Hook, Line, & Sinker

© Dusty Nabor 2012
Well, the post title sort of gives it away. “Sinker” is never a good word when it comes to swimming. But onwards and upwards. Hopefully to the top of the water, where the swimming is a bit easier…
I headed down to UC Irvine for my second swim meet of the season this morning. With pretty crummy weather forecast for the weekend, it seemed like a good day to spend the morning in the pool. Unfortunately, the pool seemed geared more towards real swimmers, as opposed to our seemingly water polo-centric pool at CLU, because it was cold! I didn’t see an official temperature, but some veteran swimmers at the meet estimated it that it was likely 79F. Combined with air temps in the low 50s and strong winds (it’s an outdoor pool, as you can see), that made for an unexpected challenge. I struggled to actually warm up during my warm-up for the 500, but I did a better job than at the Rose Bowl meet of remembering to bring my parka with me to the blocks, and actually stayed as warm as I could given the circumstances. But this was one of those days where I wish that I hadn’t spent so much time running this winter, as I’m as lean as I’ve ever been. Good for running; not so good for swimming in a cold pool.
I seeded a 5:20, as I really thought I could improve on my performance from the Rose Bowl meet. Unfortunately, the swimmer next to me seeded a 4:55, and he actually took the overall with a 4:54, lapping me in the process. The swimmer on my outside was definitely slower than me, which, unfortunately, left me without any one to really race. Nevertheless, I felt like I had a good start, and I felt like I actually paced out my effort well, better than at the Rose Bowl. Experience counting for something there. But the downside was that while my pacing may have been better (though I have yet to see my actual splits), my pace itself was not as good. I went 5:23 at the RBAC meet; but I only went 5:31 today. While some of that may have been attributable to the cold temperatures, I actually think I also cost myself at the RBAC meet, as I stood by the blocks for quite a while there, shivering, so I think it was probably reasonably equal. 
While it’s easy to blame the water/weather, the truth is that I think my times showed that I was less well prepared for this meet than I was for the Rose Bowl meet. Now, granted, I’d logged a lot of run miles since that meet. And I’d also started logging some real miles on my bike, and on my TT bike as well, which tends to be harder on my swimming because (I think) I protract my shoulders so much in the aero position. And neither of those things was doing my swimming any favors, but I had still been logging some quality mileage in the pool. Overall, this was certainly the most that I have swam at this point in the season. It’s been 17 weeks since IMAZ, and I’ve logged just under 500km in the pool in that time. But for the past few weeks, even as my volume has remained pretty solid (multiple 8km days and some weeks coming close to 40km in the pool), my intensity has dropped off as I’ve started to train more overall and also to up my volume on the bike. Leading into the Rose Bowl meet, I was really focused just on running and swimming, but now I need to actually prepare for races where roughly half of the entire race is spent on the bike, and that means biking.
It’s one of the basic tenets of training (or physiology or whatever…) that there are two ways to apply stimulus to the body. One is to do more work by doing more volume. The other is to do more work by doing more intensity. While you can get to the same end result – sort of – the stimulus isn’t really identical. Or, put more simply, no amount of volume can make up for an absence of intensity. And vice versa.  But how that balance swings is often quite individual. In my own case, intensity seems to be the primary stimulus for me on the bike. If I ride hard, I don’t need to ride a lot. And, in general, my cycling volume is relatively low for my proficiency on the bike. Doing the inverse – a lot of riding but not much intensity – seems to wear me down both mentally and, especially, with regards to my immune system. With running, I seem to do reasonably well with both high volume coupled with lower intensity and higher intensity coupled with lower volume. 
All in all, I’d say I tend to have more natural endurance than speed. I’m pretty good at being steady and enduring, whereas I find I need to really work the top end to make sure that’s in shape. But I was never really sure how the bias swung with swimming, mostly because drop offs in volume seem to coincide with drop offs in intensity as well. That is, I usually swim less and swim slower at the same time, usually because I’m putting the majority of my efforts into the most critical parts of training for Ironman – the bike and run. But, obviously, the swim is still incredibly important, so part of my focus on swimming this year has been to see if I can find out what is the most efficient combination of volume and intensity with swimming. When do I start to see diminishing returns and, more importantly, which is the most critical component – volume or intensity. Do I need to make sure I’m swimming a lot more often or do I need to make sure I’m swimming fast more often? And, as much as my performance in the meet today was a disappointment, I think I got a pretty clear answer that intensity is massively important for me. Even though my volume stayed pretty high, the drop off in intensity is what I believe really was the difference between my performance today and my performance at the RBAC meet (and even the Postal Swim). Put most simply, I think that as long as I’m swimming 24-28km a week, I’m much better off making sure I get really hard swims in than trying to squeeze in some 36-40km weeks. In the weeks leading up to the meet, I just didn’t spend enough time swimming at very-hard-but-not-all-out-sprinting pace. Especially in a meet focused on shorter events, which are my weak suit – I’m a much better 1000 and miler – the lack of quality really showed. 
Ultimately, I was pretty consistent, in typical fashion, posting performances that felt like I paced them better – effort wise – but where the clock just wasn’t in my favor. I swam the 200 – 2:05, about one second slower than at RBAC, but of course, I didn’t have a 1000 in between the 500 and 200 here – and felt like I have a better grasp at the “start-fast-and-build” approach to the 200 – it’s a lot like rowing a 2k. Then I swam the 50, which felt really good, as I actually took advantage of some of what I’d practiced with reduced breathing to come in 27.88. After that was the 100 free, which felt like it was 50yds too far as I came in a painful 59.4X. Last up was the 50 fly, which was a lot of fun and where I achieved my goal of actually swimming strong technique the whole way to come in at 33.XX, which was nice just to get a benchmark for the event. While it’s murderously hard, especially when you are biking a lot, fly is a great stroke and has a lot of value to someone focused on freestyle. There’s a reason that Phelps is such a strong freestyle/fly swimmer. They have a lot in common, and in my experience, if there is one other stroke that triathletes should invest in, it’s fly.
Some good – but hard – lessons learned. And, of course, I may be totally wrong and that the focus on intensity may not pay the dividends I hope for, in which case it’ll be back to the drawing board. But I’d be surprised. A lot of times the simplest explanation really is the right one. Probably my last meet for the year, though I may attempt regionals in Santa Clarita on no taper, just treating it as a hard workout, perhaps as a proof of concept on my theory regarding what was missing. It’s been great doing the swim meets, and I’m certain that if this was my last one for this year, that they will be a regular part of my training regimen each winter going forward.

