Monday, March 31, 2008


While the recent spate of world records and the impact of Speedo’s new LZR Racer swimsuit have seen a certain amount of controversy swirl about them the true nexus of the storm appears to be Eamon Sullivan’s stunning 21.28 50 free; a time nearly four tenths of a second faster than Alexander Popov’s long standing world record of 21.64. During the former record's seven year reign only two other swimmers even delved below 21.80. It was seemingly an epic, near unassailable time until Sullivan and then Bernard burst through within weeks of each other. Before Sullivan hadn’t even broken 22 flat.

Several on the internet have compared Sullivan’s achievement to Bannister’s first sub four minute mile, but frankly I believe it's a bad comparison. I don’t think breaking the four minute barrier was anything like comparable to what we witnessed in Sydney. Sullivan’s swim is equivalent to Bannister running a 3:57.3¹. Forget the hyperbole about the four minute mile being considered “not humanly possible” – the only question about the four minute mile which existed at the time was when it would be broken and by whom. World War II only partially delayed the pursuit as a pair of Swedes brought the record down from a pre-war 4:06.4 to a tantalizingly close 4:01.3 by war’s end; and after a momentary pause by the rest of the world to recover from its recent trials the hunt was taken up in earnest. Bannister was the first only because he moved up his race to preempt Australia’s Landy from taking the prize before him. There was never a real barrier.

Other bloggers have proposed the psychological boost coming from breaking Popov’s record (the “leading the way” theory of motivation) lent support to both Alain Bernard’s own wondrous improvement to wrest the record away from Sullivan, and to Sullivan's retaking and subsequent obliteration of it. That may be true but then they mistakenly refer to Bannister’s iconic race as likewise opening the competitive floodgates and enabling several to run sub four minute miles soon after. In fact only Bannister and Landy ran under four minutes in 1954, three more joined the club a little over a year later (all, coincidentally, running in the same race) and by the end of 1956’s racing season a total of nine men had broken through.² Not exactly a deluge. And it does nothing to support Sullivan's massive improvement.

Let’s not forget to address the LZR swimsuit controversy which has been very much in the spotlight the last month or so, seeing that seventeen out of the eighteen world records set during this brief period were by swimmers wearing the new suits. I wouldn’t be the first, however, to applaud the marketing savvy of Speedo in their choice to introduce the suits just before Olympic Trials when several world records are invariably broken anyways. And like many contrarians, I can and do question the level of the suit’s actual contribution. They may indeed improve times somewhat but I don’t see many willing to attribute all, or even most, of the recent gains in swimming to technological progress alone. It’s difficult to believe swimsuit design can make the qualitative jump which many are claiming, even if one accepts the premise that a swimsuit nowadays can create a significant reduction in drag or an improvement in metabolic functioning. Personally speaking I’m not one of them.

Yet despite all this I believe almost all these results will prove in the end not to be drug enabled – even Eamon Sullivan’s. Why? Well for several reasons. First I think the U.S. team’s performance at last years World Championships was a watershed moment for many around the world, which led the way for higher expectations from the elite swimmers in every country while providing the necessary clues as to how to go about achieving them. Another is 2008 being the quadrennial year, the year of the one competition which makes or breaks every swimmer’s career and consequently the ultimate test to train for – the Olympics. The 2007 FINA World Championships can almost be considered a preliminary event leading to the Games themselves. It’s equally obvious some of the new record holders had to have been anticipating rather significant improvements in their times: Libby Trickett (nee Linton) came into her country’s trials already knowing she could swim a 100 free under 0:53, she just had to do it in a sanctioned event; so her new world records of 0:52.88 and 0:23.97 for the 100 and 50 free respectively shouldn’t come as any surprise. Eamon Sullivan has been plagued by hip injuries for most of the latter part of his career and still remained one of the best sprinters on the planet – he’s been healthy for over a year now. Very few argue he doesn’t possess the talent to be holding a world record a la Michelle Smith. It’s only his overall qualitative improvement which has the knives out in certain quarters.

