Triathletes: A special breed of swimmer

As the cold winter months recede behind us, many folks are now in full training for upcoming athletic challenges. Whilst some are content to stick to just one discipline others prefer to spread their wings into the world of the triathlete. My own ventures are somewhat modest but, when I have tried triathlons I have discovered, to my delight, that I perform as if I am a mixture of Sir Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy and Adam Peaty. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I swim like Sir Mo, run like Adam Peaty and had all the grace and speed on a bike of Sir Chris. On a unicycle. My mediocrity it seems knows no bounds.

Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash

Obviously, though, many compete at a far higher level than me and have mastered all three disciplines. But not always. It is not unusual for a strong runner and cyclist to be a relatively poor swimmer. Often they are looking for a “quick fix” to their problems. These athletes are sometimes some of the trickiest of the clients seen by SwimMastery coaches. 

It needn’t be so. Here are eight “P”s to bear in mind before a race

Pick the event carefully

 Perhaps the most important one but sometimes overlooked. Plan ahead and make a schedule. A realistic one. Don’t be too ambitious with the length of the race. Analyse your current ability with brutal honesty and find out how long it is likely to take to improve on weaknesses BEFORE you book your place.

 It’s not uncommon for a SwimMastery coach to have this sort of conversation with a new client:

Client. “I need you to help me learn how to swim better. I’ve got a triathlon coming up but I get out of breath if I swim 25 metres”.

SM Coach. “OK, when is your event?”

Client. ”It’s in three weeks”

SM Coach. “ “

Oh, if SM coaches had a penny for every time they’ve had a conversation like that, they’d have…erm….well not a great deal I suppose. About 37p on average, I expect. Nevertheless, that still represents an awful lot of delusional triathletes. 

So don’t get carried away. Give yourself plenty of time to master new skills. Don’t leave it until the last minute and expect everything to magically fall into place.

Practice

 Practice is obviously vital if you are going to master new skills. But it must be the right kind of practice. Not too little to enable you to make a difference but neither should I be too much so that it overloads the brain and body and you don’t get a chance to assimilate the new information. Listen to your coach and don’t be tempted to step outside their advice. Which leads us to….

 Patience and perseverance.

Success may not come overnight. 

Certainly, it won’t obligingly be driven by your event deadline. So be patient. As long as you are following a logical progression then the mastery of new skills is just a matter of time. How much time though will vary by the individual. So follow your own pathway to whatever goal you have set yourself and don’t be swayed by the speed at which you feel you should be travelling or the speed at which others may be travelling.

 Place. 

Where you practice is just as important as how you practice. If your event is taking place in open water then it is only sensible to ensure that as much of your practice as possible takes place in that environment. If you’ve only ever swum in your local pool then jumping into a cold lake is going to come as a bit of a shock! As part of this, you will also need to think about elements such as the goggles you will wear and whether you will use a wet suit or not.  

Partner 

Some folk will find that training with someone else provides invaluable motivation, encouragement and support. Others may prefer the lone wolf approach. If you are part of the former group then choose a partner carefully. Someone of approximately the same ability is probably advisable. 

Someone who exudes good vibes is vital. 

If your partner is discouraging or disinterested in you don’t be afraid to ditch them

Prepare

Knowing factors like the amount and type of nutrition you will require during the event is knowledge that can be acquired in the preceding months by trial and error. In addition, swimming in a wetsuit (if you don’t plan to wear one) or without one (if you do) is also prudent in case the rules about wearing them change suddenly in the hours before the start.

However, some elements of an event are virtually impossible to replicate in training. In particular the feeling of being surrounded by a large number of others swimmers. 

Photo by Ashley de Lotz on Unsplash

For those unused to it, it can feel claustrophobic and even intimidating. There is little chivalry being observed at a mass start and it is not uncommon to be battered and bruised by faster swimmers who will simply swim over you if you are in the way. Likewise, the water will probably be churned up more than you are used to in training, if not by the number of extra bodies then maybe by the weather conditions. It is advisable to at least be aware of how the event may unfold and how you may react to changed circumstances. Talk to other competitors who have been through it already and, where possible, glean coping strategies.  

