Monday, February 25, 2013

Going After It

In continuing with my theme of breaking up the winter doldrums by doing fun training and racing things, I raced an indoor time trial this past weekend.

The first time I did one of the races in this local indoor TT series was back in January of 2002.  That’s further proof that I’ve been doing this stuff a really long time.  I might have done one earlier but I don’t even know if they kept records way back then.  I remember racing at races where there were no timing chips.  Just some kid with a pencil, a clipboard and a stopwatch writing down your number. 

This really happened. 

There’s a local cycling club that puts on an indoor time trial series in a nearby school.  Historically these have not been my favorite events.  First of all, they really really hurt.  Bad.  Second of all, they tend to favor a bigger rider who can put down massive power without worrying about carrying themselves up a hill or dissipating heat.  Third, it is like performing on a stage.  You race, in a bank of Computrainers with 5 other riders with people watching behind you.  Like last year when the announcer said let’s see if Liz Waterstraat can bike as well as she blogs.  Nothing like a little added pressure.  And, fourth, they hurt.  I think I already said that but it’s worth repeating.

The night before, I thought about what I was going to do in the race.  This is one of those “tricks” that can make anyone – regardless of age, fitness, ability – race faster.  THINK IT THROUGH, people!  Take the time to write out a timeline with some plans.  First of all, you need a plan because when you’re in the race moment, suffering, you need to know what you’re going to do. Don’t leave it to your mind to decide because at that moment you’re body is screaming to your mind: WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME!  Have a plan!  Know what to say!  Focus on things to distract yourself from that pain!  This plan becomes automatic, no thinking-  just DO!  I always include when I need to wake up, eat, what I’m eating, warm up details, time of warm up.  And then I write out 3 things I either want to remember or accomplish during the race.  I do this for every race, no matter how small!  After all, the small ones set you up for having good bigger ones.  Use those opportunities!  Then, save those notes and review them so you have a record of what works/what doesn’t work to use for next time.

I got a few good tips from Chris and Kurt and then looked back at my notes from last year.  This would be a rolling 10K course.  Done correctly, my wattage would be well above threshold.  Last year, I set my all time personal power best at this distance.  My goal this year was to get within 5 watts from that.  Taking some advice from Kurt, I knew in the last 3-5 minutes, I needed to throw it into the 53x12, stand and put down as much power as possible.  Plan in hand, I packed up and set out.

Well on my way to overcaffeination, I arrived at the school way too early only to have to sit on the cafeteria floor for about an hour suffering through the worst ever assembled playlist.  When you have Elvis, polka and Shakira in the same playlist, you need an iTunes intervention.  I ate second breakfast which meant my blood was running caffeine and carbohydrate.  Time to warm up.

45 minutes later (the harder & shorter the event, the longer the warm up), it was time.  First off – get weighed.  I haven’t been weighing myself lately because after IVF, I was having a really hard time dropping weight.  Not surprisingly, the harder I tried, the more stubborn the weight got until I started to make drastic changes, dropped a few pounds but then got sick.  Ding ding ding!  The moron bell sounded and I knew it was time to stop weighing myself.  Haven’t been on the scale since.  So when I stepped on the scale, I said to the girl do not tell me how much I weigh

Turns out the hardest thing I did today was keeping myself from dropping that card in the next 10 minutes to reveal the weight.  It was tough but I nailed it.

I sat around watching the guys before me finish up.  I recognized the guy who’s won these things for years.  Someone was congratulating him and asking how he did it:  I just try to keep my watts up on the downhills.  So I listened.  Goal: push as hard as possible on every downhill. 

My turn.  On to the Computrainer.  I successfully look away when the guy enters in our weights and instead look around at my competition.  I may just be the only one under age 40 here.  All cyclists, wearing their designated team kits and riding road bikes.  In the entire gymnasium, I am the only one with a time trial bike, the only one not wearing a kit, the only one who does not appear to be tattooed. 

This means in the world of cycling, I am a (COMPLETE TRI DORK!) … winner.

Which reminds me, late last night, Kurt sent me an email:


When I got it, I laughed.  I sat down ready to craft some logical response about all of the factors that were against me (I’m small, I’m a triathlete, some Pro 1/2 girl will probably win).  Then I realized Kurt could really give a shit, none of those were good reasons for not winning but were great excuses.  At that moment, I putting winning in my realm of possibility.  Which was kind of a big thing.  I never go to these things trying to win.  But why not?  I’m fit.  I’m strong.  Why hold back?  Goal: go after it and gut yourself

We calibrate and then get a countdown.  I turned up my music.  LOUD. 

