Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Promises, But One Last Word about These New Suits

The controversy over the new technosuits doesn’t seem to be going away. If anything the debate is starting to build up to a fevered pitch. Over at Floswimming things started getting ugly when one reader got personal and hurled the same words an individual used to indicate his contempt for the LZR Racer right back at him for standing in the way of the “inevitable”. Hundreds of thousands of words are being spilled in the fray, and famous names of swimming’s past and present are lining up on both sides in a conflict looking more and more like it may break out at any time into cries of “Luddites!” and waving pitchforks clashing with shouts of “Heretics!” and bobbing scythes. I find myself disagreeing even with long time associates, and while we may not agree on this one matter I’ve always found their opinions to be both logical and well reasoned before now. We need to accept there are two sides to any debate. We must take a deep breath and approach this concern, one which is having an impact nearly as large as the horrible, ongoing scourge of performance enhancing drugs, in a calm and civil manner with open minds.

So in that spirit, and after deep consideration of all the facts, I will say all those who support the continued use of the new suits such as the LZR Racer are categorically, and without a shred of doubt, completely and utterly wrong. Really - absolutely dead wrong.

Just look at both sides’ arguments and you'll see the truth of the matter.

The biggest argument of the new swimsuit aficionados (the “Technophiles”) are that the suits merely represent the next step of naturally occurring technical advances going on for nearly a hundred years, several having just as a dramatic impact on swimming times then as the present suits are making now. They're absolutely wrong, but at least the error comes from the mistaken belief mere observation conveys understanding. Change, being a constant in life, is always with us. So it is comprehending why change has occurred and its implications is what's truly important. In this case swimming’s own technology driven advances to date have come about not because of any direct attempt to make swimmers themselves faster but rather from a focus aimed at eliminating outside influences. Progressing from fine woolen swimsuits to nylon and then to Lycra polymer blends – an effort to bring swimsuits as close as possible to swimming without a suit; from lane ropes and solid pool walls to energy absorbing lane lines and wave free gutters – to eliminate interference from adjacent lanes and walls; deeper pools – to minimize surface turbulence resulting from shallow water; improved lighting and reduced water turbidity – to provide unimpaired vision; improved water temperature control – to eliminate the effects of variable temperature on performance; and goggles – to protect the swimmer’s eyes from the harsh effects of chlorinated water. And why do I know this to be true? Because up to very recently we have not had sufficient grasp of technology¹ to actually make faster swimmers, only the ability to minimize those things about the water which slow us down. But now with the new technosuits we can directly address a swimmer’s individual performance. The paradigm from which the sport has advanced itself has shifted in a major way.

The major objection coming from those against the introduction of new suits’ (the “Purists”) are the shocking drops seen in elite racing’s overall times; creating concerns the suits are more device than suit, otherwise known as ‘tech-doping’, a manipulation of an individual’s true swimming ability. If correct, Purists reason, the suits are illegal under existing FINA rules and consequently should be banned outright. The Technophiles strenuously disagree with this accusation. They counter FINA has already looked into this question and ruled swim suits are not devices. Yet that particular ruling came several years ago and the difference between old and new is profound enough to have people refer to the old style suits derisively (or wistfully depending one's viewpoint) as “fabric” suits. The possibility of being labeled a device is sufficiently threatening to force Speedo and its captive organizations to give out talking points to avoid mentioning performance gains from wearing the suits; the gag order put in place despite Speedo’s advertising continuing to boast a 2% improvement in speed will be seen by its wearers. An elite swimmer under assurance of anonymity said this about the LZR Racer, "I can't say this openly so please do not use my name. We have been under a lot of pressure to always say good things about the suit. We were also told by xxxxx (a national federation) to deny that there was anything very different about this suit compared to another. That's bullshit, of course. It makes us faster and we all know it. Personally, I wear it because it helps me keep up, I feel great in it in the water ...." The debate whether the suit is a device or not is not just a fleeting concern over semantics, or even over performance. Devices could be banned from competition just for the reason they provide unequal benefits, much less artificially boost speed. Seeing the extraordinary steps taken to quell any talk related to the performance boost from wearing the new suits do you think Speedo believes its LZR Racer is not a device? Is there really any doubt?

Another fault often cited by Purists is the high cost of the new technology: the Speedo LZR Racer costs over $500 and lasts for maybe a dozen or less swims. They argue the associated costs must inevitably create a divide in the swimming world between the relative few who can afford the expense and the majority who can't. This uncontested concern extends far beyond individual families. The financial drain on even American universities, the cornerstone of competitive swimming in the United States, has prompted Speedo to offer special discount rates for conference and NCAA championships. Even with these limited discounts some universities have to devote large percentages of their budgets to purchasing enough of the suits to remain competitive during the regular season. And then there are those colleges, as there are families, who can’t afford the expense even with the discounts. Purists argue the advanced suits are creating an underclass based on economics rather than talent, implying adoption of the suits drags down both fair competition and the numbers swimming competitively.

The Technophiles ultimately, however, disagree with this harsh outlook. They submit competition will eventually bring down costs and therefore minimize any damage. Again this is a false assumption – leading edge high tech competition in small, niche sports markets never see reduced costs. If we are to take our examples from the America’s Cup or Formula One costs often climb in what could best be described as a financial sinkhole of ever better technology. We are seeing the application of a new technology with apparently phenomenal potential. Manufacturers who have never before sold a single swimsuit will able to step in and take away the entire market with one breakthrough innovation, sending the rest who’ve sunk millions into research and development back to their CAD software to start all over again. Product life cycles may only last months at this early stage of development. For the necessary capital investment the market is too small to defer passing along the associated risk premium to the consumer. We’ll have to pay for it all. No less an authority as the sporting goods giant Nike has spoken on this. With no stomach for the coming suit wars after weighing the risks and potential profits of staying in they’re walking away now. Adidas is also said to be considering quitting the sport.

Technophiles offer another defense for the new generation swim suits – that they are an effective way to promote the sport. Linking the increase in media attention to the new world records they assert the world records enabled by the suits (over the schizophrenic objections of Speedo of course) raise swimming’s popularity. But this belief is a grotesque oversimplification of the impact world records have on this or any other sport. Stars are what attracts and holds fans, what we identify with and idolize. For those sports possessing world records the records themselves merely identify who are the stars. In large part world records gain their special status because of their rarity and some are rarer than others. Like precious gems too many means diluted values however pretty. I would dare say most of the current interest is more idle curiosity about the speed suits which have created all these new world records than in the records themselves. Any interest new records bring will be just as long lasting as the latest electronic gadget. Amongst the sporting world cognoscente, a much more knowledgeable breed, the avalanche of world records has brought about an altogether different perception of our sport. No, the technophiles are definitely wrong about the positive impact all these world records are having. What has really captured the public’s imagination is swimming now boasts a superstar of its own, Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals. That’s who they hold in such great esteem and what brings swimming the global attention it now enjoys. The last time we had a similar surge in popularity was with Mark Spitz and his seven races, seven golds and seven world records. But it’s important to note no one is mentioning Phelps’ seven world records. They’re clearly passĂ© in today’s reality.

Better, the lie world records promote their sport can be shown by a real world example. A decade ago Major League Baseball subtly encouraged its athletes to use performance enhancing drugs to build up their statistics and thus draw in larger paying crowds. Yet when the fans started to understand how some of their most hallowed records were being broken the backlash was both immediate and severe. Their vocal protests and boycotts caused the Major League’s front office to hastily backtrack and prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs as well as institute a proper drug enforcement program. Personally I don’t think the average person can make the distinction between someone taking officially acceptable steroids and someone who uses sanctioned swimsuits to swim faster. To them the new technosuits are no different than using a corked bat. Someday there will be a reaction and it won’t be favorable.

I acknowledge the fascination the new suits holds for many. Ever since someone held a shard of razor-sharp flint in his hand we've been obsessed by tools and their power. Even today social status depends in large part on what tools and possessions we control. So one would be a fool to deny the influence technology has on our society and individual lives. Nevertheless technology still has limits and nowhere are these limits better illustrated than in sport. By all means technology should be used to mitigate outside influences, but on the other hand we have to draw the line when it starts to directly affect athletic performance. We may not be able to compare the present with the past but there is no reason to think we cannot take the necessary steps to allow today’s times to be comparable to those one hundred years from now. Neither is there any reason for us to adopt new technologies which will condemn us to meaningless world records. Our sport needs all its heroes past, present, and future. Let’s take the steps to ensure they keep their rightful place in history.

¹ Noting for the record that pharmacology has been known for some time to improve individual performance.

