Muscle memory: myth or mastery?

Many swim coaches talk a lot about muscle memory. A bit part of their arsenal of tools is to get the swimmer to imprint movement patterns into their muscle memory. But what exactly is it? Does it even exist? And if so, can we do anything to improve it?

On the face of it, the term muscle memory seems a misnomer. Muscles are, after all, nothing more than fibrous tissue with the ability to contract according to signals sent from the brain. They have no inherent ability to memorise anything themselves.

Nevertheless, talk to anyone who has experience lifting weights and they will tell you that the term has at least some validity. If the athlete had had some time away from training and has lost muscle mass as a result, it is often quicker to regain the bulk than it was to attain it in the first place. This phenomenon is put down to “muscle memory”, and there does seem to be some scientific evidence to back up the belief that it is a very real effect. When muscles are put under strain, (for example when they are lifting weights or undertaking resistance training) the nuclei in the muscle cells split and grow over time leading to an increase in the size of the muscle. However, if the training program should cease for some reason, this process stops and muscle atrophy causes the muscles to shrink. The important bit though is that, although smaller, the nuclei don’t actually disappear.

Thus, if training recommences they are already in place to grow once more. The body doesn’t have to spend time creating them all over again, hence the reduction in time to get to the stage the muscles were at before the layoff.

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

All pretty neat and useful to know, particularly if that’s part of your exercise routine.

But that’s not the sense in which swim coaches are using the term. For swimmers, technique and form are far more important than muscle mass.
Thus the term “muscle memory” relates far more to the building of efficient neural pathways from the brain to the muscle rather than the physical state of the muscle itself.
So the challenge becomes one of how to build those pathways in the best way. These can then become a short-cut for the brain allowing it to send commands to the body and to perform tasks almost without conscious thought

Before we start though it is vital to remember that muscle memory is a two-edged sword. It can help you become very good at something but equally can train you to be absolutely terrible at something. (Often when faced with a new student the first task a coach has to do is recognise all the bad habits which have become ingrained in the way they swim and work out how to remove them!).

In order to avoid making matters worse rather than better, then, the best approach is to keep things as simple as possible. Breaking movements down into easy to remember segments is the key. Giving the movement a name or an image can be a great way of making this process easier. One of the fun things to do as a coach is to come up with new visuals for the student to use. Don’t be surprised if you end a coaching session having been asked to open your angel wings, caress the kittens, wear an Elizabethan ruff or tickle the frog. They may appear to be nonsense but they have a very serious purpose.

(For information, I have no idea what “tickle the frog” might be – I just made that up. But I’ll bet there will be a coach somewhere who will work out what it might represent and may start to use it).

These weird and wonderful images are no good, however, unless we have a cross-check to make sure that you are doing it correctly. The best way to do this is to have a partner who can observe and provide critical feedback. This is, however, not always practical or possible and therefore it is important to observe it feels when a specific task is completed. Thus the swimmers need to learn the skill of tuning in to, for example, the sensation of the movement of the water across the body and how the muscles feel.

Photo by Aldrin Rackman on Unsplash

Having started to create movement patterns, it is also important to make practice consistent and regular in order to build it up to be the default movement. There is no substitute for constant repetition to train the brain regarding the signals which need to be sent. Although a certain degree of dedication and application is required, the vivid images being used can help prevent this from becoming boring. Over time you should be able to build up an arsenal of methods for thinking about performing the same task. By cycling through these during a session it is possible to trick the brain into thinking it is doing something different each time.

And be patient too. New ways of movement will not come immediately, particularly if you have been used to doing something completely different for many years. It is all too easy to slip back into old bad habits. So give yourself time and be persistent. Results will come if you keep at it.

Muscle memory, then, as a term may have less of a scientific definition when it comes to being used by swim coaches but it is no less real in its effect on swimmers.

Summoning The Genie of Fluidity

It’s funny how you collect random bits of information through your life and remember them despite being of no relevance at all isn’t it? Back in the seventies, they used to print quotes and jokes on the back of matchboxes. Although I have never had any interest in golf really, one I recall was along the lines that, it wasn’t the hundreds of bad shots that you hit which were so frustrating but the one where everything went right.

