Friday, November 14, 2008


There are some people who are meant to coach. My maternal grandfather, for instance, always wanted to manage a baseball team. He was one of those individuals who could quote every major league team’s starting line up and batting statistics, along with their hitting and pitching tendencies, from the early 1900’s on. One rare visit coincided with the World Series, which meant spending the afternoon watching the game. As a small child I was less than enthralled and complained, a heretical attitude prompting grandfather to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening meal educating me on baseball’s intricacies. While I never became an aficionado of baseball his own passion began a slow, ever growing understanding in me of the unseen and endless depths of complexity existing around us. Age and experience has merely increased my desire to understand this complicated and confusing world.

With this predilection it should come as no surprise taking up competitive running as a young man caused me to dive into the science behind the sport. I stripped my local library of its books about track, went back for more books on its history and related physiology studies, and then went back again for a second serving seeking more performance related publications. Now running is not a particularly complex sport. After a year’s study I’m confident I gained enough understanding of track’s fundamentals to competently train myself. In spite of this I signed up with the local running club my second year. First of all I wanted to train with others who shared my interests and clubs are perfect for that. You gain some new friends who share your natural competitiveness, friendships which develop into friendly rivalries that help with the motivation it takes to excel. And secondly I still wanted a coach regardless of any book smarts. A coach provides much more than expertise. He or she can provide the necessary mentor relationship which both sustains in times of discouragement and lifts one to achieve more than thought possible in good times. Furthermore coaches contribute their experience and informed second opinion on training choices. The old saying “two heads are better than one” could have easily originated from the athlete/coach relationship.

Yet running shares little with swimming. The big difference? Running doesn’t involve technique. Not that there isn’t a well understood model of perfect bio mechanical efficiency for runners. Just that, given running’s intimate relationship with the survival of our species, we run as efficiently as our body allows. Incorrect running technique results from physical deficiencies, which need to be identified and corrected with targeted therapy. This typically takes the form of weight lifting programs to correct muscle imbalance or weaknesses, stretching exercises to improve fluidity of motion, diet, orthopedics, and other like rehab. Another pretty big difference is swimming having four strokes compared to only two different ways to run¹; and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention breathing while running isn’t nearly as complicated it is in swimming.

Really, the only shared aspect is their mutual need to build stamina in the distance events. In this training for the two is remarkably consistent - you get in as much kilometers in as you can without breaking down. Consequently my training was a very straight forward matter. We had a number of designated routes of varying distances marked off at roughly one kilometer intervals radiating from the local high school track where we did our speed work. I also set up a few centered on my home. Each week we were given a schedule to follow: daily distances to run, intervals to make, track sessions to attend, and weight programs to carry out. Except for the track sessions I could either show up at designated times and run with others, or go off and run alone. Everything I did had to be written down in my training log. What distances were run and when, times and heart rate from start to finish including the desired intervals, how I felt, what I ate, the hour I went to bed and the hour I awoke and their respective heart rates. Then once a week we’d bring in our logbooks before heading off on a run and when we came back we’d have a new week’s training schedule handed back to us along with our logbooks. I looked forward to listening to my coach’s conclusions after his review of my training and discussing the objectives behind next week’s schedule. Still I could have done some version of this myself, even if it wouldn’t have been the same quality.

It's not anything like the same for swimming. Noting down interval times and heart rates during a practice is a bitch if you try to do it yourself. You really need a coach to do it properly. And of course observing one’s own technique is virtually impossible on your own, even if you have the technical qualifications to do so. It takes years of education and experience to become a competent competitive swimming coach, a commitment of time and effort I’ve neither the desire nor the inclination. Right from the beginning it just seemed more efficient to simply rent the necessary expertise. After all this is essentially only a rehab project. So joining the local masters swim club seemed to fit the bill very nicely.

Things are seldom as clear cut as they appear however. The Hyacks Masters Swim Club is a very low key affair, really just an after thought to the true raison d’ĂȘtre of our parent club – all out competitive swimming. Most of the membership only attends practices and rarely, if ever, competes. The program itself is split into two distinct clubs according to the pools where they train, and because they bizarrely share the same practice schedules there’s no option to swim at both and double up. Training just three hours a week presents problems for anyone wanting to compete. The club's serious swimmers have to go out and train on their own in order to get in the necessary kilometers.

My first couple of years this wasn’t a problem. I’d simply add workouts to bring my kilometers up to the quantity I wanted. This year, however, I’ve had to reschedule my normal routine in order to get in sufficient swimming time. My new morning workouts conflict with the late evening Hyack practices and their typical 2,500 meters or thereabouts don’t fit into my plans anymore. I tried for a week to do both but found it wasn't practical. So now I’m swimming on my own six times a week and slowly building up my meters.

What’s it like being my own coach? Well I don’t really think of what I’m doing as self-coaching. I’m approaching this the same way as I had with the Harriers so many years ago. Stroke clinics and private coaching will provide me with the necessary instruction; I’m simply going off to train by myself and then report back for correction and some more instructions. The big change between track and pool is instead of just a week in between I’m absenting myself for months; enough time to allow integration of new techniques into my strokes. I prefer to think of myself as an apprentice sculptor, where my job is to take the piece of marble selected by the master and rough it out to the desired shape. Nothing fancy, just the basics you'd teach any beginning eight year old.

My primary objective right now is improving my rotation around the core and overall body position. At the same time each stroke has some half a dozen specific corrections to make, mostly associated with catch and finish. And trying to get everything working in harmony is only a far off dream. Sometimes I’m focusing so hard on technique during laps I forget the walls. I haven’t yet crashed into one but I’ve certainly given myself a good scare a couple of times. Aside from stroke technique my turns also need a lot more practice so it's been strictly short course for me. I'm emphasizing getting in more submerged dolphins off the wall from my backstroke rollovers. Presently I’m having difficulty with my ‘hop’, a twenty centimeter downwards shift of my feet after the flip to ensure I don’t come off the wall too deep. I developed the bad habit to avoid experiencing the very unpleasant fact I possess lungs rather than gills: the maneuver so effective I can only get in two kicks before breaching the surface. Now that I’m actually wanting to stay underwater longer I have to convince myself to leave my feet where they land; not only to extend my kicking but to go deep enough to avoid the surface turbulence. The mental image of running out of air a meter underwater upside down, however, is proving a formidable obstacle to overcome. At the same time I’m working on better freestyle turns by trying to forgo any breathing until after the first cycle coming out of the turn. Delayed breathing not only reduces drag and maintains more momentum, but also coincidentally happens to be excellent aerobic exercise. A somewhat dubious bonus as far as my lungs are concerned. Little consistency yet as I’m insufficiently disciplined, but there’s observable improvement as time goes by. A coach screaming at me impugning my manhood and pegging kick boards at my head would help immeasurably but, alas, that’s not to be. Finally I’m introducing more and more kicking into my routines as my meters build, trying to acquire some flexibility in my ankles, more mobility in my hips and the necessary strength in my legs. Again, just like every eight year old should. I had some doubts drawing up my plans whether 30,000 meters a week would prove enough to work on everything I need to improve. Now, as the weeks fly pass, I can see I was right. So much to do, so little time.

¹ You forgot hurdling (running over obstacles) didn’t you? Though in practical terms hurdlers can run, but runners rarely hurdle.


Isis said...

Wish I could join you for a kick practice!

Scott said...

You just want to lord your new but hard found ability to kick over my own pathetic talents don't you?