Progress versus Success

I’ve been working the Total Immersion swimming program for over a month now, and have completed the first six drill sets.  Lesson six took me more sessions than any other, primarily because it incorporates so many components of the other sessions into a movement that represents a new “whole stroke.”  The four remaining sessions are refinement of other specific pieces of whole stroke.

I’m not entirely sure what I thought a new swim stroke would feel like.  I suppose that somewhere in my mind I believed there would be one of those rare “ahah” moments when the clouds part, the angels sing, and everything just clicks.  At this point I’d have to say I’m much more ready to declare progress than success.

I’ve logged two “whole stroke” sessions now, and I can definitely see improvement.  I’m limiting the length of my sets to 25-50 yards for the time being.  At those short lengths, I’ve seen equivalent 100 yard pace decrease from a 2:30 – 2:40 average to 2:00 to 2:05.  At 25 yard reps, I’ve seen times as low as 1:55 per 100 (according to my Garmin).  That’s definitely good progress.  I do feel my stroke start to break down as I get to the end of a 50 yard set, though, reverting to the former “beat the water into submission” approach before TI.  That’s always a risk of pushing too hard, too fast.

So, for the time being, I’ll stick with shorter repeats and focus on ingraining the new skills into muscle memory.  Since I don’t have any races coming up that involve a swim leg, there’s really no hurry.   One of the most common experiences from my military career revolved around the concept that there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.  I definitely don’t want to start over from scratch again, so I’ll take my time.  We had another saying as well… slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.  I like that one better.

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Partial Immersion

This was week three of my “Total Immersion” swimming experiment.  Given the sporadic pool time over the past week or so, I feel awkward calling it Total Immersion; more like Partial Immersion.  Total, partial, whatever.  Here’s the report so far.

I’ve made it through lesson 4 of 10.  The lessons break swimming down into part tasks so you can master each piece before moving on to the next.  The program gradually starts putting the pieces back together before you even realize it, employing what the founder refers to as “Muscle Amnesia.”  Many athletes will be familiar with the term “Muscle Memory”, meaning your muscles start to remember the movement they are supposed to make.  Unfortunately, they’ve often learned bad habits.  TI breaks the swim stroke into parts so small that your muscles don’t recognize that you’re relearning how to swim, so you don’t revert to bad habits.

As corny as it may sound, I’ve seen over the past couple of days that it actually works.  Moves that I’ve struggled with in “whole stroke” swimming are actually easier when accomplished as a bit task, and remain easy when put back together with the other parts; as long as you don’t accidentally recognize what you’re really doing and return to your crummy habits.

I finished lesson 4 today (for the second time).  This is a “pivotal” lesson, in many ways.  According to founder Terry Laughlin, most swimmers try to create more speed by generating power with their arms or through a stronger kick.  TI teaches that power comes from the rotation of the core as a swimmer drives the arms forward in whole stroke.  The change in rhythm required to master this skill took me two full pool sessions to achieve.  Master may be too strong a word, but I did feel like I had it down by the end of the second session.  I’m forcing myself not to try any whole stroke swimming until I’ve made it through the entire 10 lesson program, but I’m really tempted to give it a shot to see if there’s any improvement.  Patience is a virtue, but I want it now!

I’m hoping this week will provide for more consistent pool time.  Lesson 5 introduces a new approach to breathing which should be really interesting.  If I can keep moving through two full lessons a week, I should be back to whole stroke swimming by the end of September.  I’ll keep you posted.

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The Long and Short of It

Today’s workout was my “Sunday Long Run,” although shorter than normal.  This is a “recovery” week, meaning I back off of both distance and intensity in all activities to allow some extended recovery time.  Even when I’m not actively training for an event, I start to look forward to recovery weeks.  They represent mini vacations in what can become a training grind, so I want to enjoy them when they happen.

My normal long run mileage is up to 12 miles each Sunday, gradually building in preparation for the Soaring Wings Half Marathon at the end of October.  There are a number of different philosophies about how long one’s longest run should be prior to a distance race.  Some advocate running the entire distance at least once, others say getting to 2/3 or 3/4 the distance in practice is good enough… adrenaline will carry you through the rest of the way.  Perhaps it’s insecurity, the need to over-engineer things, or my approach to triathlon, but for distances up to a half marathon, I always like to make my longest training run longer than the race itself by a couple of miles.  In triathlon, there’s another leg coming after the first two, and the run usually finishes just as the tank reads empty.  I always like to think I’ve got just a little bit extra left in the tank when I start the run.  That way, if the course is harder than expected or I need to pass someone right at the end, I’ve got something left.

