Improvement-Oriented Swimming Builds a Better Brain.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on March 31st, 2010

Do you “follow the black line” — just swim to get the yards in? Or do you swim mindfully – tirelessly evaluating and improving your stroke? Swimming mindfully – and purposefully – builds a better brain because it stimulates far more brain cells.

When you focus on improvement, sensory neurons take in sensory stimuli — touch, sound, sight – and send it to the brain to be converted into impressions or thoughts. Is your stroke splashy or quiet? Is your hand tipped up or down as you extend it? Do bubbles stream from it as you stroke? (We sometimes call intensely reflective practice like this Unconscious Competence.)

Motor neurons make adjustments to your stroke by firing different muscle combinations. Sensory neurons help you evaluate whether those adjustments improved your swimming.

To improve, your brain must do complex and intensive information-processing. It takes in sensory signals, compares them with prior experiences, assigns weight or value to each sensation, then selects, sequences and integrates motor signals. Info is flowing constantly back and forth between eyes, ears, skin, muscles and brain. This is called working memory. The more of this you do, the denser and healthier are the neural networks formed throughout the brain.

Here’s an example using the simplest skill taught in the Total Immersion Easy Freestyle sequence – Hanging your Head. Swimming with head held high is a powerful instinct among all terrestrial mammals – dogs, deer and humans too. It increases drag and exhausts muscles from head to toe.

To release your head to a neutral position you need to bypass an existing neural circuit (a “muscle memory”) that signals neck and shoulder muscles to contract. So you swim a lap—or better yet just five to six strokes—with the thought “Hang your head.”

As you swim your brain’s frontal cortex receives and analyzes proprioceptive (your sense of where body parts are in space and relative to each other) information on your head’s new position and it compares the new sense of a weightless head with the old one of a heavy head. It then sends that data to your cerebellum where it begins the long process of creating a new muscle memory – leading eventually to Unconscious Competence.

Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) Swimmers repeat this process for decades with dozens and dozens of small — yet consequential — stroke details. Each new Stroke Thought — and the evaluation and adjustment that accompanies it — creates its own unique brain circuit and integrates it into related circuits, creating an increasingly wide-ranging, complex and more integrated network for efficient swimming.

The complexity I describe is why we teach drills. Superman Glide for instance, is far simpler than whole stroke. This makes it easier to devote sufficient brainpower to releasing neck muscles and assessing/memorizing the new head position, increasing the chances you’ll maintain it in whole stroke.

Building brain circuits for hanging head and hands

3 Responses to “Improvement-Oriented Swimming Builds a Better Brain.”

  1. Ash says:

    Great stuff! I just had a little “ah ha” moment. Please allow me to explain. I am a visual learner/thinker by nature. I began my quest to learn and master the TI method for freestyle about nine months ago after seeing some TI material on YouTube. I watched the graceful, effortless stroke that was demonstrated in the video and listened to the brief commentary that described the stroke mechanics. I went to the pool, visualized the swimmer in the video and began to change my stroke so that it looked like the stroke in the demonstration. Doing that alone improved my stroke efficiency almost immediately. Before, I was swimming 5-6 sets of 600 yards in 9:30 to 10:00 minutes, but would feel really winded at the end of each set. Now I was doing the 600s in the same amount of time but was breathing easy and had plenty of juice for the next set. Using visualization alone, I continued to improve but after 6 months I felt like I hit a wall. That’s when I began using the “stroke thought” concept to train my brain. Each time I went to the pool, I would have one or two of those basic TI skills in my conscience as I swam. I could feel my brain struggling to resist the old neural networks. If I lost my concentration for just a few seconds, I immediately reverted back to the old, inefficient stroke technique. Now my brain was being challenged along with my body. Over time though, I could feel subtle yet effortless improvements in my stroke. After just 3 months of more conscious training, I can now swim 600 in 8:45 with plenty of gas left in the tank. Keep in mind that I am 46 and have only been distance swimming seriously for a year and half. My swimming now feels so much more relaxed and my speed and efficiency are both gradually improving. Oh, and the “ah ha” moment that I mentioned. Your blog entry confirmed that I cannot use visual learning alone to truly master the TI method because visualizing does not provide all of the information that my brain needs to improve my stroke. For me, visualization must be combined with very conscious brain training in order to get the kind of improvements that I want to occur in my swimming. I just ordered one of your books and DVDs so that I have more material to deepen my visual and mental understanding of the TI method.

    Thanks Terry, your posting helped me connect the dots.

    San Jose, CA.

  2. Ash
    You are on a Masters path for sure. Congratulations and keep it up.

  3. jose arcega says:

    yeah! i did too! terry said relaxing swim make you better. for so many years i swim, TI swim only i learn a lot an easily swim and effortless. thanks terry my master…

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