Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Great picture from last year

Taken by Gus Ellison prior to the Mossman sprint in Norwalk, 2013

The Self Examined Swimmer Part II:The Road to Good : Becoming Your Own Science Project

In part one of this series, you left behind Adult Onset Swimmers Anonymous and started swimming in clearer waters. Well, maybe not clearer, since the average rec center\YMCA pool is over-chlorinated and full, maybe we shouldn't focus on that so much. Let's leave it at "I'm glad I'm fit and healthy and have such a strong immune system to fend off anything".

Have a good look in the proverbial mirror and look at your stroke. Look at it! Wait, you can't? On the bike, you have a speedometer, cadence sensor, possibly a heart rate sensor, maybe a power meter. On the run you have a stopwatch, maybe a pace watch, GPS, heart rate, elevation, calorie counter. You use these tools to create workouts that focus on areas that require improvement, plan a schedule that includes these workouts, and over time you see improvements. In the pool you have...a stop watch? A method to count laps? Your way of improving is to look at the clock and compare the last interval to the previous one, or worse yet, against some goal time you set for yourself. More symptoms of AOS Anonymous. Good news, you're not a member anymore, you're a swimmer, so the game is changing.

If you're going to get better at swimming, you're going to need a way to measure progress and a way to assess issues. You could certainly hire a coach or teacher, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's a lot of great things about that, and it works for most people.  However, if you're like me (lucky you, you awesome dude!) you have a full time job that starts early, no weekday free time until about 8:30, and a weekend made up of shuttling kids to activities and taking care of the honeydew list. This schedule doesn't jive with any of the coaches in my area, so I was forced to be my own coach. How? Well, that's the point of the article.

Punch onto and buy yourself a handheld waterproof video camera. There are several models available for well under $100. That's less than the price of a coach and I promise will be as valuable to you as anything you've ever bought for triathlon. Now hop over to Wal-Mart or Target and get a suction cupped plastic soap dish for a couple of bucks. This is your camera mount. I made a cutout in the bottom of the soap dish that allowed me to squeeze my camera in there and hold it in place. Use the suction cups to mount your rig to the pool lane wall. Congratulations, you now have the ability to assess your stroke. I'll bet your stroke doesn't look like you thought it did, does it?

You tell me what your average (not your sprint) time is and we'll figure out what to look for in your video. Paging the Amazing Kreskin...

1:30-2:00\100 yards:

Good news first, which is that there is some low hanging fruit on your stroke tree. MOST likely is that it's all coming from lifting your head when you breathe, which is the lynchpin to a whole mess of issues. You can see that you lift your head when you breathe in your video pretty easily...just note if both goggles come out of the water and you can see both your cheeks clearly. If this is the problem, you are causing a lot of issues for're pressing down on the water (as opposed to catching and pulling it) to lift your head, which is sinking your legs, flaring your chest, over-accentuating your roll, and slowing you down. It's like raising a sail off your head blowing you in the opposite direction you're trying to swim in. You need balance! The balance we're talking about here is fore\aft balance, specifically meaning you are higher with your chest than you are with your legs. Some call this 'sinking legs', and you hear a lot of cyclists with enormous calves and quads blaming their poor swim on their big legs. Okay, I'll grant you there are some people with chicken bones that can lay on their back in the water and have their legs float with ease, but the majority can't. There's two ways to get your legs up to the surface. One is to wear a wetsuit. That's not a bad solution, but it's not THE solution. THE solution is to learn to kick properly.  A wetsuit is not THE solution, because you are leaving a lot on the table - namely speed, timing, body position, get the point. Someone who can swim fast in a pool without a wetsuit can swim faster with a wetsuit. Why compromise?

There are three distinct flavors of the freestyle kick, the two beat, four beat, and six beat, with a beat referring to how many single foot kicks there are in a two arm stroke cycle. Drills? Nope, just grab a kickboard and start kicking. It may be exhausting at first, but you'll slowly work up to doing 200 yards and have something moderately propulsive. It may take a while, but it's a prerequisite to integrating it into your stroke. Integrating a non-propulsive kick that exhausts you physically is pointless to work with. Don't go on until you have a propulsive kick that you can hold for a long time.

Once you have a kick, I think it makes sense to start with the two beat kick, because the timing is very deliberate. I've seen two different explanations for the timing, debated by some very good swimmers on both sides. One view says you kick as you spear with your opposite arm. The other view says you kick on the same side as the arm pointed straight down in the middle of the pull. You could look at that and say they're essentially the same thing, and that's not untrue either. Whatever works, the point is that the kick is part of the timing mechanism for the body..

The four beat kick is really more of a drill, because it's not a balanced kick. It teaches your body independence, but it's hard to maintain for distance because it negates a lot of the roll. If you think about it logically, you kick twice per arm - meaning whichever foot starts first will always be kicking as you start your spear, regardless of the side. It's worth learning and mastering though, because the more things you can do with your body in the water, the better swimmer you are.

The six beat kick is the most common kick pattern, because the body sort of does it naturally after you learn proper kick timing. You may equate it to a flutter kick, but it's not quite the same thing - a flutter kick has no specific timing to it, it's just move the feet as fast as you can. The start of the cycle is the same as the two beat kick, and has a waltz feel to it - ONE two three, ONE two three. If you're musically inclined, this can be really fun to do, just pick a song that has this time signature and sing it in your head while you go.

