Thursday, February 2, 2012

How To Think Like A Swimmer

OK so I was listening to a triathlon podcast the other day (Dork alert! This is what I do during the day... But wait for the good part! I call it 'work'!) and these guys were talking about how they view swimming and what motivational techniques they use to get through those dreadful swim workouts... I was like What? Dreadful swim workouts? I do not understand. Swim workouts are not dreadful.

Of course I get to swim outside in a longcourse 80 degree pool with a view of mountains and palm trees (and sometimes I get the ocean which is always interesting) so maybe that's part of it... BUT I grew up in Ohio and swam in an indoor natatorium and had to dry my hair before walking outside in the winter so it wouldn't freeze (Yes! Been there, done that! For years!)... I swam double days all through high school and don't remember dreading swim workouts. So don't give me that as your excuse.

Anyway, listening to those guys talk about swimming and how they play these little mental games to get themselves to finish a 2500yd swim workout got me thinking... Is that normal? Do triathletes really think that way? I do not. Ever. And Nalani does not. Ever. Really! I asked her. The conversation went like this:

Me: "Does it ever occur to you to bail out of a swim workout?"

Nalani: "No."

Me. "Do you ever have to play mental tricks on yourself to persuade yourself to finish a swim?"

Nalani: "No."

Me: "Me neither."

Hmm. Maybe that's one of the reasons Nalani was top female amateur out of the water at IMCdA last year? She doesn't bail on swim workouts. Ever.

So it has occurred to me that maybe we think differently about swimming than some other triathletes do, which of course got me to thinking about the specifics of that... So here you go... Maybe you'll find this interesting? This is how my brain works when it comes to swimming. This list may be a bit random and cover all things swimming (or not) so bear with me...

~I don't write boring swim workouts. Even if my swim workouts are long and repetitive (hello 5 x 1000's), they are not boring. How do I achieve this? I check my splits and assign goals every time. Seriously. I think I've said this before but it's true so I'll repeat it... I know the split of just about every 100 I swim. Even if I don't check my watch every time I hit the wall I estimate based on how I feel and check every 200-300M... so during those long swims I have a goal to hit every time which takes away any sense of boredom I might have. And typically I'm trying to negative split so there's that goal too. Unless its a recovery flop, I always have an interval to go off... never that 15" rest BS... I hate that. Having intervals requires you to do math while you're swimming which is HARD so it totally keeps your mind occupied and hence, not bored. Any of you runners ever go to the track and just jog circles without ever looking at your watch? I didn't think so. Don't go to the pool and ignore your watch or the pace clock. That really is rule #1.

~Play with toys! I don't do all my workouts with toys, sometimes I just swim, but 1-2 times/week I incorporate toys into swim workouts for quite a bit of it. Triathletes sometimes get a bad rap for using toys in the pool but seriously I think it's just because they don't know how to use them so they use them at the wrong time for the wrong purpose. Know why you're using your toys and then they can be valuable tools. Here's a primer:
Buoy- use it to help you obtain the correct body position if you tend to sink otherwise. When you're in this position, pay attention to how it feels to be up on top of the water. Get your stroke rate up a bit and press your chest down and practice swimming downhill. Tighten up your core and feel how you can initiate rotation with your hips. Pay close attention to the feeling of being balanced and focus on your early vertical forearm instead of just trying to stay afloat.
Paddles- use them for strength sets, usually in combination with buoy. As long as you're not crossing over and have decent stroke technique, you're not going to hurt your shoulders by using paddles too much. If your shoulders hurt when you're using paddles, your technique is wrong. Water should feel heavy when you're using paddles. Paddles increase the surface area of water you get to pull, so if the water doesn't feel heavy then your hands and forearms are not in the correct position to really pull it. Use paddles as resistance training for muscular endurance work. Paddles should make swimming harder, not easier.
Bands- if used in combination with a buoy then their only purpose is really just prevent you from 'cheating' by kicking with your buoy. If used without a buoy, it's a whole 'nother ball game. If you want to know if you have a decent efficient stroke, tie your feet together and try to swim. If you can't make it across the pool before your body resembles a horizontal uppercase 'L', you've just found out you have a major inefficiency in your stroke. In all likelihood you're not effective in grabbing and pulling water, probably because you're dropping your elbows and missing that whole Early Vertical Forearm thing swimmers talk about. Strap on paddles and start teaching yourself how to effectively grab and pull yourself over the water and eventually you will make it across the pool. I've also watched swimmers teach themselves to relax most effectively when swimming with bands. It's hard enough just to swim with those things, so you can imagine if you tense your whole body up you just sink like a freakin' rock. Once you teach yourself how to swim with bands, use them when you want to incorporate strength and power into your swim sets. If you're a runner, think of bands like you would think of hill repeats. Sometimes you do short/hard efforts like 25's and 50's... Sometimes you do longer repeats. I've done an entire 2000m+ main set with bands alone. It's possible so don't limit your brain to thinking you can only ever do 25's and 50's with bands. Add paddles and make it more about strength. Remove the paddles and make it more about technique.
Fins- Use them when you want to work REALLY hard. Swear to you you'll never get your HR up as high in the water as you will when doing a set of sprint 50's with fins. Try it! Those leg muscles of yours require some oxygen when they're working hard. Can also use fins if/when you're trying to teach yourself how to swim and you're doing drills- they'll help keep your momentum up which is critical if you're actually trying to swim correctly.
Kickboards- Sorry. Hate those. Never use them. if you're going to kick, multi-task and kick on your side without a board. Isolating your kick is not nearly as functional as kicking on your side. The only purpose I see for using kickboards is if you're swimming with your friend and have an incessant need to chat socially. And if that's the case, go for a run instead.
Snorkel- I'll admit I see some potential with the snorkel but I don't actually use one. Potential there would be to allow yourself to focus on proper stroke technique and front quadrant timing- specifically by removing your need to rotate to breathe, which is when many swimmers very commonly drop their lead arm and miss a huge opportunity to generate power at the top of the pull while they are turning their head to breathe.