King Aquatics coach Sean Hutchinson discusses the impact the new technosuits have had on competitive swimming and the ways he's adapting to the new reality.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Alexander and I

Several days ago I watched a girl three years old or so literally running circles around a mother who pushed a baby carriage ahead of her, the child scuffing up the fall leaves and waving arms about. Around and around she ran until, with a delighted cry, she spotted my dog and ran to him instead. Kaz, himself bounding towards this whirling dervish of energy to investigate, suddenly found himself stopped dead in his tracks cautiously wagging his tail, uncertain whether to greet the child or flee to safety.

So young, so much zeal. When I see scenes such as this my first thought is of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote “youth is wasted on the young”, and then I always go to a memory of a quantum physics text illustrating the concept of particle randomness by showing the heavily used paths taken by adults surrounded by the aimless wanderings to and fro by children and pets. It never fails to bring a smile to my face watching real life play out textbook theory. Life may be complex with varied and conflicting goals but our common desire for physical health is straight forward. We all want to capture youth’s bountiful energy and keep it for as long as possible into our autumn years. The intelligent will put in the effort to maintain their fitness; the ignorant will take it for granted and will not. This past week the American Heart Association published the results of research on adolescent obesity where they found some obese teenagers tested had arteries with a ‘vascular age’ nearly three decades older than their chronological age. That’s not good. Another joint study by Princeton and the University of Munich last year found American males, after leading the world in height for two hundred years, are now shorter on average than every country in Western and Northern Europe. The Netherlands, with an average height of 187 cm. (6’1”) holds the title today, with Americans trailing well behind at 179 cm. (5’10”). A population’s height tells a lot about a country’s relative well being: the adequacy of their diet and overall health care. We Americans shrinking relative to the world? Not good at all.

I made the mistake of forgetting this truth about fitness for a few years and paid the price. Hopefully I don’t make the same mistake again. It’s taken me two years to return to full health and the effort necessary to do so comes as a shock to me. I still vividly remember as if it were yesterday only taking a couple of months to get into game shape as a teenager.

I can count three positives coming from of this experience. During my search to end my pain everything from acupuncture, chiropractics, heavy duty drugs, rolfing, massage and physical therapy, all the way up to contemplating surgery was tried. The first positive was getting back into the pool for overall fitness, something which never would have happened without the driving incentive of a crippled back for motivation. The second positive was discovering Bikram’s yoga, a rehabilitative form of Hatha yoga, for improving flexibility and core strength. And the third positive was my eventual experiment with Alexander Technique for my posture problems. I'd like here to write a little about Alexander Technique for those unfamiliar with it.

The premise of Alexander Technique is pretty simple. If we’re lucky enough not to be born with any abnormalities to begin with time will always ensure we'll accumulate enough of them to force change on our bodies anyways. Many of these adjustments, such as relying on adjacent muscles to relieve the stain on the damaged part, or by avoiding use altogether, are temporary but some last longer. Long enough to alter the habitual way our body holds itself upright. In time these compromised habits become more and more entrenched and, because the body begins to depend on muscles not originally intended for the role they're performing, they fatigue and force recruitment of other additional, even less related muscles. And so on and so on. Not just injuries. We’re talking here about damage and impairment caused from repetition injuries and neglect as well. From the child who plays too many video games to a stock trader who spends his day looking up at trading boards we have almost infinite ways to harm ourselves carrying out routine and mundane activities. No wonder almost everyone ends up with more than a few muscles working at cross-purposes, showing up in both posture and the way we move. It’s bad enough for the average person, but for an athlete it can spell disaster. A case in point is Jodie Henry, a former world record holder and multiple Olympic gold medalist from Athens, who had to withdraw from the Australian 2008 Olympic Trials and consequently from the Beijing Olympics because of a late diagnosed imbalance in her pelvic muscles. That should never happen with the medical supervision she should be receiving. I’m convinced if she or her coach had known about Alexander Technique it wouldn’t have.

The process which the Alexander Technique uses to teach the necessary corrections, however, is somewhat unorthodox. It is grounded in very simple activities: you work with movements like getting in and out of a chair, walking, and bending down; you look at how you breathe and speak. The teacher observes your habits of posture and movement primarily through touch by gently placing his or her hands on the neck, shoulders, back, and so on while asking the student to perform a prescribed movement – and then uses those same hands to guide the student into a position which encourages the release of unnecessary muscular tension¹. You can definitely tell when long established bad habits are broken: there’s a strong sense of ‘floating’ as tired, overworked muscles finally get to rest. For many years other than the belief improvements in posture, performance² and the reduction of pain was real there’s been little to support the Technique’s claims beyond anecdotal evidence. Finally a major scientific study just published this past August in the British Medical Journal Randomised Controlled Trial of Alexander Technique Lessons, Exercise, and Massage (ATEAM) for Chronic and Recurrent Back Pain concludes Alexander lessons can be as effective for controlling long term back pain as regular long term exercise. I'm sure given enough time and money science will eventually come to understand what F.M. Alexander intuitively knew must be true.

Personally most of my own problems can be traced back to a collapsed rugby scrum at twenty six. I didn’t realize how much my back was still out of kilter until I saw the pictures taken at the start of this adventure. If there was definite disappointment with my physical improvement after a year’s effort I was flat out distressed there hadn’t been one iota of progress on the posture front. A desperate willingness to do anything led me to try some Alexander Technique lessons. The first exhibit of their effectiveness: my before and after pictures below coming after one year of lessons. I think they show a marked improvement.

In my 'before' picture the left side is considerably lower than the right, which in turn is severely compressed against my body; and if you look closely, you can see my head is tilted back with my chin out. After one year the left and right shoulders have leveled out considerably, the right shoulder has decompressed slightly, and my neck is now held so that the weight of my head sits directly over the spine without my chin jutting out.

Interestingly I believe the impact these lessons have had on my swimming performance actually confirms the validity of the technique’s underlying premises. My teacher Gaby often talks against “end gaining”, meaning not trying to address the most visible problems in a direct manner. I see a droopy shoulder and crooked back and naturally that’s what I want to correct. By the time I started lessons, however, the actual problems causing my skewed body were buried under several compensating layers which needed correction before we could address the source problems. The therapy succeeds as the problems are 'unwound' starting from the most recent and working back towards the original injury. For me progress has come in stages: three times I’ve made significant breakthroughs and each time I’ve had to retrain newly reintegrated but feeble core, hip and leg muscles which set back my training plans. The good part is I'm continuing to make real progress and the changes definitely will make for faster swimming in the future. The bad part is my latest picture shows I still have some way to go before my back is 100% rehabilitated – and that means ...

¹ There may be some who will ask the question if the student has to disrobe as with massage therapy. For the shy the answer will come as a relief – students are taught fully clothed.
² The technique is popular with professions such as musicians, dancers, and singers in dealing with the particular problems overuse brings to their performances.

Friday, November 14, 2008


There are some people who are meant to coach. My maternal grandfather, for instance, always wanted to manage a baseball team. He was one of those individuals who could quote every major league team’s starting line up and batting statistics, along with their hitting and pitching tendencies, from the early 1900’s on. One rare visit coincided with the World Series, which meant spending the afternoon watching the game. As a small child I was less than enthralled and complained, a heretical attitude prompting grandfather to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening meal educating me on baseball’s intricacies. While I never became an aficionado of baseball his own passion began a slow, ever growing understanding in me of the unseen and endless depths of complexity existing around us. Age and experience has merely increased my desire to understand this complicated and confusing world.

With this predilection it should come as no surprise taking up competitive running as a young man caused me to dive into the science behind the sport. I stripped my local library of its books about track, went back for more books on its history and related physiology studies, and then went back again for a second serving seeking more performance related publications. Now running is not a particularly complex sport. After a year’s study I’m confident I gained enough understanding of track’s fundamentals to competently train myself. In spite of this I signed up with the local running club my second year. First of all I wanted to train with others who shared my interests and clubs are perfect for that. You gain some new friends who share your natural competitiveness, friendships which develop into friendly rivalries that help with the motivation it takes to excel. And secondly I still wanted a coach regardless of any book smarts. A coach provides much more than expertise. He or she can provide the necessary mentor relationship which both sustains in times of discouragement and lifts one to achieve more than thought possible in good times. Furthermore coaches contribute their experience and informed second opinion on training choices. The old saying “two heads are better than one” could have easily originated from the athlete/coach relationship.

