Winter Wetness

by Curtis Fritz, swim coach

Summary

  • Winter is the perfect time to head to the pool.
  • Learning and perfecting the other strokes can add variety and strength to your training sessions.
  • If you can learn and incorporate flip turns into your pool, you’ll find that not only will your times improve, but you’ll gain efficiency in your stroke.
  • The overriding objective is to ensure that all of the muscle fibers are called to active duty at some point during the workout.
  • Learning to breathe comfortably on either side is a valuable skill, particularly for the open water swimmer.
  • winter is the perfect time to jettison the regimented routine and try something new, unusual, or just plain stupid.


With the winter wind whipping rain against the window and the sun sagging sullenly on the southern horizon, the forthcoming months of grey and gloom offer little motivation for the outdoor activities to which we triathletes devoted so many of the expansive days of summer. The hours of darkness encroaching on either side of our 9-to-5 commitments severely restricts opportunity for hopping about the bike. (And, tell me, who really enjoys endless hours of ennui going nowhere fast in the garage on the windtrainer?) And the bone-chilling mornings make the old knees and hips and ankles grumble just a little louder when we force them out for frostry trot. So, how does one surmount the alluring trammels of a snuggly bed?

Let me suggest that winter is the perfect time to head to the pool. The conditions are guaranteed to be always welcoming and hospitable (unless you’re an unfortunate patron of the Schall Hot Springs....or...anybody remember the DAC dome??). The cold winter months are the perfect time to shake loose the staleness of perpetual laps of freestyle. Toss that training log in the back of the closet. Don’t worry about getting in your 1000 or 2000 or (if you’re Doug Wright) 40,000 yards today. Just focus on getting wet and moving. Here are a few ideas for things to do in the pool these coming months that will provide both a reprieve from the tedium of standard triathlon swim training while still instilling the mental and physical preparation to resume serious triathlon swim training when Spring blossoms anew.

1. Stroke me
Triathletes typically evolve from a running or cycling heritage; as such, most are delighted if they can master even the rudimentary skills of freestyle swimming. Learning and perfecting the other strokes can add variety and strength to your training sessions. A good benchmark is to have non-free stroke comprise 25-30% of yardage in each workout. Switching between strokes helps to stave off injury by reducing repetitive wear-and-tear on the same muscle groups. And, believe it or not, having other strokes in your arsenal can prove beneficial in your open water training and racing.

Breaststroke is useful in a race if you are in a large wave in a restricted span of water. A few strokes of breaststroke can temporarily relieve congested bodies or roiling seas that impede attempts to sight the wee buoy in the distance.

Backstroke can provide a few moments of unrestricted ventilation and expell some anxiety if you’re caught in a frantic freestyle frenzy. Backstroke is also useful if you want to take a quick gander in the rearview mirror to see what sort of lead you have on your competitors (or, how much you need to pick up the pace to stay ahead of the 60-69 women’s wave behind you).

The high oxygen demands of butterfly would seem to preclude its inclusion in race situations. I’ve traditionally added 5-6 strokes of fly to the end of my race warmup, just a minute or so before the wave start, to get my heart rate up and ready for the surge off the line.

Learning a new stroke benefits tremendously from having someone to observe your technique and offer suggestions on modifications. At Davis Swim & Fitness, we have coaches on deck Monday and Wednesday from 5:00 to 6:00pm and Tuesday and Thursday from 5:45 to 6:45am who would be more than delighted to offer instruction.

2. Flip ‘em off
If you’re lucky, in your triathlon race career the only walls that you’ll hit are those proverbial ones late in the run. While triathlons that hold the swim leg in pools can still be found, most races take advantage of larger bodies of water to accommodate the large numbers of entrants. As such, turns are not something most triathletes consider necessary to hone in their repertoire.

However, most of our training occurs in a 25 yard-sqaure concrete hole in the ground and excepting special events (see number 5 below), logging any kind of reasonable yardage requires periodic reversals of direction. If you can learn and incorporate flip turns into your pool, you’ll find that not only will your times improve, but you’ll gain efficiency in your stroke. The underwater push off the wall and initial stroke to the surface will enhance your feel for attaining a streamlined position in the water. And that extra moment or two between available breaths will help you to physiologically and pscyhologically handle instances where your desire for oxygen is momentarily rescinded. Besides, flip turns are fun!

3. “I fartlek in your general direction!”
For many triathletes, once they find their preferred swim race pace, they settle into a stale rutt in which they warm up, train, cool down, and race at the same ponderous pace. As we age, we suffer a natural attrition of gears in our athletic transmissions. While this slide into mono-speed cannot be avoided, its effect can be reduced. To do so requires constant stimulation and reinforcement of the muscle groups used in various combinations at other speeds. Winter is the perfect time to fiddle around in the gear box.