But where I take my greatest solace from is the great success Australia continues to enjoy in swimming. With only a little over twenty million Australia competes way out of its weight class in most international sports. Her story is an inspiring one to me though almost certainly not in the way most would envision. Because measured against the cold, hard reality of numbers Australia simply doesn’t have the population base to compete head-to-head with the rest of the world and come out anywhere close to the top. For example in the two most popular sports on earth, football and athletics, Australia is not a significant factor at all. The fact no one country dominates them either is not the point, it's that Australia does dominate swimming – slugging it out with superpower United States possessing a population fifteen times larger. And if twenty million people can achieve that it must mean the world combined can swim a lot faster. A whole lot faster. In an idealized world where everybody has access to a pool, proper nutrition and training there inevitably will come a day when Michael Phelps’ current and future records will be regarded in the same light we now consider Mark Spitz’s former ones – with a smile. A future where to be an Olympic finalist in the men’s 50 free will require bettering twenty seconds, and where women will be challenging Grant Hackett’s current world record in the 1500. It will happen. Put in that light Eamon Sullivan swimming a 21.28 becomes a little more palatable.

¹ Sullivan’s time was a 1.6636% improvement on the world record
² Google Answers: Number of Runners to Break the Four Minute Mile Soon After Roger Bannister (isn’t the internet amazing!)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It’s Getting Surreal Out There

There are eighty six events in swimming recognized by FINA for world record status, split equally between the two sexes. Historically many have had records which lasted for years. They represent the ultimate achievement in the sport by our species, and they are very, very, very difficult to break. Or they should be. For some time swimming has come under considerable scrutiny with its history of drug abuse; the perception rightly or wrongly that swimming is more susceptible to the influences of performance enhancing drugs than most other sports. The fact all but a couple of the existing world records have been established after the turn of the millennium has raised many eyebrows around the world. Little wonder swimming is currently labeled a ‘high risk’ sport.

Recently an amazing and rather bewildering flurry of world records has been seen. In just five weeks fifteen world records have been set, and without any real participation from the United States, the dominant power. Let me hasten to say along with the multitude of others who’ve commented on this phenomenon that I’m not saying drugs are involved in these recent records – just that this recent flurry of world records is ... well, surreal. And these new world records are not just the incremental improvements we’ve normally come to expect. The old times are being obliterated. Former world record holders are waking up in the morning to learn not only they’re no longer the standard bearer but now they lag well behind the newly minted champion. That must come as an awful shock. And in keeping pace with these world records a flood of similar improvements is coming from a host of other, albeit 'lesser' competitors. A time which just a month ago would have led a swimmer to believe he or she was a legitimate medal contender is now looking more and more like something which perhaps won’t even qualify for the finals at Beijing.

Why? Most are pointing at Speedo’s new LZR Racer swimsuit as the reason. Fourteen of the fifteen records have been set by swimmers using this new suit. The new Aqua V-cap used by Natalie Coughlin and others may also be contributing to the dramatic drop in times. But there are doubts which will require time and better understanding to completely dismiss. For instance the new LZR Racer’s effects are being attributed to the increased compression and core stabilization offered by the suit rather than the materials, which essentially are the same used in Speedo’s older Fastskin models. Given the exaggerated claims made for years about one swimsuit or another’s effectiveness it is only natural to question whether the recent dramatic drops in times can be attributed entirely to just wearing a different swimsuit. After taking a look at the typical Olympian’s body is it logical to believe wrapping it in cloth differently can make such a profound difference?

