USRPT part 2 – Neurological Fatigue

One of the defining characteristics of USRPT is its adherence to the onset of neurological fatigue as the determining factor in improved performance endurance. This is in contrast to much of the traditional theory that alludes to acidosis as the limiting factor and by which suggests a training paradigm steeped in its accumulation as the perfect antidote!

As a swimmer I have taken part in many lactate sets; as a developing (come regurgitating) coach I have administered many lactate sets – the results have been conspicuously similar every time – sheer unadulterated pain, discomfort – and some of the slowest posted 100m times of mine or my athletes careers. At no point have I seen improvements in these sets, a better perceived tolerance to the pain, times anywhere near acceptable for a 100m sprint on the 5th repetition… Not to mention the recovery time required before the next ‘proper’ training session can commence…

Within USRPT sets this level of fatigue is pretty much deemed obsolete – not just because of the short work:rest ratio (although this is one element) but largely because of its concurrence with neuro-science: that a persons physical limits are set by their conscious mind and not by their inherent strength or endurance levels. We have all heard of super human feats of strength (lifting cars when lives depend on it etc) and claims that at any one point we are only utilising 30% of our actual potential…. and this makes sense – as an evolving species we wouldn’t last too long if we knew how to actually go at 100% whenever we wanted!!!! Neurological fatigue is therefore deemed as the reason behind the feelings commonly referred to as ‘lactate monster’ or the ‘elephant on your back’ down the last 15m of a race – and that it is a protective mechanism by which the brain senses unfamiliar territory (which would be the case in a 100m sprint if the body is just used to hours of slow swimming each week) and begins to shut down the signals that it is sending to the muscles to contract.

So if this is the case, then how does USRPT combat it? Simple, by making ‘failure’ your new favourite phrase!!!

A USRPT set is designed so that the swimmer has an objective to keep on repeating a set distance (usually 25m or 50m) at a set time (200m backstroke race pace for example). The concept is that because the repeat distance is low (50m) compared to the race distance (200m) and the swimmer gets circa 20 seconds rest after each repeat, then a large number of repeats should be attainable and in essence ‘familiarising’ the athlete swimming at that pace (and allowing technique to be taught at the correct appropriate velocity). The term failure is embraced because that is the point at which the swimmer is no longer able to meet the required time for the repeat – and this point is deemed neurological fatigue because the brain has been unable to process the mechanical and technical demands required to continue propelling the body at that velocity. Once a failure has been reached, the next repetition is missed so that an extra portion of recovery can be had and the swimmer can re enter the set a bit fresher and potentially increase the number of repeats at pace further.

This is very important in comparison to traditional sets – whereby a set amount of repeats is programmed – and the swimmer may fatigue mid way through the set and continue with compromised technique and therefore increasing the onset of acute fatigue and even potential injury. In the case of USRPT the breakdown of the neurological system is identified immediately by the athletes inability to produce the quality of swim required and training is stopped to allow the adequate recovery to take place. This is controlled further by the allowance of 3 total fails in a set or 2 fails in a row being the determining factor in the cessation of the set as recognition that no further good work on that particular skill is to be had that session.

As Rushall cites: It is not the quantity of trials that elicits skill improvements; it is the quantity of successful trials that is important.

When the body is in neurological fatigue, no learning can take place – and for all improvements the body has to learn to do things better or faster or longer. By adhering to these principles the amount of quality work that can be achieved is far greater than that in traditional programmes (although general mileage may be less) as the amount of learning opportunities are heightened. It is also aligned perfectly with the principle of overload – so key to performance improvement… but more of that in part 3!!!

If you haven’t tried USRPT read some of my Ultra Short posts – these are a great way of getting into the mindset and getting to see/feel neurological fatigue and how the fail-rest principle can get you back into a set that normally you may have thought was dead in the water!!


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