Blogs tagged with "learning"

In the past month, I've been spending quite a bit of my pool time re-learning how to bilateral breathe. As I've written before, upon my return to regular swimming about 15 years ago, I gravitated toward breathing on my right. I just did what was natural, and it has served me well for many years of competitive swimming in triathlons.

Now that I'm pursuing open-water swimming as a sport, I find my single-sided approach to breathing has become a liability. I've been doing it in my open water swims because it comes naturally and also because it's easier for me to swim in a straight line that way. When I breathe on my left, my weak side, I actually start to turn in that direction. Swimming in circles is an excellent ability if you're stuck in a round pool, but it won't help me get from point A to point B in open water.

Thus, I've accepted swimming slower for however-long-it-takes, and forced myself to breathe on the left during many of my swim sets. Although it's beginning to feel more natural, I will know I've conquered it when I do it without thinking. I have moments of encouragement when I start a set of hard 50s automatically breathing on the left. After the first one or two, it becomes a chore, and I go back to automatic right-breathing, but a little progress is better than none at all.

The real significance of being able to breathe bilaterally became perfectly obvious to me yesterday, when, after a stressful morning, I decided what I really needed was a swim workout with NO stress.. no walls, no flip-turns, no lane-lines, no boundaries. As they say: be careful what you wish for.

I checked Lake Erie conditions (Ohio Nowcast) then drove up to the lake, and without a second thought, jumped in with my swim buoy in tow. There were other people swimming and conditions looked perfect (i.e., calm) to me. See?

Perfect, that is, until I actually got "out there." It was choppy -- not bad enough to make me stop swimming, but bad enough to make me wonder about how bad it was. People here always talk about Lake Erie and its changing conditions. "It doesn't take much to whip up the lake," they say. "It's the shallowest of the Great Lakes," they say. This all means something, but I've never been sure what.

All I know is I've raced in some very bad open water conditions, some so bad that races were cancelled mid-swim and swimmers drowned. And, Lake Erie yesterday was nothing like those conditions. But a little chop in Lake Erie is bad - for other reasons - reasons that make bilateral breathing so important.

Lake Erie chop follows no rules. There is no rhyme or reason (or more importantly, rhythm) to it.

I was reminded of a passage in one of my favorite books, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, that describes a unique wave pattern on the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod. Anyone (including me) who's ever watched or swam in those waters knows it. It's easier to catch waves or swim in waves when they have patterns like this. Lake Erie chop has no pattern which makes it nearly impossible to settle into any sort of breathing rhythm, especially swimming parallel to the shoreline. And the shoreline itself changes drastically from sandy beaches to sheer rock cliffs and back every few hundred yards, which also creates all sorts of conflicting wave patterns.

The whole time I was swimming parallel to the shoreline, all I could think about was the last time I swam in short chop - in Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2011. Even then, although I had to fight the waves, I was able to get my breathing in rhythm with the swells. In Lake Erie, I had no such luck. But I did discover that breathing toward the north (into the waves) was much more beneficial and I swallowed less water (contrary to what's described here even thought it's a very good article overall). When I tried to breathe toward the shoreline, facing south, waves would break over my head and engulf me and I couldn't get air, but when I breathed on the low end of the swell, facing north, I had no problem.

I stuck it out for 1.5 hours and managed a dismal 2.5 miles, but I was exhausted from the fight. And I learned, first-hand, that in addition to training in rough conditions, I need to keep training myself to bilateral breathe because no one knows what will happen during extended open-water swimming. Even if everything looks calm on the beach that day.

The video below is what it looked like when I got out. I've been told the rule-of-thumb is don't swim if you see white-caps off-shore.

In the past month, I've been spending quite a bit of my pool time re-learning how to bilateral breathe. As I've written before, upon my return to regular swimming about 15 years ago, I gravitated toward breathing on my right.

Remember this?

I took a few days off after my cold-water revelation last weekend to decompress and to abuse myself by doing a 180 - running in a Midwest heatwave marked by several "heat advisory" days this week. (Note, running is my other zen sport, it's my self-medication.)

