Friday, June 22, 2007

Polish Every Meter, Don’t Practice Crap

After a recent post about my fly troubles a reader made several suggestions as to what my problems might be and offered some solutions on how to correct them. Alas for me such guesswork when it concerns my fly is like shooting fish in a barrel, so many of his suggestions had merit. As a result I’ve made some changes in my training to include a few of his recommendations which weren’t already being implemented. I’m always happy to receive well-meaning advice from anyone on how to improve my swimming. He ended his commentary with the phrase “Polish every meter, don’t practice crap”; an apt, admirably terse phrase making an excellent statement about the right way to go in competitive swimming. At least I believe it’s the right way because it’s the way I think too. Not for me to just swim up and down the pool and trust improved conditioning will make me swim faster. Better technique and a training plan is definitely the way to go. So I’m adopting his phrase as my unofficial training motto (just don’t tell my mom).

In this spirit I’m throwing caution to the winds and tackling my last remaining major stroke defect aside from my kick – my pull. A good part of my problem is a lack of arm strength so I decided very early on to break down my pull into its technical aspects, planning to only address them one by one until my overall strength caught up. Up to now I’ve limited myself to improving my reach and mostly ignored the catch and finish but no longer. I’ve begun to use hand paddles to rework my complete pull as one integrated motion. To encourage a proper stroke Coach Brad recommended I use my paddles without wrist straps and to rely only on the finger cord to hold them on. Thus configured the paddles force a proper catch and the lack of a wrist strap means retracting my hand too early and not finishing properly will see the paddle stripped from the offending hand; something which happened with some regularity in the beginning. I tire very quickly when using them, however, and because of my poor technique (and large paddles) my shoulders have become rather sore. In the future I’ll limit my paddle training to a few hundred meters with the following day off, but the exercise has made an immediate impact on my stroke effectiveness. The trick is to get the stroke to a point where it becomes natural. How long that will be I don’t know but I’m sort of hoping it will happen before I leave for Texas.

A Canadian beaver kit with fins already on waiting patiently for his paddles to be attached

Monday, June 18, 2007

Learning by Example

Last week I was reading an online article about Dara Torres, the American swimming phenom, who just recently took the 100 meter freestyle gold in the first meet of the Mare Nostrum tour held at Canet, France with a blazing time of 54.61. That’s awfully fast for a forty year old mother! One subject the article covers is her extensive flexibility training to which she devotes between an hour and half to two hours three times a week, supplemented with regular massage, mostly to help clear the lactic acid resulting from her training. Quite a lot of time spent out of the water for something I hadn't ranked as a high priority. In fact I cut back my own flexibility training from two hot yoga sessions a week to only one on the premise the time would be better spent lifting weights or actual swimming. Apparently I’m wrong so I’m back to my regular two per week. Here’s hoping Dara knows what she’s doing. 'Course I don't train as hard as Dara.

Speaking of yoga I'm now able to hold my arms straight with hands clasped overhead whereas I couldn't completely straighten out my left arm at the elbow before, so a little better streamlining for my turns. Plus this week I was able to touch my toes from a sit up without needing a second effort. So a little more flexibility in my back too, even if the feat was accomplished at the end of an hour and a half yoga session. Not much but progress never the less.

I started out with a picture of Dara holding her baby, but for some reason the picture was copyright protected. There is a magnificent Maxim picture of her on the net, but discretion won out over my using that one and finally a further search turned the picture used above. I think it's the best of the bunch.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Free Weights & Home Gyms

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll know I believe weight training should be part of everyone’s fitness regime. It wasn’t always that way. Right up until I was a young man I believed weights were pretty much for muscle-bound oafs who placed physical appearance over athletic performance. This changed when I started running competitively and was told to begin weight training to improve my overall speed. The apparent contradiction between lifting to build heavy muscle and increasing mileage to reduce weight caused me to look into weight training more closely. I learned it didn’t necessarily build heavy, bulky muscles and by using weights I could pretty well design my body to look, and up to a point perform, the way I wanted. And like many converts I became a devotee. When I finished competitive running I continued weight training, even increasing the number of my workouts to add some much needed bulk to my frame.

