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.