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.

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