Sunday, December 02, 2007

Good Pool, Lousy Swimmer

The Nanaimo Ebbtides host an excellent swim meet even if their city is a little off the beaten path. It’s a fast, modern pool kept at the right temperature for competitive swimming, has plenty of warm up/cool down lanes, and other than a slight hiccup at the start of the meet with their timing system this year, is always very smoothly run. Of course to really enjoy a meet I have to swim well too. As Hamlet would say, “Ay, there’s the rub”. The less said about my 200 back the better. I started out at a good pace but had some problems with shortness of breath early on, choked on some water at about the sixty meter mark, and then struggled to recover any sort of breathing pattern thereafter – my race pretty well finished at that point. Going into the turn at the hundred mark I discovered I couldn’t (wouldn’t) duck my head under at the wall (remember my hesitation about not wanting to make proper flip turns at the UBC meet two weeks ago?) and consequently coasted in on my stomach and was disqualified. In my 100 free I went out much too slowly and then merely continued the same pace the last fifty rather than accelerating. I felt good with my stroke staying reasonably intact, to the point of thinking right afterwards I had had a decent race but my final result said otherwise: less than two seconds faster than the time I swam a year ago at this same meet; and that time was with only three months training. In my all important 100 back, where I was trying to qualify for my AAA time (even going so far as to scratch my fifty free to provide more rest) I once again went out much too slowly. I think I was still in shock over my 100 free and had already resigned myself to a substandard time. I touched outside even a personal ‘best’, finishing about two tenths off that mark, in a race where anything less than a two second improvement would have been disappointing. Oh well. It’s not as if improvements come in steady, predictable increments. The only real bother is the limited number of master races gives only a few opportunities to test oneself each year; and with this meet a washout it means I’ll have to reswim my backstroke events at Duncan to reestablish my confidence rather than try out a couple other, less swum events such as the 200 free. Much of my problem stems from my expectations for improvement, where I’m looking to tear chunks of time off rather than improve a mere second or two. To my disgust I still struggle in the 200 back with a time quality-wise the equivalent to my 100 free, causing me to consciously punish myself by immediately scheduling another 200 back for the very next meet (I suffer a lot in the 200 back). Ultimately I’ll start swimming the race properly but until it happens I’m building quite a phobia about it, especially the pain of the last fifty since my suffering starts to build as soon as I push off on the second hundred. And I’m completely frustrated with the lack of progress in my 100 free since I’ve definitely improved all aspects of the stroke and should be swimming much faster. My fly and breast, on the other hand, have been from day one works-in-progress so expectations here are low anyways; nor do I have any real hopes in the near future for a decent 200 individual medley because of those same two strokes. Ignoring the 50 sprints as novelties better suited to test all out speed rather than legitimate events in their own right leaves my 100 back standing alone as my sole competitive event at this time. And even this needs some improvement before I can call myself a real backstroker. Two more months until my next meet. I’ll find out then just what sort of talent I truly do possess.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

2007 UBC Masters Swim Meet Observations

While I could make a few quick observations about the goings on at the 2007 UBC Masters Swim Meet I’m instead going to comment at length on only two subjects: the first about one particular competitor at the meet, and the second ... well actually the second also ends up being about another swimmer I saw at the meet.

In my 50 meter back sprint I was seeded Lane Two with the heat’s only woman seeded next to me in Lane One. I had actually raced beside her in the 100 back at last year’s Provincials where she had had a disappointing swim. Well this time was different because when the water settled she had wupped me by a full second. As I toweled off afterwards I heard her telling a friend standing close by she’d just done a ‘best’ and resolved to watch her remaining backstroke events to see if her good 50 carried over. In the 100 she finished in a time I’d be pleased to take home myself as it would have given me my longed for AAA qualification. There were whispers about it being a record and when I checked our provincial masters website yesterday for this write up I discovered her time was in fact a new Canadian masters record. No wonder she looked pleased. I also discovered she already held an earlier provincial backstroke record in the 30-34 age group which no doubt explains why, while we’ve roughly comparable times in the fifty and one hundred (well not so much now in the 100) she’s at a different level in the 200 where I struggle with my endurance. I watched her 200 back from behind the blocks waiting to swim my 100 fly and once again she went several seconds under her listed psyche time, setting what turned out to be a provincial masters record. It was a great afternoon for Cindy. As an added plus I learned something about the near legendary Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen after she came up during my fact checking holding all the 35-39 women's backstroke records plus literally dozens of other world masters records spread over fifteen years of competition. If you think she’s fast now Pipes-Neilsen was seriously fast back then. Her world masters 200 backstroke record, an amazing 2:14.10 for 35-39 year olds, was achieved almost ten years ago and is less than eight seconds off Krisztina Egerszegi’s current world record. As I said, Pipes-Neilsen is seriously fast!

My second observation of the day comes from a game pretty well all men play when they’re out at a large public function – the “Spot the Prettiest Girl Here” contest. Saying all men maybe an exaggeration, but if not all men play it or its equivalent then at least it’s a very, very popular game among us guys. My first exposure to the game was as a young boy car pooling to a swim practice one morning when two older boys started a discussion about the prettiest girl in my school. I remember thinking both their choices were good when my father, who was driving, interjected to remind us as we matured and became more experienced we would discover a woman’s true beauty lies within. His comment was received with rolling eyes by all three of us because, while I pretty well ignored girls entirely at the age of eight or so, I certainly knew a good looking girl when I saw one. Of course time proved my father right; and now older, wiser, and infinitely more experienced I find it necessary to utilize multiple categories to fit in my ever expanding definition of even physical beauty when playing the game. The first both in age for the girl and in game experience for the boy (think novice level) is ‘Most Sexy’. For boys just gaining their first introduction to a world having sexes the category is all encompassing. If you’re a female and walk up right on two legs then you’re in the running, regardless if you’re thirteen or in your late forties, and sexy has the further advantage of being loosely defined by adolescent boys (which in my case at least was pretty well determined by availability). Yet Most Sexy is limited with its strong ties to youth and the biological imperative. Invariably as the male matures a second category is added which boils down to the category of ‘Most Beautiful’. The candidates are generally found somewhere between their middle twenties to late thirties, a time when Nature turns a woman’s attractiveness up in intensity to incandescent. You’ll find most of our entertainment industry’s stars here. Then comes my long time favorite – the ‘Mature Beauty’ – a carryover without doubt from ‘Most Beautiful’ but with more experience they also project a good deal of their character via their face and mannerisms: the laugh lines around the mouth and those wrinkles at the corners of the eyes reflecting an understanding of the world gained with some sacrifice: but more than compensated for overall by possessing a sureness of their place in the world exceeding that held by their younger selves. To me they are like a favorite sweater, comfortable and cozy, as opposed to the dressier business suit of more youthful beauty, something I wear to make a good impression and never quite at ease in. As I entered my thirties I added still more categories. One of the rarest is ‘Elegant Beauty’ – a face having certain features perhaps a touch too strong or too aquiline for universal acceptance as beautiful – but with a character that dazzles and dominates all around her. A woman who confirms the high status of her man by the very fact she has chosen him; as an equal rather than a possession to be flaunted she's the Bentley or Aston Martin of the feminine world. Definitely a world apart from the typical trophy wife, a girl who with dull regularity is recruited from the youngest, flashiest category and a choice comparable to aspiring to a Chevrolet Corvette: a neophyte’s idea of success. Rarer still, and the objective of this long winded lead in, is spotting an ‘Older Beauty’, a woman who is still considered beautiful even though she qualifies for senior citizen discounts. Good examples today would be Sophia Loren or Rachel Welch, exceptionally rare flowers indeed. Excluding these two famous examples and their kin I’ve only actually known or seen two other such women after forty years of watching. But this Sunday I spotted my third. Even more unusual it was not her face which first called my attention to her, it was her body. Her face while pleasant and attractive wasn’t noteworthy enough to be singled out from a crowd, but her body was phenomenal, a figure which would have been striking even if she was in her early twenties. Don’t get me wrong, in all my categories a good, trim body is an absolute must but hers was superb. Now when I meet up with a woman whom I find striking; be it for a beautiful smile, a wonderful outfit, or simply being particularly radiant on that day, I try to compliment her if I can do so without being obtrusive, and this was definitely one such occasion. But you can see my dilemma here. I certainly couldn’t go up to a strange woman and compliment her on a great body, especially with her in a bathing suit at the time. I decided instead to try to find out her identity and then locate her coach and give to him (or her) the compliment of looking wonderful to pass along in a less threatening way. Alas I didn’t discover her identity so her compliment has gone undelivered. Perhaps in some future meet I’ll see her again and be successful in passing along my approval of whatever she’s done over the past twenty or thirty years. I rather doubt she attends many meets though as I’d surely have noticed her before now. On the bright side, however, it’s nice to know as I get older there are still prizes out there worth shooting for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

