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Maybe I don’t hate swimming as much as I thought I did

Posted Jul 26 2010 6:54pm

I blame it on Mississippi.

(In fact, I blame most everything negative that has happened in the past 4 years on Mississippi.)

My biggest challenge (in triathlon) since moving to the Magnolia State has been my swim. First, I started getting calf cramps. Big bad ones. That had never happened before in all my years swimming. Foot and toe cramps, yes. Full-on, big muscle-tearing gastroc spasms, no. (I only had those after dancing all night in high heels at weddings.) But one evening, not too long after moving here, I was blithely swimming 300 repeats at a decent pace when, Wham! The cramp was so severe, I couldn’t run for the next 3 days. Then, in quick succession, I had 2 more mongo cramps.

Not only did they hurt like a motha’, but they also totally messed with my head. Since then, I have been swimming in fear of my calves cramping up. Every. single. swim. Yep. It sucks. And it’s not as if my legs feel fine. They will start rippling and seizing after a while. For real? Psychosomatic? I don’t know, but it makes swimming a miserable experience.

And I used to love to swim.

I’ve finally learned to cope by using a pull buoy and switching to breast stroke when necessary. I avoid most kick drills or just do a minimum. About once a year, I break out the fins for fun. I keep trying to push my “limits” by making myself swim “one more hundred” when I start to fall apart, but I haven’t been able to get much beyond 2,000 yards before needing my props to get through the rest of my workout. I probably need someone to just yell at me to suck it up and keep going.

So, there’s that.

Then, I have been swimming pretty much on my own for the last 4 years. There are masters’ swim practices around, but they really don’t work very well with my schedule. Which means I have nobody to tell me that I am developing bad, bad habits.

I had hoped that maybe this year, I could work a bit more on my swim, get past the crabby, crampy calves, and return to my old, faster form.

Not so much.

Each time I swam, it seemed that I was slower. I went from cruising 100s at just under 2:00 (not super fast, but good for me) to struggling to keep them under 2:30s.

WTF? Now, I really hated swimming.

Timing is everything, isn’t it? Just as I had begun to resign myself to being a crappy swimmer, our tri club hooked up with a local coach who offered a video-taped swim analysis. I didn’t care how much it cost. I signed up immediately. (Turns out it was a great deal.)

Coach Jeff Fejfar of Mid-South Multi Sport Endurance brought his fancy, schmanzy video contraption to our pool and spent approximately 20 minutes with each person creating video from all different perspectives: above the water, below the water, front, back, and side.

Because he was busy with capturing images on the camera, Jeff didn’t really have the opportunity to do the analysis at that moment. Rather, he took the video, loaded it into some rather sophisticated software, and produced a very detailed “movie” of each person swimming.

I am here to tell you it was very cool and totally awesome.

My DVD arrived about 2 weeks after the taping, and, at first, I was a bit nervous about viewing it. Jeff had already pointed out some initial quirks he had noticed in my stroke. My worry was that he would basically tell me I was a terrible swimmer and should just give up triathlons and do duathlons instead.

I hate duathlons.

Of course, he did nothing of the kind.

The swim analysis was very specific, and the enhanced features of the video made it super easy to understand exactly what he was talking about. He drew lines to show where my forearm was during the pull and where it ought to be. He used slow-motion and stop-action to demonstrate where the issue began to occur. And he used side-by-side comparison with another swimmer so I could clearly see the difference between how I was swimming and how I wanted to be swimming.

Once I got past the “Oh my God. I look terrible in that bathing suit,” and I focused on Jeff’s commentary and the mechanics of my swimming, I so got it.

It made perfect sense.

But wait. It gets better.

My very next swim, I started incorporating the drills Jeff suggested and really trying to visualize my stroke, especially my catch. Turns out, as I reach forward under the water, I am allowing my shoulders to drop slightly, which causes my arm to cross in front of my body, and I lose a lot of forward motion. To compensate, my left arm, in particular, was doing some funky serpentine maneuver that just looked weird under the water. Didn’t matter much, though. The damage was done, and, as a result, I was swimming pretty slowly.

Other things were happening, too. When I breathed, I was turning my head too much (which was a little odd to me because for years that was one thing I did well), so had a bit too much roll on one side. I also wasn’t pointing my fingers to the bottom of the pool, so missing the opportunity for an early vertical catch. And my timing was off. More so on one side than the other, but it was leaving me unbalanced and with not much forward propulsion for a moment each stroke.

It is a lot to think about while swimming. But, on my next swim, a short swim with a few medium-fast 500s, one thing kept reverberating in my head: My shoulders are dropping. Don’t drop my shoulders. Shoulders. Shoulders.

That’s when the light bulb went off.

It came to me in one quick flash: Swim flat(ter).

See. Here’s what I think has happened over the years.

Way back when, I was a decent swimmer. Not stellar, but I made a strong showing at summer swim meets. Many, many years go by, and I start swimming again for triathlons. Only, now, technique has changed quite a bit since the olden days. One of the more significant differences is the body roll.
I actually adapted to this streamlined, side-to-side roll pretty quickly. But, I think, in my reading and studying and overall worrying whether I was getting it right, I over compensated and started to “work” the roll a little too much.

Enter the dropped shoulders.

Which led to funky, inefficient catch and head too high when breathing.

Aha.

So, on this particular day, doing this particular workout, I set off on my first timed 500. Do not roll. Just reach (I think as long as I reach from my hips, I get just enough body roll). Turn my head only enough to breathe (one goggle out of the water only). Time: 10:20. No, that’s not fast, but it is a full 20 seconds faster than the last time. That’s significant.

My second 500 was back to the old, slow version. It’s not so easy to undo bad habits.

A couple of minutes rest, and I was off on the third 500. Focus. Relax. Flat, flat, flat. Hit the stop button. 10:00! That is 40 seconds faster than I had been swimming a mere 2 weeks earlier.
Not me, of course. Ian Thorpe showing how it's done.

Uh-may-zing.

To prove that this was not a fluke and the pool did not magically get shorter, I did the half-mile swim at Heart O’ Dixie on Saturday in 16:44, which is equivalent to 1:53/100 yards.

I was hoping to get out of the water in 20 minutes. I think I achieved my goal.

(Plus my calves didn’t cramp.)

I know that I still have a lot of work to do. My swim workouts need to incorporate drills and paddles (which will help with the fingers pointing down). I need to make sure in my quest to be flatter that I don’t lose the appropriate amount of body roll. I really need to work on getting more comfortable with bi-lateral breathing (I can do it, but 99.9% of the time just breathe to one side) because I think it will help keep me from some of the old bad habits.

I finally have some confidence, though, that I can start to improve my swim at all distances.

Maybe swimming and I can be friends again.

Numbers for the week:
Swim - 2:25:44 (6,430 yards)
Bike - 4:53:56 (89 miles)
Run - 2:25:24 (14.5 miles)
Total - 9:49:40
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