Monday, February 15, 2010

Swimming over the Wall

Swimming over the Wall
Feb 15th 2010

I have reached a swimming plateau that I have not been able to get past. Over the past 18 months, I figured out how to swim at a moderate + speed but now I can’t make myself go any faster. The realisation of my arrested development is made that much clearer by witnessing those around me swim with what seems much less effort yet obtain far greater speeds. I keep thinking that with greater effort I will somehow obtain greater results and that had proved true although with increasingly diminishing returns. No I was faced with a wall of progress that I can not climb over. I am going to have to learn to swim like a true swimmer to get past this barrier. It will also mean that I need to address my flexibility constraints by actually spending time stretching.

Three weeks Alan (my swim coach) noticed that I was swimming with my eyes closed. Since that time I have done a lot of thinking about swimming including an exercise two weeks back where I emptied my clogged up brain of everything that I had been taught and was thinking about while swimming. After my brain-dump I spent the couple of UofT TriClub workouts trying to rebuild my kick with the help of my coaches. I also started addressing my flexibility constraints, by attended a yoga-thon event (My 2nd ever yoga class) where I completed 108 sun salutations; spending most of the time in the downwards dog position. Last week I picked up a copy of TI (Total Immersion) swimming and read half the book in the first night. What I read combined with what my coaches have been saying suddenly made a lot of sense. I realized that I had reached a wall in my swimming progress that I have been trying the smash my way through with no success. I kept putting in huge efforts working out in the pool hoping to get faster and only ending up tired. The harder I fought the water the more I lost my enthusiasm for swimming.

I showed up on the pool deck the morning after diving into TI and proclaimed that I would not swim another length reinforcing my bad habits that I was there for practice and not for a workout. I noted that I finally understood what the coaches meant when they consistently told me that I was swimming flat; I was no longer going to swim like a barge but like a sailboat instead slicing through the water. Of course those are all themes which are stated repeatedly in the TI book. Alisa (UofT Coach) rolled her eyes and politely cursed as she knew that she would now be forced to revisit the book. What I was pointing out to the coaches was that I was ready to take the next step in my swimming progression and start feeling the water instead of fighting it.

When I first got into the water I was a little worried that the initial TI step of finding the correct body position in the water would not work for me. I spent several laps kicking gently on my back and then side while pressing on my buoy (my lungs) finding my balance and a streamlined body position. There were many other people in the pool but I hardly noticed. I was determined to keep at this exercise for as long as it took. While kicking on my side, I alternated stretching one arm forwards with the other at my side. I noticed a couple of things for the first time; that my right shoulder was more flexile than my left one and that I could actually hear the water. It’s amazing in a not so positive way that it took me so long to become aware my hearing and differences in shoulder flexibility, but then again, I had been swimming with my eyes closed until 3-weeks ago.

After a few more lengths and a couple of kicking pointers from Alisa I actually felt relaxed in the water. I moved over to an open lane at the far end and (as per instructed) put some fins on as I continued to work on my side kicking. Alisa told me to look straight down while kicking on my side, which was actually the next step in the TI progression that I had not even read yet. I practiced keeping my shoulders stacked while extending one arm forwards and slipping through the water. After practicing for an hour and a half Alisa told me that it was the best side kick she had seen me do. I actually felt the benefits of the stretching and basic first steps from the TI book. Encouraged by the positive feedback, I felt like I was progressing.

I showed up for my 1on1 lesson with Alan the next day and told him all how I was committed to building myself back up with a winning strategy. I got ready to jump in the pool I commented on the upcoming CIS National Championships that would be hosted in the UofT pool next week. I then noticed the word TORONTO painted in huge blue letters across the bottom of the pool and asked Alan if that was part of the preparations. Alan responded that the letters had been there since the pool was built, years ago. I guess its king of hard to notice that kind of thing when you are swimming with your eyes closed. During the session we focused on leg work and body positioning. Alan had me swimming with fins on for most of the session which helped to reinforce a more streamlined body position. I also developed a nasty little blister from fins that were too small. At the end of the session he had me working on dolphin kick under water; I could actually feel myself slipping through the water. Alan commented that he was pleased with my progress and renewed enthusiasm. I stopped at the university store on the way out to pick out a set of fins that fit.

I started my swim training this season with the goal of lowering my pace from 1:36 (my pace for the last two races) to 1:30/100 meters. After a couple of months of workouts and no improvements I have dropping the 1:30/100m goal because it belongs to the type of thinking that helped to build the wall that I could not get past. Of course I want to get faster, but I am not going to set a timeline for development I am just going to commit myself to the process for improvement. After just a couple of swim practices where I actually felt balanced in the water, my goal is to reinforce that feeling of balance no matter how long it takes or what pace I end up swimming. What was so promising about the last few sessions was the feeling of untapped strength that I felt coiled up from my core as I ‘underswitched’ rotating from one side to the other exchanging lead hands. I am convinced that these changes will at the least translate into a huge energy savings when I exit the water, and quite possibly a faster swim time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What is in my Head in the Pool?

What is in my Head in the Pool?

Yesterday I was asked by one of my swimming coaches (Alisa), to put together two lists; the first detailing what I am thinking about when I am swimming and the second referencing what Instructions I have been given over the past 18 months and from whom. I decided that this would make a decent Blog entry so here it goes.

