Monday, March 28, 2016

On Going Back to the Egg When the Egg has Evolved

Once a swimmer:
1980 OH Platt High School Girls Medley Relay
(yes, I'm the one in the hat)
As you know, I recently became a recovering triathlete. After 15 years of chasing some kind of redemption for every unsuccessful race, I got tired of comparing myself to everyone else (EVERYONE is a triathlete these days) and always coming up short - in speed, strength, body image, and gear. I had become the very thing I hated: a slave to consumerism - especially involving the Ironman brand - and a very unhappy person who no longer enjoyed anything about the sport that had become so important to me that it was a part-time job.

Thankfully, my wake-up call didn't turn me into a non-athlete, but instead sent me back to the sport that started it all: swimming. It was my first competitive athletic pursuit, and after 30 years of denial, it finally came back around to offer me joy in its purest form. But I struggle to write something new about swimming. I'll never be an expert. Everything I know about swimming has been said, so what could I possibly pass on as knowledge in my blog? I kept coming up empty-handed until yesterday's swim.

While I was doing laps in the pool, I realized that the way I'm swimming now is both completely different and, at the same time, exactly the same as I did 30 years ago.

Let me explain.

First, I need to add that I've become a swim coach - yep, a certified USA Swimming coach. I've been assistant-coaching a Cleveland-area team - the Westside Waves - for six months now, and I'm hooked. I've already learned a great deal about swimming from a coaching perspective, and it has had a profound effect on both my love of swimming and my love of mentoring a younger generation of swimmers.

Geeking out with Theoretical Hydrodynamics
The rules and practice of competitive swimming have evolved quite a bit from when I was in a racing suit on the start blocks (coincidentally, even starts are different). But one fundamental idea has not changed. The fastest swimmer in any race is the one who is most efficient in the water. The race will never go to the strongest swimmer. The race will go to the swimmer who is the most hydrodynamic. Show me a swimmer that can bench-press 200 pounds, and I will find you a swimmer who can only bench-press 50 but can beat your guy in the water.

This is swimming in a nutshell.

What does this have to do with me? Well, funny you should ask....

I was never an efficient swimmer. I started swimming competitively at the age of 14. Most of my cohorts had been doing it for eight years by then. The only reason I was any good was a hard-work ethic, my genetics, and my natural ability [to float fast]. Because I grew up in the water, swimming came naturally and water wasn't scary. I eventually gravitated toward longer distance swimming because I never learned how to kick efficiently or with propulsion. (I dragged my body through the water, and I had the football-player shoulders to prove it.)

My natural kick in freestyle was what they call a "two-beat" kick, i.e., I kick twice for every stoke revolution. Today's swimmers do not know that term. They are taught a six-beat kick whether they swim 50 yards in competition or the mile. It was one of the first thing I learned as a coach.
After a few more "lessons," I made a conscious decision to start using my new tools in my own training. I couldn't advocate one type of swimming to my swimmers then get in the water and demonstrate something else. I wanted to be an example to my swimmers as well as a coach. And, as a former triathlete, I always said that to train for triathlon, you need to swim with swimmers, bike with bikers, and run with runners. I denounced any triathlon-style swimming and would often rant about the way I saw triathletes training in the pool or being coached differently than what works for competitive swimmers. I repeat: the best swimmers are the ones who are most efficient in the water. End of story. Similarly, I also rant about running shoes marketed to triathletes as though they different from running shoes made for runners. It's genius marketing as triathletes are willing to shovel out twice as much cash for them. (Even more if they sport the Ironman logo.)

But I digress.

In trying to embrace new breakthroughs that science has given us about swim speed (and what I'm teaching my swimmers), I've struggled like a first-year swimmer. I've had to teach my body to dolphin-kick off the walls (we never did that in the early 80s), take full arm-strokes underwater, and - *choke* - do massive amounts of backstroke (because if anything makes you a better freestyler, it's becoming a better backstroker, and the kids learn backstroke almost as early as they learn the crawl). And, I've had to learn - *gasp* - to six-beat kick.

Even though I always had a good stroke, doing these things in combo with my scrawny running arms made it very difficult to get my daily yardage in the pool up over 4500 yards. It took about two months and everything hurt every day. But by the time I was comfortable at 5000, my whole view of the process had changed, and I could talk to my swimmers with a better understanding of what I was asking them to do. And I found that, unlike coaches who didn't swim regularly, many of my sentences were starting to begin with "I know this isn't easy, but it will make you a better swimmer...." Yep, I KNEW of which I spoke.

And, it paid off. I got faster. I got more comfortable and I stopped hating backstroke. Some of it was due to strength. Most of it was technique. My husband Jim took video recently of me swimming, and the first thing he said to me was: "your stroke is mostly the same, but you look stronger and you're kicking [more]." I'll take it!

Here are two videos for comparing the difference four months makes (unfortunately, it's not a huge improvement): the first one is from December 2015, showing my horrible [non-]kick, and the second one is from March 2016 showing a slightly improved, noticeable kick (and it's more streamlined too).



I guess it's all about problem-solving. I've once again learned to embrace my first love without judging myself. I'm far from perfect, but I also found I'm not too old - or set in my ways - to learn and apply new lessons. And that may be the most important lesson of all.

I'll attempt to share more of my trials as both an old and new swimmer and any upcoming open water swim races that I do. Hopefully it won't be too boring to my readers.