Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Swimming Breakthrough this AM

A dog swimmingImage via WikipediaSome history: when I was twelve, my mom decided that the one way to 'drown proof' me and my sister was to get us on a swim team. My summers, and then my winters, became filled with laps and yards and intervals. Only one problem. I was a terrible swimmer.

I had the technique of a drowning man (hence the title of my blog), coupled with low body fat -- in the 6% range -- and the upper body of a Kenyan marathoner. Eventually, in high school, I started to dread swimming so much I would actually have nightmares about going to practice. I dropped out to spare myself any more sleepless nights, and proceeded to apply any lung capacity I had built up swimming to inhaling bong hits, which eventually led to more sleepless nights, but that's another story.

Fast forward to now, and I'm quickly closing in on 40. I've been an incredibly average bike racer, run some 1/2 marathons, and while my genetics don't point to world class anything, I do actually enjoy running and biking. So triathlons would seem like a natural next step, especially since soccer is becoming a beer and ibuprofen aided affair, and climbing takes too much time away from the kids right now.

But the thought of swimming, and the indelible imprints of suffering through thousands of yards very slowly and painfully, kept me focused on other things. Until now. I decided to actually take the time to learn how to swim, via Total Immersion. Another positive factor: my body fat has doubled, so I'm not quite the sinker I used to be.

Total Immersion teaches you how to swim better via a series of progressive drills. These drills start out very basic, i.e. you are floating on your back and kicking. They build up from there, but the keys are
  • swimming "downhill" by keeping your head down instead of looking forward.
  • swimming on your side, and pivoting from side to side.
  • driving that pivot from your core
  • pushing your chest down into the water because the air in your lungs will help you float.
  • barely kicking
This was completely counter to the way I swam, which was with my head looking forward, using my arms to drag myself through the water until my shoulders hurt, kicking spasmodically to try and float as effortlessly as the much better swimmers around me.

After a month of working on these drills, I was swimming with much less effort than I ever had before, but I still felt that something was missing. I still felt that I was expending a lot of energy, that it was hard to breathe, and that I was struggling to swim downhill.

After reading and re-reading the drills section of the Total Immersion book, I decided to try using FistGloves. They are what they sound like: rubber gloves that force your hands closed. What that does is dramatically reduce the amount of surface area that you have to work with. The idea is that by reducing your hand area, you will be forced to concentrate on balance as well as stroke.

Again, this is counter to what I had been taught. To work on stroke, our coaches used to give us paddles and pull buoys. The paddles increased the surface area during the pull, increasing the workload on the shoulders. The buoys were used to let us concentrate on pulling. The result was supposed to be increased strength that resulted in increased speed, but I always felt fast until I took the paddles off, and then I felt slow. And heavy, especially since I had to put the buoy away.

This morning was my first go with the FistGloves. I put them on, then pushed off of the wall. I immediately slowed to a snails pace. The bottom of the pool didn't glide by at all, and I felt completely out of balance. I finished the first 25 yards and had to rest.

I pushed off again and adjusted my balance, keeping my head down, focusing on driving from my hips (there was no other way to generate force). To breathe, I couldn't lift my head because I couldn't generate enough force with my arms. I had to roll to the side -- the way that I was supposed to. I had to pick my elbows up high, and drive my fist into the water by my goggles, and continue driving forward with that fist as I pivoted through to float on my side -- again, just like the Total Immersion drills.

Most importantly, I could feel massive changes in the amount of water I was pushing back with my forearms, just by keeping my elbows raised. I noticed -- for the first time ever -- that I dropped my leading elbow when breathing, and that my corresponding 'push' on the water completely disappeared. Removing my hands from the equation made any and all deficiencies completely stand out.

Maybe 300 yards later, I almost felt like I was moving normally. So I took the gloves off and pushed off. WOW. It was like someone had strapped dinner plates on my hands. I was gliding. Effortlessly. Flip turns, which I normally loathe because they require me to hold my breath, were fun because I was flying into the wall. Bilateral breathing, which used to destroy my form, became easy once I rolled to my side instead of of lifting my head. I concentrated on keeping my elbows high both in and out of the water, and extending my leading hand out for as long as I could.

This is the biggest breakthrough I've had swimming, ever. It was definitely one of those flow experiences. I'm having fun, in the pool, which 25 years ago was more of a source of torture than anything else. Now I'm actually excited to do a triathlon because I'll enjoy all 3 legs. I can't wait to get back in the pool!

1 comment: