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  • Tracey Hemphill

Training the sensory experience

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

– Tracey Hemphill


” When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it the water will naturally guide me into a position: a place for my body to settle, resting with my head down almost meditating. Then I begin to initiate movement: lifting myself, pushing with my chest and engaging my muscles. That’s the basis of the way anyone should swim, although it’s not the way we learn because we are not taught to connect so immediately with the water.


As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body, I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke, change it until I feel the water moving smoothly past me. I can do this at low speed or very high speed.


It’s really rewarding because I receive constant feedback without stopping. I don’t need someone to tell me that my stroke looks great or that it looks terrible because I have an inner sense of the water and the environment is already communicating with me.” – Ian Thorpe: This is me.


I’ve come to believe that taking a simple approach to swimming coaching is just simply not enough anymore. For so many years, the bulk of us swimming coaches have focused on the physiological adaptations and what we can see superficially to guide us for athletes to develop and improve. It’s becoming very difficult to be competitive as a coach if you are not utilizing additional sciences, like neurology, video analysis and nutrition.


Swimming is an incredibly sensory experience. It’s full of feedback messages that are given to the brain in order for the brain to react to its environment. An experienced and connected swimmer doesn’t need to be told how their swim was, because they will be able to tell you how it felt, and the result comparable with the feedback they got. They will be able to tell you how the water was pressured against their palms, how it sounded as they thrust forward, what they saw taking place around their body. A swimmer connected to the experience will be able to have a much more satisfying experience


Water has its own properties that’s very nature can works against us. It’s ready to reward you if you are relaxed and move with it easily, but if you fight it with bad technique it will swallow you up. Part of developing your sensory appreciation with the water is learning about these properties and appreciating the way water will hold you up. Using this feedback and appreciating how it can help you can add massively to your performance potential, and so I believe that it’s time to start reviewing not just the type of training we are carrying out, but also the type of experience we are creating. We need to evaluate the feedback we require from the swimmers and start teaching them how to talk in a sensory lingo.

We’ve all heard the term, “train the Brain”, and since muscles are activated by neurons, the brain is equally as important as the muscles when it comes to strength and training adaptations. Training the brain and the nerves can take your performance to an entirely new level.


Most athletes are familiar with the basic science for training adaptation and strength development. When athletes train, lift weights, do repeats faster, they’re essentially creating tears in muscle tissue. The body responds by adapting to and repairing these tears resulting in more muscle mass, and stronger tissue. This is known as hypertrophy.


Muscles are made of fibres and these are bunched together and stimulated by a single motor neuron. This group of fibres and the neuron are called a motor unit. When this motor unit is activated by the neuron all the muscle fibres contract. The number of motor units determines the force of the contraction, therefore the more motor units activated effectively and simultaneously the greater the power of the contraction. Studies have found that more frequent activation of motor units also results in greater force production.


All communication to the muscles originates in the motor cortex in the brain. The signal passes through the spinal cord to the neuromuscular junction, this is where the nerves and the muscle fibres meet. The impulse turns into a chemical signal which causes the muscle fibres to contract, and as a result there is a force generated. To optimise strength and effectiveness of this contraction we need a strong, synchronised signal to occur. The effectiveness of this process can be trained by repetition.


Reps alone are not worth anything if not done with the desired result in mind. The pathways to the muscle can be described as our local road network – It includes highways, double carriage ways, single lane roads and little streets, which all map the way to a destination. Highways obviously carry a lot of traffic, and it is the first choice when choosing the quickest and most efficient means to get somewhere. Little country roads may take longer, hardly carry any traffic and the roads are not always in a good condition. So considering this analogy, it would make sense to create well formed, first choice, and efficient pathways to generate an impulse or force that we require.


Swimming is loads of repetitions, and we have the tools to ensure that the right pathways are formed and relied on to deliver the impulse to generate the force required. By using the right movement to generate speed — every single rep — the brain learns to fire the correct muscles in the right order.


We want to create as few options for the travelling impulse, so that the impulse will take the highway as often as possible. This is specificity.


The following extract from the website of Halo Sport – A company focused on developing neuroscience support to performance driven individuals and teams.


“Three Secrets Regarding the Brain’s Role in Strength Training


Research in the field of neuroscience has continuously validated the crucial role of neural drive and repetition in strength training. The literature repeatedly points to three fundamental conclusions that all athletes need to be aware of:


1. Athletes naturally train their brains during a workout. However, athletes who fail to focus specifically on neurological training while working out are limiting their athletic potential.

2. By focusing on neurological training during a workout, athletes can unlock their true athletic potential at an accelerated rate.

3. When combined with strength training, neurological training comes with the additional benefit of “cross-education” — i.e. training the brain to more effectively strengthen one muscle group indirectly strengthens contralateral muscle groups.

In regards to the first point, it is important to understand that all athletes naturally strengthen neuromuscular circuitry through the act of working out. However, if athletes only train their body and don’t target the brain specifically, the brain does not activate muscles to their full capacity. This means that even the most elite, skilled athletes have room to improve, regardless of their strength training program.


According to a study published in Sports Medicine by Australian scientist Dr. Anthony Shield, the brain rarely activates all motor units in a muscle group at once, even if an athlete is pushing his or her muscles to their maximum. However, with repetitive strength training, the brain does learn to activate motor units in a more synchronous manner, and the deficit decreases over time. Nevertheless, it is unlikely for an athlete to achieve maximum strength with physical athletic training alone. If athletes wish to come close to their true athletic potential, they must find methods to more thoroughly activate motor units.


Fortunately, research indicates that athletes can train the brain to more effectively drive motor units through neurological training. At the beginning of a strength training regimen, it is common to experience rapid improvements in performance after just a week or two. It might seem that this improvement is due to muscle growth, but in reality, changes in muscle size do not typically appear until 3–5 weeks into training. A study published by Professor Toshio Moritani in the American Journal of Physical Medicine revealed that early strength gains actually result from the brain learning to optimally connect with the muscle — i.e. increased neural drive. Thus, if athletes add focused neurological training to their existing strength routines, they can see accelerated strength gains very rapidly.”




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