Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Swimming Training is Important in Tri

My vow for 2012 (or one of them) was to blog more consistently.

You'd think I'd learn after 41.5 years on this planet that making any kind of resolution, especially one dictated on January 1, will result in FAIL. Had I not made that commitment I likely would have posted every day for the last month.


I wanna write about swimming.
And triathlon.
And how so many triathletes create reasons why blowing off swim training in favor of other training, or even in favor of no training, makes sense.

I, for one, have had enough of this view. Enough! Triathlon consists of three athletic disciplines, and one of them is swimming. If you don't like to swim, or you don't want to train the swim, or even if you don't have the time to swim because you need to spend every ounce of your limited free time on the bike and run, become a duathlete and shut the fuck up.

What follows is my diatribe against the powers that believe swim training is expendable. My arguments are based in logic, not research, so are easily attack-able. Still, I'm right. Just saying.

It might be true that no one ever won a triathlon by crushing the swim portion of a triathlon (although I think I could argue that, in fact, some races HAVE been won on the swim--(namely by Angela Bancroft, ranked number 4 in her AG this year by USAT, btw... ). It is also true, however, that races have been lost on the swim. (I lost a sprint just last year because an ITU girl out-swam me, for example. Although I posted faster times than she did on the bike and run, I was never able to catch her after my mediocre swim and her devastatingly fast one.) So to those of you who are blowing off the swim in your training, I say get your scrawny little running and biking heinies over to the pool, or you will be one of those losers. I promise.

Here are the arguments against swimming:

Reason #1:
You swim for like an hour--maybe 1.5 hours in a long course tri.
You bike for like 5+ hours.
You run for like 3+ hours.
Hence, you should spend far less time training the swim (or no time, according to some) than the bike and the run.

Reason #2:
If you are a 1:15 or faster swimmer for IM, you probably won't get much faster even if you train the swim very hard and consistently. (I'm not sure where this reasoning originated, but it seems quite popular...)The possible time gain on IM day is not worth the training hours put in to achieve that time gain.

Reason #3:
Swimming is all technique. You don't need fitness to swim fast--you just need "to be efficient in the water." Therefore, you should spend limited time in the pool, and when you are there, you should only work on your technique.

There are probably other stated reasons to blow off swim training. However, I think these are the most common arguments triathletes use to justify it.

Here's why the aforementioned reasons are total bullshit:

1. Okay, this one isn't total bullshit. You should spend more time training the bike and run (especially the bike) than the swim. Most long course triathletes I know (who believe in swimming) swim between 3-5 hours a week, and usually not longer than that.  Most of these same triathletes spend considerably more than 3-5 hours each week on the bike and run, however. That said, if you are racing long course and only logging about 3000-4000 yards of slog each week, or worse, somehow justifying not swimming at all, you can be quite sure your swim will suck come race day.

Long course racing is about persevering over fatigue. The training we do serves to condition both our bodies and minds to deal with the exhaustion of going and going and going.... The goal is to make it to each leg of the race still completely intact and ready to meet the demands of the remaining part of the race. The swim only lasts between 1-2 hours for nearly all long course athletes, but the amount of energy you expend on the swim directly affects the energy you have in reserve for the bike and run. Of course it does! If you swim minimally in training you go into the swim portion of the race both physically and mentally under-prepared to swim hard for an hour +.  You exit the water battered, bruised, exhausted and with a shit swim time to boot. Conversely, if you spend even just 3 hours a week training the swim year round, you can be assured that you will have the confidence and the stamina to insure your swim is of little consequence in terms of fatigue expenditure.  You want to come out of the water feeling like your swim was just a blip--a little warm up to the rest of the day. If you don't train the swim then that is NOT how you will experience the swim on race day. Don't feed me bullshit about how this is not true... I don't care who you are or what kind of a swimmer you are. If you don't do any work on your swim, the swim will kick your ass, and you will prematurely exhaust yourself before 8 am on race day.

What I think is funny is that you never hear the argument that you should bike and run in favor of the swim from  swimmers turned triathletes. Swimmers know that to swim even slightly fast you need to spend TONS of time in the water.

