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.


  1. Bruce,

    Remember, you are a machine and can master anything. Don't give up on a number cause you can get there. I am itching to get a few races under my belt to see how the swim really is coming along.

    And yep, I know where you are going regarding the Olympic torch. Should have been there!

    Talk soon,

  2. I went through the exact same evolution in swimming. Great start then a plateau I simply couldn't understand, an incomprehensible and profound fear of swimming, and finally a breakthrough. That breakthrough happened when, by coincidence, I was away from Masters for a few weeks and had a local 25m pool all to myself. Since I didn't have a coach or other swimmers, all I focused on was relaxing and the more sensual parts of swimming: what water sounds like, the blue of the water (when I kept my eyes open underwater!), and just the joy of movement. Over time I became sensitive enough to water to be able to go faster by understanding how water moved, where it was best to apply force. The bonus was not only speed (at less effort) but coming to really love the sport. So...maybe you need to think less?

    I actually started with TI but no longer go by it. It's great if you have a Michael Phelps kick, but most of us will simply never that power nor want to use it in a swim when there's still a bike and a run ahead of us.

  3. Thanks for Sharing Helen.
    I am glad to hear that you were able to break through many of the same problems that I have been struggling with.