A similar sentiment was expressed by John Cleese in the film Clockwise after yet another setback in his attempt to get to his destination on time.  He said, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”.

Those who swim regularly will have sympathy with these sentiments. For many, the stroke can be a bit of a struggle. Regardless of our level of experience, or what our focus for the session is, we are acutely aware that, overall, things could be going better. Even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, something is amiss; something needs to be improved.
And then, like an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, everything just “clicks”. We become aware that suddenly it feels like we’re flying through the water with barely any effort at all; the timing is right, the breathing is natural, the catch, the press, the rotation – it’s all just perfect. Finally, we seem to have cracked this swimming lark. This is how it’s supposed to be and this is clearly how it’s going to be from now on.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it all falls apart again. Swimming isn’t a disaster; you know you are still a fine and competent sportsperson. But that Nirvana had disappeared, perhaps never to return. You try. Of course, you try, but it’s like trying to recapture a particularly pleasant dream from which you’ve just awoken. It can’t be done. The ephemeral Genie of Fluidity has simply melted away.

And the worst bit of all is that now we know he exists. The sensation was real. Surely it must be possible to recapture it? Yet, try as we do, we may as well go out onto the moorland at daybreak and capture the mist in a butterfly net. What is quickly apparent is that this Genie cannot be easily tamed. His presence is not ours to demand or command. His image appears in the periphery of our vision. Look at him directly and he has gone. Determined, dogged concentration rarely proves to be successful. It may improve one particular aspect of our stroke but can’t quite recreate that feeling of effortless flow.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Yet herein would seem to lie a contradiction. SwimMastery pupils are constantly advised to use specific cues to improve their technique. Why then doesn’t this lead automatically to that state of complete ease of movement?

I believe that the answer may lie back in the golfing world. On the website Kidadl.com we are told “Golf..is more of a mind game than a physical game…Many people fail to win at golf and the reason is mainly about their mind being agitated with…thoughts. That wonderful author Douglas Adams in one of the later books in his Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series had a similar take on events and expressed them even more eloquently. His hero, Arthur Dent is taught the power of unaided human flight. He is told “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

In other words, if you concentrate too hard on achieving the seemingly impossible, it will remain just that; impossible. What needs to be done is, not to target the appearance of the Genie directly, but to focus our attention on creating the circumstances in which he can appear.

This is not a simple or speedy process. It requires almost perfect muscle memory of the movements and sensations of all parts of the stroke. And the ability to rely on them functioning to the highest standard at all times. For this reason alone many hours, perhaps years, of practice and training are required before the Genie can be relied upon to grace us with his presence.

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

There is, perhaps, one other factor at play here as well which is implicit in the very first quote I used; that of expectation. If you believe that every stroke you take, whether in golf or in swimming is likely to be slightly awry, then the chances are, that it will be. But in the words of Winston Churchill “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

When it comes to trying to achieve that wonderful but elusive sensation of perfection, the Hope may be almost unbearable but don’t let the Despair drag you down!

Meanwhile, I guess we just need to keep on hurling ourselves at the ground.

Are you having a Dry January? Not likely!

Well, Christmas and New Year are over and folks everywhere are sitting back wondering, as always, what the fuss was all about and probably breathing a sigh of relief. Great Aunty Mildred has gone, the Christmas cake has gone (almost) and some semblance of normality is beginning to descend. Routines are being re-established and traditionally it’s a time to reflect, take stock and look to the future.

Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash

Magazines and the Internet bulge with articles like “Top Ten Ways To Be Happy In 2022” or “Ten Things Which Will Change Your Life In The Coming Year”, They always seem a little contrived and artificial to me and are often padded out to be far too long. Many make no sense at all in parts. (It’s all a bit like New Year’s celebrations in general really – but maybe that’s me just being very grumpy. Sorry about that). However, my theory is that, if you want to achieve something or improve something, you don’t need to wait until a particular day to start working towards it. Just go for it!