At first I just looked at the screen to anticipate the grades of the hills.  Going up, watch your cadence.  Going down, pedal like hell.  My power was high.  In the first 3 minutes I was well, as in 40-50 watts, above threshold.  Don’t think about it.  Ignore it and keep pushing.  I would either blow up at 10 minutes or set a new power best. 


Three minutes feels like forever but I notice something happening….I am pulling ahead of the men.  I am in fourth position.  I get fired up to maintain it, work harder, dear god power is still really high, is this really happening?  It doesn’t feel impossibly hard but it’s certainly not easy.  But the rising heat in my head tells me that this might have been caffeine speaking.  It’s really hard, I’m just not fully feeling it.

10 minutes down, I’m still in 4th and rocking on my saddle.  In a rhythm – I LOVE THIS PLACE.  This rhythm of hurt I call it.  Where it feels like a few watts short of death but you can’t escape it.  You don’t want to.  You find out about yourself in these moments.  Everything becomes very real. 

The downhills are getting harder so I give myself 5 seconds to spin easy and catch my breath after each one.  If swimming has taught me anything, it’s the ability to recover in under 5 seconds.  Any swimmer knows that 10 seconds on the wall is an ETERNITY!  I’m approaching the 5 mile mark and realize – a little over a mile to go, watts are still holy shit high but don’t think too hard about it, just keep going after it.

Finally, the hill.  I knew my plan: throw it into the 53x12, stand up and put out as much power as possible.  The hill gets steeper but I’m stomping out high power, not afraid any more.  It’s only .3 miles to go.  .2.  .1.  PUSH IT! 

When I hit the 10K mark, I felt spent.  One of the workers said that was a violent effort!  I’m glad you noticed because it really, really felt like that: VIOLENT!  I went into it with no idea what time it would take but it turns out, I had the best time of the day.

So far.

I think I was out of breath for the next 10 minutes of cool down.  I took a look at my power – 10 watts above what I did last year and nearly 40 seconds faster.  I am ELATED.  And don’t kid yourself: this was NOT easy.  It’s certainly not because I’m doing “magical” workouts.  Nor that I’m talented, gifted, lucky….NONE of that.  I finally – FINALLY – after 11 years of doing these damn things – decided to GO AFTER IT.  Decided to stop reading notes from the races that said need to push harder, need to give it more at the end.  Decided to give it an ALL OUT WINNING EFFORT.

Think about that for yourself: what does that type of effort feel (and look) like?

Next up, the three other fastest women of the day went.  One was a long time Pro 1/2 rider, another was Jennifer and the last was another Pro 1/2 gal who won the last TT.  Poor Jennifer had to go into this race after two days of me trash talking her on Facebook, in texts and finally in person before her race.   But it paid off.  She also set a new time and power best.  Jen and the other woman went within .6 seconds of my time.  The other beat me. 

I didn’t win – but I know – from what I downloaded from my Quarq, what I felt in my legs but more importantly what my GUT was telling me – I truly did give it my best.  Think about that.  When you are supposed to go nearly 20 minutes as hard as you can, are you really doing that?  Are you finishing with the thought that you could have gone harder?  Is it taking you at least 10 minutes to catch your breath?  It’s taken me a long, LONG time to really understand what HARD is.  It is NOT a number.  In fact, if it was, I would have settled about 20 watts lower, right around my last bike test threshold.  So was that last bike test REALLY hard?  No it was not.  This was.  Think of how much untapped potential you have sitting in your head and muscles.  WHEN are you finally going to use that?  It’s a choice.  Obviously not in every workout but in these key opportunities, you’ve got to flip that switch, turn it up and go after it – FULLY.  100%. 

But no great effort comes without a cost.  My back had been sore for a few days.  You see, after doing a MONSTER swim and then going back to daily life as superhero mom able to lift 30-pound son in and out of carseat and crib multiple times a day – my back barked back.  And when I put my bike into the car, it barked again.  In fact, it barked for the rest of the night, waking me up at 2 am in spasms.

A trip to my A.R.T. guy the next day confirmed that muscles deep in my back are tight and inflamed.  It wasn’t even from the swimming.  It was from rolling out the soreness from swimming and lifting.  As you can imagine, when I do something, I do it full force.  And I should probably never be allowed to touch a foam roller or TP therapy ball again.   I didn’t just roll.  I cranked on it.  Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. 

