Friday, October 31, 2008

Vote for Skin

Troubling times. There are so many events happening right now demanding our attention; truly important issues which involve millions of lives, trillions of dollars, justice, and how human society is to proceed over the next few decades, it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed. My humble apologies, but please allow me to add one more concern to dump onto that ugly steaming heap of troubles on your plate. It’s a little thing as problems go, won’t really have any effect on your life, but will need to be dealt with before it becomes irredeemable. What I’m writing about here is whether or not swimming should accept the new technically advanced suits, in particular the Speedo LZR Racer, as part of the natural evolution of our sport.

I’ve partially addressed this issue from my own limited perspective as one who thinks the suit's adoption is wrong because of a desire not to break completely with the past and the issue of fairness. Others are just as adamant any rejection of the benefits which technology brings to swimming is a backward denial of the inevitable. Now Craig Lord, perhaps the most preeminent journalist covering swimming, has written a detailed five part series about this landmark event looking at the controversy from all sides. Everyone who cares about the future of our sport should read this series to fully understand the issues and what is at stake for swimming.

Suit Week 1: In the Beginning
Suit Week 2: How Speedo Won the Battle of Beijing
Suit Week 3: Vested Interest
Suit Week 4: The Case Against the Suit
Suit Week 5: Solutions

What makes Craig Lord a better journalist than I is rather than just rant against the suit (for he’s as decidedly against the suit as anyone) he still presents the other side's arguments and, better yet, offers possible solutions. One of those solutions forms the title of this post – that we should rely on the characteristics of human skin to provide the technical standards against which future suits should be measured. In short he calls for as much skin as possible. Marketing wise I think it’s a winning concept which has been discussed by several of us bloggers for some time. The one thing Lord doesn’t do is go into are the technical details as to how the suit rules would have to be worded in order to promote the “more skin the better” change in suit design. Perhaps there are some readers who may have some ideas on how this should be done? If you do then let’s hear them. I’ll be the first to throw a stick into the fire by saying I’d achieve the objective by requiring the suit’s drag coefficient to be worse than smooth skin, say a minimum of 5%, which should achieve the desired effect. At least it sounds pretty straight forward and relatively easy to enforce. What do you think?

P.S. I’d also like to take this opportunity to announce this is my blog’s 200th post. A trifling sum for many but for me an amazing total.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Sporting Icon: The Great Arthur Lydiard

This blog tosses about ‘great’ a lot when referring to today's elite swimmers. Yet the word is never used casually. It is chosen with nearly the same care that occurs when I apply the term ‘mediocre’ to an Olympic medalist – which is to say only with considerable reluctance. The problem (as I see it) is the number of tremendous swimmers in today’s generation – several who have not only advanced the sport faster than thought possible but also have transformed swimming with historically significant accomplishments. Instead of the usual one or two every generation I'm seeing a pack of them whom I'm confident can be accorded such distinction. Maybe there are some who will disagree with my choices. I won't take offense. From my vantage point things get a little blurry way up there. There are better judges than I on what constitutes greatness in a swimmer.

But I can use the same accolade with serene confidence when I associate it with Arthur Lydiard, despite the fact most athletes of this era have never even heard his name. And yet, though he made his mark in athletics, there are few endurance based sports who cannot trace the basic foundations of their training back to this man.

Arthur Lydiard (1917-2004) started his coaching career simply enough – when in his middle twenties he decided to get back into shape and chose running to do so. Initially he tried adopting the training practices of his day which could be best described as “no pain, no gain”. Finding them unsatisfying and unproductive he turned to experimentation by varying the distances and pace at which he ran. After years of analysis he discovered when distance and speedwork were properly balanced his overall performance in both track and distance events improved. Thus was born a theory when fully fleshed out would eventually transform sport: "…that long, even-pace running at a strong speed produced increased strength and endurance – even when it is continued to the point of collapse – and was beneficial, not harmful, to regular competition."¹ Lydiard continued with his training, building success upon success, which reached its apex when he represented New Zealand in the 1950 Empire Games marathon. More importantly he was faster on the track as well.

