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.

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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.

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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.

The battle for the title of greatest Channel swimmer: the latest contender.

From time to time we all need a little motivation to help us achieve our best.  If you’re currently looking for inspiration then you don’t really need to look any further than the incredible Chloë McCardel.  Chloë, pictured here with SwimMastery co-founder Tracey Bauman has recently broken the world record for the most number of Channel swims by a female swimmer racking up an incredible 44 crossings.  This undoubtedly makes her the greatest ever cross Channel swimmer.

Or does it?

An article recently published online shows that there is more than on contender for this crown.  It makes for fascinating reading

Who is the “greatest channel swimmer” of them all? – Swimming the English Channel (wordpress.com)

Ultimately I guess the argument is somewhat academic.  There is no denying that the achievements of everyone mentioned is truly awesome.  At SwimMastery we would like to congratulate Chloe in particular though.  If we can’t draw inspiration from her amazing performances then who can we use?

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.

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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.

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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?

Ready, steady, wait. (Are you sure you’re ready ?)

Am I alone in having a list of things that I know should be part of the routine of my life but which, seem to get continually overlooked? Things like turning my mattress, reviewing my energy suppliers and flossing my teeth. And doing a proper warm-up before swimming. Please tell me it’s not just me!

If I’m doing other sports a warm-up is one of those things you do almost without thinking about it. Thus if I’m going for a run, I’ll have a short jog first or at the gym, I’ll have a short light session on a machine at a low setting before getting into the main session as a matter of course. But this rarely happens when I go swimming and, from what I observe, I’m not alone.

Why not? Perhaps, because they don’t come out of the water drenched in sweat, no matter how far you have swum folks don’t realise how much energy and work they have spent and, even with a good technique, how much potential strain there has been on the muscles. The fact that swimming is a low impact sport probably exacerbates this potentially complacent view.

But one ignores a proper warm-up at your peril, particularly with advancing years. It will go a long way to prevent injuries, improve performance, reduce the level of muscle tension and increase the range of motion possible. All vital stuff.

But if the case for doing a warm-up is inescapable this leads to the inevitable question of what one should actually do. Is it sufficient just to swing the arms vigorously for a while, stretch out the shoulders and quads, roll the neck a few times before leaping into the water? Or should the warm-up be a more structured affair?

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In order to answer that question it is important to differentiate between stretching and warming up. For some the terms are interchangeable but in reality they describe different activities and their functions are often very different. Care should be taken when stretching that the result is not more harm than good. Every body is different and there is no one size fits all ruling but as a general rule of thumb stretching should only be performed on muscles that are already warm. That is to say, they are best performed as part of a warm down at the end of a swim, not part of a warm-up at the start.

 

 

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Stretching can be broken down into several sub-categories. These include static stretches where a person holds a position for up to 30 seconds, passive stretches, where this is done by someone else, dynamic stretches, for example, controlled swinging of the arms and ballistic stretches, where the body is forced beyond the normal boundaries of operation. Other more complex types include active isolated stretches where the contraction of one muscle leads to the stretching of another, isometric stretching where a muscle is alternatively stretched and contracted and a combination of passive and isometric stretching known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Of all these variations only the controlled dynamic stretches are really suitable to be included in a warm-up and even then they should be used very judiciously. Save everything else for later, and, even then, take care not to overdo it.

So if stretching is largely to be avoided, then what should be included. The best advice seems to be to simply do what you plan to do in the main set but to do it at a lower tempo and to take rests throughout. Thus, in a pool, one might do six to eight lengths swimming at something like 75% and resting for several breaths at the end of each 25m. If you want to swing your arms a bit or rotate the neck gently before you get in, well OK, if you must. However, those won’t be movements you are performing when swimming (I hope!) so is there really much point in getting the body ready to perform them?

The best warm-ups will consist of movements likely to be performed later simply performed at a lower intensity to prepare the body for what is to come. After the swim and during the warm down (also not to be forgotten) is the time to, carefully, include any stretching you want to include. At all times ensure you are operating within the boundaries of your limitations.

That way you can remain safe and healthy ready to floss those teeth and turn your mattress!

