Blogs tagged with "training"

Over the last month I've been working harder than usual to fix my overall swim form to eliminate my ultra-draggy kick. I made major progress determining the cause(s) but only minor progress fixing it. I want to discuss it at some point, but my long swim in Lake Erie on Saturday was much more interesting to write about, especially the bizarre effect of current that showed up on video.

Saturday was a perfect day for a long swim in the lake. Several days of good weather meant the lake would be (relatively) clean, it was warm and mostly sunny, and winds were calm. My husband Jim accompanied me in his kayak so I could practice my feed routine. Any chop we encountered came mostly from boats and jet-skis in close range. in addition to getting a long swim with feedings, I wanted to learn how to and if I could swim comfortably in colder temperatures for a long period of time. Based on buoy readings, the water was 70 degrees F or just under - perfect for a beginning study. Most cold-water swimmers would laugh at this temperature, but I have to start somewhere, and the water will only get colder from here as air temperatures drop.

Some photos from the morning:

And the Lake Erie surface temperature profile around the time we started:

I was able to swim for three hours comfortably. After an hour, I began to fight numbness in my fingers, but I had no sense of cold overall, i.e., my core temperature wasn't dropping. I constantly reminded myself of advice gleaned from open water swimmers' blogs and forums: don't stop for more than 30 seconds to feed, and get used to discomfort in fingers and toes because that goes with the territory. If you can't learn to like it, at least learn to tolerate it. No matter how numb my fingers got, I could still manage a good underwater pull - this was a victory in my book. And it didn't get progressively worse because I found that intermittently making a fist would cause some blood to flow back into my fingers. Surprisingly, my feet and toes remained comfortable through the entire swim (unexpected since I kick very little).

The more interesting and difficult part of the swim resulted from the course we took. We started out heading east, against the current, and turned around after 40 minutes when boat traffic picked up near the mouth of one of the rivers that flows into the lake. When we turned, I looked at my watch to see my average pace was around 1:43 (per 100 yards). We now headed west back to our starting point - which we reached at 1:16. Swimming with the current now was four minutes faster. From the starting point we now went west for 44 minutes - until we hit two hours. And then, when we turned around to head back (east), against the current, it took over an hour to get back to our starting point. It was more than 16 minutes slower coming back on the second out-and-back loop, yet the distance was only about 0.2 miles more than one leg of the first loop.

Here's the route on a Google map: 

It certainly felt like the final return leg was against a stronger current that the first, but I had a hard time believing things changed that quickly. So afterwards, I checked the Lake Erie current profile by the hour during the time I was swimming (2:20-5:20) and here's what it showed (note: my swim location was the bottom of the little dip just to the left of the date in the map of Lake Erie):

2:00 pm:

3:00 pm:

4:00 pm:

5:00 pm:

6:00 pm: 

So, there it is, current conditions changed drastically from the start to the finish of my swim.

After the swim, Jim told me something interesting. He said when I was swimming WITH the current, it looked like I wasn't moving at all. But when I was swimming AGAINST the current, it looked like I was going really fast. How could this be so noticeable? Later, while looking at the videos he took from the kayak, I was shocked to see exactly what he had described. Check it out: 

Swimming with the current, it "looks" like I'm going nowhere: 
 
 
Against the current, it "looks" like I'm moving much faster:
 
 

I went for a long swim in Lake Erie this weekend. The weather was awesome and I learned more about Lake Erie's changing conditions, how to spending more time in colder water, and the interesting effect of swimming in a current that showed up on video.

It was back in early 2016 that I first learned of the existence of the 12.5-mile annual Swim Around Key West (SAKW). I had thrown in the towel on triathlon and embraced the fact that when it came to endurance sports, open water swimming was likely my first best destiny.

The SAKW (as well as my previous swim, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim) showed up in a list of America's Top 50 Open Water Swims. I added them both to my bucket list. Seriously, the Island of Key West was already on the bucket list, and it was a place I wouldn't have to twist my husband Jim's arm to go - he's the one who made me a Jimmy Buffett fan, and I've always dreamed we'd someday be "strolling down the avenue that's known as A-1A."

