Sunday, December 31, 2006

Losing It: The Difficulty Building and Keeping Muscle as We Age

The process of losing muscle has a name, it’s called sarcopenia. For most of us loss of muscle due to aging starts around our mid-forties but for an unfortunate few it can start as early as twenty five. In the past few years sarcopenia has received more attention by the medical community because of the number of HIV patients who suffer from it. Several studies and programs looking at the effects of hormone-replacement therapy, and the development of drugs to directly target the biochemical causes of sarcopenia, are in progress such as those sponsored by the U.S. National Center for Research Resources (NCRR Reporter, Summer 2000, Muscle Building). But until the time comes when alternative treatments are available we’re on our own.

By fifty the average person will have lost 10% of his or her muscle mass along with a corresponding decrease in strength, and by seventy this loss will have risen to 40%. The resulting decline in strength is the primary cause of the high incidence of accidental falls seen among the elderly. It also contributes to our institutionalization when motor skills become insufficient to deal with normal day-to-day living requirements. Furthermore sarcopenia is linked to increased tendencies towards obesity, glucose intolerance, osteoporosis, and the inability to regulate body temperature; all effects of having less muscle – the body’s most metabolically active tissue – present.

There are likely several factors contributing to sarcopenia: loss of nerve cells from aging or HIV causing the associated muscle cells to be lost as well, diminished hormone levels, an impaired immune system, or diets with insufficient protein, all inhibit muscle growth and contribute to its loss. But by consensus the primary cause of muscle loss is simply not using them. The old saying “if you don’t use it you lose it” applies here in spades. Even more alarming for women studies have shown there's a strong
correlation between sarcopenia and those who have lower levels of musculature to begin with. So the trick is to ‘bank’ some muscle when young and then maintain it by regular exercise as you grow older. Study after study has shown physical activity, with weight training of sufficient intensity being cited as particularly effective regardless of one’s age, is the key to reducing the rate of inevitable muscle loss as we grow older.

For me this subject is very relevant. Always skinny as a boy I gradually built up my body until by my early thirties I topped out at around 88 kilos or about 195 lbs. For me it was how my body moved and handled physical challenges which justified the extra work in its maintenance, though it clearly paid for itself in my social life. By my early forties, however, work and a decreased emphasis on dating resulted in my paying less attention to my training. Then my recent back problems. When I finally got back on track and recommenced regular exercise I was shocked to discover in five or six short years I’d lost all the extra musculature I had built up over the prior fifteen plus. I was right back at square one at the age of forty six. It is not a good feeling. In one of my life’s great ironies I’m back in the same sport where as a child I told myself, “wait until I get some muscle” and find myself nearly four decades later still saying the very same thing. Life, unfortunately, sometimes does come full circle.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Some More Stroke Instruction

Again last night Brad offered video stroke analysis to the few who showed up for practice. I sneaked in at the end to have Brad take another look at my backstroke to see if the changes I made after Wednesday’s critiques were moving me in the right direction. Reassuringly I saw a definite improvement in the ‘connectedness’ of my stroke and kick through my core. Enough improvement for Brad, after a couple of cursory comments on the need to coordinate the hips better with my stroke, to move his attentions to another problem. It was clear looking at the video my catch is going too deep and causing problems. First thing it’s forcing me to spend a part of my stroke bringing my hand up before finishing instead of always moving parallel to the wall, meaning a significant portion of my stroke is wasted pushing up instead of back. The second flaw is the deep initial pull creates a very long stroke which limits my maximum stroke rate. Lastly the deep catch requires significant and conscious muscular effort from me. Each time my hand enters the water I can feel the pull across my chest and shoulders as I accelerate my arm stroke – but doing so causes me to neglect my other arm’s recovery, necessitating the opposing arm to be ‘snatched’ out of the water late in the stroke cycle to catch up. Broadly speaking I’ve been swimming one stroke at a time instead of maintaining a proper rotation of both arms. We hope by making my pull shallower and bringing it back more parallel to my side will allow a better connected and smoother stroke which in turn will improve my overall balance and stroke rate. Not to mention providing more propulsive power.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Swimming Using Body Core Strength

Last night we had a fairly easy practice as we all recovered from the rigors of Christmas. Because of the typically low attendance at practice during Christmas break Coach Brad decided to schedule some individual stroke instruction with video for those who were interested. After viewing my effort he offered three critiques: one my breaststroke kick was not properly connected with my pull; the next my second kick in my fly was occurring before my hands started my recovery stroke and was therefore too early; and lastly, my hips in backstroke were swinging out rather than rotating around my body’s axis. Now I’m well aware of the flaws in my dolphin kick, it being a work in progress, but I’ll concentrate a little bit more to better time my second kick with the start of my recovery stroke. The other two critiques; my breaststroke kick and swinging hips in backstroke, are a result of not using my body’s core properly. Coach Suzanne has also noted this problem with my swimming, but then the fact I have a problem with core strength and posture isn’t a particularly well kept secret, it being the very reason I’m writing this blog. I’m confident between yoga, regular stretching, and lots more practice and strength training I’ll eventually overcome but until then I’ll just have to keep it in mind as I swim. One excellent exercise for the timing of my breast stroke kick was a new drill I also learned last night, where your hands are clasped behind the back as if they’d been handcuffed; all while doing the breast kick and trying to breathe. I’ll start using this one right away as it really does emphasize the correct timing involved. I could definitely feel the effort in my hips and lower back.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Running and Weight Control