Let's compare Michael Phelps and Kara Goucher in terms of training time.
Phelps, according to most sources, swims an average of 8 miles a day (13,200 yards), 50 miles a week (about 80,000) yards and spend more than 30 hours a week training. Phelps swims many events, but his longest event is usually the 400 meter IM. The 400 meter IM--for Phelps--lasts just over FOUR MINUTES. Yet he trains 30 hours a week. Of course, he is also expected to swim many events, all out, in any given meet. That requires a stamina that requires extensive training for sure.

Now let's take Goucher. From what I could find, Goucher runs between 110-120 miles per week for a total of 11-13 hours of run time. She also does Pilates and strength work, which brings her weekly training up to, at most, 18-20 hours per week. Yet Goucher's longest event? 2 hours and 25 minutes. So Goucher trains at least 33% fewer hours per week on her discipline than Phelps does on his, but she spends 36 TIMES more time running during her key event than Phelps does competing in his. Don't you find that interesting? And what do you think it says about volume needed to swim well versus volume need to run well??

And, of course, running is much harder on the body than swimming. She can't spend as much time logging miles as Phelps can/does logging meters.
But wait, did you just read that?
Could it be that perhaps we should be spending MORE TIME IN the pool building sport specific aerobic and upper body strength, b/c we simply can't spend that much time on the run without risking injury? And is it also possible that swim training requires a much higher ratio of training to racing time in order to achieve at a high level than running does? Methinks... perhaps....

Okay, onto negating reason #2.
I'm not sure who decided that 1:15 was the magic number, but some folks seem to believe that if you can swim an open water 2.4 mile swim in 1:15 or faster, you won't make any more significant gains in terms of swim speed unless you log a lot more time. That time, the time it would take to make you faster than 1:15, would be better spent training the bike or the run. The reasoning, it seems, is that if you don't spend extra time swimming you can MAINTAIN that 1:15. You then put that extra time toward the bike and run, resulting in a gain of speed in those two disciplines.

Here's the problem. You can't just maintain a 1:15 when you don't swim enough. Let me explain. If you finish in 1:15, I'm sorry, you are not a "swimmer." You may have swam when you were a kid on a rec team, or you may have worked steadily to improve a swim you learned as an adult. But if you swam competitively through high school, and definitely if you swam through college, you can complete an IM swim in much, much faster than 1:15.   It is possible that a swimmer with a competitive background who can swim sub one hour with solid swim training might be able to get away with limited swim training and complete an IM swim in 1:05 or so. (This does not take into consideration the amount of fatigue--fatigue that would affect the bike and run--accrued in doing so, of course.) However, an adult who does not have a competitive background in swimming who has improved her/his swim to a 1:15 per sheer work and will, will bomb the IM swim without continuous proper swim training. This is because they do not have that competitive background (read experience) in the sport, and hence have no foundation from which to draw. Without consistent training to maintain it, that 1:15 devolves quickly into a 1:25--or a 1:35-- or slower. And last I checked there were very few athletes on the podium with swims that slow... even if their bikes and runs did rock the house.

Finally, reason #3.
If you are a part of a masters group that has a coach who WATCHES you swim day in and out, then you might make improvements in your swim technique. You also might make improvements if you take the time to study swim videos online and bring that visual knowledge to your training, and try to implement it. However, I can pretty much guarantee that if you do drills to improve your technique--alone--with no one watching to critique you--you are wasting your time. People who swim well have worked for years on both their fitness AND their technique, but they have done so with the help of a coach, or a group, or careful study. If you don't have a coach or you aren't studying online videos of excellent swimmers, your technique will not improve. Developing better swim technique requires time--and if you are blowing off swimming in favor of the bike and run, well obviously you are not doing that, right? That said, you can have excellent technique but still be slow if you don't develop any swim fitness. Granted, you won't be as slow as the person who has no technique at all, even if said person swims daily, but still, like ANY sport you need swim fitness (not bike or run fitness) to SWIM well.

