Strong Body, Sharp Mind: How swimming can give it to you
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 26th, 2013

Do you think first about training your brain, or your lungs and muscles, when swimming? If you plan your swim  sessions by choosing activities based on whether they’ll stimulate adaptation in your brain and nervous (or neuromuscular) system, then you  are doing neurally-oriented training. If you plan repeats and sets designed primarily to strengthen your heart and lungs. you’re doing aerobic-oriented training. Both are valuable for promoting healthy aging, so how do we decide which to emphasize?

If you’re not sure whether to be a neurally- or aerobically-oriented swimmer consider this: If you emphasize aerobic training, you have no assurance that your brain will be stimulated in a way likely to promote brain health. And there’s a pretty good chance you could compromise the quality of brain stimulus. But if you emphasize neural training, you always receive quality aerobic training.

I’ll illustrate by giving examples of typical sets of both types, and describing their effects.

Aerobic Set Swim 12 x 200 on 30 seconds rest

An average pace for a 50-ish swimmer on a set like this might be around 3:00 per 200. With a 30-second rest interval, the set would take 42 minutes to complete, at a a work-to-rest ratio of 6:1 (3 minutes swim, 30 seconds rest). This combination of relatively long overall duration and relatively brief rest intervals would be good for metabolic endurance and a healthy heart.  You could develop a bit more aerobic power or oxygen uptake by shifting from a steady pace to a varying pace with some repeats easier and some faster — perhaps descending 1-6 and 7-12, or alternating one cruise with one brisk.

The shortcoming of such a set is that too many swimmers are likely to shift into mental autopilot state or let their minds wander to deal with the tedium produced by doing a relatively unvarying activity for 42 minutes. Once you’ve gotten started on your first repeat, there’s little else to do but count down repeats until you’re done.

Neural Training Set: Swim 4 rounds of [3 x 200 on 30 seconds rest]

Rounds 1 and 2 (or 1 and 3): Swim 1 x 200 each with these Focal Points: Weightless Head — Align Body on ‘Tracks’ — ‘Patient’ Lead Hand

Rounds 3 and 4 (or 2 and 4): Swim 1 x 200 each at these stroke counts: 13 to 14 — 14 to 15 — 15 to 16 (OR  1 x 200 each at these stroke tempos: 1.15, 1.10, 1.05)

In this example you’d be required to pay close attention on every lap and every stroke. In the case of swimming with Focal Points,  to assess the sensation in each stroke and compare it to the ‘mental blueprint’ you form for each thought. In addition, you’ll be ‘wiring together’ cognitive and motor neurons. In the case of swimming with Stroke Counts, you’ll have to calibrate your Stroke Length on each stroke, then recalibrate it on each subsequent 200.

Because the overall set duration and work-to-rest ratio in the Neural set remain the same as in the Aerobic set, you would receive precisely the same metabolic endurance/healthy-heart benefits. But by giving your neurons a mission, you would also build more Cognitive Reserve which neuroscientists tell us is the best thing we can do to increase our chances of having a razor-sharp mind in our 80s and beyond.

Mens sana in corpore sano. It’s an ancient Latin quotation, taken from pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, meaning “A sound mind in a healthy body.”  If you’re a neurally-oriented swimmer, it’s not just a slogan.



8 Responses to “Strong Body, Sharp Mind: How swimming can give it to you”

  1. normansiever says:

    I do some of my best thinking when I am swimming the TI way. Better yet, “stuff” just pops into my head. Even better, when I first started learning Italian, I counted laps in italiano. Improved il mio italiano as well as my swimming.

  2. Don Reinfeld says:

    I’ve found that alternate side breathing is
    valuable for comfort as well as stroke/ kick
    Symmetry and mental alertness. I practiced
    breathing & stroking regularly standing with my
    back against the edge of the pool. It’s easy then,
    Once you’re actually swimming, to give attention
    to a specific breathing pattern, plus 1 or 2
    other parameters such as head position,
    balance, Hand entry, lazy pull, wrist bend,
    stroke follow through, changing focus every
    50 or 100 or even 25! I love breathing patterns
    2-3, 3-3, 2-2-3, 3-4, 2-5, 3-5, etc.

  3. Marié says:

    For me to swim mindful has another benefit. It turned swimming in the most pleasurable activity. After each swim I can just say- this was so”lekker’!

  4. William says:

    I do a meditation swim. 72 x 25 with active lap counting. When intruding thoughts occur, I go back to counting. I vary strokes depending upon body condition. Sore shoulder, more breast and back stroke etc.

  5. SwimFast says:

    I’d like to learn more about neurally oriented training. Do you have other articles on this topic?

  6. What a great insite, I never thought of swimming in this way. Me I typically do the aerpbic thing, and never ever thought in terms of training my brain except with improving my stroke or learning a new stroke etc.

    This article has completely changed my view and soon my approach to swimming. As a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor I plant to share this with my students.

    Thanks Terry for this very insightful article.

  7. Gaudencio says:

    Excellent reasonning! Swimming like a fish Is living water. I’d like to Get the hang of it.

  8. I do. Click on tags like Brain Training and similar on the left side of the page to find more.

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