2007 UBC Results

Those who read my blog know there were some misgivings about what I’d be able to achieve this swim meet because of my inability to get up to speed the past few weeks. I cheated a bit last week and cut back on training to rest up but it seems I was right to be apprehensive. Not that I had a bad meet, I just didn’t have any good races. Take my first race of the afternoon – the 50 back sprint. This was almost a gimme for a personal best. Not only am I swimming backstroke faster than back in April but I haven’t put together a good sprint yet, so I had two ways of improving – pure speed and/or better technique. Unfortunately this weekend’s sprint was also the first one where I cared about the result, and that was enough for me to tense up and swim a really horrible race. By the last ten meters my breathing was so out of whack (along with pretty well everything else about my stroke) I gave up and just held my breath until the end for fear of breathing out of turn and choking on some water. As a small consolation, however, the time was only a couple of tenths off last season’s best so I know the speed will be there sometime, just I have to figure out a way to get it done in a race. My second time out was the dreaded 200 IM, dreaded because I’ve already bonked twice in this event, the only times it’s happened to me swimming. Starting out with a decent opening fly I held it together on back, struggled with my breast, and then brought it home, albeit very slowly, with a cautious free. I had real problems with my turns, likely because by the time my backstroke rolled around I had decided I really didn’t want to make any more turns (i.e. would rather make an open turn instead of putting my head under in a flip) and each time the momentary delay as I considered what to do meant I was flipping far too close to the wall. Worse, in my haste to surface to resume breathing that beautiful, oxygenated air, I was pushing off without regard to my body position. Combined with the pool’s slippery walls I was popping up everywhere except the middle of the lane, including one time I almost swerved underwater into a neighbouring lane. So bouncing from lane line to lane line I made my way through the medley, finally finishing with a time a few tenths slower than my personal best, tired but on a slightly upbeat note not totally exhausted. Really nothing to be pleased about except for a strong belief it surely will be impossible to swim as badly the next time. Finishing my individual medley meant I was left with two more events – the 100 breast and 100 fly, neither one close to my heart. On the contrary, if breastroke had a throat I’d gleefully knife it. Of course if my race events really did come to life then I’d have to flee for my life when 100 fly came looking for me! Bizarrely I was seeded lane five in the second to last heat; a great example of how few people can swim proper breastroke and I cannot express how strange it was to lead in a breastroke race knowing I wasn’t swimming well. Of course this is, after all, just masters where anything can happen. Once again my time was a little off my personal best, and breast finished I was left with 100 fly as my last event of the day. Now I have really poor fly technique that has always spelled my doom when trying to race. For me judgment comes like clockwork just a little after my first fifty, when the effort to get out of the water finally grinds me down to a spastic lurch followed only a few meters afterwards by my dolphin kick reverting to a child's single beat, and then my rear goes down and I’m trying to finish the final few meters from a seemingly vertical position. Brad says I’m working far too hard and getting too high out of the water. I can’t agree more about the working too hard part, but my clearly unnatural mania for breathing seems to be working against me in perfecting my fly. I suppose more practice is called for.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Update on the Dara Torres Post “When Less Doesn’t Mean More”

On November 18, 2007, three weeks after my post titled “When Less Doesn’t Mean More” came out, the New York Times published an article “Torres Is Getting Older, but Swimming Faster” interviewing Dara Torres and her coach Michael Lohberg among others. The piece goes into some detail about her current training practices and there are some differences from what I had disclosed in my post. She's training only ninety minutes a practice, not the normal two hour workouts I had assumed based on her statements about averaging between five to six thousand meters a workout. In addition the article makes it clear in the opening paragraph Torres is training differently from the rest of the elite swimmers at Coral Springs Swim Club, one much more in keeping with the needs of a pure sprinter, and accordingly she’s putting in considerably less kilometrage than originally reported. It now appears Torres may be swimming a third or even less the kilometers an Olympian would typically swim, but at least she's training as a sprinter. The article also delves into the uniqueness of her accomplishments and the rumours and accusations of doping being leveled at her. Not surprisingly it does not concern itself about any changes to her training regime in the past few months. Consequently this new information may reflect recent changes to her program rather than provide a better description of her training from the beginning of her comeback in late 2005. Though the New York Times archives their articles after only a few days (available subsequently for a small fee) to read the article please go here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Race Program for UBC

I’m down for four races at UBC: the 50 back, the 200 IM, the 100 breast and the 100 fly. Maybe some relays. None are particularly important as I’ve deferred those races which really do count (i.e. my back and free events) to the Nanaimo meet (another fast pool) in December. Every extra week counts right now. I've scheduled breast and fly only to provide benchmarks for evaluating future progress and, as I’m not ready to seriously swim the 200 IM at this stage in training, the sole focus for UBC is my 50 back. Now I’m not a sprinter and normally wouldn’t be overly concerned with this race either if it wasn’t for the importance of my upcoming 100 back in two short weeks. I’m seeking a ‘good’ time in the back sprint to buoy my confidence about achieving a more tangible result later on. All this angst because I’d like to attend an open seniors long course meet in February to prep for our season’s only long course masters swim meet in Victoria and need an AAA time to be eligible. My AAA qualifying was supposed to come from attending the 2007 USMS Long Course Championships but other obligations in August regrettably ruled that out. Frankly right now my only real chance at qualification is in 100 back, something I felt was well within my capabilities in August but recent training has allowed a certain uncertainty to creep in about achieving even this rather common target, a level all serious competitive swimmers pass early on in their careers. So I’ve hedged and tapered a little to try to get some oomph back in my swims, doing things this week such as reducing the amount of kicking in my workouts as well as cutting back on my kilometrage, all in an effort to give my muscles some extra recovery time. Whether this abbreviated taper works or is even the right thing to do for my overall program is questionable but it seems prudent form me to make the attempt. I’ll find out either way, won’t I?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Long Time Coming

With the UBC meet closing in fast Wednesday’s workout became a test for how well I can expect to do this weekend. All in all it went OK – my times in a 6 x 50 test set were middling fair; Coach Brad mistakenly adding five seconds to my times because Ian had changed our normal ten second interval to seven so he could swim breast last and not get run over by Damon who had chosen free/fly to lead our lane. I didn’t bother to correct Brad’s mistake. I did confirm my top speed is definitely compromised however, as when I start increasing my stroke turnover my tired muscles tighten up: a reality which not only slows turnover but also impedes stroke efficiency. Nothing unexpected here of course as my training aims for March ‘08, not November ‘07, and made worse by the fact my overall progress hasn’t been what I envisioned over a year ago. Back then I figured it would take around six years to complete a transformation from Joe Average to swimming guru, calculating it would take six months to get into enough shape to begin proper low kilometer training and then another year before I could race off the admittedly minuscule training base so created. A year and a half before being race ready. Actual experience has shown I was considerably off the mark – it’s taken me a full year just to get fit enough to tackle low kilometer training, and at present only two months into the low kilometer phase I’m thinking trying to base a proper race program on several months of 20,000 meter weeks isn’t really feasible. I now believe a further step of a year’s worth of mid-kilometrage training (around 30,000 + a week) is needed to provide the necessary technique, strength and endurance necessary to race up to 200 meters. At least race at a consistency and quality which would allow proper evaluation of my performance. That’s three years of training; two if I want to cut corners and compromise, before I can reasonably extrapolate my race results ahead a further three or four years to find out what six years of hard work would likely achieve. Why six years? Well the average muscle cell lives for around seven years, so to completely rebuild a body would take something close to the same amount of time. Then studies have shown aerobic performance as measured by an individual’s VO² max can be improved upon with strenuous exercise for up to five years. That leads to a six year compromise. It may well be low. For instance Bill Sweetenham considers ten years of training as an appropriate base to race off – though admittedly we’re talking racing at the elite level where Sweetenham is concerned. I’ll have to be very, very good to race for six years. Forget about training for ten – that’s something for the young or the clinically obsessed to explore.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Preparing For the First Meet of the Season

Next Sunday is our first swim meet of the season, held as always at the University of British Columbia’s Aquatic Centre. Although this year it may be sparsely attended as the Canadian Football League’s Western Final is playing at the same time and the BC Lions, our local team, are in it. The scheduling conflict between game and meet wasn’t known early on and there were quite a few changed plans when Joe announced in the locker room he had obtained tickets to the game and so wouldn’t be racing at UBC after all. Tough luck for the swim meet’s organizers because ordinarily this isn’t something you’d plan around: the present level of interest almost entirely due to the Lions’ participation. Originally my own plans placed little importance on this meet and Nanaimo’s as I will be training right through these months aiming for Victoria’s long course meet in March. Unfortunately missing the U.S. Long Course Championships in August has meant most of my times this year are pretty stale; it would be nice to record in 2007 something more reflective of my present abilities. Now I’d like to do well at UBC, and even more so at Nanaimo two weeks later when I swim my free and back events (trying to have my cake and eat it too I know).