I think what bothers me most about the swim less movement is that grounded within it is the idea that there might be a short cut to becoming a competitive IMer.
There's not.
You know it. I know it. 
Swimming builds your upper body strength, it develops aerobic fitness without stressing joints, and most importantly, it is a PART of triathlon and triathlon training. If you're looking to try to get the most bang for your buck in terms of training time, don't fall prey to the idea that a half hour more spent on the bike each week will translate into a better race time than a half hour that SHOULD be spent on the swim. It won't.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I'm Onto You...

 I figured it out. You husbands are all so busted, because with this blog post I am exposing you! All of you!

My husband has a saying: “Nothing gets done until after the THIRD trip to Home Depot.”  It reflects his irritation at the seemingly inevitable pattern of going to Home Depot to get supplies for his project, coming home and realizing he needs to go back for something else, returning home again and realizing he needs ONE MORE CRITICAL nut/bolt/tool to finish the job.  This same kind of hassle has probably happened to you, whether it is Home Depot, the grocery store or some other place, so I’m sure you get it.  His saying conveys the annoyance and a certain fatalism about the whole pattern, perhaps along with a tiny little tinge of “Look how much hassle I go through on your behalf.”  Fair enough.  I sure do appreciate everything he does around here and I certainly appreciate the hassle of those lengthy, repeated trips and all that comes of that hard work.  These are whole afternoons he is giving up, after all.

Except that it’s BS.  You know it.  I know it.  He knows it.  

He’s escaping.  He’s hiding.  He’s taking off to avoid dealing with the kids and leaving me to endure the chaos.  Those stands he built for the washer and dryer?  Avoidance.  The new sink he plumbed in the basement (for the laundry)?  Escapism.  What about the spectacular shed he built from scratch in the backyard?  Nice, but 2 years and 97 Home Depot trips later, he has far fewer gray hairs than I do

As I count and pluck those gray hairs in the bathroom, I have reflected deeply on the suspicious signals. Fact: Sometimes he is gone for hours. Can you really spend hours in Home Depot? What do you do, wander the aisles? Fact: Sometimes he comes home empty-handed, muttering about how he couldn't find exactly what he needed. Fact: Sometimes he comes home with exactly what he needs for a project... as if, perhaps, to quell my suspicion that something is indeed seriously awry with this Home Depot thing.

And so, like the dutiful and suspicious wife I am, I did my research and I am now officially ready to blow the cover on this Home Depot ruse. That's right! I've got your number!
Through a combination of private investigation, GPS, and an active imagination, I’ve figured it out.  There is a place at Home Depot where only men are allowed.  You (my sisters) and I have never been.  Entrance can only be gained if you are married and have a Y chromosome.  He goes there, I know he does, and your significant other probably does too.  Yes, he does.  Stop crying and face the truth.

Perhaps you’ve gone to Home Depot with your spouse and perhaps you’ve lost track of him there for a few minutes.  Did you see him duck into the closet and shelving aisle?  Like he gives a S—T about home organization!  He walks 10 paces, turns a hard left, and steps into one of those crappy, particleboard and laminate wardrobes he tried to give you for your birthday a few years back.  And he closes the door behind him.  And time stops.

Once inside the wardrobe he takes a few steps through darkness and…voila—it’s ClubHD!  Women.  Beer.  Football games.  About a thousand big screen TVs with a live picture-in-picture in the lower corner showing you struggling at home with the kids.  (Or ignoring them and writing a blog post.) The men are all laughing.  This is not Narnia, girls.  Or, if it is, there are about a hundred White Witches and they’re not wearing anything that would get them through an eternal winter. 

There are three rooms in ClubHD: The Happy Beginnings Room, The Happy Middles Room, and the Happy Endings Room.  Massage and manscaping; food, beer, and TV; and more “massage”.  All while being attended by a bunch of young chippies who are all smarter, funnier and have bigger racks than you.  

Starting to make sense, isn’t it? Starting to come together, huh? Yes, yes it is. 

In the corner of the first room a guy sits on a commode, taking a dump while some chick massages his back and shoulders. As if she weren't even there, he narrates his dump to a bunch of guys who are also taking dumps and getting back rubs.  For HOURS. They're laughing, he's laughing. Even the chippies are laughing. Good times. At home, my daughter throws a 100 gigawatt tantrum because I won't let her wear a tshirt outside in 20-degree weather. 