Yet running shares little with swimming. The big difference? Running doesn’t involve technique. Not that there isn’t a well understood model of perfect bio mechanical efficiency for runners. Just that, given running’s intimate relationship with the survival of our species, we run as efficiently as our body allows. Incorrect running technique results from physical deficiencies, which need to be identified and corrected with targeted therapy. This typically takes the form of weight lifting programs to correct muscle imbalance or weaknesses, stretching exercises to improve fluidity of motion, diet, orthopedics, and other like rehab. Another pretty big difference is swimming having four strokes compared to only two different ways to run¹; and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention breathing while running isn’t nearly as complicated it is in swimming.

Really, the only shared aspect is their mutual need to build stamina in the distance events. In this training for the two is remarkably consistent - you get in as much kilometers in as you can without breaking down. Consequently my training was a very straight forward matter. We had a number of designated routes of varying distances marked off at roughly one kilometer intervals radiating from the local high school track where we did our speed work. I also set up a few centered on my home. Each week we were given a schedule to follow: daily distances to run, intervals to make, track sessions to attend, and weight programs to carry out. Except for the track sessions I could either show up at designated times and run with others, or go off and run alone. Everything I did had to be written down in my training log. What distances were run and when, times and heart rate from start to finish including the desired intervals, how I felt, what I ate, the hour I went to bed and the hour I awoke and their respective heart rates. Then once a week we’d bring in our logbooks before heading off on a run and when we came back we’d have a new week’s training schedule handed back to us along with our logbooks. I looked forward to listening to my coach’s conclusions after his review of my training and discussing the objectives behind next week’s schedule. Still I could have done some version of this myself, even if it wouldn’t have been the same quality.

It's not anything like the same for swimming. Noting down interval times and heart rates during a practice is a bitch if you try to do it yourself. You really need a coach to do it properly. And of course observing one’s own technique is virtually impossible on your own, even if you have the technical qualifications to do so. It takes years of education and experience to become a competent competitive swimming coach, a commitment of time and effort I’ve neither the desire nor the inclination. Right from the beginning it just seemed more efficient to simply rent the necessary expertise. After all this is essentially only a rehab project. So joining the local masters swim club seemed to fit the bill very nicely.

Things are seldom as clear cut as they appear however. The Hyacks Masters Swim Club is a very low key affair, really just an after thought to the true raison d’ĂȘtre of our parent club – all out competitive swimming. Most of the membership only attends practices and rarely, if ever, competes. The program itself is split into two distinct clubs according to the pools where they train, and because they bizarrely share the same practice schedules there’s no option to swim at both and double up. Training just three hours a week presents problems for anyone wanting to compete. The club's serious swimmers have to go out and train on their own in order to get in the necessary kilometers.

My first couple of years this wasn’t a problem. I’d simply add workouts to bring my kilometers up to the quantity I wanted. This year, however, I’ve had to reschedule my normal routine in order to get in sufficient swimming time. My new morning workouts conflict with the late evening Hyack practices and their typical 2,500 meters or thereabouts don’t fit into my plans anymore. I tried for a week to do both but found it wasn't practical. So now I’m swimming on my own six times a week and slowly building up my meters.

What’s it like being my own coach? Well I don’t really think of what I’m doing as self-coaching. I’m approaching this the same way as I had with the Harriers so many years ago. Stroke clinics and private coaching will provide me with the necessary instruction; I’m simply going off to train by myself and then report back for correction and some more instructions. The big change between track and pool is instead of just a week in between I’m absenting myself for months; enough time to allow integration of new techniques into my strokes. I prefer to think of myself as an apprentice sculptor, where my job is to take the piece of marble selected by the master and rough it out to the desired shape. Nothing fancy, just the basics you'd teach any beginning eight year old.

My primary objective right now is improving my rotation around the core and overall body position. At the same time each stroke has some half a dozen specific corrections to make, mostly associated with catch and finish. And trying to get everything working in harmony is only a far off dream. Sometimes I’m focusing so hard on technique during laps I forget the walls. I haven’t yet crashed into one but I’ve certainly given myself a good scare a couple of times. Aside from stroke technique my turns also need a lot more practice so it's been strictly short course for me. I'm emphasizing getting in more submerged dolphins off the wall from my backstroke rollovers. Presently I’m having difficulty with my ‘hop’, a twenty centimeter downwards shift of my feet after the flip to ensure I don’t come off the wall too deep. I developed the bad habit to avoid experiencing the very unpleasant fact I possess lungs rather than gills: the maneuver so effective I can only get in two kicks before breaching the surface. Now that I’m actually wanting to stay underwater longer I have to convince myself to leave my feet where they land; not only to extend my kicking but to go deep enough to avoid the surface turbulence. The mental image of running out of air a meter underwater upside down, however, is proving a formidable obstacle to overcome. At the same time I’m working on better freestyle turns by trying to forgo any breathing until after the first cycle coming out of the turn. Delayed breathing not only reduces drag and maintains more momentum, but also coincidentally happens to be excellent aerobic exercise. A somewhat dubious bonus as far as my lungs are concerned. Little consistency yet as I’m insufficiently disciplined, but there’s observable improvement as time goes by. A coach screaming at me impugning my manhood and pegging kick boards at my head would help immeasurably but, alas, that’s not to be. Finally I’m introducing more and more kicking into my routines as my meters build, trying to acquire some flexibility in my ankles, more mobility in my hips and the necessary strength in my legs. Again, just like every eight year old should. I had some doubts drawing up my plans whether 30,000 meters a week would prove enough to work on everything I need to improve. Now, as the weeks fly pass, I can see I was right. So much to do, so little time.

¹ You forgot hurdling (running over obstacles) didn’t you? Though in practical terms hurdlers can run, but runners rarely hurdle.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Right Back At You: My Favorite Swimming Blogs

Okay, I’ll admit it – I walk a different path from the average individual. My recent efforts in the pool should be proof enough of my eccentricity, but if you are even moderately observant the particularities of this blog would confirm it. Even my sister American Sis once commented to me, “Your blog is only about swimming. Is that all you do outside of work?” Thankfully at the time she asked I could truthfully answer no. Yet as a topic of conversation I do think my swimming differentiates me from the rest of the crowd, and thus perhaps potentially noteworthy and interesting to an outside observer. Likewise my internet preferences are somewhat narrowly defined. The big thing nowadays is I’ve limited myself to a very small list of blogs for recreational reading. Almost all are devoted to swimming. There is one I read on a semi-regular basis which deviates somewhat from this, but The Secrets of Isis enjoys grandfather privileges from when I had more time to waste. While her blog is for those with an intellectual bent, especially in literature, on the swimming front she’s trying to rehabilitate a shoulder after multiple surgeries and get back to competing in masters events. I’m looking impatiently to the day when she achieves another personal best to give the final finishing flourish to what I hope is a complete recovery.

So with that rather longish introduction finished it’s time to begin reviewing my list. First thing you’ll notice is there are no recognizable names here. Several world class swimmers blog but I’ve quickly reviewed and dropped one after another – they stick to lifestyle issues rather than discuss the technical side of their expertise and blog infrequently. I understand. When one spends as much time training as they do their natural inclination will be to focus on life outside of the pool. Unfortunately that attitude doesn’t help me learn something new about how to swim faster. Worse, they leave all teaching of the finer points of stroke and conditioning to their coaches in order to concentrate at competing in the international arena. If they reveal anything at all it is in the rare disclosure of a workout or two, and reluctantly I’ve come to disregard even these tidbits as the distances swum, intervals, and recovery periods take on a near fictional hue. It appears details of specific practices at the international elite level are only divulged to psych out or mislead any potential rivals peeking in. How else can you read some of these workouts? One recently released practice belonging to Phelps, for instance, was so difficult even experienced swimmers weren’t reading it properly; commenting on the total yards swum rather than the fact it was mostly anaerobic training. A distance anaerobic workout? Isn’t that supposed to be an oxymoron? My masters club this summer swam a 10 x 100 freestyle set adapted from one Phelps did which Bob Bowman made public. Not a single swimmer in attendance that day could match the speed of Phelps’ final rep ... and it was a kicking set for Michael. More distressing I recently learned the set was only the last ten reps of what was actually a 25 x 100. Who does a 2,500 meter kick set? Apparently some elite swimmers do. You want something truly outrageous? Erik Vendt, the noted workhorse of American distance swimming, once swam a 40 x 1,000 yards on ten minutes with a two minute rest in between. For non-American readers that’s an eight hour 37,000 meter set averaging a sub 1:05 pace throughout. What can I learn from that? I don’t swim 37,000 meters in a week. Do I really need to know what, say, Grant Hackett was capable of? Or what Rebecca Addlington is? Allow me live in my own make-believe world please.