But getting an entry in the SAKW was a little tricky. Solo swimmers needed a support kayak, and the window of opportunity was usually less than a week because the field gets capped at 110 swimmers. For an extra fee, 35 swimmers can "purchase" a kayaker, i.e., a race coordinator will pair them with a support kayaker. I couldn't possibly ask someone to foot the bill to come to Key West with me, so I needed to be one of those 35 swimmers. I knew as soon as race registration opened in March, I would have to sign up. I set my calendar to remind me, and when the reminder popped up, I evaluated my training situation.

Did I have enough time to train? I hoped so. It was still four months away, and I had already committed myself to the Chesapeake Bay 4.4-miler and the Ocean Games 9-miler in mid-July, so, heck, what was a few more miles really? I registered and then frantically started combing through all the swimming and open water online forums and blogs for Key West course details and training plans, nutrition plans, strategic plans, and mental plans for completing a 12.5-mile ocean swim in ridiculously warm conditions. I read as many race reports as I could find. I even joined US Masters Swimming hoping for advice.

There was a lot of info out there, and strategies were as varied as they could get. The minimum rule-of-thumb from my favorite open-water expert, Lone Swimmer, was that the distance a person "could" swim in one shot was four times the distance of their longest training swim, and one should swim at least that total distance on a weekly basis. In math terms, 12.5 miles was 22,000 yards which meant the following: I had to swim 22,000 yards weekly, and my longest swim had to be at least 7,040 yards.

Those were the minimum requirements. Have you ever known me to do anything at a minimum? (Except for cleaning my house, that is.)

I didn't think so. By the time we left for Key West, I had been able to complete the following (and I still worried it would not be enough):

  • swimming 5-7 days per week at a weekly yardage of between 26,000 and 45,000 yards
  • two 8,000+ yard workouts
  • two 10,000+ yard workouts
  • one 12,000-yard continuous swim in the pool
  • and one 14,000-yard continuous swim in the pool

The last two workouts in that list were also necessary for practicing race nutrition. I wanted to use SkratchLabs hydration mixes and Carbo-Pro (a high-carb drink of glucose polymers). Luckily, my pool water temperature was between 82 and 84 degrees F - perfect for practicing nutrition requirements in conditions (read: heat) similar to those I would experience in Key West. In my 14,000-yard session, 10 days before race day, I spent almost four hours in the pool and learned that my triceps would be prone to cramping without proper electrolyte consumption. (It happened in the final half-hour but was quickly remedied with SkratchLabs Rescue Hydration.)

About two weeks before the SAKW, I was given contact details of my assigned kayaker, Nancy. She was also a first-timer, in both the SAKW and serving as race support for a swimmer. But talking to her gave me confidence in her abilities: she was highly experienced and even possessed a certification in kayak rescue.

In the two weeks we had to plan, Nancy and I discussed her responsibilities: navigating the course, keeping me out of trouble (if you know me, you know this is not an easy task), and nutrition for both of us. Jim and I found a soft-sided cooler for my nutrition that could be mounted behind her seat on her 16-foot kayak. She could clip bottles to a 10-foot rope tied to her kayak and toss them to me. Race rules forbid swimmers from hanging onto kayaks (or boats, or anything) or standing up during the swim. I spent weeks researching the best way to carry all the fluids and fuel I would need in the heat. I decided on several 32-oz plastic milk bottles fitted with flip-top lids I found on Amazon (much easier to open than their screwtops). They were translucent so I could mark the volumes I had to drink, and the handles were sturdy for clipping onto the rope. I also had bike bottles fitted with zip-tie loops. Some of it would be frozen for later in the race. My nutrition plan was water for the first hour and then 32-oz per hour of a high-carb drink made with Carbo-Pro and Skratch. My feeding intervals would be 20 minutes. Nancy would use a countdown timer on her phone to keep me on track.

