Monday, February 25, 2008

The Exception Proves the Rule

It was Tony over at the Southern California Aquatics Swim Club blog who first brought my attention to Stefan Nystrand’s unorthodox straight-arm recovery. At the time I just watched the video Tony provided a couple more times to convince myself he really did have a straight-arm recovery and then left with the thought such an idiosyncratic stroke couldn’t be good for the shoulders. I however sat up and took better notice when Tony’s next blog on the subject pointed out Eamon Sullivan also used a straight-arm recovery in setting a new world record in the 50 free at last week’s NSW state championships – that’s two swimmers setting world sprint records recently using the straight-arm technique. A column written by Olympic gold medalist and physician Gary Hall Sr. goes a step further and speculates this technique may be a major contributing factor in their success by virtue of its ability to utilize centrifugal force to speed up the recovery stroke.

After some consideration, and using Dr. Hall's hypothesis as a starting point, I’d like propose an alternative explanation. While the recovery stroke certainly has an effect on pace I don’t think it has the same importance of, say, the recovery kick in running where it determines a runner’s maximum speed. I'd argue on a purely intuitive basis it is the speed of the pull rather than recovery which is the limiting factor in water. I concede a straight-arm recovery may be faster than the traditional bent-elbow but surely this couldn’t be more than three or four milliseconds per stroke. After all the straight-arm has to travel a circumferential route while the bent-arm cuts right across the surface. If I'm correct then using a straight-arm recovery could save at most a tenth of a second or so in a fifty race; a saving to be sure, but insufficient to warrant deliberate adoption. On the other hand I think the technique may provide significant advantage from the extended reach it guarantees a swimmer. In short sprints where turnover is paramount the tendency is to shorten the stroke. Alexander Popov, whose world 50 free record Eamon Sullivan broke, mitigated this as much as possible by putting in prodigious amounts of kilometers to ingrain the desired technique into his natural stroke. Sprinters nowadays don’t put in anywhere near the same meters. Logically their strokes are more susceptible to a shortened reach as a consequence and the straight-arm technique prevents this. A few extra centimeters on the all important pull, the ability to ignore technique while concentrating wholly on turnover, and a potential faster recovery all add up to a significant advantage. Perhaps up to half a second in a fifty. And that’s worth changing one’s stroke for.

The technique comes with a very large caution though. The bent-arm recovery is orthodox for very good reasons. It is the most efficient way to raise the arm out of the water and employs the shoulders as they are intended to be used. The straight-arm on the other hand mimics baseball's pitchers or cricket's fast bowlers who rely on the extended arm’s extra inertia for more speed but in return accepts terrific strain on the shoulder from the unnatural movement. Rotator cuff injuries are legion among these athletes – and they’re throwing through air. What would be the result of having the shoulder half submerged in water and repeating the motion not a few hundred times a week but tens of thousands? There may be a few athletes who have the flexibility to arrive at a straight-arm style naturally as Dr. Gary Hall Sr. points out, but for most of us this will be a direct route to blown shoulders. Even so the straight-arm technique certainly appears to confer an advantage in speed. It will be interesting to see how many will gamble their careers for a few tenths of a second this coming August in Beijing.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

All In Good Time

I mentioned in an earlier post how my Alexander Technique lessons seem to be at the root of recent advances in rehabilitating my decades old back injury. There's been real progress in hip flexibility and the way I hold myself. All the same the distances I'm now swimming has created a lot of shoulder strain because, despite Coach telling me to relax on recovery, the only way I can bring my arms forward is to ‘muscle’ them through the shoulders: a very tiring process. Plus I can still observe the severe compression evident in my left side even if my shoulders have pretty well leveled out. Impatient I want to see more improvement there as well. So when my Alexander teacher Gaby left my back for a few minutes and looked at my shoulders I was delighted.

