Total Immersion: what is neural training and why do we do it?
Total Immersion founder and head coach Terry Laughlin looks at the principles and protocols of training your brain and presents a sample set to get you started on making your training neurally orientated
This is the first instalment of a
monthly series on Mind-Body
Training. By mind-body, we
mean training that strengthens
the connection between your brain and
muscles. It’s also intended to increase
your efficiency, in part by stimulating
your brain to work harder as you
swim. When your brain takes on more
challenging tasks, the less your body
must do to accomplish any goal. One
advantage, among many, is that, though
it runs on the same fuel – oxygen and
glycogen – the brain is far more immune
than your muscles to fatigue-related
And if you’re interested
in aging gracefully,
exercise is as good
for the brain as for the body. The most valuable workout is one that works brain and body in equal measure. Mind-body training is simply unmatched in improving the outcomes and enjoyment from training.
Let’s begin by comparing two
definitions of endurance. The traditional
definition is: “Work harder, longer to
create aerobic adaptations that allow you
to… work harder, longer.” Traditional
training seldom emphasises efficiency or
economy – in movement or use of scarce
Total Immersion defines swimming
endurance as “the ability to repeat
effective strokes for a duration and pace
of your choosing.” We believe that highly
effective training should also embrace
three additional goals:
- Create adaptations specific to the
goal you’ve set. These adaptations
should include skill, pace and energy management;
- ‘Lowest Effective Dose’: How can we achieve the greatest outcome on the least training?
- Improve your self-knowledge — the most valuable and enduring outcome of all.
One type of training achieves all of these goals: 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.
Training for the 21st century
Aerobic training is
based on research conducted between the 1940s and 1970s on how the body metabolizes oxygen and glycogen into musle fuel, and eliminates waste products – dependent on work intensity and duration. It essentially treats the body as a complex chemistry set.
This research – and the training
based on it – seldom looked at efficiency
measures; though some researchers noted
that more efficient athletes expended far
less energy. The core elements of aerobic
system training – how far to swim, at
what speed, and on what rest interval
– have remained essentially unchanged
over the last 50 years.
The possibility of neural-oriented
training first received mention during
the 1980s: in 1988 I heard my mentor Bill
Boomer say that “conditioning should be
‘something that happens’ while you work
on skills.” But it was the development, in the first decade of this century, of
advanced tools for observation of
changes to brain structures – fMRI and
PET scans – that permitted research
which led to far sharper definition of
neural training protocols.
Rationale for neural training
- Swimming is a skill-oriented activity. According to Mike Joyner MD, director of human performance research at the Mayo Clinic, at the elite level, swim performance is determined 75% by skill – how efficiently or economically we use energy resources; at the novice to intermediate level, Mike estimates the contribution of skill to performance at closer to 90%.
- Energy is an incredibly precious resource. In 2005, while designing a swim foil for the Navy Seals, engineers at DARPA – the Pentagon’s research arm – estimated the energy efficiency of uncoached swimmers at just 3%. Elite swimmers convert just 10% of energy into forward motion. Even the amazing Katie Ledecky diverts 90% of her energy into moving water around and other forms of waste! Thus the most sensible and logical focus of training is to reduce energy waste, rather than continually “top up” a seriously leaky tank of muscle fuel.
- Speed is not just a product of how hard you work or how fast you stroke. Rather it’s a mathematically specific equation: Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate, or V=SL x SR. Stroke Length – and your ability to maintain it while increasing Stroke Rate – is an exacting skill that is developed only by training that creates adaptations in the brain and nervous system.
Benefits of neural training
- Converts generic workouts into precise and personalized training. Minimises wasted time and effort (ie, Least Effective Dose). Maximises sense of engagement and purpose.
- Completely transparent and measurable. While working toward aerobic development, you never know how much you’ve achieved, nor when you have ‘enough.’ Nervous system training employs simple metrics that let you know exactly how you are progressing. You focus on incremental, measurable week-by-week progress in those metrics.
- Can occur at lightning speed. While significant change in aerobic-system capacity takes months, measurable adaptations of brain and nervous system to well-designed tasks can sometimes occur in as little as 20 to 30 minutes.
Protocols of neural training
Always focus on improvement.
The goal of any training session is
never to ‘get the yards/metres in,’
or get your heart rate up. Rather it’s
to be a better swimmer at the end
of the session.
Set up feedback loops to
measure your improvement.
In traditional training, the sole
measure of performance is time.
In mind-body training, time
is but one of several revealing
measures. The others include SPL
or strokes per length (the simplest
measure of Stroke Length);
Tempo – another term for Stroke
Rate (measured with precision
by a Tempo Trainer). To have
complete information on how you
performed during a swim or set,
you need to employ at least two
measures – eg, SPL + Time; Tempo
+ SPL; Tempo + Time. It may seem
complicated, but with practice it
quickly becomes second nature.
During a set, focus on finding
the easiest way to perform a task
or achieve a goal – rather than on
testing how hard you can work.
Remember, the biggest payoff from
training is in finding ways to reduce
energy waste – not increasing your
ability to produce energy.
Sample neural training set
Each article in this series will present a sample set. Each will illuminate a different aspect of how to make training neurally-oriented. We’ll start with the simplest form – one with great potential to reduce energy waste.
After a brief warmup, swim a short ‘benchmark’ set of 3 x 50m. Count strokes and make a note of your time. Add stroke count to seconds for a SWAM Score. For example, 45 strokes + 50 seconds equals a score of 95.
Swim several series of 4 to 8 x Focal Point single lengths. On these, your task is to devote your entire attention to a single, narrow aspect of technique (see below for suggestions). After each length, assess both how close you came
to the feeling described and the quality of your attention (ie, make your mind work as hard as your muscles). Between each length, take a mental reset. Swim the first 5 to 6 strokes of each length without breathing to gain a better feel for each focal point.
- Create a weightless, neutral head position. Release your head’s weight entirely to be supported by the water. Then check that head-spine line is arrow-straight.
- As you enter your hand, cut a ‘hole’ in the surface. Forearm should follow hand through that hole. Entry should feel shorter and steeper than normal. Eliminate noise, bubbles and splash.
- Kick as little as possible. Feel that legs ‘draft behind’ upper torso.
After completing the Focal Point series, choose your favorite Focal Point, or sensation – or try to blend two or more. Repeat the benchmark set of 3 x 50m. Your goal is to match, or improve, your score, while expending less effort.
is founder and
head coach of
and winner of six
since turning 55.
Immersion 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Self-Coaching Course teaches ‘Expert’ Pacing/Tempo Training and three other Mastery skills for freestyle.
Find out more at totalimmersion.net and totalimmersion.co.uk