When I DID get back in the water, I was reminded of two things: (1) the task at hand, oh so long ago, before the Glastonbury festival, before whipping myself into endurance-racing mode - i.e., re-learning proper technique - and (2) teaching my body how to survive, or thrive, in cold water. Now that I think about it, one of these things may benefit the other.
Here's my thought: if I learn how to swim better, I should be faster, right? And if I'm faster, I will be out of the cold water quicker - right? Yeah yeah, I know I still need to learn how to SWIM in cold water because I certainly haven't forgotten how quickly hypothermia sets in... I'm sure there's an equation for conduction or convection I probably (should have) learned in heat transfer class when I got my engineering degree.
I survived for more than 5 minutes.

I was reminded of my crazy English swimming compadres in London in December (remember that?). They were able to swim in sub-50 degree F water for long periods of time because their bodies had been slowly acclimated to it as the temperatures dropped. If you remember my blog posts about that experience, I noticed a difference in my own ability to withstand cold water even after the second time. And in my previous post, I told you about the advice from Ocean Games race director and open-water swimmer Corey Davis - his recommendations were to take cold showers and extend my open-water swim season into the colder months.

So, that's the plan. But in the meantime, while the water is still warm, I need to determine how to perfect my swim stroke so that I spend less time in that cold water. 

The last thing I did with respect to THIS goal was to get video of my swim stroke underwater. Here it is:

And, whoa, talk about revelations! There's a LOT to improve on. I may have the high-elbow thing going for me, but my underwater pull is ridiculously wide. There's not nearly enough water being grabbed and pulled back. Ineed to get my forearm under my body so I'm moving through a smaller area. I have also recently realized that I swim faster when using a pull-buoy, which I think might have something to do with my right arm not going as wide and breathing on the left.
But I needed more than hunch. I needed data. I'm a scientist after all.
So... here's my (pseudo-)scientific analysis...
I first noted that if I don't think about it, I breathe naturally on my right without a pull-buoy but naturally on my left WITH one. I've been baffled by this for years (since I started swimming again after more than 15 years away from the sport). When I was a competitive pool-swimmer, I could bilateral breathe with no change in my stroke. But now, it's a struggle to breathe on my left. WITHOUT a pull-buoy. I am convinced this means something - like one whole side of my body is weak. 

I started experimenting in the pool in the past several weeks. At the end of my workouts, I swim 50s with and without a pull-buoy and concentrate on what my arms and legs are doing. Here's what I've found (and it's extremely annoying): without a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my right working very hard to keep my body and kick streamlined, my 50-yard time is within one second of my time with a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my left. The difference (i.e., the annoying thing) is the very little amount of effort I have to put in while swimming with a pull-buoy. 

What could possibly be going on here? Are my legs or my kick causing massive drag? It's hard to believe that I'm not getting at least a tiny bit of propulsion from my kick. Is my pull different when breathing on different sides? Am I in a different position in the water?

After studying it the best I can (it's not easy to study with detachment from an internal state), it does, indeed, feel like I'm getting more from my pull when I breathe on my left. I come up with two pieces of evidence: being right-handed/right-dominant, my right arm is stronger, and when breathing on my left, I rotate in a way that keeps my right arm under my body instead of way-wide like in the video. Further study Also revealed to me that I turn my head to breathe at a different point in the stroke cycle on each side. Breathing right, although it "feels" natural, it's more awkward to the stroke and there's an obvious momentary lapse in my kick.

And therefore, this week, while I recover mentally from the failed race finish, I've begun doing drills to fix my bilateral breathing and sync my kick. It's not natural just yet, and it probably won't be for a while, but hopefully I'll have something to show in a month or two.
First race in just a swimsuit in 29 years.

Yesterday, I took on the challenge of my first open water swim event. I had decided to start "small" by choosing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS), an event that was "only" 4.4 miles. It is considered one of the top 50 open water swims and is referred to as the "Boston Marathon of open water swimming." It takes place between side-by-side lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge(s) and therefore would supplement my love of bridges with a view from below - even below boat-deck level - rarely experienced by anyone.