Nancy and I met the day before the race at Smathers Beach, the event start/finish location, to work out the engineering details. Jim was very instrumental in fabricating all our mounting, bungeeing, and zip-tying. Here are some photos:

Then Nancy and I went for a practice swim to make sure everything worked and that she was comfortable with me swimming on her left. We grabbed lunch out and returned to the beach for race check-in and the mandatory pre-race meeting. The course layout was explained in great detail by the race organizer, Bill Welzein who would also be completing his 90th circumnavigation of the island with us. He described the tides, the water depths, currents and winds, and how it all would affect our races depending on what time we reached certain points on the course. I took notes on the course map (which Nancy actually taped to her kayak on race day):

Basically, we would start with the current, get a slight push around the west side of the island while the tide was coming in, then had to navigate under a bridge at mile 5, into the main harbor and through the moorings, around a little island to the north, and into a channel where we would be going against the wind (miles 7-9). At mile 9, we went under Cow Key Channel bridge (hopefully we would see Jim there), and then, swimmers planning a 6-hour swim would get a second push where the Gulf meets back with the Atlantic Ocean as the tide was going out. Around mile 10, the water would get very shallow as time wore on (basically, if we got to that point early we would have a much easier time swimming through it). By the time we rounded the southeast corner, we would have less than two miles go and should see the finish line. Various sighting points were also described - like yellow buoys for the relay exchanges and features in the landscape.

Weeks before the race, my estimated finish time - based on how I felt in my long pool swims and how others had described their experiences in Key West - was about six hours. If I had a good day, I might be able to manage 5:40. If I fell apart, it would probably be more like 6:30. After factoring in feedings, current, wind, waves, etc., I was relatively certain that my time would he outside of any awards. Yes. I checked. There were only seven: top three, top two masters (40+), top grand master (50+), and top senior grand master (60+). And I looked at the times in years past. Last year's winner of the grand master category (mine) finished in 5:31. I accidentally saw that the awards were individually made and highly-coveted (they were conch shells). I had to block it out of my mind. I had to have one - and only one - goal in Key West. To finish. To prove to myself I could finish.

But I can't say I wasn't nervous. Being walked through the aerial view of the course terrified me - especially when the mile "markers" were pointed out. It was going to be a long day, and I had only a few hours left to come to grips with that and figure out how to get some sleep. Sleeping the night before was crucial to my morning mind-set. And to my (and Jim's) surprise, unlike two weeks prior in Annapolis, I managed to drift off to that elusive sleep zone using a self-relaxation tape. Well.. ok, so it took THREE tries, but it finally worked, and when the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I had about four hours solid rest and my nerves were not frayed like all those times in the past. 

I ate breakfast, put on sunscreen, packed everything up, and Jim drove me down to Smathers beach at 5:30 to get prepped for the start. The race officials handed me number 8 (Jim yelled "the OCHO!") - and Nancy and I joked at our luck because we didn't have to worry about how to tape it on the kayak since it looks the same upside down. Before I got in the water, I put on another layer of sunscreen (note: this still would not be enough to avoid a burned back and shoulders).

Here are some photos Jim took at the beach that morning showing Nancy and me, her kayak and the start:

Wave 1 went off at 7:15. Wave 2 (us) went at 7:45. The kayakers were sent out first and they would hook up with us after we started swimming. Watch the video Jim took of the start.

It was one of the most chaotic starts I've ever experienced in a race - not chaotic in terms of being pummelled by other swimmers but chaotic in terms of confusion. There were swimmers and kayakers all interspersed together trying to pair up. Unfortunately, few things made it easy to find Nancy. She wasn't the only one wearing a bright yellow shirt, and I swam after two of them before realizing they weren't her. I kept stopping to do breaststroke and look around to see what was happening. I was sure we had passed mile 1 by the time I finally found her. The thing that helped the most was the silly orange and white cooler that I picked out much to Jim's dismay (he made fun of me for choosing the most ridiulous-colored one). When we finally hooked up, I checked my watch and we were already 26 minutes into the race. And I had missed my first feeding. When we got relatively clear of the mayhem, I stopped and she was already prepping to throw me a water bottle.

Then, I just settled into an easy stroke and let Nancy lead the way. The time (marked by 20-minute feeds) seemed to fly by and in an instant, I could see the satellite dish that marked mile 2, then we took the corner that marked mile 3. And somewhere between mile 4 and 5 miles, I stopped because I smelled what can only be described as a "cookout." I had to mention to Nancy "that smells good." She pointed out there was a restaurant responsible. I swear, that was downright criminal. We weren't even half-done. I had to stop a few times in the first four miles because my eyes started to sting and water like crazy. I figured it was from sunscreen - I had to stop and take my goggles off twice and pour fresh water in my eyes to make it stop.