We first tried to see how high I could lift my arms from the prone position without engaging my shoulders, but didn’t get much farther than a few centimeters before they started seizing up. Next we tried having me completely relax and rely on her to move my arms. No luck there either. Reminding me about the perils of ‘end-gaining’ she then took hold of an arm with one hand while resting her other on my shoulder blade and while moving the arm applied a certain directed pressure to my shoulder. I was almost immediately rewarded with a dull ache from deep within the shoulder. Wonderful stuff! After about thirty seconds of this she then went to the other shoulder and did the same to that side. Once finished Gaby said she'd not do that again; my shoulders were far too resistant to tackle in a direct manner and we’d have to ‘trick’ them into releasing by using more indirect approaches over time. I only partially accepted her verdict. Figuring I could duplicate the shoulder position I decided I’d work my shoulders on my own. So for the rest of that day and the following I would revisit my shoulders on a regular basis and work them for a couple minutes. By the second evening, however, my lower back started to hurt. The next morning I woke up to back pain which necessitated a prescription anti-inflammatory before leaving for my next Alexander lesson. Gaby shook her head at my story. “Never work at recreating the feeling”, she explained, “because what feels right or comfortable to you right now is almost certainly something which comes from habit, and for you habit is not good.” Serves me right for trying to hurry things up.

Speaking of putting in the required time and effort rather than take short cuts I decided early last month to abandon my aspirations towards setting any notable times this year and instead concentrate on building an appropriate aerobic base for two or three years in the future. A significant departure from the anaerobic training prevalent in masters swimming today. Admittedly there are good reasons why masters training concentrates on anaerobic sets rather than aerobic. For one thing speed is a real concern for most of us old codgers so we need to practice at being fast. For another thing we consider a 200 to be a distance event. With a population who race mostly fifties and hundreds many who coach masters rightly believe there’s no reason to concern themselves with endurance. But ultimately the reason why more time isn’t spent training aerobically is that we don’t train enough. Why even try if the average masters athlete can’t put in the hours of practice necessary to achieve proper aerobic conditioning anyways. Well, I’m going to be one of the few to bother and at least try. Certainly this is a real gamble on my part as I might not be competing next year much less in three or four. On the other hand I’m weary of trying to ‘taper’ every month for every local race while simultaneously trying to build up my conditioning. I’m also sick of being afraid at the start of any race over a hundred.

My inspiration towards a more aerobic oriented training program came from an article transcribing a talk Eddie Reese gave the ASCA World Coaches Conference in 1998. Titled, “What To Do and How To Do It” Coach Reese discusses how American swimming could be improved and what he proposed needed to be done. It focused exclusively on age group swimming and the need to allow the greatest number of America’s youth to reach their maximum potential while preventing some of our most talented youth from burning out. At least back in 1998 what Eddie Reese thought coaches needed to concentrate on when training age group swimmers were, in order of importance: aerobic conditioning, stroke work (particularly distance per stroke), and the dolphin kick. Sounds good to me, and since James ‘Doc’ Councilman was the ‘go to’ person when I last competed I’m not going to quibble about any minor changes which may have arisen over the past ten years. Besides which, just as Coach Reese likes to quote people who share the same views he does, I happen to prefer a training philosophy which ties in very nicely not only with the giants of my era (Doc and George Haines) but with many of today’s leading figures like Bill Sweetenham and Bob Bowman. And of course, let’s not forget Eddie Reese. Take a gander and find out how a world class coach views our sport by reading his presentation. It’s exactly as I thought it should be.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Let’s Talk About Trans Fats

Concerns about trans fats, arising primarily from the use of partially hydrogenated oils, started arising as early as 1988. In 1992 the Center for Science in the Public Interest reversed its position (it was encouraging substituting trans fats to minimize saturated fat consumption) to one which cautioned their use; and by 1994 a flood of studies with adverse findings eventually led the American Journal of Public Health to estimate trans fats were causing 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S. (a more recent study by Harvard nutritionists has upped this to 100,000). A real public relations problem for the food industry – it turns out trans fats are exceptionally profitable and convenient for food manufacturers. They can be made from cheaper, near inedible plants such as cotton to basically duplicate the effects and mouthfeel of expensive butter or lard and possess other significant characteristics. For one, since the created fat molecules are only distantly related to anything organic they last a long time, far longer than anything occurring naturally. And longer shelf life means less spoilage. For many years partially hydrogenated oils exhibited much greater durability when used as shortening in deep frying because of less susceptibility to rancidity. Their use even has cultural benefits since they're based on vegetable oils, a fact which avoids any conflict with animal fat dietary restrictions observed by such major religions as the Jewish Kashrut (kosher), the Muslim Halal, vegetarianism in Buddhism, and Hindu’s Adhimsa. You can see the food manufacturers' dilemma. Here they have this wonder product which creates food which customers’ love to eat at considerable savings but it has this one teensy weensy little problem – it sorta poisons them. What should they do?