There is so much I don't know about open-water swimming strategy. And yesterday, I made mistakes and bad decisions fueled by both ignorance and inexperience. But I'm here to live and learn, and write about it.

My ignorance comes first. Damn my introvertedness! I should have read more. I should have consulted more open-water swimmers. I foolheartedly assumed "I'm a swimmer" and I knew what I was getting into. I assumed I knew how to train for distance. (I swam the mile in competition for crying out loud - who cared if it was 30 years ago?) I assumed I knew how to fuel for a two-hour excursion. (I had the experience of ten years of running marathons for crying out loud - who cared if swimming was a totally different sport?) I also assumed I knew WHEN to fuel. (Who cared if this event started five hours later than my marathons and triathlons?) And finally - I assumed I was completely comfortable in open-water chop. (I had survived some of the worst and most-freakish Ironman swims in history for crying out loud.)

Well, 30 years is a long time - and I've changed a lot since I was "a swimmer." I'm built like a runner now. My arms might be a little more muscular than they were eight months ago, but they're still waif-like compared to real swimmers (or compared to my former swimmer self). I may be a good swimmer compared to my fellow triathletes, but I have a long way to go in the distance-swimming realm. I have a lot (note: TONS) to learn about fueling for long-distance swims. After yesterday, I've confirmed what I hadn't been able to convince myself of yet: that swimming requires way more energy than the same amount of time running or biking. Therefore, I canNOT fuel (and hydrate) the same for swimming as I do for marathoning or triathlon-ing. This would be one of the proverbial lightbulbs I saw go on in the air above my head between the bridges.

On to the race report.

Here's Jim standing (waaay) in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
The swim covers the entire length from left to right.

I was nervous enough beforehand that my old bugaboo - inability to sleep - came back to haunt me the night before. The saving grace was that the GCBS started around noon, so I had time to sleep in. Thankfully, I managed three to four hours of decent sleep. My husband Jim was REALLY happy about the late start. He didn't have to get up at 3:30 AM to go out and find a 24-hour coffee shop.

We were able to grab breakfast at the hotel around 8:30. I had juice, coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I grabbed a banana to eat before the start.

Right before start with my trusty
Here's the start showing swimmers headed to the bridge.

The start was on the beach. We ran into the water, and swam out to the very beginning of the bridge, then turned left to go between the bridges. I swam on the left periphery of the mass of swimmers and had a relatively easy time getting to the bridge. I was actually surprised how quickly I made it out to the first pylon of the suspension bridge.

Shot of bridge showing main suspension span/shipping channel

The chop WAS quite bad. It was the worst I had ever experienced in a race - the conditions would surely have resulted in cancelation of a triathlon swim leg. I was mostly alone in the water, and I got a thrill body-surfing the whitecaps, but underneath the suspension bridge (in the shipping channel), we got pounded by surf and spray. It was a bit disorienting at times, and I'm sure it contributed to my eventual fatigue, but I remembered to stay on the left (pretty easy). I even remembered to turn over to look up at the bridges.

The view from there was nothing short of spectacular, and I was thankful I wore my wide-view goggles (the one good decision I made even though they were untested). The sheer size of the bridge pylons, cables, and uprights was magnificent to behold at such close range. It was like heaven for the nerdy engineer in me.

Here's an official shot (from GCBS Facebook page)
taken from one of the boats in 2014

Two miles was on the far side of the suspension bridge, but I never saw the aid station boat - not that I needed it. I felt compelled to check my watch shortly after that, and I misread the figures. I had gone 2.38 miles and my time was 1:22 which surprised and discouraged me. It was actually a 1:22 (/100yd) pace!! (In retrospect, had this been an Ironman swim, it would have been my fastest ever by two minutes.)

Because of the error, I decided I had way-overestimated my abilities as a swimmer and figured I just had to get through the rest of this thing. I kept an eye out for the 3-mile buoy and support boat to stop for water because I was starting to feel a little hot.

