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.


Isis said...

Hi Scott,

There is something you don't address here that I find myself wrestling with in my own thinking about training and that is: the place of swimming and swimming goals in the "wider life" of the swimmer.

I wonder if you would consider writing about this?

For instance, there is the difficulty of having to hold down a job, the details of which probably vary from person to person, but there are always work-related things that get in the way of training.

Then there is the presence of family, friends, or whatever kind of human support system a person has, which does take time and energy even as it provides valuable and necessary benefit.

Then there is what I'll call "the grown-up factor": after evening practice, say, the adult swimmer cannot assume s/he will be picked up by parents and ferried home where there will be a meal waiting. Instead, the masters swimmer has to provide all this kind of infrastructure.

How does a person achieve a 30,000 meters/week schedule in the face of these obstacles?

Scott said...

I'll have to think about that. I have a definite schedule which has been developed over what is now two "tests" that I've imposed upon myself - the first when I competed in track in my early twenties and now this folly. My problem is it's a little embarrassing how much has to be given up for something that contibutes nothing towards leading a full and balanced life. On the other hand there are quite a few like me, the type of person who announces to his wife that he's going to solo around the world in an eighteen foot sailboat, climb Mt.Everest, or compete in the Ironman. There's no logic behind the urge. Perhaps in the interests of journalism I should.

jc said...

I think that even at 20K per week you're overtraining. A swimmer in the 45-49 age group simply needs much more recovery time than a teenager. I found I got my best results in that age group by swimming no more than 12,000 yards per week, maximum (and my best event was a 200). I did a lot of very event-specific training, and a lot of it was intense, but I never went over that amount of yardage. I see a local masters overtrain all the time with mostly cardio workouts, and none of them ever seem to swim fast. None of us want to admit we can't handle the work we did when younger, but it's just a fact of life, recovery takes longer now. Think of Susan von Der Lippe swimming three times per week, 3-4000 per workout. Think of Jeff Farrell swimming no more than 2000 yards, three times a week. Think of Josh Davis claiming to have swum 1000 yards a week before setting three national masters records in Austin in May (not sure if I buy that one). After a lifetime of observing swimmers I think that overtraining is much more common than undertraining.

Scott said...

Oh I don't think I'm going to disagree with you that I'm overtraining, but there's a reason for my madness. I'll try to explain some of the logic behind my decision in future posts, but it'll take a few. The question of just how many meters is required for optimal training is at the center of the biggest debate in swimming right now. I'm currently siding with the 'volume' crowd (with certain modifiers of course) and my chosen course is, in part, an single test case of this hypothesis. I'll find out where my choice leads me and you can tag along for a free ride on my aching shoulders.