Jim went to the far west edge of the island to watch us pass around mile 3. He got some pretty cool photos there:

Somewhere around mile 6, when we reached the moorings, I flipped over onto my back to see the most amazing boats anchored all around me. Nancy piloted me through this area like a pro. There were ropes and buoys that I could have easily got hung up on. It was at this place I remember starting to hear Jimmy Buffett songs in my head. It made me ecstatically happy and it would continue on for the rest of the swim. These words were particularly stuck on repeat, from "A Pirate Looks at 40":

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You've seen it all, you've seen it all

I was making my peace with the water in a very spiritual way. It was fun and truly fulfilling. When we hit mile 7, Nancy stopped to remind me that we were about to enter the "difficult" part - against the wind. She advised a feeding so we could push through and I agreed. I checked my watch and almost went into shock to find that we were on a ridiculously fast pace. I was swimming 15 seconds per 100 faster than my fastest expected pace. All I could think is that we're about to get slammed by the current and the wind. I drank a little extra and put my head down to power through. The waves got rougher, and I swallowed water a couple of times - I told myself not to fight, to relax and work with the rhythm of the water. It must have worked because I started to notice we were passing people during this stretch. Surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly bad even though I expected to hit the "wall" around 8 miles because it was the distance of my longest training swim. But I didn't. Maybe knowing I'd see Jim on the bridge at mile 9 is what kept me strong. Who knows?

Here's a shot Jim took of us coming toward the Cow Key Channel Bridge:

I looked up to wave at Jim when we reached the Cow Key Channel Bridge, and then we headed for the very shallow water. We had successfully conquered the windy part, and we were about to get another push. I stopped to check my pace. Shockingly, I was still 10 seconds per 100 ahead of expectations.

Of course, Jim has a photo of me checking my watch (which I only did three times in this race):

Here's video Jim took from the bridge:

OK. Here's when I thought: "Seriously. It's gotta hit me sooner or later. I'm going way too fast. I'm feeling way too good. Something isn't right."

Nancy perfectly navigated the shallows, which, at this hour, weren't all that shallow. The water was much hotter here and I was starting to get a little nauseous. I stopped with the high carbs and went for my high-electrolyte drink. But I kept swimming and I wasn't slowing down. When we rounded the far end of the island, we stopped a second and Nancy said to me: "do you know where we are?"

I said: "We have TWO MILES to go!!" She was clearly pleased with how fast we were going.

And, of course, it was here that Disaster Magnet reared its head. I was about to make a huge mistake. I was tired and slightly nauseous, and I wanted a surge of energy for the finish. I decided to do the ONE thing that has always worked for me - in Ironman races and marathons. I drank some Coke. What's wrong with a little caffeine and sugar in the last hour, right?

Ugh. I continued to swim a steady pace until we reached the final stretch - a line of wooden poles within earshot of the finish. My arms were tired, but I wasn't, by any means, falling apart. And I was shocked and bewildered to find I was on pace to finish in under five hours. We could literally see the finish line, and Nancy excitedly pointed out the final yellow buoy that I had to round before swimming in. It was right about then I started to feel a bit woozy. I've read about people vomiting during English Channel swims and always wondered "How the hell do they do that? Treading water?"

The first heave came about five poles from the finish. I stopped swimming and there it was. Vomit stops for no man. The Coke came up with a vengeance - in fact, that's pretty much all it was. I started swimming again. And again came another round of coke-flavored vomit. Nancy was perplexed, frustrated even: "The finish line IS RIGHT THERE!" Why the hell was I stopping? I was like, "ummm hold on..." It was the most ridiculous, maddening thing. I could almost reach out and touch that yellow buoy, but I just COULD NOT GET THERE. Meanwhile, once you stop swimming in an event of this length, everything locks up. My arms were no longer working the way they had five minutes ago. Finally, the vomiting was over, and I swam as hard as I could, but I couldn't hold off the guy coming up behind me. He had a much faster finish kick than I did. I consoled myself knowing he wasn't a female competitor.

Here's me finally rounding that last buoy: 

And just like that, I was up and running to a line in the beach sand.