This might be hard to do as I’m pretty well bogged down smack in the middle of training. It hasn’t helped Coach Brad has been handing out some crippling fast workouts recently. Take this past Friday’s practice. He started out with a warm up consisting of:
200 free @ 4:00
4 x 50 breast @ 1:00
12 x 25 fly @ 0:45 (4 single arm drill/8 swim which we swam @ 0:40)
4 x 50 breast @ 0:55

There are those damn breast ‘sprints’ in a warm up again! True, Brad has slowed the first four fifties down a full ten seconds from the disastrous night I experienced a month ago, but then he compromises on the second round and reduces the required splits by five seconds; and you should note they follow after 300 fly. I was so perturbed I actually openly questioned the warm up, noting the beginning pace for breast was the same as our opening free – an observation which Brad dismissed as something which would only trouble those who had difficulties with breaststroke. Fully recognizing my inadequacies as a swimmer I can honestly say his rationale is distressingly correct and unfortunately applicable to me. That's why I was complaining. Well I survived the warm up but success there only meant having to deal with our main set – an absolute killer:
300 back @ 5:30
2 x 50 free @ 0:35
200 back @ 4:00
4 x 50 free @ 0:40
100 back @ 2:30
6 x 50 free @ 0:40

This is not a backstroke set, it’s an anaerobic free set with some back thrown in as filler. But it’s still way too fast for most masters despite being short course meters. A 0:35 interval means swimming thirty flat unless you touch-n-go, a practice which pretty well defeats calling for fifties. Even a 0:40 interval means swimming 0:34 or 0:35, still too fast for me over an extended number at least – and the set calls for ten of them. Looks like Brad’s been dipping into the Hyack Senior Nationals and National 2:30’s workouts again (the National 2:30’s being Hyacks’ elite group) and didn’t adjust enough. Regardless of the extensive backstroke I didn’t want anything to do with this set so I said I’d start the 300 back after Damon but afterwards would drop behind everyone and boy, did I call it right. To make this truly the set from hell Damon then jumped the gun and started our 2 x 50 free a full minute early on 4:30. This is the second or third time he’s gone early; perhaps because only recently retired from competition he’s just not used to our middle of set rests and when doubts creep in about when to leave he naturally goes at an interval more in keeping with his old workouts. No big deal of course but unfortunately it’s hard on the rest of us old geezers. I do the old touch-n-go for the two fifties, and no sooner than I finish my hundred, take three breaths, and get my feet on the ledge that the clock shows I’m a second late leaving for the 200 and have to push off. I arrive back in time to hear Ian complaining we had left a minute early after the 300, add my bleating whine to his for a few seconds, and then save my breath for the 4 x 50 free coming up. Practically speaking for me it’s a 200 free on 2:40 and a 300 free on 4:00 because I’m not going to come close to those intervals. In fact, no one met them in Lane Six as everyone went touch-n-go by the end. Unlike the rest of my teammates, however, I had to skip a couple of fifties to finish the set, which is a miserable feeling. It’s far better to swim in a slower lane and do the set properly than punish yourself and fail by trying to swim in a lane beyond your capabilities. To close out the workout we had a 100 choice easy and then 6 x 50 kicks on 1:10. The way things were going for me it was inevitable I suppose – the leg cramps started on the first fifty kick and by the fourth fifty I had to get out of the pool to deal with them, generally disgusted with the world and everything in it. Trying to do workouts like this now at my current conditioning level is just too much. If they continue to be this tough I’ll have to seriously consider moving down a lane or two.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

News Flash!

FINA has announced on Monday they've dropped the investigation into Ian Thorpe's possible use of performance enhancing drugs due to lack of evidence. Swimming can give a big sigh of relief as a doping conviction of one of our greatest athletes would have been a disaster. Timed Finals has the story on FINA's press statement and the possibility Thorpe may sue L'Equipe for damages from their releasing the confidential information that he was under investigation. In completely unrelated news (other than the fact it was also reported by Timed Finals and involves another great swimmer) Michael Phelps has had a pin inserted into his wrist after breaking it when he slipped getting out of a car. Phelps freely admits to being a fish out of water and a little clumsy on land. Here's an idea - maybe Michael should just stay safe and not get out of the pool until Beijing rolls around?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Long, Slow Road Ahead

Even pulling back from scheduled training – dropping my weight program entirely and holding my meters to between fifteen and eighteen thousand a week, my sense of fatigue has only moderated rather than abated. I’m still always physically aware, especially when I move, but my muscle soreness has slowly changed into one of heaviness and lethargy. Rather like that comfortable feeling you discover waking up in the morning after a well deserved night’s sleep. But other than the need for longer and slower warm ups the overall quality of my swimming hasn’t deteriorated much. That is until a couple weeks ago when my top end speed seemed to disappear. I was trying to do 10 x 50 back on 0:50 at a pace matching my best 200 back and then follow it up with 3 x 200 easy backstrokes concentrating on technique and turns. Given my 200 back at the end of last season didn’t exactly set the world on fire I thought it was a reasonable speed + endurance set to build on. Yet I had to increase my interval up to a full minute after only the fourth rep, and switched over to the 200s a couple of fifties early as I was finding the effort far harder than anticipated. And from that date I’ve not been able to refind that zone where I can raise my stroke rate without putting in an inordinate amount of effort. It hasn’t helped I’ve had a low grade cold for the last three weeks, a sure sign of being over trained. In another classic sign Brad has had to correct flaws which should never need correction, and every time I was taking the ‘easy’ way in my stroke or kick. That gets embarrassing. My first swim meet of the season is in less than two weeks and I want to start off with some good times. I’m not admitting defeat in this, my third attempt to scale 30,000 meters a week, but I’m now setting up base camp at 18,000 before pushing on.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Let’s Get This Over With

Right at the start of my adventure in rehabilitation and return to competitive swimming I took pictures and measurements to create a pictorial history of my progress back to being an athlete again. Initially this was done every month but, as my physical development lagged behind optimistic hopes and I started running out of different ways to say no change each month, the pictures eventually stopped. Well this November I’ve returned to documenting my rehabilitation’s progress despite the fact nothing significant has occurred since my last post on this subject.

Overall I feel stronger, fitter, and think my lower back and hip flexibility continue to show real improvement – just they don’t seem to translate into visible evidence. No matter. Accordingly my intentions are by the end of this season (March) to reduce my body fat percentage down to 12% from its present 17-19%. I’ve been loath up to this point to start a formal reduced calorie diet as for most of my life I’ve always struggled to put on weight. Years of effort had me close to 90 kg (198 lbs) for a time, but that was when I was younger and the extra kilos were all muscle. The image I present now at 84½ kilos is completely different and discouraging and it must change.

Practically speaking I’m now aiming for the body I had when I ran rather than the much heavier and more muscular body I possessed in my mid-thirties – a very bitter pill to accept. So my primary goal these next four months is to lose a further five or six kilos (between ten and fifteen pounds) of fat and finally come up with some pictures which will show some noticeable improvement. Hopefully I’ll add a little muscle which will complement the visual impact of a trimmer body, but the weight must come off regardless. I might even give myself take some lessons in Alexander Technique for a Christmas present and try to improve my absolutely atrocious posture. Where did that come from?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Our Halloween practice this upcoming Wednesday is normally a ‘fun’ practice so I wasn’t particularly surprised when Coach Brad scheduled our first fly main set of the season Monday night. After a five hundred warm up we went into a dolphin kick drill:
2 x 50 fly kick on back @ 1:10
2 x 50 fly kick on side @ 1:10
2 x 25 Pablo drill @ 0:45
4 x 25 heads up free with fly kick @ 0:45; all repeated twice.

Seeing where this was leading (Brad likes to hide the upcoming sets from us until the last moment) I used my fins the entire set. I can’t do Pablo but normally I make it a contest to see how quickly I can master new drills. The heads up free pull with fly kick was a new one to me and I thought I had it down in three 25s (decent) but then Brad told me I was forcing my stroke, so when we repeated the drill the second time I eased up a bit and finally got into the groove on the sixth 25 (not good) but at least I was both smooth and fast with minimal effort at the end.

The next set was our fly (surprise!):
4 x 50 fly @ 1:00
8 x 25 fly @ 0:30
100 fly (neg. split)
I kept my fins on which isn’t kosher I know, rationalizing I would concentrate on maintaining the little technique I possess throughout the set. Besides, with close to thirty individuals trying to swim fly in a small pool it got rough out there. A couple of times I caught myself laughing as I battled through waves which would make an open water swimmer comment. By the time my 100 rolled around I was pretty well shot and did it single arm drill. Warm down was a simple 8 x 100s @1:30, with the fourth and eighth 100s supposed to be choice on 2:00. Damon, who was leading my lane, went ahead and did fly for his choice but decided to leave on 1:30 anyways, which meant the rest of us were dragged along at the shorter interval. Coming in on my first backstroke I immediately started questioning my speed when I saw teammates launching themselves past me on the next rep before I even hit the wall. All said a tiring night’s practice and the normal regrets from not completing the fly set properly. Maybe I’ll be able to do a better job the next time fly rolls around.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Less Doesn’t Mean More

