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.