Saturday, February 24, 2007

This was a Good Practice

I swore to myself for the next three or four months I’d only spend time on this blog writing ‘editorials’ such as my ‘Living in the Past’ post instead of frivolous posts merely recounting my day-to-day swimming experiences. But Friday’s practice was a milestone of sorts for me so I’m indulging myself. Our practice was 2,700 meters and started out with 4 x 400s @ 7:00 composed of a free swim, a kick, a pull, and an IM. I won’t speak for the rest of my teammates but I was a little shocked seeing that IM on the board. With my recent difficulties swimming in Lane Six, however, I felt obliged to prove I belonged so when the IM came around I set out to swim it instead of, say, taking the opening fly as a drill. I eased my way through fly, recovered on the back leg, and then simply kept swimming through the breast and free. By doing so I actually finished what was my first 400 IM ever as I quit swimming before swimming the event as a youth. And because I’ve only recently begun to swim the 100 fly with fins you could even say this was my first 100 fly as well. Two more pieces of noteworthy news came this same night. I always try to work in as many back rollover turns into practice as possible now and tonight for the first time I found myself able to stop water from coming up my nose in the turn. It is difficult to convey the deep pleasure this gives me, even if I can only do it for a couple of kicks. Progress and no choking burn – could life get any better? Secondly I finally talked to Coach about needing to get some race specific training for my 200 back and he’s going to incorporate some mid-practice timed drills for me. This goes way beyond what I was expecting, which was something more along the lines of timed runs before or after the workout; but obviously to get reasonably accurate times I need to be warmed up (precluding start of practice) and not too tired (precluding end of practice). I love Hyack coaching!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Living in the Past

With what measure ye mete, it shall be
measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is
in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the
beam that is in thine eye.
Matthew 7.2-3

There’s a huge emphasis on times in masters swimming. Recent race times, personal best times, existing record times, and workout interval times all figure prominently in how we view our own swimming and that of our teammates and fellow competitors. It’s because we invariably come from competitive swimming backgrounds where a person was entirely valued by how fast they swam - speed being the be all and end all of the sport. There’s some logic to this attitude but I’m going to argue once we get to masters how fast you swim becomes completely irrelevant. Winning a race where there’s less than half a dozen competitors in your age bracket should render the glory of winning moot. Even the concept of records in masters is highly questionable for several reasons. One of them is the effort which must go into racing at one’s physical best. I’ve done some calculations and, taking maximum VO² as the baseline for performance, you would need to swim a minimum of 12,000 to 15,000 meters a week at 80% of max heart rate or better for five years. And that’s assuming very high quality (and harsh) training – likely it would take averaging well above 20,000 meters a week to accumulate the proper kilometrage if you allow for an average pain threshold. When you’re thirteen you have both the time and incentive (the Olympics and university scholarships spring to mind) to pursue such an effort; but as an adult those incentives have passed and life has other more pressing commitments. One may conceivably train to peak conditioning but for how long? Officially masters swimming goes from age 25 to death; is anybody going to train that hard for fifty or more years? Point one: in masters only a handful of swimmers will be racing at their physical peak in any one year and those who do so won’t sustain the effort beyond a few years. A second argument against recognizing masters records relates to the overall numbers who participate in masters swimming. In any sport the level a country’s elite athletes reach directly correlates to the number of its citizens who participate. A broad participation base provides the statistical probability of uncovering those rare individuals who can compete on an international level and only a small percentage from that small pool become world champions. Given the very low participation rate in masters swimming it can be conclusively said those few who swim masters will not reflect the true potential of the sport. Point two: low participation drastically reduces the probability any existing (and future) record will come close to approaching the maximum performance ceilings for masters swimming. A third, and in my opinion the most powerful argument, is the world’s Olympic elite don’t participate in masters swimming. Yes, there are past Olympic games participants who swim in masters, but they do so for only a short period of time before realizing 1) the effort to regain their past conditioning is doomed from the start which invariably leads to frustration; and 2) there’s no glory to be had in masters. The more successful the athlete the less likely they are to reenter swimming – as a case in point there’s not one world masters record now held by a former world record holder. Point three: the fact the proven elite in the sport eschew Masters reduces masters swimming to a minor league level and therefore ill qualified to set benchmarks in the sport.