When I openly declared Dara Torres, the forty year old American swimming phenom, a cheat there was a strong and angry reaction. Much of it was directed at what was perceived to be my obvious ignorance of all things swimming. Apparently there are many who hold there is nothing more natural than an ex-Olympian who never medaled in an individual event until her second comeback at thirty three to return from retirement yet again, this time after recent motherhood and several more years away from the pool, to go even faster than before and rank as one of the world’s top female sprinters while nearly twice the age of the rest of the competition in less than two years. And yes I agree, that last statement’s a mouthful. One justification I gave for thinking she’s doping is the fact she trains less than thirty kilometers a week, half that usually seen by a swimmer at the Olympian level. This was jumped upon by several as proof I didn’t understand the training of a sprinter where the saying, “less is more” is often used to describe their regime. Well they have a point, not that I don’t understand the training of a sprinter, just that I should have made my reference to the time Torres spends in the pool instead of her kilometrage. Because the more time we spend in water the more we become used to moving about in it, and a better feel for the water translates into faster times. For most Olympians this means lots and lots of meters, thousands of kilometers of the stuff, where not only their strength, endurance and technical skills are honed to perfection, but stroke technique is imprinted to the point where little or no degradation occurs with fatigue. All this applies to sprinters too, though obviously with significant differences in emphasis: endurance needs are minimal and imprinting is not to counter the effects of fatigue but rather to mitigate the adverse affects of their high stroke rates. So their training rightfully incorporates a higher tempo to enable speeds which will bring their stroke rate closer to the actual turnover they’ll see in a race. Shorter distances, harder swims (which also better trains their fast twitch muscles) requires longer rest periods in between reps and consequently less overall kilometers swum, but certainly no less effort or time expended in training. And the expression ‘less is more’ is born. This knowledge isn’t some recent innovation; it was well appreciated by track sprinters back in the early part of the twentieth century. Since then we’ve continually refined and improved upon that knowledge and so can now better tailor a scientifically based program for swimming around a specific individual, but the basic understanding to race fast you must train fast is still unchanged. For example Bill Sweetenham, one of the most highly regarded swimming coaches in the world, incorporates this into his own programs by having his sprinters train up to a quarter less kilometrage than the rest of his charges. He's Australian, however, hailing from a country which has traditionally placed a huge premium on high kilometrage so he may well have a bias towards distance training. There are other internationally respected coaches who believe going even higher tempo with still less meters is the way to go. It will take some years to sort all the empirical data out to find out who’s closer to the mark and why. The really interesting thing about Dara Torres’ training is her approach doesn’t fit into either philosophy. It’s well documented she trains only five times a week, swimming between five and six thousand meters in the two hour long sessions which constitute her workouts. With less than half the number of practices normally seen by our elites everyone can see she’s got the less part down pat; I’m just having problems finding the more part. I say this because a workout between five to six thousand meters is standard training for non-sprint events, not the sort of minimal distance practice reflecting the speed the ‘less is more’ crowd considers appropriate. Once you rule out any possible advantage from her training, factor in her less than dominating performances at her first three Olympics, consider her age and the remarkable short time she's taken to make her comeback ... and I think there's only one rational explanation. Is there another?

Update: On November 18, 2007, three weeks after the above article was posted, the New York Times published an article interviewing Dara Torres and her coach Michael Lohberg among others which goes into some detail about her current training practices. There are some differences from what had been previously disclosed about her training as described above. She's training only ninety minutes a practice, not the normal two hour workouts I had assumed based on her statements about averaging between five to six thousand meters a workout. In addition the article makes it clear in the opening paragraph Torres is working a different program than the rest of the elite sprinters of the Coral Springs Swim Club, something much more in keeping with the needs of a pure sprinter and therefore considerably less kilometrage than would be the case for just shorter practices. So it appears Torres may be swimming only a third or less of the mileage of a typical Olympian, but at least she's training as a sprinter. The article, not surprisingly, does not go into detail about the changes her training regime has seen in the past few months. Consequently this new information may reflect a recently new program rather than provide a better description of her training from the beginning of 2006.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paddling About

I’ve my problems kicking. It was never one of my strengths even when I swam competitively as a child and subsequently my years of athletics developed the good, strong ankles of a runner: great for running cross country but a huge impediment for swimming as my feet stubbornly refuse to taper backwards and instead stick out like anchors. While there are specific exercises to increase ankle flexibility another more popular way is to use flippers. Fins, of course, also help move you through the water faster; an inestimable value to those of us who are already kick deficient in meeting those interval times. As a result their use can rapidly become habit forming, something I freely admit has happened to me. I’ve belatedly decided to follow Bill Sweetenham’s lead from his training guide “Championship Swim Training”, reading while he occasionally employs flippers in training normally he requires kick drills to be carried out without fins. So this last Saturday I steeled myself and went to my local pool with a workout of Coach Brad’s in hand but without fins in my bag to get me through. A rather courageous decision if I may say so as I’d modified the workout to add an extra three hundred kicking despite knowing it also contained a fly set, something which normally sends me reaching for my flippers without a second thought. My sole compromise – the workout was heavily into reps of 25s. If I had to bail I wanted to be sure the wall was somewhere close by. Imagine my chagrin when standing on the bulkhead I look out and, despite blinking several times, my eyes insisted on seeing a fifty meter pool where a twenty five meter pool was supposed to be. On this day of all days the second bulkhead was stuck in place with a broken motor – and there I stood without my fins! I managed to muddle through learning in the process my kicking has a long way to go: a long, long way. And wouldn’t you know it for Monday’s practice Brad decided to emphasize kicking without fins. His timing is eerie. Hopefully all this bother will result in some quick improvement.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What? There Are Some Out There Who Don’t Love Backstroke?

Last Monday Hyacks Burnaby had our first backstroke themed workout and Coach Brad followed up with a backstroke based warm up Wednesday – their postings on the board drawing forth a chorus of moans and complaints from my teammates. A backstroker myself I was surprised by the number who said it was their worst stroke. Surprised because we’re all masters swimmers, not the most technical bunch around, and after freestyle our abilities generally take a precipitous dive somewhat akin to our endurance beyond a hundred meters. Still, when I'm on my back swimming yet another 200 I frequently console myself with the fact I could be trying to swim the distance breaststroke or butterfly instead. And those are the only alternatives once you rule out crawl. Perhaps the complaints come from the fact most masters will never see, or more precisely stated, never want to see a workout based on fly or breast. I could well imagine the facial expressions if Brad announced an eight hundred fly set. I can well imagine my own face if he did that! Fly is clearly more difficult to swim than backstroke: so much so most of us older folk have mentally blocked our doing anything significant in butterfly from our thoughts. That leaves the choice between back and breast, and breast is an absolute bitch to swim fast. I admit masters swimming and the concept of fast aren’t exactly synonymous but we masters take the concept of fast to new lows every time we swim breast. Amongst true competitive swimmers breaststroke surely must be the leading contender as least favorite: certainly the coaching community considers it the most technically demanding (knowing my own difficulties with fly I had problems accepting this until I wanted a 'respectable' 100 breaststroke time). Of course there are a few Masters to whom these limitations don't apply. In my lane Doug, Damon and Ian are flyers by choice but they are more than competent in the others. For just one example Ian's much declared hatred for backstroke belies the fact he would be comfortably ranked Top Ten nationally if he ever did swam a backstroke race; his distaste probably stems more from the fact his teenage son can now beat him in the stroke. In Masters merely stating butterfly is your favorite is to declare oneself one of the 'elite'; the stuff of dreams for nearly every serious swimmer older than twenty four. So with two competing strokes like that how can most not love easy and friendly backstroke? Not appreciate the gentle caress of waves flowing overhead, to watch the inverse catenary curve of water trailing from a recovering arm, and performing the simple elegance of a submerged dolphin kick. Makes me think it's time to head off and get some more backstroke practice in. Admittedly I hope I'll do better than last practice when I messed up a turn and took a shot of water up my sinuses. And there was that workout just before when I was inundated by three freakish waves in a row and left half drowned. You know, when I start thinking about it...

Would you seriously consider swimming this instead?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Establishing Priorities

I had the above title, or at least something along those lines, in mind for the post announcing I had spent enough time trying to find what I could do in the pool and had decided to move on with my life. Some day that post will come but not right now, as I’m going to write instead about my beginning to understand my training priorities: the things I need to concentrate on to swim fast. I guess the most obvious will be to spend more time in the water. It seems the general consensus amongst our elite master swimmers that twenty thousand meters a week is necessary with more (much more) being better. The few programs I’m privy to are all closer to thirty thousand every week. As I’m right now treading water at something less than twenty klicks I’ve a ways to go but the plan is to work my way up to thirty over the next three to four months. This is going to be my third attempt at dealing with the physical exhaustion coming from training several times a week; but with each attempt I’ve gotten a little stronger and with a year’s training behind me I’m sure this time I’ll prevail. Time in the pool is essential for learning and perfecting the various stroke techniques, building aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, technically mastering the various starts and turns, gaining an understanding of pacing, race experience, as well as building specific muscle strength and acquiring a better feel for the water. Clearly it’s really important. After studying all the various drill progressions for each stroke, the training cycles, and test sets an Olympian needs to incorporate into training I can understand why they need to do upwards of sixty thousand a week to do it all. Looking at it from this perspective thirty thousand a week becomes the minimum commitment required to discover my personal limits. Anything less would leave open the question, “could I have swum faster if I’d trained harder?” Another important aspect of my training will be rebuilding my strength back up from injury and a general lack of serious exercise in recent years. Unfortunately I’m going to have to rely primarily on all those meters plowing up and down the pool lane to rebuild myself back to something close to where I was in my mid-thirties. A weight program was intended to supplement this and so accelerate the process, and to that end I completed the first out of this year's planned three cycles by September’s end; but I’ve come to realize I’m not physically capable of sustaining both a serious weight program and a significant increase in meters at the same time. Just too much likely, but the limitations posed by my age need to be seriously considered. Consequently, to avoid overtraining and the downtime which happened last season, I’m deferring all weight training other than simple maintenance to another year. And lastly I need to continue my progress in overall flexibility. The more I study the technical side of swimming the more evident the need to acquire a better feel for the water becomes and flexibility is crucial to that end. While I pat myself on the back for a body which is naturally stronger and better in the water than most I’ve no qualms whatsoever in saying my flexibility has always been inferior than average and has only grown worse as I’ve gotten older. Yoga classes and some daily stretching exercises are my intended route to remedy this deficiency, and since I’ve only scheduled two classes a week they have become my ‘must do’ workouts. It’ll be interesting to see how my new training schedule translates into actual times in a couple of months, at which time I’ll undoubtedly have learned a little more about swimming, technique and my body which will require further changes to my program. Self-improvement should be a never ending search and without a doubt this will be the case for me and swimming.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Bad Night In the Pool

