Monthly Archives: May 2013

Swimming not drowning, volume 3 – endurance

Still me, still not drowning

Still me, still not drowning

Ah, endurance … I’m experienced at enduring things, ark, ark. I’ve run a marathon, after all.

It’s now the end of March, beginning of April in my swimming sojourn, the no-named nemesis of neurosis or something more significant; just over a month to go before the triathlon (and the marathon is yet to happen at this stage too). I know, I know, I parked all my swimming stuff ‘til I’d done the marathon (though I have been drafting it all up, in real time – it’s all accumulating in the draft folder, ready to flow, I’m catching up with it now). I was pretty focused on London, you know.

I had a whole week off swimming at the end of March. I’d got this virus-thing. Some of my hesitation about swimming had returned, and actually, I noticed I haven’t hesitated as long as that for a while. So actually that makes it a measurable improvement. Cool. Tick one point to me.

The marvellous M has said on several occasions that I should keep a log of my heart rate post-training. I have now started doing this.

High elbows, M told me (again) at the end of March. He’s told me that before, clearly they’d collapsed. Elbows lead out of the water. I’m allowed to rotate my torso 45° each side on its long axis. It helps me to visualise a V-shape within which boundaries I can rotate on this long axis.

I also tried “Pilates string theory” (my interpretation) at this time, in the hope it might help with breathing. I tried Pilates once. The instructor said to engage one’s core, imagine a piece of string tugging up (or was it down?) through one’s belly button as one lies on the floor.  So anyway, I imagined a piece of string from my mouth to my, now high again, elbow out of the water, and I was looking at my, now high, elbow. So as my elbow leads out of the water, the connecting string pulls my head round and out of the water … I’m not sure that image works just in words (or maybe just not the words I’ve used).

Something completely different: it’s all about the breathing for me. Have I mentioned that before? But now in a short space of time both swim coach and run coach have said stuff that suggests it isn’t all about the breathing…

OK, swim coach has said to relax. Have I mentioned what a joker he is?

Run coach was talking about lactic acid build up in the muscles (I’m still not sure I’ve experienced this, and I fear I may have to if I want to improve my time in Bournemouth’s marathon in October).

I said to run coach that it’s my breathing that’s my limiting factor – against me going faster – I can’t breathe fast enough. But coach was talking about lactic acid build up with faster running. With slow running the body can remove lactic acid quicker than or at the rate of its creation. With faster running lactic acid is produced more quickly than the body can break it down. Therefore faster running sessions train the body to run longer with lactic build up, and maybe train the body to hasten its speed of lactic acid break down.  That’s what I understood, anyway. That’s not about breathing…   I guess I’ll need to test this theory at some point over the summer (nemesis number two).

By early April, the marvellous M said I’d swum the best two lengths he’d seen me swim. But two lengths are ‘easy’ – short term panic control with racing heart rate. Stop after two lengths, heart rate can slow. At least my heart rate slows pretty quickly, what with all the running training.  Anyway, those two lengths were after my 4-length warm up, so my first ‘training’ crawl. I was thinking about high elbows, and breathing, obviously. It seems I can’t think about more than two aspects of swimming at any one time (legs kicking, ear to the ground, head turning in a single plane etc). He asked if I was relaxing into it. Doh! Guess my reply. I can only think it was because it was the beginning of my workout, so I was fresh and not already under breathing stress from exertion.  But I need to try to remember what those two lengths looked/felt like, because I must be getting somewhere on the right track. He said my technique is not too bad, could be better, but pretty good.  Which frankly is enough praise for me. Happy with that. So he said, I just need to relax with the breathing (that may be my précis of what he said).  Flipping relax. How is one supposed to do that? I mean, really?

M also verbalised what I’d been working out for myself from my running. I need to build endurance. It’s all very well managing a couple of lengths and resting between each one, but I need to build stamina with more lengths, and less resting.  Like I’d built in hills with my running training.

So, M has introduced me to working with flippers and paddles to improve my endurance. And implied, without actually saying it, that I need to spend more time in the pool working through it all.  I’d kind of figured that one myself too, transferring running endurance learnings (more time on feet) across to the pool!

Work with flippers – wow! What speed!  And paddles – I can feel my arms working harder because of the resistance. After using the flippers for the first time, I wondered if it was my legs (not working) that are exhausting me and making me breathless. With the flippers that time, I was a) faster b) floatier and c) I had more time to arrange the breathing somehow. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I now know my breathlessness is nothing to do with weak legs. It’s still all in the head.