Having thus eliminated most of the swimming blogs out there here are the ones I do follow:

Robs was officially listed just last week. I was surprised to learn Phelps’ history making accomplishment in Beijing this summer had inspired a horde of adults to start competitive swimming. Curious to see how long they lasted I started to follow a few of their blogs and this is the only viable remaining survivor less than three short months later. Contrary to one blog’s title “Swimming is Easy” swimming is actually rather difficult – and everybody who tries to compete seriously learns quickly swimming fast is very hard indeed. I have hopes Rob will continue blogging his experiences in masters swimming for the rest of us to follow. It bodes well that, unlike the other fantasists, Rob has had experience as a competitive swimmer in high school.

Ande Rasmussen is the fastest swimmer I follow over the internet through his Ande’s Swimming Blog. A world-class masters competitor who holds world masters records in the competitive 45-49 age group Ande’s specialty is the 50 backstroke. He also has the advantage of hailing from the outskirts of Austin, TX and consequently trains at the University of Texas. On rare occasion he has the privilege of being critiqued by Eddie Reese himself (as I said he's seriously fast). One interesting perspective of the blog is because Ande’s a sprinter he trains as such; something very different from my own training approach. He also seems to have a swimsuit fetish. At least he possesses a sizable collection of performance suits and will often change mid-practice into another suit for certain 'fast' sets. Readers should note Ande’s very knowledgeable about the sport and always happy to give advice so don’t hesitate to call on his expertise by leaving him a question at Ask Ande. He’s recently switched from a message board format (USA Swimming kicked him off their message board after three very well attended years) to Let him know he hasn’t been forgotten.

I was introduced to blogging by the author of See Joe Run. See Joe Swim. Joe is one of my teammates in the Hyack Masters Swim Club and gives a very good blow-by-blow description of the team’s workouts. Coverage has been a little spotty as of late because of his many commitments but obviously for me he’s a must read. Interestingly his readers are overwhelmingly female – so if you’re of that persuasion you might just want to take a peek to find out what the fuss is about.

The next blog was discovered when a comment was made congratulating Joe setting a couple of new PBs. A long ago post described my reaction to this.
An aside here: my teammate is an active blogger and one of his readers, a very good master swimmer from California, congratulates him on his race results in a most exuberant manner. After seeing the quality of Californian’s own posted times, however, I think I detect a little tongue-in-cheek in his generous accolades. To be fair, as a quiet Canadian I might just be misreading one very outgoing and gregarious American (there are a lot of them and frankly I find it irritating). Regardless, our Californian speedster would probably be impressed my teammate accomplishes what he does averaging just a couple of swims a week.
I have had no occasion since our introduction to feel the need to change that initial impression of Joel. Over the past two years I’ve followed his blog I’ve come to think of him as someone I could become friends with if I didn’t live 1,800 kilometers away. Not to mention that as a consistent USMS Top 10 swimmer in several events he really is fast. His workouts are many and varied, and his blogging equally prodigious. Rarely a day goes by without at least a couple of posts on The 17thman. Plus, because he lives in Hollywood, on occasion he’ll treat you to some tantalizing pictures of well known personalities he comes across. A very interesting blog to follow.

Tony over at Southern Cal Aquatics Swim Club is another blogger with whom I share thoughts about our shared sport. A popular blog even with non-swimmers Tony blogs pretty well anything to do with water on almost a daily basis. He has a great artistic eye and will take you from a swimming hole perched right on the edge of Africa’s Victoria Falls to the latest in techno pool design in New York City; show a video exhibiting ‘water dresses’, delves into stirring discussions like how one university requires its students to be able to swim in order to graduate; and on rare occasion even exhibits some of his own computer drawn artwork. For the dedicated swimmer Tony relies on lots of instructional videos on technique, news about open water swimming, and a broad smattering of posts on his own efforts in the local masters swim scene along with the latest results in international competition. You’ll always find something interesting on SCAQ.

But my favorite blog is Floswimming; which some may not consider a blog at all. The website is a collection of videos from all over America interviewing coaches and swimmers about what is going on in swimming right now. It’s an invaluable resource to learn more about the sport. Some of the world’s best swimming coaches hold forth on various topics of interest, favorite practice sets are revealed on Wednesday Workouts, and top flight swimmers discuss their tapering, competition, and drill work along with many other aspects of their training. Recently the website has started presenting tips on specific techniques in a guest video every week called Technical Tuesday – a great addition. It would be nice to see some non-American faces reveal some tricks of the trade which have worked well for them, but until they do the States has more than enough to carry the site for a few years to come. This is a must view blog for anyone who coaches or wants to know how to raise their training to the next level.

An example of what I'm talking about is this video from October presenting a distance set both fun and competitive as well as having a little speed work thrown in. Every coach needs a few of these to pull out of his or her pocket when needed.

Visit Floswimming For More Videos

So there are my favorite swimming blogs. I’m still searching for a couple good ones from the U.K. and Australia so any reader who can recommend something from those far off lands please send me your suggestions. And best of luck in your own swimming pursuits wherever they may take you.

Dara Torres Struts Her Stuff

A short clip from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno where 41 year old Dara Torres shows off what nearly won her first individual gold medal at this year's Beijing Olympics.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Vote for Skin

Troubling times. There are so many events happening right now demanding our attention; truly important issues which involve millions of lives, trillions of dollars, justice, and how human society is to proceed over the next few decades, it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed. My humble apologies, but please allow me to add one more concern to dump onto that ugly steaming heap of troubles on your plate. It’s a little thing as problems go, won’t really have any effect on your life, but will need to be dealt with before it becomes irredeemable. What I’m writing about here is whether or not swimming should accept the new technically advanced suits, in particular the Speedo LZR Racer, as part of the natural evolution of our sport.

I’ve partially addressed this issue from my own limited perspective as one who thinks the suit's adoption is wrong because of a desire not to break completely with the past and the issue of fairness. Others are just as adamant any rejection of the benefits which technology brings to swimming is a backward denial of the inevitable. Now Craig Lord, perhaps the most preeminent journalist covering swimming, has written a detailed five part series about this landmark event looking at the controversy from all sides. Everyone who cares about the future of our sport should read this series to fully understand the issues and what is at stake for swimming.

Suit Week 1: In the Beginning
Suit Week 2: How Speedo Won the Battle of Beijing
Suit Week 3: Vested Interest
Suit Week 4: The Case Against the Suit
Suit Week 5: Solutions

What makes Craig Lord a better journalist than I is rather than just rant against the suit (for he’s as decidedly against the suit as anyone) he still presents the other side's arguments and, better yet, offers possible solutions. One of those solutions forms the title of this post – that we should rely on the characteristics of human skin to provide the technical standards against which future suits should be measured. In short he calls for as much skin as possible. Marketing wise I think it’s a winning concept which has been discussed by several of us bloggers for some time. The one thing Lord doesn’t do is go into are the technical details as to how the suit rules would have to be worded in order to promote the “more skin the better” change in suit design. Perhaps there are some readers who may have some ideas on how this should be done? If you do then let’s hear them. I’ll be the first to throw a stick into the fire by saying I’d achieve the objective by requiring the suit’s drag coefficient to be worse than smooth skin, say a minimum of 5%, which should achieve the desired effect. At least it sounds pretty straight forward and relatively easy to enforce. What do you think?

P.S. I’d also like to take this opportunity to announce this is my blog’s 200th post. A trifling sum for many but for me an amazing total.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Sporting Icon: The Great Arthur Lydiard

This blog tosses about ‘great’ a lot when referring to today's elite swimmers. Yet the word is never used casually. It is chosen with nearly the same care that occurs when I apply the term ‘mediocre’ to an Olympic medalist – which is to say only with considerable reluctance. The problem (as I see it) is the number of tremendous swimmers in today’s generation – several who have not only advanced the sport faster than thought possible but also have transformed swimming with historically significant accomplishments. Instead of the usual one or two every generation I'm seeing a pack of them whom I'm confident can be accorded such distinction. Maybe there are some who will disagree with my choices. I won't take offense. From my vantage point things get a little blurry way up there. There are better judges than I on what constitutes greatness in a swimmer.

But I can use the same accolade with serene confidence when I associate it with Arthur Lydiard, despite the fact most athletes of this era have never even heard his name. And yet, though he made his mark in athletics, there are few endurance based sports who cannot trace the basic foundations of their training back to this man.

