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.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Third Time’s the Charm

The most pleasant surprise I’ve had returning to ‘competitive’ swimming has been discovering how much the overall quality of coaching has improved the three plus decades I’ve been away. Swimming with a masters team that's affiliated with a major swim club allows access to underwater cameras and stroke analysis reserved only for the elite back when I was a child. So now instead of merely swimming up and down the pool in mind-numbing monotony I can consciously work on correcting any one of my strokes’ many known flaws. There are enough to keep me busy for a long, long time.

When I started back in the pool a couple of years ago I limited myself to trying only a couple of changes at a time. I felt attempting any more would overwhelm my efforts and I’d end up with little real progress or, even worse, create new problems which would need correction. After several months and a couple of clinics, however, it became clear trying to compartmentalize my stroke deficiencies wasn’t working. There was simply too much else going wrong elsewhere for me to isolate and target specific problems.

Realizing this I took the plunge late August last year and adopted a radically new approach to my training. I would try to tackle all my flaws in one cohesive whole. The idea was to bring my overall technique up to a point where I could start addressing individual problems without being overly distracted by the other niggling deficiencies. In effect I threw out the idea that I could swim competitively with my existing strokes and decided to start fresh, really fresh – dropping myself to the level of someone new to age group competition where the general rule of thumb is that any time spent on specific problems is a waste of time. For me training became oriented around the same basic stroke instruction and overall conditioning given to every eight year old. My practices reverted to drills, kicking, and distance work. To become more at ease in the water I had to swim more, but to handle the heavier workload and still maintain proper technique I required much better conditioning. It was, is, a slow and tiring process which I estimate will take at least three more years to build up to my maximum potential. A year of this, however, has been enough I think to start correcting some of my major stroke deficiencies.

Consequently by the end of the short course season I was looking forward to a review of my various strokes which eventually led to a clinic with Brad one sunny Saturday this past June. I am pleased to report it was a very productive hour and a quarter for me. Boiled down to its essence for the next several months I’m going to tackle two primary themes – my catch (early vertical forearm) and maintaining proper rotation around my body’s core. A couple of following posts will look at each stroke analyzing my individual flaws and how I intend to improve. So once again, for the third time in two short years, I’m making serious changes to my strokes. Some are more refinement than wholesale change, such as the changes required for my backstroke. Others are at the point where I’m able to retain some major components but still need to introduce completely new concepts, such as revamping my breaststroke and fly pulls. And then there is freestyle, where I’m just starting over and completely rebuilding my stroke from scratch. I feel like a school boy on his first day back at school looking forward to another year of learning and some good grades. I’m hoping by the time I go back for my next stroke review around December I’ll get mostly A’s for progress made.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Memories of Gresham, Oregon

Last month I attended my first USMS National Championships. My first ‘real’ swimming meet for a long, long time if you consider, like I do, that legitimate competitions must require their entrants to meet minimum qualifying times. Even so the atmosphere was decidedly casual and easy going on the pool deck – clearly there’s no going back to the days of real competition. I’m going to miss that. But it was an enjoyable experience with lots of interesting observations:

– I was very surprised getting off my flight to enter a very large, bright, and modern terminal on my arrival in Portland (Gresham is referred to occasionally as East Portland). Despite being named Portland International Airport I had in my mind’s eye the same sort of small ‘international’ facility as my birth city Victoria, B.C. influenced no doubt because I thought the two cities were roughly comparable in size. Not correct. Metropolitan Victoria has less than half a million souls while metropolitan Portland’s population boasts over two million, ranking it in the top 25 most populous population centers in the United States.

– My second surprise was to be greeted by a modern LRT (light rail transit) system. I immediately canceled my plans to cab it over to my hotel in favor of riding what Portlanders call the MAX. No worse after the experience of disembarking once at the wrong station and a rather long wait for a connecting bus I eventually found my hotel for the grand cost of $4.25 and no carbon emissions. Thereafter, aside from twice using cabs early on because of my unfamiliarity with Portland’s public transit, the rest of the weekend I found my way around the city and back to the airport using buses, MAX, and the pool shuttle.

– The Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center had a novel upgrade a couple of years ago when they added a meter of depth by raising a concrete platform some two meters wide around its edges. The extra depth makes for an even faster pool. I was, however, more impressed by the touch pads they employed. Most pools I swim in have somewhat slippery to very slippery walls or, like our club’s Canada Games Pool, walls like rough sandpaper which over time tend to shred the skin off your feet. These pads were perfect – not particularly rough to the touch but providing enough grip to eliminate any chance of slipping.