Consider, for instance, the well publicized controversy coming from Eamon Sullivan’s and Alain Bernard’s world records in the free sprint events. In Sullivan’s case rather thinly veiled innuendo about the possibility his improvement could have been enabled by drugs has been hotly denied, even though there is little Sullivan can do to defend himself against speculation. Craig Lord at has written an excellent piece upholding Gary Hall Jr.’s right to question the drop in Sullivan’s times you should read here. Lord argues that Eamon’s improvements are indeed unusual at the elite level and, when viewed in an historical context, such drops often have indicated doping. Then what about Alain Bernard bettering Eamon? What does one say about that? Bernard has cited his increased emphasis on power as making the difference and personally I think his stated approach is perfectly reasonable for a sprinter. So I can rationalize the why of his improvement even if the amount he’s improved is difficult to fathom. But right now on the various chat sites it’s being bandied about that Bernard has gained anywhere from six to twenty kilos of muscle in the past eighteen months in order to make those improvements. As Mr. Lord says we need to learn more.

I can also draw upon an uncomfortable analogy from my work with taxes, where loopholes are created when a provision is interpreted in a way not envisioned by the original drafters. On rare occasion this novel approach is perfectly legal, but more often than not the users simply hope to fly under the radar of the tax authorities. It’ll work for two or three years before whispers leak out into the professional tax community and by next tax season I’m looking at the new shelter’s basic structure to gauge how defensible it is in court and its applicability for my own clients. Very few past muster. Yet invariably, like clockwork, years later I’m fielding calls from my clients telling me about this same tax shelter being offered to them for a fee. Equally certain is that by this time the tax authorities are well aware of the scheme – the number submitted has exploded from a few dozens to tens of thousands, none of which are nearly as sophisticated or subtly presented as the ones the original innovators had designed. No surprise when they are uniformly rejected, often after being hit with penalties and interest, or already shut down by statutory change. So am I be surprised when I start to see world records fall like rain just before the Olympics? After observing over the past couple of years a forty year old woman become a world class sprinter on virtually no training? Unfortunately not. If she can obtain her results just imagine what the elite swimming community consisting of teens and twenties could do? But I’m practically sure this isn't the case. I really do believe these recent results aren’t drug related, that they are due to a new bathing suit and swim cap and, of course, to superior talent. Well, I certainly hope so. And hopefully when the suits become more common and more and more wear them we’ll see everybody’s times drop and my lurking suspicions will fade away. Really. But until then the Eamon Sullivans of the world will just have to grin and bear the innuendo until time validates their marvelous achievements. Or in this case times which apparently merely mark technology's inevitable progress.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Swimming On My Own

Because Hyack Burnaby Masters only swim three times a week any Hyack who wants to compete needs to swim some practices on their own to properly reach race condition. In fact a couple in my lane swim extra practices even though they don’t compete. This Sunday morning I went to Canada Summer Games Pool, my local pool, for what is now a fairly typical workout.

6 x 200 warm up: (200 free/200 kick/200 back drills/200 kick/200 free breath 4/6 and another 200 kick). This is the warm up I do every time I’m on my own. The kicking covers back, breast, and fly which I randomly allocate between the three 200s, never more than a hundred at a time, and for the past month has been done without fins so they take some time (I used to use fins for 400 of the 600 meters but had to stop when I got my turf toe). The 200 breath drill is really a 2x100 as I always take a few seconds to rest at the midway point because my legs feel rubbery (by the end of the second 100 my arms don’t feel all that good either). The rest of my practices can vary but since I leave most of my anaerobic sets to Coach Reid and Hyack practices my emphasis tends towards aerobic conditioning and stroke technique. This morning my sets were:

4 x 300 back @ 5:15 concentrating on a long fluid pull with a good finish

4 x 50 fly @ 1:15 (w/fins) Another set intended to work on the length and power of my pull: I fished out my fins after a month of disuse to help, but about two meters into the first rep I discovered my turf toe was still around plus my foot immediately cramped as well. Consequently I changed it into a 8 x 25 @ 0:45

