Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Self Examined Swimmer Part III:

Be Excellent To Each Other, and Party On, Dude

Quick recap. If you’re here, you've hopefully read Part I and Part II of the series, leaving you with both a revelation (that you’re a swimmer, and not a hack) and a plateau (you’re good! But you don’t think you’re excellent). So we sit on the plateau.

The view is nice here. Heck, I could sit here happily. From here, I swim well, certainly well enough that I would never dare say my swim hurts my chances at performing well in a race. There are many excellent triathletes that win regularly who sit on this plateau with us. Again, nice view. I’ll share a story while we bask in the view.

If you've never had the pleasure of a deep water start to a race, I’d recommend seeking one out. They’re unique, in that when the gun goes off, there’s some decent spacing between the athletes already, and the washing machine effect is somewhat mitigated, allowing everyone to slip into a more natural rhythm and have a better swim. At one particular deep water start I was in, we all fanned out across the ‘line’ (it’s all kind of imaginary in the water, and nobody can stop you if you cross the line early anyway, it’s on your honor), and awaited the horn. Jokes were made about the cold water and mysterious warm pockets, whether or not we lubed properly, etc. All was well in the triathlon universe. The horn sounds and off we go. Normally I’ll sight every 10 or so strokes, and dutifully did so at about that time. I came up to peek and saw several swimmers about 50 yards ahead. I’m not exaggerating to make the story better, this was shocking – we started swimming about 20 seconds earlier and they were FAR ahead of me. A glance to my left and right on the next sight assured me I wasn't towing an anchor – I was in the front of the middle, but these dudes were porpoises disguised in neoprene and swim caps. How the heck were they doing that?

Well after the race I reviewed the splits of the day and cordoned off the top 10 or so guys in the wave I witnessed firsthand. For a 1500 meter swim (Olympic distance), the average porpoise swam just about 21 minutes. Not too shabby. That’s roughly a 1:17\100 yard pace. Leave current out of the conversation, and for the sake of argument let’s user the rule of thumb that a wetsuit gives you a 5 second per 100 yard advantage. Five seconds off 1:17 is 1:22 per 100 yards. Hey wait, that’s almost you, the article reader! But truth time, with the occasional sighting issues that pop up, that pace is probably even faster in reality. Why the heck did they go out so fast? What’s going on here?

Back to the porpoises. They were way out in front, seemingly almost immediately. There is, of course, only one way to pull that off, and that’s to swim fast right from the get go. This is where we use ourselves as a science project again. HOW FAST IS FAST? Good question, if you ask me. If you jump in the pool and I told you to swim your absolute fastest, what would happen? What distance would you ask to swim? 25? 50? Would you give me a blazing length followed by a flagging second, then stop after 50? Would you go 100 yards? Would your turnover per length increase, or just the tempo? Why does any of this matter anyway?

Again, back to the porpoises. Let’s figure this out using SCIENCE, bitches.

In a pool, imagine a dude who swims 240 yards in 3:00, or a 1:10\100 yard pace. That’s damn good. Why 240? Just go with me here. Then the dude swims 28 laps at a 1:25\100 pace. A little more down to earth. We've just watched the dude swim 1640 (aka 1500 meters – I told you to stay with me!) yards in a total time of 22:30. Slap the imaginary wetsuit on this dude for the 5 second per 100 yard discount for a total time discount of 1:23…and he swam 1500 in a hair over 21 minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, your porpoise, in the lab.

Why the sprint to start off? Well, because quite frankly, this isn't the only thing you’ll be doing in a race. You want an average pace that’s fast, but you don’t want to swim the majority of the distance at that pace, or you’ll zap yourself for the bike and run. Self examination time again. How do you train yourself to do this? The 28 laps at 1:25\100 isn't a problem, you do that all the time. You have that locked in, it’s automatic, you know that pace, you have that song stuck in your head forever. If you swim a few times a week you should be able to do that easy peasy. Lemon. Squeezy. So your challenge is to
  1. Go from a dead stop, warmed up heart rate to a 1:10\100 yard pace
  2. Hold said pace for 4 laps (200 yards)
  3. In one lap gradually slow down to 1:25\100 laps
  4. Hold that pace for 14 laps.

Oh right, Bill and Ted. I promised this is about being excellent. Well, guess what, you are excellent. No, really! You have a beautiful stroke, a truly nice stroke. There’s only two things in the equation for how fast you’re swimming, and that’s distance per stroke (DPS) and stroke rate. You've done some really excellent work on DPS, so much so that it’s worth simplifying your life again and realizing that the only way you’re going to swim that 1:10\100 pace is to increase the number of strokes. That’s it. You’re going to have to push the same amount of water faster while kicking faster to keep the timing right. If you want to get better at something, you practice it.

Get that video camera out, because you will probably lose some of that beautiful graceful stroke when you start increasing your stroke and kick rate. Don’t. Just increase the rate. You could use a Finis Tempo Trainer to increase that rate, you could use a waterproof ipod and songs with a particular tempo, be creative. What you’re getting used to is your ‘top gear’, eventually to the point where you can call on it and your body will hit that tempo because it knows the feel of it. It feels GOOD to go fast, but you have to learn what it feels like and get comfortable with it. It’s not a comfortable feeling to swim that fast, but you have to get comfortable with it. Make sense? All those swim workouts you have that have interval sets on T plus 5 seconds suddenly make a whole lot of sense. Swim practice is now making sure you keep that beautiful form (yay video camera!) and getting used to a high stroke rate, and the sensation of coming out of it.
A disclaimer – this “gear” will disappear completely without regular, focused workouts to keep it in place. If you haven’t been practicing it, don’t call on it for race day, you’ll just exhaust yourself off the bat and have a bad swim. Just swim your balanced pace, and enjoy the view again.

Party on, indeed. You’re excellent,dude.

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