Today was a great example of that principle in practice.  While 7 miles should have been relatively easy when my past runs were 10, 11, and 12, this morning was brutal.  It was already 80+ degrees at 7:30 when I hit the road, with 95% humidity.  I don’t carry a water bottle for anything less than 10 miles, so I intentionally took things a little more slowly to “conserve sweat.”  While I’m sure it helped, there was no conserving sweat after the first mile.  I normally pour the remains of my water bottle over my head as I approach the last water fountain along the river trail (assuming the fountains are working), which means I finish the run drenched.  No water bottle today, but I was as drenched as if I’d doused myself anyway.  That’s the tough thing about training for distance events in Arkansas… spring races mean training through sleet and ice in the winter, while fall races mean doing your long runs in the brutal heat of the summer.  Better than some places, worse than others.

So I’m looking forward to a few easier workouts this week, and trying to keep some rhythm despite a hectic schedule at work.  That, plus the continued Total Immersion Swimming practice.  The next few lessons reintroduce breathing.  Breathing is good.  Always.

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Total Immersion – Weekly Recap

In my quest for a better swimming stroke, I hit the pool five days in a row this week.  I feel like I came about as close to “mastering” lesson one of the Total Immersion “Self-Coached Workouts” as I can without a separate set of eyes to tell me how close I’m coming to textbook performance, and moved on to lesson two.  Lesson one took me four days to get a solid feel for, but I think lesson two will go more quickly.

A little orientation; the TI Self-Coached Workouts consists of 10 lessons.  Each lesson is made up of 4-6 “drills”, each of which has multiple steps to master.  The lessons break the entire swim stroke down into the most basic elements, then recombine the elements once you’ve mastered them.  Think of Daniel-San in “Karate Kid”… wax on, wax off, paint fence; get it?

Perhaps the most challenging aspect for me is not rushing back into “whole stroke” before I’m prepared.  I tried a length or two of the pool after the third day of lesson one, and found I was actually slower.  Not really surprising, considering I’m “unlearning” all the compensating mechanisms I’ve developed over the past three years.  Each lesson ends with only a few “whole stroke” repeats to introduce how relaxed swimming should feel, but not enough to allow the new habits to break down into old patterns.

Lesson one was all about balance.  Lesson two introduces rotation during the stroke sequence, followed by extending each arm in turn for the “catch”.  I thought I had pretty good extension during my stroke, but when I performed the reach as an isolated move, I could feel the stretch in my side.  Interesting feeling.  It was enough of a stretch that my sides were sore by the time the workout was done.  I can see why this would make a difference once I learn to do it right.

One unintended side effect of spending 5 days in a row in the pool is that my hair, already a little stiff from all the gray somebody snuck in, is about the consistency of dried straw.  My skin has also taken on that alluring odor of chlorine that won’t seem to go away no matter how much soap I use.  Ah, the joys of fitness.

While it took me four days to get through lesson one, I was able to accomplish all the drills in lesson two on the first day I tried it.  I can’t say I mastered them, but I did make it through all four.  I could still feel the balance learned in lesson one, so that seems positive.  I’m taking a day off today, but will hit the pool again tomorrow to pick up where I left off.  My schedule looks a bit hectic this week, so I may not be able to achieve the consistency I did last week.

The proof will come once I get to put everything back together, but I feel good about the program so far.  Having a focus has made me look forward to getting into the pool.  I’m pretty sure I look a bit silly to anyone else in the pool, pushing my way up and down the lane for an hour or so without actually swimming.  Come to think of it, I probably don’t look much more silly than when I’m actually swimming…

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Total Immersion – Day 2

I normally don’t swim two days in a row, but I’m determined to master the drills associated with the Total Immersion method.  To that end, I hit the pool again today to reinforce what I hope I learned yesterday.  At least today I made it all the way through the five drills in lesson one.

The first few drills deal primarily with finding balance in the water, and I was surprised to not feel my legs sinking, even without kicking.  I often fight the sensation of sinking legs, which can lead to much thrashing in a vain attempt to stay afloat.  Balance is a key element in the TI method, and the drills are as much about mental connection as mechanics.  I develop training material for a living, and one of the most successful methods I’ve found to teaching anything is to break it down into the simplest components, teach them one at a time, and then combine the parts… part task training.  TI follows this approach, which seemed nearly impossible to do in the water.  How can you focus only on kicking and not worry about breathing?  By practicing only in short segments so you don’t need to breath or do anything else.  That allows you to focus on how the action feels when you do it right.  As soon as you feel it start to fall apart, or you get distracted, you stop for a breath and start again.  Surprisingly, it works well.

As I said, I made it through all five drills that comprise the first lesson… a marked improvement over yesterday.  The balance drills went well, and the flutter drills were no problem.  I’ll definitely by repeating the “whole stroke” drills tomorrow, though.  As soon as I started incorporating the whole stroke, I could feel myself twist out of alignment.  Thrashing.  The amazing part, though, is that I could feel it.  The first few drills were so effective at helping me feel what balance should feel like that I recognized it as soon as I lost it.  That was a victory in itself.

