Sunday, April 9, 2017

USE YOUR HEAD! The "Neural Pathway" to Faster and Safer Endurance Performance Gains

The Neural Pathway to Endurance Performance Gains

Last weekend I had the best swim training sessions I can recall in more than twelve years of swimming.  It wasn't the longest swim workout.  It wasn't the most intense swim session.  It wasn't a well designed Masters workout and it wasn't with my friends that I enjoy swimming with.  In fact, I wouldn't have any data to analyze because my GPS watch battery died the moment I pressed the "start" button.  While frustrating, not paying attention to my watch was part of the success  What made this the best swim training session in more than a decade?  Hold onto that question and read on.

Mile High Endurance Podcast is dedicated to helping listeners accelerate their learning of the endurance sports. Along with co-hosts Khem Suthiwan and Bill Plock, we want to connect you to experts to learn how to improve and get faster.  A number of exerts over recent months have pointed us to the potential of "neural development" and I've become increasingly curious about the brain's role in our pursuit of improving performance in in triathlon and other endurance sports. 

Training for endurance sports like swimming, cycling and running has historically been defined in terms of fitness, strength and economy of motion.  Endurance sport training is traditionally concerned with adaptations though a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training at varying duration and intensities.  These adaptations are achieved through important considerations and accurately applying concepts like periodization, acute training load, chronic training load, and recovery.  These are essential aspects of physiological development.

Experts in a variety of endurance sport disciplines are advocating neural development as an importance of aspect of endurance training.  In the article 
What is Neural Training and Why Do It? by Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion, writes "Neural Training. In this form of training, you target adaptations to brain and nervous system. As you do, aerobic training still occurs, but is precisely matched to the demands of the task to which your brain and nervous system are adapted."  

In his article, The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills, Thorin Klososwski writes "Every time you learn something new, your brain changes in a pretty substantial way. In turn, this makes other parts of your life easier because the benefits of learning stretch further than just being good at something". 

What is Learning?

What is learning?  Early in our lives we learn some basic things such as how to walk and talk.  As we grow older and our brains develop we learn logic, language and music.  We also take walking to the next level and learn to swim, bike and run, among other sports.  True learning and long term retention allows us to build a base of knowledge that we continue to build on as we refine our understanding and gain new insights. Whether we are learning to swim or learning an algebraic equation, we are learning. While learning to swim happens in a different part of our brains (swimming in the motor cortex) than the part of the brain that helps us learn statistics (using the frontal lobe).  Learning is learning.

In the book, "Make It Stick - The Science of Successful Learning", authors Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel help us to understand what contemporary research tells us about how we learn successfully with retention.  The brain is plastic and malleable through changing neural connections.  These authors explain how effective learning occurs, they reveal misconceptions about previously believed effective methods of learning, and explain what methods truly result in faster and longer memory.  

In one cited experiment, they describe two groups of children to assess which of two learning approaches would result in effective learning. The goal of the groups was to toss a ball into a basket from a distance of three feet.  Group A was only able to practice the ball toss from three feet from the basket.  Group B was only able to practice the toss from two and four feet from the basket - never from three feet.  What do you think they learned about how Groups A and B compared in their accuracy when tested more than a week after the practice phase?  Group B outperformed A by a significant margin.  Why?  While there are many dynamics at play here, the basic explanation was because Group B had the benefit of learning the difference in effort and motion between two and four feet causing their brains to work harder during the learning process.  Each time the subject had to try to learn it takes this much effort with this motion to hit the basket from two feet and that much effort for four feet. It's that concentration and recall that causes the neural pathways to form.  

The authors use an analogy of a grassy field to represent the tapestry of the brain's neural connections.  If we walk lightly across a grassy field once, we may leave a slight trace of our footsteps.  Walk that same path lightly many times and you may start to see the effect  of deepening traces from repeated light footsteps.  Drag or stomp your feet as you make your way across the field and you're likely to leave deeper impressions. Forcing the brain to work in the form of recalling knowledge or concentration on coordinated muscle movements results in learning.

Learning physical skills like swimming, biking and running cause these same brain changes to make the execution of movements easier. When I see professional athletes demonstrate perfect form, I say to myself "I wish I could learn to swim like Amanda Stevens, or bike like Andrew Starkowitz, or run like Marinda Carfrae. What does that mean to learn to do that? Okay, I may not have the genetics for the VO2 max or composition of slow and fast twitch muscles as these athletes. However, I can learn form and skill. 

There are gaps between Rinny's any my running performance. I can however study and learn the elements of good running economy and performance and learn them through focused learning session. Think of them as training sessions, but the goal is to learn. Yes there will be physiology adaptations that come along for the ride, but I want to maximize learning.  I have a run workout that is only 30 minutes and it's sole purpose is to focus on cadence and ground contact time. I don't think about anything else, but those two things and using my mind to figure out what coordinated muscle contractions and alignments result in higher cadence and lower contact time.

What Makes a Great Training Session?