Arthur Lydiard (1917-2004) started his coaching career simply enough – when in his middle twenties he decided to get back into shape and chose running to do so. Initially he tried adopting the training practices of his day which could be best described as “no pain, no gain”. Finding them unsatisfying and unproductive he turned to experimentation by varying the distances and pace at which he ran. After years of analysis he discovered when distance and speedwork were properly balanced his overall performance in both track and distance events improved. Thus was born a theory when fully fleshed out would eventually transform sport: "…that long, even-pace running at a strong speed produced increased strength and endurance – even when it is continued to the point of collapse – and was beneficial, not harmful, to regular competition."¹ Lydiard continued with his training, building success upon success, which reached its apex when he represented New Zealand in the 1950 Empire Games marathon. More importantly he was faster on the track as well.

By this time Lydiard’s unorthodox training methods were attracting interest from fellow athletes who had begun training with him. In 1955 Arthur Lydiard, the self-coached runner for fitness, finally turned professional and became a coach. Over the next three decades Lydiard would come to coach Olympic gold medalists and world record holders such as Peter Snell, Lasse Viren, and Murray Halberg as well as several other Olympic medalists and international marathon winners. But he never forgot the reason why he started running. Throughout his life he continually promoted long, slow distance running as an alternate way to fitness for everybody.
"The fellow who can run only a few hundred yards before tiring, then has to walk 10 minutes, thinks he's not getting any real exercise and may decide to quit," he said. "But even that helps his heart to work more efficiently. You can go too fast, but you can never go too slowly to develop cardiac efficiency”. Today we know this as jogging, a Shakespearean word Lydiard reintroduced to the world to describe his new form of exercise for the masses.

The methods ascribed to him for training elite endurance athletes, however, are not without critics. There are few swimmers who swam in the sixties, seventies and eighties who will not curse the workloads they had to endure because of his heavy emphasis on mileage. But if their angst was ever aimed at Lydiard it would have been misdirected. All too often intellectually lazy coaches seized only on his massive distance program without actually studying how Lydiard integrated this with other essential components such as anaerobic workouts and rest. In fact Lydiard’s methods (known as the Lydiard Way) utilized all the available tools in a coach’s repertoire which existed at the time. The website has an article on its site with the title Lydiard Misconceptions Explained which quotes from the Lydiard Clinic. Since I don’t believe I can present its arguments any better I’m going to quote a large part of it below:
There are two facts here to consider. First, base building is indeed important. Show me a successful runner who has never established a base and I'll show you a runner who could be much more successful than he or she is. Second, while Lydiard focused more on base than most people, that does not mean that is all he focused on. When it was time to run hard, nobody - past or present - would promote as much intensity as Lydiard did. The Lydiard program is all about balance. When it's time to establish your base, that is the priority. When it's time to develop strength and speed, you don't let base training get in the way.
Consider the following quotes from the Lydiard Clinic:

The Lydiard training system is based on a balanced combination of aerobic and anaerobic running.

If you continue reading, you will see that's the case.

The conditioning phase of Lydiard training stresses exercising aerobically to increase your Steady State as high as possible given your particular situation. For best results, you should exercise between 70 and 100 of your maximum aerobic effort. This, therefore, is not Long Slow Distance. This is running at a good effort and finishing each run feeling pleasantly tired. You will certainly benefit from running slower, but it will take much longer than if you ran at a good aerobic pace.

Indeed, it is not long slow distance. You're not just jogging around, you're out working at a fairly solid effort. Of course, many people are constantly racing their training runs so it may seem like long slow distance to them but, if they do it right, they will realize that it is very beneficial.

Similar to the three long runs in aerobic conditioning, you should run hard (anaerobically) three times a week during the anaerobic phase. Be sure to allow yourself to recover between hard workouts, at least a day in between. The idea is to stress your system, recover completely, then stress it again. It is not all that important what the distances or speeds are, just run repetitions and intervals until you are tired and have had enough for the day. No coach can tell exactly how many repetitions you can do, or what your recovery intervals should be, on a particular day. So trust you instincts and use any schedule as a guide only.

A different phase, a different focus. How many programs that are supposedly not long slow distance like Lydiard have people running hard three times a week at any point? I'd challenge anyone to read that quote and then think the Lydiard plan is nothing but long slow distance.

Anaerobic training is essential if you want to race well. Bear in mind, however, that if you overdo anaerobic work, you will sacrifice the very thing you have worked so hard to achieve, your good condition, which determines your performance level.

Would anyone who is all about long slow distance say anaerobic training is essential? I doubt it. Once again, the first quote is the key. The Lydiard system is all about balance.

So why exactly are Lydiard’s methods relevant to swimming? Even though I’ve always taken the position swimming and athletics actually don’t match up well when trying to compare their respective athletic performances there is one important aspect they do share: endurance. In fact sports physiologists rank swimming’s endurance requirements even higher than running’s by placing swimming on a par with cycling and cross country skiing as one of the most exacting endurance sports around. From distances as short as 100 meters on up aerobic conditioning becomes progressively more critical and speed increasingly takes the back seat. Let me try to illustrate this point. Our elite swimmers can expect their 100 meter free to be about four seconds slower than merely doubling the time he or she can swim the 50. Let’s say in our example the difference is eight seconds, which implies four seconds possibly available for improvement. We can attempt it two different ways. We can work on improving endurance, which will require the subject to practice more and train harder; or we can try to drop the subject’s 50 meter time a couple of seconds by increasing his or her speed. The first option requires only the willingness and ability of the subject to put in the additional effort. The second requires sufficient talent. That's something which can't be assumed. When you also consider Lydiard's methods naturally improves overall speed it is easy to see why his discoveries are now incorporated into virtually every swimming program throughout the world.

No real surprise a former runner such as myself has bought into this versus the more anaerobic approach exemplified by the “Less is More” crowd. It has some clear advantages for me. The process of base building provides the time and pace I need to work on technique as I simultaneously improve both strength and aerobic capacity. It’s also easy to recognize, however, that a commitment to Lydiard's training principles does present risks for someone my age. For one any base I can create is going to be rather truncated. Bill Sweetenham figures to maximize long term development swimmers will need to begin to emphasize base building as soon as they enter their adolescent growth spurt and from there gradually increase their kilometers until they reach what he refers to as ‘Breakpoint Volume’² somewhere between the ages of 13 to 15. The first drawback is Sweetenham's assumption the swimmer has been concentrating on honing their skills before entering the base building phases. I’m trying to do both at the same time. The second is his calculation most swimmers will find their Breakpoint Volume to be around 2100 to 2500 kilometers a year (about 50 km/week). Consequently his development program (and in this Sweetenham is considered the world’s leading expert) anticipates seven or eight years devoted to base building prior to moving into ‘high-performance training’ as the swimmer enters his or her peak years. I’m going to fall hopelessly short of those numbers. The big question is will I be able to build at least some sort of base off of which I can race, or will I simply be exhausting myself to no avail? Sweetenham suggests I have a big problem when he concurs with Balyi³ that “swimmers acquire the ability to absorb and adapt to training principally during the learn-to-train stage of their careers”. So while I may end up swimming the same meters as our elite masters they invariably trained competitively through the crucial adolescent years when I did not. I also would be remiss not to point out standard orthodoxy for training masters swimmers emphasizes anaerobic training for several good reasons – the minimal meters we normally train, our slowing metabolism, and the short distances we typically race. I’m certainly bucking conventional wisdom here. Theoretically I should be able to find out in a year a two from checking the progress in my recovery time from test sets, but until then I’m winging it.

¹ Gilmour, Garth. (1978) Run – the Lydiard Way, Hodder and Stoughton, New Zealand
² Sweetenham has a rather lengthy definition of Breakpoint Volume but for this blog's purposes it can be described as the maximum workload an individual can tolerate while optimizing performance. Sweetenham defines it as “the optimum volume performed at optimum skill level achieved through participation in a maximum number of training sessions of controlled intensity. The training volume achieved at the end of the maturation period will essentially be the training volume an athlete will maintain for the remainder of his or her swimming career. We also believe that an athlete’s recovery profile largely determines his or her future ability to handle intensive training situations (that is, a combination of high-performance training volume and intensity)” Sweetenham, Bill and Atkinson, John. (2003) Championship Swim Training, Human Kinetics, USA
³ Balyi, I. (2002) New Zealand Coach 10(3) (autumn):6-9 titled “Models of long-term athlete development and training requirements of different sports”.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Making Time

A reader asked how I managed to squeeze all this swimming into my life. The short answer is not very well. The problem is the same we all face: there simply isn’t enough time to do everything we want in the day. Right now I’m working my way up to twelve hours of swimming and 4½ hours of yoga a week along with daily core exercises. That’s twenty hours each week not counting time spent in physiotherapy or traveling to and from pool and yoga. Throw in the fatigue factor from all this and, let’s face it, my social life is shot.