I stopped at the boat and drank a couple tiny cups of water and Gatorade, and then checked my watch again. Here's where I realized my earlier blunder (phew!) - and DID notice my pace was still well under 1:30 (my original goal pace).

After this stop, everything started to go downhill. My first mistake: I should have drank more. I was in too big of a hurry to get back to swimming.

Shortly thereafter, I started to overheat in my wetsuit. Somewhere around 3.4 miles, I started to feel a little nauseous - presumably from dehydration and swallowing salt water, although I considered sea-sickness as well. Feeling extremely hot and ill, I began to take intermittent breaks to fill my wetsuit with water to cool off. The greatest feeling was when the water surrounded my arms - it renewed me and I regained the ability to turn over my arms well for about a minute - until I had to stop and cool off again.

The heat was getting the best of me. I started started to feel dizzy and depleted. It didn't feel like muscle fatigue - it felt like complete lack of energy. I needed food or water or I wasn't going to finish. I tried to rest doing breaststroke and backstroke but nothing was easy in the waves, and I was being dragged way right. I noticed a guy near me flagging down a kayak. I took the opportunity to rest and get some water (thankfully, kayakers were carrying water). I drank almost a whole bottle of water and hung onto the kayak so long that the kayaker wanted to "take [me] to a boat" - I think my reaction was "NO! I want to finish!"

I thanked him and finally got back to swimming, very slowly, and had to flag down another kayaker shortly after. He had Gatorade - which I hoped would give me energy. At this point, I was very close to the end of the bridge, right around the corner from the finish. I was almost done - but spent.

The water got even warmer as we approached the finish line, and the water-in-my-wetsuit trick no longer provided the slightest bit of cooling. Fortunately, my energy came back (probably from the sugar), and I was able to swim hard while most people around me were standing up in the shallow water and walking.

Jim's view of the bridge from the finish line.


So glad to be done.

It was too little too late, but I got to the finish. As soon as I was on land, I was gripped with a horrible desperation to get out of my wetsuit. I saw Jim and begged him to help me get it off, but he wanted to wait until I was out of the crowd. I was frantic - "no, now!!" I struggled, he struggled, but it was finally off and I could breathe again. I was about to tear it off with my bare hands.

Unlike usual, I was able to drink right away while recovering post-race. Had a random few muscle cramps, the weirdest of which was my ring-finger on my left hand. It locked up, the pain was excruciating, and I couldn't bend it for several minutes. It was so bizarre. Other than that, I didn't feel bad, only tired, and after a short sit-down, I was up and about pretty quickly.

Wait.. what did I just do? All smiles afterward.

I checked my time and place - 2:09, 1:35 pace, 13/35 in my age group - and immediately went into post-race analysis mode, albeit with nice cold beer in hand.

There are many lessons to be learned going forward in this new sport. The most important thing was that the words "never again" we're not uttered. My first thoughts were more like "ok, I have a lot to figure out before my next one," "I love open-water swimming," and "this is a very well-run event with amazing volunteers."

One of my strengths is the most difficult thing about swimming: we must fight an element not part of the natural environment for a human. I love water, I love rough water, and I feel at home in it.

Everything else is a weakness that will need to be addressed and tested during training: not knowing how or how much to eat and drink before and during a swim, not knowing what temperature is my personal wetsuit-cutoff-temp, and not knowing how to pace myself in all conditions.

I've also reviewed my training and preparation for this particular event. The day before the race, Jim mentioned I had gotten "really skinny." I looked at myself in the mirror and realized he was right. I've been suffering some emotional despair lately and had lost my appetite. In two weeks, my weight dropped about four pounds, and I've skipped or abbreviated my training sessions because of low energy and mental fatigue. I suspect that also had an effect on my swim yesterday.

I'm looking forward to many more open-water swims in the future and embracing the learning process. The most encouraging news I got after the race was that conditions yesterday were some of the worst ever experienced at the GCBS, and there were a lot of people forced to abandon the race. It restored a little confidence knowing I was able to tackle it unprepared and push through to the finish.

Here's the official tracking of my Garmin GPS watch.


