Thursday, March 28, 2013

Checking In On A Gut Check

I have been putting off writing this post because I've been engaging in some good ol' Bull Durham wisdom.

Back in December I wrote about having the guts to take a break from strictly structured swim workouts and focus nearly entirely on technique.  To take not a stroke with an eye towards pace, without first having an eye or two or four on how that stroke was taken.  I think it is worth looking back at that decision and all the work and changes which have come about because of it, now that the process has (somewhat) resolved itself.

The Winter Of Our Discontent  I suspect (fear?) that the masters swimmers with whom I was training back in December will forever remember the winter of 2012/13 as the one when "that horrible girl made us to do drills and technique swimming only for three weeks straight."

On the first day of my experiment I wasn't even finished with my warm-up (hiding out in the back of a slower lane off to the side, where I was purposefully bothering not a single soul) before the coach had determined that *everyone* would benefit from a similar approach as I was undertaking.  Suddenly I was bothering every single soul.

We swam drills, we swam slowly with tools to act as reminders about perfect/better technique, we swam more drills.  Break it apart, put it together, break it apart, put it together.  Honestly, I enjoyed it - because I had bought into the process as the investment to becoming a better swimmer.  But other hadn't, and oh, the lamentations and gnashing of teeth - and then I went to the lunch-time practice and did and heard it all over again.

Back To The Crucible I returned to Texas and my normal swimming group with the New Year, and because everyone knows everyone else, my work continued.  However the time had come to dovetail my technique focus with, you know, actual swimming.

The "rule" goes that for a swim technique change to become part of a swimmer's unconscious stroke, the change must be consciously incorporated into the stroke for 100,000 yards.  100,000 yards with ever-constant mental vigilance; focus slips, change disappears.  100,000 yards.  That's a bit of swimming, when you consider that a slightly aggressive masters workout will cover 5,000 yards in 90 minutes.

So January was me trying to be as mentally present for every single stroke as possible, while swimming as part of the normal workout and tailoring the recovery and drills to my needs.  I'm pretty sure that occasionally smoke was coming out of my ears and the pool was overtaken with the smell of burning rubber.

It's Like I Can't Control It (Or: It Doesn't Get Easier, You Just Go Faster) By mid-February, the funniest thing was happening: people were noticing that I was swimming faster.  I mean, I was, they weren't wrong, but I was in the middle of a streak, and as Bull Durham explained above, when you are in the middle of a streak, you respect the streak.  I would politely thank them and change the subject.

But yeah, I was putting up some PBs for common pool distances and jumping ahead of people in my lane and finally just jumping up a lane.  In Once A Runner, Quentin Cassidy explains that track is a truly hierarchical sport because everyone is defined by their PRs - it might as well be tattooed on their forehead - and any track runner relates to any other track runner based on that number.  In quick succession my tattoos were inked over and then blacked out and re-inked again.    

But before anyone thinks I could wash my hands of technique and settle into "just swimming," let me stop you.  Although probably past the 100,000 yard mark, this part of the process involved lots of mental check-ins and kinesthetic comparisons - does my stroke feel like it used to and shouldn't now?  or like it is supposed to?  if I try to swim "unconsciously" while sprinting or doing endurance work, does my stroke fall apart?  And what about it falls apart?  when I'm tired in a certain way, does my stroke fall apart?  And what about it falls apart?  When do I need to remind myself about technique?  How should I remind myself about technique so that I actually heed it?

It doesn't surprise me that it was during this phase that I forged a new mantra:  "Hold your shit together, hold your shit together, hold..."  

The Final Resolution That Became A Mere Waypoint  Now that the initial period of progress has resolved itself into another plateau (of faster swimming, so I'm not complaining), the larger impact of my decision back in December has become clear:

it made room for more improvement

The technical downfalls of my previous stroke were limiting progress.  No amount - or only a very high amount - of swim training with that stroke would have brought about the gains I ended up seeing January through March.  I was on a plateau because there was literally almost no way for me to go faster.