By this time Lydiard’s unorthodox training methods were attracting interest from fellow athletes who had begun training with him. In 1955 Arthur Lydiard, the self-coached runner for fitness, finally turned professional and became a coach. Over the next three decades Lydiard would come to coach Olympic gold medalists and world record holders such as Peter Snell, Lasse Viren, and Murray Halberg as well as several other Olympic medalists and international marathon winners. But he never forgot the reason why he started running. Throughout his life he continually promoted long, slow distance running as an alternate way to fitness for everybody.
"The fellow who can run only a few hundred yards before tiring, then has to walk 10 minutes, thinks he's not getting any real exercise and may decide to quit," he said. "But even that helps his heart to work more efficiently. You can go too fast, but you can never go too slowly to develop cardiac efficiency”. Today we know this as jogging, a Shakespearean word Lydiard reintroduced to the world to describe his new form of exercise for the masses.

The methods ascribed to him for training elite endurance athletes, however, are not without critics. There are few swimmers who swam in the sixties, seventies and eighties who will not curse the workloads they had to endure because of his heavy emphasis on mileage. But if their angst was ever aimed at Lydiard it would have been misdirected. All too often intellectually lazy coaches seized only on his massive distance program without actually studying how Lydiard integrated this with other essential components such as anaerobic workouts and rest. In fact Lydiard’s methods (known as the Lydiard Way) utilized all the available tools in a coach’s repertoire which existed at the time. The website has an article on its site with the title Lydiard Misconceptions Explained which quotes from the Lydiard Clinic. Since I don’t believe I can present its arguments any better I’m going to quote a large part of it below:
There are two facts here to consider. First, base building is indeed important. Show me a successful runner who has never established a base and I'll show you a runner who could be much more successful than he or she is. Second, while Lydiard focused more on base than most people, that does not mean that is all he focused on. When it was time to run hard, nobody - past or present - would promote as much intensity as Lydiard did. The Lydiard program is all about balance. When it's time to establish your base, that is the priority. When it's time to develop strength and speed, you don't let base training get in the way.
Consider the following quotes from the Lydiard Clinic:

The Lydiard training system is based on a balanced combination of aerobic and anaerobic running.

If you continue reading, you will see that's the case.

The conditioning phase of Lydiard training stresses exercising aerobically to increase your Steady State as high as possible given your particular situation. For best results, you should exercise between 70 and 100 of your maximum aerobic effort. This, therefore, is not Long Slow Distance. This is running at a good effort and finishing each run feeling pleasantly tired. You will certainly benefit from running slower, but it will take much longer than if you ran at a good aerobic pace.

Indeed, it is not long slow distance. You're not just jogging around, you're out working at a fairly solid effort. Of course, many people are constantly racing their training runs so it may seem like long slow distance to them but, if they do it right, they will realize that it is very beneficial.

Similar to the three long runs in aerobic conditioning, you should run hard (anaerobically) three times a week during the anaerobic phase. Be sure to allow yourself to recover between hard workouts, at least a day in between. The idea is to stress your system, recover completely, then stress it again. It is not all that important what the distances or speeds are, just run repetitions and intervals until you are tired and have had enough for the day. No coach can tell exactly how many repetitions you can do, or what your recovery intervals should be, on a particular day. So trust you instincts and use any schedule as a guide only.

A different phase, a different focus. How many programs that are supposedly not long slow distance like Lydiard have people running hard three times a week at any point? I'd challenge anyone to read that quote and then think the Lydiard plan is nothing but long slow distance.

Anaerobic training is essential if you want to race well. Bear in mind, however, that if you overdo anaerobic work, you will sacrifice the very thing you have worked so hard to achieve, your good condition, which determines your performance level.

Would anyone who is all about long slow distance say anaerobic training is essential? I doubt it. Once again, the first quote is the key. The Lydiard system is all about balance.

So why exactly are Lydiard’s methods relevant to swimming? Even though I’ve always taken the position swimming and athletics actually don’t match up well when trying to compare their respective athletic performances there is one important aspect they do share: endurance. In fact sports physiologists rank swimming’s endurance requirements even higher than running’s by placing swimming on a par with cycling and cross country skiing as one of the most exacting endurance sports around. From distances as short as 100 meters on up aerobic conditioning becomes progressively more critical and speed increasingly takes the back seat. Let me try to illustrate this point. Our elite swimmers can expect their 100 meter free to be about four seconds slower than merely doubling the time he or she can swim the 50. Let’s say in our example the difference is eight seconds, which implies four seconds possibly available for improvement. We can attempt it two different ways. We can work on improving endurance, which will require the subject to practice more and train harder; or we can try to drop the subject’s 50 meter time a couple of seconds by increasing his or her speed. The first option requires only the willingness and ability of the subject to put in the additional effort. The second requires sufficient talent. That's something which can't be assumed. When you also consider Lydiard's methods naturally improves overall speed it is easy to see why his discoveries are now incorporated into virtually every swimming program throughout the world.