– In a masters meet of this caliber the announcers play an important role because of the presence of so many varied stories of interest. For one they tell the spectators when there’s a good chance for a world record to be broken. And there were a lot at this year’s championships. At other times they identify swimmers of note such as former distinguished Olympians. One such individual I was pleased to observe was Yoshi Oyakawa, a former world record holder and Olympic gold medalist for the United States at the 1952 Helsinki Games. He set two world records in the 75-79 age group 100 and 50 backstroke events with times of 1:22.78 and 36.54. If only I could be that good when I reach his age. The announcer also let out an historical tidbit by noting for the audience that Yoshi Oyakawa was considered to be the last of the great straight arm backstrokers. That put some historical context into seeing him swim. It also drove home the point that Helsinki was over half a century ago!

– If the Speedo LZR Racer was the singular suit of choice at Beijing then the equally clear favorite at these Long Course Championships was the Blueseventy Nero Comp. It was everywhere. I talked during a social one night to a top ranked 50+ swimmer who purchased the suit just before this competition and he raved about the effect it had on his swimming. But I will say he was a little skeptical about the claims of neutral buoyancy for the suit.

– Those males who didn’t wear a fully body suit tended to be shaved. I was one of the few who appeared on deck still ‘fuzzy’ but this was intentional. Given my recent swimming performances I wanted to make very sure any casual observer was well aware I wasn’t taking myself very seriously.

– The organization of these Championships was absolutely first rate. The only complaint I can make is the BBQ I signed up for ended up putting on my plate a warmed, pre-grilled chicken breast and a charred hot dog with not a drop of BBQ sauce in sight. I was hoping for something resembling ribs, perhaps some version of pork or maybe a little Texas chili. No such luck. Perhaps I was overly optimistic shelling out only $15 for the dinner but no BBQ sauce? Charge $30/plate if necessary but at least barbecue the food.

– I guess I’m about average at estimating peoples’ ages but I do have a really hard time guessing how old masters swimmers in serious training are. For example when I first met Doug, one of our club's best swimmers, I had him pegged at around five years younger than me ... only to find out he was a year older. It was just as difficult at this swim meet, which displayed a relative abundance of bodies approaching those of our elite swimmers. Well close enough. It wasn’t hard to observe the strong correlation between the quality of the individual swimmer and his or her physical appearance. I’m going to have to really work on my core muscles over the next year and get some definition. If I can’t swim fast maybe I can fake it.

– Friday and Saturday were blistering hot 105ºF (over 40ºC) and it was an outdoor pool. I wilted even keeping under the tents which were arrayed around the pool deck. Eventually I went indoors to the warm up pool which I used as a ‘cool down’, and that’s despite the fact the 25 yard pool was allowed to be warmer than typically seen in competitions.

– That wasn’t the case for the main pool which had the chillers going full blast to keep it at a perfect temperature for racing. Many were comparing the overall pool conditions very favorably to last year’s USMS Long Course Championships held at The Woodlands, Texas where apparently the outdoor temperatures were just as hot. It seems the difference at The Woodlands was a broken chiller allowed rather warmer water than desirable. Although I’d have to say considering the number of world records broken in Texas the conditions didn’t seem to slow them down much.

– I signed up for the meet as a member of the Hyack Swim Club, completely forgetting my provincial swimming association tries to collect together all local swimmers going to these out-of-province meets under its banner to allow fielding relay teams. I’ll remember next time. On the other hand I was greeted three times by people who had lived in New Westminster or had some association with the Hyacks. One individual from New Westminster I met was Jill Black, who is now swimming with Oregon Masters. She had been a Hyack until she won a scholarship to a Californian university where she ended up meeting her future husband. For her swimming really did change her life. I'm kicking myself for not finding out her maiden name.

– I had a hard time hanging on to my sunglasses during the meet. I blame the fact that I’ve just started having to use reading glasses and the constant juggling between reading glasses and sunglasses threw me. Not to mention that as a long time resident of the Pacific Northwest I’m not used to wearing sunglasses anyways. On Sunday I left my sunglasses on a table while I was reading the paper waiting for the shuttle bus and had regretfully written them off as lost. Later on, getting out of the pool after my 50 back, I was approached by a man who asked if I swam for the Hyacks. When I answered in the affirmative he handed me my missing sunglasses. To him and the citizens of Portland my sincere thanks once again.

– Standing in the shower at meet’s end the fellow next to me, apparently knowing my age group, complained about swimming at last year’s long course championships at The Woodlands as a 45 – 49 year old where the competition was brutal (and it was – almost all the world’s top ranked swimmers in my age group showed up for that meet). This year in Gresham virtually no one showed up and he was moaning the fact he had placed sixth in the 50 free as a 50 – 54 year old with a time that would have placed him fourth if he could have swum with us younger guys. I guess that’s the problem about masters competitions for us Type-A competitive folk: there’s no single competition you can go to where you’ll be guaranteed to find all the top swimmers gathered together. So you get a national championship which really isn’t a national championship and a gold medal’s true worth varies wildly depending on the level of competition which happens to show up. The real competition is on paper in FINA’s Top 10 lists.

Next year the long course championships will be held at Indianapolis, Indiana at the famous Indiana University Natatorium. That should be another interesting experience.