FINA, the international swimming body, implicitly recognizes this by referring to masters swimming as ‘age group’ swimming, effectively equating our advanced years with those swimmers disabled by physical infirmities (i.e. swimmers with an age disability). It appears all the national bodies also recognize masters swimming isn’t a proper competitive sport: for example Masters Swimming Canada’s tagline is “Fun, Fitness, Friendship, and Participation”; U.S. Masters Swimming’s tagline is “Swimming for Life”. And this is how it should be. Given the huge disparities between the sport’s participants and the number of variables involved it simply isn’t possible to compare times between two swimmers and come to any rational conclusion. I’ve tried to recognize this by purposefully not using my swimming times in my posts, only to be frustrated on occasion by others who announce my times as a benchmark of their own success or failure, or even as a compliment to me. This, if understandable given the competitive paradigm we all came from, is wrong. I don’t say one’s times are not relevant, but rather they only have personal meaning as a measure of one’s own fitness and progress and nothing more. Perhaps an analogy would explain my position better. After a practice a teammate who also trains with a running club (the same running club, incidentally, as Joe belongs to) regaled us with a story about a fellow runner training for triathlons. My teammate, curious about his swimming ability, asked for his time in the 50 meter free. This was something he didn’t know but the very next run came back and told him he could swim the distance in 55 seconds. “Fifty five seconds”, responded this teammate of mine, “why we have swimmers on our team who can swim more than twice that fast!” The story was received with much amusement in the locker room. Apparently I was the singular exception, for I well know we could take that 0:26+ fifty into a proper swim club and get the very same reaction. The runner was not a competitive swimmer, even less a sprinter, and judging him to his face on such a basis was uncalled for. And this from a swimmer, a good swimmer, who’s quit attending swim meets because of a particularly bad race a couple of years before. We simply have to face the reality we no longer compete on an equal basis and to stop evaluating or comparing ourselves against times others swim. By all means judge yourself, for you know best what you’re both capable of, and more importantly, what you’re seeking from masters swimming. I will say, however, that if someone is looking to recapture or redeem their youth I think their efforts are misplaced. There is no glory in masters swimming - health, camaraderie, and perhaps accomplishment, but no glory. That opportunity past by long ago.

P.S. On a lighter note I came across this video of S6 swimmer Igor Plotnikov setting a new SWAD world record of 0:32.52 in the 50 fly… without arms. After watching this (beyond being impressed to no end and wondering if it hurt when his head hit the end of the pool) I definitely felt the need to spend more time in the pool and work on my kick!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

Well at last night’s practice I dutifully trotted out the backstroke flags to get ready to request my first timed 200 before practice but when Coach Brad showed up a little later than usual I deferred making the request until afterwards. That turned out to be a mistake as when practice ended I was just glad I could walk off the pool deck. Telling us in our start-of-practice briefing we were “going to do something different tonight” he toted up on the board a warm up which would comprise practically the night’s entire workout. Now I’m absolutely convinced Brad’s stealing sets from our ‘Senior 2:30’ group! Still I’m forced to admit not only does it appear to my inexpert eye to be a good warm up for national level swimmers but it also makes for an excellent one shot training session for us lesser beings. The warm up was a two thousand meter IM set broken out as follows:

2 x 100 fr pl @ 2:00
4 x 25 sw @ 0:50/0:50/0:25/0:55
100 fr sw/pl @ 1:15
4 x 25 sw @ 0:50/0:50/0:25/0:55