Taken in Memorial Hall while getting a quick tour of the Naval Academy
with great friends the day before the race.
I thought I'd never see a book chapter like this again after
I scrapped my engineering degree for an art career.

As I was saying in my last post, I recently went back to my swimming roots and became both a swim coach and a student of the sport once again. I've learned a lot about swimming while coaching, but I found that I wasn't learning enough, and I wasn't sure what I was learning was going to help me become a better swimmer. It might work for kids who are new and still learning the ropes, but I've been through all the ropes of the past, and I'm well aware that theories about swimming and swim training must change and evolve. If they didn't, then we would rarely see world records fall.

During the 1990s, I focused on marathon running and I (thought I) had sworn off swimming for good. My time as a swimmer was over, and I wasn't looking back. There were more than enough years of performance anxiety, two(or three)-a-day workouts, that chlorine smell, taper-less seasons, and tough coaches. 
After a more-than-ten-year hiatus, I returned to the pool in 2001 for triathlon and fell right into bad habits. I didn't necessarily fall BACK into bad habits, but my running musculature and biomechanics created and accentuated a whole new set of unknown bad habits. And because I was stubborn and knew enough to "get through" the swim leg of triathlons, I never spent time learning how to swim again. I mean, I already knew how to swim! I had the times to prove it. Why should I spend extra hours in the pool when I could get larger pay-offs spending them on the bike? And Ironman-distance races made it even less important to log massive yardage in the pool because the swim leg is only a tiny part of the overall race. Had my focus been on Olympic-distance, I would have worked somewhat harder to perfect my swim.
My triathlon years found no lack of swimming advice to be given (to me, not by me). Everyone within earshot of the pool deck seemed to want to critique my swim stroke, my yardage, my frequency... Some told me I held my head too high - or I looked too forward. "You must look DOWN at the bottom," they said. Some told me I had to kick more or kick tighter. "Your kick is too wide, it's creating drag," they said. Some told me I had a lopsided stroke. "You need to get your elbow higher on the left side," they said. Some told me I didn't rotate my shoulders enough. "You need to rotate your body - practice kicking on your side," they said.
I never listened... Well, ok... I listened a LITTLE. I tried the "expert" suggestions. I gave it time and worked at very awkward, unnatural motions. Yet, every single time, I ended up slower. It was maddening. All these swimming people and triathletes teaching me what they learned when they took seminars and attended swim camps. And every time, I gave up and went back to swimming with my comfortable lopsided, heads-up, scissor-kicking, flat-shoulders stroke. It was ALWAYS faster.
It reminded me of high school - when my parents were accosted by the "swim parents" in the pool bleachers questioning that I couldn't possibly have only just started swimming - at age 14 - after beating their kids who were swimming since age 6. People said I was "a natural." But they overlooked something: I worked. Really. Hard. I was naturally "at home" in the water, but I wasn't born with the best stroke. I did my drills - diligently - and it got better. I only recently learned why my flutter kick has always been problematic: the dreaded "clunk foot" (Google it). My feet are not flexible. It made me a good quarter-miler on the track, but it's the reason I would never be a sprinter in the water.
Reacquainting myself with swimming skills and technique has illustrated all the things I let fall by the wayside for 28 years. I was doing all the things coaches yell about: I used the wall as "rest time" and I didn't streamline off it, I abandoned my bilateral breathing, I dragged my feet through the water. And drills? Well, let me just say - drills were something I did NOT have time for. I was much too accomplished to do drills, right? When people did drills in the lanes next to me, I would think to myself: "thank heavens I don't have to do THAT anymore."
Boy was I wrong. I had become the epitome of complacent. Funny that I fell into bad habits that I never had time to develop in the first place. Had I been swimming at age 6, they may have been my bad habits. But I started at age 14. With a high school coach. And we did drills. Lots of drills. And my competitive swimming technique was molded correctly from the start.
So the question remains... if my good swim technique had dematerialized into a collection of bad habits, why didn't all the swimmer/triathlete advice make me a faster swimmer? And why did my so-called bad habits still put me close to, if not in, the lead pack at triathlons?
Last week I learned the answer to this question.
...And here's where I stopped writing to go swimming. And after my swim, I was able to come back to this discussion with way more knowledge about my own current bad-habit-ridden swimming technique and discuss it further...