3 thoughts on “Hook, Line, & Sinker

  1. I completely agree with encouraging triathletes to learn/practice butterfly. As a non-swimmer, I just learned it and have found that it relieves a LOT of tension in my SI joint area. And, it's just fun!


  2. Really great read, Jordan, I meant to comment when I read it initially. I find myself not concerning myself with day to day volume, but rather paying attention to a more aggregate volume – so how much have I swam/ridden/run in my buildup to a particular season. Similar to your winter, it was a heavy in the pool and run, but not as focused on the bike. I felt strong in the water at 30km weeks, and notice that as my volume increases in the water, so does my ability to maintain intensity, which results in swimming faster.

    But your point about diminishing returns is what I'm currently dealing with. Trying to bump up both volume and intensity on the bike and run, it really takes the sharpness out of my swim. My legs feel tired, and I'm definitely not swimming as fast, as easily, as I was a month or so ago.

    Of course with no iron distance events on the schedule for this year, I feel like I should NOT be spending as much time in the water. I swim the IM length relatively much better than an international distance, my issue is just not being able to swim fast (no joke – swim under an hour for IM, but 22 minutes for int'l). I'm not sure where to start, how to forge a breakthrough in being able to swim quicker.

    With the bike, I find that volume is my key, but for me, that might be weeks in the 250-300 mile range when I can get them, and without longer races this year, I'll scale that back.

    You have a great handle on the science of training, which is part of why I love following, but also because I watch what you've been able to do following your accident and try to use it to help my own momentum. I was hit in July 2009 as I was getting ready for IMAZ that year, and my leg was pretty shredded. I just haven't been the same since surgeries. I'm slower, I'm not able to handle the same volume, I have a lot of nagging injuries. Sucks, but just keep trying, right?

    Leadman sounded…epic. My girlfriend is a Hillary Biscay-athlete so we were following her progress, Maik had a good race. Maybe I'll give the 250 a go next year…


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