No real surprise a former runner such as myself has bought into this versus the more anaerobic approach exemplified by the “Less is More” crowd. It has some clear advantages for me. The process of base building provides the time and pace I need to work on technique as I simultaneously improve both strength and aerobic capacity. It’s also easy to recognize, however, that a commitment to Lydiard's training principles does present risks for someone my age. For one any base I can create is going to be rather truncated. Bill Sweetenham figures to maximize long term development swimmers will need to begin to emphasize base building as soon as they enter their adolescent growth spurt and from there gradually increase their kilometers until they reach what he refers to as ‘Breakpoint Volume’² somewhere between the ages of 13 to 15. The first drawback is Sweetenham's assumption the swimmer has been concentrating on honing their skills before entering the base building phases. I’m trying to do both at the same time. The second is his calculation most swimmers will find their Breakpoint Volume to be around 2100 to 2500 kilometers a year (about 50 km/week). Consequently his development program (and in this Sweetenham is considered the world’s leading expert) anticipates seven or eight years devoted to base building prior to moving into ‘high-performance training’ as the swimmer enters his or her peak years. I’m going to fall hopelessly short of those numbers. The big question is will I be able to build at least some sort of base off of which I can race, or will I simply be exhausting myself to no avail? Sweetenham suggests I have a big problem when he concurs with Balyi³ that “swimmers acquire the ability to absorb and adapt to training principally during the learn-to-train stage of their careers”. So while I may end up swimming the same meters as our elite masters they invariably trained competitively through the crucial adolescent years when I did not. I also would be remiss not to point out standard orthodoxy for training masters swimmers emphasizes anaerobic training for several good reasons – the minimal meters we normally train, our slowing metabolism, and the short distances we typically race. I’m certainly bucking conventional wisdom here. Theoretically I should be able to find out in a year a two from checking the progress in my recovery time from test sets, but until then I’m winging it.

¹ Gilmour, Garth. (1978) Run – the Lydiard Way, Hodder and Stoughton, New Zealand
² Sweetenham has a rather lengthy definition of Breakpoint Volume but for this blog's purposes it can be described as the maximum workload an individual can tolerate while optimizing performance. Sweetenham defines it as “the optimum volume performed at optimum skill level achieved through participation in a maximum number of training sessions of controlled intensity. The training volume achieved at the end of the maturation period will essentially be the training volume an athlete will maintain for the remainder of his or her swimming career. We also believe that an athlete’s recovery profile largely determines his or her future ability to handle intensive training situations (that is, a combination of high-performance training volume and intensity)” Sweetenham, Bill and Atkinson, John. (2003) Championship Swim Training, Human Kinetics, USA
³ Balyi, I. (2002) New Zealand Coach 10(3) (autumn):6-9 titled “Models of long-term athlete development and training requirements of different sports”.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Making Time

A reader asked how I managed to squeeze all this swimming into my life. The short answer is not very well. The problem is the same we all face: there simply isn’t enough time to do everything we want in the day. Right now I’m working my way up to twelve hours of swimming and 4½ hours of yoga a week along with daily core exercises. That’s twenty hours each week not counting time spent in physiotherapy or traveling to and from pool and yoga. Throw in the fatigue factor from all this and, let’s face it, my social life is shot.

The singular advantage I bring to this situation is prior experience. After articling I took up competitive running on a whim and so have already encountered many of the same problems I'm facing now. Of course in my twenties I had the energy and desire (heavy on the desire) to simultaneously continue on with my night life as well. Yet despite the handicap of youth I managed to learn how to train seriously while working full time. These lessons are once again proving their worth.