Pace

Part of your pre-race plan should concern pacing. At the start of the race, you are likely to be a little keyed up and excited. However, you will also be at your freshest with the greatest reserves of energy available to you. But it is important not to get carried away and burn all of your fuel reserves too early. 

Remember, it is very difficult to win the race during the swim element of a triathlon but it’s very easy to lose it. 

Make sure that the majority of your energy has been left for the longer cycling and running elements of the triathlon

Positivity

Finally, make sure that you approach the event with a positive mindset. 

Rely on your training. If you have prepared properly and planned carefully your success is assured! Good luck.

Taking responsibility for safety

In recent weeks I have been watching the Six Nations on TV. For the uninitiated, that’s a rugby union tournament. And for anyone still none the wiser, rugby is basically 80 minutes of legalised high-speed car crashes. Without the cars. It’s an exciting but often brutal contact sport played by huge, muscular but highly athletic players. Tackles are fearsome and frequent.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Kelly Brown who was then the Scottish captain. Six foot seven of repressed power. Awesome on the field, surprisingly mild-mannered off it. The previous day he had been taken from the field after a tackle from the English player Matt Bannerman (whom he described as an animal which probably given the size of Mr Brown, gives you some idea of how big and fast Bannerman was!). Brown was telling me how he was forced off for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) so that the doctors could judge whether he was suffering from concussion. He had been convinced he was fine and apparently was quite vocal about the point on the pitch. Unfortunately, he said, one of the effects of concussion is an increase in aggressive behaviour so, the more he insisted he was fine, the more the doctors insisted that he wasn’t. So off he went. In the end, he got the all-clear and returned to complete the match.

HIA’s are now part and parcel of the modern rugby game and have been introduced as a compulsory safety measure solely for the protection of the players. The decision to make an HIA is always made by an independent medical professional.

All very interesting and important, but how, I hear you ask, does this relate to swimming?

Swimming isn’t a contact sport. Head injuries are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, many swimmers damage their bodies through the sport. Maybe not in a one-off incident such as the tackle on Kelly Brown, but more likely through persistently and consistently moving the body in a way in which it was not designed to do. Over time, this may range from an annoying little niggle to something far more serious, and debilitating.

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

What then, is done to protect the swimmer and keep them safe? Safety in rugby isn’t limited just to HIA’s. If, for example, a player lifts an opponent off the ground during a tackle, it is their responsibility to return them to the soil safely rather than simply dropping them or falling on them. Failure to do so can result in the tackler being sent off. Safety is enshrined in the rules of the game.

Is the same true for freestyle swimming? Do regulations exist to keep swimmers safe? (And by “safe” I don’t mean safe from drowning but safe from developing injuries).

The simple answer seems to be “no”.

In all fairness I guess there’s a clue in the name, however, freestyle rules seem to be fairly thin on the ground. It seems that more or less anything goes. Rules are defined by the Federation Internationale De Natation and the basic overview is somewhat sparse. Freestyle is simply defined as any stroke other than backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke and it says that swimmers must touch the wall at the end of the pool when turning and that their head must break the surface no more than15m after a turn but that’s about it. A little more delving finds that swimmers must start the race in a forward direction (!) and can’t use the lane ropes to propel themselves forward nor can they push off from the bottom of the pool. Bizarrely it appears completely legal in a race to stop and stand up for a little rest (providing one stays still and doesn’t begin to walk down the lane).

But you’ll notice there is nothing in there to prevent the swimmer from employing a swimming method that might actually end up harming them. That responsibility is left entirely up to the individual.

