The other day a friend sent me a Youtube link to an amazing guitar player, Andy McKee.
Here is Andy playing a piece so seemingly complex, but he making it look so easy.
As an extremely amateur guitarist, I have some idea of how much Andy must have practiced to perfect his art (and continue perfecting it). He is at such a point in his ability that what is seemingly effortless for him, would be impossibly bewildering for me. He creates such complex and moving pieces yet moves his hands and fingers as if in slow motion. As I watch his fingers move so adeptly along the fret board (and all over his guitar-) I was awed by his ability to create such a complex piece, while appearing so smooth and relaxed.
I remember back when I first began to practice the guitar. The chords were so awkward, my fingers strained and stumbled to twist out to each note, moving too slow, my brain too overwhelmed at trying to keep up with the beat that was playing along normally in my head. My hands were tired, and my finger tips were bruised after only 15 minutes! It was easy to feel at that point that I did not have ‘talent’ for the guitar. But I’ve come along way since then ,15 years ago. I am still not even on the same planet of musicians as Andy, but at least now I can close my eyes, relax and let my hands move around the neck to quite a few imprinted positions without thinking too much, without feeling hurried at all.
When I watch Andy from my viewpoint as a swimmer, although swimming is not music, I realize that the way the brain learns how to swim fast AND smooth is so much the same as how a guitarist learns to play his guitar in such a complex way while making it look so smooth and easy. Just as it takes time to condition the fingers to naturally twist into position, and then to shift the hand precisely to the next position in a half-beat, it takes time to condition a swimmer’s arms to stroke long and efficient, AND then while holding that length and efficiency, to stroke faster.
Today as I was cruising along on a 5km training swim with a Tempo Trainer, I found myself comfortably holding increasingly higher tempos over a 5km swim that 6 months ago would have collapsed my stroke after a couple 100’s.
Traditional swimming would suggest that I had done a lot of tough conditioning to get my arms used to spinning that fast (while still holding my SL). But instead what I have done was a lot of gradual brain-training to get my arms used to holding long SL and higher SR. I have not brute-forced my way into my current level of speed and endurance, I have eased my way into it by incremental conditioning.
While I was swimming along briskly, I noted how much time to spare I felt in each stroke now- time to think, to adjust, to spear my hand precisely where I want it, even hesitate to spear if I needed to. I felt like I was swimming fast in slow motion. Then the picture of Andy playing his guitar came into mind- I saw him also playing his guitar ‘fast in slow motion’.
Andy does not play well because he has conditioned his muscles to be powerful. He plays well because he has taken time to conditioned his neurological system to easily support the motion and touch he needs to create that kind of complex music. My SR improvement this year is not a result of conditioning my muscles to be faster and more powerful (although that has happened as a consequence of the training I have done- it was not the focus). This is a result of conditioning my neurological system to gradually adapt to faster movement while maintaining an efficient stroke.
It takes time and consistency. It takes patience on the front end. It takes knowledge in how to train the brain in a way that the body will follow along much easier. Comparing this to all the training I have done in 22 years of serious swimming my improvements this year have come much faster and taken me further than I had achieved through my old ‘go harder’ mentality.
Through all this I am beginning to adjust my view of swimming- I am increasingly treating my swimming as an art, not merely as a sport.
Art is not just what is created by someone’s efforts and creativity, art is also HOW something is created. I know we don’t typically view swimming as an art, certainly not like music, but thanks to TI we have the opportunity to see it in that light and experience it like that. TI gives us a totally different way of going about improving our swimming. Rather than by brute force and grit teeth, it is by intellegence and grace. For the artist-swimmer the process of improvement itself is rewarding, not just the product.
IN PRACTICE WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Now maybe you found some of that inspiring. But how do we do this? What’s the magic behind Swimming Fast in Slow Motion?
I taken my cues from Terry’s approach to conditioning himself for higher tempos to help me tap into this (especially from his book “Outside The Box”). Here is my interpretation: Terry had first built up a nice long SL over several years (so have I). Then, years later he started working on SR (I started this year). And particularly he’s been using micro-increases in SR and doing long enough repeats to give his brain time to adapt to the increase. Small bites, longer time to chew on it- then the brain digests it well, and the body responds with less effort.