In the second room, the men rest. And dine. And drink and watch TV and laugh. About the dumps they took. Food, fun and friends!  Spectacular memories, to be shared amongst each other for a lifetime!  Alas, it, too, is taxing eventually and after another several hours they migrate to the third room, presumably to recover from their efforts in the first and second rooms. 

Listen, if you think I sound bitter about it you’re missing the point.  I know a thing or two about escapism and avoidance.  We all need a little.  Granted, my escape is usually to the basement to do more laundry.  Sniff.  Or to the garden to pull more weeds so our house looks presentable.  Sniff, sniff.  Or for a run.  Or a swim.  Or a bike.  Or all three.  But, still, you’d think in that third room they could at least take one of Home Depot’s vaunted How-To-Do-It-At-Home seminars on….oh, forget it!  I just want him to get home at be with the kids.  So I can go out for my 6-hour bike ride.  Now.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Few Book Reviews--!

I have read two books in the last week  that I want to write about: The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson and The Athletes' Guide to Recovery by Sage Rountree. I found both books helpful. I also found both books somewhat frustrating--Sisson because of his often righteous tone and also his lack of footnotes, which would've helped me buy into his theories just a tad more than I felt willing to do, and Rountree's simply because she failed to tell me anything I didn't already know (which, I realize, is not a fault, but I still was frustrated by it).  Still, I enjoyed reading both books--and more importantly I came away newly committed to eating better and recovering better--neither currently a strength for me.

Mark Sisson is a former endurance runner who--bottom line--had an epiphany and changed his life. At one point  in his life he logged 100+ mile weeks and was frequently injured, though at this time he was also quite successful as a professional runner. Then he stopped that crazy shit and reinvented himself as a health guru--and then later as a paleo health guru.

His book mostly focuses on eating. He writes convincingly about the evils of refined carbs--or really any carbs other than fruit and vegetables. He emphasizes that excess insulin surges (brought on by carb intake) are the true culprit behind heart disease, obesity and general poor health. He encourages readers to eat what our hunter gatherer ancestors ate: nuts, seeds, local fruits and vegetables (organic) and free-range, organic meats, fish and eggs. One should strictly limit alcohol, dairy, breads etc and should eliminate entirely refined carbohydrates. Yep. Heard it before, and I do buy into it, even though I have been unsuccessful in my bid to eliminate refined carbs, and definitely have failed to eliminate bread, which I use as a vehicle for my nut butter addiction.

One thing that Sisson's book made me reflect upon, though he doesn't get into it at all, is the intake of gels, sport drink and other packaged products I use for fuel during training and racing. I'm a pragmatist to some extent, and I see the use of these types of fuels as smart and practical because they work. When working out one needs intake of easily absorbed sugars, sodium and other electrolytes, and certainly gels, shots and sports drink supply these things well. But when you train as much as most of us reading this blog do, you start to ponder the fact that these packaged sugar/electrolyte/synthetic "foods" have become a staple of your daily eating. I work out between 1-3.5 hours a day currently, and as I approach race season some of those days become 6-7 hour workout days. This means I am taking in sports drink and gels at such a fast rate that I must order the shit in bulk.

Case in point--my shelves dedicated to fueling:

Granted, I share these shelves with my also training spouse (eg--I am not a fan of chocolate GU or Accelerade) but still, you know you consume a lot a lot a lot of packaged energy products when you needs shelves devoted to them...

And the question is--can I, and do I need to, find alternatives to these products given I train year round and hence consume them daily? I think the answer is yes. I have been experimenting with Lara Bars for some time (just pressed fruit and nuts) and they work quite well--still high in carbs, but the carbs are from the sugar in real fruit. I also have been drinking coconut water (usually chocolate, Zicco). This is also good, but heavier, and not as quick acting as a simple sport drink. I'm interested in your thoughts on this. Comment if you have ideas or things that have worked for you. I know that gels/shots and sport drink work the best. They are designed to. I'm just worried about my long term health in consuming them in such huge quantity.

