In praise of backstroke

In praise of backstroke

photo credit: Santa Barbara News-Press, 1997.

Is there any good reason for a marathon swimmer to train strokes other than freestyle?

It’s fairly uncontroversial, I think, that training in multiple strokes makes one a better athlete, in a general sense. Each stroke works a unique set of muscles, giving swimmers more “balanced” power in the water. Eddie Reese (multi-time U.S. Olympic coach) is well-known for promoting IM training for all swimmers, including sprinters and single-stroke specialists. Multi-stroke training is also less likely to lead to over-use injuries.

Think of it as in-water cross-training.

What about open-water and marathon swimming? Or triathlon? Is there any point to training other strokes when you’ll never race anything but freestyle? If (like most working adults) you have limited time to train, isn’t that precious time best spent optimizing your freestyle? That certainly has been my approach. Not surprisingly, since I started focusing on open water, my other strokes have suffered.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking this position – especially with regard to backstroke. For one, there are technique benefits.…

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On over-training

On over-training

When I was younger, I swam in a near-constant state of over-training. To improve fitness, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. You also need rest – time for your body to recover and rebuild. Indeed, it’s during recovery that you get stronger. If you don’t rest enough, you don’t improve. If you’re over-trained – like I was for most of high school – increasing training load can ironically lead to decreased fitness.

My training load back then – 50K for an average week – wasn’t unusual for an elite age-group program. The problem was that I was only getting about 6-7 hours of sleep per night during the school year. (My natural sleep duration is 9 hours.) Over the course of a week, that produced a sleep debt that even a 14-hour “coma” on Saturday night couldn’t make up for.

I cut corners on my sleep because, well, I was busy. I don’t necessarily regret this choice… but I was naive about just how much it was affecting my swimming performance. When you’re that age, it easy to think you’re invincible.…

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In praise of the pool

In praise of the pool

Pools sometimes get a bad rap among open water swimmers. Marathon swimmers who live outside the Sun Belt are known to bemoan long winter hours in the “concrete prison.” David Barra memorably quipped to the New York Times:

The free spirits want to be outdoors, and have a relationship with a body of water…. You don’t have a relationship with a chlorine box.

Hearst Castle. San Simeon, CA.

But pools have their uses – even for marathon swimmers. Especially if one of your goals is to get faster. Alex Kostich was a U.S. National Teamer, an All-American distance swimmer at Stanford, and a training partner of Janet Evans in her prime. Now 41, Kostich is possibly the fastest Masters open-water swimmer in the country at the short distances (up to 5K). In the July/August issue of USMS Swimmer, here’s what he had to say about pools:

 

The easiest and most efficient way to get faster in open water is to do quality work in the pool.

Kostich is an open water specialist. He lives in Los Angeles.…

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No shortcuts in marathon swimming

No shortcuts in marathon swimming

As a sort-of counterpoint to my post on Kevin Murphy, I want to highlight this item about Andrew Gemmell, winner of this past weekend’s Crippen SafeSwim 10K. Munatones writes:

He took off time from his collegiate career at the University of Georgia to train with world 10K champion Chip Peterson and coach Jon Urbanchek who has developed 28 Olympians winning 5 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals.

“I have tried to break [Andrew] down,” commented Coach Urbanchek. “But he is tough. He keeps coming back ready for more.”

Notice Coach Urbanchek doesn’t harbor any illusions about minimalist training or competing on “efficiency.” You don’t make it to that level without already being efficient.

What Coach Urbanchek does say is: “I am trying to break him.

Marathon swimming is now an Olympic sport, so objective standards become necessary – in particular, speed. At the elite level, “willpower” is necessary but not sufficient. To be an Olympic marathon swimmer, you have to be fast. And to swim a 10K fast, you have to train your butt off.…

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The Kitchen Sink Set

The Kitchen Sink Set

Here’s a workout I sometimes do if I show up to the pool without a plan. It consists of 10 sets, each totaling, respectively: 1000, 900, 800, 700, 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100. You make up each set as you go along. Usually, I’ll do the first 1000 as warm-up, and tack on 5×100 cool-down at the end, for an even 6,000 yards/meters.

