Sunday, October 28, 2012

Can You Run Out of Things to Improve On?

A bunch of Masters swimmers have asked me to coach an extra weekly practice, mostly focused on technique. In swimming, improving technique is where your biggest bang for the buck comes from, since simply grinding away at more weekly yards rarely gives much of a boost to swimming performance. In the process of discussing this weekly addition, one swimmer noted that we might run out of things to work on.

Is that possible? Can you run out of things to work on in swimming? I'm guessing that Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps haven't done so, and therefore neither should we. Swimming is a game of constant thought processes and incremental improvements that add up to big performance gains. At first, when swimmers are starting out with poor technique, each thing they change can make huge differences in their effort level and in their times. Later, as the stroke gets more refined, the changes become tinier and the gains smaller, but there are still gains to be had.

One of my Masters swimmers told me this week that his fastest 50m swim of all time came when he was concentrating on "laying his armpit on the water" - in other words, reaching full extension of his stroke. Sometimes one area of concentration can produce a leap in performance that can't be built through sheer yards alone.

So, all that being said, I've been swimming competitively for 28 years now and there are still new things that I'm working on each and every year. Right now in my stroke, I'm concentrating on a couple of areas:

1) Offside breathing - moving the head turn earlier in the stroke. I realized that I was turning my head too late when I breathed to my "off" side (as opposed to the good side I normally breathe to) and that's part of why I have a more difficult time breathing to the left. I'm working on getting my head to rotate earlier and return to neutral position earlier in the left armstroke recovery.

2) Head Down - This is my perpetual problem, especially as I enter a flip turn, I tend to pick my head up and slow my momentum. But I have remnants of head-up swimming at other times as well, and since it affects body position and I tend to sink, it's important to keep the head down.

3) Turns - I'm working on coming in closer to the wall on my flip turns. I had an epiphany the other day, which is that if I take an extra stroke, even if it's a short one, I get closer to the wall on the turn, have a tighter and faster turn. I used to glide into the wall on my last stroke, thus losing momentum.

These are just a few things that I drill on every week. If you're serious about improving your swim stroke, I recommend picking just a couple of things to work on. Google those problem areas and find drills and technique instruction to help you make the changes that you're looking for. And overall, never forget the concept of Kaizen - constant and never-ending improvement. It's how swimmers get faster, from the cream of the Olympic crop down to the triathletes and Masters swimmers who are just starting out.

Friday, October 19, 2012

One Perfect Day

One Perfect Day. It's not a day when a winning lottery ticket falls out of the sky, or a movie star appears out of nowhere to sweep you away, or you get that big promotion you've been waiting for. It's a day comprised of small moments that you take the time to see clearly, to appreciate as they're happening, to savor in your memory when they're gone. Nothing spectacular has to happen on a perfect day, you just have to notice that everything you usually take for granted is, in fact, amazing.

My life is filled with perfect days, but sometimes I'm too harried to notice them. Sometimes I'm the Busy Person that this blog post addresses so well (I'm somewhat embarassed  to admit that a friend sent me a link to this post and it took me several days to get around to reading it guessed it... I was too busy!). Yesterday I slowed down enough to notice, to appreciate, to savor. And even to document on my cell phone.

First, what's breakfast without some Emoticon Pancakes? These weren't created with any sort of intention, the faces just appeared in the pancakes like magic. There's a flaw in our cast-iron pan that caused my daughter to flip these fun little pancakes, each one cuter than the last.

As the sun peeped out from behind the early morning valley fog, my son and I went out to pick the remaining apples off of our trees to be made into fruit leather and apple sauce. He and I took a moment and sat in the sunshine with a freshly plucked bright red apple in hand. Biting into that crisp fall-flavored fruit, feeling the sun slanting in from the south on our necks, we talked about what it would be like to have been born somewhere without seasons. I know there will come a time when winter's rain will seem endless and I'll yearn for the spring, but I also love the turn of the year here in the northwest when nothing is the same for long. The cold brings on the apples, plums, and fall fruit. The rain brings the greenery that makes this place so beautiful the rest of the year.

So then why not head out on one of fall's last spectacular days along the winding back roads of the south hills of the Willamette Valley. It was a bit chilly here in the forested parts, and I was really grateful for my convertible jacket with the zip-off sleeves. This time of year each bike ride brings another layer of clothing you have to add. First the vest, then the jacket, then tights, earwarmers, and full gloves. Eventually, I retreat into the pain cave with some hardcore biking videos from The Sufferfest and maybe a season or two of Dexter and wait out the chilling rains until spring makes the outdoors palatable again. This time of year, every ride in the sunshine is a blessing.

As I broke out into wine country, I was treated to the golden-hued vines of Sweet Cheeks and Hinman vineyards. I have to admit, I didn't shoot this gorgeous shot with my cell phone (I thought about trying, but decided it wouldn't be a good idea to tromp up the hill in my cycling shoes). This came off of their website. But this is what it looked like out there: fall sunlight on the golden leaves of the grape vines. I've bicycled hundreds of miles in Italy and thousands here and I can tell you that Oregon holds its own with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.

What could possibly top such a gorgeous day, but an evening spent downing a pint with my mates while watching the Ducks stomp the Sun Devils - the Aquaducks had an informal get together at a local pub with some big screens and a Duck-happy crowd. The final chapter was then taking my son to hear Beethoven's 5th performed by the Eugene Symphony. This iconic music deserves to be heard as it literally is brought to life by the orchestra. The energy of the conductor, the motion of the bows on strings, the tympany rolling from the back of the stage, and that perfect moment in the first movement when all the sound and fury dies down and one lone oboe calls out - my arms erupting in goose bumps.