So if, like me, you know there are things you need to improve in your swimming but the date for making NewYear’s Resolutions has passed you by, I offer you my Ten Step Guide to Making A New Resolution Which May Or May Not Have Something To Do With New Year. (I may need to do a bit of work on that title).

1) Be Specific about the improvement you want to make.

Know what you want to do, why you want to do it and by when (it doesn’t have to be by the start of 2023). Write it down, especially the bit about why you want to make this change. Keep that bit of paper where you will see it (it’s why fridge doors are magnetic), and look back at it regularly to keep motivated.

2) Believe That It’s Achievable

I would quite like to swim the English Channel. The only things stopping me are time, money, talent and motivation. I’ve seen what is required to prepare for that swim and I have nothing but admiration for those that take it on. However, I know that, given the choice between a six-hour training swim in the cold Dover waters at 5 am and sitting on a sofa with a nice hot cup of tea then personally I’m off to put the kettle on. It doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes the rest of you awesome. But it does mean that there’s no point in me putting a Channel swim on my wish list. For me, and maybe you too, I need to find something more realistic. That might be a shorter or slightly easier “Big Swim” or simply mastery of some aspect of your stroke which you know needs improving.

3) Don’t Believe That It’s Achievable

Sometimes the best, indeed the only way forward, is to push ourselves out of our comfort zone; to take on the ridiculous challenge and see where it takes us. With the right motivation and support we are all capable of the most amazing things and who knows what other milestones may be met upon the way? Think big. What do you have to lose?!

4) Decide How You Are Going To Meet Your Goal…Or, If You Don’t, Find Out

The SwimMastery community is packed with friendly, knowledgable and experienced folks who are more than willing to share their expertise. Never be afraid to ask questions either in person or via the online forums no matter how silly you think they may sound. If you need it, you will receive a wealth of valuable advice about the best way to tackle your target from folks who have often been there and done it themselves. If you’re taking on a race or event they will know exactly how to prepare. If you are trying to improve an aspect of your stroke, remember the body is all one connected unit; the solution to the problem you perceive might lie in a different part of the stroke completely. They may well point you in a completely unexpected direction with remarkable results

5) Make A Plan

Break down the path to your success into smaller steps. This can make the overall journey seem far more manageable and will provide built-in mini boosts along the way. Thus, if, say, you want to take four strokes off your time for a given distance, set dates for when you aim to have reduced the count by just one. Or by two etc. Be flexible, life has an inconvenient habit of popping up with competing demands on your time and resources, but nevertheless know what you would like to have ticked off and by when, all things being equal. And, rather like the initial target you set yourself, write your plan down and refer to it often.

6) Be Kind To Yourself

You’re far more likely to achieve your goal if you’re enjoying yourself. That’s self-evident really but make sure you build that enjoyment into your swimming. Mix up your training to provide variety and don’t be afraid to incorporate aspects that may appear to be completely unrelated to where you want to end up. It can be very demoralising to slog away constantly session after session without appearing to make progress so, for example, make sure you also do things that you know you do well already. Remind yourself that you already have the basic skills to become an incredible swimmer. The next advancement is just around the corner. Stay positive!

7) Find A Friend.

One of the joys of swimming is that, for most of us, it is a social and non-competitive activity. Even when entering races, the aim is usually to beat a specific time or PB rather than to worry about our fellow competitors. It should not, therefore, be too tricky to find a companion with whom to share your progress, to provide support and guidance and to take joy and even inspiration from your successes. If you’ve ever seen the support crew on a boat jumping about with genuine delight as a swimmer crosses a finish line or touches a foreign shore, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And that sense of taking pleasure in the success of others can be replicated on a much smaller scale too. Take advantage of it and find a buddy who can give you that extra boost when you need it. You’ll probably find yourself doing the same for them.