Here's video Jim took of my finish: 

I heard Jim's voice over all the others. It reminded me of my swim coach from college yelling in my face when I was close to a NCAA championship qualifying time. I felt the FEAR. All I could think was that I MUST be extremely close to some goal time. I ran with everything I had across that line and hit the stop button on my watch. Whoa. There it was: a few seconds under 5 hours. Jim confessed later he had no idea about time, he was just cheering for me to finish. Whatever. It worked. I might have just walked it in, but because of him and the FEAR, I was the last finisher to make it under 5 hours. I still can't believe it.

We sat around at the finish for a long time while other finishers came in. It was a while before I felt like standing up or even eating something. When I finally gathered my strength, I inhaled a burger and lots of watermelon. I checked the results and was blown away by the fact that I was 17th overall, the 6th female finisher and 2nd female master (only two minutes from the 1st master). Official results are now posted online. Even more surprising was that I managed to get one of those amazing trophies, and I will cherish it forever. I chose not to kick myself after finding out how much time I wasted stopping to feed (in the heat, I had to make sure I got all my fluids each time I drank), to look around, slowing down to check out the fish swimming below me, or to lollygag and laugh with Nancy. My Garmin said I did about seven minutes of that. But I wasn't there to race, I had nothing to compare it to, and we were having fun.

If I have something to say to wrap this up.. First of all, I couldn't have done it without Jim and Nancy. Jim has been ultra-supportive through this whole open-water swimming learning process. He made sure I didn't worry needlessly about all the logistics and equipment. And Nancy was calm, professional, navigated the quickest route around Key West, and kept me from swimming into buoys and drifting off while swimming (yes, both of those things almost happened). At one point I swam right into the side of her kayak when I breathed on my left a few times. She asked me if I had "zoned out"  and it just cracked me up - I told her I swim in circles when I breathe on my left. My swim around Key West was similar to my fastest marathon and my fastest Ironman in that I truly enjoyed every moment of it. If my face weren't in the water, I would have been laughing the entire way. Even when I started to get sore and tired, I was still happy and singing to myself. The pain barely registers when I feel good and the time certainly flies by. The only struggle came in those last few hundred yards, and then, I was still kind of in a state of euphoria because I was almost finished, and it was amusing to me that I can rarely pull anything off without at least one glitch in the process.

Later the next day we walked through the Key West Cemetery and found this amazing grave marker, which perfectly summed up my trip to Key West. The inscription reads:

Sir Peter Anderson
1947-2014
Secretary General
Conch Republic
'He Had Fun'

Race report from my 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West with photos and video.

It's always about the watch, isn't it?

Just when I'm smack in the middle of writing up a thoughtful analysis of how I'm fixing my (non-symmetric, right-side-dominant) swim stroke and my (drag-inducing, lack-of-a) kick, I had a revelation in the pool yesterday. It came after about a month of frustration and stressing about why I don't seem to be swimming any faster after weeks of hard, and long, workouts. I've been working on improving so many things using video and drills and fins and my snorkel. And I feel like a different person swimming these days.. I'm working on all the things experts say will help me swim faster (from the best-rated online sources, coaches, and books) but nothing feels natural, and nothing feels "right" (yet?). I do feel stronger. And I feel faster. But my lap-times are slower. 

I pace and shake my head and jump up and down in frustration and discouragement. And I come back to the problem on a daily basis. Yesterday, I got in the pool and tried letting go of all the things I "know" and all the things I've been taught and just tried to swim "natural," without focusing on any one thing.. without thinking about my stroke or my kick or the positions of my hands and feet.

And nothing happened. The. Same. Speed. No faster. No slower. I tried not to cry. It was all I could do to stay IN the pool and not get out and walk away from the workout. Overwhelming defeat was settling in.

I decided to do a set of 100s experimenting with a bunch of different things while giving myself enough rest between intervals to get an accurate assessment. I tried breathing on the right. Breathing on the left. Putting my head down. Kicking harder. Kicking narrower. Bilateral Breathing. No discernible difference. And then.. back to using a pull-buoy to see if it was faster. And, guess what, it WAS. Two seconds faster! (in the swim world, two seconds is a lifetime).

Yep. I was boggled. I tossed up my hands in disgust.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it HIT me. I asked myself: "What, besides floating my legs, was I doing different with a pull-buoy?"

The answer: my FLIPTURN! When I use a buoy, I don't dolphin kick off the wall.