When Coach Brad wrote Wednesday’s warm up on the board I inwardly cringed. Not that it was a bad warm up – just it was a warm up for someone who could swim better than I can. It comprised 10 x 50s on 0:50 swum in pairs of free, breast, free, 25 fly/25 back, and free. OK, the free wasn’t a problem, and the fly/back while a trifle fast for so early on was acceptable; but that breast. I have my problems with breaststroke. To give myself a minimal five second rest on 0:50 means a 0:45 fifty and that’s not far off my 100 meter personal ‘best’ pace. I suppose at another time I could have dealt with it but right now in my training my muscles ache all the time and I start every practice already tired – and that’s in spite of the fact I didn’t do any weight lifting this past week as it was a recovery week. Somehow my muscles don’t seem to realize they were supposed to have recovered by now. I’m sure we weren’t swimming this fast last year, but then we have some new, faster swimmers with us now in Doug, Dan and Damon; more than enough to encourage Coach to drop our intervals just a little closer to the ones real swimmers use. Anyways in I go trailing Damon, Ian, and Doug (who with his asthma didn’t appear too thrilled with this opening set either). The first two frees go alright despite my thinking along the way my idea of a warm up isn’t cranking out mid-thirty fifties, and then comes the breaststroke fifties. First one I accomplished at the intended pace; the second I swam a couple of seconds slower by concentrating on my glide but still needing to work perilously close to all out to do it. I hit the wall with three seconds to spare, figure #!%* it, might as well use the time to swim my next free that much slower, and went straight into the freestyle. I was starting to struggle now and by the sixth fifty the dreaded ‘tightness’ appeared around my chest. Now I’ve had years of experience dealing with my heart’s fibrillation problem, which first appeared when I ran middle distance competitively in my twenties. It’s just that the observable symptoms for an attack when running as opposed to swimming are very different, so the first time it occurred swimming I dismissed the problem as being out of shape and therefore badly out of breath. I didn’t realize at the time I wasn’t out of breath: I couldn’t breathe at all. No surprise my second attack occurred in the very next race, unfortunately this time in the middle of a 200 IM. That was impossible to ignore. The race was an absolute disaster and I finished swimming the free portion backstroke just so I could breathe whatever little I could. And then a few months later on I suffered yet another attack which caused me to abandon my first ever practice. After this I had pretty well identified the new telltales, the pain and discomfort being marvelous incentives to learn, and now knew what that ‘tightness’ meant: my heart was telling me in unmistakable terms, “BACK OFF!”. I figured, however, with the next two fifties featuring backstroke I could slow down and still keep to the interval with enough left over to handle the last two fifties. Hey, I’m a type-A male; we’re supposed to die from a heart attack. Besides Coach had pointed out a couple of weeks prior how I started bobbing when tired so I figured this would be a good way to concentrate on both my fly and back techniques while under race equivalent conditions. So I swam the next two fifties working on my butterfly’s undulation, timing my kick with my hands entering and leaving the water, and pulling all the way back to my hips; and in backstroke keeping my head steady while rotating around my axis, starting my catch earlier, and coordinating my hip slide with my six-beat kick. They went pretty well too, except that my last twenty five backstroke felt just like the last twenty five in one of my 200 back races. This gave me a little more than ten seconds rest before heading out on the set's final two reps.

Actually the symptoms of an attack are really rather benign. The atrial (upper) chambers of the heart go into fibrillation, fluttering at a rate of something close to 300 beats a minute, which stops the heart from circulating blood in anything close to an effective manner. This manifests itself (for me at least) in what feels like a bubble lodged in my windpipe – the reduced flow of blood to my lungs preventing any significant oxygen exchange and quite possibly interfering with their actual physical functioning. I stop being able to breath in any measurable way. I’m pretty sure it was holding my breath on the turn which set it off because when I came up afterwards I couldn’t take any air in, and two strokes and a second abortive attempt at breathing later swimming became secondary to breathing. That was pretty well it for the rest of the practice. I tried again after about ten minutes rest to finish out the practice but unsurprisingly had to abandon the attempt after just three hundred more meters. I’ve now had four episodes in a little more than a year which isn’t good. Before I started swimming I had only three experiences in my entire life, two when I ran competitively and the third several years later. There have been a couple of other times when an attack was impending but in those cases I merely stopped running at the first sign of trouble and quit for the day. Obviously I have to start doing the same for swimming. The trend is disturbing however – I’ll have to do something about this.

Of course the sprinters like Joe thought this practice was pretty cool.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Troubling News

I had a different subject in mind for this post, one which veered away from what is fast becoming a major theme of my blog, the problem of doping in sports. Unfortunately I drafted the intended post on a borrowed computer while traveling and now can’t open the copy I had emailed to myself. So until I can find another means to reacquire my missing work I’m stuck with using a preexisting draft of another piece which once again deals with performance enhancing drugs. I unfortunately have lots of those.

This past week multiple gold medalist Marion Jones was forced to confess her guilt and return her Olympic medals in the face of overwhelming evidence produced by the continuing BALCO investigation. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone except the na├»ve. She had been implicated in the scandal back in 2005 and her stellar performances in the Sydney Games where she destroyed her competition should have raised at least pragmatic skepticism. We need to accept the millions which can be earned from endorsements and the fame which comes with such performances are major corrupting influences. The problem is not going away and consequently every evaluation of extraordinary athletic performance nowadays must consider the possibility of performance enhancing drugs. But Marion Jones isn’t the focus today. This particular article is about my reliance upon what I think is an admittedly crude but fairly effective way to identify possible cheats through analysis of historical performance, something I used in my previous post. My premise is simple: an athlete generally won’t start doping until they realize their performance will not reach the level of a world champion. I rely on the boundless enthusiasm of youth, still confident in their ability to continue improving, to hold off doping until their limitations are pretty well conclusively proven. This delay invariably shows up as a performance plateau extending well into their peak performance years, often beyond it, until a dramatic improvement usually attributed to a change in attitude or new training/coaching methods then belatedly raises the individual to the highest levels in the sport. Likewise I depend on already established stars not to commence doping to extend their competitive careers because they or their advisers understand any possible gains would be dwarfed by the costs and ignominy of being caught. As with most generalizations, however, my premise has some inherent weaknesses. Firstly I cannot preclude there will be the rare individual who will legitimately be a late developer at the world class level, just that the odds against this happening are prohibitive. Out of all those in sport who have shown such eyebrow raising improvement late in their career there might be one whose improvement didn’t come about because of drugs. Doubtful, but the possibility does exist and my method will not allow for this. Secondly state sponsored or program doping won’t wait for a child to discover their real potential. Knowing full well the probabilities against one of their charges actually being a world champion they typically start doping soon after the onset of puberty, a practice which has the effect of obliterating any historical evidence. But here at least evidence of their crimes often shows up in other ways. Their women are invariably much more successful than their men, phenomenally so to the point where their male counterparts often don't exist (doping is considerably more effective for women than men in swimming); and because they didn’t know the true abilities of their subjects they tend to use excessive amounts, which can cause significant and noticeable changes in appearance. Then there’s my hope established stars will act rationally in their own best interest, but that isn’t necessarily true either. There is a case pending where an established superstar is under investigation for doping. A horrible, mind boggling error in judgment if true, but it can and probably will happen even if the individual is cleared in this particular case. Yet as troubling as all this is even more disturbing to my mind is the recent confession by a Canadian cyclist admitting to her long time use of Erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone used to boost red blood cell production. Genevieve Jeanson, formerly a world junior road champion, started doping when she was fifteen on the instructions of her coach. Such an admission, the fact a fifteen year old can be cajoled into doping (and the fact there are coaches out there willing to do this to one of their charges) means my methodology will increasingly become more and more obsolete as sport continues down a path where participation becomes a career move rather than athletic endeavor. It seems inevitable a few more years will see doping for performance become as acceptable to teenagers as it now is for American youth to use steroids to ‘bulk up’ for social reasons¹. Today in Canada ethics courses are required for our certified coaches but such bureaucratic approaches will ultimately prove useless in stopping those who believe doping benefits the athlete. The money and allure of success seem just too strong.

