This time of year we spend a good amount of time focusing on technique. Technique is all about being more efficient at what you are doing. Learning to swim with less drag, run with less bouncing. When it comes to racing, improving technique is what is going to give you the biggest bang for the buck come race time. Gear is good, and as triathletes, we are addicted to anything that can make us faster or lighter. I would argue that if you spent a fair amount of time training technique, you would far surpass the gains you made by dropping a pound off of your bike. On top of that, technique work is a lot cheaper than a new pair of Zipp wheels. The problem with technique work is that it can be tedious and boring. The bigger problem is that a lot of the people that I talk to try to do technique work focusing on a series of things. Take the run for example: Proud chest, high cadence, reduce the bouncing. If you are thinking about all of these things at the same time while you are out there doing technique work, you are not going to get the benefit that you want to from the workout. The are several keys to technique work:
- Mentally learning how to do something correctly.
- Re-training the muscles in the body to do work in a new way.
- Training one aspect at a time.
How do you learn? Sounds like a pretty basic question but when you get down to it, this is an important one. I learn by watching someone else. I can read all I want and have someone tell me that this is the way that you are supposed to do something but unless I see it, I cannot get my brain to learn something. Others go the other way and want to hear it described or read it. You need to know how you learn a new action. Sometimes a good way to do this is take up a new sport or hobby or go to a clinic in one of the sports that you are weaker in. My big technique focus this winter was on swimming. I swam as a kid but it was only so I could go water-skiing, so technique was not all that important to me. I downloaded a couple of videos of Ian Thorpe and a couple other top level swimmers and watched what they did. I got in to the pool and watched some of the better swimmers where I swim. I watched the videos in slow motion so that I could see all of the motions and break them down into areas that I could think about and work on. My problem was in the reach and catch. I was not getting over on my side enough so my reach was short and flat. Low elbow instead of high elbow. I then thought about the different sections that I wanted to improve and tried to visualize myself doing them properly. These were the areas that I had to concentrate on when doing my technique work. I watched the videos so much that I could watch them in my head and picture myself swimming the correct way.
I got in the pool and ended up trying to boil the ocean all at once. I was thinking about how far over on my side I was, where my elbow was, and how far my reach was. I got done with a set of laps and thought about whether all of it felt better and I could not even remember what I had actually done. Skip the fact that I had it right in my head. I had tried to fix everything at once which is just not making things any easier. When you are doing technique work, the goal is to retrain the muscles to fire in a different way than they are used to. To do this, you need to perform the act slowly and correctly many times so that the muscles understand how to perform. You need to break the movement in to very basic steps and master them before you go and try to put them all together. When an orchestra practices, do they all get together the first time and try to play the song? No, each person practices for hours before they come together and play. I was trying to pull off learning three new things all at once.
I had to break my swim stroke down and think about how it should be and then link that to actually doing it. That is what focus is all about. Linking the brain and the muscles together. When you are learning a new action, you need to focus on doing it slowly first and only when you have mastered doing it slowly, can you start to speed up the action. If you try to swim at race pace when you are trying to tweak something, you are going to revert back to the way that the body knows how to do it. Unfortunately, this is not the right way and training at that pace is only going to work against you if you are not ready for it. I had to work on swimming on my side and focus on that alone while I was swimming and doing drills and I had do it slowly to train the brain and muscles to work together. I started doing drills that had one focus. After I drilled, I swam laps, just thinking about that one thing and nothing else. My technique days became more productive and I started to see the changes that I wanted to. The thing that I realized when I shifted my focus was that the rest of my stroke did not really matter as long as I was focused on that one thing. What you are not focusing on does not matter because you are not training it into memory. While I was focusing on swimming on my side, my kick was not great, but that was not part of my focus so I was not training bad form into muscle memory.
I highly recommend that you try to learn the action in your head before you try to apply it to something. It serves as a mental map for you to refer back to as you work on something. The map helps the brain control more of the motion of your body and helps you learn the technique faster. Sure, you could skip the mental part and just try to do it, but try to visualize it in your head first and see if it helps you create the action more easily. The brain runs the orchestra, it needs to have that vision to make things run smoothly.
Doing technique work takes time and mental energy. Giving yourself a simple focal point gives you the ability to learn that motion without distraction. In doing this, you can make small changes in your technique that pay big dividends come race day.