The prescription: no swimming.  Yeah, I’m crying chlorinated tears about that.  Unfortunately, this thwarts my dreams of outdoor LCM in Florida.  Frustrating but resting those muscles and getting the treatment needed is much better than risking something much bigger.  In 20+ years of running and sports, I have been injured once (2003: piriformis for 3 months – or the 3 months that Liz spent NOT sitting).  I’d like to keep that record going if possible!

So far NOT picking up my son to move him around, especially in situations with a time constraint, has proved to be a little like herding cats.  Or, a little like this:

It ain’t an easy job.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Of Monsters & Woman

Every year, somewhere in middle of February, my masters team does a monster swim.

There’s a lot bad talk about doing 100 x 100s.  Entire videos have been made poking fun at it! I don’t understand why.  First of all, it’s winter in the Midwest.  What the heck else are you supposed to do when it’s 16 degrees outside?  Second of all, it’s one of those challenges that never stops challenging.  You can do all 100 on the 100?  Do them on 1:30.  Done that?  Try 1:20.  1:15.  1:10.   Do 10 fly.  Kick some.  Pull.  Lead.  Draft.  You get the point.  Lastly, it’s one of those endurance events that has potential to push you mentally to the edge, to the same place you often find yourself in a half or full Ironman.  To know what you do when you get there, you’ve got to go there.  Why miss that opportunity?

Last year was a breakthrough year for me.  I did all 100 on the 1:30.  This is nothing for a “real” swimmer but for me, a self-proclaimed “fake” swimmer, it’s something.  Marty, my lanemate, a “real” swimmer who can cruise through 25 yards in 10 seconds with 6 strokes, rightfully gets on my case about everything I do as a fake swimmer: I don’t flip turn.  I don’t breaststroke kick.  I put on fins at my discretion.  And I whine at anything that involves the number 25 and the word MAX-ALL-OUT.

In his words: do you whine this much when you’re running? 

Point taken.

Last year, I swam 60 “naked” and then mixed it up with fins and pulling for the rest.  This year, I wanted to top that.  I had to.  But for some reason, I felt scared.  Not by the interval but by the distance.  It’s like doing your second Ironman.  You’re scared in a different way.  The first time you’re scared with na├»ve giddiness but still think no matter what happens, you’re just thrilled to be out there.  The second time is different.  You know the pain that lies ahead.  You know how ugly it can get.  You know you can do it.  That knowledge and your expectations make for a very precarious place for your self-confidence.  Now I wonder: can I top that?  Can I go faster?  What if I don’t, will I want to give up half way?  Will I think less of myself?  And, I just got back into swimming 9 weeks ago.  9 weeks ago I couldn’t swim a 100 in 1:30, now I’m repeating 100 on that send off? 

Am I really ready to go this distance?    

Saturday morning, I arrived on deck.  Pumped full of 16 ounces of light roast and two breakfasts.  I felt carbohydrately loaded and frenetic – that nervous hyper energy that you get when faced with situations you’re not sure you’re ready to face.  I situated myself in a familiar lane with Marty, Bob, Timmy plus Matt (who swam distance from OSU – let me tell you, if ever you want an all star team for a 10,000 yard set, pick the guy who swam distance in college).  These are the men I swim with 3-4 times a week.  Awkwardly, at times, I’ve seen them at swim team social gatherings, and we almost don’t know what to say – fully clothed, de-goggled, having more than 8 seconds of rest to make a conversation.  Some friendships are best kept to first names during rest intervals and kick sets. 

The end of our lane was a mess of bottles and gels.  Timmy lectures me on the importance of proper hydration when I point out his 3 large bottles of Gatorade.  Marty pushes a bottle of bright aqua liquid in front of me with the warning that if things get really bad, take a sip of it.  Bob jumps in showcasing his brand new Speedo.  When a grown man goes from showing up to practice in jammers to unveiling a Speedo, let’s just say I had to turn the other way.  Amongst our mess of hydration and gels, there were also methods of fire escape – paddles, fins, pull buoys and snorkel.  When the alarms start to sound in your lats, these items are your fire escape away from the pain. 

