Vestibuwhatsit?

Posted: March 17, 2011 in Swim
Tags: ,

My swim coach dropped a new brain nugget last weekend during our Masters Swim practice.  During our workout she had us do a drill where we swam four strokes in front crawl before flipping for four more strokes on our back and vice versa.  This, she explained, was to work on and improve our vestibular motor control’.  Huh?  What the hell is that?  Seriously…she made that up, right?  Whatever the case, this particular drill made me feel pretty awkward in the water (something I am not accustomed to) as well as making me just a little dizzy afterwards.  Why is that?

"Pass the Q-Tip..."

With a little more investigation I learned that the vestibular system in the brain contributes to balance in most mammals and to the sense of spatial orientation.  It is, in essence, the sensory system that provides the leading contribution about movement and sense of balance.  Huh?  Well, all living organisms monitor their environment and one important aspect of that environment is gravity and the orientation of the body with respect to gravity. In addition, animals that loco mote must be able to adjust their orientation with respect to self generated movements, as well as forces that are exerted upon them from the outside world.  The vestibular system performs these essential tasks.  It engages a number of reflex pathways that are responsible for making compensatory movements and adjustments in body position. It also engages pathways that project to the cortex to provide perceptions of gravity and movement.

The vestibular system in the brain does more than just allow us to stand upright, though, it maintains your balance as you move through space.  It coordinates information from the vestibular organs in the inner ear, the eyes, muscles and joints, fingertips and palms of the hands, pressors on the soles of the feet, jaw, and gravity receptors on the skin and adjusts heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tone, limb position, immune responses, arousal and balance.  Together with the cochlea (part of the auditory system) it constitutes the labyrinth of the inner ear, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear.  As our movements consist of rotations and translations (as it is with swimming – particularly in choppy water), the vestibular system comprises two components: the semicircular canal system, which indicate rotational movements; and the otoliths, which indicate linear accelerations.  The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control our eye movements, and to the muscles that keep us upright.  The projections to the former provide the anatomical basis of the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which is required for clear vision; and the projections to the muscles that control our posture are necessary to keep us upright.  Who knew?

So this ‘flip-flop drill’ (what I will affectionately refer to it as from now on) she had us doing in the pool is to assist us in the development of these specific motor skills come time when we may find ourselves trying to function effectively in choppy or rough water (ie. swim mass starts).  Dysfunctions in the vestibular system can cause anxiety or panic attacks, a need for self-stimulation, abnormalities in muscle tone, difficulty defecating, teeth grinding and chin tapping, hand flapping, academic problems, drooling, etc. All things you DON’T want to be experiencing while trying to swim…well, aside from the difficulties in defecating which would be rather beneficial to swimmers I would think.  Exercises that activate a wide range of inputs to the vestibular system (like we did today) have been found to be effective in reducing or eliminating vestibular problems.  So what’ya know?  My coach wasn’t just making it up just to justify her torturing us in the pool early on a Sunday morning. 

Now, typically, as I mentioned, I don’t experience much anxiety or difficulties while swimming in open water (be it training swims or races)…but after today’s ‘flip-flop drill’ I also recognize that there is the chance of this possibly happening at some point.  So, effective immediately, I will begin throwing this new drill into my personal swim workouts throughout the week…you know, because it couldn’t hurt.

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Comments
  1. Aquaman says:

    Wow that’s a lot of information to take in…. Who was coaching?

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