The singular advantage I bring to this situation is prior experience. After articling I took up competitive running on a whim and so have already encountered many of the same problems I'm facing now. Of course in my twenties I had the energy and desire (heavy on the desire) to simultaneously continue on with my night life as well. Yet despite the handicap of youth I managed to learn how to train seriously while working full time. These lessons are once again proving their worth.

The most important adjustment is to create time for training and, for all intents and purposes, this means getting up early in the morning. By the time you get home from work, eat, and deal with the various happenings of the day there will be precious little time left over for training. Too many people will want a piece of you in the evening. So instead of wasting morning in bed get up and get to it. And when I say early I mean early. I’m instituting a routine where I get out of bed before dawn at four o’clock Monday through Saturday. That horrid time gives three extra hours a day for working out, which not coincidentally adds up to getting to the pool and back along with two hours of practice. The practice length is important for a couple of reasons. The first was pointed out to me by no other than Karlyn Pipes-Nielsen, who gave me two pieces of advice if I was going to train 30,000 or more meters a week: one, always schedule a day off; and two, add meters to existing workouts rather than more practices because fewer workouts means less time wasted in commuting. The second reason is more wishful thinking because there's only a lingering hope I'll ever be able to train part time with our club’s elite 2:30 group. Even so, if this aspiration is to have a chance to come about I will need to be able to swim a senior national caliber workout covering well over five thousand meters in an hour and a half some day. The program Hyack Masters provides is very nice and all but with only three hours a week it’s completely inadequate for competition. While I can get by for now training on my own eventually I’ll need the crucial input of professional coaching and training to have a shot at the elite masters' ranks. I might as well get used to swimming the necessary distances now and prepare for that fateful day.

Rest is another important part of the equation. To continue training at this tempo I need eight solid hours of sleep a day. So if I calculate this correctly it means I should go to bed around eight o’clock in the evening. That was my bedtime when I was a child. Living life as an adult the past quarter century I’m presently trying without much success to turn in by ten o’clock. Compensating for the missing hours of sleep with weekend naps isn't entirely practicable and consequently I’m building up a sleep deficit at a minimum rate of ten hours per week. I know I have to go to bed earlier, but there always seems to be good reasons to stay up. Unfortunately I'm struggling to see the humor in my making this plaintive whine now after so proudly putting it away ever so long ago.

Thankfully eating does not present the same problem and no, I don’t depend on delivery. I do however cook. This is a good thing since a proper diet and eating out is almost an oxymoron nowadays. As a result, aside from the occasional dinner of sushi or fish and chips, I’ve stopped eating fast food. It’s my own personal Don Quixote-like protest against our food industry stemming from my research writing Lets Talk About Trans Fats. Neither do I rely on a wife for my meals as I’m unmarried. Frankly if I was married I almost certainly wouldn’t be involved in this silly ego-centric adventure. Besides which how many women cook nowadays? What would be the odds? So my solution is to use my weekend to cook for the rest of the week. When I ran I'd cook overly large meals and then freeze the ample leftovers for later consumption. Now I’m approaching this on an industrial scale. Instead of cooking three or four times what was necessary for a meal I’m cooking enough for eight or more. For example I cooked a fifteen pound turkey which gave me a nice turkey dinner, a couple meals of turkey sandwiches, a dozen large turkey pot pies, and several liters of curry. After only a few short weeks I can now reach into the freezer and select from meat loaf, real scotch broth, chicken cordon bleu, spaghetti sauce, two different curries, chicken noodle soup (home made noodles!), chili, and those turkey pot pies. I'll be adequately fueled for my quest at least.

Yet strain as hard as I can to change the count of allocated hours there is precious little left over. Television is out (well almost) as is recreational reading – no time. And this time around I have another sacrifice to make with my internet habit. This blog is witness to how difficult eliminating that can be! Essentially everything else is to be tossed overboard. Routine has become my life’s byword. It will take a few months to get used to – at least I’m hoping I’ll get used to it. There are some mornings diving into the pool where I wonder if swimming a few seconds faster is really worth it. Of course it isn’t the end result which is important here. If I could swim fast enough for my times to be important I'd have to turn myself in for cheating. It’s the process and sacrifice involved in seeking the answer to the question I’m really asking: am I still mentally and physically strong enough to do this? Some men my age go out and buy an exotic car and date young women, others quit their jobs and travel the world but, as I step outside of myself for a moment, it seems I’ve decided to convince myself it isn’t too bad growing old. I’m not sure the answer I’m getting is the one I want. But if reality does eventually keep me from my objective then at least I’ll be one of the fittest men over fifty most people will ever see.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Walking the Talk

This writer believed, rather arrogantly it may be added, that he was relatively impervious to the effects of our omnipresent mass media. In the past year or so I’ve awakened to the realization my perceived immunity isn’t altogether true. Take for instance how easily I believed physical perfection was only an arm’s reach away – a natural product of work ethic, genes, and a good understanding of physical training. I’m blaming those ads which promise athletic, well muscled bodies in less time that it takes most people to eat lunch. It didn’t help hearing about those actors who spent a few weeks with a personal trainer to get into fantastic shape for a role either. Some pitches go as far as claiming their miracle exercise system can provide the lean, well defined muscular/toned bodies displayed on the screen for a daily cost of only ten short minutes. And while most viewers will discount these ads the idea at least some observable improvement can be expected is implanted into the subconscious. Like mine.

Recently an advertising blitz for an exercise program promising spectacular results in just ninety days has been on TV. I’ve looked it over closely and while I believe it is built upon solid principles and is well designed it presents nothing new or cutting edge in our understanding of physiology. Gratifyingly the program requires a full hour of vigorous training every day – a major commitment for anyone. In addition to the exercise the system also requires the buyer to participate in a highly regimented low carbohydrate diet. To give you an idea of what sort of results they claim I’ll provide the before and after pictures of one of their customers who bought the program.

This individual goes by the name of JoeB and he’s fairly representative of the examples provided on the program’s website. I admit his improvement over ninety days is not as spectacular as the two or three men late night television programming showcases, but I discount those results as virtually impossible without some sort of deception being played upon us. Even so, while JoeB is a more conservative example, I don't have to work very hard to detect a couple ways they manipulated his before and after images either.

First I’m going to point out weight loss makes by far the largest contribution in any of the before and after pictures justifying this or any other advertised bodybuilding system. It isn’t coincidental the most dramatic losses from diets are realized in the first three months – when the body has the most excess fat and before the body’s metabolism can adjust to the new diet. In low carbohydrate diets this is referred to as the Induction Phase, and when combined with exercise reports of weekly weight losses of 2-4 kgs (5-10 lbs.) are not uncommon. In JoeB’s case his before picture shows a body with a reported 14% body fat, a level indicating good physical conditioning with little, if any, excess weight¹. In the after picture JoeB’s body fat percentage has dropped to an amazing 8%. This is a tremendous accomplishment. Reducing fat after reaching our predetermined ideal body fat percentage becomes increasingly more difficult – a fact well known to every dieter trying to just get close to normal weight much less well below it. The body shuts down metabolism in an effort to keep some reserves. This is where exercise is crucial for maintaining the metabolism necessary to continue burning fat. Certainly exercise is involved in JoeB’s case, but he's transitioned from a fit body's fat level to a professional athlete’s equivalent in a mere three months. I find this difficult to believe without some sort of catalyst. Starvation would have cannibalized muscle tissue as well as fat.

On the other hand I’m considerably more accepting in regards to his increased musculature. A good hour with weights just prior to the picture being taken would suffice to highlight the now revealed, bulkier muscles of shoulders, arms, and torso. Muscle gain is something a man of his age can reasonably expect to see after ninety days of intensive effort. Having conceded this, however, the unflattering direct lighting used in his before picture has been changed to more intense side lighting for better definition in the after picture. At least he's not changed his posture and switched to the partial abdominal twist bodybuilders use to minimize their waist.

Now let’s look at my own efforts at physical rehabilitation. When this blog started I began taking pictures of myself every month expecting slight but observable changes to show up each time. After six months of humiliation and no discernible progress I cut them back to every three months and then, still seeing no progress, all the way to just once a year. The gullible fool I was I had truly expected to see marked progress in my physical form in a matter of weeks.

So here are pictures showing my progress after an entire year of exercise; a sustained effort which saw my weekly workouts increase from five hours of swimming to close to nine. On top of which I participated in a couple of hour and a half yoga sessions a week for my flexibility.