The 500 meters are repeated four times swimming the 25s in IM order (eg. in the first subset all the 25s are fly, in the second they’re back, and so on). Ian requested we be allowed to swim in reverse IM order which Coach allowed. I didn’t understand Ian’s rationale so asked him why we wouldn’t want to swim the fly 25s while we were still fresh. His response he wasn’t ready to swim fly plus the 100 free right off the bat was met with murmurs of approval all around so that’s what we did despite my deep reservations about leaving that fly to the end. Reservations clearly justified as it turned out. There’s a reason why I dread trying to race 200 meters – with only six months training under my belt I just don’t have any endurance and flaming out is painful. In fact I’ve learned to my chagrin, as opposed to my youth when I could simply accept the pain and soldier on, nowadays my body simply shuts down. Pain with results makes for a rational decision, but pain and no results is a very bitter pill indeed. Anyways we proceeded with the set. Even doing breaststroke the 25s weren’t difficult, there being only the one 0:25 interval which needed to be taken hard but we had plenty of rest from the following 25. The joker in the pack was that damn 100 free on 1:15. It meant swimming under 1:10 to properly prepare for the next group of 25s. Essentially the set was a 4 x 100 free @ 1:15 with a bunch of meters in between to keep one occupied until the next 100 rolled around. The free and breast went OK, but by the time back came up I wasn’t looking forward to the next 100. I managed to finish it on about 1:11, thanking the gods profusely for having backstroke to recover with, but knew I was finished for the last 100. So after the first four flys I told Darci (the third of our Lane 6 triumvirate) I was only swimming a fifty instead of the 100 and recommended she go ahead. Both Coach and Ian though encouraged me not to give up and try the 100 and so chastened I made the attempt. Struggling through the first 25 I even made a tumble turn and made it back on a reasonable pace but I was completely drained by the effort, and at the 60 meter mark fell off the tempo to such an extent Darci overtook me at the wall. After about a ten second breather I finished off the 100 and then did the next two 25 fly as one-armed drills before finishing the set off with a couple of proper swims. We ended the workout with a 4 x 50 kick @ 1:10 warm down. A really good workout – just a little beyond my capabilities at this time.

Monday, February 19, 2007

English Bay Swim Meet

Yesterday was the fourth swim meet in our province’s race calendar. I entered last month into three events: the 50 free, the 200 back, and the 100 fly. Now racing the fly was a problem – I haven’t reached the point where I’m comfortable with the concept of racing 100 meters fly and had pretty well decided to scratch from the event when the choice was taken out of my hands. I needed to put in a half day’s work that same afternoon, which precluded me from staying around for the event anyways. In so far as the 50 free I had really wanted to swim the 100 but scheduling conflicts didn’t allowed it. So a throw away race because I'm not a sprinter. My 200 back race, however, very much wasn't. First up was the 50 free and I just wasn’t in a good mood at all. Stepping up on the blocks I was wishing to be anywhere else but getting ready to race. Had one of my typical starts and was moderately slow off the blocks, remembered to get a couple of kicks in before surfacing (Coach Brad would appreciate that) and then promptly blew it by taking a breath. I don’t know why I take a breath every time I surface after a dive but it seems to be pretty well ingrained and I’m having difficulty breaking the habit. It didn’t help my mind wasn’t properly focused on the matter at hand either. I also failed to concentrate on getting a powerful stroke and keeping my head down rather than relying on mere turnover; made a marginal turn (not the desired quick and tight tumble I’ve been practicing), and then proceeded to breath every cycle on the way back all the while mentally noting I shouldn’t be doing so and not really caring. I suppose I should take the fact the end result was in the upper range of my target time and be thankful. Yet when you know you should have done better it’s difficult to be satisfied. For someone who lives by the mantra, “always do your very best” it’s particularly irritating. I wasn’t the only one ticked off at my performance. Coach Brad very diplomatically only shook his head while pointing out I took that first breath, but at an elite level an error that egregious would almost certainly result in a talk about whether I was serious at competing and even possibly being placed on probation. If I was coach I’d be absolutely furious.