Better technique makes future improvements, both in speed and technique, more likely and (do I dare say?) easier.  Because gains in swim fitness can more directly translate into moving faster through the water, for longer periods of time.

Nevertheless both my stroke and swimming times remain a work in progress with a completion ETA set for about an hour after I die.

This Isn't Magic (Or: Simple, But Not Easy) Unbeknownst to me, a friend of mine here in Austin, Patrick Evoe, was undertaking the same mission (March 7th entry).  Pat has been working on his swim for several years, but last fall he too decided to take the "total leave."  He took it a bit further than I did, but the same principles seem to apply:

done right, it involves the mind as much as the body, and 

it takes a long time, if you can ever really considered it finished.

    Gordo Byrn has reported that once he swam under an hour in IM, he swam about a million meters per every minute improvement.

    Only 900,000 meters to go.

    Friday, March 22, 2013

    The Best Sleep

    is after a 6:30 am, 5500 yard, masters swim practice, and lasts from 8:42 am to 11:31 am.

    But first you have to survive the practice.

    Tuesday, March 19, 2013


    Today and last Tuesday marked the first two weeks of a short, but exciting, coaching job for me.  I am leading a Couch-to-5K training group for the Austin office of a nation-wide, Fortune 500 company.

    This company (which I am contractually not allowed to name until after the program ends...ooohhh, suspense and mystery) provides undeniably awesome fitness benefits and opportunities for its employees around the country, year-round.  Benefits include discounted entries to races of many distances, free training plans, group training sessions, a proprietary website with an internal forum for spreading motivation, experiences, and advice, and not least, the freedom and flexibility to incorporate all of this into their daily work schedule.  The Couch-to-5K program is just one side dish in the buffet, so to speak.  It almost makes me want to go back to working in an office!  Wait...
    The Couch-to-5K program understandably targets walkers and newer runners, and includes weekly training sessions to provide guidance and motivation for these athletes.  My main part in all of this is to lead these group sessions.  However, due to the focus on new(-er)(-ish) athletes, I am also sounding board, question answerer, workout writer, stopwatch watcher, photograph taker (which I am contractually required to take, but also contractually not allowed to use on this blog) and cheerleader.  We (me and the "Fitness Advisers" in the other cities with Couch-to-5K groups) also lurk on the website and answer questions, provide encouragement, and generally raise morale.  IT IS SO FUN!

    I have said somewhat directly on here before that I enjoy working with relative rookies because they bring fresh perspective, nerves, and enthusiasm to the routines of my own days and ways.  Hence, why I jumped at the chance to work with this group of Couch-to-5K-ers.  They remind me that there isn't a bigger picture until we draw one - and that it can be walk in the sun with friends to burn off dessert.

    My goal is to give these athletes the tools to keep the fitness ball rolling, long after they leave me (or their current employer), and I structure our sessions to that end.

    Names and Goals I want to learn (and know) everyone's names, and I want to know everyone's two goals - for this specific session and for the final race (on May 4).  I also want everyone else to know their fellow athletes' goals because sometimes peer pressure can be a positive thing.  The more they vocalize and share their goal, the more people there are who know they have it, and the more people there are who can help them achieve it.  Examples from today include "not have my shin splints act up during this workout" and "run/walk the whole race without feeling like I am going to die at the end."

    Topic O' The Day I give a short (5-10 min) little talk on a topic that I consider a tool for long-term enjoyment of walking/running/exercise/sport.  The first one was the why, what, and hows of warm-up and cool-down.  To come are running form and drills, core strength, recovery considerations and techniques, and mental skills and tools.  Each week's topic has a component that is directly insertable into that week's training session, and will remain as part of the routine for subsequent training sessions.  For example, starting the week of the talk about running form, we will include a short drills and strides section after the workout (see below).

    Workout It was no surprise that the group includes a wide variety of abilities and fitness levels.  Some run 3-5 days a week, some have never run.  So I construct workouts for each type.  For example, this week we had a increasingly serious runner who has lost 100 lbs(!) by running and using the elliptical, but he had never done intervals.  So I gave him a workout with beginner intervals just to get him thinking about changing pace on purpose, occasionally.  He had a great time!