The most important adjustment is to create time for training and, for all intents and purposes, this means getting up early in the morning. By the time you get home from work, eat, and deal with the various happenings of the day there will be precious little time left over for training. Too many people will want a piece of you in the evening. So instead of wasting morning in bed get up and get to it. And when I say early I mean early. I’m instituting a routine where I get out of bed before dawn at four o’clock Monday through Saturday. That horrid time gives three extra hours a day for working out, which not coincidentally adds up to getting to the pool and back along with two hours of practice. The practice length is important for a couple of reasons. The first was pointed out to me by no other than Karlyn Pipes-Nielsen, who gave me two pieces of advice if I was going to train 30,000 or more meters a week: one, always schedule a day off; and two, add meters to existing workouts rather than more practices because fewer workouts means less time wasted in commuting. The second reason is more wishful thinking because there's only a lingering hope I'll ever be able to train part time with our club’s elite 2:30 group. Even so, if this aspiration is to have a chance to come about I will need to be able to swim a senior national caliber workout covering well over five thousand meters in an hour and a half some day. The program Hyack Masters provides is very nice and all but with only three hours a week it’s completely inadequate for competition. While I can get by for now training on my own eventually I’ll need the crucial input of professional coaching and training to have a shot at the elite masters' ranks. I might as well get used to swimming the necessary distances now and prepare for that fateful day.

Rest is another important part of the equation. To continue training at this tempo I need eight solid hours of sleep a day. So if I calculate this correctly it means I should go to bed around eight o’clock in the evening. That was my bedtime when I was a child. Living life as an adult the past quarter century I’m presently trying without much success to turn in by ten o’clock. Compensating for the missing hours of sleep with weekend naps isn't entirely practicable and consequently I’m building up a sleep deficit at a minimum rate of ten hours per week. I know I have to go to bed earlier, but there always seems to be good reasons to stay up. Unfortunately I'm struggling to see the humor in my making this plaintive whine now after so proudly putting it away ever so long ago.

Thankfully eating does not present the same problem and no, I don’t depend on delivery. I do however cook. This is a good thing since a proper diet and eating out is almost an oxymoron nowadays. As a result, aside from the occasional dinner of sushi or fish and chips, I’ve stopped eating fast food. It’s my own personal Don Quixote-like protest against our food industry stemming from my research writing Lets Talk About Trans Fats. Neither do I rely on a wife for my meals as I’m unmarried. Frankly if I was married I almost certainly wouldn’t be involved in this silly ego-centric adventure. Besides which how many women cook nowadays? What would be the odds? So my solution is to use my weekend to cook for the rest of the week. When I ran I'd cook overly large meals and then freeze the ample leftovers for later consumption. Now I’m approaching this on an industrial scale. Instead of cooking three or four times what was necessary for a meal I’m cooking enough for eight or more. For example I cooked a fifteen pound turkey which gave me a nice turkey dinner, a couple meals of turkey sandwiches, a dozen large turkey pot pies, and several liters of curry. After only a few short weeks I can now reach into the freezer and select from meat loaf, real scotch broth, chicken cordon bleu, spaghetti sauce, two different curries, chicken noodle soup (home made noodles!), chili, and those turkey pot pies. I'll be adequately fueled for my quest at least.

Yet strain as hard as I can to change the count of allocated hours there is precious little left over. Television is out (well almost) as is recreational reading – no time. And this time around I have another sacrifice to make with my internet habit. This blog is witness to how difficult eliminating that can be! Essentially everything else is to be tossed overboard. Routine has become my life’s byword. It will take a few months to get used to – at least I’m hoping I’ll get used to it. There are some mornings diving into the pool where I wonder if swimming a few seconds faster is really worth it. Of course it isn’t the end result which is important here. If I could swim fast enough for my times to be important I'd have to turn myself in for cheating. It’s the process and sacrifice involved in seeking the answer to the question I’m really asking: am I still mentally and physically strong enough to do this? Some men my age go out and buy an exotic car and date young women, others quit their jobs and travel the world but, as I step outside of myself for a moment, it seems I’ve decided to convince myself it isn’t too bad growing old. I’m not sure the answer I’m getting is the one I want. But if reality does eventually keep me from my objective then at least I’ll be one of the fittest men over fifty most people will ever see.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Walking the Talk

This writer believed, rather arrogantly it may be added, that he was relatively impervious to the effects of our omnipresent mass media. In the past year or so I’ve awakened to the realization my perceived immunity isn’t altogether true. Take for instance how easily I believed physical perfection was only an arm’s reach away – a natural product of work ethic, genes, and a good understanding of physical training. I’m blaming those ads which promise athletic, well muscled bodies in less time that it takes most people to eat lunch. It didn’t help hearing about those actors who spent a few weeks with a personal trainer to get into fantastic shape for a role either. Some pitches go as far as claiming their miracle exercise system can provide the lean, well defined muscular/toned bodies displayed on the screen for a daily cost of only ten short minutes. And while most viewers will discount these ads the idea at least some observable improvement can be expected is implanted into the subconscious. Like mine.