Well they did what industry does when market and profitability is threatened. They fought tooth and nail against any restrictions on their use. Even so by the turn of the twenty first century public awareness of the hazard posed by partially hydrogenated oils had grown to unmanageable proportions. In September 2002 McDonald’s announced it would eliminate trans fats from its menu but then almost immediately recanted citing the need to ensure continued quality in taste. It may have just been a cynical public relations play - and they were forced to pay seven million dollars to the American Heart Association in 2005 for misleading advertising. Since trans fats have nothing to do with taste the about face was probably more a result of learning how much money changing away from partially hydrogenated oil was going to cost. There are some fast food burger chains like California’s highly successful In-N-Out who have never used them. Yet despite the economic penalties more and more food companies started switching away from trans fats. Even worse, legislation to restrict trans fat in manufactured food was growing. In 2003 Denmark became the first country to legislate restrictions on trans fat use, prohibiting trans fat content in excess of 2%. Canada, after an aborted effort in 2004 because of an election, passed its own legislation in January 2005. In the United States New York City became the first jurisdiction in the country when on December 5, 2006 it banned trans fats in all city restaurants effective July 1, 2007. KFC announced in October 2006 it would be switching over to trans fat free oil in all its Canadian and American outlets by mid-2007, and so joined Wendy’s and its 6,300 stores who had announced earlier their switch would be complete by August 2006. In face of such pressure even the behemoth McDonald's had to capitulate. On January 30, 2007 it announced it had finally selected its new deep fry formula and would gradually introduce it across the country with full implementation expected before the end of 2007 (now pushed back to early 2008). Jeez guys, hope it doesn’t affect your bonuses too much.

But if you’re breathing a sigh of relief your favorite restaurant has stopped poisoning you you can stop. Recently there have been accusations Wendy’s trans fats levels aren’t what they’re claimed to be. And, of course, there are all those foods sold in the supermarket. Since January 1, 2006 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has mandated packaged foods must include trans fat content on their Nutrition Fact labels. The FDA had proposed to put an asterisk in the % Daily Value column with a note that "intake of trans fats should be as low as possible” but under pressure compromised by leaving the space blank. It's true, take a look at a label the next time you’re shopping. Another major concession was allowing manufacturers to claim zero trans fat when the amount in a single serving is less than half a gram (in Canada the threshold is one fifth of a gram). It’s even worse when you consider it’s the manufacturer who determines how large a single serving should be. For example I picked up some crackers marked with a large green flash declaring “Zero Trans Fats” but on inspection discovered partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil was the third most used ingredient. I have to think Christie’s assertion a pitiful seven crackers constituted a single serving was a major reason the trans fat content was below the magic threshold. So beware and vigilant when you’re out shopping.

However results from new studies keep on rolling in and none of them are good. If becoming one of the 100,000 who are dropping dead from a trans fat caused heart attack every year isn’t enough of an incentive perhaps this six year study¹ from Wake Forest University will help. Two groups of monkeys were fed identical amounts of calories at what was calculated as a subsistence level.
She fed one group of monkeys a diet where 8% of their daily calories came from trans-fats and another 27% came from other fats. This is comparable to people who eat a lot of fried food, says Kavanagh. A different group of monkeys was fed the same diet, but the trans-fats were substituted for mono-unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, for example. After six years on the diet, the trans-fat-fed monkeys had gained 7.2% of their body weight, compared to just 1.8% in the unsaturated group. CT scans also revealed that the trans-fat monkeys carried 30% more abdominal fat, which is risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. “We were shocked. Despite all our enormous efforts to make sure they didn’t gain weight, they still did. And most of that weight ended up on their tummies,” says Kavanagh, who presented her findings at the American Diabetes Association meeting in Washington DC, on Monday. “This is walking them straight down the path to diabetes.” This is the first study to show such a dramatic result on abdominal fat, adds Dariush Mozaffarian at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, US. “The days of thinking about fats just as calories are over,” he says.²
If your health doesn’t do it for you perhaps your appearance will.