Could that be it? Was it possible? They say the underwater dolphin kick is THE second fastest "stroke" - second to all-out freestyle sprint. When I coached, we routinely stressed the importance of a strong dolphin kick off the wall. And if you remember the 2016 Olympic men's 400 free relay, you know it was pretty much won on the Michael Phelps flipturn - he went into the wall in second place and came up ahead after the most phenomenal underwater dolphin kick ever.

I decided to swim my final 100 yards with no dolphin kick off the wall - and wouldn't you know? That was it. My time was almost identical to my 100 with a pull-buoy. Who'dathunk? The one thing I've worked hard to develop in recent years (because back in the olden-days, we flutter-kicked off the wall) was the one thing I'm still not good at. It makes sense to me as I started swimming at age 14 and never had the flexibility and durability most swimmers develop at a young age when they learn to dolphin kick for butterfly. My butterfly every only had one kick - it was mostly shoulders.

Part of me was relieved to have figured out I'm ultra-draggy while making like a dolphin, but the other part of me was really disappointed because I had worked so hard to make it a natural thing - I was secretly thrilled each time I reached a further point underwater off the wall. The dilemma now becomes: should I spend lots of time on my dolphin kick for my pool workouts? Or should I start acting like a real open-water swimmer and just accept it as is?

There is one thing I'm sure of: I am now grateful for no walls in the ocean.

It's always about the watch, isn't it?

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:

  • I'm a distance swimmer!
  • I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
  • I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
  • I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
  • I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
  • The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
  • and the list goes on...
Now that swimming is my primary sport, my whole attitude toward kicking has changed. These days, we don't distinguish kicking styles - even distance swimmers need a strong kick. Here's a great article from The Race Club about the importance of kick to overall speed. A good kick supplies 10 to 15 percent of overall propulsive force. My kick, however, did nothing for me. In fact, I'm not sure you could even call what I did "kicking." It was just a vague reference to kicking. My kick had one purpose: to float my legs. When I made a conscious effort to kick, it became a hindrance. It made my stroke choppy and added drag... it literally slowed me down. Have you ever looked out the airplane window and watched the air-brakes pop up on the wings when you land? Well that's what my feet look like in the water.
 
But where to start? I already knew (from video and other swimmers) my kick was wide and un-symmetrical, and it pretty much stalls every time I take a breath. I noticed in longer swims, I have a bizarre tendency to drag my right leg so it's even stiff when I get out of the water. Come to think of it, I do this while I'm running too - it's my right foot that trips me up on uneven sidewalks. Here's a good shot of my crazy-wide kick. (I'm smack in the middle of the photo.) Nice high elbow though.
 
 
I was determined to educate myself on how to fix my kick to make it better and faster even if it meant taking a step backward in training.
 
The first lesson? Have flexible feet. Well.. my first thought was: I'm screwed. I considered throwing in the towel immediately. The very thing that made me a good runner was the thing that was going to sink (literally) my swim kick. I have what's called the "clunk [or rigid] foot" - a term taken from Timothy Noakes' Lore of Running. I spent my running career coddling my feet.. giving them love in the form of high-tech running shoes with lots of cushioning. They were never expected (or asked) to yield or be flexible. No siree! My feet were getting the last laugh. And unless I did something to change them, they would do nothing for my swimming.
 
Flexible feet can be developed, and I've been researching how to do it. It involves stretching and stretching and more stretching. Some say to sit on your feet with your knees off the ground. I found out the hard way I can't get my knees up for more than a split-second. Yep, this may take a while. The photos below are what my foot looks like fully extended (seriously, that's as good as I can do) - before (top) and after a few days of stretching. I've convinced myself they show (an oh-so-miniscule amount of) progress. I'm determined to get my toes to touch the ground if it's the last thing I ever do.
 
 
The second lesson on kicking? Kick from the hip, not from the knees. While watching others kick, the difference is instantly obvious. I've noticed when runners learn to swim, their legs take on the appearance of running in the water - they employ an enormous amount of knee-bending creating a massive amount of drag. And training with a kick-board tends to accentuate and reinforce this type of kicking because of its upright body position in the water. Thus, to work on kicking from my hip, I've mostly ditched the kick-board during kick drills to focus on streamlining my body in the water. I'm using fins to develop strength and better technique, and I'm doing more backstroke to further develop the hip-kicking motion.
 