As I came home to my house, redolent with the smell of the plum/apple fruit leather in the dehydrator and applesauce in the crockpot, I washed my face and climbed under the down comforter, snuggled my pillow-stealing dog next to me and closed my eyes on a perfect day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Escape From a Mugger Shows The Value of the Black Belt

I did one thing wrong on that Wednesday afternoon - a sunny day in a parking lot in front of the pool, a non-threatening location where my guard was down - I stood in the door of my car.

I was waiting for my daughter, talking on the phone. The car was hot, I got out and stood there, enjoying a few minutes of warm autumn sunshine. I was distracted, chatting with a person in a ticket office, my credit card held loosely in my other hand as I read off the numbers.

At first, the man approaching me looked like any other young guy walking down the sidewalk. Maybe his pants were hanging a bit low, a chain connecting his wallet or keys draped across his front. The baseball cap on his head turned backwards, the loosey-goosey gangsta walk gave him an aura of trying a bit too hard to be a bad boy. But you see guys like this all the time.

So I didn't pay attention as he came towards me along the sidewalk -  until he veered straight at me. Only then did I realize the vulnerable position I'd put myself in. Trapped against the door of my car. Unable to get in and slam the door in time to shut him out. By the time the second or two had passed between him seeming like another guy walking by, and him being a guy walking towards me looking like trouble, I had nowhere to go. I had forgotten the golden rule of being a woman: never let your guard down.

What happened next probably took less than a minute. It went by so fast that only in retrospect could I analyze what had transpired between us. In the moment, it went something like this:

Thug: You're going to give me that phone and your credit card.
Me (surprised, still chatting on phone): What?
Thug (getting in my face, reaching out) Give me your phone!
Me: (to person on other end of line) Excuse me just a moment
        (to thug): No, I don't think so
Thug (getting angry) You f***ing little b*tch! What, you think I can't take this. You (stream of obscenity I won't reprint)
Me: I think you need to leave me alone now. Move away.
Thug moves away down the sidewalk uttering more curses at me over his shoulder

At first, I was simply shocked that he left me alone. He was probably six feet tall and 190 pounds. He had me trapped in a corner. What the heck happened here? But when I replayed the incident in my mind, I realized what had really occurred - a complex dance of body language and words, a moment in which years of training in martial arts had kicked in, and tipped the direction of the encounter.

When I looked back, moment by moment through the encounter, here's what happened in my mind and body:

Thug: You're going to give me that phone and your credit card.
Me (surprised, still chatting on phone): What?
I look around, realize I'm trapped. Realize I've put myself in a bad situation. Without realizing I did this until later, I slipped off my flip-flops and kicked them back under the car.
Thug (getting in my face, reaching out) Give me your phone!
Me: (to person on other end of line) Excuse me just a moment
        (to thug): No, I don't think so
I examine the thug from head to foot. His eyes look clear - no evidence of drugs or alcohol. I sniff, no scent of alcohol on his breath, and his face is only inches from mine, so I should smell it. No bulges in pockets that could be weapons. Hands are both out in front of him. He could have a weapon in the waistband of his pants but it would take him a moment to retrieve it. He's gesturing with his right hand, probably right-handed then. I have more room to his right side, so if he comes at me with an attack from that direction, I can block, move past him, and probably take out his knee.
Thug (getting angry) You f***ing little b*tch! What, you think I can't take this. You (stream of obscenity I won't reprint)
Me: I think you need to leave me alone now. Move away.
My body language shifts into defensive mode. I come up on the balls of my feet, ready to move, like a fighting stance in karate. My phone can be used as a weapon to strike him on the temple. My other hand is open, I draw in a slow breath, speak calmly, and look him in the eye. I can see this is totally unexpected for him. He expected this woman to back down and give him what he wanted. He's confused, both by my politeness and by my readiness to engage. I literally watch him evaluate, and back down.
Thug moves away down the sidewalk uttering more curses at me over his shoulder.

Now, things might've turned out differently if he'd had a weapon. If he'd been on drugs, or looked like he was mentally unstable. I might've made different decisions based on a thousand factors. But the truth is, the years of training that went into becoming a black belt helped me make all of those decisions on the fly. And ultimately, I knew I had options, I had defenses. Even though I'd originally put myself into a bad position (lesson learned there), I was able to get away from a bad situation.

This is why even on the occasional days when my kids don't want to get up and go to karate, I insist. My kids are both teens now. They bike or take the bus places without me. They're out in a world that's usually wonderful, but can sometimes turn ugly in a heartbeat. I need to know that they will have options too.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Best New Autumn Breakfast

You probably know by now that my go-to power breakfast is my Banana-Coconut Custard, which fulfills everything I need in a breakfast:

1) Easy to make
2) A good mix of protein, fat, and carbs
3) Easy on digestion
4) Whole-foods ingredients
5) Reasonably paleo or at least no grains
5) Tastes like it could be dessert

But bananas are such a summery fruit. I need something that feels like fall. Something that tastes like a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice latte' without all that sugar and without costing me almost $5.

Enter my new favorite fall breakfast: Pumpkin Custard.

Here's how you make it - super easy! And just see if this doesn't fuel your next early morning swim or afternoon bike ride through the turning leaves to perfection:

- Whisk 3 eggs until frothy
- Add 3 Tbs Milk, Coconut Milk, Almond Milk, or whatever substitute you want
- Add 1/4 cup of Pureed Pumpkin (I used canned, but I'll use some fresh cooked/mashed once I pick some pumpkins)
- Add cinnamon and some pumpkin pie spices to taste (nutmeg, ginger, allspice, etc.)
- Add maple syrup to taste if you want it a bit sweeter and need some extra carbs

Put in microwave for 3 - 5 minutes until it puffs up and cooks all the way through. Serve warm. Enjoy!