First things first: we decide on our order.  The boys decide to rotate who’s leading.  Timmy asks if I want in on the rotation.  I look at him, quizzically.  Let me introduce myself.  My name is Liz and I never, ever lead the lane.  I gladly accept last position knowing that the draft of over 24 feet of men strung together in one lane will pull me along…effortlessly.

And it did.  For at least the first 50.  

The first 10 breeze by easily, with Matt in the lead and me following Bob’s feet.  I kept the pace very relaxed.  Warming up.  Could hold this pace all day (might just have to!).  Accidentally I run into Bob, meaning, I end up clinging to his back like a small monkey.  Not surprising as Bob has a history of loving the wall just a little too much.  I apologize and he tells me if it happens a few more times it would be ok.  Another 10 go by and Dave, from the next lane, asks if I’m getting any space on the wall.  It takes me about 25 yards to realize what he’s saying, another rest interval to tell him that I’m not getting any space and yet another rest interval to add that Bob said I can touch him as much as I want.

He usually has to pay people for that. 

We hit 30.  Matt is leading, in backstroke.  Timmy has put on his snorkel.  Marty enjoys the comfort of his “budgy” which is what Max calls his blanket and what I call Marty’s pull buoy.  A grown man never really outgrows his budgy, does he.  Meanwhile, I’m still maintaining warm up pace.  I decide to keep this approach for the first 40.  I’m getting plenty of rest and it feels so easy.  I keep waiting for it to feel hard.  I keep waiting for my lats to realize what I’m doing to them.  I keep waiting, and waiting.  And it never happens.  Instead, I really, really enjoy myself.  There is something so quiet and serene about swimming.

Half way through, at 50, we take a 3 minute break.  I ask Bob if I can go behind Timmy.  He looks at me concerned, are you sure about that?  Bob, I’ve got a plan.  I shoved some of a Power Bar in my mouth which means I’ve got a plan and renewed energy.  I’m relying on my freakish endurance and superior workout nutrition to do a full 75 naked.  And by the way, if ever you want to get the attention and cooperation of adult men, tell them you’re swimming the next 25 naked. 

Go ahead then.

If last year I did the first 60 without toys, this year I’m going all the way to 75.  Timmy takes off and I’m right on his feet.  My favorite feet.  Followed them a lot last year.  But this year Timmy has gotten really fast.  The only explanation for this is that he’s getting married which means he’s drinking a lot less.  At practice I can barely keep up with him but 50 into this set, he’s not building as big of a gap. I push myself to hold sub 1:15 from 50 to 75.  I find an addictive rhythm. 

Around 70, my focus is waning.  I’m waiting for the bear to jump on the back.  And I have a conversation with myself: are you really tired, Liz, or are you just waiting for and expecting it?  Because if you don’t expect it, it might never happen.  It’s the first time, ever, that it strikes me that you can make this choice.  You can decide how you feel – you don’t have to wait for it to happen.  I decide fatigue is all mental today.  It won’t happen unless I let it.

At 72, I lose count.  I ask Marty what number we’re on and he doesn’t answer me.  At what I think is 74, I ask Marty again.  What was probably fatigue speaking he says “that’s ok.”  He’s obviously misunderstood me but then Timmy, from under snorkel, mumbles something that ends in a 5.  Either we’re starting or ending 75.  At what I think is 76, I ask Marty again what number we’re on:


I decide to swim another one before putting on paddles.  Back at the wall, the coach shouts STARTING 77! And I realize I made it 76 naked! 

The next 15 I pull with paddles.  The gutter in lane 1 is hungry for paddles and I lose one at least 3 times.  The pace is much easier pulling but I’m still not tired.  Where is the swim bear?  When does he jump on my back?  When do my lats start crying?  WHY AM I NOT HURTING?  I kept waiting for that dark place. 

At 90, I put on fins.  I make it a goal to do at least 5 IM.  I do a few in a row.  I’m a beast.  AN ANIMAL!  I’m going to swim 200 x 100 today.   

At 97, I finally feel it – tired.  My lats ache. The wall might as well be 25 miles away.  The boys are picking up the pace.  What was supposed to be “10 as warm down” turned into “10 as hard as you can go at 9000 yards into the set.”  

Finally, 100.  