Recently an advertising blitz for an exercise program promising spectacular results in just ninety days has been on TV. I’ve looked it over closely and while I believe it is built upon solid principles and is well designed it presents nothing new or cutting edge in our understanding of physiology. Gratifyingly the program requires a full hour of vigorous training every day – a major commitment for anyone. In addition to the exercise the system also requires the buyer to participate in a highly regimented low carbohydrate diet. To give you an idea of what sort of results they claim I’ll provide the before and after pictures of one of their customers who bought the program.

This individual goes by the name of JoeB and he’s fairly representative of the examples provided on the program’s website. I admit his improvement over ninety days is not as spectacular as the two or three men late night television programming showcases, but I discount those results as virtually impossible without some sort of deception being played upon us. Even so, while JoeB is a more conservative example, I don't have to work very hard to detect a couple ways they manipulated his before and after images either.

First I’m going to point out weight loss makes by far the largest contribution in any of the before and after pictures justifying this or any other advertised bodybuilding system. It isn’t coincidental the most dramatic losses from diets are realized in the first three months – when the body has the most excess fat and before the body’s metabolism can adjust to the new diet. In low carbohydrate diets this is referred to as the Induction Phase, and when combined with exercise reports of weekly weight losses of 2-4 kgs (5-10 lbs.) are not uncommon. In JoeB’s case his before picture shows a body with a reported 14% body fat, a level indicating good physical conditioning with little, if any, excess weight¹. In the after picture JoeB’s body fat percentage has dropped to an amazing 8%. This is a tremendous accomplishment. Reducing fat after reaching our predetermined ideal body fat percentage becomes increasingly more difficult – a fact well known to every dieter trying to just get close to normal weight much less well below it. The body shuts down metabolism in an effort to keep some reserves. This is where exercise is crucial for maintaining the metabolism necessary to continue burning fat. Certainly exercise is involved in JoeB’s case, but he's transitioned from a fit body's fat level to a professional athlete’s equivalent in a mere three months. I find this difficult to believe without some sort of catalyst. Starvation would have cannibalized muscle tissue as well as fat.

On the other hand I’m considerably more accepting in regards to his increased musculature. A good hour with weights just prior to the picture being taken would suffice to highlight the now revealed, bulkier muscles of shoulders, arms, and torso. Muscle gain is something a man of his age can reasonably expect to see after ninety days of intensive effort. Having conceded this, however, the unflattering direct lighting used in his before picture has been changed to more intense side lighting for better definition in the after picture. At least he's not changed his posture and switched to the partial abdominal twist bodybuilders use to minimize their waist.

Now let’s look at my own efforts at physical rehabilitation. When this blog started I began taking pictures of myself every month expecting slight but observable changes to show up each time. After six months of humiliation and no discernible progress I cut them back to every three months and then, still seeing no progress, all the way to just once a year. The gullible fool I was I had truly expected to see marked progress in my physical form in a matter of weeks.

So here are pictures showing my progress after an entire year of exercise; a sustained effort which saw my weekly workouts increase from five hours of swimming to close to nine. On top of which I participated in a couple of hour and a half yoga sessions a week for my flexibility.

After so many times I shouldn’t be surprised when I view these pictures but damn it – I see a different body in the mirror. Part of it is the foreshortening which comes from viewing myself in the mirror; partly the loss of depth perception in a two dimensional picture which adds the proverbial “ten pounds”; and yes, the lighting in the picture is atrocious. But I cringe every time I put up these things. I’m now down to 80 kilos (176 lbs) and I have put on muscle in spite of what my after picture may suggest. Yet my measurements suggest my body fat percentage hasn’t budged over the year. That’s difficult to believe. More likely is when I measured myself last year I was rather generous and when measuring for this post perhaps a tad harsh. The other significant improvement I hope you can see is how much straighter I’m standing now. That’s because of my lessons in Alexander Technique and will be covered in another post. Overall, however, my improvements aren’t anywhere close to those exhibited by JoeB and his ilk on TV. Ah well, what counts is not where I am now but where I’m going.