The third lesson? Kick more narrow. This is one of the hardest things because my foot position is (literally) the furthest thing from my brain while I'm swimming. But forcing myself to kick narrow decreases drag and makes me use my feet more. Think about it: if my legs are taking up a space wider than my shoulders (the widest part of my body (hopefully)), then I'm creating drag. One suggestion was to put a rubber band around my knees forcing me to kick with my feet in a very narrow space. One of my swimmer friends told me he's been "trying to create a propeller motion" with his feet based on what he's noticed in the kicking motion of great swimmers. Cool! But in my current state, with my big dumb inflexible feet, I'll be happy with just a narrower kick.
 
So my focus over the past few months has been two-fold: swimming longer for arm strength and endurance and developing a kick that actually works. The most useful drill seems to be streamline kicking without fins with a swimmer's snorkel. This allows me to keep my head down without worrying about breathing - I can just attend to what my feet are doing. When I do hard 50s after this drill, I can actually "feel" propulsion coming from my kick. The biggest issue will be translating that kick to my longer swim sets. Kicking hard while sprinting is one thing - adding it to distance swimming is something entirely different. But I have to start somewhere or I'll be going nowhere in the water.
 
The bottom line is that a streamlined kick is a just like everything else we do in swimming - it's not so much about strength as it is about perfecting a specific skill. As my favorite coach, John Klarman, used to say: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Kicking skill is much more important than I previously wanted to believe - certainly orders of magnitude more important than most triathletes believe. And as a recovering triathlete that still loves to run, I also must stop worrying that a strong swim kick will destroy my running. (It won't.) But that's an entirely different issue - or, more likely, rant - for a future post.

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to.

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently. When all lanes are taken, I usually ask someone if they wouldn't mind sharing - but this is only to be courteous and avoid someone getting hurt. I don't HAVE to ask.

Good pools usually don't give people the "no sharing" option. They make all lanes circle-swim and people are expected to choose lanes based on their speed. By "good pools," I mean pools where the lifeguards and most people know the drill (and will help new-comers), and swimmers are lane-sharing is expected. "Great" pools go the extra mile and mark the lanes with signs indicating circle swim direction and swimmer speed.

My local community pool is neither good nor great. Unless I swim at 5:30 in the morning with the "regulars," when asking to share a lane, I tend to get refused more often than not, and even the lifeguards are reluctant to help. And the excuses are hilarious. One guy said "you don't want to share with me because I'm not a good swimmer," to which I offered "no problem, I'll stay to one side" and he said "no, seriously, you DON'T want to share a lane with me."

(Um.. YES, I do. Why the hell would I ask you if I didn't? I don't have time to waste while you lolly-gag through your floating workout.)

One lady started to say it was ok to share, then she decided not to, and yelled at me: "I can't share because I'm not a good swimmer like you," to which I offered, again: "I will stay out of your way." Then she put up a fight: "No! I swim into the lane-line when I share. I'm not trying to make it difficult, but..."

(Um... yes, you ARE making it difficult. Lady, you don't have that option. EVERYONE wants to swim today.)

The next time.. two lanes, four people swimming, two in each lane. I stopped one of the better swimmers and asked: "can we do circle swims?" He said "NO! [seriously, he yelled at me] I CAN'T do that." I was dumbfounded, so I said "you can't?" and he said "NO I CAN'T. But I'll be done in 10 minutes." And then just turned, ignored me, and started swimming again.

(Um... I don't HAVE 10 minutes, I'm on a tight schedule, dude. Seriously, what makes people act this way?)

I posted the story on Facebook and one of my friends suggested next time I simply just show them how to circle swim.

(NOW WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?? It's brilliant. Next time for sure.)

I was beginning to think it was me, but then I spent a week away from home and swam in a "good" pool (in Brookline, near Boston), and I found that circle-swimming didn't upset swimmers there. They just do it, no complaining.

So, chalk one up to the pool environment. Or maybe it's living in an affluent neighborhood in the midwest. Who really knows?

Just remember, everyone wants to swim and you can be nice about it or you can be a jerk. I say: choose to be empathetic - understand we're all in this together.

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently.

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.
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