    The Extended Cool-down This last part will expand as I introduce activities to expand it: strides and drills, a mini core-workout, and bringing my The Stick, foam roller, and tennis balls so people can experiment with recovery tools.     

    It's a lot for the time we have together.  In my dreams everyone knows exactly what comes next and can flow right into the strides, core, and recovery etc. as soon as they return from their workout.  However, with only 7 more weeks until the race signals the end to the program, I understand that most of those dreams with remain solidly right where they are - in my dreams.

    But - using the words my contract does allow me to still use, but never pictures, no, never pictures - I will keep blogging about my little group's progress toward the 5K and beyond.

    Wednesday, March 6, 2013

    RCP, Exit 12, and Traveling Without A Bike

    Here I go again, making travel plans with blatant disregard for normal seasonal migrations and's recommendations.  Last weekend I called the bluff of Winter Storm "Q" and attended a coaching conference in The Jerz, and...wait for it...left my bike at home.  Love those kind of trips!

    The Zebra Poacher said the weekend's training would be light.  With two options - sit in Austin and get bored, or sit in Freehold and get educated - I hit the internets to plan a short trip.

    In fact, everything about the trip was short: I booked on Thursday afternoon, flew out late Friday, and returned early Monday morning.  The conference was Saturday, in central The Jerz, so I could drive down to DC, have a quick run and a long brunch, and get back to Newark before my 6 am Monday flight.

    The conference itself was brutally efficient.  [That's a compliment.]  Two (packed) lecture rooms running simultaneously for 10 straight hours, with me sneaking back and forth when I wanted to attend something across the hall.  The headliners were Joe Friel, the first triathlon coach and founder/writer of The Training Bible; Barb Lindquist (nee Metzger), swimming phenom and 2004 Olympic triathlete; and Brian Shea, founder of Personal Best Nutrition.

    Ostensibly the conference was for local triathletes, who came and went between scheduled swim stroke, bike fit, and run form sessions.  Us coaches huddled in the back, there for the long haul to discuss everything from how to use a power meter to female-specific nutrition to Chi running.

    I first met Joe back in 2009 while riding alone outside of Boulder; we rode Fruit Loops together and then had lunch in Kona later that year.  I was impressed when he essentially remembered who I was, or at least recognized my face and the fact that "you have a unique name."  Close enough for government work.  Joe has lecturing down to a science, so I would have to say that a clearly-nervous Barb was the pleasant surprise.  She presented specific examples of everything, partly to support the idea that "there is no secret," and then my masters group did one of those workouts, I kid you not almost verbatim, the day I got back to Austin.  There really is no secret.

    Once my eyes has glazed over sufficiently to render my brain mush, I got on the road for DC.  It was a long day and a late night, but running my "40 min Rock Creek Park loop" (which I pleasantly discovered is now my "37 min RCP loop") and joining two of My Girls for brunch on Sunday, made all of the driving worth it.  That and a trip to Julia's Empanadas. 

    Still, it was the last 10 hours which really made the trip memorable.  See, my rental car had to be turned in by 8 pm Sunday, the drive from DC is ~4 hours, and my flight out of Newark was at 6 am Monday.  There is no way I was going to avoid staying over in Newark, but the cheapest hotel with an airport shuttle was $79.  Until I convinced them to extend my weekend rental car day-rate through Monday.  Yup huh.

    The New Jersey Turn Pike has excellent rest stops.  Theone just south of Exit 12 is particularly nice.  My parents were none to pleased, until I reminded them I had once spent the night in a lawn chair next to a dirt road in the middle of Burma.  [The Jerz is a step up from something.]  Plus I was far from alone; there were cops (and about 20 other people) sleeping in their cars also. 

    At 4 am, basically still with my eyes closed, I turned in my rental car and brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom.  After sleeping my entire flight back to Texas I went straight to masters and swam nearly-Barb's workout.

    All without a bike.
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