This year my goal is to build up my core and work off that ever so persistent bulge around my middle. But beyond doing about twenty minutes of core work a day I’m going to rely once again on swimming alone to do the job. No weights for me. I figure the extra meters and stroke work my program calls for over the coming year should more than suffice. I’ll start back with weights next year. My target for fat loss the coming year is 3-4 kilos and a similar amount of muscle gain. I'm hoping the two combined will make a significant difference in next year’s picture. The long term goal is to lose 6-8 kilos of fat to bring me down close to a 10% fat content while increasing my muscle mass by 10-12 kilos to finish at around 85 kilos or better (close to 190 lbs). I figure it will take me three more years of work to realize my goal. Unfortunately no quick fix for me, but that's what happens when you start getting old.

¹ For most men the first sign of carrying excess fat comes from the appearance of rolls of flesh at their waist, something showing up in males with around 15% body fat. The American Council for Fitness calculates a fit man should have a body fat percentage between 14-17% and an athlete between 6-13%. A woman should look for 21-24% and 16-20% respectively². You can calculate your own body fat percentage quickly and reasonably accurately with a tape measure using the military method by going here and downloading the U.S. Naval Health Research Center’s Technical Document No. 99-2B in .pdf format.

² Just so you don’t get too depressed about your own fat percentage the acceptable level of body fat changes when we reach middle age. You can check the adjusted ranges here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Betrayed: How USA Swimming has Sold Us Out for Money

Dateline September 27, 2008 – Washington Post

USA Swimming banned the revolutionary, high-tech swimsuits worn by nearly every swimming Olympian in Beijing for athletes 12 years old and younger during its annual convention in Atlanta on Saturday.
About 65 to 70 percent of USA Swimming's house of delegates, which consists of hundreds of voting members representing swim clubs at all levels across the nation, voted to ban suits that extend past the neck, shoulders or knees, officials said.

I’m sure readers will have almost certainly heard of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps, however, there are some who aren’t very clear about what Zen teaching is exactly about. Well aside from Zen masters who really does? So please forgive me if I go the extra step of trying to explain this very arcane philosophy in simple terms; not because I think you, my dear reader, are ignorant; but only to ensure some sort of understanding as it will be necessary to follow the rest of this piece. Zen Buddhism asserts that all sentient beings have a Buddha-nature of inherent wisdom and virtue, a nature which is created from the mind itself. The aim of Zen practice is to discover this Buddha-nature within ourselves, the search for which can provide the perspectives and insights on existence that can, ultimately, lead to enlightenment. Clear? No? Well I don’t blame you. Then how about this – Zen Buddhism is all about discovering what it is to be a complete human being by stripping away everything else. You’d be surprised at how little is left.

Now swimming is a very Zen sport. It is a very complex, intricate weave of exactly choreographed motion set in a dangerous environment, where pain and exhaustion are inevitable companions in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. In order to do our very best in a race we, like the Zen masters, must set aside thinking about specific techniques and discomfort and instead allow our form to flow unconsciously from the mind. Of course, since we want to set our personal bests before the age of sixty, our young swimmers tend to opt out of spending their time in reflective study and devote themselves to practical training in the pool instead. Even so, though the methods are different, our goals are similar – a very narrow focus on achievement and complete devotion to its attainment. The strength of a swimmer’s mind will often determine the victor. That and of course hyper flexible joints, size seventeen feet, and thirteen litre lungs.

USA Swimming's Age Group Committee at first recommended a ban on the suits for swimmers up to age 18, but it met resistance from members who feared U.S. athletes would be at a disadvantage if they didn't have access to the suits. The sport's rules and regulations committee, meantime, urged members to let athletes have access to the best equipment available.

I’m not sure how many international age group swim meets the typical American competes in but I’m going to guess it wouldn't be all that many. Wouldn't it be more effective to provide an exemption from the new suit ban for those specific events rather than open up the entire country to the expense? Just speculating here.