My old-school swimmer tendency was to take bigger bites, and less time to chew on it. Where I was designing tempo trainer sets totalling 1500m that descended by .05, I noted how Terry had been doing 3000m sets that descended by only .01 or .02 per repeat. And from his descriptions he was getting far better results than I.
Long story short, I started doing longer sets (in OW mostly) to give my brain more time to adapt but taking smaller steps in increasing SR to make it easier to chew and digest. And you know what? It worked.
It is the most amazing phenomena. I would be curious how one of these suggested set below works for you…
CONDITIONING SET SUGGESTIONS
Option #1 for 1500m + swimmers
Plan a long, continuous swim- like one of your favorite long distances (something more than 1000m).
Then break your distance down into pieces- like 200m repeats (for pool), or 200-strokes repeats (for open-water) for instance. Then set your Tempo Trainer to a really comfortable “cruising pace”, like what you’d naturally swim at after a good warm up and feel like you could hold for 1000m.
The objective will be to hold the tempo as ‘effortless’ as possible, while maintaining form (i.e. your best SL). Count SPL for reference, but I don’t recommend timing your swim, if you struggle with ‘going hard’ mentality (like me). Just remove that distraction for now. As you swim, pick one stroke focus point per repeat to concentrate on.
Now, go. When you come to the end of the first repeat, just stop long enough to click the button down .01, then resume. At each transition, take note of how much more effort it seems to take, if at all, to now stay on a .01 faster tempo. If you go long enough distance and descend along a far enough range of SR, there will be a point that you really notice you’re having to put a bit more effort to keep the tempo. Take note of this point. Continue repeating 200m until you reach the total distance goal.
Option #2 for 1000m or less swimmers
Plan a longer, broken set- like 80% of the total distance you’d swim in a normal pool session. Do a nice 10 minute warm up so you are lose and energetic feeling.
Then break your distance down into pieces- like 50m repeats (for pool), or 50-stroke repeats (for open-water) for instance. Then set your Tempo Trainer to a really comfortable “cruising pace”, like what you’d naturally swim at after a good warm up and feel like you could hold for 200m.
The objective will be to hold the tempo as ‘effortless’ as possible, while maintaining good form (i.e. your best SL). Count SPL for reference, but I don’t recommend timing your swim, if you struggle with ‘going hard’ mentality (like me). Just remove that distraction for now. As you swim, pick one stroke focus point per repeat to concentrate on.
Now, go. Hold the first tempo setting for the first 4 repeats, then click down .01 and resume. Between repeats wait 3 beeps. At each tempo transition, take note of how much more effort it seems to take, if at all, to now stay on a .01 faster tempo. If you go long enough distance and descend along a far enough range of SR, there will be a point that you really notice you’re having to put a bit more effort to keep the tempo. Take note of this point. Continue repeating 4x 50m repeats until you reach the total distance goal.
If you reach a point where you cannot hold the tempo and maintain your good form then you will stop at that point. Take note of this tempo- it could be called your ‘tempo threshold’, and this will be one of the points that you’ll be able to measure your improvement by.
In the end, take note of how it felt to hold those faster tempos, even at the end of a long set.
There’s an endless way to vary this suggested workout and better adapt it to your situation, but it is a starting point for designing your own.
MY EXAMPLE FROM TODAY
To give you a sample, here is my workout from today:
I sawm 94 minutes in the sea, which is about 5km for me.
10 minute careful warm up. Then TT staggered descending ladder, on 250-stroke intervals, starting at 1.20 tempo. I stopped between intervals just long enough to click the TT (and gaze at the incredible view I have here!)
- 1.20, 1.18, 1.16, 1.14
- 1.16, 1.14, 1.12, 1.19
- 1.12, 1.10, 1.08, 1.06
- 1.08, 1.06, 1.04, 1.02
My stroke focus points were: wide track swing, quite spear hand entry, high-elbow catch
I had to work on keeping my chin tucked, eyes looking straight down.
Today, it was at 1.06 tempo that I noticed I had to exert some extra effort to keep on. That was at about the 65′ mark. But still it was not tiring even down to 1.02.