I’m always a bit leery of the “miracle cure” for anything, but the difference in feel with this focus on balance and streamlining is pretty dramatic.  I’ll try to get into the pool each day this week and see if I can master lesson one.  The literature says expect to spend at least 2 hours in the pool on every one of the 10 lessons.  My pool sessions tend to be about 30-40 minutes over lunch, so each lesson will be a 3-4 day experience.  That’s okay, I’m in no hurry.  Right is better than fast.  And better is always better.

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You Know The Drill

I taught myself to swim a few years ago in preparation for my first triathlon.  I’d tried, and failed, to learn a number of times throughout my life.  Even though I’d decided long ago that I just “couldn’t” swim, the challenge of an impending triathlon renewed my motivation.  For anyone who read my writing during those early days, the stumbling and fumbling must have been pretty amusing.  I did eventually learn well enough to complete the triathlon, and continued to swim, albeit pretty badly.

I took a few months off from the pool starting last fall, and have recently returned.  While I have no real reason to strive for great improvement in the pool, there is something about knowing that I could do better.  To that end, I’ve decided to give my “Total Immersion” swimming program another try.  I bought the DVDs quite a while ago, but never really felt like I could afford the time needed to rebuild what I’d already learned.  Since I’m not really training for anything with a swim portion right now, this seemed as good a time as any.  So, I’ve devoted my next few weeks to nothing but the Total Immersion drills and exercises to see how much improvement I can generate with a concentrated effort.

I’ve had mixed results with “self-coaching” efforts in the past, so I was a little hesitant to try a highly technical approach to something as complex as swimming without any live expert assistance.  I watched the first of ten lessons a few times through before hitting the pool today, and felt well-prepared.  I was/am determined not to rush through the lessons… I’m going to take my time with each exercise to get the most benefit.  This is a very important aspect to the “TI” program, as it’s based on developing a feel for the right balance in the water to “let speed come to you.”

While I didn’t make it all the way through the first lesson in the pool today, I did see some progress.  The first exercise involves streamlining your body in the pool to glide as far as possible without using arms or legs for propulsion.  My first few attempts took 3.5 to 4 tries to make the length of the pool.  By the end of the session I was gliding across in 2.5 to 3.  The lesson gradually adds arm strokes and kicking separately, building on the streamlined position from the first exercise.  What amazed my was that I actually traveled less distance while kicking and using my arms than while simply gliding.  Guess there’s some inefficiency there, eh?

If it takes as long to finish the other lessons as it will the first one, I’ll be done by Christmas  While that’s a bit disheartening, it’s not like I’ve got a real deadline.  So the choice is actually pretty simple; I can focus on the drills for a few months and be a better swimmer by Christmas, or keep doing what I’ve been doing and be as clunky in the water as I am now.  Better seems better.

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Fun Flies

“Fun flies when you’re doing time.” Author Unknown

The past week was the type you survive more than anything else, so I can truly say I’m glad it’s over.  Training was mostly successful, with only a couple of workouts lost to weather and random chaos.  While I don’t mind running in the rain, I won’t run or ride in thunderstorms.  Rain and lightening cost me a long ride on Saturday, which I was able to do on Sunday instead.  I’d already planned to shift my long run from Sunday morning to later in the week due to travel commitments, so the scheduling worked out.

I decided last week to put some more structure to my swim training.  I swim on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and my swim sessions have historically just been lots of laps to build endurance.  As I’m returning to swimming, I’m hoping to undo some bad habits and learn some better technique.  Mondays will be dedicated mostly to drills.  Mondays are recovery days for me after a long ride on Saturday and a long run on Sunday, so a shorter swim focused on technique makes sense.  Wednesdays are speed work, with lots of 25 and 50 yard intervals.  Fridays are supposed to be the endurance day, with longer sets and more total mileage.

Last week’s swimming stuck to that plan, but the Friday workout was a bit of a bust.  The day had been #5 in a week full of Mondays, and I just couldn’t get any kind of rhythm.  I felt like I was thrashing through the water in the way I had when I first learned to swim.  If you train very often, a clunky workout is inevitable.  My basic rule is to push through the funk for at least the first third and see how it goes.  Most of the time, things will settle down and I can finish the run, swim, or ride.  Friday’s swim just never got any better.  Finally, at about the half way point, I decided all I was doing was reinforcing bad habits and getting frustrated.  Instead of simply quitting, I fell back to some basic Total Immersion drills.  I did a few lengths of the “Superman glide”, pushing off the bottom of the pool to see how far you can glide without kicking or pulling.  While it wasn’t as satisfying as finishing the entire workout, it did help clear the sense of frustration with the preceding work (mostly).

This is a travel week, with lots of customer meetings.  That means my training will be at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.  I’ve found a pool not far from the hotel, so I hope to salvage a couple of workouts there.  I won’t have a bike with me, so I’ll do all of my running early in the week and finish the rides when I get home.  Just call me Gumby… the epitome of flexibility.

Here’s to a better week than the last.

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