I began this article proclaiming one of my best swim training sessions in more than a decade.  What made that training session so good?  I mentioned that I had been emailing a Researcher at Halo Neuroscience to additional instruction on how to design my training sessions to get the best learning outcome.  My question was about how to design my training to best leverage the Halo Sport, but the response from Alex is useful to understand what made my swim last week so effective.

"The beauty of Halo Sport is that because it targets the brain, it allows it to be applicable to a number 

of different applications and adaptable to the athlete's needs.  The double edged sword is that all movements are better encoded, not just the "better" ones.  Therefore the best type of training to pair with Halo Sport is less about what exercises and more about the attitude.  You want to pair Halo Sport with periods of deep practice, ensuring that the best repetitions are what are being better encoded and transferred into the central pattern generators we talked about."  

He also shared an article on on the Halo Neuroscience website on  Swim Training.  From the article, "Swimming is not the primary mode of locomotion for humans, so the motor cortex plays a larger role in coordinating swimming patterns than in, say, walking or running. Mastering CPG coordination is a perfect task for the motor cortex, as this area is specifically geared towards using motor skill learning to pinpoint the appropriate motor output."

Learning Session Approach

I started last week's swim in the weightroom of the recreation center that also houses my pool. The entire training session can be broken down in to thee sections:
  1. Core and Warm Up - 20 minutes
  2. Shoulder and Back Strength, Imagery and Form - 30 minutes
  3. Swim Skill Drills  - 30 minutes
While I will overlay the application of the Halo Sport as I describe each of the three sections of the workout, the approach, techniques and elapsed time are the same.

Core and Warm Up

I like to start every strength session with 20 minutes of core work.  I do three strength sessions per week and each session has a different mix.  In my pre-swim core workout this day, I had three core exercises. They were 2 and 1 Arm Supermans, Scissor Kicks, and V-Ups. I did these as a circuit of 1 minute 2 & 1-Arm Superman, 1 minute rest, 1 minutes Scissor Kicks, 1 minute rest and so on.

My focus while performing each of these core exercises is to be thoughtful about the application to swimming through visualization.  I will close my eyes while doing the Superman, for example.  Face down on a mat with my pelvis pressed firmly into the ground I extend both arms and imagine myself as I extending in a push off the wall of the pool. My shoulders, arms and fingers stretch for the bottom corner of pool wall ahead of me, while my legs, feet and toes are extended and pointing to the pool wall behind me. After holding that pose for 10 seconds, I bring my right hand back to my side with left hand extended, I point my right leg and toes in a counter balancing move while engaging my core.  After ten seconds with left hand forward and right foot extended, I switch sides as I think through the gliding motion, extension and core engagement.

I continue though Scissor Kicks and V-Ups with the same mindful, swim focused imagery equivalents and then progress to Back and shoulder strength training.

Halo Sport Application: at the beginning of my core work, I turn on the Halo Sport and start the 20 minute Neural Priming session.  I set the intensity and just go through the core workout as normal while I listen to music and get primed.  At the the end of the priming session, my Neural Cortex is in a state of hyper plasticity for 60 more minutes and I proceeded to work on back and shoulder functional strength training.

Back and Shoulder

Important Note: anyone starting any of these exercises should seek a certified personal trainer or physical therapist for instruction on proper form and injury avoidance.

I do 30 minutes of back and should strength training with specific functional movements to replicate the various functional movements of swimming arm recovery the exercises performed in this session were 3 x each of the following functional movement (and it's paired strength exercise):

  1. Swim Motion  - Rotating shoulder forward (Single Side Dumbbell Shoulder Shrug)
  2. Swim Motion  - High elbow/lead with elbow (High Elbow Standing Shoulder Fly)
  3. Swim Motion - Hop N Slot (Shoulder Press)
  4. Swim Motion -  Catch and Pull (Pull Ups)

In the Pool

With the strength training session complete, I jump in the pool for a 30 minute swimming training session that is focused solely on skill drills.  Borrowing skills from Total Immersion Effortless Self-Coaching 1.0 Course.  With each of the skills below, I used a snorkel to take breathing out of the motor coordination equation.  The skills were done as 100 x each and cycled though.three times. 
  1. Superman (1 & 2 Arm)
  2. Recovery Elbow Swing
  3. Hop N Slot
  4. Full bi-lateral swim
I've been practicing these skills for several weeks, but I am still am occasionally clumsy with them. On this day, my proprioception was high and the motions came smoothly with intentional effort. By the time I was executing the third round of drills and putting it altogether with what felt like perfect timing and balance - I was giddy with excitement. 

It is exciting to have breakthrough training sessions. When we are younger and newer to the sport, it's reaching those new levels of speed and distance. Today, the excitement of "cracking the code" and developing neural pathways toward perfecting my swim stroke.

In Summary

This swim training session is just one example of how I have paired functional movement visualization with strength training and skill practice.  In this session, my primary focus was arm recovery and keeping a strong core.  You can imagine the number of possibilities for applying neural training to different skills related to swimming, cycling and running.

I'll take on examples of pairing functional strength training with specific functional movements of cycling and running in future articles.  Keep in mind, these will not be the "going-through-the motions" article. This will be an article focused on how to keep your head in the game and learn how to be faster and more efficient.

Rich Soares