There is no better exercise to lose weight than running. It is the king of weight reduction activities. In part I think it’s because carrying excess weight and running are antithetical to each other: every extra pound you carry means four more pounds of impact on your knees and joints each and every stride you take. The runner in the picture is Alan Culpepper, currently the No.1 ranked U.S. marathoner, and he looks that way because he doesn’t carry any surplus fat. If he carried a single kilo extra he’d immediately notice the difference in his running. The good thing is you don’t need to run a marathon to lose weight; in fact, you don’t need to run at all. True! It’s very simple: to burn calories you just need to move your body over a distance using your own efforts. Doing so consumes energy which the body obtains by converting carbohydrates into calories. If not enough carbohydrates are readily available the body will go to its reserves and burn some fat. Yet most people don’t know walking a 10k will burn the same amount of calories as running it. Walking’s problem is the time factor. If you jog 10k in an hour it will probably take close to three hours to do it walking. In today’s world finding the time for an hour of exercise is hard enough, finding three hours is simply impossible. There’s another big advantage to running; running works the body and the body responds by building more muscle, strengthening bones, and improving its aerobic capacity. It makes you better, healthier. If you can’t run quite yet all is not lost – you can get some of the extra benefits of running by walking ‘briskly’ at a pace faster than normal walking pace. Eventually your ‘brisk’ walking pace will morph into fartleks (alternate walking, jogging, and running) until you naturally end up running the entire way (running being the most efficient way of moving quickly your body will want to run).

In a quick perusal of the internet it seems the standard recommendation is to aim for forty to fifty klicks a week. That’s quite a bit of running. If you run an average of 10k every time out it means running four or five times a week and, at least for me, that’s more than just fitness. Besides, running that much means you can’t do valuable cross-training in other areas. I even see articles which point out our bodies will start to burn stored fat after running more than ninety minutes, though it’s hard to see how that particular fact is applicable to people looking to lose weight. Trust me here, if you can schedule a 1½ to 2 hour run you don’t have a weight problem! Every kilometer run means about 60 calories burned (100 calories/mile). With around 3,500 calories in a pound of fat it’ll take sixty klicks running to burn away one of them away. If you ran a more reasonable thirty klicks a week you’d lose about a kilo a month, or over twenty pounds a year. For most people this amount of weight loss would make for a great year. Also don’t forget the other half of the equation is diet, which is another complete topic on its own. But for now consider just excluding soda pop, potato chips/fries, and candy bars from your diet. At roughly 150 calories each serving the average American consumes over 1,000 calories weekly from these three ‘foods’ or another pound of fat a month. That’s well over thirty pounds a year from some running and cutting out junk food. A final note for everyone to remember to walk. Walk instead of drive to the convenience store, take the stairs over the elevator, go for a walk around the block before going to bed; the extra kilometer or two each time will add up over a month to some real calorie consumption. It’ll save some gas too!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Massage Therapy Bikram’s Style

With the hectic pace of Christmas pressing on me I skipped both my yoga sessions last week and it was a mistake. I’ve missed maybe a dozen or so of my twice weekly sessions over the past couple of years, always attending at least one session every week even if it meant going to another Bikram’s college when traveling, and had forgotten how much I rely upon yoga. I’ve pushed myself and my body pretty hard over the past few months and have been rather pleased with how it has coped with all the extra physical work. Sometimes I forget I only started swimming a year ago in a state of actual physical disability, dependent on large doses of anti-inflammatories and pain killers just to get through each day. So this morning sore and tired and feeling my age I finally went to Bikram’s for a session and struggled with even basic postures throughout the hour and a half. But I left refreshed if still tired, my muscles relaxed, and my minor aches and pains gone. Yoga has become my masseuse and at my age I should not stay away for very long.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Have You Ever Played the Game of Swolf?

Coach Brad introduced this ‘game’ to our group about a month ago but true to form I’m only now starting to comprehend what it’s about, all due to reading an explanation of this drill’s whys and wherefores in Maglischo’s book ‘Swimming Fastest’. In his section on stroke technique Maglischo suggests using this drill to optimize the relationship between your stroke length and stroke rate and explains its importance. In a brief summary a longer stroke normally indicates better technique and thus a more efficient one, while your rate shows your stroke’s speed. The higher your stroke rate, however, the shorter your stroke length becomes as you become progressively less efficient. Somewhere in between your most technically perfect but slowest stroke and simply flailing as fast as possible will be your optimum combination. Finding this point for each event you plan race is clearly of benefit to swimming your fastest possible times. Maglischo takes several pages to explain this and does so far better than I. His analysis of competitive swimming is very comprehensive, if you’re at all curious about how to improve all facets of your racing I can highly recommend his book.