The main reason I did this swim was to prepare me for what lies ahead.  In less than 2 weeks, I leave for the swim team training trip.  Staying in a room with 4 women I really don’t know.  It is something completely out of my comfort zone in many ways.  But the swimmers who talked me into it promised a lot of food, sun and outdoor LCM.  Sold!  I’m heading to the Florida Keys to swim my lats off.  Double swim workouts, sometimes 10K a day.  Why?  To get out of my comfort zone and do something totally different.  Not because physically it will give me that much more fitness but because mentally, dealing with that discomfort will take me to a new level.  When you’ve done a sport for 14 years, you need experiences like that. 

Much of the work I do with others is getting them used to the idea of being uncomfortable – whether it’s physically or emotionally.  Getting them to face it.  Most people when faced with discomfort shrink back or put up walls of tension.  For a beginner to intermediate athlete, it might be getting used to the pain in your legs when pushing hard on the bike.  Or the feeling of not being able to breathe when you swim faster.  Facing this type of discomfort really hurts, physically.  For the more advanced athlete, it’s usually the psychological discomfort of the pressure that goes along with high performance.  Facing this type of discomfort takes a lot of emotional energy.  But once you face either, you find that it wasn’t so bad after all.  Often what we think might happen is much scarier than the reality.  And chances are that you are better equipped to deal with the discomfort than you think you are.  You just have to stand up to your fears and then – climb over them to the other side.  

And what’s waiting there?  I’ve heard that on the other side there’s a lot of corn chips and margaritas.  No doubt I’ll need a straw so I don’t have to lift my glass but in less than 2 weeks I can’t wait to find out more about that. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cupid's Dash

Just time time for Valentine’s Day, on Friday night I went to a chair dancing workshop.

Fear not (or perhaps, shed a tear), this post is not about chair dancing.  But before I say anything else, sit on your hands.  I’ll sum up my experience up by saying I did it for a friend.  A friend wouldn’t go unless I went and I was merely there as a supportive friend.  Yeah, something like that.  And another friend was teaching the class.  That particular friend is actually a certified pole fitness instructor.  You’d think after spending all of this time in sports that I might have been good at something that involved fitness.  Turns out there’s a big difference between moving your body and moooooooooooooooving your body.  But after two hours of shaking, bending, snapping, milkshaking & sexy hands-ing, it’s safe to say my milkshake will bring all the boys to the yard.

This post is actually about doing something far less sexy for Valetine's.  Two days after my chair dancing marathon, with sore hips and bruised kneecaps, I did a 5K.

I wanted to race another 5K to assess my progress.  Kurt warned me that I wouldn’t see much progress.  Let me retrace my steps.  A few weeks ago, I asked Kurt if we could work together again.  He responded with a very fair question: what can Coach Kurt do for you?  I’ll ignore how he frequently talks about himself in the third person.  Instead, I answered him, fairly.  I got myself where I wanted to go last year and now I don’t want to think for myself.  In all honesty, right now I just want to “do” without having to think about the details.

But with the shared understanding that I would (and should) provide my own input!  I suspected that I would see some progress at this race so I talked him into letting me do the 5K.  You see, I’ve come back from a few setbacks and the curve of progression is steep at first before it flattens out.  This curve is motivating, self-reinforcing.  Earlier this week, I did another bike test and gained 14 watts since 4 weeks ago.  Like I said, the gains are quick at first before they get smaller and you get back to the usual I’m now going to have to bust my ass for every single watt or second.  So I’m enjoying this period of rapid progress while it lasts.

Hence why I drove an hour north to run a 5K.  I also think you should race in the winter.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of train train train, alone, in your basement, on the dark streets and that becomes very mentally draining.  It’s good to get out there and work through the art of racing.  Pack your race bag, eat your race breakfast, experiment.  Learn to race well now so at the big races, you’ve got your rhythm and formula.

My legs felt great on the warm up and the course looked to be a good one.  It had some long gradual inclines and was mostly protected from the wind.  I lined up at the start in my usual shorts and tank top.  Everyone else seemed to be decked out in hearts and Valentine redness.  Some guy shouted LOOK AT THAT GIRL!  as if I were the unusual one dressed normally.  And, for the first time ever, I felt like I was underdressed in my tank and shorts.  It was 33 degrees and I was really cold out there!

I lined up at the front next to 2 other gals.  The gun goes off and the 2 gals bolted. I held back and within ¼ mile, then passed them.  At that point, we had to run through the thick crowds from the 10K like a mess of moving Valentine’s cards.  If you’re wearing a headband with hearts attached to a spring, you’re probably not moving very fast!  COMING THROUGH!  I wove through them with the feeling of moving through an open water swim start.  It was annoying but at the same time, technical and invigorating!  I hit mile 1 at a decent pace.  I just needed to hold it.  (hint: I didn’t but that’s what makes a 5K just oh so special – and painful).

