Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Self Examined Swimmer Part I: The First Step is Admitting You (Don't) Have A Problem

Have you ever heard the term "adult onset swimmer"? The way it's worded I think it's supposed to imply that swimming is some sort of affliction brought on by age, and if you listen to most swimming adults complain about how 'lousy' they are, you'd be hard pressed to disagree. I imagine a room full of adults in swimwear sitting a church assembly room somewhere solemnly standing up and saying something like this:

"Hi, my name is Dave, and I've been swimming lousy for 5 years."

"Hi, Dave," says the room full of swimmers.

"I joined Adult Onset Swimmer Anonymous, after I started swimming in triathlons. When I started swimming, I did it just to get to the bike, and could barely make it across a pool..."

I'll stop, because most of you could probably fill in the story from there. By my estimation, adults who swim regularly are either part of a masters group, a triathlete, or both, which I'll bucket as a master for purposes of delineation. Among triathletes, most say they swim 'lousy', with the definition of 'lousy' being anyone who believes they swim 'slowly', which is to say they don't swim as fast as the folks at the front in a given race. This is of course a poor interpretation of statistics - show me the 'slowest' Olympic runner and I'll show you a pretty speedy individual - but when we're talking about triathletes (which we are) then we're talking about people that don't settle for adequacy if they see room for improvement. If you're coming out in the back of the pack, then the prescription is simple...just swim more. Really. You'll get to the middle that way. Come back and finish this article after you've been swimming for a while. Still here? Ok, if you're regularly competing in triathlons, you're not slow, you're pretty darn fit, and you're among a very small group of people who use a pool for fitness. Be proud of that, and try to realize you're a swimmer, not just a triathlete who happens to swim. Let's leave behind the term 'lousy' , replace it with 'adequate', and get to defining 'good' and 'excellent'. Deep breath. Feel better? Now that you're a swimmer, let's talk.

If you swim adequately, you're swimming the crawl the entire distance of the races you race and come out somewhere in the middle of the pack. I'm going to channel the Amazing Kreskin...something's coming to me...you've figured out a stroke you call 'It' that has the following traits:
  1. You can 'settle into It' pretty quickly
  2. It doesn't require a lot of training to maintain
  3. It sees a noticeable benefit from both a wetsuit or a pull buoy
  4. It doesn't tax you tremendously
  5. It falls somewhere between 1:40 and 2:00 per 100 yards in a pool, not including flip turns since you don't do flip turns!

Did I get it right? Creepy? Those are the characteristics of the middle of the pack in a triathlon. That's adequate, by every measure of the word. There are some very good triathletes with an adequate stroke that win their age groups, and occasionally place overall, owing to a strong bike and run.

Here's where some people stop the conversation, using the rationale that it takes a lot of time to improve your swim, and the yield for that work isn't high enough to make it worth it. These people make up the population of that AOS Anonymous meeting, and it's the source of the misery in the room. The argument sounds something like, "In order to become a better swimmer, I'll have to swim at least 3 hours a week or more, which is a lot of time that isn't worth it. If I take the same time and bike or run, I'll improve more there. It's not worth it to work on the swim." Such misery.  I disagree completely, and here's why; In a sprint distance, improving your stroke to 1:30 per 100 yards from 1:40 per 100 will yield 1:28 over a half mile distance (obviously half that for a quarter mile distance, depending on your race). Let's say you put that same amount of work into the bike and improved your FTP from 250 to 275 watts (which is a lot!). 25 watts over 12.5 miles yields an improvement of about a minute. Let's say you dropped your run pace 30 seconds a mile (also a lot!) - that's 1:30 for a sprint. Hmm...looks like the work is worth it no matter where I put it in....interesting. I used a sprint because doubling it gives you roughly an Olympic distance measurement, but the illustration is the same.


Back to our imaginary room full of miserable adults in swimwear that don't call themselves swimmers. Leave the room. You're cured. You're a swimmer now. There's work to do, and now that you have the right mindset, you can get it done. In the next article, ' The Road to Good : Becoming Your Own Science Project', we'll discuss how to self-diagnose our stroke and self-prescribe the work necessary to improve it, and we'll cap it off with an examination of Bill and Ted's philosophical masterpiece, 'Be Excellent To Each Other, and Party On, Dude'.