In Canada, as in many other countries, there are special rules for youth swimming. Up in the Great White North competitive age group swimming starts at the age of eleven. For these younger swimmers special rules to guard against excessive competitive pressure and early burn out before reaching their true potential. Rules and guidelines for our 10&Unders limit the number of hours a meet can have; advises giving out ribbons for placing, aggregate scores, and personal bests rather than the traditional first, second, and third; restrict the total number of hours they can train, and calls for training with the national federation’s proscribed Long Term Athlete Development philosophy in mind, an approach which stresses training orientated towards individual medley and distance freestyle. In the United States serious training is only recommended once the child becomes a teenager. So when USA swimming talks about placing suit restrictions on 12&Unders they are for limiting the new rules to the one segment where competition isn’t its primary focus. Even so, Swimming World magazine’s October 1st edition of The Morning Swim Show makes the point these rules don’t really stop anyone at all from wearing the new technology. It was discouraging to hear Tony Young, Chairman of USA Swimming’s Age Group Development Program virtually concede this point. Incredibly he even refers to the fact the restrictions put in place were modeled on suit legislation passed in Southern California in 2000. Clearly these so-called limits have nothing to do with today’s concerns. In my mind this is a non-ruling: practically speaking USA Swimming has ensured there are no barriers to using the new high tech suits in competition for anyone who desires to wear one.

USA Swimming's Club Development Director Pat Hogan said delegates were concerned that the pricey suits, which can cost as much as $500, would drive promising youngsters who couldn't afford them out of the sport and possibly deter proper stroke development.
"We're in a position where we want to grow participation in our sport," Hogan said. "We don't need to have false barriers to participation. The cost of those high-tech swim suits, for a young swimmer, doesn't really make sense."

But spending a couple of thousand dollars a year on swim suits makes sense for everyone else? To compete in a local regional meet? An adherent to the Zen philosophy would ask one simple question. Why is it necessary for everyone to swim 2% faster? Is it right to question why Hogan feels that thirteen or sixteen year olds are different from ten or twelve year olds when it comes to shouldering the costs of the new suits? I fail to see his logic. Let us have no misunderstanding about this: the number of parents who will stick with the sport after their child has torn both their primary and backup racing suits at a meet is virtually nil. The number of parents who will gracefully accept seeing their child denied a place on a select team because they can’t afford the suits? None that I know. This decision is a crushing blow to the long term future of swimming in the States.

Now I’m going to concede I’m one of those who believe the suits are bad for the sport regardless of the level of competition. There are enough of us that FINA has been forced to engage an independent firm to verify the new technology does not violate existing FINA prohibitions. At least it's a step in the right direction rather than naively relying on the manufacturers’ in-house testing for their rulings.

I’ve argued in an earlier post the manufacturers’ own descriptions dictate the suits must fall into the category of devices, something specifically banned by FINA rules. If I’m correct then there’s more than just a simple rule violation involved here. The real problem is that a device is a tool, and tools work by expanding human ability in highly specific ways. The science on which they rely upon to improve performance will affect swimmers differently depending on the various mix of skills and abilities every individual brings with them. For example as a poor kicker fins help me considerably more than they'll help someone good at kicking. If the new technology helps stabilize the core it logically provides more benefit to those whose core integrity is deficient. There's decent anecdotal evidence to back this up, like the fact Michael Phelps didn’t feel the need to wear the full body suit at Beijing, or that Gary Hall Jr. is on record saying the suits didn’t provide him with any noticeable increase in speed. If the current studies don’t conclude the suits should be banned I’m going to consider performing a scientifically based statistical analysis of the suits and see if there's evidence the new tech suits discriminate against the very best in our sport.

A final statement. I lied when I wrote earlier I couldn’t understand Pat Hogan’s not being concerned about the cost for anyone older than twelve. I unfortunately understand only too well. The host of The Morning Swim Show Peter Busch brought it right out in the open when he said, “... it would be unfair not to allow these new technologies to enter the market place ...” There can be little argument this present farce is all about the large amounts of money Speedo's pumping into USA Swimming. But really why hasn’t a complete ban on the new technology been considered? It’s done all the time in sports. If NASCAR for example didn’t ban certain technologies we’d be watching Formula One America. Why, if we are to accept the technological advances incorporated into these suits, shouldn’t we also accept monofins? We’d certainly swim faster with those. I must ask the question. Just why do we have an obligation to swimsuit manufacturers to accept their products?

Shouldn’t swimming be all about being the best we can be?