¹Doping in Sports and Its Spread To At-Risk Populations: An International Review: World Psychiatry June 2007 issue

In my meanderings I came across the following interview with Genevieve Jeanson from the official site of the Hamilton 2003 Road World Championships. I thought it made interesting reading:
Q: Hi Genevieve, you are quite a petite athlete, how do you train hard enough to be as competitive as you are, yet not be injured all the time? Do you ride with some aches or pains most of the season? Also, how do you achieve that explosive power that allows you to break away from your competitors? (Reggie Dunbar, Calgary, AB)

GJ: I have a reputation for training harder than everybody else, but I don't believe it's true. Actually my coach Andre Aubut is very careful to prevent me from overtraining. We focus not so much on the volume of work, but more on the quality of the program. In other words, I don't think I train more than everybody else, but I do think, that, thanks to Andre, I train better than most. I think that the trick is to be very systematic, to do a lot of very specific training, on and off the bike. It requires careful planning, disciplined execution, yet flexibility (because I try and listen to my aches and pains, when I have some). As for the power, well, that's one of the specifics that Andre and I have worked on for several years. A mixture of power rides on the bike, and weight training in the gym. It pays off after a while...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Different Way of Looking at Aging In Women’s Elite Swimming

When I decided to actually try to quantify how much swimming techniques and training have actually advanced in the past fifteen or so years, instead of just accepting we've made significant advances, I had a difficult time coming up with a reasonable way of doing so. I finally settled on using as my benchmark the improvement since 1988 in women’s world records (1988 chosen because I figure that was the last Olympics Dara Torres ever participated in without an assist from doping). Obviously not the best measure of just technique and training as it incorporates several other contributing factors including the biggest and most obvious: the current record holders aren’t the same; but at least it does set an absolute upper limit on what we can attribute to technique and training. After spending the better part of an afternoon creating a database to obtain the desired number I started thinking about some other way of using it. It didn’t take long for me to decide to see if there was an age related pattern to female world record holders. So that’s what I did, and not particularly surprising there is a relation between the athletes and the age at which they set the current world record. But what is truly important are the stories behind the ladies involved.

Hypothesis: On the assumption a swimmer must necessarily be at his or her best in order to break an existing world record, and of those historical few who have broken their own world record an overwhelming majority did so within a period spanning less than two years, that there is a strong correlation between the age of the current world record holders when they swam their races and their physical peak.

If the hypothesis is true we should find world records clustered together within a range of two to no more than four years given normal human development patterns (i.e. the four year Olympic cycle was correctly chosen to include every participant’s period of peak performance). There are seventeen events recognized by FINA, and with world records granted for both long and short course it makes for a total of 34 world records for women. I’ve limited my analysis to Olympic long course or half of these – and in so far as their ages when they set their records they range from seventeen to twenty seven, a far greater range called for by my hypothesis. So let us look more closely.

The youngest current world record holder is Krisztina Egerszegi, setting the 200 back record only one week after her seventeenth birthday. Two others also made the list at seventeen: Janet Evans just one week shy of her eighteenth birthday in the 800 and Katie Hoff taking home the 400 IM record with a couple of months to spare. Most surprisingly we only have one woman whose world record was set when she was eighteen – Kate Zeigler, giving herself a birthday present just ten days before her nineteenth. I’ll return to discuss the lack of eighteen year olds later on. The greatest cluster of records occurs in the twentieth year with five; counting in Therese Alshammar, Jessicah Schipper, Yanyan Wu, and Laure Manoudou with two. And lastly Leisel Jones’ two breastroke records were set six and seven months after she turned twenty. These eleven records then are contained by the bounds set out in my hypothesis. Of the eleven only three have ever had any doping associations to my knowledge. The Chinese swimmer Yanyan Wu was caught three years after her record taking anabolic steroids for a rather conclusive ‘positive’ association (Katie Hoff has stated it is her singular goal in swimming to take the 200 IM record away from Wu to which we can only say our hopes go with her). I actually debated whether or not to mention the other swimmer as they were only rumors, but in the interests of full disclosure I will reveal there were whispers when Leisel Jones showed up at a major Australian swim meet with considerable muscle gain a few months after she had set her records. But this is the only instance where the name Leisel Jones and doping come up in a sentence together. It seems there’s only one probable doping in this group, and even this case can be linked to a state sponsored doping program where the athlete is often an unwilling or unknowing participant in the fraud.

And now there are six. American Leila Vaziri is the next oldest with a world record at twenty one years and seven months. But her story veers away from the pattern of unbroken successes shown by her younger counterparts. We pick up Vaziri’s relatively undistinguished career as an Indiana University sophomore where she finished 7th in the NCAA 100 back. At the start of the summer break her father was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter and obviously she was grief stricken. Her swimming fell off in her junior year and she ended the season with a 10th place finish at the 2006 NCAA finals. After taking some time off from swimming she returned in 2006 for her senior year “with a renewed focus and drive. Mental strength, she says, is more important now than physical strength.”¹ She almost immediately won her first and only national title at the ConocoPhillips National Championships to explode onto the world scene, and ended up chopping 2.5 seconds off her 100 back in less than a year. Her world record in the 50 back came as a complete surprise to everybody – it was the first time she had competed in the event internationally. She graduated from Indiana U this past May and is now training with the Coral Springs Swim Club, the same club the ageless Dara Torres belongs to and trains with.

With a world record at twenty two years nine months German Britta Steffen was another surprise. A phenom at fifteen with a 55.66 100 free at the 1999 European Junior Championships it would be another seven years before she recorded a new personal best. She was a substitute on Germany’s 2004 Olympic 4x100 free relay team and afterwards took a break from the sport; not swimming at all in 2005. She came back with a bang though, finally breaking through with a new PB 100 free time of 54.82 March 2006 and then five months later at the European Championships raced to a new world record in the 100 free with a 53.30. From nowhere close to the world’s top rankings to world record holder in a few short months her late career improvement has been attributed to a change in coaching and extensive psychological counseling; enough for her to deal with an eating disorder and see a dramatic turnaround in both motivation and attitude. Shortly thereafter Germany’s swimming federation announced a “blood passport” program in conjunction with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to protect German swimming against accusations of doping.

Australian Jade Edmistone, world record holder in the 50 breastroke, is quite the enigma. Her career path is remarkably similar to our teenage world record holders except for one striking difference – her international career started about four years later than everybody else mentioned here except for Vaziri. She only appears on Australia’s national stage in 2002 at the advanced age of twenty, reaching the 50 breast finals at the Long Course Australian Championships and taking silver and fifth in the 50 and 100 breast respectively at the Short Course Australian Championships. Prior to 2002 it appears she didn’t even qualify to swim at her country’s national championships. Even her own website gives no information about her history in age group swimming. But once on the scene Edmistone showed steady progress. She set the 50 meter short course breaststroke world record in September 2004, broke her first long course record (50 breastroke again) ten months later at twenty three years and five months of age, and then went on to break that record again a week before her twenty fourth birthday.

Next oldest on the list is of all people American Natalie Coughlin. I would think after reading about some of the backgrounds of the older world record holders a few of my readers may be getting a little uneasy, but Natalie Coughlin has such a well documented history of continued excellence over the past several years I won’t spend anytime detailing her career here. I can and do point out her first long course world record (in her best event the 100 backstroke) was set a couple of weeks before her twentieth birthday which fits in nicely with my hypothesis. Her recent improvement on that time by the scant margin of 14 hundredths of a second at twenty four years and seven months of age I believe can be rationally explained as her not significantly slowing over the past 4½ years rather than getting faster. Whatever the explanation swimming a world record at such a late age represents an exceptional achievement accomplished by only very few in history.

Finally the oldest female world record holder is Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn with two world records in the 50 free and 100 fly, both logged a month into her twenty eighth year. Her story makes for especially good reading. She appeared on the world stage at the VI FINA World Championships at seventeen in 1991, and the following year at the 1992 Barcelona Games finished 8th in the 100 free and ninth in the 100 fly. Questions went unanswered over her ejection from the Dutch Olympic Team preparing for the 1996 Atlanta Games for ostensibly a “poor attitude”, but her times had already started to falter the year before after three years of competing at a consistently high, though not spectacular, level of performance (satisfyingly the performance curve shown in her early career conforms exactly to my hypothetical ‘classic’ years of peak performance). Apparently no longer welcome in the Netherlands she began training with well regarded Paul Bergen in Oregon and by 1997 saw a return to her past form. Thus started a period of four years of continually faster times which culminated at the 2000 Sydney Games winning four medals (three gold and one relay silver) and three world records, including the two which still exist today. Her improvement over those years was nothing short of phenomenal: three and a half seconds off her 100 fly, three seconds off her 100 free, and over one and a half seconds off her 50 free. Suspicions her times were aided by doping were rampant and openly discussed, but she never failed a test. Until recently it was my opinion Inge de Bruijn represented what has been the most egregious case of successful doping in swimming; that is until Dara Torres assumed the crown.

