Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Swim Speed Strokes for Swimmers and Triathletes - Book Review

Like many people, when I was a kid I learned how to swim. It was the 1970s and back in my hometown - Lakewood, NJ - we didn't have a pool at the high school or down at the rec center like you see in many communities these days. We were old school and learned how to swim in Lake Carasalgo. At one point they literally put us in a boat, took us out to the middle of the lake, the tossed us off the side to swim to shore. Apparently I lived to tell. Like I said, we were old school.

These days I am a triathlete and not a swimmer. Yes, I can swim. In fact, if I do say so myself, for a non-swimmer I can swim pretty darn good. But the swimming we were taught back in the day was more about learning to stay afloat and move forward, not win state titles. No big deal until I decided I wanted to do triathlons. All of a sudden a swim program would have been more helpful than Doc Lipzen tossing me off the side of a row boat.

Learning to swim as an adult is hard. Like many age groupers I am not, never have, and never will consider myself "a swimmer." I didn't start perfecting my stroke before my 4th birthday. Also like many other age groupers, I am basically a self-taught swimmer. I have had some help along the way (thanks Bill, thanks Steve) but for the most part I have changed my stroke by figuring things out on my own. Figuring it out has meant purchasing books, reading blogs, and watching YouTube videos.

In my pursuit of a faster, less taxing swim split about a year ago I came upon Sheila Taormina's first book, Swim Speed Secrets. This book focus is on just the freestyle stroke, which is perfect for a triathlete looking to work on the main stroke you will use come race day. While I got a lot form the book and highly recommend it, I have wanted to be more than a one-trick pony in the pool. According to my swimming friends, doing different strokes will make you a better overall swimmer. The other strokes, I have been told, work your body different, taking some of the stress off the muscles used in freestyle. On a different note, swimming all four strokes (or at least more than one) helps break up the monotony of  staring at the black line doing the same stroke over and over and over.

Just in time for my off-season Sheila (may I call you Sheila?) came out with her follow up book, Swim Speed Strokes for Swimmers and Triathletes. The book is a fast read that should be read slowly. I could have blown through this is a few days time, but took the better part of two weeks to sift through the material. This not a cheap novel ... there is a lot of information here that you should really take in. That said, let's take a look under the hood.

Understanding The Why

Just as she did in Swim Speed Secrets, Taormina starts off with "Understanding the Why" of swimming. Unlike some other books on the subject, she wants to make sure that the student understands the background of how the swim stroke has developed over time. Now, this may seem like a waste of  time for the Type A, just tell me what to do type of athlete, but I would disagree. I found it very enlightening to understand the science behind the stroke. For me, having an understanding of the why helps with the practical execution of a (hopefully) better stroke.

Swimming well is a complicated thing. The next three chapters are dedicated to breaking down the different areas of importance - lift and drag; the kick, core movement, and connection; stroke data - with a deep dive into the what and why of swimming. Again, to some this may seem like a waste of time ... just show me how to swim!!! ... but I assure you it is not a waste of time. Once I read in detail about the catch or the core, or the kick, I found a heightened self-awareness every time I entered the pool. Did I start to over think some things? For sure. But with self awareness of your faults comes the ability to fix the problem at hand.

Pictures, Pictures and More Pictures

Fortunately, the book is not just talk about what one wants to do. For me, the hardest part about trying to improve in the water is seeing exactly what I need to do. Others have shown me with varying levels of success. Here, what you have is some of the best swimmers in the world modelling the form they developed over millions of meters over many years. One of the things I noticed was just how many similarities there are between the four strokes. Different, but built off the same platform. On each chapter dedicated to an individual stroke the detail is as good as it gets.

Why Would Benefit From Reading This Book?

The book is an excellent read and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to improve their swimming. If you are a swimmer I think this book is a no brainer. For the triathlete, there is even a nice section dedicated to open water swimming worth the price of the book. Apparently I've been sighting in an inefficient manner for years. Who knew!!!

And for the triathlete who doesn't feel the need to go beyond freestyle, learning the "other" strokes can be helpful in the long run. If you become a better swimmer you become a better triathlete. As a former one-trick pony I understand where you are coming from, but can tell you that diversifying your strokes makes sense. 

You can purchase Swim Speed Strokes for Swimmers and Triathletes here

Disclaimer: I purchased this book on my own.

Train hard. Stay focused.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Rule #12: The Post-Ironman Decision Rule

In the world of endurance sport Ironman is a different beast. There are other incredible endurance challenges (Ultraman, Badwater, Leadville 100, Race Across America) for sure. These events are small in size and really only available to a small number of elite athletes. Completing an Ironman, however, is achievable by Joe or Jean Average if he/she has the desire to pay the entry fee, put in the work, then go the distance. Nothing is quite like an Ironman.

Completing 140.6 miles of swim/bike/run in 17 hours or less is a huge accomplishment, taking months of dedicated training and personal sacrifice in the pursuit of crossing the finish line to Mike Riley's voice pronouncing you an Ironman. Those last few hundred meters are emotional for everyone - from first-time finisher to grizzled veteran. For some it is the highest of highs, for others it is pain and frustration. I've yet to meet someone who crossed that line and said "eh, that's was OK."

Ironman Florida - Jon Soden
Ironman Florida Finish - 9:37 finish (swim cancelled race)

Post-race, the emotions continue for sometime. For some the immediate thought is they have checked the Ironman box; for others it is a high like no other. In race terms, one either wants to get back out and race tomorrow, or never, ever go the distance again.

Over the course of the next 4-5 weeks an interesting thing happens. The day after the race everyone is walking around town in their finishers hats and shirts while the best of the best get the opportunity to punch their card to Kona. Once home it continues on with friends and family congratulating you and asking about your race. The emotional highs (or lows) just keep coming as you tell your Ironman story.

And then it happens ... life get back to normal. You are no longer Joe Ironman, but simply Joe once again. Now, after a few weeks time, you can finally get some perspective. What went right? What went wrong? Do I want to give 140.6 miles another try? After about 30 days time one can truly reflect back on race day, get a grip on what happened and decide on future racing.

The rule then is this:

Any decision on racing a future Ironman-distance race should not be made until at least 30 days have passed since your last Ironman race.

Exception #1: The professional triathlete who is racing for a living and KPR points.

Exception #2: The injured triathlete who already has a second Ironman scheduled for the year can decide to opt out of race #2 if physically necessary.

One month ago, on November 1, I crossed the finish line at Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach, for my fifth Ironman finish. Since then I have embraced the off-season, keeping active but without any structure. Mentally I'm starting to get back into it. On Saturday I felt motivated to do a short swim workout, which is a good sign. It was short and sucked, don't get me wrong, but it is good to once again start coming out the other side of the Ironman experience.

As for next year ... time to start making some decisions.

Train hard. Stay focused.

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