by Tim Floyd, Magnolia Masters

For the last half century as exercise scientists and coaches increased their knowledge and expertise with endurance sports training a primary focus was placed on the “metabolics.”   The skill set needed to be successful in an endurance race was largely seen as the athlete with the largest aerobic capacity. Athletes were conditioned along the understanding of “energy systems” with training meant to maximize aerobic and anaerobic capacities.  However, recent research indicates the brain’s large role in success or failure in competition and tends to be the primary limiting factor.  Research by exercise scientist Samuele Marcora demonstrated that not only is the brain the limiting factor in endurance competitions,[1] but it can also be trained to deliver increased gains in overall improvement.[2]

In the 2014 “Brain Endurance Training” study by Marcora, he trained new recruits to the British military on a spin bike to increase endurance.  The entire group received the same endurance training protocol and at the start of the training did a test to exhaustion on the spin bike. For the remainder of the study, one group was limited to the endurance training and the second group did the same training coupled with a mentally fatiguing task.  After 12 weeks another time to exhaustion test was performed.  The group that did the standard endurance training improved by 42% over their initial baseline.  The group that incorporated the “brain endurance training” improved by 126% over their initial baseline.  The hypothesis is the increased performance occurred because the brain perceived the time to exhaustion test as easier since it was no longer required to perform a mental demanding task at the same time.

The pace clock provides the perfect opportunity for the triathlete to improve their swim with “brain endurance training” and realize gains that are readily available with some adjustments in the way they approach workouts.  The athlete can do the math on the clock to know their pace, keep track of their intervals and laps completed all the while focusing on their stroke while swimming hard.  This is the level of engagement needed to get the most out of workouts.  The pace clock in swimming is a key tool for performance improvement and performs a large number of roles in a swim workout.  Swim coaches have used the pace clock commercially since the late 1950s when Doc Counsilman began to sell them.  The introduction of the pace clock into workouts allowed for precise interval swims.  The clock allows repeatable and reproducible intervals to increase or decrease the desired amount of intensity in a workout.  The pace clock measures the athletes performance by the second.  Next to a stop watch used by a coach in a workout that can measure to the hundredth of a second, there isn’t any other device a triathlete uses to measure performance that is more accurate than a pace clock.

When an athlete wears a smart watch to count laps and record times, a tempo trainer or an iPod to do to the mental work they should do themselves, they are limiting the amount of gains they could potentially make in the pool.  From a neuromuscular perspective, the changes in stroke mechanics, the increases in speed and efficiency happen when the athlete is focused, present  and engaged for every stroke.  If an athlete lets a device do the “mental” work for them, if they don’t focus on perfecting each stroke, then it is a wasted opportunity to improve.  With some very simple changes, engagement in the workout with the pace clock and increased mental focus there is the potential for substantial gains to be made.