Bottom line is, I have to build up my programme to improve endurance with flippers and paddles and lengths and pulse taking.  I have noticed my pulse had come down 10 (from ~130 to ~120) since I started which was six months ago. This seems a very slow rate of progress.  I am panicking less, I’d like to say. I even managed to cough (because I’d half swallowed a bit of water) and not stop swimming. Previously I’d have stopped swimming, maybe grabbed the lane divider, had a cough and a splutter, got my composure back (ha, ha, that’s funny) and started again. This time, quick cough, which didn’t resolve the issue, but I decided I could hang on the length end to have a proper cough once I got there. I guess the point is overriding the fear and panic reactions e.g. swallowing a bit of water doesn’t mean I’m going to drown or mean I have to stop to cough and splutter. I can just swallow a bit of water and carry on.

I suggested M teach me the whizzy turny manoeuvre thing at the pool ends … at which he laughed and said, let’s get you swimming first.  Oh well, it’s good to aspire.

Swimming not drowning, volume 2 – relax (how funny is that)

Yeah, that's me ... not drowning yet

Yeah, that’s me … not drowning yet

At the beginning of March, I wondered if I was beginning to register my glutes taking part, in a small way, in my leg kick.  That would certainly count as progress. M’s programme has a big focus on getting strength into my legs. It’s really quite strange to think I can run all those miles yet my legs are effectively useless in water. I’ve not really had this feeling since, so my legs must be still pretty ineffectual.

In fact, the marvellous M did the old criticism/praise sandwich at right about the time I thought my glutes might have activated temporarily. I am so grateful for all his help. He was suggesting my technique was not too bad, but … while I work my legs in the leg drills (with and without float), when I put it together in the stroke, my legs go back to drifty, useless appendages (my paraphrasing) dragging along behind me.  I have thought about this concept before. I can pat my head and rub my tummy, so I reckon I should be able to do one thing with my arms and another with my legs. Shouldn’t I?

I’ve even bought a book about swimming. That alone elevates the subject in my mind to flipping serious. It was saying it’s ok to rotate my body on its long axis, 45° each side. It also seemed to be saying I should be beginning my breathe routine (my words not its) a little earlier. i.e. when my arm goes past my hip and starts its upward trajectory out of the water behind me, start rotating body and head for breathe.  This gives a nano-second longer.

It also said stuff about arms not crossing the central line. The marvellous M explained subsequently explained my arms shouldn’t come across my body in the water. Two-dimensional rotation, as near as is physically possible.

I had a bit of potential mind-shift in the middle of March, when a fellow swimmer remarked how quiet it was that morning, and how relaxing, in a different way, that made their swim.  This lady was not the first person to mention swimming and relaxing in the same breath.

This is complete anathema to me. Swimming is so far from relaxing as to not even being on the same planet. There is nothing, at all, really, nothing at all, relaxing about swimming. I’m on high alert, heart pumping, lungs straining, muscles agitated and powering (in so much as they ever ‘power’). Swimming is not relaxing. End of.

Intellectually I can quite understand it needs to be. If I didn’t panic so much, my heart might race less, therefore need less oxygen all round. I get the logic. Totally. It’s just emotionally none of makes sense.

I’m not sure if M partially gave up on me ever getting my legs to work. Actually he didn’t because he said I still need to do my normal drills, but he introduced me to paddles. Oorrggghhh. Said I should work on strengthening my arms as well as my legs. He said I’d be tired (I’m always tired after swimming; and famished. Why does swimming make me so hungry? Running kills my appetite – hate my force-feeding fuelling regime, have I mentioned that before?). Anyway the paddles were fine to use. Bit of a different hand rotation to get them out of the water. The interesting thing for me was that my stroke was slower, and this seemed to give me a bit more time for breathing. A good thing.

As to the technique, M says I need to relax into it.  There’s that word again. We both know all I’m thinking about is my breathing. Ah, maybe when I stop thinking about my breathing I’ll be able to the pat head/rub tummy swim-equivalent combo?