After so many times I shouldn’t be surprised when I view these pictures but damn it – I see a different body in the mirror. Part of it is the foreshortening which comes from viewing myself in the mirror; partly the loss of depth perception in a two dimensional picture which adds the proverbial “ten pounds”; and yes, the lighting in the picture is atrocious. But I cringe every time I put up these things. I’m now down to 80 kilos (176 lbs) and I have put on muscle in spite of what my after picture may suggest. Yet my measurements suggest my body fat percentage hasn’t budged over the year. That’s difficult to believe. More likely is when I measured myself last year I was rather generous and when measuring for this post perhaps a tad harsh. The other significant improvement I hope you can see is how much straighter I’m standing now. That’s because of my lessons in Alexander Technique and will be covered in another post. Overall, however, my improvements aren’t anywhere close to those exhibited by JoeB and his ilk on TV. Ah well, what counts is not where I am now but where I’m going.

This year my goal is to build up my core and work off that ever so persistent bulge around my middle. But beyond doing about twenty minutes of core work a day I’m going to rely once again on swimming alone to do the job. No weights for me. I figure the extra meters and stroke work my program calls for over the coming year should more than suffice. I’ll start back with weights next year. My target for fat loss the coming year is 3-4 kilos and a similar amount of muscle gain. I'm hoping the two combined will make a significant difference in next year’s picture. The long term goal is to lose 6-8 kilos of fat to bring me down close to a 10% fat content while increasing my muscle mass by 10-12 kilos to finish at around 85 kilos or better (close to 190 lbs). I figure it will take me three more years of work to realize my goal. Unfortunately no quick fix for me, but that's what happens when you start getting old.

¹ For most men the first sign of carrying excess fat comes from the appearance of rolls of flesh at their waist, something showing up in males with around 15% body fat. The American Council for Fitness calculates a fit man should have a body fat percentage between 14-17% and an athlete between 6-13%. A woman should look for 21-24% and 16-20% respectively². You can calculate your own body fat percentage quickly and reasonably accurately with a tape measure using the military method by going here and downloading the U.S. Naval Health Research Center’s Technical Document No. 99-2B in .pdf format.

² Just so you don’t get too depressed about your own fat percentage the acceptable level of body fat changes when we reach middle age. You can check the adjusted ranges here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Betrayed: How USA Swimming has Sold Us Out for Money

Dateline September 27, 2008 – Washington Post

USA Swimming banned the revolutionary, high-tech swimsuits worn by nearly every swimming Olympian in Beijing for athletes 12 years old and younger during its annual convention in Atlanta on Saturday.
About 65 to 70 percent of USA Swimming's house of delegates, which consists of hundreds of voting members representing swim clubs at all levels across the nation, voted to ban suits that extend past the neck, shoulders or knees, officials said.

I’m sure readers will have almost certainly heard of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps, however, there are some who aren’t very clear about what Zen teaching is exactly about. Well aside from Zen masters who really does? So please forgive me if I go the extra step of trying to explain this very arcane philosophy in simple terms; not because I think you, my dear reader, are ignorant; but only to ensure some sort of understanding as it will be necessary to follow the rest of this piece. Zen Buddhism asserts that all sentient beings have a Buddha-nature of inherent wisdom and virtue, a nature which is created from the mind itself. The aim of Zen practice is to discover this Buddha-nature within ourselves, the search for which can provide the perspectives and insights on existence that can, ultimately, lead to enlightenment. Clear? No? Well I don’t blame you. Then how about this – Zen Buddhism is all about discovering what it is to be a complete human being by stripping away everything else. You’d be surprised at how little is left.

Now swimming is a very Zen sport. It is a very complex, intricate weave of exactly choreographed motion set in a dangerous environment, where pain and exhaustion are inevitable companions in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. In order to do our very best in a race we, like the Zen masters, must set aside thinking about specific techniques and discomfort and instead allow our form to flow unconsciously from the mind. Of course, since we want to set our personal bests before the age of sixty, our young swimmers tend to opt out of spending their time in reflective study and devote themselves to practical training in the pool instead. Even so, though the methods are different, our goals are similar – a very narrow focus on achievement and complete devotion to its attainment. The strength of a swimmer’s mind will often determine the victor. That and of course hyper flexible joints, size seventeen feet, and thirteen litre lungs.

USA Swimming's Age Group Committee at first recommended a ban on the suits for swimmers up to age 18, but it met resistance from members who feared U.S. athletes would be at a disadvantage if they didn't have access to the suits. The sport's rules and regulations committee, meantime, urged members to let athletes have access to the best equipment available.

I’m not sure how many international age group swim meets the typical American competes in but I’m going to guess it wouldn't be all that many. Wouldn't it be more effective to provide an exemption from the new suit ban for those specific events rather than open up the entire country to the expense? Just speculating here.

In Canada, as in many other countries, there are special rules for youth swimming. Up in the Great White North competitive age group swimming starts at the age of eleven. For these younger swimmers special rules to guard against excessive competitive pressure and early burn out before reaching their true potential. Rules and guidelines for our 10&Unders limit the number of hours a meet can have; advises giving out ribbons for placing, aggregate scores, and personal bests rather than the traditional first, second, and third; restrict the total number of hours they can train, and calls for training with the national federation’s proscribed Long Term Athlete Development philosophy in mind, an approach which stresses training orientated towards individual medley and distance freestyle. In the United States serious training is only recommended once the child becomes a teenager. So when USA swimming talks about placing suit restrictions on 12&Unders they are for limiting the new rules to the one segment where competition isn’t its primary focus. Even so, Swimming World magazine’s October 1st edition of The Morning Swim Show makes the point these rules don’t really stop anyone at all from wearing the new technology. It was discouraging to hear Tony Young, Chairman of USA Swimming’s Age Group Development Program virtually concede this point. Incredibly he even refers to the fact the restrictions put in place were modeled on suit legislation passed in Southern California in 2000. Clearly these so-called limits have nothing to do with today’s concerns. In my mind this is a non-ruling: practically speaking USA Swimming has ensured there are no barriers to using the new high tech suits in competition for anyone who desires to wear one.

USA Swimming's Club Development Director Pat Hogan said delegates were concerned that the pricey suits, which can cost as much as $500, would drive promising youngsters who couldn't afford them out of the sport and possibly deter proper stroke development.
"We're in a position where we want to grow participation in our sport," Hogan said. "We don't need to have false barriers to participation. The cost of those high-tech swim suits, for a young swimmer, doesn't really make sense."

But spending a couple of thousand dollars a year on swim suits makes sense for everyone else? To compete in a local regional meet? An adherent to the Zen philosophy would ask one simple question. Why is it necessary for everyone to swim 2% faster? Is it right to question why Hogan feels that thirteen or sixteen year olds are different from ten or twelve year olds when it comes to shouldering the costs of the new suits? I fail to see his logic. Let us have no misunderstanding about this: the number of parents who will stick with the sport after their child has torn both their primary and backup racing suits at a meet is virtually nil. The number of parents who will gracefully accept seeing their child denied a place on a select team because they can’t afford the suits? None that I know. This decision is a crushing blow to the long term future of swimming in the States.

Now I’m going to concede I’m one of those who believe the suits are bad for the sport regardless of the level of competition. There are enough of us that FINA has been forced to engage an independent firm to verify the new technology does not violate existing FINA prohibitions. At least it's a step in the right direction rather than naively relying on the manufacturers’ in-house testing for their rulings.

I’ve argued in an earlier post the manufacturers’ own descriptions dictate the suits must fall into the category of devices, something specifically banned by FINA rules. If I’m correct then there’s more than just a simple rule violation involved here. The real problem is that a device is a tool, and tools work by expanding human ability in highly specific ways. The science on which they rely upon to improve performance will affect swimmers differently depending on the various mix of skills and abilities every individual brings with them. For example as a poor kicker fins help me considerably more than they'll help someone good at kicking. If the new technology helps stabilize the core it logically provides more benefit to those whose core integrity is deficient. There's decent anecdotal evidence to back this up, like the fact Michael Phelps didn’t feel the need to wear the full body suit at Beijing, or that Gary Hall Jr. is on record saying the suits didn’t provide him with any noticeable increase in speed. If the current studies don’t conclude the suits should be banned I’m going to consider performing a scientifically based statistical analysis of the suits and see if there's evidence the new tech suits discriminate against the very best in our sport.