Take the time to focus on how your arms and legs and lungs and torso feel as changes in your speed alter your cadence, breathing, stroke power, kick rhythm, and body position. Even those swimmers with reliable manual transmissions tend to function in a fairly narrow range of speed. Take time this winter to mentally document your swim gears.

“Fartlek” is a Swedish word meaning “speed play”. When applied to sports training, it designates a workout where the speed and intensity of effort varies throughout the distance covered. In a running fartlek workout, one’s pace can range from a very easy jog-walk up to all out sprinting. The variations can be predetermined and structured, or the workout can be left to the whims of the moment (“Race you to that fire hydrant!”). It doesn’t matter what proportion of each; the overriding objective is to ensure that all of the muscle fibers are called to active duty at some point during the workout.

Fartlek workouts in the pool can help hone not merely acceleration speed, but improve stroke technique and efficiency. Some ways to help find those forgotten gears include swimming some 25's where you try to find how slow you can go without completely stalling in the water. Then swim some 25's where you toss any concerns for proper form into the gutter and just go goo-goo-ga-ga-wacky-waving-arm-flailing full-goose bozo as fast as  you can.

Once you’ve played around in the gear box, challenge yourself to develop the intuition to call up any given gear on demand. A challenging set is to swim a set of ten 50's in which you attempt to decrease your time by exactly one second each successive swim. Take as much rest as you need between each 50 to stay aerobic and focused. This is not a lactate threshold training session but an opportunity to gain insight into how precisely you can dial in your swim gears.

4. Try going bi-
Just as we are naturally right- or left-handed, we all have one side to which we preferentially breath while swimming. While this preference provides a level of comfort and ease, it also increases the risk of injury from assymetric muscle strain. Also, one-sided breathing invariably causes assymetric inefficiences in one’s stroke, compromising getting the full “oomph” out of the power invested. Learning to breathe comfortably on either side is a valuable skill, particularly for the open water swimmer.

By minimizing the unconscious assymetries in one’s stroke, bilateral breathing can help to improve your ability to track a straight line and stay on course. This will in turn reduce the frequency of head-up sighting which itself costs extra energy and interrupts efficient body position.

Bilateral facility also allows you to adjust to adverse conditions. If some lumbering leviathan is latched onto your left hip, or winds kicking up a series of swells constantly slapping across your right cheek, or the dawn’s sun over Rancho Seco is blasting into your face and frying your retina every time you turn to the east, the ability to even temporarily switch to the opposite side to breathe will keep you moving forward while your competitors are left floundering. A good set in which to hone your bilateral breathing aptitude is to strap on the pull buoy and swim sets of 3-400 alternating by 50s breathing every 3 and 5 strokes.

5. And now for something completely different....
Finally, winter is the perfect time to jettison the regimented routine and try something new, unusual, or just plain stupid. It may be as simple as shifting by a few hours the time of day in which you swim. If you usually swim in the morning, jump in the pool in the afternoon and appreciate the dual benefit of swimming and working on your off-season tan. Or, if you typically swim at noon, try swimming under the serene and surreal light of the moon and stars.

Or, if you’re feeling especially foolish, come join the Davis Swim & Fitness coaching staff on a Mon/Wed/Fri morning as they test-drive the day’s Masters workout starting at 4:20am. At DSF, we schedule a number of special events to maintain motivation amongst our Masters.

On the day after Thanksgiving there is the Turkey Burner workout that is calculated to burn up to 4000 calories.

In December is Brute Squad: the three most-demanding events in the competitive swimmer’s repertoire (200 Fly, 400 IM, 1650 Free) completed in a single workout with times posted so that everyone can share in the public humiliation.

In January are both the one-hour postal swim (simply, how much distance can you cover in 60 minutes?) and Arctic Circles in which we pull the lane lines, set up a course around the perimeter of the pool, and throw in some pull buoys, kick boards, and other junk as make-shift flotsam and jetsam.

There are also the holiday-themed relay competitions in which the consumption of an appropriate seasonal substance is required in each leg of a relay. Examples include egg nog (Christmas), champagne (New Years Eve), Bailey’s Irish Cream (St Patrick’s Day), and marshmallow Peeps (Easter).

But don’t even feel obligated to do “real” swimming. Join in a pick-up game of water polo (or Marco Polo). Splash around with your kids or hire somebody else’s for the day. The driving objective for the winter should be to maintain friendly contact with the water so that you won’t greet each other as strangers when the new triathlon season emerges next Spring.

Get up! Get out! Get wet!

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