The objective of swolf is to reduce your stroke count (think of your drives), or your time (think of your puts), or even better reduce both at the same time; and this similarity to golf is the reason for the name. The book uses a 50 meter free as an example so I adopted a slower version of it as my ‘par’ (imagine a local pitch & put course rather than Pebble Beach). I did nine ‘holes’ (reps) because, well because at this stage of my conditioning I’m not going to do eighteen of anything. My results for my first game of swolf were:

Hole Par/Bogey
  1. 0
  2. +1
  3. 0
  4. -2
  5. +6
  6. 0
  7. +3
  8. +4
  9. +4
Aside from that eagle creeping in there and a couple of extra pars it bears a remarkable resemblance to my golfing score cards. The first thing I noticed doing this set was the amount of conscious effort it took to actually change my stroke rate. I aimed for reps at my estimated 200 free race pace and for the most part I was within a second of the desired speed. The only two times were on the fifth rep when I deliberately increased my rate by four strokes, and in the eighth rep where I deliberately tried to lengthen my stroke despite increasing fatigue; both of which resulted in adding another second to my time. My ‘eagle’ came about when I reduced my stroke rate and found the small change had virtually no impact on my swimming speed. It was interesting to note as I started to get tired my last three reps showed significant increases in stroke rate. Clearly my body finds swimming at a faster stroke rate with less technique to be preferable to the effort of swimming a technically correct stroke. A most damning indictment of my overall strength - I’ll have to work harder in my workouts.

Golf's own version of swolf, and just as ugly.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The New Experience of Power Lifting

Ever since I started lifting weights way back when I ran the intention was to build up my overall physique and endurance. Weight lifting for endurance consists of moderate weights but many repetitions, typically around 20 to 25. An overall body workout, like the name implies, works all the major muscle groups. In the program I used for years there were fifteen different exercises to do each set, with three sets making up the workout. Normally I would complete the entire session in around an hour and a quarter. Now I’m using a weight regime designed for swimmers which employs cycles and splits the workouts between muscle groups – I feel very sophisticated. My present cycle is intended to develop ‘power’, the ability for short, fast movements. There are at most only four exercises per set, and the number of reps for each exercise can go from twelve to as low as two. I can finish an entire ‘power’ workout in under forty minutes, and that includes about two minutes each set to change my bench’s configuration. As I’m not gung ho about weights I find this marvelous! On the other hand the amount of weight I’m using each exercise has gone up significantly. The end result is a completely different workout. When I lift weights for endurance I’m fully recovered within half an hour of finishing and, so long as I don’t exercise later on the same day, can go on with my daily chores without any noticeable impact. After one of these power workouts, however, I feel a definite fatigue which remains with me for most of the day. All from such a relatively short period of exercise … quite amazing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Racing and Finding Balance in Life

A teammate earlier expressed an interest I swam on my own in addition to our Hyack practices, but he shouldn’t think it that unusual. When you read about the top master swimmers they all swim mileage approaching if not matching competitive senior levels – the thrice-weekly practices Hyack Masters schedule not being close to enough for allowing proper competitive training regimes. Likely his puzzlement stems from the fact he can’t personally figure out, with a young family and all those obligations commensurate with being an adult himself, how or why anyone in Masters Swimming would want to swim more. An aside here: my teammate is an active blogger and one of his readers, a very good master swimmer from California, congratulates him on his race results in a most exuberant manner. After seeing the quality of Californian’s own posted times, however, I think I detect a little tongue-in-cheek in his generous accolades. To be fair, as a quiet Canadian I might just be misreading one very outgoing and gregarious American (there are a lot of them and frankly I find it irritating). Regardless, our Californian speedster would probably be impressed my teammate accomplishes what he does averaging just a couple of swims a week. Like my teammate most of us neither have the time nor the inclination to devote ourselves completely to our chosen activity in the way we need to achieve our ultimate best results. Living in today’s world, with all its wealth, fast transportation, and easily available information we have a virtually unlimited choice in what we do with our lives. Sometimes the sheer magnitude is overwhelming and finding the requisite balance difficult. Because I’m single and my swimming also provides needed therapeutic benefits I’m prepared to sacrifice a lot to continue with my present level of training, recognizing my own obligations make it unsustainable for very long. As I benefit from swimming I’ll persevere – at least for now. Intense athletics is best left to the young, not only because they are more physically able, but because they don’t have the host of commitments they’ll have later in life.