I call it the Kitchen Sink Set. Here’s one version I did this past weekend (SCY):

  • 1000 w/u: 300 swim, 200 kick, 300 pull, 2×100 IM
  • 3×300 pull, moderate
  • 4×200 IM, threshold
  • 14×50: 2x {fly, fly/back, back, back/breast, breast, breast/free, free}
  • 6×100 kick, descend 1-3
  • 100 loosen, 400 Free AFAP (as fast as possible)
  • 4×100: 50 drill / 50 swim, choice of stroke
  • 6×50 fly, smooth
  • 200 IM, broken @ the 50′s, 10 seconds rest – AFAP
  • 4×25 sprint under-water SDK (streamline dolphin kick) on back

I like this workout for a couple reasons. The structure of descending distances keeps you motivated to push through to the end (important when training solo).…

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Don’t fight the water

Don’t fight the water

People sometimes ask me what I think of Total Immersion. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say: While I may quarrel with a few of the details, I think it’s general emphasis on “harmony with the water” is quite valid – and its validity increases with swim distance.

T.I. coaches teach their students to not “fight” the water. Beginning swimmers often fight the water (almost by definition), but advanced swimmers aren’t immune. I often catch myself doing this when I’m fatigued and trying to hold a pace slightly beyond my comfort zone. I’ve paid much more attention to not fighting the water since I started doing marathon swims. You might be able to get away with fighting the water in a 50, or even a 200, but in a marathon this is death. A relaxed, efficient stroke is essential.

On days when I’m not feeling so hot, I try to forget about going fast and just focus on relaxing and swimming efficiently. If I’m working out with a team, this may require slight adjustments to sets.…

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Wet Drylands

Wet Drylands

You don’t need a gym to get a great dryland workout. I’d venture to say that you don’t need more than a medicine ball and a pair of stretch cords.

In some cases, you don’t even need dry land! One of the most effective core exercises I’ve ever done involves taking the medicine ball with you into the pool (preferably not one of those old school leather med balls, though). Push off the wall on your back while holding the ball above your upper chest with both hands, and dolphin kick to the other end of the pool. Try to feel how your core initiates and powers the dolphin kicking motion, all the way through to your feet.

I typically do a set of 50′s, alternating 50 med-ball dolphining / 50 fast fly or back, working the SDK’s. I use a 4-6 pound medicine ball, but you can make it easier or harder by using a lighter/heavier ball or by holding the ball closer/further from your chest.…

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Pre-Tampa training swim

Pre-Tampa training swim

Last weekend I did a rather epic pool workout (as you know if you follow my Twitter feed). An unexpected excuse came up for a quick trip to Santa Barbara, and given my current lack of long course or open water options in Chicago, I decided to use the opportunity for a pre-Tampa training swim. The Rec Center at UCSB has a beautiful outdoor 50m x 25y pool that – conveniently – is open for LCM lap swimming from 9am to 8:30pm on the weekends.

Despite a chilly morning, it turned into a gorgeous day. With cloudless skies, a light breeze, and mid-day highs in the 60s, I actually worried about getting sunburned. When the front door opened at 9am I went straight to the pool to claim my lane – second from the bottom of the picture, with the best viewing angle to the pace clock. Incredibly, nobody joined me in that lane until the last 15 minutes of the swim.

In designing the workout, I aimed for something that would challenge me in terms of distance, time, and pace, but without boring me to death.…

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Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, drooling over the FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor. And after playing with one for a few weeks now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool.

Before you fork over $200, though, consider the question: What does the Swimsense – and swim watches in general (e.g., the Swimovate Poolmate and Oregon Scientific’s watch) – offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?…

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On training logs, and a 2010 retrospective

On training logs, and a 2010 retrospective

Among swimmers, runners, cyclists, weightlifters – really, any athlete in a quantifiable sport – it’s common practice to keep a training log. In high school and college, I kept a log only sporadically – and I really regret it now. I’d love to look back on some of the sets I did in those days.

Since I got back into swimming a year and a half ago, I’ve been much more conscientious about keeping a log, and I think it’s really helped – motivating me to get to practice, and helping me gauge progress. I split my training log between two documents: a text file where I write what I did in each workout (sets, intervals, times, etc.), and a spreadsheet where I log the total distance I swim each day. In two adjacent columns of the spreadsheet, I also keep a 7-day running total (how much I’ve swum in the past week), and an average of the previous four 7-day totals (i.e., 4-week moving average).

I like the 7-day running total for its straightforwardness – “What have I done in the past week?” But I think the 4-week average is actually a better indicator of my fitness level at any given point.…

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