Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The rhythm method

Paul and I were watching the NCAA championship swim meet the other day, and those dudes swim the backstroke twice as fast as I do the crawl. Not that being a male NCAA swimmer is my goal, it just put things in perspective: there's always room for improvement.

A bit of background (you can skip the paragraph if you've already heard my Total Immersion soap box), in 2005, I couldn't swim more than 25 yards in a single go. In preparation for my first triathlon, I picked up a copy of Total Immersion at the suggestion of some random guy at the pool. TI breaks the crawl down into a set of drills that don't really feel all that much like swimming (i.e., kicking on your back, kicking on your side, kicking on your side with one arm by your ear). The focus is on getting your body in the right position in the water, so you don't expend a ton of extra energy trying to keep from drowning, and instead you use that energy to propel you forward. TI takes a lot of commitment to going to the pool and not swimming, but if you're willing to put in the time in the drills, it really does clean up your stroke significantly. I recommend it to any one wanting to improve their stroke.

I credit TI with creating my relaxed stroke, but the flipside of a relaxed stroke is that it's sometime hard to swim faster. At the relay a few weeks back, Paul commented on how I didn't look like I was working very hard during the race. A few months ago I read an article (either in Lava or another tri magazine, I can't recall), written by Terry Laughlin, the founder of TI, on using a metronome to slowly speed up your stroke rate, while maintaining your distance per stroke, thus speeding up your swim overall. I was intrigued. Terry's written more about it on his blog.

There are two devices I've found that serve this purpose the Tempo Trainer and the Wetronome (yes, really). But seeing as how I have a waterproof case for my ipod, and I could download some sample tracks from and try it out less than 12 hours later, it seemed the way to go.

First, my options are somewhat limited with the tracks. They offer tracks in 5 beat per minute increments. Turns out my natural pace is somewhere between 55 bpm and 60bpm. 55 just felt slow, and 60 gave me a cramp. Both metronome devices offer finer tempos. For now I think the tracks will suffice, but if you're looking to get me a present in the near future, take note.

Second, I'm never going to be somebody's back-up dancer, but I like to think that my rhythm isn't that bad. I was pleased to find that I don't slow my stroke significantly to breathe. I was a bit afraid that my stroke-stroke-stroke-GASP might be a problem, but it was ok. Still, getting back on tempo at the wall was tough on a few of those turns.

Third, I'm still excited by the potential this tool may have to improve my swim. I'm looking forward to using the metronome to plot out my curve of time per 100 versus strokes per length to find my baseline optimal stroke count, then to try to improve it. Though I'm a little concerned that trying to start my watch, count my strokes and sync up with the beats may be a little challenging. We shall see.

Have you ever tried swimming with a metronome? Any suggested workouts?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Elite Fluid

Geoffrey Mutai set a new course record (and will possibly be recognized for a new World Record) on the Boston Marathon course Monday. And I had his water bottle at 10K. I think I deserve some credit for his win.

OK, ok, he didn't actually take the water bottle from my table. A lot of runners decide not to take their designated bottles, be it, they just don't want a drink, or they are on the far side of the pack from the fluid.

Here's how it works. Every 5K there's an elite fluid stop. Each athlete provides their own bottle of whatever they want to drink in advance of the race. For most of them it's just a few ounces. There are ten tables each with 4 bottles. As an athlete approaches the stop, they know their bottle will be on the 2nd table in the 3rd spot (for example).

Each bottle is different. Some people decorate their bottles so they're easy to spot:

Ryan Hall signs each of his bottles and tosses them to the crowd as a souvenir when he's done.

After the elites have passed through we broke down the tables and signs. By the time the amateur runners start coming through, there's no sign that we were even there. As we were packing up, we realized that the leftover elite bottles (the ones that weren't collected by their athletes) were just going to get tossed, so we did a taste test. They broke down something like this: water, gatoradey and, wait for it, salty. The worst tasted like a cherry-flavored ocean. Blech. (I didn't take note of what Mutai had, he hadn't won the race by this point).

All in all, a spectacular experience. Amazing to be so close to the elites as they sprint by and great to be in a spot to cheer on the amateurs where every one is still just rapt to be there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Signs of spring

I'm calling it. After all those hours shoveling snow this winter, we're done with snow for the season (and we won't make a full Shaq's worth). I'm ok with that though. It's still cold in Boston, but it's definitely springy. Even those snow banks that seemed they would become permanent structures have receded and disappeared from Cambridge and only left a few shady remainders out in Concord.

I know this because last weekend, I went on my first ride of the season. We took the short River Runs Through It CRW loop, which is 28 miles. I probably rode this loop a dozen times last summer and knew it by heart. This time around, I realized the turns that stood out were the ones I had missed in the past. Landmarks played tricks on me, everything seemed familiar, but nothing was certain. Here's a house with a stone foundation that I recognize, or an out-of-place modern boxy house from the 60s, or a tiger striped mailbox, or one hanging from a tree. They all start to blur together. Was that on this loop or a different one? We only had to consult the cue sheet once to confirm a turn. Despite that, it was bucolic and bordered on a Disney cartoon: flowers bursting forth, squirrels running along side, birds singing and playing in the trees above our heads. Maybe it's just the excitement of feeling the cold air rush past or the lean and lurch of the bike as I increase the pressure, but this ride was perfect.

Another sure sign of spring, the Boston Marathon takes place this weekend. I'm volunteering once again. This year though we've been upgraded to "Elite Fluid Distribution" at 10K. Thus far though it seems like our responsibilities are to (1) match the labelled bottle with the label on the table (and not to worry to much about it because some one will come by to fix our mistakes) and (2) stay out of the way of the elites. Will let you know how well we achieve these two goals.

Finally, not at all related to spring, I just finished reading my friend Erin Tocknell's book Confederate Streets. It's a fantastic read (and not just because there's a brief mention of my coxing in the final chapter). Erin's attention to detail astounding. Reading her book, seeing Nashville and Pittsburgh through her eyes and experiences made me realize how little of the day to day I appreciate and remember.

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