Years ago I took up running competitively precisely because I had nothing on my hands. Articling finished I was casting about for a new challenge and eventually settled on running, inspired by my father’s ability. So at twenty three years of age I started running competitively; well, not at first, as it takes time to get up to the mileage necessary for someone to compete in track. It took about a year for me to reach a hundred kilometers a week, a process much more difficult and prolonged than swimming, which likely will take less than half that time to reach a similar starting point. My original intentions were to compete in my father’s events; the 800 through to the mile, but unfortunately my talents were insufficient for this. I never came close to approaching four minutes for the 1,500 much less this magical time for the mile, and failing a sufficiency of pure speed I consequently found myself dabbling in the longer distance steeplechase and 5,000 meters. Later on, in an effort to improve my tactics for these same events, coach entered me into the only 10,000 meter event I’ve ever raced. I felt a little out of place there warming up on the track. At a hulking 6’4” and almost 170 lbs I rather stood out amongst the typical 10,000 meter man, even discounting at twenty six I was now noticeably older than my average competitor there. As I warmed up a young crew cut man, probably a freshman from the local university, started conversing with me. I’m not really sure why he did so. Perhaps because of his inexperience he mistook my age for ability, perhaps being new to track outside of a school setting he was simply trying to be sociable, but he did and we exchanged a few words which continued as the race was called and we headed to the start line. As a ‘no time’ I stopped in the second alley and the boy threw me a quizzical glance as he continued to his seeded position. I couldn’t help myself, his unasked question was so evident I had to blurt out, “my 10k time is 33:23” and here the reader needs to understand: in men’s 10,000 meters the world starts at thirty something and goes down from there. The 10k being a road race means times will invariably be slower, but not that much slower! He literally did a double take with eyes wide. It wasn’t hard to read what he was thinking, because written all over his face was “G*d are you slow! Why are you even running?” In the race itself my new acquaintance kept right up with the race leaders until about the final thousand meters, where he faded badly lacking the strength to compete with the more mature males at that level. But he was young and he would get stronger and better. As for myself I finished more than a minute faster than my 10k best, a better time being somewhat expected of course. But it did little to assuage the damage his shocked look had done to my ego. All my time and the effort spent, and for what – expressions of sympathy? If the race I had just run had included the world’s best 10,000 meter runners the leaders would have been crossed the line with me over two kilometers behind, two kilometers! The next week at practice I told my coach I was leaving track and thanked him for his efforts. As much as I wanted to run like my father I had to face the truth – I just couldn’t. I simply had no talent for it and there were clearly better things to do with my life.

Of course balance has two sides. If this particular post is about first looking after the priorities in your life: your spouse, family, friends and career; it’s also about not letting all those little pieces of yourself you dole out to everyone else add up to everything you are. Set aside some time to train, take along some of your favourite music, and for an hour or so take care of yourself … each and every day.

A great example of the physique of an international 10k runner

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A New Training Set

With an intention of swimming a 100 meter fly this coming February my attention has been fixated on trying to learn the stroke before I actually dive in on race day. There is still a question mark behind my ability to do so, but I’m gaining some confidence progress is being made. In the last stroke clinic we concentrated on one of my major fly weaknesses – coordination between my kick and pull; and then spent a little time on my weak dolphin kick (my second major fly weakness). So last night I devised and swam a workout which had fly as my main set.

Warm up: 300 free (3 strokes/breath)
100 kick (breast)
200 free (4 strokes/breath)
200 kick (breast/dolphin w/fins)
100 breast
300 kick (free/dolphin/back all w/fins)

Main set: 12x50 fly (25 dr/25 swim all w/fins) on 1:15
Sup set: 4x100 back on 2:00
Warm down: 200 free (easy)

Only 2,400 meters but I was unsure how I would stand up to 600 meters of fly. Plus, addressing another major weakness of mine, the workout had a lot of kick in it (jeez, for someone who thinks he's pretty good at swimming I sure have a lot of weaknesses). The intention was to work on integrating my fly kick and stroke as well as make a start on my fly endurance, and as it turned out I lucked into a perfect fly set for me at this time. First and foremost I wanted to practice my technique so I couldn't become too tired, but in the last couple of reps I did want to have to push myself to finish. It all worked out perfectly. I think I'll use variations of this main set for the next month as I gradually build to actually swimming some 100 flys in training prior to the race.

Friday, December 15, 2006

One Hundred Practices & I Need A New Suit!

It has become apparent to me I need a new bathing suit. There comes a time when a suit starts to noticeably sag as it loses some of its elasticity. It’s more a question of modesty as the suit ceases to stretch over the body but instead sticks to it like a second skin. But I’m a little bewildered at how quickly my blue Speedo jammers wore out. I went through the numbers and I’ve only used the suit around a hundred times. I distinctly remember getting a new swimsuit at the beginning of each new year as a boy, and that same suit would last me a full season or more (some 250 plus practices). Perhaps I wore them a little longer than I should’ve, but still. It seems now I’ve researched the problem modern bathing suits utilize Spandex (aka Elastane in most of the world) to provide the desired stretch and tight fit. The problem with this miracle fabric is it doesn’t do very well in the presence of chlorine. Ah heck, let’s be blunt about this – chlorine eats Spandex. I’ve also learned heat just accelerates the deterioration, so those times after practices sitting in the hot tub socializing aren’t without cost! Now I need to get a training swimsuit, which have the advantage of a considerably lower percentage of chlorine soluble material and consequently lasts much longer in a chlorinated environment. And here I thought training swimsuits were just cheap suits when in fact they’re actually designed for extensive pool use! In my browsing I’ve also learned for a few dollars you can buy chlorine neutralizers to wash your expensive racing suits with and thereby extend their lifespan. At prices ranging from $70 for an Aquablade jammer to over $400 for the new Fastskin FSII full body racing suits those neutralizers sound like a good deal. Ah well, live and learn.