~Find someone to swim with. No matter what anyone says, it's possible to achieve steady improvement in your swimming if you swim alone, especially if you've got a coach challenging you with good workouts and appropriate intervals. That said, the ideal scenario is that you have someone (you like) to play with in the water. Ideally your swim partner is around the same speed as you but a little faster/slower is ok. You'll still get motivation by trying to stay ahead of him/her if you're the faster one, or trying to keep up if you're the slower one. Masters programs can be great, though many masters programs tend to focus on only shorter distance sprint sets which is not ideal for triathletes. I think given the choice between a masters program with short sprint sets every night or swimming on your own attempting long challenging sets trying to hit specific splits, I'd go with the latter every time. I should also add here that this is what works for me... partly b/c the closest masters program to me is 2x/week in the evenings from 7-8PM and ~30' drive away... vs a free longcourse pool 1 mile from my house that I can hit mid-day with a motivated swim partner like Nalani... well, that is a no-brainer. And clearly we have made it work. That said, I'd vote for masters over swimming alone in any of the following scenarios: You don't have a coach and don't feel confident about writing good swim workouts... The coach on deck is awesome and takes time to correct your swim stroke... The program is convenient time/location for you and otherwise you would just go flop easy without direction... You like the people in the program and that motivates you to go swim... It's a program geared toward triathletes so the swimmers embrace sets with repeats longer than 75 yards.

~Last point here (and then I'll stop I promise). I had a question about bilateral breathing vs breathing only to one side. My take on that is that while it would be nice if we could all bilaterally breathe perfectly, it does not come naturally to most of us. Many very accomplished swimmers breathe solely to one side and this is fine. Remember your big picture goal as a triathlete/swimmer... get through the swim as fast as you can without it trashing you so you can bike and run to your best ability. In order to accomplish that you're going to need oxygen! So get oxygen by breathing as often as you need and to whichever side is most efficient for you to do so. Most of us don't spend enough time in the water as it is, so to spend your limited time throwing yourself off balance by trying to force yourself to breathe to both sides is not a smart use of your pool time. Like I said in my last post, build your fitness, tweak your stroke to make it more efficient, then keep building fitness so you can maintain your form. You could have perfect form but without fitness it'll all fall apart fairly quickly so I'm in the camp that you can't just work solely on form. I can't tell you how many times I've worked with swimmers who can totally swim with great form for a 50... then send them off on a 400 and it all goes to hell. So pay attention to technique and play with different hand/head positions some, but your main goal is to increase your fitness in the water. I promise you it is easier to perfect form once you are fit.