This was the first time ever that I raced with music.  I’ve done this sport long enough that I know a lot of what works for me.  At this point, I enjoy becoming my own science experiment.  I’ve never raced with music and rarely train with it unless I’m on the treadmill.  I wanted to see what it was like.  While it easily distracted me from the uncomfortable shock of the first mile, I found it very distracting for the rest of the way.  I couldn’t hear myself breathe, I wasn’t plugged into the race – I was out there running to music.  In fact, I felt like I lost a little bit of my GRRR because I wasn’t feeling the pain.  If you’re someone who likes to be distracted away from the pain, use music.  But I’ll be honest, I wait for the pain and welcome it – in something like a 5K, the pain means I’m doing it right.  Once I find it, I make friends with it and talk myself through it.  That’s what I enjoy most about racing.  That’s what makes you mentally tougher to get through other obstacles in training and racing.  So, my conclusion: it definitely decreases your perceived effort but I think it disconnects you from the race.  When I finished, I knew I had raced but I honestly wasn’t sure if I had given it everything – I don’t remember FEELING anything.  Is that good?  I don’t think so. 

Back to the race.  The two women dangled in front of me for about a mile and then we hit the last mile.  It was very icy – I was slipping, afraid that I was going to fall, blow out a knee.  So, I played it safe, too safe, because in the end, the 2nd place gal finished 7 seconds in front of me.  I ended up 3rd overall.  

Since my last 5K 3 weeks ago, I dropped about 50 seconds.  The strange thing is that I seem to be on the same course of progress as when I came back from having Max.  Except back then I took nearly 4 months off of running whereas now I’m coming back from taking off for 2 months.   I’m still thinking about what all of that means.  I’ve been running since I was 15 – maybe I just have a base of fitness and baseline of biomechanical efficiency that even with time off, I can regain the top end speed in less time than I think.  I know a lot of athletes fear time off or worry that a few missed run workouts either as prevention or due to injury will have a big impact on their fitness.  I’ve learned from own experience that this simply isn’t the case.  You might be rusty at the top end but it takes a lot to undo YEARS of fitness.  Relax about it and free yourself to perform.  What we think can be more limiting than any actual change in our fitness.

In other news, I went to the doctor last week and found out that I still have HCG in my system.  That means technically, if I took a home pregnancy test right now, it would still be positive!  Through this entire process (and this process started back in SEPTEMBER!?), the hardest part has been finding clarity.  But first, I need closure.  I need my body to return to normal.  Every day I feel a little more like me, my weight is finally moving (and this was difficult, for about 6 weeks my weight didn’t budge no matter what I was doing) and I feel like my potential is translating into performance again.  But I’m not there yet.  I sense that in another 8 weeks, I’ll be closer to where I left off in September so I’m trying to be patient. 

I had a few second opinion appointments, a few more tests done and got further confirmation that there’s nothing wrong with me other than my combined age/egg quality (and thank goodness, I found out I do not have celiac disease - it can cause recurrent loss - I think I would have cried cinnamon raisin bagels!).  The best advice I was given was that if more children are in our future, to just keep trying.  At some point, something will stick.  I’ve been trying to process that.  Because right now the idea of putting myself into that realm of huge risk and uncertainty does not sound enticing.  I know it’s supposed to be hard and the most worthwhile things in life usually involve the most risk but…this is also my life.  At some point, I need to move beyond risk and worry – I need to just enjoy the life I have and myself.  I’m trying to give myself some space and time to enjoy that and hope that through leading my normal life, I’ll find the clarity to know, in my heart, what the best direction for us will be.    

Until then, many more happy and hard miles ahead!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Work Your Weakness

I recently read an article that talked about working your weakness versus strengthening your strength.  The author suggested there’s a reason why something is your strength – the way you’re built, your background – and you’ll likely be banging your head into a wall trying to turn yourself into something else.  Sounds like an easy way of getting out of the challenging, often uncomfortable and slow process of improving your weakness.  Is that process worth it?


Most athletes come to the sport of triathlon from one of two backgrounds: swimming or running.  Rare is the triathlete who comes from a cycling background.  Cycling isn't as mainstream as swimming (for youth) or running (for adults) and the cyclists out there tend to feel strongly about triathlons.  If there are triathletes in triathlons, the cyclists genearlly don’t want to be there.