4 x 100 breast @ 2:15 only concerned with technique, with an emphasis on maintaining a proper kick (bringing the legs up, pointing feet outward, and a strong whip from the knees) but also trying at the same time to work on bettering my pull. Trying to work on two different aspects isn’t really advisable – my breathing, coordination between kick and pull, and body position were atrocious (even though there were a couple of times when everything came together by accident and I felt myself swooshing along like a water bug for a second or two)

8 x 25 fly @ 0:45 likewise adjusted for no fins. Was pleased with my pull this time around

400 free @ 6:30/7:00 Warm down. My workout allowed for me to include another 400 on 6:30 if I was up to it for my first 4,000 meter workout but I was sore after the fly and breast so I took the 7:00 interval and ended the workout at 3,600 meters. Time taken was just under an hour and a half.

My weekly meters over the past year and a half have gone up and down like a yo-yo. Starting from the 1,000 I was swimming every Sunday before I joined Hyacks I steadily forced my way up to 15,000 a week before overtraining left me beached for three weeks; thereafter I steadied my weekly meters at 10,000 until last year’s tax season, when they dropped on average to well below 5,000. After that I worked my way back up to 15,000 this past September and then in January this year made the big jump to over 20,000 meters a week, which I’ve maintained right up to this year’s busy season. For the next two or so months I plan to try swimming four times a week and keep my weekly meters as close to 15,000 meters as possible. If I can then I’ll be able to boost my meters right back up to 20,000 in June, and then hopefully proceed to 25,000 in September. Ultimately I want to reach or better 30,000 meters a week – but that might take a while.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Road Trip

Yesterday I attended the Victoria Masters Annual Swim Meet, the only long course meet of our season (unlike in the U.S. Canadian Masters do not have a separate long course season). As I live on the mainland and Victoria’s located on Vancouver Island it means taking the ferry over early in the morning and then getting back late at night which is a hassle – but as I said, it’s the only long course meet we have. I arrived nearly an hour ahead of warm ups because of the ferry schedule but was rewarded by catching the tail end of Island Swimming’s morning workout, where several of the club’s swimmers were preparing for our Olympic Trials in April. While most headed straight into the showers Rick Say hung around and did some stretching for about twenty minutes. Of course at almost twenty nine Rick is the oldest member of our national team and swimming competitively at such an advanced age requires extra work which I well understand. Incidentally the workout was split into several different programs depending on the individual swimmer but most exceeded 7,000 meters, had a lot of speed work, and all relied exclusively on short rests between the reps. In my club our sets are almost always on intervals such as “on 45 seconds” rather than the “10 seconds rest” employed by Island Swimming; probably because our wildly disparate swimming skills require some consolidation at the end of every rep or else chaos would reign.

I was delighted to discover that Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen herself was entered to swim some races at the meet as she was in Victoria to give some clinics. I managed to track her down and asked her if she would be willing to give my blog an email interview about her masters career, her training methods, her swim clinics and, out of pure curiosity, how long she plans to compete seriously as a master. To this request she very graciously agreed so that's something to look forward to. She even spent the time to find me afterwards and hand me a copy of an article she’d written about shoulder rotation for Swimming World Magazine where she’s one of their featured writers. I’ll have to try to attend one of her clinics and see if this technique she's adopted for her own use could work for me. Karlyn also provided the meet’s high point when she broke her own 45-49 100 fly world record.

Emboldened with my first successful approach for an interview I next approached a notably fast swimmer in his twenties by the name of Benji Hutton and inquired whether he was any relation to local legend Ralph Hutton, hoping to garner some way to contact Mr. Hutton and ask if he too would be willing to do an interview. Alas my luck ran out at this point as Benji was not related. In my defense he politely told me I was definitely not the first person to ask him that question. Too bad, Ralph Hutton would have been another great interview.