8) Have a reward

We all like to have nice things or do nice things, so set yourself a reward for when you get to your target. Be that going on a swimming holiday or just buying a snazzy new costume, big or small, make sure you have your own little pot of gold to open at the end of your rainbow.

9) Set the next target

I don’t know a swimmer alive – there probably isn’t one – who is completely satisfied with the way they swim. Our River of Progress meanders and winds its way through the countryside but never actually reaches the sea. Just around the corner, there is always another challenge to be set and met. So, know where you’re going and be excited about what comes next!

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

10). Spurious Final Step

Something else about swimming to make it up to ten.

 

Happy New Year all!

Can a frog on a bicycle help you swim better?

What has a frog on a bicycle got to do with swimming I hear you ask? 

Well, nothing at all. Obviously. That’s the point.

Let me explain

As swimmers, we are constantly told to swim with a specific goal in mind and to use cues to achieve this. A good cue acts as a constant feedback loop. By honing in on a specific aspect of your stroke you can use the cue as a yardstick by which to measure your performance. Thus you can assess the success (or otherwise) of your swimming instantly and make any corrections or adjustments necessary to improve your performance. 

There is an important caveat to remember though in that you can only gauge your results for that particular swim and, more importantly, only for the particular aspect of your stroke being addressed by the cue in question. Thus if your cue pertains to the way your hand is entering the water but whilst swimming you become aware that, say, your legs are sinking, this does not automatically mean that you have failed in the execution of your cue.

Because the body is one unit and a problem in one area can cause a reaction elsewhere there might be a connection between the two issues, but it doesn’t follow in all cases. The trick is to keep focused on the cue you are working on and not to worry about anything else. You may find that if you can increase the level of adherence to the aspect you are working on then other problems seem to magically disappear. If they don’t, no worries just choose another cue later to address the second problem.

That’s the beauty of a good cue. They act as a small and precise hammer chipping away at the block of marble trying to gradually reveal the statue within. 

But what is a “good” cue? And what happens if you use a bad one? Or no cue at all?

One of the joys of leading our Masters class on occasions is the opportunity to work with a group of swimmers willing, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to be guinea pigs into my little explorations into some of the theories behind how we learn and improve our stroke.

Photo by Kirwin Elias on Unsplash

To this end, last Thursday I gave the group a seemingly random set of 25 cues and asked them to time themselves over 25 metres for each one to see if there were differences in their performance. Some of the cues were familiar to them as traditional SwimMastery favourites like keeping the head away from the feet and sending the head forwards with each stroke. But some were phrases that coaches normally try to avoid such as “Don’t over-rotate” and “Prevent splashing”. I also included some frankly bizarre things for them to concentrate on. 

Trust me, if you’ve never seen the look on the faces of a group of swimmers as you tell them you want them to swim whilst imagining a garden gnome playing a trumpet or a giraffe on roller skates then you’ve missed out on one of life’s rare treats!

Although I didn’t make this obvious to them before the session started I had chosen a number of broad topics (the amount of rotation, the level of connection, the focus on forward motion etc.) and assigned to each, one “random” cue, one “don’t” cue and three “good” cues.

Getting them to use familiar tried and tested cues was an obvious choice although providing different types in order to reach the same ultimate result may have led one or two of them to move away from the security of what they were used to and instead try a different approach.

The reason for using the random yet, I hoped, quite vivid images was an attempt to take their mind off their performance in the water completely so that we could look at how they fared if they reverted to pure muscle memory alone. 

The most interesting results for me though were the ones from “Don’t do this” group. The problem with telling someone to concentrate on not doing something, and the reason why SwimMastery coaches try to avoid doing so, is that there is no instruction regarding how this should be achieved or what should be done instead. It’s like telling someone you want them to go to the bottom of the garden but they mustn’t walk. What should they do then? Run? Skip? Jump? Crawl? Fly? With no further instruction other than “Don’t Walk” it’s impossible to know how the task should be achieved.

Thus “Don’t over-rotate” for example might be a very laudable and worthwhile aim but the brain needs some further information regarding how this should be achieved.