So what happened to those eighteen year olds? We should be seeing something very close to a normal distribution (aka a bell curve) when charting the ages of our current world record holders and obviously it doesn’t come close. You can understand the odds against being a world record holder can be likened to those encountered to win a major lottery: the odds of even one of them also physically maturing at a markedly different rate than normal would multiply those odds several fold. We have four or five here. Of course there’s another explanation – the individual is so much better than the rest of the human population they have the ability to continue swimming past their peak performance years and still break world records – but the odds against that are quite incredible too. Nevertheless that is exactly what I’m ascribing to Coughlin’s latest world record. She’s long dominated the 100 back, and without a serious challenge I believe she was never pushed enough to test her true limits, or for that matter has ever known them. Only recently has the rest of the world caught up with her and unsurprisingly she responded with a new personal best. I’m of the opinion her recent record shows she had a mid to low 58 in her during her peak years. As for the rest forget it, and if you disagree with me just read their stories again. That means we have five world records that belong somewhere else. So where did the eighteen year olds’ records go? Simple – they were stolen.

¹Leila Vaziri: Peaking at the Perfect Time – USA Swimming Mar.22, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

Getting Into It

It meaning my flip turns. Coach Brad pointed out I still wasn’t entering my turns properly, reminding me to commence the turn in conjunction with my final stroke at the wall and to make sure I tucked my head tightly. Now you might think this is all pretty elementary but I actually had to go through the motions a few times before I understood the whys behind the instruction. You see before now when I went to make a turn I’d take my final stroke, look up to make sure the wall hadn’t moved, then duck my head and with a convulsive heave throw my legs over. Actually given my age and flexibility the best I can do is get my legs to flop most way out of the water rather more to the side than overhead. Once around I’d line myself up with the wall again (quite literally) and then push off. Really it’s true. Aside from knowing I have incredibly bad turns for some reason this fact didn’t bother me over much until now – I think my mind was rationalizing the pause at the wall with the logic reversing directions must result in my forward velocity at some point dropping to zero. The difference in carrying momentum through the turn when I do a proper approach is quite profound. I’m actually moving away from the wall even before I push off so I’m accelerating much faster than before. Even better the shorter time spent making the actual turn means extra time and air for my submerged dolphin kick, something which if I ever learn to do properly will mean still better times. Try as I might I haven’t made much progress in correcting a bad habit of blowing half my air out to prevent water coming up my nose during mid-flip so the shorter duration means less of a ‘snort’. Of course running out of sufficient air to keep my sinuses clear still happens on a distressingly regular basis, but now at least it’s occurring over a meter farther down the pool. It’s progress, slow and painful, but progress. A couple of new difficulties have arisen from the changes though which I’ll have to work through. The first is my new rotation speed has meant I’ve a tendency to over rotate and pop up like a whale breaching the surface only a couple of meters away; and secondly no longer coasting into the turn has me initiating a fair number of them too early. Both problems, however, should be easily correctable given a little practice and time. I figure my turns may end up at a half to a full second faster, which translates into a serious improvement in my back and free times. Isn’t it wonderful how such small improvements in something completely irrelevant to one’s life can provide such a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? Quite absurd really.

P.S. I’ve discovered coming out of the tumble too late is eminently preferable to doing the opposite and finding oneself still two meters deep when the air runs out! Luckily in my pool it’s easy at that depth to find the bottom to push off from, but embarrassing to be gasping for air whilst bobbing up and down in the water like a cork with the rest of the lane trying to avoid running over me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Massage Week

I’ve always had a tendency towards muscle cramps in the early stages of training and that tendency certainly hasn’t abated as I’ve gotten older. This month is the first of three planned months of ever heavier workouts intended to take me to a level of training capable of supporting true competitive swimming (at least for Masters) and the accumulated wear and tear of the past three weeks combined with Coach Brad’s emphasis on speed work has set off some bad cramping in my feet and legs. It’s always worth the effort to try to swim through the problem and typically this will succeed about a third of the time, but last Wednesday when I tried to do this during a short set it backfired on me, especially after I ‘tweaked’ my left hamstring starting the set. The cramp fully blossomed shortly thereafter on the second rep when I felt the hamstring start to tighten and, in the effort of trying to relax the muscle threw my left calf into spasm, quickly followed by my left foot, and then to completely screw me, my suffering hamstring joined the protest. I believe that’s the first time in my life all three of those muscles have cramped at the same time. Part of my problem probably lies with the fact I haven’t scheduled a massage in over three months since I lost my therapist to marriage and a move this past spring. But perhaps, and on a more hopeful note, another contributing factor may be yoga related back realignment and increased hip flexibility is causing my muscles to recast themselves to their subtly changed roles. In any event I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone by scheduling three massages over this week by three different therapists. The idea is to work on all my muscles rather than target one specific problem while at the same time determining which therapist will be best for me. One thing is for certain – I can’t take these muscles cramps for much longer. They’re really starting to hurt.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Freakishly Good Write at Timed Finals

A few days back I wrote a post about how the highest echelons of sport are invariably being occupied by individuals who not only work hard but are also phenomenally gifted. Now I've come across the same subject written by Mike Gustafson over at the Timed Finals website whom I believe has done a much better job in communicating the concept of 'freaks' in an entertaining and informative way. I recommend you read it; and if you're up to it, a couple of my earlier posts which also touched on talent (Talent: God's Gift) and what for most of us sport is truly about (My First Coach Archie McKinnon).

Friday, September 21, 2007

Gary Hall Jr. Has Great Big Ones

In studying how sprint training relates to swimming for some upcoming posts I looked over The Race Club’s website – the Club itself a training facility for sprint excellence founded by the Olympian father and son swimming duo of Gary Hall and Gary Hall Junior. While I haven’t acquired any information about sprint training techniques (not surprising as The Race Club charges fees for its camps and clinics) I’ve learned Gary Hall Jr. and I share similar backgrounds, some similar beliefs, and even better that he and his father are pretty good writers. Consequently you’ll now find The Race Club listed in my Swimming Links section. A recent post of his, though, took me a little aback with its outspokenness; and no, it’s not a case of the kettle calling someone black. Gary Hall Jr. simply goes after a lot bigger fish. He’s questioned the phenomenal achievements of a “really nice guy” (RNG) by raising the possibility of him being guilty of doping, something I admit is fair enough because I’ve also talked about this possibility with a couple of friends. But Hall’s actually gone charging on in and named him before a doping incident linked to him is closed. Those who know or have read about Junior won’t be surprised by this of course. You don’t win the number of Olympic gold sprint medals Gary Hall Jr. has by being tentative now do you? It should be noted for the record that RNG (who has not yet been officially identified) failed a drug test indicating the presence of banned drugs but was excused by ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) for unknown reasons. This decision was challenged by FINA, requiring ASADA to conduct a just recently completed review of the case which saw the original decision upheld. So now FINA’s appealing the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). There’s plenty of room for speculation. Junior proposes RNG has been doping over a long period of time, perhaps even for most of his career, to a level just under the point which would call for sanction, only to be caught out after returning from an extended absence due to injury and illness by a recent change in the acceptable levels of testosterone. He complains the allowable limit for testosterone was set far too high at 6:1, this being the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone more commonly known as the T/E ratio; arguing if a normal healthy young individual’s ratio is only 1:1 then a 6:1 or 4:1 ratio allows unscrupulous individuals to tailor their doping regimes to keep under the legal limit (the T/E ratio does not discriminate between sexes but females typically possess only a fifth of the absolute amount of testosterone possessed by males).

The problem here keys on the use of normal, because when you get into the elite ranks of swimming normal starts to become less and less relevant. There are some who have natural testosterone ratios of 4:1 or even higher – it’s one of the reasons they’re as competitive as they are. Throw in the fact there are several known ways to naturally boost testosterone levels, ranging from alcohol consumption to the use of birth control pills and recent sex, then add in the inherent variability of the tests themselves, and determining just who is doping and who isn’t becomes considerably more blurry. For these reasons when testing was first instituted the ratio was established at 10:1. After studies showed the methods were sufficiently rigorous it was dropped to 6:1, and then in 2005 it was reduced still further to the current 4:1. Contrary to popular belief, while this ratio is considered in determining a positive result, it is used more as a screen for more complex and conclusive tests. Experience has shown a sample with a T/E ratio of 20:1 or ‘better’ will reveal doping more than 95% of the time¹ but the confirmation rate drops as the ratio declines. A 10:1 T/E ratio sees only 31% confirmed positive and the recent reduction in the threshold ratio from 6:1 to 4:1 has resulted in only an additional 0.3% increase in adverse findings (3 out of 1,000). Having the first sample fail doesn’t mean a positive test but it does, however, prompt the testing of the athlete’s “B” sample to verify the initial finding. Only if the second test confirms a higher than allowable amount of T does a positive test officially result. Still no reason to panic, especially if the test results from the two samples are only a little over the allowable 4:1 ratio because you’ll remember we can expect many in this particular population will have naturally high T/E ratios and there are a lot of ways the level can be boosted naturally. A confirmatory second test should therefore be carried out which examines the carbon isotope ratios of the byproducts of testosterone metabolism, known as metabolites, to determine whether the testosterone was made by the body ('endogenous T') or came from a man-made source ('exogenous T'). Four different metabolites are tested and an abnormal result in just one of them will confirm the positive result (i.e. the sample contains manufactured testosterone). It’s the finding of man-made testosterone in the sample which provides the actual evidence of doping. If there’s no evidence of exogenous testosterone then regardless of how high the T/E ratio the athlete will have an excellent chance to be cleared on review – despite a confirmed positive result of testosterone in excess of allowable limits.