But, first, an answer to the question posed before I went to the pool. The reason why I'm still "fast" despite the way my stroke "looks," is this: I have one really good thing going for me: my underwater pull.
My kick showing how wide my left leg goes
(see my foot near the lane-line? ugh)
My right arm with nice high elbow
My left arm just flopping about
sometimes misdiagnosed as a rotation issue
but I think it's more than that
How do I definitively know this? Because I recently picked up a book written by Olympian and legendary coach Sheila Taormina called Swim Speed Secrets (for Swimmers and Triathletes). While reading, I heard my own words after listening to people spew their swim theories to me: I have no idea what you're talking about, but the only way I know to go forward is by pulling back water. It's quite simple, and yet, I watch swimmers and coaches and triathletes continue to work on the things that just don't matter much in the greater scheme: looking straight down at the bottom of the pool? Sure, that flattens out your body, but it certainly doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. Rotating your body while you swim? Sure, that helps you reach and work your hips, but it doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. And that whole fancy theory about Bernoulli's principle and the S-curve? I never believed that anyway (even with my B.S. in aeronautical engineering). You must pull back water! Like most swimmers, I know exactly what it feels like to grab the water and pull/push myself forward. I've always known it. You can throw your laws of physics and theories of fluid dynamics at me, but it doesn't change the things I inherently know. Pulling back water makes me GO FORWARD.
With all my bad habits and drag-producing swim form, I still get faster when I get stronger because I know how to work the stroke underwater. While I was coaching, I often explained to my swimmers how surfaces - hands, forearms, etc. - are what we use to push the water back (this is especially true in breaststroke because it involves surface area on both arms and legs). And when there were too many coaches on the pool deck, I swam in the lane next to my swimmers and watched them underwater. I could usually identify exactly why some of them didn't swim faster even after many, many hours of training. If you try and try and try and see little improvement, take a look below the surface (or read the book).
A few months ago, I told one of my swimmers I know what's wrong with her [very slow] breaststroke and that I thought I could help her. She said to me: "I've been trying for four years, but it's not happened yet. I doubt YOU would be able to fix it." (Remember here, I'm a wet-behind-the-ears assistant coach, and I certainly don't want to step on head-coach toes. From the surface of the pool deck, everything looks good. But below the surface, it's instantly obvious: she has no underwater pull. None.)
Anyway, back to analyzing my own swimming... with new knowledge and a newfound desire to get it right (note: I have several big swims on the books this year), I turned a critical eye to my own underwater stroke. It took little, if no, time at all to identify the problem. All of a sudden, everything started to make sense. My lopsided stroke and kick are actually symptoms, not the cause.
I have the same problem swimming that I have running: a dominant right side. My right arm has good form and a strong pull, and my left arm (or whole left side) is not doing much work at all. During my intra-blogpost swim, when I forced myself to breath on the left, even with a pull-buoy, my left arm didn't feel like it was grabbing any water at all. It was being dragged through the water while the other side did all the work. I had to consciously focus and work to keep that elbow high. And when I did, I started to feel the water again (I hadn't even noticed I had lost my feel for the water on that side!). By the end of my swim, things were starting to feel "right" again in the water - I was even able to bilateral breathe like my old high-school self. (The reason I remember how good I was at bilateral breathing was because my coach used to give me hand signals for pace during long-distance races like the 1000 or the 1650 - I distinctly remember telling him it didn't matter which side of the pool he was signaling from because I could turn my head to breathe either way.)
It won't be easy to rebuild my left strength, but I'm committed to this swim thing, and now at least I have a diagnosis and plan to move forward with tangible results. It's a nice change to have a learning experience like this - where I'm not sat on the sidelines during or after a race throwing up my hands in frustration and confusion (like so many times in the last few years). And I think that's what being an athlete is to me. It keeps me young not only because it works my body but because it makes me a perpetual student and engages my mind as well.
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