During my last 1on1 swim lesson on Friday Jan 21st with Alan at UofT, he discovered that I was almost completely oblivious to everything else while I was swimming. I was in fact swimming with my eyes closed every time I took a breath. I know it sounds crazy because my eyes are protected from the water by the goggles that I wear when I swim. After finishing my set and receiving the feedback from Alan, I then made the adjustment and opened my eyes and quickly realized how much more relaxed I felt when I kept my eyes open. Last summer I figured out that I was holding my breath in a gasping type breathing pattern and now with help from Alan I realized that I was swimming with eyes shut. I can only guess at what other energy wasting habits I need to overcome.

After the eyes shut discovery, Coaches Alan and Alisa (who coached the UofT tri club along with James) discussed my swim progress or recent lack thereof. The coaches started wondering how I had formed the habit of closing my eyes when taking a breath. They formed a hypothesis that while I was trying to overcome my fear of the water last year I had performed numerous drills with eyes closed or vision obstructed, and that I must have retained the habit. Alisa then began to wonder what else I may be hanging onto from earlier lessons that I am miss-applying.

Alisa and Alan in particular have been inspirational with for me, offering all kinds of encouragements aimed at helping improve in the pool. My progression has stalled which I can easily determine by looking at some of the other people in the UofT tri club who have moved up to the next level, specifically Henning; a talented athlete and grad student from Germany in his mid 20’s. Henning and I started at basically the same level last September when we joined the tri club; that is to say ground level. I may have been a bit faster after the first few months, but was hampered by panic attacks during timed longer swims. Henning also clearly had more flexibility which has helped him improve steadily. Alisa has spent many hours working with the two of us as she must have seen potential, an eagerness to learn most importantly a positive attitude.

Henning is now swimming in the fastest swim lane while I am not yet ready for the move; I am left questioning why. What has Henning done that I have not? What are the differences between us that have enabled him to progress more quickly than me? I am not looking for excuses but for keys that will help me to make the transition to the next level. Instead of answering these questions now, I am going to focus on the assignment at hand which may lead me to the same place

1. What lessons have I learned and by whom (The names represent which coaches stand out in my mind when I am thinking about the instruction not necessarily who delivered the message)
• I need to work on my flexibility + exercises that would help me (Alisa, Alan, James, Josh)
• Keep my eyes open when I breathe (Alan)
• Don’t Breathe right before the flip turn or right after (Alan)
• Go into the turn hard it makes it easier to spin (Alan)
• Position your arms while turning/spinning so that you are ready for streamline when pushing off (Alisa)
• Don’t torque my shoulder back when recovering, lead from the elbow (Alisa)
• When recovering try to keep my wrist loose (James)
• Breathe out as soon as your head is under water and do so continually & consistently (Swim Smooth)
• Follow through and finish your stroke (Alan)
• Follow through and finish your stroke otherwise I end up looking like Evan (Alisa & myself)
• Imagine yourself climbing / pulling yourself up, you have the most strength when pushing not pulling – follow through! (Michael Keen)
• Keep feet floppy when doing the kick drill to avoid feet cramps (Josh)
• Make slightly bigger stronger kicks (Josh)
• Keep butt clenched slightly to avoid leg drag (Alisa)
• Make sure that your are streamlined, feet are up near the surface (James)
• Count your strokes I should be close to 36; in reality I am closer to 46 (Michael Hay)
• Only one eye should be visible when breathing, don’t flip over (Alan)
• Don’t swim flat (James - Alisa)
• Over rotate to make up for lack of flexibility and avoid swimming flat (Josh)
• Keep your front arm straight / streamlined while the other is recovering especially true when breathing – flexibility constraint. (Alan)
• Streamlined when pushing off from the end (James)
• Keep your elbow high when recovering (James)
• Push hard to the finish (Alan)
• Finish each set strong all the way up to touching the wall (Alan)
• Go all out (Alisa)
• When you are done stop (Alisa)
• You need to be able to swim lazy (Alisa)
• You need to develop a feel for the water (Alisa)
• You need more time in the pool (Alisa & Alan)

What is in my Head when I am in the Pool?

• Dolphin Kick when I push off from the end, as soon as my legs split my streamline is ruined
• Feel the water and stay relaxed
• Steady breathing pattern and start counting strokes. I should be under 20 by mid way (50m pool). My stoke count is too high maybe I am not following through enough, but I feel like I am slowing down when I lengthen my stroke. No worries I am just warming up so try and lengthen your stroke – worry about speed later.
• Look around and make sure that you keep your eyes open when you breathe, notice how much more relaxed your neck is when you look around.
• Is there any power at all in my kick?
• Make sure that my feet are close to the surface and that I am kicking from the hips
• Is my elbow high enough?
• Make sure to lead with my elbow, no strain in the shoulder.
• Feel the water on my finger tips right before I begin to pull through
• What are these other guys doing that makes them go faster?
• Follow through with strength
• Think about being streamlined
• Steady breathing
• Look at how the light sparkles through the water onto the bottom of the pool…relax
• Keep your eyes open
• Relax your shoulders
• Don’t swing your arms like a round-house punch, keep elbows high
• If I cant figure out how to kick more efficiently I will never speed up
• If I cant figure out how to swim better with a pull buoy how will I ever get faster
• This is a huge effort, I should be able to do this without completely exhausting myself
• Finish up the drill no matter what. Eventually it wall all come together
• At least I am not afraid of the water; no more panic attacks

That’s about all I can think of for now. I’ll await some head shrinking / feedback from Alisa and then start looking at what Henning has done that I have not.