But the most interesting story belongs to a local woman, Cindy Mabee, whom I previously mentioned back in November when she set some personal masters bests and a new national masters record for the 35-39 100 back. Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen was equally fascinated judging by the time she spent talking to Mabee. Cindy returned for a second shot at masters swimming early last year at thirty eight, after a youth which saw her reach the backstroke finals in several national championships but never the honor of representing Canada internationally. As a mother of five children as young as seven (three being her own) and a professional swimming coach with Island Swimming she has priorities which preclude heavy training. But with a frenetic schedule limiting her to not much more than an hour a week swimming she’s done very well. Extraordinarily well. This past January in Duncan, BC she swam a new world masters record for the 50 back short course in 29.91, a career best time by 0.15 seconds. Later at a non-masters sanctioned meet she swam a 100 back short course in 1:04.7, a time only a tenth of a second slower than her career best and one which would have placed her second only to Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen in the FINA world Masters Top 10 All Time rankings in that age group.

Yet even more amazing Cindy swims a very respectable 200 back as well. Much more than respectable – her recent 2:22.08 short course time from Duncan catapulted her into third place on the FINA All Time list for that event; and all on less than a couple of hours training a week. To my mind that’s absolutely mind-blowing. I asked to what she attributed her phenomenal success and she felt it was being tougher mentally than when she competed as a girl. Certainly many swimmers believe mental toughness is a major reason for their success, yet the rationale rested uncomfortably on me. Perhaps it was only a fragile ego which made it difficult for me to accept this as the entire answer. Perhaps because I felt her 200 backstroke success could not be explained by ‘mental toughness’ alone. As a result of my doubts I went back and asked her a second time why she thinks she’s able to swim so well on such little training. This time she guessed she might also be stronger due to her running and all the lifting and toting a mother does every day. Well cross training definitely does help (and here I am cursing my competitive running past for my anchor-like ankles) and certainly additional strength is a big asset to a swimmer: even if I have not personally observed efforts expended in managing a household to be an effective way to achieve a lean, athletic body. On the other hand other things she mentioned while talking to me, such as how effortless she was finding racing, offered up an alternative explanation. Perhaps her age has brought an increased familiarity with her body and gives her more efficient movement. That would at least present an appearance of increased strength and would go a long way to explaining how she can include a 200 in her repertoire on such little training. Whatever the explanation Cindy Mabee is certainly swimming some marvelous times. While they aren’t at a level which would allow her to seriously compete in open competition who knows what the future may bring? With a proper training schedule we might be seeing some great things from her in the next couple of years.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Starting Back

Being able to swim butterfly well would be cool. Being able to do a good backstroke roll-over turn and follow up with a few underwater dolphins would also be pretty nifty. Performing either one well would impress any swimmers and lifeguards hanging around at the local pool. Unfortunately I’d also seriously impress myself too if I could do them. Leaving off the increasingly apparent pipe-dream of becoming an accomplished butterflyer I’m left trying to master the turn. Originally I allotted five weeks to accomplish this task, a length of time I felt would be more than adequate for achieving this goal. A year and a half later I’m at the point where I can get three, sometimes four, underwater dolphins coming off the wall – if I’m rested and don’t need to do them in a race. My problem is the turn compresses together into a few seconds several swimming fundamentals such as flexibility, kicking, aerobic conditioning, and streamlining, all of which I’m sadly deficient in and all of which require years of practice for proficiency. My struggles for mastery inevitably led to more swimming which in turn contributed to my uncovering the many and varied problems which permeate my backstroke as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is all great stuff: it’s just it's taking a lot longer than envisioned when I first returned to ‘competitive’ swimming. I was so preoccupied with the various nuances of swimming fast I didn’t really think about trying to master the one remaining facet of backstroke – the start.