Which is a worry, because most people have very little idea which movements are likely to be harmful and which aren’t. Habits are often instilled at an early age when they are first taught to swim and not everyone takes the opportunity to review them later. The problem here is that children are often first encouraged to swim by their parents (or forced to do it as part of a school swimming lesson). And a significant proportion of parents have no more idea about how to ensure the body is moving safely than their pupils. They will judge themselves as a success if they get their little ones t from point A to point B without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Less attention is paid to exactly how this is done with the assumption being made that the finer details will work themselves out over time. There’s no guarantee or reason why this should be so.

School teachers may have a better idea of the rights and wrongs but realistically they can be faced with an entire class of snotty spotty adolescents to motivate and keep in order. Individual care and assessment may well not be a practical option.

All this means is that the role of the swim coach becomes crucial; they must be knowledgeable about the potential dangers of injury and the ways these can be avoided. And that they can communicate this in an easy to understand format. And this can mean they require the ability to be flexible in their teaching approach and strong-willed enough to stay on a particular aspect of the stroke, perhaps approaching the mastery of that skill from multiple directions, before moving on. Proficiency in the basics of the stroke is crucial to long-term success and swimmer safety. Speed and endurance training may have to wait until the fundamentals of the stroke are mastered and that may require not only patience from the swimmer but also expertise on behalf of the coach.

For some sports, such as rugby, the responsibility for safety becomes part and parcel of the game; if the players abide by the rules then they are going a long way to avoiding injury. For many non-contact sports though those taking part must be aware that, to a large part, they are responsible for themselves. They need to do all they can to ensure that they have been taught with the most appropriate techniques available.

Muscle memory: myth or mastery?

Many swim coaches talk a lot about muscle memory. A bit part of their arsenal of tools is to get the swimmer to imprint movement patterns into their muscle memory. But what exactly is it? Does it even exist? And if so, can we do anything to improve it?

On the face of it, the term muscle memory seems a misnomer. Muscles are, after all, nothing more than fibrous tissue with the ability to contract according to signals sent from the brain. They have no inherent ability to memorise anything themselves.

Nevertheless, talk to anyone who has experience lifting weights and they will tell you that the term has at least some validity. If the athlete had had some time away from training and has lost muscle mass as a result, it is often quicker to regain the bulk than it was to attain it in the first place. This phenomenon is put down to “muscle memory”, and there does seem to be some scientific evidence to back up the belief that it is a very real effect. When muscles are put under strain, (for example when they are lifting weights or undertaking resistance training) the nuclei in the muscle cells split and grow over time leading to an increase in the size of the muscle. However, if the training program should cease for some reason, this process stops and muscle atrophy causes the muscles to shrink. The important bit though is that, although smaller, the nuclei don’t actually disappear.

Thus, if training recommences they are already in place to grow once more. The body doesn’t have to spend time creating them all over again, hence the reduction in time to get to the stage the muscles were at before the layoff.

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

All pretty neat and useful to know, particularly if that’s part of your exercise routine.

But that’s not the sense in which swim coaches are using the term. For swimmers, technique and form are far more important than muscle mass.
Thus the term “muscle memory” relates far more to the building of efficient neural pathways from the brain to the muscle rather than the physical state of the muscle itself.
So the challenge becomes one of how to build those pathways in the best way. These can then become a short-cut for the brain allowing it to send commands to the body and to perform tasks almost without conscious thought

Before we start though it is vital to remember that muscle memory is a two-edged sword. It can help you become very good at something but equally can train you to be absolutely terrible at something. (Often when faced with a new student the first task a coach has to do is recognise all the bad habits which have become ingrained in the way they swim and work out how to remove them!).

In order to avoid making matters worse rather than better, then, the best approach is to keep things as simple as possible. Breaking movements down into easy to remember segments is the key. Giving the movement a name or an image can be a great way of making this process easier. One of the fun things to do as a coach is to come up with new visuals for the student to use. Don’t be surprised if you end a coaching session having been asked to open your angel wings, caress the kittens, wear an Elizabethan ruff or tickle the frog. They may appear to be nonsense but they have a very serious purpose.

