Sunday, March 7, 2010

Yoga and a Break Through in the Pool

I felt that I achieved a break through in the pool, and amazingly it came after a ten day break. I don’t trust that the break through is permanent and fear that I will slip back into my same old broken swim patterns as soon as the going gets tough and my perfect isolated swim lane situation is disturbed.

My path to the breakthrough was not one that was clearly planned, but more of a realisation followed by a series of changes in training behaviour and adaptation to events outside of my control. After reading and beginning to apply the principles in Total Immersion swimming I stayed away from the pool as it was being used for the Canadian University Championships. During that time I contracted a chest cold which was just diagnosed a few days ago as Bronchitis. The condition has made it difficult and even foolish to put myself through any strenuous training sessions, including any running at all. What I did instead was to sign up for the introductory week offer at the nearest Yoga location to my house (walking distance). I was intent on improving my flexibility so that I could be more streamlined and fish like in the water. I walked to the Yoga studio on a Monday and picked up a business card with the class schedule on it. I asked the lady at the front about what to bring with me when I showed up for a class; yoga matt, water, proper clothes and to show up 15 minutes early.

Bikram Yoga
The local Bikram Yoga studio holds classes seven days a week. I found a time that worked for me on schedule that I had picked up and headed over for my first class. Leslie greeted me at the reception area, and told me that I should find a spot nearer the middle of the room because it was cooler. She also advised me to take it easy and simply lie still if I got light headed. I thanked her for the advice, but could not imagine actually needing to lie down while the rest of the class worked there way through the positions. I stripped down to a cotton T-shirt and a pair of triathlon shorts; which are perfect for yoga. I then proceeded into the main room and found a spot for my matt in the middle row. Yoga mats were laid out in three rows throughout the room, with people silently preparing themselves. I took a queue from the other students and covered my matt with my towel, although it was not nearly long enough and only reached half way. I placed my water bottle besides me and sat down beginning to stretch while I looked around. There were about 20-25 other students three of who were men and they were not wearing shirts. It struck me as odd that they had their shirts off, but it had to be related to the heat which was impossible to ignore. I found out later that Bikram yoga is done at 105f or 40c.

Leslie entered the room and immediately took charge with a strong commanding forceful tone. She welcomed me to the class and made sure to point out again that I should not try to do anything that felt too uncomfortable during my first session. We started out standing up doing a breathing exercise taking in air with our hands crossed under our chin as we lifted our elbows up as close to our ears as possible. We then exhaled forcefully as we pushed our heads backwards and leaned back as far as we could go. Somehow I didn’t quite get the exercise at first and kept breathing in and out with my head back and eyes closed as I tried to decipher Leslie’s instructions. After emptying and filling my lungs several times in that position, Leslie finally called out directly to me telling first to open my eyes and then lower my chin which had been facing straight up to the ceiling. I looked around the room and quickly realized just how silly I must have looked as the rest of the class worked their way through the exercise. Fortunately a yoga class seems to be a meditative none judgemental group. I made a quick adjustment a vowed to keep my eyes open for the rest of the class. There seems to be a pattern of closing my eyes when concentrating very hard that I should address.

By the time the warn-up breathing exercise was over I was sweating profusely. We worked our way through a series of positions and the relentless heat began to take a toll on me. I started out trying to focus on the positions, most of which I could not come close to achieving but then my focus began to switch to simply withstanding the heat. After about 30 minutes hour, my towel and mat were completely soaked my water bottle was almost empty. I peeled my shirt off to gain some traction on the portion of the mat not covered by my towel as I started sliding dangerously close to a pulled groin. I had expected the class to last an hour, but after a while it became clear that it would go longer. Mercifully the standing portion of the class ended and the next section began with some gentle breathing lying still on our backs. In this most relaxed of poses I struggled to keep my composure as I felt no escape from the heat. I realized that my struggle with the heat was similar to how I had felt nearing the finish line at the 70.3 Worlds in Clearwater last November.

I began to feel light headed as struggled through a couple more positions focusing on nothing more than enduring the heat. I opted out of the remaining few positions and lay flat on my mat wishing for the class to end to avoid the embarrassment of having to leave early. Finally the class ended and Leslie told us to leave quietly at our own speed. Although I wanted to rush out of there as quickly as possible, I forced myself to wait for a few people to leave before getting up and heading for the showers; it was a meagre attempt at regaining the smallest bit of integrity which I had sweat through during the class. I went to the class seeking improvements in flexibility and came out of it with additional benefit of training myself to deal with the heat that I will experience in some of the events later this summer.

I attended two additional sessions during the week bringing a longer towel and a second water bottle. With considerable struggle I was able to make it to the end of class attempting all of the positions. After class I felt incredibly loose especially through my back which is a great sensation. I signed up for 20 more classes and look forward to continued work on my flexibility and ability to cope with heat.

Breakthrough in the Pool
As my next swim practice was approaching following a ten day yoga filled layoff, I turned back to my Total Immersion book and reread the first half of it. I wanted the key messages from the book to be freshly imprinted in my brain. I drove to the pool instead of cycled as I was still battling bronchitis. When I arrived at the pool, I told Jason and Alisa (my UofT tri club swim coaches) about my Yoga classes, which Alisa had been recommending for over a year. I requested a somewhat isolated lane where I could practice instead of completing the planned swim workout. I immediately set to work with the foundation principles of TI. I floated on my back for a while searching for balance and then proceeded through a series of lengths kicking on my sides. I focus on hiding my head in a streamline position and actually found a spot tucked in to my shoulder where I could feel the water swishing by like it never had before. I found the task must easier on my right side, but eventually struggled my way into an almost similar position on my left side.

I worked in a couple on lengths just swimming freestyle to incorporate my learning’s into my stroke as recommended in the TI book. Each time I pushed off the wall I performed a few dolphin kicks, which felt powerful and graceful at the same time; although I am sure that it did not look that way. When I surfaced and looked up for the 5 meter flag I found that it was well behind me. I began to realize that I was already experiencing some gains in the pool. I practiced my freestyle stroke focusing on cutting through the water like a schooner instead of a barge. I concentrated on swimming long and in the front quadrant, gliding from stroke to stroke while building up power from my core leading from my hip. I started counting my strokes and was at 12 near the midway point; I finished up with a stroke count of 30 for the 50 meters. This was amazing I had cut my stroke down from 45 to 30 and it felt like I wasn’t even trying. I waited to fully regain my breath and pushed off again hoping that my 30 stroke count was not some kind of miscount. The next length I registered a count of 31 strokes and the next few were also lengths were also around 30 strokes; this was no fluke but a fundamental shift in swimming technique.