When I left the Harriers and their weight program behind I needed to make a decision on whether to join a sports gym or set something up at home. A home based gym meant I would be restricted in the amount of usable weights; whereas a membership in a fully equipped gym would provide unlimited weights with the necessary spotters plus all the machines I could want. There was really no question – I went with the home gym. First of all you can almost smell the testosterone in a weight room and working out in one gets my competitive fires going. Even though I’ve always trained low weight/high reps for enduring rather than explosive strength I invariably start to use heavier and heavier weights until I'm on the verge of risking injury (if I feel pressured and out of place I can’t imagine what a woman thinks). Aside from avoiding asinine displays of machismo the best thing about a home gym is its accessibility. I don’t want to spend even half an hour on the road going to and fro to the gym and then waiting for somebody else to finish with a particular machine or bench I want to use. Having weights at home allows me to fit training into what is a busy life. Besides which, unless you’re really, really serious about body building, all those extra weights and weight machines at a professional gym don’t bring much to the party.

First thing you need to know about training with weights is the muscle community is unanimous about the advantages of free weights (meaning barbells, dumbbells, weight benches and the various sized weights you slide on and off) over full spectrum exercise equipment such as Nautilus or Bowflex, and novelty equipment such as elliptical trainers. These exercise machines are sold on ease of use, convenience, and safety where the buyer can quickly finish a complete workout in a mere half hour or less without risk of injury – all in a nice tidy package you can store against the wall when not in use. But things aren’t entirely the way they’re presented.

Let's admit it, lifting weights is ‘heavy work’ and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s the primary reason why weight lifting is so beneficial in achieving overall fitness; yet most people, especially women, are very adverse to strenuous physical labour. Manufacturers of full spectrum exercise equipment are well aware of this bias and stress their products’ advantages in transitioning from set to set by emphasizing how quickly workouts can be completed using their equipment. To the uninitiated the twenty or thirty minutes in time savings may sound efficient and less tiring but experienced weight lifters already employ rapid transition from one set to the other (easily done in a pro gym with multiple sets of weights) called supersets. Supersets are to lifting weights what running up stairs is to jogging, not something you want to do all the time. Unless your training regime specifically calls for supersets you’ll want to take a breather and spending that time changing weights isn’t so bad. Practically speaking I budget a work out for around an hour and a quarter (around twenty minutes warm up/stretching plus close to an hour actual lifting), though light in-season training sessions often take less than an hour start to finish.

Machines also don’t require the user to have any knowledge of lifting techniques, something absolutely required to use free weights as incorrect lifting can make the exercise ineffective, or even worse, damage the targeted muscles. A full spectrum weight machine employs its weights in a carefully designed environment; the user just pulls or pushes while everyone without will have to spend the time to learn the proper technique. A reputable gym will have instructors and, for those who go the home gym route, there are a multitude of excellent books which will walk you through each exercise’s requirements step-by-step. More important is the question of how to safely handle the sometimes significant amount of weights. Nautilus or Bowflex by virtue of their construction place the weights away from the user where no injury can result from a drop other than possibly some deafening from the crashing clatter of the plates coming together. No such luck in free weights and every year there are fatalities and many serious injuries caused by lifting accidents. A gym can provide the necessary spotters, but they aren’t necessarily a guarantee against injury, especially when very heavy weights are involved. And of course working out of a home gym you’re on your own. To complicate matters there are many exercises which call for repetitions to continue until failure (the inability to make another lift), something clearly not prudent to do outside a gym. The only right way to train at home is to deliberately limit lifts to a total which can be handled with a margin of safety even on the last rep of the last set. Endurance training and general fitness can work with this limitation, but if you’re going for vastly increased bulk or muscle definition the home route isn’t for you. Big, heavy and cut muscles need to be worked hard – that testosterone laden gym with all those weights and your buddies providing the necessary spotting is the place to be.