Sisson also talks about sleep, and this was another helpful chapter. We all know we need more sleep--especially parents,who seem to get, well, none--.  When you have to get to work or get the kids to school by 8:00 am your workouts need to start at the latest by 6 am--and often much earlier. If you want some time with your spouse or with your snugly computer after you get the kids to bed, then you usually get to bed too late for such an early rising. And, Sisson points out,  the alarm that  rudely awakens you out of a sound and needed slumber causes a daily cortisol spike that is also gravely unhealthy. Of course, I don't have an answer of how to rectify this. I need and want to train... I have kids... I work...

But Sisson does have an answer. Can the excessive working out.

The dude clearly has a bone to pick with endurance training and racing. He describes endurance triathletes on more than one occasion as emaciated, drawn, unhealthy,and racing to the grave.
I must admit I take his diatribe against endurance athletes as bitter resentment because the lifestyle did not, apparently, work for him. He believes endurance racing causes early aging and poor health, but he has little data to support this theory. It is true that often endurance triathletes and runners look older (in their faces) than others their age, but this is often, I believe, because of constant sun exposure throughout their lives, and also because when you are thinner, you show your age (in your face) in a way you don't when you are plump. But does this mean that endurance athletes are physically less healthy and aging more quickly than others their age? No, I doubt it very seriously, and he does not have the data to support his assertion that this is the case, either. Further, I believe endurance athletes, aside from in their faces, belie their years when you look at their lean, strong, youthful-looking bodies. What is perhaps most shocking is when you are biking behind someone in a race, and she looks so young and fit, and then you pull alongside her, see her face, and realize she is likely in her 50s or 60s. The machine that is the body has been preserved--and that is amazing, and certainly not worthy of Sisson's disdain and disapproval.

His method of getting beautifully fit is to constantly be on the move like our hunter gatherer ancestors. You shouldn't work hard... just move. And sometimes sprint, and  lift heavy stuff for only 10 minutes at a time a few times a week. I don't disagree with this. Moving is certainly a far better alternative than not moving. Still, I am pissed that he is so dismissive of  the "ignorant" masses who have bought into the idea that working out above 80% of your max hr is wise or useful in maintaining health and fitness.  Sisson will have to find (any) research(aside from his own personal experience) to support this argument before I buy into it, that is for sure.

Okay. Onward to Rountree's book! I like her tone, I like her message, I like the structure of her book and her use of actual research to support her thoughts. However, I experienced the book as simply a compilation of known material,which isn't bad--it just wasn't particularly illuminating. I had hoped to learn something new--or to have the material synthesized in a way that I would come away with something new. But I did not. This likely has more to do with the fact that I am an endurance coach, and hence constantly reading about important aspects of training, like recovery, than it has to do with the success of her text.

I was reminded, however, that recovery is a key aspect of training. I think most of us still subscribe to the more is better and no pain no gain philosophies. And you know... more IS better and there really IS no gain without some pain. It's just that sometimes more becomes too much, and pain, especially without ample recovery, can be destructive. Further, we are aging. Most of us reading this are not in our late teens and early twenties any longer. The simple truth is that as we age we need more recovery, and denial of this fact leaves us injured, burnt out, and with declining race performances.

I need this message more than anyone. Doing more and making it hurt are strategies I use to make me feel confident that I am going to be better than YOU. So in the end, reading, and re-reading a text like Rountree's is valuable. I need to be reminded.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ahh... The New Year

Racing Highlights of 2011 (with a few other 2011 LIFE highlights mixed in):

January: After some whining and begging, Kurt agreed to coach me. I think he figured I would likely never leave him alone in my quest for his advice anyway, so I might as well pay him for it.

February. Andy, me and the kiddos went to Orlando with my parents and visited the PARKS! We spent oodles of money and waited in really really really long lines .  But it was still super fun. I ran every day in shorts. That was also really awesome.

March: I ran the Quincy Half Marathon and PR'd with a 1:30:59. This was a rather humongous PR and I was pretty happy about the whole thing. (Thanks, Kurt.)

