The Big Idea in Swimming for the Next Decade
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 1st, 2010

I predict it will be How Swimming Changes Your Brain.

The swimming world has always focused on changing the body to improve swimming performance. Not only could we see the body change (i.e. a larger, more defined bicep from weeks of arm curls) but 50 years of physiological research showed how workouts help muscles use energy, eliminate waste, and even develop new networks of blood vessels. This bolstered the sense of “authoritativeness” for training theories that prescribed, say, aerobic or anaerobic sets.

At the same time, understanding of the brain’s role in all of this was quite sketchy. Even as swimmers and coaches used terms like muscle memory, mental endurance (or mental fatigue), and swim team t-shirts featured slogans like “Access to success is through the mind,” the actual workings of the brain remained a mystery. Articles and books went into exhaustive detail on muscle and cardiovascular function but made nary a mention of the brain.

Our understanding of brain function—and even of what it means to be human–has exploded in the past 10 years.  Technological advances improved the ways scientists could observe molecules, nerve cells, and networks in “the brain at work” and learn how they influence all human behavior.

Cognitive neuroscientists, using positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging have created maps of brain activity that occurs during thought, problem-solving and even emotion. Behavioral neuroscientists, employing electrodes and brain scans, now have a detailed understanding of how different areas of the brain interact to control movement.

As a result it is now evident that what has long been considered impenetrable, abstract—even metaphysical—is in fact tangible, measurable and well-documented. In fact, how swimming can grow your brain is now understood to be far more significant than how it grows muscles and blood vessels. But not just any kind of swimming. To change muscles and blood vessels, just about any kind of activity will do. To change brain structure and function, deliberate practice is essential.

What is deliberate practice? It’s not rote repetition or “getting in the yards.” Instead it focuses on improvement by finding weak points or errors in how you swim–not just technique, but even your thinking patterns. Once you identify a mistake that needs fixing, you develop a strategy for doing so. Then you do attentive repetition until the fix is embedded in muscle memory and find the next mistake to fix. And there’s always another opportunity to improve. We call this Kaizen.

I will focus on how swimming can improve brain structure and function — and how that improves your skill, endurance, speed — and most importantly your enjoyment — in every post on this blog.

3 Responses to “The Big Idea in Swimming for the Next Decade”

  1. Emily Eisen says:

    Hi Terry,
    I started becoming a TI swimmmer last summer in New Paltz with Petra. I immmediately became a convert….and conisder only special occassions to come out of my tank! I love TI swimming….I first learned of it when one of the teachers in my Introdcutory Brain Gym® class came up to me and asked me if I knew about TI. She went on to tell me it was like Brain Gymr in water…movement that activates and integrates the brain. I am a Brain Gym® Instructor located in Northport LI. My TI teacher is Joe Petrush…I have been doing Brain Gymr for 15 years and it is amazing…has definitely helped me in my drills…TI swimming is such a brain enhancer, if only for the breathing alone!!! Joe is a great teacher and rreally ties in the brain with the body coordination. I just love TI so much…my friends and family are getting bored with me speaking about it or miss me becasue I am in the pool!!!! I am so eager to met other TI swimmers on Long Island…can you hep me connect up with other LI TI swimmers???
    I so look forward to meeting you one day…I’m saving up for a workshop and just cannot wait to have a whole week of swimming……it will be a dream come true!!!!! I know I am a beginner and am enjoying every step along the way…I’m am not in a rush to do other than what I am working on at the moment and somewhere in my vision I imagine helping others to do TI swimming for the fitness and coordination it provides as a land creature! I work with a lot of autistic and learing challenged children asa a Brain Gym® INstrucotr and I think this is great for them…so I envision getting learning challenged children ini the water and combining the TI with what I know about Brain Gymr see lots of children out there having a better life…
    I love on the DVD’s and video clips…and the articles….thanks so much!
    Thanks for listneing…
    Hope to meet you soon..
    SMiles, Emily Eisen

  2. Carl Feldstein says:

    Hi I am 77 years young and swim daily in my endless pool. I swim in water about 54 degrees and use a full body wet suit and hood. As I swim some of the water gets inbetween the wet suit and my body. This water is warmed by my body and is replaced with fresh cold water. A 30 minute swim stimulates me all day long. I feel the effect of the cold water on my skin. I believe health spas could use this therapy to improve circulation and well being. If I had a choice to swim in cold water or a pool at 80 degrees, the cold water swim would win hands down. Some day I hope to take some classes. Carl

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.