The reason I think this is so important is that there is a great temptation, when practising or training alone, to slip into using these “Don’t do this” cues by default. Have you ever started a swim thinking “I’m not going to drop my elbow before the catch today” or “This time I’m going to concentrate on not splaying my legs as I kick”? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

In order for a cue to be effective, it must be clear, achievable and measurable. If it isn’t, the effects on the stroke will be at best negligible and at worst detrimental.

So what was the effect of my experiment on my Masters group? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that any results have very little statistical validity. The group was very small and the distances they were swimming made it difficult to record any major differences in times. We also need to consider the inaccuracies involved in using time as a measure (but I wanted to avoid them wasting brain space by counting strokes) plus the fact that after a while tiredness inevitably affected performance.

Nevertheless, although there were only broad trends visible, even with the limitations outlined above, the “don’t “ cues seemed to perform less well (or no better anyway) than the traditional SM group. 

What was fascinating though was that one of the group said he felt he swam better when using the bizarre “random” cues! His reasoning was that he felt more able to relax and “just let it all happen”. It is worth noting, however, that he is a very experienced and graceful swimmer and no doubt his muscle memory is excellent. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a group of novice swimmers and see if the results are more marked.

It is difficult to replicate this experiment completely now that I have explained the rationale behind it. However, if you wanted to, you could try a slightly modified version. 

Next time you are at the pool decide on your favourite SM cue – one that you know works for you – and time yourself over 100m concentrating only on that.

When you’ve finished, take at least a minute rest. Not to rest your body so much as to rest your brain. Now decide on an aspect of your swimming that you know needs improvement; a bad habit you just can’t kick. Swim another 100m with your only thought being not to do whatever that is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash                              Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Take another rest and now pick a random image, the weirder the better; a hippo in a hot air balloon, a yeti doing a tap dance, a chicken on a roller coaster, whatever. Swim another 100m and compare your times. 

Let us know how you got on. At the end I suspect you’ll either learn something about the importance of choosing a good cue or the difficulty you have in maintaining a given cue over a longer period of swimming.

Or maybe, more thrillingly, your feedback will help change the way SwimMastery is coached forevermore!! 

Why failing can be more important than success

I am a failed Ironman. Twice in fact. One of the dreaded DNF’s (Did Not Finish). On both occasions I completed the swim but didn’t make it round the bike section. I don’t think I have ever felt so dejected after a sporting event. Indeed, I can’t remember feeling quite so down after anything I have ever done. Feelings of not only massive disappointment but also mixed with humiliation and embarrassment. At the time I felt as if it would almost have been better if people had openly laughed at me. Why hadn’t I trained more – or more intelligently? Why at my height/weight/age did I ever think I was going to make it? How could I be beaten by Fred or Frank or Francis (names changed to protect the guilty) all of whom were surely less athletic than me? Why did I tell so many people that I was taking part, all of whom I’m going to have to tell that I didn’t make it to the end?

I failed. I am a failure.

With the benefit of several years of hindsight, I can see how ridiculously out of proportion my reaction was. Yet I still can’t shake those thoughts off completely.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Right now we’re probably smack in the middle of the period where folks are taking on their own personal endurance challenges, probably involving icy waters or towering mountains. Or both. Targets are being set and met, medals are being awarded, grinning selfies are being taken. Stand at any finish line and you will see a range of emotions from quiet satisfaction to extreme pain and relief. But every single person who crosses has the satisfaction of knowing that they are in some way a winner. A finisher.

But there will also be a small number of participants, who, like me at the Ironman, are recorded in the results as DNF. They are the ones being tended by medical staff, ruefully inspecting broken equipment or nursing sprains and pulls who slink quietly off to the car park with no fanfare or fuss. A consoling arm across the shoulders and an encouraging comment will be of little help Perhaps it’s best just leave them to their own quiet moment of reflection and recovery. Regardless, their feelings will be the same. No amount of comfort will assuage the disappointment completely.

