Monday, January 7, 2013

A Winter Swim Clinic for Triathletes

The Breast Stroke or the Freestyle?
Do I learn to swim the freestyle or continue the breast stroke?  As a triathlete, I have faced this decision many times. I dare say I have done close to a hundred triathlons over the years, and with each swim I have used the breast stroke.  My breast stroke with swim distances a half mile or longer, usually puts me in the middle of my age group. 
With the breast stroke I am able to maintain a straight course, whereas many swimmers doing the freestyle (the term freestyle is sometimes used as a synonym for crawl) on a long swim begin to tire and start zigzagging.   A tired swimmer often swims a further distance than me.  In a long swim I am the tortoise (with my breast stroke) going slow, BUT steady and straight, competing against the hare treading water to rest, and usually weaving along the course.  In the long swim I have a chance to finish ahead of some of the less conditioned swimmers.
During the past few years I have focused only on the shorter triathlon distance (usually called the Sprint triathlon) with swim distances between a quarter and third of a mile.  In the Sprint triathlon swim I most always find myself last in my age group.  Everyone ahead of me uses the freestyle.

In essense, in short distance open water swims the freestyle hare most usually beats the breast stroke tortoise.
The year 2013 made me face my breast stroke decision once again.  In 2012 I qualified for the National Senior Games Triathlon to be held in July 2013 in Cleveland.  This means I will be representing New Hampshire – and accepting last place is not something we do in New Hampshire.  I keep asking myself, “Will the freestyle stroke make me more of a competitor in my age group?”
The Blue Steel Triathlon Club Swim Clinic
I am a proud member of the Blue Steel Triathlon Club.  The Club offers a variety of triathlon oriented Clinics and Events for its members to improve performance as well to encourage teammate camaraderie:  We have bike time trials on summer evenings; fun runs for members to enjoy non-competitive group runs; transition clinics for tips and practice to minimize the transition time from swim to bike, and bike to run; and early morning open water group swims at local lakes. 
This past October, one of our teammates, Stacy Sweetser, an all-American college swimmer with a reputation of being an outstanding swim instructor, offered to put on a Blue Steel swim clinic at the Allard Center YMCA in Goffstown, NH.
The Club would rent two swim lanes, and sign-up would be a first-come first served with a maximum of ten triathletes for each of the two sessions offered.
There was no procrastination this time.  My mantra of Never say, “I wish I had …” came to mind, and after receiving the email notice I immediately registered.
Let me describe the class attendees.  Indeed, I felt like “a turkey trying to fly with eagles.”  Most, if not all, of the teammates were the Club’s top triathletes with their attendance at the clinic aimed to further refine their freestyle stroke.
My goal was to see if I could learn and feel confident with the freestyle to make the freestyle my swim stroke for Cleveland.
We started the first class with each of us doing the crawl back and forth in the 25 yard pool.  Stacy observed our individual strokes.  She then explained how our next five weeks would go –basically a variety of training drills with increasing intensity that would include using hand paddles and training fins.  She would also be emailing us YouTube training films and suggestions for each of our areas she identified for improvement.
Admittedly, my freestyle technique was close to non-existent with my kick, breathing, and arm stroke meeting all criteria for a “Do Not Do This” film.
Breath Left
Over the course of the five weeks, besides drills we did together, Stacy would have us do individual drills to re-enforce each triathlete’s specific freestyle opportunity for improvement.
What was so impressive in this clinic, indeed, was Stacy herself.  Her clinic preparation, her ability to focus on us as individuals, as well as a group, made every one of us feel we were each getting special attention.  So no matter what the skill level we each started at, she improved us all.
In no way am I capable of describing how the reader can do the freestyle stroke, but some of the impressive things I gathered from Stacy were:
  • The high elbow stoke versus my old way of a complete underwater arm pull. Stacy calls it EVF, Early Vertical Forearm underwater.
  • Bi-lateral breathing. Previously I always breathed on my right side.  As an open-water triathlete swimmer breathing only on one side can hinder you swimming straight as well be an issue with waves.
  • Immediately Stacy saw I held my breath underwater.  She had me take each breath on my side, and then exhale (blow bubbles) into the water.  My breathing and stamina immediately improved.
  • With every class Stacy emphasized:
  • Getting comfortable with freestyle on your side. The 6 kick switch drill was great. You can keep your face up/out breathing the whole time until you switch to the other side. You can even turn over on your back so your face never goes in the water, if you would rather.
The Lane Gainer Stretch Cord – Never say, “I wish I had …”
Start of Lane Gainer Stretch Cord Swim
Near the end of the third week’s class, Stacy asked if we wanted to try the Lane Gainer Stretch cord. Immediately the class responded, “What is that?”  In a few words, this stretchable nylon cord is tied at one end of the pool.  The other end of the cord is tied to a waist belt.  The swimmer puts the belt on and starts swimming with the goal of reaching the other end of the pool.  As the swimmer near the center of the 25 yard pool, the cord reaches its natural length and begins to hold the swimmer.  This is where the strength/power/technique of the swimmer comes in.
Stacy asked for a volunteer, and one of the better swimmers was ready to go.  As he neared the 2/3rd mark you could see him begin straining a bit and his stroke pace increased – the cord was at its normal length and now his power stroke was needed. We yelled encouragement and roared when he finally touched the far end of the pool.
I was the least accomplished of the students, and no way was I going to embarrass myself.
During the week I kept saying to myself, “Never say I wish I had …” when I thought of the lane gainer cord.  Come week four, when Stacy asked for volunteers for the cord, I was the first to volunteer with a joking remark, “Let me set the standard for today.”  I did manage about two-thirds of the pool, and felt remarkably proud.  On week five we again did the lane gainer cord.  When I got into the water, Stacy suggested to me, “When you think you can go no further, do another ten strokes”.  Predictably I did not reach the end, BUT I did keep Stacy’s words in my mind, and when I thought I was at my last exhausting stroke, I counted and managed ten more dying strokes.  I had reach about three-quarters of the pool – further than I had gone on Week 4.  Surely not assurance I would quality for a spot on the USA Olympic team, BUT enough to make me proud.
Surely this winter I will practice the freestyle at indoor pools, and in the spring do as many open water swims as I can. 
Make the outdoors and exercise a daily component of your life.  Never say, “I wish I had …”
Stacy’s Clinic Material:
·        Watch the beginning of this video again... notice hand position under shoulder area while elbow is high (under water). We discussed this today.
We did a lot of drills to get towards this type of stroke.
·        Swimming - Turns - Freestyle Flip Turn Step #1 - noodle flip
*Flip straight head over heels
*Use abs to flip, not your arms/hands

·        Swimming - Turns - Freestyle Flip Turn Step #2 -  noodle flip w/ hands at sides, push off wall on back
·        Swimming - Freestyle Flip Turn Step #3 - kick in, flip straight over hands at side w/ no equipment w/ hands at side, push off on your back
·        Swimming - Turns - Freestyle Flip Turn Step #4 - get a little speed coming into the wall with two strokes, continue flip and push off on back
·        Swimming - Turns - Freestyle Flip Turn Step #5 - the whole flip w/ pushing off rolling onto side.
·        This video shows a sculling drill we did but we went backwards... this shows going forwards!
·        This is a video that discusses an efficient underwater pull.  Highlights... shallow pulling w/ high elbow creates less frontal drag, still a powerful pull.  Watch the complete video if possible. Great underwater coverage.
Steve’s latest book, Outdoor Enthusiast: Never say, “I wish I had…” is available as an e-Book at Kindle and Nook and hard copy at