Call Me Ishmael

(Reprinted from I wrote this after my first winter swim focus with Coach Joel in winter 2005/2006)

“Meditation and water are wedded forever” – Ishmael (Moby Dick)

Like Melville’s Ishmael, I too found it necessary to set out upon the “sea” during a literal cold and drizzly November. Only the sea in this case was merely a four-lane, 25 yard pool near my house, and the white whale in this story is my swimming technique. Like the great monster that Ahab pursues so relentlessly, proper form in the water is a truly elusive thing. Having spent several months undergoing extensive physical therapy after I tried to do a swim focus block last year, without the necessary understanding of how to do it, I could also relate to the idea that chasing good swimming technique can doom you, well at least doom your rotator cuffs.

The swim is far and away the shortest section of any standard distance triathlon. The longest relative swim is at the “Escape from Alcatraz,” and even there, it is still only about 75% the length of the other two legs. “So,” you might say, “why bother to do a swim focus when you can gain so much more by putting your time and effort into the other sports?” It is a common perception among triathletes that the race is not won or lost during the swim. While this is usually true in the strict sense of minutes and seconds, coming out of the water several minutes down will often put you in a whole different environment. You can miss out on that energy “train” that comes from being in the thick of a race on the bike. And, beyond that, there is generally very little metabolic cost associated with getting faster in the swim, as it almost always the result of changes in technique, whereas bike and run gains are generally the result of hard, physically intense labor.

A friend of mine who was a swimmer in college told me that all swimmers are inherently lazy, and that the only reason to swim faster is so that you get more rest during interval sets. Swimming is not about swimming harder to swim faster, it is about swimming easier to swim faster. And this was the secret I was trying to unlock. However, getting to this point is no easy task. Since triathletes are generally well beyond the sponge-llike absorbency of youth, where good technique can be established through drills and gentle coaching, our mission was the use the “brute force” approach to swimming. I was almost literally rushing out into high seas and attempting to “harpoon” good technique, and once I had it in my grasp, I could heave it up onto the deck and dice it up and pose for one of those old safari-style pictures where I stand with one foot upon the slain beast, posing proudly as the conquering hunter.

And so it was that I found myself preparing to begin my first ever week where I would swim more than I would bike and run, and, one week later, where I would swim more than I would bike and run combined. This was it. I had cast off from shore. I was on the hunt, with nothing but a couple pairs of goggles and a little bathing suit to protect me from the elements. By my side, my trusty bag of “pool toys” announced to the world that I was a triathlete and that I was here to conquer the water.

Melville dedicates an entire, very lengthy chapter to discussing equipment. While my equipment list is not quite so extensive, it is something that is critically important to “brute force” swimming, in much the same way that the harpoon is essential to whaling. There are a couple key tools for brute force swim focus blocks that are worth mentioning. First and foremost in the brute force method is the “band.” The band is the cheapest bit of equipment in the sport of triathlon, as it is basically free. Generally, it is made from a section of old bicycle inner tube, which is then tied in a knot. The band serves two purposes. First off, it slows you down by causing a great deal of drag, so you cannot rely on your speed through the water to keep you afloat. Secondly, it prevents you from kicking, making it even harder to keep your legs afloat, which then slows you down even more. So the band forces you to move a substantial amount of water in order to make any sort of forward progress, and it also forces you to have excellent body position, so that your legs don’t drag along the bottom of the pool. For a long time, I hated the band with a passion. This did not however, excuse me from swimming with it. And eventually, after lots of 50’s “band only,” I was actually able to swim, rather than just survive, with the band on.

The next great tool is actually a pair of tools. It is the pulling gear – paddles and a pull buoy. As much as I hate the band, that is how much I love the paddles. Paddles make everyone a good swimmer. And the pull buoy gives everyone good body position. You can just sort of “lean” on the paddles, and you will go forward quite quickly. Fortunately, learning to lean on the paddles, and by extension your hand and forearm when you don’t have the paddles on, is exactly what you are trying to accomplish. Paddles are also really great for forcing you to apply pressure all the way through to the finish of your stroke, something especially important for triathletes, since if you are a smart triathlete, you will spend lots of time drafting; when drafting, it is much harder to generate force at the catch, since you are catching water that is all stirred up and full of air. So in order to stay in that wonderful draft, you need to move water at the back end of your stroke, and this is where paddles are really valuable.

The last key tool is a pair of fins. When you end up swimming two to three times as much in a week as you normally would, it is very nice to be able to give your upper body a rest. When doing drill sets or just some “cruisy” speed stuff, fins can be a great way to lighten the load on your arms and shoulders. Since, like running, swimming is quite speed specific, which is to say that in order to swim faster, you need to practice swimming faster, fins can be a great way to swim “at speed” without working really hard for that speed.

So with these tools in hand (or on feet as was sometimes the case), I began my conquest. That was one month ago. As I write to you now, I have finished my first three week block of swim focus, and one much needed recovery week. I swam, during the three week build, close to 90,000 yards, which would not be all that impressive, except for the fact that my arms are still attached and are generally functioning properly. Starting today, I will begin another three week build, with lots of band, lots of pulling, and lots of IM, since that is those are the three commandments of swimming, according to Coach Joel, who’s bringing forth these mighty commandments on stone kickboards is detailed in depthhere. So, in obedience of these commandments, I now venture further into the unknown depths, seeking out that mysterious and wily creature of the deep – “technique.”

One thought on “Call Me Ishmael

  1. Great old classic. Thanks for the pointers. This season I've learned I can't afford to exit the swim 3 or more minutes down in a sprint and expect to catch up on the bike. It is simply too much time to give up for nothing. I'll start by acquiring the proper whaling equipment. Paddles and bands. I will also be shopping for a white wetsuit.


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