Yet, some things can, and should be, salvaged. For a start, a DNF should be viewed as a fantastic learning opportunity. What went wrong and why? More importantly, what changes need to be made before the next attempt in order to rectify the situation? Every detail should be analysed, not just the performance on the day. This includes the training schedule, the type of training done, the nutrition plan, the mental preparation, even the choice and date of the event. For the day itself, a review should be made of the tactics, the conditions and the physical and emotional state of the athlete at the start line. A brutal and honest evaluation will undoubtedly reveal areas that can be tweaked, adjusted or which require a radical overhaul before the next time.  Endurance events, whether on land, in the water or in the air are all about pushing the limits of what we think is possible, testing ourselves and finding out where those boundaries are.  It is inevitable that sometimes, on some days, we find ourselves not quite up to the task.

Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

There will always be DNF’s for any significant endurance event and we should remember that they represent an extremely important group for everyone taking part. This is because they remind us that the event is a challenge to the athlete and for any challenge there has to be a risk of failure. If not, the event simply becomes “something we do to pass the time”. I can ride a bike; most people can. I can cycle into town, I can even cycle round the local hills. However, as I proved on my Ironman attempts, I couldn’t ride one over the mountains of Majorca because that’s a fairly significant challenge. Therefore, for those who could, and did, they know that they achieved something, overcame something, finished something and therefore their success means something.

So, tough as it may be to swallow, those of us who end up in the DNF category are vital to the overall significance of any endurance event. We provide context and proof that this was something that not everyone can do, even those of us who are relatively fit and prepared. Thus for those who do finish, they can take pride in knowing that their achievement has some sort of significance. And if it doesn’t feel like that, if they felt it was all too easy, then maybe it’s time to step up to the next level where failure once again becomes a threat and a credible outcome for the day.

For the DNF gang, we need to go away, lick our wounds, review and learn and come back even stronger either to take the same challenge on again or maybe set a different target, a different challenge – one that can be achieved. But still one with the danger that it might not. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing it at all?

Time to get in line

If you hang around talking with SwimMastery coaches for any length of time you’ll hear an awful lot about the importance of the Streamline position. It is, they will tell you, the most important position in Freestyle swimming and, if one is to have any success with the stroke, it is vital to master this phase.

To anyone coming to the stroke for the first time, the emphasis placed on the Streamline may seem a little misplaced. If the point in swimming is to create forward momentum, why concentrate on an aspect of the stroke where, apparently, there is relatively little going on? Would it not be better to concentrate on the period where the body is being propelled forwards?

This though is to misunderstand the fundamental point of efficient swimming which is to displace as little of the water as possible as you move through it and past it. And the position in which you are doing that at the maximum is during Streamline.

Photo courtesy of Tracey Baumann

It’s also a great phase at which the brain can perform a rapid mental checklist and, if necessary, “reset”. If performed correctly the Streamline will be the point at which the body is at its maximum length and the connection from the fingernails, through the scapula, hips thighs, knees, to the feet will be at its most apparent. Once the swimmer can tune into this feeling of connection all the way down the body they are in the perfect position to initiate the weight shift which leads to the rotation allowing the body to power past the anchoring arm performing the catch.

Without that all-important whole-body connection the timing, breath management and coordination of the stroke are all lost and with it the speed and efficiency too.
Remember too that the Streamline is hit twice in each cycle of the stroke, once on the left and once on the right. Most swimmers will have a favoured side – usually the one where they are leading with their dominant hand – so make sure that both sides are equally perfect. Spend time during practice to imprint the muscle memory clearly, spending more time on the weaker side if necessary.

But remember Streamline is only a fleeting moment in a fluid whole movement. Although it presents a perfect opportunity for a quick “stock-check” of body parts it is not an opportunity to have a little rest and let momentum glide you forwards! This can only lead to a slowing of the overall speed with increased work required to regain it. It is vital to develop the ability to instantly recognise if the body is not conforming to the perfect Streamlining position and to correct and re-connect immediately.

As one of the fundamental building blocks for the freestyle stroke, time spent practising and perfecting the Streamline will never be wasted.

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