Holy cow this post got long! Are you still reading? I'm impressed. But really, you should stop reading and go SWIM.  I'll just finish up by saying that you really need to have some fun cute suits to swim in- and plenty of them. If you only have one swimsuit (and it's ugly!), you are missing out! Think like a swimmer and go buy a fun suit.

And on that note, I'm off to the pool!


Steve said...

Hi Michelle, I am following ur blog, but I only have my phone, my laptop is getting fixed. Just want you to know I am here!! :)

With you on the running!! :)


Trisaratops said...

I just don't understand when triathletes complain about swimming...all I want to do is find some freaking time to SWIM MORE. Arg! I am with you here! :)

And now I do believe I need to get some paddles and try a band--two things I haven't ever really used. Yay--new toys! ha ha

mmmonyka said...

I know several people who think that swimming is soooooo boring and they even use those waterproof music players. I never understand that. Swimming is not boring, not at all.
Then I learnt that those people don't do any intervals/drills, they just swim long steady. I suppose that that might get boring after while. But when I suggested to try intervals, they always said that it won't help because it's still staring at the black line at the bottom. Well, their loss!!!

Although I must admit that sometimes it is dreadful but that's because I'm dreading not being able to hit my intervals.

Molly said...

Wow. EVERYONE really is writing about swimming lately!!! :)

Bonnie said...

Thanks Michelle, I'm a fairly novice triathlete/mum in Australia and I love your blog, it's the only tri one I follow. This swimming post is great, I'm one of those weird people who struggle through swim work outs, not because I'm bored, but it's my weakest leg and I suck! That said, you're totally right, I just need to swim more, especially in the ocean, because in the pool I'm ok, but when I hit the ocean swims, I'm a good 4 minutes slower. Pratice, practice.
Anyway, thanks for all the regular posts, you definitely inspire me!

Bonnie said...

Thanks Michelle, I'm a novice triathlete/mum in Australia and I've been following your blog for a while. I think I found it when I was trying to see if any other mums got back into training a couple of weeks after childbirth, so you have made me feel less crazy/guilty!

Anyway, on the swim thing, I'm one of those weird triathletes that struggle through swim workouts, not from boredom, but because it's my weak leg and I get frustrated not being fast enough. But I like the idea of always swimming with a watch and I'm definitely going to up the swims I do so next season I can go better. In the pool I am ok, but in the ocean - I'm adding another 4 mins onto my pool time. Practice, practice!

Thanks again for all your posts, they are great!

Mary IronMatron said...

Good stuff, Michelle! You inspired me to work with bands more often...

I think I need to write a post on the importance and the art of purchasing swim suits.

I have been doing hard sets with fins... and YEP. I have never worked so hard...
It's a hurts so good thing for sure.

Ginger Spansel said...

Love it - shared on my wall and with my swim coach!

Ange said...

This is great Michelle. I think a lot like you with regards to this!( yes,it's that Swimmer Brain!!!) Totally agree w/ set timed intervals vs the 15-20 sec rest stuff. That Does NOT motivate 'one' to push. At all. You are very lucky to be swimming outside in a pool like that mid-day!!! I never think about blowing off Any workout but if swims take a hit it's only because I must wake up at 4:00a.m. to get to the pool. Love this advice!!! MORE SWIMMING Everyone! :)

Betsy said...

You crack me is important to look good. I need a cute new suit I think :)

Charisa said...

Good stuff :) that's why you swim so fast!

idropboys said...

Ok so I am the complete oppposite here....I am a reasonably good swimmer 54-56 wetsuit IM Swim and I look for every reason to miss a swim workout, ploys to get out early (even though I don't), complain about most main sets likea 5 year old- even if some of them are okay. MOre often than not do not look forward to swim workouts, am constantly negotiating with my coach about how much I need to swim.....refreshing to hear that you love it!!! Go girl!

Anonymous said...

Hey, good stuff! Just wanted to chime in on the shoulder/paddle comment... I'd had my master's coach watch me with paddles and he said my technique was spot on, but I was still having funny popping sounds in my shoulders.

After I injured my rotator cuff, my doc and my PT both said I had set myself up for injury bc my shoulders roll forward and create shoulder impingement (plus some of my back muscles weren't firing correctly).

So... if you ever get another newbie who's spent decades hunched over a computer and they complain of pain or popping sounds, they may need some work getting their body into better alignment. My 2 cents as I continue trying to work this out :-)