This was, of course, not the best lead in to my 200 back race. If I was in a delicate mental state before the sprint then my mind was absolutely toast getting into the water for the start. It didn’t take long for me to implode. Half a length into the race I passed under the false start rope and mistaking it for the backstroke flags started into my rollover turn two strokes later. DQ’d before the first turn has to be record somewhere! I actually don’t take the crushing ignominy of it all that badly. There were some mitigating circumstances. The first was I had missed the warm up as I had left my bathing suit at home (I’ll leave the obvious commentary to the amateur psychologists out there) and so didn’t practiced my turns in the competition pool. Instead I had to use the warm up pool which didn’t have any flags. Combining this with UBC’s ‘infinity’ style gutter system providing no visible wall above the water’s surface my practice turns were accordingly exceedingly tentative. This tentativeness naturally carried over into my race and with my paranoia on hair-trigger all it took was the false start rope, the first time I had seen it that day, to set me off. So I was now in a race that wasn’t a race for me. But for whatever reason I couldn’t get going and struggled through out the race, having difficulty maintaining a proper breathing pattern and stroke in addition to the expected difficulty with my turns. My poor swimming performance far, far eclipsed my error with the rope. I’m not sure what I’m to do about my now large mental block in swimming the event. I think I’ll have to actually do several timed swims before my next race in March and so build up some solid experience I can fall back on. At least I hope that’ll work. I’ll talk to Brad and see what he thinks.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentine’s Day Practice

As I expected it was a small turn out last night given it was Valentine’s Day, something Coach Brad turned to his advantage by making available three options for our workout’s main set: a sprint set, an IM set, and a ‘distance’ set (which for Hyack Masters means anything 200 and over). Most of Lane 6 swam the IM set (Ian is actually racing the 400 IM this Sunday), while I chose the distance set to work on my backstroke. If you’re curious about the sprint set you can go to my teammate Joe’s blog and read about his adventures there. The distance set was broken into two parts – some dual purpose speed work comprising of 12 x 50 on 1:00 and then straight into 3 x 200. Pace for the fifties was determined by dividing your 200 PB time by four and then adjusting each by the following rotation: first fifty +2, second fifty +1, third fifty +0, and fourth fifty -1; repeating the cycle three times. Once properly fatigued you then carried on into the 200s swimming intervals of 3:30. Not having a PB for 200 back I went with my new low target time for the race and proceeded to fail miserably at achieving any sort of decline in my times. In fact my second and third to last fifties saw me hitting +3 until a sterling effort on my last fifty hauled in a +2 on my final try. This was a minor victory in itself as I was seriously considering by the midway point in taking a minute breather, or even skipping a fifty entirely. Not surprisingly my first 200 was dismal (though my turns have seen considerable improvement recently) and in a move to preserve some semblance of technique I upped the interval to a full 4:00 (a Lane 3/4 interval). The extra thirty seconds clearly helped as I took nearly ten seconds off my first attempt’s time the second go around, and then another ten seconds on the third to ultimately obtain something which could be characterized as ‘not completely sucking’. At least I achieved the desired decline for my 200s though a cynic would wonder, given the eye-brow raising time of my first 200, if it was possible not to. That’s a rather noteworthy event for me even if I did hedge a bit on my interval times.

A quick note on my target times for my race mentioned briefly earlier. Since I’m racing many of my events for the first or second time I don’t have any proper ‘personal bests’ to gauge my real progress. So early in my training logically I should be setting best times every time I swim. Consequently I give myself a range of times within which I expect I should be able to swim on race day. If I do better than that I consider it to be the equivalent of a ‘PB’, worse and I consider it to be a setback. For 100 meter races I allow a two second range, a span that translates into a second for any fifties and four seconds for 200 meters. So when I write of a time being in the “low range of my target” that would mean a swim which did marginally better than hoped, whereas something in the “high end” would be marginally worse. I’m very uncertain about my 200 distances as I don’t feel ready conditioning-wise to race them, my backstroke especially as in a short course pool it means seven turns. Frankly it scares the bejezus out of me. I had set my target range for this upcoming Sunday’s English Bay swim meet’s 200 backstroke as far back as October and only recently have adjusted it (marginally) to the extent where my original upper limit is now my lower limit for this race. But as long as I get a decent race I’ll take it – just to get something on the board.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Struggling to Get Back