(For information, I have no idea what “tickle the frog” might be – I just made that up. But I’ll bet there will be a coach somewhere who will work out what it might represent and may start to use it).

These weird and wonderful images are no good, however, unless we have a cross-check to make sure that you are doing it correctly. The best way to do this is to have a partner who can observe and provide critical feedback. This is, however, not always practical or possible and therefore it is important to observe it feels when a specific task is completed. Thus the swimmers need to learn the skill of tuning in to, for example, the sensation of the movement of the water across the body and how the muscles feel.

Photo by Aldrin Rackman on Unsplash

Having started to create movement patterns, it is also important to make practice consistent and regular in order to build it up to be the default movement. There is no substitute for constant repetition to train the brain regarding the signals which need to be sent. Although a certain degree of dedication and application is required, the vivid images being used can help prevent this from becoming boring. Over time you should be able to build up an arsenal of methods for thinking about performing the same task. By cycling through these during a session it is possible to trick the brain into thinking it is doing something different each time.

And be patient too. New ways of movement will not come immediately, particularly if you have been used to doing something completely different for many years. It is all too easy to slip back into old bad habits. So give yourself time and be persistent. Results will come if you keep at it.

Muscle memory, then, as a term may have less of a scientific definition when it comes to being used by swim coaches but it is no less real in its effect on swimmers.

A Question (of life and death)

Let me ask you a question.

You’re swimming in the river with friends. You know the area well; it’s a regular meeting place for you. This week, some way off a group of youngsters is larking about jumping and diving off the jetty. They are shouting and laughing, generally having a great time. Suddenly you notice one of their group is lying face down in the water motionless. His friends seem quite oblivious to this or at least completely unconcerned. He is too far away to see exactly what is going on. Is he just taking a breather and having a few minutes quiet, observing life below the surface? Or is there a real problem emerging and he is in fact in serious trouble?

The question, then, is a simple one. What should you do?

Photo by Tommaso Fornoni on Unsplash

Should you swim to him as fast as possible and check him out? Turn him over face up at the very least? If you do though you’re going to look pretty silly if he is, in fact, perfectly fine. You risk being extremely embarrassed. Worse, he might be of an age where it is highly inappropriate to go manhandling a young boy. There might be all sorts of nasty repercussions.

But what if your worst fears about him are correct? How would you feel if you witnessed a tragedy unfold before your eyes and you had done nothing to try and prevent it?

What should you do?

I’m afraid I don’t know the answer for sure. There are too many variables to take into account. But I suggest that, were you in that situation, you should know the answer. The group was being very boisterous so you definitely noticed them. You could have easily anticipated that, should one of the party get into difficulties, their friends may not immediately notice. And if you anticipated that, it’s not unreasonable to have at least some sort of loose plan

I think we can agree that your response should be primarily driven by the need for the safety of the swimmer, not by the level of embarrassment you might suffer if you get it wrong (although it’s worth recognising that may well be a mental barrier you have to set aside and set it aside immediately. Humans love being in water by and large but we’re also not supposed to be there really. It’s dangerous stuff and serious situations can unfold extremely rapidly.

So you’ve decided to act. But what to do? Can you attract the attention of the boys’ friends? And if you can, can you make yourself understood? Are you the right person to swim over and effect a rescue or is there someone nearer, maybe one of your own party?. If you were to get to him, do you have the skills to save him anyway? Now is probably not the time to regret never having taken that lifesaving course.

Photo by Jametlene Renko on Unsplash

Perhaps you are best to get out of the water and run along the bank; maybe that’s quicker. You might also get to a lifesaving ring that way. But how do you get out of the water? Or should you wait a second or two and assess the situation further – make sure you have interpreted what’s going on correctly. Is there a second person in trouble whom you have yet to notice? Are the rest of the youngsters safe or are they in danger of succumbing to the same fate as their friend?