So I’ll talk mostly about swimmers and runners.

Working a swimmers swim just doesn’t make sense.  I’ve worked with some very, VERY fast swimmers.  From what I’ve seen, you give a swimmer 2-3x a week of swimming and they will maintain their strong swim which even when it’s “weak” will be much stronger than most other triathletes (at the amateur level).  Remember, they come from a background of swimming 10K a day for many, many years of their life.  To make a change, they need to swim a lot and the time spent just won’t be worth it because generally their bike and run lag far behind.

Now, to work a swimmers weakness, generally the run, they need to run a lot.  Not long – the worst thing you can do to a swimmer is to train them for a marathon.  They’ll break down.  Shorter, frequent runs to improve their durability.  Work on cadence/turnover.  Alactic strides, short hill repeats – these are things that improve your neuromuscular ability to run faster without draining you or risking injury as with more traditional or extended ‘speed’work.   Frequent running will also help chip away at their generally stockier body mass.  Running 5-6x a week for shorter periods of time is more beneficial than running 3 times a week for 60 minutes.  A day where they run twice can be useful too.  Separate double runs by at least 6 hours with the first run being at an easier pace and the second run including some drill work or strides to reinforce form when fatigued.  Runs are best scheduled before swim or bike workouts to have them going into runs fresh so they work on form rather than shuffle through fatigue. 

Runners, on the other hand, are generally poor swimmers.  If you’ve ever watched an adult-onset swimmer who comes from a run background, it’s no surprise that they try run while swimming.  Excessive kicks driven from the knee down are not only ineffective but costly in terms of energy/oxygen consumption.  This fatigues their legs and impacts their triathlon running.  Not only that but the runner tends to get frustrated at the technical, patient nature of swimming.  In a sport where applying a harder-faster-longer mentality often rules, getting them to slow down, work on form and feel what they’re doing can be the most difficult part of swimming.

It pays to have a runner set aside a month if not a season to work on their swim.  During this time their run will temporarily suffer, especially if they run after swimming.  But this is very much like what happens in a triathlon.  It may be mentally and emotionally frustrating to them because what was once their “baby” (the run) might slow down as they direct energy for the swim or even put on more muscle mass to swim better.  In the long term, as a triathlete, this will pay off.  They just need to trust it.

Most runners who come to triathlon can benefit from a month long focus on their swim.  During this time, the bike and run should be put on 2-3x a week maintenance with shorter sessions that focus on maintaining feel/form rather than trying to build big fitness.  They should swim with frequency and not necessarily duration.  Swim just enough to maintain form rather than get to the point where form breaks down and they’re just logging useless laps.  Swimming 5-6x a week, even with one day where they swim twice a week can result in a nice boost in their swim ability.  Since swimming is so much about feel for the water, the more they are in the water, the better they’ll understand (and feel) how their body moves through the water.  You just cannot develop that by swimming 2-3x a week. 

Double swim days should be separated by at least 6 hours.  The first session should consist of some shorter, faster sprint work.  The second session should consist of drills to reinforce form when fatigued or pulling.  Pulling with paddles is beneficial for runners, especially women, as it helps them to develop the musculature around the shoulders and in the lats to power stronger swimming.  Paddles should be just slightly bigger than the hand and contain no wrist straps (if you’re entering wrong with the paddle, it should fall off!).  There’s much debate on this topic and ultimately it depends on how your body (and shoulders) responds to paddles.

Psychologically, working on your weakness is beneficial.  With the swim as your strength, rare is the swimmer who is so far ahead of the field that they can sustain that lead for the entire race.  The longer the race, the less your swim strength helps you.  With significantly more time spent on the bike and run, the cyclists – and even more, the runners – will eventually hunt you down.  Not only that but stronger swimmers can get frustrated by being out front and then getting passed for the rest of the race.  Psychologically, this is a tough pill to swallow.  By bringing the swimmer’s bike and run up to a more competitive level, they might lose some time on the swim but overall gain more time on the bike and run.  They are better able to race.  Being a part of the race is more empowering than being passed by the entire race.

For any triathlete, the swim can be full of anxiety, fears and frustration.  By improving their skills, technique and confidence in swimming, an athlete can go into a race feeling more capable of not just surviving the swim but actually making forward progress during it.  When one can focus on competing rather than just completing, that’s when they’re actually racing in a triathlon.