Today I went for my first non-Hyack practice since the middle of January, setting myself the scaled back goal of swimming 2,600 meters, including a 400 fly ladder (w/fins) and a main set of 6x100 back. It must have been last night’s Friday Hyack practice going surprisingly well which prompted me to do so. After missing close to two weeks swimming I’ve managed for the most part to at least attend the thrice-weekly Hyack practices with decidedly mixed results. But last night I finally swam some decent times over a few 50 backstrokes which gave me a little psychological boost for my upcoming 200 meter back race at this Sunday’s swim meet. Unfortunately fatigue quickly caught up with me this morning and I left the pool with only 2,000 meters tallied.

I feel like I’m in limbo. I’ve drawn up a very detailed schedule of what I need to be doing and when if I’m to keep to my two year plan, and I’m not adhering to it. Right now I’m supposed to be building up the conditioning which I’ll be using in next season’s races and accordingly the plan calls for me to be swimming 20,000 plus meters a week. I need the kilometrage to correct my various stroke techniques, build my strength and endurance, and expand my aerobic capacity. These last three weeks, however, have seen me averaging only around 3,500 meters – completely inadequate for my purposes. I’ve even been missing some weight sessions which can’t be made up as they’re tied to the swimming season. The limbo feeling comes from getting ready to race an event (my 200 back) for which I’m clearly not prepared. No pace setting, no trial races, no race specific workouts of my own at all this past month. I still don’t know what my target time should be for the race. This is having an eerie similarity to my first swim meet last September and that meet’s 200 IM race. Not the comparison I want to make.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Maybe the Camera Does Add Ten Pounds

Picture time. I look at these pictures and find they’re completely different from the image I get back when gazing in the mirror. I really mean completely different. I don’t see anything near the same degree of warp in my back when studying my posture in the mirror, and this body as portrayed in the pictures is much heavier looking than I feel is true (at least based on my own personal body image). I mean, a waist measurement of 34” isn’t that bad is it? Now considering myself a reasonably rational being I’ve given considerable thought to this disparity between captured image and actual viewing and I think I’ve come up with explanations. The first is when I view my torso in the mirror I typically do so from fairly close in (around a meter away) and looking slightly down. This gives a foreshortening effect on my body and tends to minimize my back’s horizontal deformity. My nephew who shoots these pictures is considerably shorter and takes the pictures from around two meters away which results in the different perspective.

To test this theory I viewed myself a similar distance from the mirror and voilá, my back’s kink was much more apparent. Score one for pictures. The second hypothesis is when we look at an image with our binocular vision we perceive depth whereas a camera with its single lens can’t, so a camera ‘sees’ only the widest aspects of face and body. I think the effect is like squishing yourself up against a pane of glass. Thus the well known saying ‘the camera adds ten pounds’. Score one for human sight. But I’ve never really thought before about this and its ramifications. To look as thin as those actors and models seen all the time on screen and print they would have to be really thin! The restrictions on model weight some fashion shows in Europe have been imposing recently are almost certainly justified when you think just how thin a model must be to get the ‘waif’ look in print. Clearly unhealthily so.

So now realizing this I’ve come to a new decision – I’ll make my target waist 30” instead of 32”. Doesn’t everyone want to look good in their pictures?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Little Confusion

Today being the first of the month I carried out my official weighing and measurements and discovered I’ve lost only a half inch from my waist to go with losing a single kilo over the past month. Based on my method of body fat measurement this means a loss of 800 grams fat as well as 200 grams of muscle. That couldn’t be right could it? Personally I don’t think so. Though I haven’t been able to swim at all these past couple of weeks due to work demands I have mostly kept up with my physical therapy and weight program. Logically I should see continued progress in overall fitness and muscle mass. A more likely scenario is somewhere I’ve made a measurement error or errors which has effectively reduced this month’s loss around my waist by half an inch. Doubling my February waist reduction to a full inch would do the same for my fat loss and therefore leave me with around 600 grams of muscle gain. I find that a much more plausible result. We’ll see if February’s results confirm this hypothesis.