I did a few lengths with the paddles. Came to the end of the pool. Stopped. Looked at my hands, palms up, looking at these things. And did nothing. They’re paddles. They’re rigid. They cover your palms. The opposable thumb thingy that humans are so proud of has been incapacitated. How are you supposed to get them off? I assure you (defensively) this lasted only a split second before I fathomed a way to remove them (teeth, side of pool, calling helplessly for assistance had all passed through my mind). But it was long enough for M to notice and have a little chuckle.  It’s always warming to know I occasionally provide amusement value.  I know my place.

My very own London marathon facts and figures

I’ve just had my London marathon stats in (I’m smiling, overall!)

Here they all are:
34,217 runners finished. 36% were women.

I finished in 5,219th place.
There were 28,998 people behind me. And 15% of finishers were ahead of me.

Of female runners I finished in 755th place.
There were 11,469 finishers behind me. And 6% of finishers ahead of me.

Of female runners in my age category I finished in 90th place.
There were 1,239 finishers behind me. And 7% of finishers ahead of me.

I was the 4,576th Brit to finish
There were 26,215 Brits behind me. And 15% of finishers ahead (I guess that means I run the same speed as other nationalities, on average.)

I was ahead of about 80% of male runners.

Over the final 7 km I overtook 682 runners, and 34 overtook me. I knew it felt like I was overtaking more people than were overtaking me.  I might have gone faster if I’d counted that many! Not that I had the wherewithal to count at all by that stage.

Split times
Average mile: 8 mins, 8 secs
Average km: 5 mins, 3 secs

Average speed: 7.4mph / 11.9kph

First 10km:          12.6 kph               47 mins 30 secs.                 4 mins 45 sec / km
Second 10km:     12.0 kph               50 mins 03 secs.                 5 mins 00 sec / km
Third 10km:        11.8 kph               51 mins 00 secs                  5 mins 06 sec / km
Rest – 12km        11.3 kph               64 mins 46 secs                  5 mins 19 sec / km

I had to get my newly-turned 18-year old buddy, D, to explain some of these stats. I must have been having an early-onset senior moment. Becoming mildly frustrated at my inability to grasp basic stats, he just kept saying I was going “stupidly fast, Sal. Stupidly fast”. What simpler excuse did I need to continue my non-comprehension! Can’t tell you how totally chuffed I am to have the approbation of bright, sporty teenager. There’s a lot to be said for feeling validated by the young.

The downside of all these stats is there is now a target to beat … I say no more.

Swimming not drowning, volume 1 – breathing

Breathing not drowning

Breathing not drowning

Having endured the most horrid of ‘swims’ in Winky’s May Day triathlon, I am more determined than ever that I will overcome my swimming nemesis. I’m not putting a time scale on it. Yet. But I’m going to nail this swimming lark. I am now the proverbial terrier with the bit between its teeth (aren’t horses the ones with the bits?).

To reinforce positive attributes I’m going to chart progress. And there has been progress. I went back to the pool on Wednesday after the triathlon, determined to swim my 16 lengths in mostly crawl, just to prove to myself I could. And I did.  It was no easier and there were still moments of heart-racing and concentration on breathing-control, but I did it.  The splendid S at the pool very sweetly and confidence-boostingly said it wasn’t me, it was everyone else in the pool on Monday, making it all very difficult!

And as the marvellous M has pointed out, when I started back in October, I could only do half a length then had to stop/stand up/tread water/do breast stroke because I was exhausted. That’s surely major physical improvement. The mental stuff is SO another story.

I’m going to back track a bit, because there have been small moments along the way.

Mid-March, 2013. Is necessity or idleness the mother of invention? It’s not quite in the same vein, but going swimming with a thick cold and clogged up chest might have provided some learnings for me:
a) I didn’t have enough energy or capability to panic. What a weird thing to occur to one as one is ploughing through the deep end (normally a physical place of panic), oh I don’t have the energy to panic. And,
b), with a clogged up chest I didn’t have the wherewithal to gasp deeply and expansively.  Do you know what? I still managed to finish my programme. And I forgot to take my pulse at the end of the session, though from memory my heart rate wasn’t racing quite so much (either way that sounds like a positive memory to come away with, so I won’t question it too much.)  Calmer. Not particularly well, but calmer.