Why then the antagonism of professional trainers to full spectrum weight machines? Well it has to do with the concern I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the problem of building muscles which look good but prove to be worthless in the real world. Muscles work in groups and the complex interplay between them is practically impossible to duplicate outside of real life. For athletes continuous hard training develops muscles referred to as sport specific – the right kind of muscle for the demands being placed on them. A lumberjack will develop different muscles from a swimmer, and a farmer will have a different muscle emphasis than a discus thrower. When you start substituting training for the real thing, however, one has to accept compromises on the specificity of the muscle being built. Free weights by their nature tend to employ many of the same muscle groups used in real life; but weight machines, because of those very attributes cited earlier for safety in use, are notorious for ignoring the multitude of small balancing muscles normally involved. Of course machines have their use in targeting specific muscles which are difficult to train such as the calves. So though free weights are acknowledged as supreme machines too have their rightful place in the gym. Full spectrum exercise machines, however, fail on both counts. As machines they suffer from their genre’s inability to work muscles in a complete manner, and as general purpose training equipment they cannot target individual muscles the way the specialized equipment can. So if you do decide to start up a gym at home make your decision wisely and don’t get stuck with something which in the long run won’t produce the results your efforts would deserve. But do something somewhere - it's important for your health.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Two Months Until U.S. Nationals

Because of my skewed swimming season from June to March the USMS Long Course Championships takes place in the middle of training for me. Accordingly I can’t expect much this year in respect to my times other than hopefully some positive progress, but if I do continue swimming next year this competition will be one of the two Masters swim meets I will taper for, the other being the March long course swim meet in Victoria. So it’s a big meet for me and therefore one I’m willing to spend time and money traveling wherever to participate in. An extra concern for this year is being able to swim outdoors properly (i.e. swim straight) and consequently I’ve been working on staying away from the lane lines by constant checking where I am in relation to them. This peeking throws off my stroke and body positioning and so Coach Brad is trying to get me to just swim straight instead and save myself the bother. Easier said than done. One cause which pretty well guarantees my going off-line is a tendency to come off a turn at an angle, partly because of the practicalities of workout swimming and partly because of my poor turn technique. Another cause is a slight variation in effectiveness between my right and left sides’ strokes. Hopefully with practice I can improve to the point where I can swim reasonably straight and only need to check the lane lines only four or five times per lap by the time Nationals come up. Yet another instance of the more kilometrage I get in the better prepared I’ll be.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Continual Improvement

“Believing in progress does not mean that any progress has yet been made.”
- Kafka

So much to do. When I started back swimming seriously there was only the singular intention of taking advantage of some professional coaching while my local pool was closed and improve my fly and my backstroke turn. Nine months later I’m still swimming Masters and to be honest the major reason is because I discovered I couldn't swim well anymore. My stroke deficient, technique outdated, pathetic turns, a devastating lack of strength, and non-existent endurance; it was all bad, and somewhere deep down I found it offensive I could have thrown away my gift. After suffering through a few simple, short Masters practices I had to question whether I had ever possessed the swimming talent I’d always taken for granted. To find the real answer to this question I will have to first tackle and surmount the mountain of swimming deficiencies I’ve identified over the past few months and progress in this has been slow. But unlike Kafka who was more concerned with much broader philosophical issues my narrow and well defined aim does allow a ray of light every once in awhile to lance through the gloom. Today’s practice was one of those rare times when I gained some assurance I’m on the right road.

Right now Saturday morning practice has a special place in my training, as it’s presently the only time I train short course. The twenty five meters provides an opportunity to concentrate on improving technique in both turns and stroke (I find long course too fatiguing to properly deal with the various nuances of my strokes’ deficiencies) so Saturday has become my personal weekly stroke clinic where strokes per lap and cycle rates are tracked and I make a real effort to address those problems identified in the past week’s practices, things not emphasized in a typical workout. Better yet I went into the water on a positive note, as Friday night’s practice had seen me for the first time complete a fly routine and maintain the proper double kick dolphin despite being exhausted. The kick was weak, the second almost non-existent, but they were there and I didn’t revert to my schoolboy single dolphin kick. A note worthy achievement and this Saturday the progress continued unabated as my fly undulation and stroke started integrating better with my kick, resulting in a noticeable reduction in effort whenever it occurred. With breast I kept with the program and continued working on that stroke’s body undulation and kick integration albeit with little success, but had better results with my experiment in using a deeper exit from my turns. It was in crawl, however, where the first real sign of progress was seen as I discovered my short course lap count had dropped by a full stroke. It’s taken a full month of consciously working on stroke extension to accomplish and is most gratifying. Improving my catch is next on the list, and then I’ll tackle my stroke’s finish (which is primarily a strength problem anyways) and with those two problems dealt with I should see another two full strokes off my lap count. This at least means my crawl technique has caught up somewhat with my backstroke as there reach has never been a problem (rather the contrary). Instead in backstroke one of my higher priorities has been to improve my catch, one which I’ve been working on for sometime. Hopefully this will mean when it does finally click I’ll see an even quicker adoption in free. Looking at my turns I still have a host of problems all begging for immediate attention but I did succeed in identifying yet another problem in my back rollover turn, a discovery which allows for its eventual correction. It seems when tired I don’t make my underwater pull to recommence my stroke after the turn (I also don’t dolphin kick but that’s something I’ve known about from right from day one) whereas I always take that important stroke on my start. Including the pull in my turns adds nearly half a body length to the point where I surface – almost to the flags. Just wait until kicking becomes part of my turn! A long backstroke set made sure I’d remember about this tendency in the future plus the set’s leisurely pace meant really I could really home in on coordinating kick, hips and stroke into a cohesive whole. The effects of this set and the other strokes' integration efforts made my abs feel like they’d done about a hundred crunches by the time I finished the practice. I must be doing something right.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Slogging Away in Morning Practices