I’ve heard from other athletes who struggle with the swim that their coach doesn’t believe in working on the swim because it’s the shortest part of the triathlon.  While it’s true that you only spend a small fraction of the overall race time in the water, remember, that small time is where you start your day.  If you start your day overworking, inefficient and fatigued, it will negatively impact your bike and run.  A swim focus might only gain you a few minutes on your swim time but could lead to more energy to expend on your bike and run – leading to bigger time gains.  Remember too that triathlon is the ability to seamlessly weave and execute three sports together.  Coaches should be coaching you to be a triathlete. 

Popular too is the idea of giving up swim training for a few months only to bring it back closer to race season.  From my own experience, this works only for those consistently able to swim a sub 1:20 pace.  These athletes tend to have superior feel for the water which they never lose.  They just lose the top end of their fitness.  Give them 4-8 weeks of working on that speed and it comes back again.  Some in the 1:30 range might also be able to get away with this.  Those in the 1:30+ range should not give up swimming for any extended period of time.  Better to cut down to even 20 minute sessions 3-4x a week than to completely leave the water.

The longer you’re in the sport or the more competitive you wish to be in the sport, the more aces you need up your sleeve.  You can’t rely on a strength to run someone down or swim away from them.  You need to be well-rounded.  As you age in the sport of triathlon, I also see that the swim and bike become even more important.  We all experience a loss of speed in our run as we age.  Relying on your run when you’re over 35, just doesn’t work from what I’ve seen.  You need to be well-rounded, equally as strong in all 3 sports so you can race rather than catch-up across the race.  The longer the race, the more important this is. 

As the sport becomes more popular, I also see fewer “outliers” in the sport.  Athletes are getting smarter - they’re hiring coaches, following plans, paying attention to the details like recovery, equipment and nutrition.  Because of this, all of those little things that add up to more speed are putting athletes closer together.  This is a good thing.  It raises the bar for all us, forcing us to make the commitment to becoming a better triathlete rather than a good runner or swimmer or cyclist who does triathlons.  Again, it pays to be well-rounded in your approach to training.  If you’re interested in excelling at the sport of triathlon then you must take all 3 sports seriously.

If your weakness is transitioning, you should also set aside time to work on that too.  At the higher end of the competition, every second counts.  You can practice transitions every day – on your trainer, when putting on your run shoes, when heading back into the lockerroom.  Think about all of the challenges outside of just swimming, biking and running that you encounter in a triathlon – putting on shoes, buckling your helmet, running from the swim to the bike.  Include a variety of bricks in your training: run before your bike, run after your swim.  The only thing you can generally do fresh all of the time is swimming because we never really do anything before swimming (unlike the bike and the run). 

Lastly and most importantly, giving your weakness attention will improve your ability and fitness but more importantly your confidence.  I’m a big proponent of the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.”  You need confidence to go into a masters practice and “fake” being a good swimmer so you can get into a faster lane and try to keep up.  You need confidence to find yourself at the end of a race with the determination and grit to push yourself to keep up with the person who’s trying to take away your lead.   You need confidence before you can have any type of breakthrough.  The tougher the conditions (chop, heat, rain), the more this confidence pays off.  The kiss of death for a poor swimmer is choppy conditions.  They might have the fitness but they do not have the confidence to effectively maneuver through it.  Same goes for hills, head or wind on the bike or run.  You need confidence to effectively pace and push yourself through those obstacles.  Yes, you also need fitness.  But at the higher end of the age groups, everyone’s got fitness.  What’s going to be your ace in the hole?

What you’ll find after working on your weakness is that it better puts you in a position to utilize your strength.  If you swim and bike better, you’ll be able to run fresher and stronger.  If you bike and run better, you’ll be able to maintain that lead you built on the swim.  And it goes without saying, if you bike more efficiently, even if you’re a great runner, you will run even better.  In any case, you don’t necessarily have to work your weakness until it becomes your strength, you just have to work it unless it becomes less of a weakness.   Besides, who wants to think of any part of themselves as weak anyways?  Framing the language you use when you think about yourself is also a big part of confidence and self-efficacy.

When it comes time to consider working your weakness, trust that there is value.  It will be frustrating, it will require patience and you will (temporarily) slow down in your area of strength.  But in time, speed and ability level out making you stronger in all 3 sports.  Ultimately, this is what makes for success in triathlon.