up with postural work, core activation, shoulder pre-hab, and flexibility. We spend the next 5 minutes giving them something to think about. It might be… in some ways, the goal is to reaffirm our values and kind of our team culture. And their assignment is to focus-on exhaling during that talk; so they’re tuning into their breathing.
And then 15-25 minutes we warm-up. And the goals are:
- Number one: get them into the correct brain through breathing and sense of location.
- Stimulate chemical systems that we need next. So whatever the next physiological goal of practice is, we’re turning those systems on.
- Stimulate the nervous system by way of posture, balance and tone. So creating lines, creating balance in the water.
We’re trying to stimulate the axial skeleton, so swimming from the inside-out, with different tones in the body. And that might include diving; so you’ve got to create a really high-level of tone to withstand dives. Work against resistance, swimming with balls in the hands. So, again, promoting inside-out swimming. The goal is always to improve on some skills, and so we include a set of wall skills. And then reminders: it’s okay to make this experience aggressive, it‘s okay to make it some sort of an assault. We need to make it creative but clear.
Couple of other concepts that I think we can understand. This is something that Boomer said to me: “For better or for worse, your swimmers sure can hold a pace.” That’s another comment that he got a what the hell is he talking about reaction. Like: what do you mean for worse? It’s not like a slow pace. He was watching a meet, and we had swimmers repeating paces. The problem is, when it was time to really go, they didn’t: they kept holding that pace. So I think of this as a residue of early-season kind of training; this was the first third of the season.
But I want to talk about serial versus cyclical training. And I think Jonty did this study with Boomer. They took a look at the amount of cyclical action in long-course and short-course swimming. Cyclical action is a single neural sequence drawn-out and interrupted infrequently. In a long-course pool, that may be 3-5 seconds of non-swimming that is not cyclical, and then cyclical activity for 27 or more seconds. In a short-course pool, that cyclical activity is 8-12 seconds. And that falls under a different kind of stimulus for your nervous system, and that’s serial. So you’re frequently changing neural sequences that are continuously repeated.
So think of a short-course length, especially off of a dive. You jump-off the blocks, you change your shape in the water, you change your shape under the water, you come through the exit, and you start swimming. And then you’ve got to turn to deal with. So there’s the approach, there’s the rotation, there’s the landing, there’s the push-off, there is the jump, there’s a flight, there’s the underwater travel and there’s another exit. And bam, how many things in a row did you just do? That was an incredible display of athleticism, every time you jump in the water in short-course pool. And it’s not much different going from one end of the pool to the other, if you view it that way.
And that’s what we call a higher neural density; there’s more activity in there. Neural density is a measurement of the different neural pathways and neural requirements that a swimmer experiences in a unit of time. So serial training has a higher neural density, there is more nervous system excitement. And what that gives you is a specific pathway recovery: you’re not moving through the same motor pattern over and over and over and over again, like you would in an open water swim.
Now cyclical training has its advantages. I think that’s how we improve groove strokes; that’s how we create efficiency. There is a time and a place for that, and that’s essentially what I feel like a lot of my thinking in swimming has been based on, is efficiency. But this neural-density stuff is a whole other world. If you believe this, you could get more work done, because you’re not grooving the same frequency and the same movement pattern. So you go back to this pace that we’re so good at swimming in, but we can’t get out of it because we haven’t had this density of neural experiences.
And where do we reach neural fatigue? That’s repeating the same movement of speed over and over again. It’s something that people talk about in sport as very mysterious, but we know it’s real—we know it’s real. If you were to train breaststroke every single day, all breaststroke, long course, at some point you would reach neural fatigue. If you throw a curveball every single day, even if it’s at a low-speed, you’re going to reach neural fatigue.
So here are some things we do to increase neural density. We’ll turn at the flags. And you can do this in a long-course or short-course pool. Change strokes mid-pool. Three cycles one-stroke, three cycles of a drill or another stroke. Mid-pool somersaults. Put time demands on the activities, so that they’re quick. Start repeats at the flags, go towards the nearest wall with a high-speed turn; so start at the flags but don’t go away from the wall go towards the wall—that’s your first movement. Do turns underwater.
Those of you who’ve read Daniel Coyle’s books, he uses Futsal as an example of, essentially this is serial training for Soccer. It’s soccer on a short field with a flat ball. It gives a whole lot of feedback and a whole lot of chance for repetitions; and there’s high neural density, it is exciting. Short-course training can be that for us; so can long-course training. But we need to understand the concept of neural density to keep our swimmers fresh and on alert.
Another way to increase neural density is… this is a picture where the swimmer is in touch with water forces that we don’t feel in the water. We‘ve sterilized our pools with lane lines, with depth. So the information that our swimmers get is a lot less than it is in the ocean. So we do practices without lane lines, without kickboards, a whole lot of waves. We put 3-across, 4-across in a lane, sometimes, to work on turns.
(And I think I am essentially out of time. How am I doing on time? Yeah, I’m past; dang it.) Why don’t I take a couple questions? This stuff is… I could talk about this all day, it’s so good.
So that’s what I got for you. I hope it has stimulated some thought. Please feel free to ask questions, anybody.
[audience member]: Do you guys test those areas? Like neural density, or safety, and its effectiveness.
[Kredich]: Yeah, that’s a great question. The test is really, in my mind, in the experience. When I watch somebody who has CO2 anxiety try to swim, over and over again with their head high and then all of a sudden they focus on exhaling and they can hold that position forever, that’s my test.
All right, I’ve got them fleeing for the exits. Thank you very much.
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