Hyack Masters swim at night, so when I practice on my own it’s almost always early morning, a time when Canada Games Pool makes available it’s full fifty meter length to public swimming. Yesterday it was a madhouse, with something like four times the normal number of casual swimmers making the public lanes look every bit as crowded as the adjoining Hyack club lanes. I can deal with full lanes but have a much harder time dealing with the wide variation in swimming abilities trying to swim together in the public lanes, from people who basically float along in fins with an occasional swipe at the water to others like me who fancy themselves competitive swimmers. So when I came to my long backstroke set halfway through practice I didn’t even attempt to weave my way up and down the lanes and just packed it in. This morning I intended to redeem yesterday’s abbreviated workout figuring, correctly it turned out, the pool would be practically empty and thus allow backstroke into my repertoire once again. One minor hurdle I had to overcome before getting into backstroke, however, was to get through what is now a standard feature of my self-designed practices - my butterfly and breaststroke set. After Hyack Festival I’ve decided my workouts had to have at least 20% of their distance split equally between my two orphan strokes, but what with the big boost in weekly kilometrage along side a full program of strength training doing even such a small amount of fly and breast every practice hasn’t proven feasible. A case for me of just too much too soon. So today’s session instead called for a mere 200 meters of each stroke, slotted in right after warm up when I would be still relatively fresh (nowadays I’m sore getting into the pool); still enough to wipe me out for the remainder of practice. One lap into my backstroke main set I decided doing the planned 6 x 200s wasn’t going to happen and instead did only half the intended distance per rep, and finished my practice with a desultory 200 free warm down. At least the reduction in kilometrage means I achieved my targeted 20% of the workout in fly and breast today and, upon reflection, yesterday as well. Faint praise indeed.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Counting the Meters

I’m back to working my way up to 25,000 meters per week after my first attempt had to be dropped because of work obligations. I’m also well into my off-season weight program, something I find particularly tiring when done in combination with the rapidly increasing kilometrage. At least I have a better idea of what I’m trying to do and how to go about it. Given a career where serious training can’t be carried out from the latter part of March pretty well through June, I’m left with the months July to early March to properly train and compete in. I’m targeting December to early March as my racing season which leaves only July to November inclusive for off-season training. Five months isn't enough so I’m trying to cheat a bit and have started my full training in late May instead. I’ll see how I manage. I’m also feeling the pressure to start early because of the upcoming USMS LC Nationals in early August right smack in the middle of my training. With a weight program requiring rotation through five cycles (each of four weeks training and one week rest) it’s difficult to squeeze them all in and leave enough time to properly taper for the Nationals. Hopefully I’ve calculated everything correctly and I’ll be reasonably fresh for some good times in August (well, at least to see good progress in my training) and ready to race in December. One positive is summer swimming for Hyack Masters means endurance work which is sorely needed. All that speed work in the fall when I first started was really hard on the old ticker!

End Note: today was also weigh-in day. I lost the kilo I had put on last month plus a little bit more. Distressingly, even if understandable, I’ve also put on an extra inch around my girth - 1⅓ kilos muscle gone to fat since the end of March because of relative inactivity. The sad fact seems to be I will lose muscle in about the same amount of time it took to so laboriously create it in the first place. No wonder middle age spread is so difficult to fight off.