Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Do swimmers do drop sets?

My good friend and trainer Dorian Cuccia has taught me the value of doing drop sets in strength training. Like everything he does, Dorian uses his experience as a dancer to bring about a heightened awareness of form in the process of strength training. The traditional justification for a drop set is to push the muscles harder, but for Dorian it is more about letting the muscles re-experience the correct form so often compromised as muscles near exhaustion. This week I had a similar experience swimming, and am curious if this is routine.

In weight lifting, the key aspect of a drop set is a reduction in weight as the activity progresses. For example, one might start a bicep curl exercise with a 25 lb. dumbbell, then as the muscles approach exhaustion, switch to a 20 lb. weight which allows the activity to continue, then again as the fatigue limit approaches switch to a 15 lb. weight. When I do this with Dorian he always directs my attention to proper form, bringing muscles under control that were escaping as they approached the fatigue limit.

In our spin class he has us do something similar. We call it slow motion pedaling. Typically done standing, we shift into a very light resistance and reduce cadence to around one rev every two or three seconds. The goal is to maintain a steady rate of rotation and prevent the feet from dropping abruptly as they near the bottom of the stroke. This is never easy, but it is a lot easier when the legs are fresh. Dorian will have us do a long, hard set until we are ready to pass out, then switch to slow motion pedaling. The recovery is welcome, but getting the legs to work smoothly when so fatigued is surprisingly hard. The goal is to learn to maintain correct form even in the face of extreme fatigue.

To understand what is happening it is important to understand how muscles talk to one another. Our brains like to think that they are in charge, but the truth is the brain can only give gross movement instructions to the muscles. What we experience as smooth, coordinated action is the result of inter-muscular signals transmitted via the nerve network.

Go stand on one foot. Muscles throughout your body spring into action, doing what they can to keep you upright. If every signal had to travel all the way to your brain and be processed there you would fall over.

Muscles are like people. Just because they are told to do something does not mean they will do it. We experience this at the start of an activity such as running, or playing a musical instrument. At the outset we feel as though we have lost all our ability, but as the muscles warm up they start doing a better job of sending and reacting to inter-muscular nerve impulses, until eventually things are working smoothly. Continuing the activity we eventually arrive at a point where fatigue causes muscles to fail to respond to these nerve impulses. Continuing the activity in this state is counter-productive, because the muscles can still learn and will learn to act in a manner we do not want. A drop set allows the muscles to return to a state below the fatigue threshold and provides them an opportunity to reinforce the desired interaction -- to operate in the correct form.

At the Total Immersion swim camp I attended in early March we received some sample workouts to address the question of what to do at the pool. This week I decided to give one a try, one of several contributed by Dinah Mistilis. Maybe because I am slow, or unusually time constrained, but I never seem to complete workouts intended to be completed in a single session. This particular workout added up to 1,800 yards and I am lucky to get in 1,000, so I did not expect to finish.

Choose three focal points A, B, C
Tune Up 4x25 on each FP (300)
N=Stroke Count /25yd
Focus challenge: any one FP 4x50, 2x100, 1x200
Gear Chg 1 - 2x25 N, 2x25 N-1, 2x25 N-2, 2x25 N-1, 2x25 N
Gear Chg 2 - 1x75 (N, N-1, N-2), 1x75 (N-2, N-1, N)
SC+time challenge: 5x100 descend in time, SC no greater than N+2.

I did this on Monday and Wednesday morning and both times just got through the first gear change set when my time was up. As I understand it -- I could be wrong -- the goal of the first gear change set is to swim 2x25 at my usual pace, which is what "N" means, then strive to improve technique enough to do two lengths in one less stroke per length, then again for 2 less strokes. If you are not a TI swimmer it will not be obvious that shaving two strokes off your usual SPL value is extremely difficult.

Both times I did this I felt as though the gear change exercise was a drop set, or a lot like slow motion pedaling. Coming after those longer intervals I felt incredibly relaxed during those lengths as I strove to lengthen my stroke. On Monday I had measurable success. My "N" was 23 and for this set my SPL was 23, 23, 22, 22, 21, 22, 22, 22, 23, 23. Hitting that 21 felt really good; I could tell I was swimming better as it happened. On Wednesday my SPL did not drop nearly as well, but even so I felt a return of smoothness that had sneaked away during the preceding long intervals.

I am no expert, but it feels to me as though there is a bonus in putting a drill such as this in the middle of or even towards the end of a session. It teaches our muscles how to get back into an efficient groove after a period of more energetic swimming. In a race we will inevitably get sucked into a period of turmoil that throws us off balance and steals our form. The cause could be other swimmers, or some rough water, or even a bit of nervousness. The better we are at calming down and getting back to good form, the better our race results will be.

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