Thursday, April 28, 2016

Always a Student and Maybe not a Bad One After All

I thought I'd never see a book chapter like this again after
I scrapped my engineering degree for an art career.
As I was saying in my last post, I recently went back to my swimming roots and became both a swim coach and a student of the sport once again. I've learned a lot about swimming while coaching, but I found that I wasn't learning enough, and I wasn't sure what I was learning was going to help me become a better swimmer. It might work for kids who are new and still learning the ropes, but I've been through all the ropes of the past, and I'm well aware that theories about swimming and swim training must change and evolve. If they didn't, then we would rarely see world records fall.

During the 1990s, I focused on marathon running and I (thought I) had sworn off swimming for good. My time as a swimmer was over, and I wasn't looking back. There were more than enough years of performance anxiety, two(or three)-a-day workouts, that chlorine smell, taper-less seasons, and tough coaches. 

After a more-than-ten-year hiatus, I returned to the pool in 2001 for triathlon and fell right into bad habits. I didn't necessarily fall BACK into bad habits, but my running musculature and biomechanics created and accentuated a whole new set of unknown bad habits. And because I was stubborn and knew enough to "get through" the swim leg of triathlons, I never spent time learning how to swim again. I mean, I already knew how to swim! I had the times to prove it. Why should I spend extra hours in the pool when I could get larger pay-offs spending them on the bike? And Ironman-distance races made it even less important to log massive yardage in the pool because the swim leg is only a tiny part of the overall race. Had my focus been on Olympic-distance, I would have worked somewhat harder to perfect my swim.

My triathlon years found no lack of swimming advice to be given (to me, not by me). Everyone within earshot of the pool deck seemed to want to critique my swim stroke, my yardage, my frequency... Some told me I held my head too high - or I looked too forward. "You must look DOWN at the bottom," they said. Some told me I had to kick more or kick tighter. "Your kick is too wide, it's creating drag," they said. Some told me I had a lopsided stroke. "You need to get your elbow higher on the left side," they said. Some told me I didn't rotate my shoulders enough. "You need to rotate your body - practice kicking on your side," they said.

I never listened... Well, ok... I listened a LITTLE. I tried the "expert" suggestions. I gave it time and worked at very awkward, unnatural motions. Yet, every single time, I ended up slower. It was maddening. All these swimming people and triathletes teaching me what they learned when they took seminars and attended swim camps. And every time, I gave up and went back to swimming with my comfortable lopsided, heads-up, scissor-kicking, flat-shoulders stroke. It was ALWAYS faster.

It reminded me of high school - when my parents were accosted by the "swim parents" in the pool bleachers questioning that I couldn't possibly have only just started swimming - at age 14 - after beating their kids who were swimming since age 6. People said I was "a natural." But they overlooked something: I worked. Really. Hard. I was naturally "at home" in the water, but I wasn't born with the best stroke. I did my drills - diligently - and it got better. I only recently learned why my flutter kick has always been problematic: the dreaded "clunk foot" (Google it). My feet are not flexible. It made me a good quarter-miler on the track, but it's the reason I would never be a sprinter in the water.

Reacquainting myself with swimming skills and technique has illustrated all the things I let fall by the wayside for 28 years. I was doing all the things coaches yell about: I used the wall as "rest time" and I didn't streamline off it, I abandoned my bilateral breathing, I dragged my feet through the water. And drills? Well, let me just say - drills were something I did NOT have time for. I was much too accomplished to do drills, right? When people did drills in the lanes next to me, I would think to myself: "thank heavens I don't have to do THAT anymore."

Boy was I wrong. I had become the epitome of complacent. Funny that I fell into bad habits that I never had time to develop in the first place. Had I been swimming at age 6, they may have been my bad habits. But I started at age 14. With a high school coach. And we did drills. Lots of drills. And my competitive swimming technique was molded correctly from the start.

So the question remains... if my good swim technique had dematerialized into a collection of bad habits, why didn't all the swimmer/triathlete advice make me a faster swimmer? And why did my so-called bad habits still put me close to, if not in, the lead pack at triathlons?