Picture shows Amanda Beard modeling a Speedo Fastskin FSII. I’m not sure what’s more intimidating, the suit or Amanda Beard inside it. I’ll have to study it some more.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My Hips Don’t Lie

One of the things last Saturday’s stroke clinic addressed was my breaststroke kick, something I’ve always had problems with. Seems I’m doing everything wrong; from foot position, leg movement, to the way I use my core Suzanne had recommendations for changing every facet of my existing kick. Of course my breast pull also needs significant change; I need to work on the timing of my breath, change how I hold my arms during both pull and recovery phases, and better coordinate my kick and pull. In the later stages of the clinic I had to beg for mercy and request a breather, and while I was resting Suzanne and Norman discussed the different breaststroke kick styles which are acceptable and why they come about. “A lot of it will depend on hip flexibility”, explained Suzanne to Norman, “and you’ll find they can’t do this (and here she demonstrated a kick) because they don’t have enough flexibility in the hips anymore.” Yes, I’m one of the “they”, someone watching his body deteriorate right before his eyes, but hey, I’m right here guys! Besides, if you think I’m bad now you should have seen me two years ago! Indignity aside all these changes have meant a radically different kick and consequently my hips and inner thighs are killing me. I swam quite a bit at the clinic because Norman and Suzanne used a tag team approach: Norman analyzed my fly and Suzanne my breaststroke, and in my next practice I included some breaststroke to reinforce the clinic lessons. Unfortunately the following day Brad perversely included a fair amount of breaststroke in his workout for the first time, and had still more in last night’s workout as well. All that mileage on a completely revamped stroke has my hips feeling as if somebody tried to split me in two with a couple of horses!

Luckily I had a massage session scheduled only a couple of days after my clinic. When I came in we exchanged the usual pleasantries and I told her about some minor soreness in my neck and shoulders but especially about my hips. A new complaint about something other than my back! After sizing me up on the table she dealt with my neck for a few minutes, and then ignoring my shoulders went straight to my hips. To assess them Carolyn “rolled” me at the pelvis, in a motion very similar to kneading bread, first one side and then the other. Once she had a gauge of my hip flexibility she decided my problem was best addressed by going to, where else, my lower back.
Her targets were my two quadratus lumborum muscles, flat sheet muscles anchored by the pelvis and the twelfth rib and extending like four fingers (quad meaning four) to the L1 through L4 transverse processes on each side of the spine. It’s a remarkably versatile muscle, as it acts as a prime mover (hips), a postural muscle (spine), and a respiratory muscle (lower rib for exhalation). If somebody before this had told me flexible hips mean better breathing I wouldn’t have believed them. My hips felt much more relaxed and the soreness was clearly reduced when I got off the table. It’s becoming an adventure to see where Carolyn will go to next – so many muscles needing work, so little time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Three Months Swimming Masters

Today is the three month anniversary of my joining Hyack Masters. Hold on a minute while I open a can of Coke to celebrate. Aaahh, that’s good. My objective for 2006 was to reintroduce myself into the sport, ramp up my conditioning to the point I could sustain a competitive level of training, and acquire sufficient coaching to identify the main technical areas of my stroke, start and turns which need improvement. All pretty well accomplished I think, and with a couple of weeks in hand. Now comes the hard part, getting fast!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Coaching & Dale Long

Went to my second stroke clinic this morning. Must say the attendance was disappointing and it baffles me. No, truthfully I’m absolutely gobsmacked. When running I attended a running clinic, where coaches utilize a rather round-about way of improving an individual’s stride. Because everyone is the most efficient runner their body will allow the process of stride improvement has three necessary stages: stride inefficiencies are first identified; next the biomechanical problems which underlie those inefficiencies are diagnosed; and then solutions to correct those biomechanical problems, such as strengthening of specific muscles or muscle groups, orthotics, or perhaps improving the range of certain movements, are recommended in order to effect the desired changes in the stride. Even so you’d have truly messed up mechanics for a running clinic to have a measurable impact exceeding, say, a second over 400 meters. Running clinics are really sold on the premise they’ll help reduce your rate of injury. But swimming! First of all water is nearly eight hundred times more dense than air. Mess up running and your technique may cost you a couple of tenths of a second over a 100, mess up in water… well that’s a different kettle of fish! Furthermore we all run, we’re designed to run and we’ve done it almost as soon as we can walk, but swimming is a learned skill. One of the primary reasons Olympic swimmers spend so much time in the water is to acquire that fluency in water which only time and distance brings. The great Russian sprinter Alexander Popov for instance routinely swam 10,000 meters a day in training and, I want to emphasize this, he was a sprinter. Since it’s a safe bet anyone reading this doesn’t take their workouts from Popov’s training sets (or share similar talent) we have a discrepancy between how we do swim and how we should swim. A huge discrepancy! HUGE! When you run it through fifty, or hundred, or fifteen hundred meters of water you can lose seconds, even minutes due to an inefficient stroke. Logically anyone interested enough in swimming to join a Masters or Triathlon swim club should be lining up to attend stroke clinics. But apparently not those swimming with the Hyacks - and these clinics are being offered virtually free!!