Previous learnings: actually an early one that I keep forgetting (???), is that when I started this swimming lark I thought I’d figured out I could only breathe on one side because my neck doesn’t (didn’t) rotate enough to get access to the atmosphere.  Mind you back than I was probably rotating my body through 180° rather than 90° – see future post (how much energy was that using, therefore how much extra oxygen was that demanding?), and I was looking to the back corner of the swimming pool building as a focus point for my breathing (again how inefficient was that), rather than a brief 90° single-plane neck rotation either side. Anyway the marvellous M suggested I breathe every four rather than every two because he thought every two might be too much breathing (see (b) above). This was a concept I failed to understand for some time.  I tried the four stroke, and it was OK for half a length, but then not enough air.  I took to heart the two stroke being too much breathing, especially given my huge, panicky, gulping approach to breathing, even though it didn’t really compute (mind over matter), and have subsequently trained myself to breathe every three strokes.

It did recur to me somewhere around Feb-March time, that the breathing too much scenario may have been beginning to make sense, intellectually at least. Breathe too deeply and actually there’s not enough time to exhale it all while you do three strokes, so there’s a rush to exhale AS WELL AS a rush to inhale.

But I need a lot of air. (At the moment???). I know I’m not efficient. At least I can (I think) understand, intellectually at least, that when I become more efficient, I’ll actually need less oxygen (won’t I? Isn’t that how it works?).

The breathing timing/amount/confidence thing has got to get easier, surely? Just not so far.

My new mantra is all about experiential learning. I haven’t drowned yet. I’m swimming some lengths. Therefore I can swim some lengths without drowning.

Sprint finish, shame about the start

Starting my run

Starting my run

Well. I’m now a triathlete. A sprint triathlete anyway. This whole triathlon business is nowhere as simple as the marathon business.  A marathon is always 26.2 miles. Wherever you are, a marathon is one thing. It’s always the same distance. Every time. Every where. Every when.

Triathlons come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Okay, it’s always a swim, a cycle and a run, but there are novice triathlons, sprint ones, olympic ones, half ironman ones and ironman ones (and they’re just the ones I’ve come across in some casual reading). And even then the distances covered seem to differ within one type. All very confusing. I reckon they need some consistency and uniformity to help out poor neophytes such as me.

Rant over. I’m a sprint-ish triathlete (according to one definition of sprint). You see how tricky it is? I did at least try to sprint the finish though, like I tried to do in the marathon. I got a little bit faster again. That’s about as much as I can say.

The swim was worse than my imaginings. It was horrible. It was agonising. Tiny lanes, four people to a lane, all starting off too close, physically and temporally (for my liking) together – we started off 10 seconds apart. There were huge amounts of turbulence, like trying to swim in the open ocean in a force eight gale (I may be exaggerating the tiniest bit – like I know what that would be like anyway …). Regardless, there was enough swell and choppiness that I seemed to swallow half the pool in my first length. Panic. Panic. Panic. Heart rate all over the shop, felt like it was trying to reach a thousand beats a minute. Breathing erratic – SO not good when your mouth is under water for a lot of the time.

Stroke all to pot. I ended up doing breast stroke for most of it, just so I could (try to) keep my head out of the water, mostly. Horrible. Depressing. I had such high hopes from all my learning to swim since last October. I’d done the 16 lengths four times in training. Okay this is clearly not enough times to embed ‘swim muscle memory’. And certainly not enough to begin to lay to rest head-case panic, which inevitably results in heart-rate panic. Back to the drawing board on that one. Hope the marvellous M can debrief me and build me up again.

To have one’s nascent optimism so roundly, resoundingly, utterly crushed at the very first stroke is a hard lesson to absorb. Equally, I trust, given a bit of time, it will be a good one from which to grow.

Note to self: need to strengthen my arms. They seemed not to be working at all on Monday. And I already know my legs are almost worse than useless in the pool. I’m surprised I wasn’t going backwards. Maybe a little less tennis in the previous 48 hours…

Still. Bottom line: I made it out of the pool alive. Frankly that had always been my goal. I was the last one in the pool, in my wave. Tant pis. I had the next wave of folk tapping their feet and watches while I finished a whole length on my own (it might have been a length and a half, but a length is all I’m admitting to).

Things can only get better, as they say.

And they did. Now I was out of the water. No jelly legs from swim to cycle, though we did start downhill, so that must make things easier. Talking of jelly, I ate more jelly babies during the about an hour of cycling than I did during the whole three hours, 33 minutes of marathon. What’s that about then? I’d rigged up a neat little ‘doggy bag’ (literally, I used a – new, if you please – zip-able textile dog treat bag) on the front upright of my bicycle. Easy access. Good old duct tape.