Lots to think about. Lots of decisions to make and very little time available in which to make them. Which is why whenever we enter the water, particularly open water we should do so with at least some rudimentary assessment of the likely dangers. We should remember that our own safety is paramount but also that we have a responsibility to those around us; both those that we know and those that we don’t. It’s worth remembering too that circumstances may change whilst we are in the water and that we must remain vigilant throughout. To anticipate every eventuality and formulate a response is sadly impractical. But to be constantly on the lookout for dangerous situations and to know approximately how you might react to them could be the difference between life and death.

 

Summoning The Genie of Fluidity

It’s funny how you collect random bits of information through your life and remember them despite being of no relevance at all isn’t it? Back in the seventies, they used to print quotes and jokes on the back of matchboxes. Although I have never had any interest in golf really, one I recall was along the lines that, it wasn’t the hundreds of bad shots that you hit which were so frustrating but the one where everything went right.

A similar sentiment was expressed by John Cleese in the film Clockwise after yet another setback in his attempt to get to his destination on time.  He said, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”.

Those who swim regularly will have sympathy with these sentiments. For many, the stroke can be a bit of a struggle. Regardless of our level of experience, or what our focus for the session is, we are acutely aware that, overall, things could be going better. Even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, something is amiss; something needs to be improved.
And then, like an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, everything just “clicks”. We become aware that suddenly it feels like we’re flying through the water with barely any effort at all; the timing is right, the breathing is natural, the catch, the press, the rotation – it’s all just perfect. Finally, we seem to have cracked this swimming lark. This is how it’s supposed to be and this is clearly how it’s going to be from now on.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it all falls apart again. Swimming isn’t a disaster; you know you are still a fine and competent sportsperson. But that Nirvana had disappeared, perhaps never to return. You try. Of course, you try, but it’s like trying to recapture a particularly pleasant dream from which you’ve just awoken. It can’t be done. The ephemeral Genie of Fluidity has simply melted away.

And the worst bit of all is that now we know he exists. The sensation was real. Surely it must be possible to recapture it? Yet, try as we do, we may as well go out onto the moorland at daybreak and capture the mist in a butterfly net. What is quickly apparent is that this Genie cannot be easily tamed. His presence is not ours to demand or command. His image appears in the periphery of our vision. Look at him directly and he has gone. Determined, dogged concentration rarely proves to be successful. It may improve one particular aspect of our stroke but can’t quite recreate that feeling of effortless flow.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Yet herein would seem to lie a contradiction. SwimMastery pupils are constantly advised to use specific cues to improve their technique. Why then doesn’t this lead automatically to that state of complete ease of movement?

I believe that the answer may lie back in the golfing world. On the website Kidadl.com we are told “Golf..is more of a mind game than a physical game…Many people fail to win at golf and the reason is mainly about their mind being agitated with…thoughts. That wonderful author Douglas Adams in one of the later books in his Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series had a similar take on events and expressed them even more eloquently. His hero, Arthur Dent is taught the power of unaided human flight. He is told “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

In other words, if you concentrate too hard on achieving the seemingly impossible, it will remain just that; impossible. What needs to be done is, not to target the appearance of the Genie directly, but to focus our attention on creating the circumstances in which he can appear.

This is not a simple or speedy process. It requires almost perfect muscle memory of the movements and sensations of all parts of the stroke. And the ability to rely on them functioning to the highest standard at all times. For this reason alone many hours, perhaps years, of practice and training are required before the Genie can be relied upon to grace us with his presence.

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

There is, perhaps, one other factor at play here as well which is implicit in the very first quote I used; that of expectation. If you believe that every stroke you take, whether in golf or in swimming is likely to be slightly awry, then the chances are, that it will be. But in the words of Winston Churchill “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

When it comes to trying to achieve that wonderful but elusive sensation of perfection, the Hope may be almost unbearable but don’t let the Despair drag you down!

Meanwhile, I guess we just need to keep on hurling ourselves at the ground.

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