A short anecdote from my life related to this topic. In an earlier blog My Early Swimming Career & Crystal Gardens I mentioned several names of swimmers I personally competed against as a boy, some of whom went on to represent Canada, including winning Olympic medals; but anyone who knew us back then would have immediately noted my leaving out the name of one of the best and brightest – Dale Long. Dale’s story is tragic. One of the top age-group backstrokers in the country he was warming up before a swimming meet in Port Alberni when he ran into the wall, literally cracked his skull and nearly drowned. One of the country’s elite junior swimmers nearly drowning in a pool crammed full with competitive swimmers – what irony! I, like always, was at my usual station during a swimming meet (in the showers keeping warm), and wasn’t there to see him being rushed away to hospital but I do have a vivid imagination. Dale never returned to competitive swimming, his career over at eleven, and this was the reason why I didn’t mention him when I wrote about quitting at twelve. But this particular anecdote is about an earlier time, when Dale was my teammate and holder of the Canadian records for 10&U backstroke over both long and short course.

Shortly after Dale set his records his parents requested he be given the same stroke instruction our club gave to our elite seniors, the ‘Nationals’, as befitting one of Canada’s top age group swimmers. This created quite a stir in our community. I really didn’t understand the controversy at the time. I did know Dale held a couple of Canadian records and swimming isn’t egalitarian – those who do well get more. Then again, my logic went, he wasn’t that much better, and wondered why this special instruction couldn’t extend to me, perhaps even to my sister and some of my teammates. Personally speaking the idea of getting stroke instruction was appealing, since it would be like belonging to the Nationals group, but it wasn’t a high priority for me. After all I was one of the best 10&U backstrokers in the country so I had to have a good stroke didn’t I? In the end the Club decided personal stroke analysis could not be extended to age group swimmers, and that included Dale. In response the Longs did something shocking … they left the team! Dale joined a small club only recently formed, the Juan de Fuca Coho. There was great animosity and bitterness over the defection, but in retrospect there’s little question I’d have done the same if faced with the Longs’ choice. The Coho’s had a professional coach with no national caliber seniors to train and therefore Alyward had the time to spend coaching his more promising age group swimmers. Our head coach at the time Gary Blondin had his hands full with the Nationals and Senior groups. The fracas left me with an indelible impression stroke analysis was reserved for elite senior swimmers of national caliber or above. Now thirty seven years later I’m finally getting the high level of coaching in these stroke clinics I was denied as a youth, and have been absolutely delighted by the results. Which for me raises a question: if a natural swimmer like me is attending every stroke clinic he can and asking for more, why aren’t all the other swimmers in Hyack Masters doing the same? Life holds many mysteries doesn’t it?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Discovering My Fitness Level

What a coincidence! Last night Brad announced another stroke clinic this coming Saturday. Excellent news, but now my carefully orchestrated schedule has come undone due to an unusual Friday evening date for our symphony series tomorrow and this clinic mid-Saturday. I’ll have to see where I can fit all the pieces back. His workout was very similar to my Tuesday morning practice. One interesting difference was he called for heart rates on the 5x200 free set. I think I’ve listed about twenty topics I want to cover in this blog related in some way, but not directly, with my swimming. One of them is discussing the uses of a training log and therein, the training principles behind heart rates. That’s for another day. Suffice it to say your heart rate indicates your present physical state; and your target for training purposes is generally 80% your maximum rate, normally calculated as 220 minus your age. Brad mentioned 200 as a possible max rate and both Ian and I vociferously disagreed with him (for example Lance Armstrong’s max rate in training was 195!). Using the above rule-of-thumb my max rate would be about 175, but because I have a certain amount of hubris I’m going to use 180, giving a target heart rate of 144. You can calculate your heart rate by counting the number of beats over ten seconds (I use my carotid artery underneath my jawbone) and multiply the result by six. The workout called for the 200s to be swum progressively faster on four and a half minutes. My first 200 I swam at a leisurely pace for a count of 17, or a marvelous 102. The second 200 was swum about ten seconds faster and my heart rate climbed to 132. The third 200 I swam in the same time as the second, but my heart rate soared to 168. No endurance! The penultimate 200 I swam five seconds faster still with my heart rate dropping to 144. No, not a misprint; one of my gifts is a heart which can adjust to stress if given enough time, definitely an asset for endurance events. Getting tired (I’m going to partly blame the pool’s warmth) the last 200 I deliberately slowed down over ten seconds and finished with a rate of 150. So I ended pretty well where I wanted to, but my stamina is horrible! Ian, of course, pulled the whole way leaving me several meters behind in his wake each time, and more than half a lap behind on the final 200. Have to work harder.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


If you’ve read my December first entry you know I’ve some big expectations for these pictures so without further ado let’s take a look:

Well, first thing I see are my shoulders are almost level with each other, a distinct and obvious improvement. This was something I had thought I was seeing in the mirror and it’s most gratifying to see it show up in a formal pose. There does, however, seem to be a new problem as my left shoulder seems to be ‘compressed’ – as if I was holding it close to my body. This may be in part because my nephew taking the pictures was standing slightly off centre when doing so, but there’s definitely a problem there. Looking at it more closely the left shoulder also seems to be pulled back a little too. No apparent improvement in my lower back though. Based on my handles I still have a pronounced bend at the base of my spine.