I was really pleased we’d practised the cycle route so much. I knew approximately what gear to be in before I got to the steep, hilly bits, and how long they lasted (physically and mentally) ‘til the next flatter bit or whizzy downhill section (they were good). Not that it helped me go any faster. And I knew how long I had to keep going for. I have no learned ability to pace myself or gauge distance on the bike.

I did work on one theory whilst out there though. With jelly leg avoidance in mind, I wondered whether, if I stood up to cycle uphill, that would be more similar to my running position, i.e. nearly upright, and that would mean no jelly legs.  So I tested the theory. But as I have no comparison situation when I haven’t done stand-up cycling, it’s all a bit meaningless. I’ll ask coach. That seems to be my default position for any exercise-related question.

For the run section, I’d been speculating that if I was running 5km, would that mean I should be aiming for marathon pace (MP) x 1.25 or MP x 1.33, or whatever.  I decided it should probably mean MP x 1.33.  Typically, naively, I’d failed to factor in the fact that I’d be coming straight of an agonising swim and a long bike ride. Gorging on jelly babies notwithstanding, there wasn’t much left in the tank. I felt I was running about 75 to 80% of MP.  Maybe our result timings will allow me to do the calculation…

I’m still not sure about jelly legs between bike and run. OK, my legs felt a bit different for a couple of kms ‘til I got into some sort of ‘stride’.  But as we know that stride was less than MP, so it might just be they felt different because I was going so slowly.

What hadn’t occurred to me at all was how spread out the field would be (apart from sardine-crammed pool, clearly). I barely saw another cyclist, at most half a dozen on the whole 24km. I saw maybe a dozen folk on the run. Which, I’m duty-bound to point out was a 5km run, not a 4km run as advertised by the organisers.  I’d kind of imagined me and my buddies would be going around not too far away from each other.

I’m going to have to have a serious re-think about another triathlon. The marvellous M is going to have his work cut out for him to get me over the panic, if such a thing is even possible. It’s all coming back, just thinking/writing about it now.


Sprint triathlon. Surely an oxymoron?

Me ... not drowning!

Me … not drowning! Seriously, it’s me.

Enough reflection and reflected glory from the marathon, I have work to do … my first triathlon – sprint – is on Monday (yes, alright, I am indeed already thinking about another triathlon).

Future posts will detail the emotional agony, the cartoon-imaged, heart-pumping panic and the quiet, surprising moments of perceived and real hope along my journey from not being able to swim last October to completing the requisite 16 lengths for the first time just eight days ago.

In the meantime…

I’ve been doing my drills for months, so in all, doing more than 16 lengths each session, but with breaks and rests. I’d not put the all the lengths together, with, or without, stopping. I had got up to swimming 4 lengths of crawl without stopping, so I adopted a 4 x crawl, 1 x breaststroke strategy, which gave me the semblance of a bit of a breather on my breaststroke lengths.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough the marvellous M, my swim coach, ‘suggested’ I do a T1 (transition from swim to cycle) practice. So this Monday just gone, I swam my 16 lengths for only the second time, then jumped straight out of the pool, did a quick micro-towel down, put on tracksuit over the dripping swimsuit then took the long way home, cycling 4-5 miles.  Felt OK. Don’t think I got jelly legs, which everyone says happens between the swim and the cycle, then also between the cycle and the run.

We’ve done some T2 (cycle to run) practice in training and I haven’t, so far, had jelly legs then, either. All of which, of course, leads me to conclude that jelly legs are all in the mind. Pretty much like I decided the wall was all in the mind for the marathon.  Surely you only hit the wall if it’s in your head and you’re thinking ‘where’s the wall?’ Bang, you’ve just run right into it. No?

As it happens, run coach says otherwise … but, until further notice, I’ve decided the only jelly I’m going to be packing are the babies.

Look what lane I trained in last ...sadly only because it was the only empty one

Look what lane I trained in last …sadly only because it was the only empty one

The only thing I’m thinking about for Monday is the swim.  I have to remember that there’s more to do once I finish my 16 lengths. I can imagine being so relieved to crawl out of the pool still breathing that I think that’s the end of the challenge. But we’ve practised the cycle route so many times now, I shall have to hope that I can go onto automatic pilot, once I remember that there is cycling and running still to do.

Whoever thought getting soaked before going round in circles was a good idea?