Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ask And It Shall Be Answered

Wasn't it just yesterday I was asking if you could fuel an endurance athlete on bananas alone? Today the answer appeared on my doorstep, in the form of John. John is a 66 year old cyclist embarking on a solo journey across the United States, and one of the coolest humans I've had the pleasure to meet. But I'll talk more about him, his journey, and the reasons behind it tomorrow and add some photos as well.

As it relates to my banana question, John informed me that he cycled across Vietnam eating largely nothing but bananas. There, my question has been answered! Man can live on bananas alone. He also started telling me that he eats rather differently now than he used to, he's on a mostly "caveman diet" now. I had to stop him from explaining further as I know exactly what he was talking about. He was right at home in our Paleo household.

Since my own burning question has been answered, I think I'll go on to address a couple of questions I've gotten this week. Both are swimming related.

The first is from Kathy, who asks:

Can I request a post? I've read about running frequently vs long runs and cycling in the same vein but do you believe swimming is the same? I.e. swim shorter distances but more frequently as IM prep? I'm already sold on running 6 days/week (but 1:2:3 ratio) but wonder if swimming 4-5 days/week would be "better" than 3 days (for the same distance).

 I don't think swimming more than 3 days a week would be harmful, assuming your stroke has good mechanics and you aren't going to give yourself an overuse shoulder or elbow injury. But I also don't think it would be necessarily any better for IM training for several reasons:

1. The swim is such a small component of the Ironman. Any extra time you put into swim training is not going to buy you much of a time advantage at the IM distance. Putting the same amount of training time into extra bikes or runs would probably give you a better net gain in your total time.

2. Swimming for most people is time consuming. An hour of swimming typically involves travel time to get to a pool or open water and may take as long as two hours to accomplish, where a bike or run can happen right from your front door. You get less training bang for your buck from hours spent swimming. Increasing the number of swims means also increasing the amount of wasted time (unless you live on the ocean or a lake or have your own pool).

3. If you're a fast swimmer, then extra swim sessions won't make you considerably faster in the grand Ironman scheme of things. If you're a slow swimmer, you're better off spending your swim time working on your technique, and for that you can optimize your time with one coached session, one session to work on what you're learning from your coach (more on that in a minute) and do some intervals, and one session to work on endurance.

Which leads me to the next question, from Stephanie at, who says
I need tips/training on how to increase endurance in swimming.

The answer to this one goes back to the discussion of technique above. When people think about endurance, they think of gradually building up the ability to go longer and longer. This works well with sports like running and biking, where if you just keep upping your training distances in small increments, you will eventually be able to go longer without fatiguing.

Not so with swimming.

And here's why: Both speed and endurance in swimming are more tied to technique than anything else. Water is more than 700 times denser and 55 times more viscous than air. That means that while you can wave your arms at your friends and family all you want while running a marathon, the slightest pinky out of place when you are swimming will cost you dearly in terms of increased drag.

Most swimmers do not take all the possible steps to reduce drag in their stroke, and many incur additional drag by making very common stroke mechanic mistakes such as keeping the head high or weaving from side to side. It takes a huge amount of energy to overcome this additional drag in water, therefore much of the reason for a swimmer's lack of endurance is simply that they're spending far more energy than they need to.

As a case study, I'll mention a lady in my swim class. On Monday night, I was watching her stroke. She has gotten the hang of a nice long glide phase in her stroke, which extends the "vessel" of her body in the water and reduces her form drag. Over the months we've worked together, she has also ditched her habit of crossing the centerline of her body on hand entry. This has greatly reduced her side-to-side wiggle, which in turn also reduces drag immensely. As a result, it now takes her 18 strokes to move from one end of the pool to the other, instead of the 28 that it used to take. You can easily see how her endurance can be greatly improved simply by the fact that she's taking 30% fewer strokes to go the same distance!

Beyond simply reducing drag, you can also increase the efficiency of your stroke. Many swimmers spend time moving water in all sorts of directions (downwards, upwards, to the sides) but the only direction that counts is moving water straight behind you, because that's the only way to gain propulsion in the forward direction (assuming you DO want to swim forward, right?). ALL of this muscle power that you may be using to move water in random directions costs you in terms of fatigue and reduced endurance.

So the bottom line is that to increase endurance in swimming, the best and easiest method is to improve your stroke and reduce your drag and therefore your effort in swimming. Finding a local Masters swim group or coach can be your best bet. If you live in an area with no available swimming resources, you can consider video coaching (which I offer, among other online swim coaches). As a last resort, I'd consider self-coaching using a book or DVD like Total Immersion.


Kathy said...

thank you SO MUCH for your post! I was a fish as a kid but I'm not sure it sticks with you some 30-40 years later. Can you email me or provide info on your swim coaching? I'm not living anywhere remotely near coaching (though i suppose it exists in Cancun, but that is 160km RT and I can't take that much time off).

Again, thanks!

Marv said...

I think you are giving out great advice. When I taught myself to swim I used Total Immersion and basically concentrated on technique and reducing drag. I so agree also on swimming not really getting the training bang for the buck. I usually swim only once a week for a mile or two and do some technique work at the same time --it is 57 miles to my pool and nearby lakes are very low-water quality suspect.

I don't win the swim in an event but I get out of the water fresh and ready to bike.
good post Robin