Last week I learned the answer to this question.

...And here's where I stopped writing to go swimming. And after my swim, I was able to come back to this discussion with way more knowledge about my own current bad-habit-ridden swimming technique and discuss it further...

But, first, an answer to the question posed before I went to the pool. The reason why I'm still "fast" despite the way my stroke "looks," is this: I have one really good thing going for me: my underwater pull.

My kick showing how wide my left leg goes
(see my foot near the lane-line? ugh)
My right arm with nice high elbow
My left arm just flopping about
sometimes misdiagnosed as a rotation issue
but I think it's more than that

How do I definitively know this? Because I recently picked up a book written by Olympian and legendary coach Sheila Taormina called Swim Speed Secrets (for Swimmers and Triathletes). While reading, I heard my own words after listening to people spew their swim theories to me: I have no idea what you're talking about, but the only way I know to go forward is by pulling back water. It's quite simple, and yet, I watch swimmers and coaches and triathletes continue to work on the things that just don't matter much in the greater scheme: looking straight down at the bottom of the pool? Sure, that flattens out your body, but it certainly doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. Rotating your body while you swim? Sure, that helps you reach and work your hips, but it doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. And that whole fancy theory about Bernoulli's principle and the S-curve? I never believed that anyway (even with my B.S. in aeronautical engineering). You must pull back water! Like most swimmers, I know exactly what it feels like to grab the water and pull/push myself forward. I've always known it. You can throw your laws of physics and theories of fluid dynamics at me, but it doesn't change the things I inherently know. Pulling back water makes me GO FORWARD.

With all my bad habits and drag-producing swim form, I still get faster when I get stronger because I know how to work the stroke underwater. While I was coaching, I often explained to my swimmers how surfaces - hands, forearms, etc. - are what we use to push the water back (this is especially true in breaststroke because it involves surface area on both arms and legs). And when there were too many coaches on the pool deck, I swam in the lane next to my swimmers and watched them underwater. I could usually identify exactly why some of them didn't swim faster even after many, many hours of training. If you try and try and try and see little improvement, take a look below the surface (or read the book).

A few months ago, I told one of my swimmers I know what's wrong with her [very slow] breaststroke and that I thought I could help her. She said to me: "I've been trying for four years, but it's not happened yet. I doubt YOU would be able to fix it." (Remember here, I'm a wet-behind-the-ears assistant coach, and I certainly don't want to step on head-coach toes. From the surface of the pool deck, everything looks good. But below the surface, it's instantly obvious: she has no underwater pull. None.)

Anyway, back to analyzing my own swimming... with new knowledge and a newfound desire to get it right (note: I have several big swims on the books this year), I turned a critical eye to my own underwater stroke. It took little, if no, time at all to identify the problem. All of a sudden, everything started to make sense. My lopsided stroke and kick are actually symptoms, not the cause.

I have the same problem swimming that I have running: a dominant right side. My right arm has good form and a strong pull, and my left arm (or whole left side) is not doing much work at all. During my intra-blogpost swim, when I forced myself to breath on the left, even with a pull-buoy, my left arm didn't feel like it was grabbing any water at all. It was being dragged through the water while the other side did all the work. I had to consciously focus and work to keep that elbow high. And when I did, I started to feel the water again (I hadn't even noticed I had lost my feel for the water on that side!). By the end of my swim, things were starting to feel "right" again in the water - I was even able to bilateral breathe like my old high-school self. (The reason I remember how good I was at bilateral breathing was because my coach used to give me hand signals for pace during long-distance races like the 1000 or the 1650 - I distinctly remember telling him it didn't matter which side of the pool he was signaling from because I could turn my head to breathe either way.)

It won't be easy to rebuild my left strength, but I'm committed to this swim thing, and now at least I have a diagnosis and plan to move forward with tangible results. It's a nice change to have a learning experience like this - where I'm not sat on the sidelines during or after a race throwing up my hands in frustration and confusion (like so many times in the last few years). And I think that's what being an athlete is to me. It keeps me young not only because it works my body but because it makes me a perpetual student and engages my mind as well.

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