So you see while Gary Hall Jr.’s hypothesis of how RNG could have been cheating has merit it is also quite possible to have a positive result and see it reversed by the responsible authority. In fact, rather than saying the ratio is too lax, many are arguing it is far too narrow knowing what we do about the natural variability in human testosterone levels. Dissenters believe, beyond just being a waste of money, that the constant stream of false positives resulting from the current 4:1 T/E ratio will eventually cause the general public to lose confidence in the testing system. Perhaps the way to go is to jump directly to carbon isotope testing in certain random situations to prevent ‘doping to limit’, but practically speaking the present standard is already pretty close to that. RNG didn’t need his medical team to screw up and not adjust his doping program to the new standards (a very doubtful hypothesis); at his hypothetical elevated levels a slight unforeseen fluctuation in his testosterone, maybe too much beef for dinner, could have been enough to get him flagged for carbon isotope testing. Nowadays the margin for error is much too tight for somebody to hope get away with boosting testosterone levels over a long period of time without eventually raising some flags. But if RNG was cheating and caught as Junior suggests his medical ‘advisors’ may still be responsible for the mess: more knowledgeable cheats are now believed to be using animal based testosterone preparations because of the similarities their carbon isotope ratios have to endogenous T. Oy vey.

¹I have to point out this means upwards of five percent of those tested actually had naturally occurring T/E ratios of 20:1 or more – an amazing ratio which prompts the obvious question – just how do we get invited to their parties? On a more serious note the T/E ratio is known to be also affected by ethnicity; age; circadian rhythm; training and competition; diet; nutritional supplementation; environmental factors; enzyme deficiencies; decreased epitestosterone excretion; menstruation; pregnancy; other hormonal therapy; consumption of meat from animals supplemented with anabolic steroids; polycystic ovary syndrome (a common endocrine disorder); and other pathologic medical conditions (source: Inferences About Testosterone Abuse Among Athletes).

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Little Irritated

A couple of days ago I was struggling in a yoga class and getting more irritated by the minute, made more so because our session’s instructor was a very perky, cheerful girl who continually had us holding positions longer than required (I count strokes so why wouldn’t I count off the time?). But my irritation really wasn’t her fault. Right now I’m back into what I euphemistically call ‘Full Training’ trying to ramp my swimming all the way up to 30k (12 hours) a week while doing four weight sessions and two yoga classes at the same time. I find it very hard work – last spring when I tried to do this over training ended up costing me three weeks off to recuperate – and the workload leaves me in a perpetual state of fatigue and soreness (hence my irritability). Weight training especially has a hugely negative impact on my swimming performance, but this is expected and the reason why strength building is always restricted to the off season. My real problem is my swimming is suffering so much I’m having trouble even handling practices. I guess this is what comes from getting old.

My club, the Hyack Swim Club, schedules ten workouts a week for Master swimmers using three pools. Unfortunately the program is split between four groups and scheduling conflicts/group demarcations means the most anyone can swim is three times a week. Obviously three hours a week isn’t enough to compete on so I schedule practices on my own at the Hyacks' main pool where I can train both long course and short course. For my first year I was quite content to just put in some meters for general conditioning purposes and so would dash off a workout on paper in a few minutes before heading off to the pool. Now that I’m looking for better times I figure a little more attention should be paid to the composition of my workouts and perforce have had to teach myself some up to date theory and training practices. I finally settled on Bill Sweetenham’s book ‘Championship Swim Training’ as my training guide and so far (this being my first month) I think I’ve made an excellent choice. I admit my first encounter with this book left me wondering if perhaps it's aimed at too high a caliber of swimmer for me to use, but since he does make regular references to masters I figure where it gets too much I can just slow it down and stretch it out. In his preface (yes, I’m the sort of guy who reads prefaces) he writes about the amount of work which is necessary for best results in swimming:
Swimming 8 Hours a Week
This level offers participation, fun, involvement, and significant health benefits, but it is not competition swimming and never produces a competitive result.

Swimming 10 to 12 Hours a Week
This amount of swimming is too much training to be fun but not enough to produce a competitive result. The swimmers in this middle ground never feel good, and in time they become frustrated. We call this the competitive swimming twilight zone.

Swimming 18 to 24 Hours a Week
This level can be termed competitive swimming. Athletes in this program are committed and gain satisfaction by attaining improved competitive results.
Son-of-a-bitch! That pretty well takes care of us masters. Thankfully I don’t need to be competitive as I would be absolutely delighted to just settle for holding one or two Masters world records, but still his suggested minimum hours for ‘competitive swimming’ floored me when I first read this. Remember this is only the time spent actually in the pool. Start adding in travel, dry land training, physiotherapy, and all the rest and you’re looking at effectively a full-time job equivalent. Seems he’s referring to world-class when he writes about being ‘competitive’. Regardless his attitude indicates how important and necessary training is to swimming your best. I’d love to know what he thinks of Dara Torres’ success, coming as it does from only ten hours in the pool a week.

Update: New information from a New York Times article dated November 18, 2007 about Torres' training program reveals she is only training ninety minutes a workout, making for an average of just 7½ hours training a week.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Michael Phelps and the Rest of the Freaks


I’m pretty sure the average person has no idea just how freakish, how special, a world record holder in swimming now is. They certainly don’t have the foggiest concept of what makes a great athlete. On our blogs we talk about and compare world record performances as if we were kids trading baseball cards, but like children we have little real comprehension of the true magnitude of the achievements. Forget about the world record holders – one has to be a very, very special individual to even qualify for the Olympics, and it isn’t just due to hard work. In preparing my last post about Jim Sorensen I came across where he had to explain to his school’s principal his American record in the 800 meters was a Master’s record, not ‘the’ American record; and how his students asked him if he was going to run at the Beijing Olympics. I have my own experience with this. I still remember watching an East German touched out for the gold in the 1980 Moscow Games by a couple of hundredths of a second and remarking how devastating it must be for the swimmer – only to hear an Aunt, an exceptionally bright and knowledgeable woman, remark “he should have worked harder”. How else can I explain why nearly six out of ten believe a forty year old mother coming back with less than two years training can be one of best sprinters in the world? That they accept she can continue to improve twenty years past her peak? In the movie Good Will Hunting the protagonist is a mathematical prodigy promoted by Fields Medalist Gerard Lambeau, an individual who recognizes Hunting’s talent outstrips even his own prodigious genius. In Amadeus the accomplished composer Salieri similarly shares Lambeau’s shock and dismay when he listens to the genius of Mozart’s music. Is there any one who believes all the two had to do to reach the same level of achievement was work harder and better? Of course not. But why then do the majority of people believe ultimate success at sport can be determined by training methods and learned techniques?

As world records continue to be pushed lower and lower swimming’s pinnacle is increasingly being occupied by the statistical anomalies, the outliers, those one in a hundred million individuals whose physical makeup and biochemistry are best suited to competing in the water. Michael Phelps is a great example of such a freak. At 193 cm (6’4”) and 86½ kgs (195 lbs.) a quick glance would see the typical heavyweight Olympian swimmer. A second and closer look would belie that as his leg inseam is only 81 cm. (32”), a length of leg more befitting a six foot man. This actually helps as there’s less leg for drag but in the absolutely critical arm span category, where the greater the reach the better for propulsion, Phelps’ 201 cms (6’7”) wingspan corresponds more to his theoretical height had he possessed a more normally proportioned body. A great advantage. Sure his size 14 feet make for nice flippers but far higher on the ‘what makes a fast swimmer’ scale is his overall hyperflexibility. Mark Spitz has hyperflexible knees, the ability not only to flex more than usual but to also flex the opposite way, so his legs could operate rather like a dolphin’s tail. It's helpful. In Michael Phelps case all of his joints are hyperflexible, which makes him rather awkward out of the water and notable for an inability to safely perform many dry land exercises such as running and weight training. But in water he quite literally swims like a fish. His coach Bowman also hints at a superbly adapted metabolism by being quoted as saying, “He (Phelps) had been metabolically trained since the age of 7, which is a plus”. Another piece of Phelppian trivia is Phelps has never taken a test to measure his VO² max despite a high reading being almost a precondition for elite status. Perhaps Bowman and Phelps aren’t particularly interested in a test which wouldn’t directly contribute to improved performance – there would be few takers on a bet it isn’t somewhere between 'Wow!' and 'No Freaking Way!' Yet for all this if you talked to his coach he’d probably first mention Phelps’ ‘feel for the water’ as his biggest advantage, a feel which is extraordinary even among world class swimmers. His ability to streamline his body, to come out of a turn faster than anyone else, to have mastered every stroke, is famous in the swimming world. So Phelps has all the ingredients to become a great swimmer plus one other. He’s also noted for his work ethic. There’s a saying “Great athletes are born, and then made better”. Day in and day out Phelps has put in the hours, reportedly not missing a single day in his career, and regularly putting in 70,000 meter weeks. Trying to beat a Freak at his or her own game is pretty nigh unattainable, but for a Normal to beat a Freak when he or she is willing to work hard at their gift – that's simply impossible.

P.S. Technically Liesel would have been disqualified for what would have been an illegal breaststroke back in 1972.