Now looking at my back picture my problems aren’t just limited to my left shoulder, the entire left side seems to be twisted. The left scapula is very prominent, and you can see skin folds below the scapula on the left side. Apparently releasing my right shoulder has caused my entire left side to tighten up and pull/twist back towards the spine. I suppose something like this is to be expected after years of the body holding itself one particular way is changed over the relatively short space of a single month. I’ll have to discuss this with my massage therapist Carolyn and see what she says. In so far as my lower back the expected ‘jog’ doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as it was in the past. It’s excellent news if that, in fact, is what has truly transpired. Since I’ve definitely felt movement in my lower spine a positive outlook may be justified. The bulge on my right hand side seen on my front picture could be partly the result of my left side pulling back and twisting, rather than entirely due to a warped spine. Time will tell I suppose.

My side picture is also showing progress, clearly the result of losing four kilos of fat this past month. One can actually see some abdominal definition starting to show. Still, I’m about four to five kilos from my intended fat percentage and apparently it’s virtually all in my waist, likely most being intra-abdominal (visceral) fat located beneath my stomach muscles. In my opinion the rest of my body is fairly fat-free now, as mid-section fat is always the last to go. And go it will. Terrific progress, I’m very pleased with these results in just three months and look forward to continued gains in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lessons Learned from Nanaimo

The major point driven home from the meet at Nanaimo has to be my lack of conditioning, not exactly a new concept. Still, when you can’t race properly after an hour’s rest then conditioning should be a priority in training. I’ve already decided to bump up my mileage to around the 2,500 - 3,000 meter range; now I plan on doing more distance work as well. This means primarily more 200 and 400 distances in my main sets rather than restricting them to my warm ups and warm downs (up to now we’re pretty much talking 200s as I’ve swum a 400 in warm up only a couple of times). I’m also going to make an effort to work on my swimming technique in all strokes so come race time I have a reduced tendency to fall apart under stress. Consequently this morning I swam a fairly simple practice a little on the short side as I’m starting up on my first weight power cycle today too:

Warm up: 400 free pull
200 kick (100 board & 100 without)
Main set: 5x200 free on 4:00
Sup set: 4x200 back on 4:30

Current plans for my next meet this coming February (the English Bay Swim Club Meet) are to swim the 200 back plus the 100 butterfly and freestyle races. Of course this is entirely dependent on the event scheduling and how I progress, but my training over the next couple of months will be targeted at racing these three events.

And lastly, a snide comment on observing an unattended minivan in a no parking area as I left the Canada Games pool this morning. Apparently someone decided to save a few steps in an otherwise open parking lot before heading into the facility to exercise. I just don’t get some people.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

2006 Nanaimo Ebbtide Swim Meet

Today was my “make up” meet in Nanaimo, hosted by the Nanaimo Ebbtides. After a restful 1½ hour ferry trip from Horseshoe Bay the Ebbtides picked me and some other competitors coming over as foot passengers up at the terminal and took us to the Aquatic Centre. There I joined with two other Hyack swimmers who’d gone over the previous night. Not many, but our participation was still a three-fold improvement over last year. Quality not quantity right? Another modern 50 meter pool almost identical to Coquitlam CCAC, the Nanaimo Aquatic Centre also uses elevated flooring to create a shallow area when required. The water, though, is kept at competition temperature (i.e. cold), somewhat unusual these days and times when pools seem to cater to the recreational public who demand warmer temperatures. Admittedly they keep the ‘recreation pool’ which includes their wave pool and other attractions at bath temperature. It would be interesting to see the available studies on the effects of water temperature on pool revenue and how it’s affected by utilizing supplementary pools at alternate temperatures (I’m an accountant – these things fascinate me). The pool configuration for the meet was short course (sc) which provided a very convenient 25 meter pool in the other half for warm up during the meet itself.

Entering Nanaimo Harbour on the Horseshoe ferry run

My first race was the 100 breast, for me a throw-away event, so no real pressure on me other than a natural desire to do well. Even so, the time I set for this race is going to be around for a long time as I’m extremely unlikely to race this event again during this season. All I was hoping to do was come close to my target time and then rest up for my free and back races. Not helping was the discovery my psych time on the meet program was three seconds faster than I thought I had put down. Now I was concerned about embarrassing myself (again) by swimming too slowly. Yet the race itself went pretty well to plan, my intention to set a strong pace at the beginning (i.e. not fast!) and hang on to the end concentrating on technique. Started getting tired around the sixty five meter mark but by pushing the last twenty five I finished in reasonable shape. My time, surprisingly enough, was a couple of seconds better than my posted psych time. An excellent start to my day!