April: I ran the Boston Marathon and PR'd with a 3:15:54. This was another rather humongous PR and I was again pretty happy about the whole thing; maybe even MORE than happy. (Thanks, Kurt.)

May: I raced the Sudbury Sprint and finished 2nd overall behind some 19-year-old ITU chick dressed in a Worlds unitard which had her name scrawled on her butt. (And no, I don't remember her name. I have repressed it.) Even though I lost, I raced fairly well given sprinting isn't exactly a strength o' mine. I won a Fuel Belt and gave it to Jordan, who now wears it for her five minute + "long runs" around the neighborhood.

June: I raced Mooseman 70.3 and had a seriously kick ass race, finishing in 5:06 and placing 3rd in my AG. This wasn't a PR for the distance, but the new bike course is so hard I considered it one. Moose, in retrospect, was definitely my best race of this season.
At the end of June I turned 41 and went to Lake Placid with Ange and friends for an IMLP camp. That was fun. and hard. I'm going back this year... but this year I am co-running the camp instead of just participating. Can't wait to take a dip in Mirror Lake.... (and not barf).

July: I got a stomach flu five days out from racing IMLP. I felt better by race day, but the weight I lost that week and the weakness from being sick still affected my race--big time--as did my anxiety about being sick and my anxiety surrounding my mega-desire to qualify for Kona. I barfed once on the swim, twice on the bike, and then did some record-breaking booting on the run course. I did my best to hang in there, though, and finished well enough to finish 5th AG. The Gods of Triathlon rewarded me for my sufferfest (or rather the two girls who decided not to take their Kona slots did) and I snagged a spot to Kona in rolldown. (Thank Michelle and Sylvie for saying NO to Kona, and thank you Stacey for being such a kick ass triathlete that you qualified before IMLP at Oceanside.)

August: After committing to putting on some pounds after my pukish race at IMLP, I spent most of August drinking wine, lounging on the beach, and eating ice cream with Alina and our families in Ocean Park. In late August I went to Burlington with Andy and raced AG Nationals. A ton of my good tri friends were there, and so it was good time. I raced okay, placing 16th in my AG with a 2:20:39.

September. I raced the Pumpkinman Half and loved it. Mostly I loved it because I won money. That was very very very  x a billion exciting and cool. I raced elite and finished behind greats Karen Smyes, Kim Webster and Lisbeth Kenyon, and got to stand on the podium with them, which made me feel like a super tri-stud. I also PR'd at the half distance in 4:52, which was a bonus.

October: I went to KONA! It was everything I had imagined it would be .. and then 10 x more than that, too. I had a great race. My family was there. I went to Lava Java every day. I hung out in the water with sea turtles. Life was good.

November. I sat on my ass and gained weight and stressed out over stupid shit and mourned that my Kona trip was in the past instead of the future.

December: I swam a 400 meter IM at the SCM championship at BU. I consider mysef a swimming stud now, as you should as well. (Notice I did not list my TIME for the 400 meter IM.) snort.

Well, that pretty much sums it up.
It was a good year of racing.
It was also a good year in other important ways such as:

  • Andy and I made it another year without killing each other or deciding to divorce.(five stars)
  • All of my children did mostly well in school and seem mostly happy and mostly still like to hug me when I require it of them. (five stars) Also, my kids are super cute and smart and this is a fact, in case you were wondering, not just my opinion.  (five stars)
  • My dogs shit and piss on the floor LESS now than they did at the start of 2011. (two stars)
  • In 2011 we got a new refrigerator, a funky new coffee maker, a new blender, and a new washer and dryer that tolerate my habit of washing and then drying tens tons of laundry at once. It was a swell year for appliance acquisition. (three stars)
  • My two best friends put up with me and profess to love me still... 30 years into our friendship.(five stars)
  • Ange and I have grown the TriMoxie Biz quite a bit this year and our athletes have earned some pretty sweet race results. (five stars.)
  • I remained mostly sane and have needed only a few prescription drugs to keep me this way. (five stars.)
Bring on 2012!  Happy New Year!