Once the kick is truly integrated into your stroke, you'll notice that magically, your legs don't sink any more. Amazing, huh? With non sinking legs, it's much easier to maintain proper head position, looking down and rolling one goggle out of the water quietly to breathe. You can now easily swim 1:30/100 yards without trying really hard. You're starting to get good!

1:20-1:30\100 yards

This is the range I began to call 'death by a thousand pin pricks'. There are no more BIG changes or flaws in your stroke, but there are many very little things that add up to something noticeable. No one thing, when corrected will make a consistent improvement, so it's difficult to tell when you've actually done anything - which is why now, more than even before, you need that video camera.  You should be looking for all the little things that you know you should and shouldn't do...
  • head down
  • a full stroke, finishing at the back
  • no flaring of the head or hands
  • quiet, quick arm entry on recovery
  • even, non hurried breathing with quiet head turn
  • no crossing the center line
  • good streamline
  • hips high
  • no snaking of the body
  • a kick size no bigger than your shoulder width

Of course, there is a gorilla in the room, and that's a strong, early catch. There are myriad articles, books and videos dedicated to the topic that put it out of scope to discuss here, but suffice to say it's extremely important. What you're eventually going to end up with is a full body stroke that has no dead points, just an even distribution of propulsion.

Better than 1:20?

You know what, get out of here. You now have a great tool with the video camera, but you don't belong in this article. Skip to Part 3, please, we'll see you there. And shame on you for calling your stroke lousy if you're swimming 1:20\100Y, you're just fishing for complements. I bet you think your 320W FTP and 6:30 marathon pace are pretty lousy, too, huh? I don't suppose your last name is 'Carfrae' or 'Alexander', is it? MmmKay? Move along.

The Last Paragraph

Ok, if you've made it here, you're now swimming somewhere between 1:20-1:30\100 yards. If you're not, go back to the chart above,  find your pace, and work on that stuff until you move up to the last category. Now you, my friend, are definitely, unarguably, 'Good'. Congratulations! Go out there and take your well earned place among the front of the pack at most -if not all- of the events you participate in. Well, the middle of the front of the pack, or the MOFOP (how stupid are the acronyms in triathlon??!). The FOFOP are pretty 'Excellent', and they are still faster than you. The good news is you might already BE excellent and not know it, but you'll have to read Part 3 of the series to find out what the heck I'm talking about. Stay tuned!

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'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'. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Race Report: Mighty Cow Challenge, Redding, CT

The format was a 5K followed by an opening ceremony, then a half marathon. The road laid to waste wound through the punishing terrain of Redding, where dirt roads are thruways. The weather was poetically beautiful for running, a hint of sun peeking through fluffy clouds with temperatures in the low 60s, a slight gust of wind chilling the beads of sweat on the brow for relief from the internal engine heat.

We began the 5K with few of us knowing quite how to pace ourselves - run a true 5K and hope the break is sufficient to recover? Run at half marathon pace and treat it as a warmup? I did a hybrid, starting out conversational with a new friend I'd met through local training and shifting gears to running comfortably quick, but not all out. Good, long strides at tempo heart rate. Turned out pretty smart, because the course finished on an abruptly steep incline that if taken at full speed would have burned a few matches for the longer leg ahead. The watch said I ran a 7:10\mm pace, the official results say a 7:20 for 22:41, and I overheard the timer say he started the clock late for the 5K because he was confused. I was happy to be in the mix up front, with everyone ahead of me within sight and therefore within catch the whole time. I, the charging rhino with a body that has never screamed to be a runner's body, was running nonetheless, and I was thrilled with the first leg.

We started the half marathon portion with a quick loop around the farm, where I should have busted through the corral and moved up to the pace group, but I enjoyed myself instead by whooping it up with the sizable and fun crowd, clapping along and yelling like a loony. From there I don't remember much until about mile three, where I had scouted that it would be a good time to take a gel for a caffeine boost to conquer some coming hills. I was moving along pretty well at my goal (7:30/mm) pace and the hills weren't giving me any trouble. Some runners with more typical running physiques were not getting ahead of me, and some were falling behind. I decided that I belonged in the group, and that I was out for a good race, not just an extended training session.

Around mile nine came the longest hill of the day, and a twinge in my calf was enough to slow me to a walk for thirty seconds to crest it, knowing there was a long downhill on packed dirt coming up to cushion me for a while of recovery. Something in my head was reminding me that I was quite near the end of having run an actual half marathon already, and that the remaining miles were going to be some uncharted race territory, as I've never raced anything longer. I tired quickly and began to take short walk breaks more frequently, about four of them if memory serves, for about three minutes total. I was convincing myself the fatigue was too much, the hills too brutal, the course too long. I finally fought back against the devil on the shoulder with a mile to go, hills be damned (why were there so MANY?) we're going to run this out. My mind was back in the ballgame but the reality was I had tired significantly, and the best my body could manage for a kick was an 8:00\mm pace. I was toast indeed, and miles 10 through 12 had brought my average pace above 8, which mentally beat me down. Where once I felt I was racing, I was beat up. I crossed the finish line with very little in the tank physically, and of that I was proud and happy. The course had its way with me, and I gave it mental applause for a job well done.

I drank some chocolate milk and water, chatted with a few friends, and took a peek at the results to learn that the course was not merciful to anyone; no one crested 1:20, and only four crested 1:30, which is not a 'fast' half by any measure. I place 71st overall of 480, an achievement for me. The race was hard, the festivities and organization masterful, and I'll come back to see if I can do better.

A strong day. No reversion, pushing the mean.