My second race was the 100 free. Here my plan was to swim a negative split – go out under control and then let it out the last fifty. The first fifty was fair though my swimming technique, especially my body’s streamlining, was poor. My head was bobbing up and down like a cork as I first looked ahead towards the wall and then tried correcting myself to look down at the lane line, only once there to wonder where that damn wall was and take a quick peek! I know my turns are atrocious so they tend to distract me inordinately. Of course ever so concerned about my turns, I almost missed my first, thereby ensuring I’d race absolutely paranoid about the remaining two. Swimming down the lane I wasn’t thinking about breathing, hand placement, my pull, or even about my kick; I was just thinking to myself, “DON’T MISS THE TURN! DON’T MISS THE TURN!” In the second fifty, abetted by increasing fatigue, my technique just disintegrated – my last lap seeing me throw out any pretense of style and efficiency and simply flailing as fast as I could. It wasn’t pretty. My time, however, was in the upper range of my target time, and I can take some very real comfort I have so very, very many things to improve.

My last race was the 100 back, the race to redeem my UBC fiasco. No little pressure here – getting ready to jump in I was wondering what someone must feel like getting on the starting block in the Olympics. Really, who needs competitors when I can do just fine psyching myself out! The race? Well, I didn’t butcher a turn at least (my teammates apparently beg to differ) but, like my freestyle, my backstroke technique was simply awful and I ran into the rope once. Ending really tired, actually surprisingly tired, my time was only a little more than a second faster than my UBC result so a very disappointing finish. Just not missing a turn should have meant more time off so I was actually slower in Nanaimo than at UBC. Later upon reflection I realized my lack of conditioning was partly at fault as I had swum two races in the preceding two and a half hours before, clearly adversely impacting my time. Plus I didn’t have Ian to bring me out in the first fifty at the right pace and so held back too much. Rather than beat myself up for not improving enough over two weeks I should take some solace my result was in range of my original UBC target time. If I had performed this well just two weeks ago at UBC I’d have been very pleased with the result. I just have to work harder and concentrate on my swimming technique more. I must push Brad for another stroke clinic soon.

As for my two teammates Damien had given himself the ambitious itinerary of 100 fly and the 200 IM, more of an exploration as he hadn’t raced these two events in years, and acquitted himself well. Joe, who had actually come down with a bad cold the evening before, did even better and set a personal best (Masters) in his favourite event the 50 free, as well as putting in good times in the 50 back and breast. All in all a good meet. The pool is fast and the meet was very well managed. I’ll be sure to go next year.

Before leaving I would be remiss, what with Christmas season in full play, if I didn’t give everybody who reads this the opportunity to experience the town of Nanaimo’s namesake treat, the Nanaimo Bar. This is truly one of the finest cookies you can make; the treat has an almost universal appeal, and taste is so good you can almost ignore the calories. In the Pacific Northwest it’s referred to as the ‘legendary’ Nanaimo Bar and you find it everywhere, wrapped in its ubiquitous plastic wrap, right next to the chocolate bars and other desserts. Simple to make too, be sure to try the recipe out!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Weight Loss Accelerating

So it’s December already and time for my monthly weigh-in. The past month has been interesting as I’ve felt and seen some major changes in my posture occurring. The biggest is I’ve been experiencing movement in both my lower and upper spine, something which hasn’t happened for many, many years. This past July in yoga I felt my right hip bone twist a little and then drop a bit in its socket, and two weeks later I touched my toes during a sit up (something else which hasn't happened in years). Then in the beginning of November, again in a yoga posture, I felt my spine adjust itself around my L5 or L6 (I have a long spine). The following week I had movement in my upper thoracic, an area where I can’t ever remember having any, and now I’m getting spinal movement during weight training and stretching sessions on almost a routine basis. So I’m crossing my fingers all this is for the good and will show up in my next round of pictures. I do believe I can see changes in my posture in the mirror but will wait for confirmation before signaling success. An added bonus, my right hip continues to adjust itself in nearly every session of yoga. One of the doctors I consulted, Dr. Freedom, says my right hip is the key to my posture problems; let’s pray he’s right!

Regards to my weight I’ve dropped 3½ kgs over the past month. I’m now down to 81 kg (178 lbs). Not particularly surprising as I was ill for a couple of weeks and have been working out nearly twice every day. Even so some regret as my fat did cover up my present paucity of muscle, some necessary camouflage I’m rapidly losing. It would appear I’m going to approach running weight before leveling out (shudder). Luckily Christmas is fast approaching! My two inch loss around my waist this month translates into a new body fat percentage of 15%, meaning four kilos of fat lost. Doing the calculations it means I gained roughly ½ a kilo in muscle; a worthy gain but after last month’s estimated 800 gram gain nothing to preen about. All estimates of course, it’ll take a few more months to establish my muscle growth in more accurate terms. Still, I am putting on muscle however slowly.