Monday, April 28, 2008

Get Your Swim On For That Spring Sprint

Here's a good main set for working on speed for a 500 - 800 yard swim in one of the spring sprint distance tris that are popping up like daisies this time of year...

3 x
{2 x 200
2 x 100
2 x 50}

I did this one tonight, and tried to make the 100's add up to less time than the fastest 200, and the 50's add up to less than the fastest 100. Then I tried to make each of the three sets a little faster than the last. It looks like a simple set, but it turned out to be fairly tough in the end!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Evil Fairies Are At It Again

I don't know how this happens to me, it isn't the first time the evil fairies have visited me but this time they've gone too far. I have a card I use to get into the club where I teach swimming. I put it in a small pocket on the outside of my backpack. This pocket only has three things in it - my card, my lock & key, and my iPod. One day, I go to get out my card at the front desk and it's not there - it's very obviously not in this pocket. This pocket only carries three things, and the card is not one of them at this point. I look everywhere for it - in pockets, in the washing machine, in my bike panniers, on my desk. It's nowhere. For a few weeks, I sign in on the shameful "missing card" sign-in sheets at the front desk, hoping it will just magically turn up, but I eventually admit defeat and get another card, for which I'm probably charged $5 or so out of my ridiculously tiny paycheck.

So I've been using my new card for a couple of weeks now and yesterday I go to the club and pull out my card, and two cards come of of the pocket together - my new one and my old one, as if I'm a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. The only logical explanation are that there are tiny evil fairies whose sole mission in life is to torture me with stuff like this. I mean, I know I'm slightly disorganized and a little cluttery and messy, and I do lose things from time to time only to find them later in a completely different place. But this time I can't help but feel that they're mocking me. There's no way, NO WAY I tell you, that this card was in that pocket before yesterday. The evil fairies are probably somewhere sitting on a mushroom and toasting each other with dandelion wine this very instant, laughing at my expense.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Scare the Heck Out of the Swim Coach

So I'm on the pool deck, coaching my Monday night Swim Conditioning class, and something on my radar screen just goes off. I look over at the hot tub and my heart stops cold. There's a body floating motionless in there. Semi-casually, so as not to freak anyone out, I hold the class up a minute and walk briskly over to check it out. As it turns out, it's just a lady who enjoys relaxing in the hot tub in kind of a dead-man's float position. Whew!

I'm always amazed at how quickly that radar reacts to small changes in the environment, especially around the pool. I pulled a kid out of the hot tub once that I wasn't even consciously aware was there. I was lap swimming and almost not of my own volition I vaulted out of the pool toward the hot tub. My subconscious brain had noticed that there was a kid there, and then there wasn't. He was under water and his mom (sitting just a few feet away) had not noticed. With the bubbles on, you couldn't even see him under the water. Scary! I guess once a lifeguard always a lifeguard. Sometimes when I'm at the pool in the summer with my kids, I find myself counting noses in the pool and keeping track of the bathing suits: "1,3, 7, 9, kid in red suit...yep... blue duckie....11, 14...." and I won't even notice I'm doing it.

So my heart is back to normal now, and at least you know if you ever swim or even float prone in the hot tub on my watch, you're safe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jonesing For A Swim

I needed to swim tonight like a junkie might need a fix after a week of going straight. I love biking, I like running, but swimming is my habit and when I get as stressed as I was today, I need my fix dammit. So although my to-do list was ten feet long and growing, I took the time to get in the pool and now I feel almost sane. By 6:00 am tomorrow morning, we'll be headed for the airport to Atlanta to the FIRST World Robotics Festival. We've got five kids, two robots, a ton of spare parts, research project presentations, pit table decorations, team t-shirts, trading cards and give-aways, and of course the kids' iPods, Nintendos, laptops, books, and other assorted paraphenalia. I don't think Hannibal carried this much stuff across the Alps, and he had elephants for pack animals. We only have a couple of parents to do the job. Wish us luck, and cross your fingers that the hotel has a good pool. I'm gonna need it!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cadence and Old Punk Vinyl

Running cadence is one of the least debated bits of running technique. Unlike a forward lean or midfoot vs. forefoot vs. heel striking, running books, coaches, triathletes and runners themselves are almost unilateral in their praise of running cadence and insistence that every runner should be running at a cadence of around 88 - 92. I have been working on my running cadence for a couple of years, and have posted questions about cadence at places like the Trifuel forums, normally a font of wisdom on all subjects to do with triathlon training. What I've heard back is unilateral praise for the merits of high cadence. Even when I've asked questions about whether or not this is feasible for slower runners or for some of the heavier Clydesdale-class athletes I've been coaching, the answer has been that a high cadence is good across the board.

Unfortunately, this advice hasn't matched up with my experience, which is that for runners who are slower than about 10 minutes a mile, a high cadence is very hard or impossible to achieve. And it's not a matter of just practicing it more, it just doesn't seem to work. At the triathlete coach's seminar, Dave Scott was talking about cadence and I asked him this question. He said that over about a 9 minute mile, runners usually can't sustain a cadence of 90. Just one more little nugget of wisdom that I gleaned from that training. As I said earlier, this stuff has been percolating through my brain as I've been training and coaching and these kernels of insight have been popping to the top.