One reason why I deliberately left the start to last was because I've always been aware of its heavy emphasis on technique. A backstroke roll-over turn is essentially rolling over into a freestyle flip turn with some kicking away from the wall on the back. It really doesn’t sound all that hard. But a backstroke start is a backwards dive into the water from the water’s surface. Any way you phrase it the start sounds more like a gymnastic diving routine rather than something from swimming. The swimmer launches from the wall propelled by the legs while swinging the arms wide, arching the back and dropping the head backwards in line with the arms. The hands enter the water first followed by the arms, head and then shoulders; all entering at the same point. At the same time the swimmer needs to kick up the legs to bring hips and legs in line with the body so that they too follow the rest of the body through the same hole in the water and complete the dive with the least possible amount of resistance. Once the dive’s momentum starts to slow the swimmer begins to dolphin kick to both maintain speed and return to the surface once, twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times or more and then, almost surfaced, commences the flutter kick and a final single arm pull to breach the surface already swimming backstroke in full flight. The video shows this better than I can write.

Now for me my troubles start with the initial thrust from my nearly fifty year old legs. Because I don’t yet possess the explosive leg propulsion and upper body curve needed to consistently clear me completely out of the water I have a tendency to ‘plow’ on the start. Image me in the traditional start position at the blocks and how I’d look if my backwards momentum was not planned but the result of taking a shotgun blast in the chest from short range. That’s what my starts look like much of the time right now. Even on those rare occasions when I do have an acceptable ‘launch’ the clean entry takes me more than a meter under water. For those who know what they’re doing and are planning to spend several seconds under water anyways this isn't a problem. But for me the difficulty lies with that several seconds thingy – because whatever I do upside down underwater it had better be done in no more than a three count. If I’m not at the surface after two I start to run out of enough air to clear my nostrils of inrushing water; and choking oneself at the start of a race is not a recommended race strategy. But like my turns my starts will improve. Slowly ... very slowly, but they’ll improve. It’ll just take some time and effort.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Scheduling Races

One of the many things where swimming masters differs from competitive swimming is in the brevity of its competitions. Instead of a weekend sitting around in the morning waiting for your events and then having to deal with finals in the evening it’s just one quick afternoon and you’re home for supper. For the busy adult who wants to do a little racing the time commitment requires only some minor juggling of affairs to attend a meet. The draw back for this convenience is the reduced the number of races I can compete in. After a rocky start where I bit off more than I could chew in my first swim meet I’m up to racing a combined maximum of 450 meters a meet. If scheduling works out for me I try to enter two 100 races, a single 200 event, and a throw-away 50 sprint for the afternoon. I even have a list I select from: either free or back for the sprint; all four strokes in the 100; and back, free, and IM for the 200. Unfortunately even with a palette of nine events to choose from I rarely squeeze in the maximum four races.

Because of the difficulty getting race experience I looked at competing in this year’s Provincials despite it being smack in the middle of my busy season. Like most other state or provincial championships the competition is spread out over an entire weekend rather than an afternoon which allows enough rest for several races to be entered. However the event scheduling at this year’s Provincials is horrible for me. Great if you happen to be a breaststroker but not so good if you fancy yourself a backstroker and want to swim some free or fly too as I do. So I’m not going to our Provincials this year. In its place I’m considering entering the SPMA Short Course Meters Regional Championship this fall to get my last short course times before I move up in age group. Hopefully its event scheduling will be better.

Thinking about all of this brings me to understand the full import of what Michael Phelps will have to do if he is to win eight gold medals in Beijing this fall: eighteen or more races in eight days. It seems the betting has Phelps entering the 100 and 200 fly, the 200 and 400 IM, and the 200 free plus the three relays. At the Missouri Grand Prix three weeks ago he beat Ian Crocker in the 100 fly final with a 51.52, narrowly lost to Aaron Peirsol in the 100 back final ten minutes later touching in 53.70, and then only twenty minutes after that took sixth in the 100 breast final, won by Brendan Hansen, with a 1:02.57. That’s a lot of swimming in a short space of time. It’s curious as to why he’d swim three events so close together. Could it portend something at Beijing? Could Phelps be planning to enter the backstroke races and compete in ten events? It wouldn’t come as a complete shock – Michael Phelps’ noted knack for quickly recovering from hard races makes anything seem possible.