¹Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (2006, June 19). Trans Fat Leads To Weight Gain Even On Same Total Calories, Animal Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2008, from

²Why Fast Foods are Bad, Even in Moderation,, 12 June 2006

Two excellent sources of information about trans fats (and which provided the bulk of the facts used in this post) were Wikipedia’s article on trans fats and the website of

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Disagreeing with BBC News

Every morning I get up, turn on BBC News, and put in a few minutes of much needed back stretches and abdominal crunches. A couple of days ago I was rewarded with a short blurb on Michael Phelps and the possibility of him beating Mark Spitz’s record in Beijing. That’s what she said. Obviously she was talking about Phelps bettering the seven gold medals Mark Spitz won in Munich and towards the end of the piece she finally came out and said this, but her opening remark was limited to the topic of Michael Phelps breaking Mark Spitz’s record. I immediately took issue with this. Not only is Phelps faster, much faster, in every one of Mark Spitz’s seven gold medal, world record setting events but his competition today would also leave Spitz behind in their wake. A couple of prominent swimmers have publicly questioned the possibility of Phelps achieving eight gold medals at Beijing and with very good reasons: Stefan Nystrand and Pieter Van den Hoogenband in the 100 free, Peter Vanderkay and Grant Hackett in the 200 free, Tae-Hwan Park, Larsen Jensen, and Grant Hackett again in the 400; Ryan Lochte in the 200 and 400 IM; Aaron Peirsol along with a host of swimmers in the 100 back, and Lochte and Peirsol together in the 200; and last but not least Ian Crocker in the 100 fly. In reserve there are several more men from all parts of the globe close enough to know that with a breakthrough swim they too could be standing atop the podium at Beijing. Beyond the fact both Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz are men, American, dominate the sport, and will be competing in several Olympic swimming events there’s nothing comparable between them at all.

I did appreciate, however, the clip they used to open the report. It was a half-torso shot showing Phelps slicing through the water on his stomach with his arms held in a streamlined position. He was kicking and clearly moving fast. I’m rapidly coming to the belief swimming’s biggest change over the past forty or so years is not so much in stroke or turn techniques as in the much heavier emphasis on kicking to provide more propulsive force. When I swam as a child the generally accepted rule-of-thumb had kicking limited to contributing up to a maximum of around 15% of a swimmer’s forward motion – and that was for the sprint events. Kicking's primary purpose was only to maintain a correct body position to minimize drag. Now we’re using better kicking for better speed. At least that’s what I believe, and to put theory into practice I’ve made kicking, especially dolphin kicking, a much higher priority in my training. I understand this will take time. Bob Bowman has talked about the fact he and Michael decided to work on his turns after reviewing his Athens performance and it took three years before those turns stunned the swimming world at last year’s FINA World Championships (OK, officially it was only the Australians’ who publicly announced the need to ‘catch up’ but I’m sure the rest of the world were thinking the very same thing). Jonathan Miller, a Canadian backstroker who reached national contender status and who has articles in both the USMS and the MSC websites, has said it took him six years to transition his kick from being one of the weakest areas of his stroke to his most competitive. I’ve only been working on my kick for three months so there’s still a long way to go but I’ve already seen measurable improvement. Not a whole lot certainly: during one recent kick set Ian caught up and passed me so quickly I checked to see if he was wearing fins. He wasn’t. Lots and lots of work to do.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A “Unique” Breaststroke

At practice tonight we had as our main set a bunch of 100 IMs. Coach pointed out a couple of errors in my breaststroke pull during the set and then after I’d finished gave me a more detailed and broader critique. It appears between my new pull and admittedly still decidedly wonky kick Brad can tell me with a big smile that I’ve developed a rather unique style of breaststroke. It must be really bad. That’s what comes when you try to make several changes all at the same time without any significant feedback. To counter this I had hoped to have attended a couple of stroke clinics, see where I’m making my mistakes and how to make the necessary corrections. Unfortunately what with the shortfall in pool time and expanded membership our parent swim club is experiencing this year we masters have only had one stroke clinic this season – and I just had to be away on business for that one. Hopefully sometime in the near future we lowly seniors will be able to pry the underwater camera away from the other groups long enough for me and the rest of my teammates to get a look at what we’re doing.