A less than perfect body can prove to be the perfect body

I need to start with an apology. I may offend a few of you by using the F word in the following paragraphs. Whilst some are fine with it I am aware that others are a little uncomfortable talking about sport and fat (there, I’ve said it), in the same sentence. Many of us aspire to the perfect physique, and lifestyle magazines at this time of year are full of articles about getting ready for summer and creating your beach body. However, often we are faced with a rather sobering reality when looking in the mirror. And if you’re anything like me, one of the effects of COVID has been to add inches to the waistline not remove them. In Western society being fat brings with it a myriad of preconceptions about the sort of person you are.  Most are ridiculous and very few are concerned with being a top sports man or woman.  

Which can be equally ridiculous  

Granted, the next Olympic 400m champion is unlikely to have the nickname “Tubs” and will probably be blessed with a toned body most of us could only dream of, but what about the rest of us? 

There’s no getting away from it, for most sports being overweight is a definite disadvantage. Fortunately, at the grass-roots level, this doesn’t matter much and it is still possible to see less than ideal specimens of the human form, panting up and down football fields, sweating on tennis courts and squeezed into Day-Glo lycra on bicycles most weekends. And I’m not knocking that at all (living in a somewhat glass house as I do!). Good on them I say; more power to their elbow and all that. However, it can’t be denied that the excess poundage is rarely helping them. 

But with swimming things can be different.

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Because fat is less dense than water it floats in contrast to muscle. Fat people also tend to have a larger frame and consequently large lungs which also aid buoyancy. Fat can provide stores of energy, transport vitamins around the body and provide protection and insulation of vital organs. Thus, although those with excess fat deposits will certainly create additional water resistance creating drag and reducing overall speed through the water, if this isn’t the primary goal, then an excess of fat can be a positive benefit. Thus for long-distance and endurance events where fuel management and cold protection become equally as important, if not more so, than basic speed, to have more mass can be extremely beneficial.

That’s not to say that those with a larger frame can’t be fast swimmers.  With a good technique and proper training there is no reason why they should be unable to register times which most other folk can only dream about.  It’s only at the elite level of top competition that size really does begin to matter. 

Below that pinnacle of performance larger swimmers find that many of the restrictions which hold them back on land are removed once in the water.  Because it will support the body equally, fat people do not have the problems of creating undue strain on joints and muscles in the way that, say, running or jogging would do. Thus swimming can provide an invaluable route to maintaining (or starting) physical activity in a safe way which is not provided by other sports. It should, however, be noted that the benefit is not split entirely equally across the genders. Women tend to accumulate fat deposits on their legs and hips which can aid overall balance when immersed. Men on the other hand tend to develop large bellies whilst their legs can remain relatively skinny. They, therefore, have to work harder to counteract the tendency for the legs to sink and to maintain a horizontal profile. A large stomach can also introduce imbalances when the body is rotating as the centre of mass shifts.

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Very large people may experience some issues regarding flexibility and movement, however, compensations can be made for this. The overriding principle for swimmers regardless of body shape or weight is the use of good technique. If the basics of good air management and connection between the body parts are in place then factors that might initially be seen as a disadvantage for the swimmer can be quickly turned into positives. An understanding of how your body interacts with the water and acceptance of that relationship may mean a slight adaption in how you perceive your overall targets and goals. However, swimming can be enjoyed, and success achieved, regardless of body type. With the right technique, being fat is no barrier. Don’t wait until you reach some idealised view of what the perfect swimmer should look like, just go for it !  You might be surprised that having a body which you thought might hold you back is in reality a positive advantage!

 

Why learning from the best is not always a good idea.

One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others.  Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets.  With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible.  Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away.  It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game.  If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.

However, it is important to recognise the limitations too.  It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives.  The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite.  It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication.  Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak.  Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.

But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own.  There are, however, other factors to remember.  Swimming is a “whole body” sport.  Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result.  Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water.  Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns.  Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.

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Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training.  Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race.  This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes.  If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change.  The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.

And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers.  A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic. 

There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level.  These are not normal people!  That is not intended in a derogatory way.  It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals.  In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone.  Some were much taller.  Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot.  For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone.  In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties.  However, an athletic build is often just the starting point.  To take Michael Phelps as an example.  It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick.  He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility.  He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height.  His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.  

Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.

In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming.  There is much to be learned from this approach.  However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming.  Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.

 

 

 

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