A final statement. I lied when I wrote earlier I couldn’t understand Pat Hogan’s not being concerned about the cost for anyone older than twelve. I unfortunately understand only too well. The host of The Morning Swim Show Peter Busch brought it right out in the open when he said, “... it would be unfair not to allow these new technologies to enter the market place ...” There can be little argument this present farce is all about the large amounts of money Speedo's pumping into USA Swimming. But really why hasn’t a complete ban on the new technology been considered? It’s done all the time in sports. If NASCAR for example didn’t ban certain technologies we’d be watching Formula One America. Why, if we are to accept the technological advances incorporated into these suits, shouldn’t we also accept monofins? We’d certainly swim faster with those. I must ask the question. Just why do we have an obligation to swimsuit manufacturers to accept their products?

Shouldn’t swimming be all about being the best we can be?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Breaststroke, Backstroke, Butterfly and Free – Oh My!

I’ve always known technique is one of the preeminent factors in determining how fast someone can swim. Yet despite this as time passes and I learn more its importance continues to climb. That’s an opinion many of the world’s top coaches share. Way back when I first swam as a youngster technical skills weren’t really on the radar for me. I simply assumed there were those who couldn’t swim very well, others that could, a handful like me who could swim really fast, and then the rare few who could swim really, really fast. I thought it was all in the genes so to speak. Now in hindsight I can wonder if my early success was more due to the fact I was coached my first year by Archie McKinnon, a George Haines-like figure in Canadian swimming, than my own innate talent. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

No surprise then on my return I was happy to take advantage of the team’s coaching by attending every clinic offered by my club. Yet always underlying my efforts was the idea that, aside from my fly of course, I only needed to tinker with my strokes. In this I was sorely mistaken. Just how mistaken was driven home one practice where we did a set of freestyle stroke counts in a long course pool. I finished the first pair with counts of 39 and a 53 for fists only, which turned out to be significantly better than the numbers the rest were announcing as their own. I was figuratively patting myself on the back when, with our set resuming, our coach leaned over to Doug standing next to me and in a normal voice asked him what his own counts were. “Ah, 28 or so swim ... and 40 fist” he responded. A simple nod was Brad’s only response, his casual acknowledgment providing ample proof he’d fully expected those numbers. It came as a profound shock someone could be so much more efficient at swimming than I. My deficiencies meant I would never compete along side our elite masters with what I had; and made it blindingly clear wholesale changes to my strokes were necessary – mere tinkering was not enough. So a couple of weeks later I bit the bullet, ripped my strokes apart, and started from scratch with several suggestions for each stroke from Brad.

A year later has seen some progress. My breaststroke kick has shown a profound improvement to the point where it’s now a ‘good’ kick technically speaking. Much of the improvement has to be credited to Alexander Technique which has made huge strides in bringing back my hip flexibility and thus allowing me the proper kicking motion. My pull, on the other hand, requires considerable work to bring it to a point where my drag coefficient becomes acceptable. Overall body position is also a problem, as is getting both pull and kick together into a cohesive and fluid undulation that moves me forward rather than up and down.

If my breast has shown solid improvement my back has been the opposite. I’ve better technique in the various individual facets of the stroke such as catch, pull, arm placement, finish, kick, etc. but, like breaststroke, I’ve been unable to tie them all together into one synergistic motion. Paradoxically I believe the fault lies here in the fact my natural backstroke comes the closest to the ideal out of all my strokes, resulting in conflicts and/or confusion for me when I unconsciously relapse into habit during a race. Of course lots of work remains; especially in delivering a solid, rearward directed pull and inducing more shoulder roll for my catch. But integrating all my separate parts is my primary goal for now. Also my lack of strength is very evident in my pull, often causing me to deliberately fall away from proper form just to give my muscles some rest. Hopefully with time and more work this will pass.

Now my fly. Jeepers, what can I say? Originally I planned on spending five weeks to master the basics of the stroke. Two years later I can only say I’m confident this will be the year it all comes together and I’ll finally have a legitimate 100 fly. I can boast a real dolphin kick now, even if it pales in comparison to the kick of an actual fly specialist, and my integration of pull and kick is reasonably fair. Emphasis this season is on my head position, pulling rearward rather than down immediately after my catch, and staying on a flatter plane in the water. But my lack of strength really shows up here.

Finally my free. My coach has told me he believes this stroke will eventually become my most competitive when I can work out my problems. That might be some time away. Besides it's hard to believe when I can’t even come close to breaking a minute swimming short course meters. On the other hand watching a video of me trying to swim arms swung out flat and elbows low with a pronounced lope I can see there’s considerable room for improvement. It has meant a major effort in redesigning my pull but I can sense progress slowly coming my way. I’ve even come around to understand what Brad means when he refers to incorporating a “shoulder shrug” in my stroke. Plus, in addition to the above, I also need to induce more body roll and better coordination into my stroke, and finish with my hands by my hips. Right now, however, everything feels very artificial and forced. Much, much work remains.

A lot to push through, but I feel I’m in the right place for my long term plans. Because of the efforts I’ve been putting into revamping my strokes I wasn’t going to be setting impressive new personal bests whatever I did. With speed work not being conducive to mastering new techniques, and the need to practice my new strokes as much as possible, I think my 30,000 meter weekly target is very compatible with my immediate needs. More pounding away in the pool will be good for building my strength up too. So onward I paddle. Time will tell if I’m on the right path.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The "Program"

Two years back in swimming and now a year and a half has gone by with no improvement. What’s up? Well first of all I’m not panicking, though I have to admit thinking when I started my present program I’d be seeing a slight downward drift in my times. Okay, truthfully I’ve seen my hundred times improve by a second or so with the notable exception of backstroke, but such small margins of improvement on times achieved after only six months of swimming might as well be nothing. So why the lack of progress?

Alas I have only myself to blame. Once I decided to swim Masters competitively I became “serious” as one of my teammates put it. For me you see there is a huge difference between exercising for fitness and training for competition. Fitness is something you can approach on a casual basis because ... how should I put it ... the definition of what constitutes physical health is both relative and flexible. But when you compete you are trying to be the very best you can be, to test your limits and go beyond them. Certainly if I was a former Olympian or college swimmer this blog wouldn’t exist because I’d already know those limits. But I’m not one of those select individuals. So for me the question remains – just how good of a swimmer am I? My current training program is my attempt to answer this simple question.

A conundrum is presented by this decision. To be the best I can be would seem to require that I train as hard as those who aspire to Olympic glory. Bill Sweetenham figures this means something between eighteen to twenty four hours of swimming a week. Okay, that’s not happening. But clearly I’m going to have to devote a significant part of my life to swimming if I want an answer. And then I have to decide on how long will I need to train to reach my goal. Well physiologically it takes at least five years to recover whatever aerobic capacity an individual has remaining, and six or seven years to build sport specific muscle from scratch. So I’m looking at six years or so before training can bring me to my maximum potential. Multiply the two together and you’ll come up with some mind-numbing numbers. If I’m going to invest that much time then I had better do it wisely.

Swimming has two major components to success: physical conditioning and technique. Both, I’ve unfortunately discovered, are very problematical for me. Let’s take physical conditioning. It turns out one cannot start swimming the same workouts as elite swimmers after a few months of training. At least this is the case for me, but then I’m old and not Dara Torres. On the other hand it typically takes age group swimmers years to work up to the punishing two hour practices and the 60,000 meters or more national caliber swimmers regularly put in every week. Thankfully this is double the 30,000 meters/week normally committed to by our top masters swimmers, but even at this relatively low kilometrage the hours are significant and present a significant hurdle to overcome. For instance a well regarded U.S. university coach keeps mileage within 5% after he found increasing yardage by 17% over a single season had a distinctly negative impact on performance. I started competitive swimming from a base of 3,000 meters per week. The first year I increased my weekly workouts to an average of around 12,500 meters. That year I felt like I had been beaten on a daily basis and mere walking brought forth a chorus of complaints from my stressed out muscles. The second year my training volume increased by two-thirds to just over 20,000 meters. And while the cries of disbelief coming from my body became more muted it was likely because they were too exhausted to complain. This year I’m planning to hit 30,000 if things go well – a bump of another 50% and invariably another year to be written off competition-wise. And through all this at the back of my mind is the nagging thought I should consider specializing in the 200 events to take advantage of the endurance I showed as a youth (I know I must have a little remaining somewhere). If I go ahead with this idea I’ll need to consider increasing my kilometrage to around 40,000 meters to exploit my perceived advantage (remember we’re talking masters here). That’s a lot of meters in a very short time. But do I have a choice if I want to end this experiment in six years? I don’t think so. And then there’s the big question mark regarding my swimming technique. Thankfully I’m going to leave that for my next post. It’s a complete subject on its own.