Thursday, March 24, 2016

What I do when I swim

Anyone unfamiliar with organized swimming is sure to be confused by instructions used to tell swimmers what to do at the pool. Here are some typical examples, from a Half Ironman training plan. If you poke around enough swim web sites you can find lots of examples like these.

Down ladder at T-pace
WU: 100 drill, 100 kick, 100 drill, 100 kick.
400 at T-pace. (T-pace is your olympic-distance swim pace per 100).
50 kick easy.
350 at T-pace.
50 kick easy.
300 at T-pace.
50 kick easy.
250 at T-pace.
50 kick easy.
200 at T-pace.
50 kick easy.
150 at T-pace.
50 kick easy.
100 drill.
50 kick easy.
500 swim good form.

WU: 6 x 50 increasing pace slightly each 25.
MS: All are at T-pace:
100 (10”), 200 (15”), 300 (15”), 400 (30”), 400 (30”), 300 (15”), 200 (15”), 100.
CD: 300 easy with emphasis on form.

Long-short at T-pace
4 x 50 descend pace.
300 drills of your choice.
5 x 300 at T-pace (30”).
100 kick easy.
5 x 150 at T-pace (30”).
100 kick easy.
CD: 6 x 50 easy swim.

What is being specified is distance and number of repeats. The unit can be yards or meters and is determined by the size of the pool. Where I swim there are two pools that follow modern American practice; the small pool is 25 yards long, the large pool is 50 meters long. I notice that in these examples there are no lengths less than 50, so these workouts can be down in either pool. "400" would be eight lengths of the 50M pool, sixteen lengths of the 25yd pool. Swimmers don't use "laps" quite the same way as runners; a lap is two lengths, so you end up where you started, same as a lap on the track, but swimmers are more likely to speak in terms of lengths."4 x 50" would mean swim 50 yards or meters 4 times, with a short break between repetitions. What is missing from these workouts is how to improve. Just swimming a lot of yards will only prepare you to swim a lot of yards.

The Total Immersion approach to swimming emphasizes mindful practice and continuous improvement -- kaizen. Every practice session should be designed to address a specific aspect of swimming, with activities designed to explore the nuances and unlock hidden treasures. If there is a single, over-arching goal I would say it is efficiency, which is derived from the combination of balance and streamlining. In TI swimming one does not strive to become stronger, but instead to move easier through the water.

I spend a lot of my time at the pool swimming 25yd lengths while focused on just one thing. I gauge my success through a combination of how it feels and the number of strokes it takes me to get to the other side. Only when I feel successful at the skill I am working on do I consider stringing lengths together for longer distances, and in that case the goal becomes maintaining the desired skill despite fatigue. I can usually go from 25s to 50s without falling apart. It is the third and forth lengths that cause trouble. At the pool I want good form or nothing.

There is always an exception, and this is mine: I like to begin a session with a simple set of increasing distances. Specifically, 4x25, 3x50, 2x75, 1x100. This is not the time to try to change anything, rather it is the time to allow my muscles to loosen up and get reacquainted with each other and the feel of the water. I do try to swim this well. I observe, but avoid self criticism.

My open water sessions are almost the opposite. My primary emphasis is on swimming long and continuously. Not at race pace, rather an effort that is hard enough to create fatigue while giving me a chance to stay focused on form without struggle. My focal points will be whatever I have been working on that week at the pool, along with sighting, but that is only the beginning. A swim in the ocean provides a lot of time without the interruption of banging into the wall. I use this opportunity to go through a checklist, same as I do for cycling and running. I like to start with my feet; how is my kick? Legs straight, kick energy coming more from hip flex, less from knee flex? Hips, in-line and rotating with shoulders? Up near surface, legs falling between kicks without dragging torso down? Core, engaged, participating in kick and stability? Arms. Too much to list here, just run through the entire catch - pull - recover cycle, many detailed points here. Head, down, relaxed, not lifting, smooth, rotation to air? All good, now back to feet. Around and around. Watch for something falling apart, get it back under control.

How much time I spend at each session is largely determined by events beyond my control. The pool where I swim opens at 6:00AM. I tried swimming after work but the teams have both pools until 6:00 or 6:30PM, which had me coming home much too late for the family dinnertime. My schedule allows two morning pool sessions per week, Monday and Wednesday. I must be out of the water by 7:00AM to have any hope of getting to work on time. I can usually get something more than 1,000 yards in, but I remind myself that the pool is not about distance, it is all about refining technique. During the winter I was down to one open water swim a week, and only 600-800 yards at that, finishing just as the sun went down. Now that spring has arrived I am doing two afternoon swims per week, and because the sun does not set until after 6:30 I can easily go a quarter mile. In the coming weeks I hope to extend that, mostly to assure myself that I can swim a mile without falling apart. Once you get going it is the same thing, over and over, until you reach the end.

So that's about it for now. In my experience this will probably change, so if you stumble across this post in some search results you owe it to yourself to check for something more up-to-date. I do want to describe my pool drills in more detail; I'll save that for a future post.

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