For me, the cadence issue has been both a saviour and a bugaboo. A saviour in the sense that developing a higher cadence finally has enabled me to run off of the bike effectively in my sprint and Olympic distance races. I can keep about a 8 minute per mile pace in these shorter races and the high cadence and shorter stride has helped me transition from biking to running more smoothly with much less effort on my legs. So all of the high cadence work I was doing has been very helpful in that regard. But on my slower paced runs (I'm about a 9-minute miler for a half-marathon, and 10 minutes per mile at the marathon distance), I struggled with implementing the higher cadence. It always seemed to drive my heartrate up, and I could never reconcile the higher cadence with the heartrate needed for the longer distances. So what Dave Scott said rang completely true from my own experience - the 9 minute mile is about where I lose the ability to keep my cadence high. Finally, some cadence advice in running that makes sense to me! This will also help me immensely in coaching my newer runners and Clydesdale runners, for whom a 10 minute mile is still a distant goal.

So with all of this in mind, I set out on a tempo run this week, and was searching through for a useful set of tunes to bolster my higher cadence. I came across this album, Someone's Gonna Ger Their Head to Believe, which was perfect. As I was listening through the album preview, a wave of good old nostalgia washed over me. This album is a compilation of most of the best early American Hardcore punk, brought together on an album called Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, from the seminal punk year of 1982. They've combined it with most of the best tracks from another compilation, 1984's Something to Believe In, and ended up with an album containing many of the best US Hardcore tracks ever layed on good old-fashioned vinyl. I have both of these albums somewhere in my moldering vinyl collection, but I'm not one of those folks who still have their record players. So to find it easily downloadable in an MP3 format on a day when I needed a jolt for a tempo run was a Godsend. Youth Brigade, Aggression, Battalian of Saints, Bad Religion, Adolescents, Social Distortion, Seven Seconds - this album is definitely a soundtrack of my teenage years.

Our city's weekly newspaper just did an article on the re-emerging trend of House Concerts. When I was a teen, they were in full swing in our town, and I was happy to note that the article mentioned my old house as one of the early venues for house concerts in our town that has apparently renewed itself as a music venue. Three friends and I rented a house we called "The Greenhouse" (not surprisingly, for the paint color) in 1985 and nailed mattresses over the basement windows. Our band practiced there and a number of the best hardcore bands in the world played there over the year or so that passed between signing the rental contract and getting kicked out for having a bunch of homeless kids living in our basement. It's funny to walk downtown and see a marquee for bands like NOFX and remember selling tickets at my own back door and begging people not to drink beer on the lawn facing the street.

So my tempo run was bolstered by fast tracks and good memories, and the mystery of why I can't hold that faster cadence on my distance runs has been solved. On Tuesday I leave with my kids and our robotics team en route to the World Robotics Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. This might be the last missive from me until we get back a week from now. Until then, rock on....

Monday, April 07, 2008

And They Win By A Spike....

First volleyball game of the spring season last night. I had to sit out all last season because of that blasted sprained ankle, and was more than a little trepidatious about playing on it. It felt really tight at first in the Achilles, but loosened up and didn't bother me at all after that - hooray! First game we took easily (I can't believe all my serves went in), second game we totally lost (15 - 5, how is that possible), third game came down to rally scoring and only a few minutes left, and we were tied up and it went back and forth until we won it on a spike... by me! Hooray, I can jump again! One more sport I can enjoy once more, four months is a long time to take off from something this fun.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Working From the Core

For years, I've been talking with my swimmers about trying to swim from the core, instead of from the arms and feet. Although we use our core muscles for power in almost every other sport (think of a golfer winding up a swing, or a quarterback twisting that arm way back for the Hail Mary pass), when people swim they often tend to be rather flat in the water, moving only their arms and legs. If they're not flat, they're over-rotating their hips to the sides (often influenced by the Total Immersion method) along with their torso. These styles are the equivalent of giving Barry Bonds a baseball bat and asking him to either hit without moving his hips at all, or asking him to move his hips parallel to his shoulders. In neither case would he be able to muster up enough power to send one out of the park (stand up and try it with an imaginary bat if you don't see what I mean).

So I've believed for a long time that the power in a swimming stroke comes from twisting that core, and while the hips will twist too, to a certain extent, rotating them too far will take some of that power away. The human core is like a gigantic spring of muscles which can store a lot of energy once it is twisted and then unleashed. The bummer is that it's hard to describe this to people and have them just get it and be able to translate it to their swimming stroke.

One of the most exciting drills I learned last weekend was something that I think will really help swimmers feel this concept. We were doing a drill that's something like paddling on a surfboard - arms are flexed at right angles and you're paddling with a very flat and short stroke, with no rotation of the torso at all. One of the things this works on is setting that high elbow catch as well (two birds with one stone here). With the next step, you add rotation of the shoulders, but pretend there's a coffee cup balanced on your hips that you don't want to spill. That lets swimmers feel their torso rotating independently from their hips. Just using these drills the other night with my swimmers, many of them were able to have one of those great "aha" moments where they could feel the muscles they needed to be moving in order to start generating power from their core instead of just from their arms. I love it when that happens.

If you watch videos of great swimmers, like this one of Grant Hackett, you can see the rotation of the upper core, independent from the hips that I'm talking about, and how much power comes from that rotation.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Still Digesting

I spent this last weekend at the Team in Training coaches seminar, given by Dave Scott. It was a pretty intense 2 days of workshops, hands-on technique coaching, and a lot of information. I'm still digesting it all, but you can probably expect to see things start popping out here in this blog that I learned over the weekend. The swim drills were the part I was most excited about, and I wasn't disappointed there. I came away with some new tools for helping my swimmers understand better stroke mechanics. Oh yeah, and I got a killer quick tour of all the wonderful Washington D.C. sights, including an early run down to see the sunrise over the Washington and Lincoln monuments. Unforgettable!