Lessons from a support boat

Boats ready for the arrival of their swimmer past the 1.5km mark.

Summer is near to the end. For me, it has been the first open water season ever. I entered several competitions, some with just a few participants and also some with a long history and hundreds of swimmers. However, if you swim in Western Australia you know that the mother of all open water swimming events is the Rottnest channel crossing. Nineteen point seven kilometers. There are two races organised across the channel: the Rottnest Channel Swim, simply known as “The Rottnest”, starts from Cottesloe beach and it is held at the end of February, and the “Port to Pub”, which leaves from Leighton beach later in March. Entries for The Rottnest close early as it is the most iconic and crowded swim, with more than three thousands participants divided into solo, duo or team sections. On the other hand entries for the Port to Pub are open until a few weeks before the competition. I had never though of swimming almost 20k in my life, but now I really want to take up the challenge. Crossing the Rottnest channel, and doing it in a race, is my next swimming goal.

How do you condition for an open water 20k? If I stick training with the awesome people of my informal squad, eventually I will get there. Many of them have done the swim several times, a few have tens of crossing under their belt. They know how to arrive fit ready at the start. But what is behind the preparation of the day you swim an off-shore 20k? This is called experience and it is not something you learn by doing day in and day out in a swimming pool. The race day could turn into a disaster for an off shore swimmer newbie like me. This is why  I promptly volunteered when a friend of mine needed some help on his support boat for a duo crossing at this year Port to Pub. I had just to keep timing for changes, to pull my friends swimmers on the boat, to communicate with the paddler and to “support” whenever something I could done was needed. In terms of reward, the experience on the boat has been invaluable.

A paddler and the swimmer.

The skipper and the paddler. A swimmer cannot make it to Rottnest without a support boat and a paddler. It’s not just a question of regulations or safety, I don’t think it is simply possible if you are racing. Our skipper was very good and experienced. Despite a forecast of currents from south to north becoming stronger half through the morning and suggestions from the swimming community to stay as south as possible after the 10th km mark, he just kept our swimmers slightly below the rhumb line, because by looking at the sea conditions there was no need to go more south, he said. And he was right. This is why I think he is a good skipper. Between the boat and the swimmer, there is the paddler. The paddler communicates with the swimmer and follows the route indicated by the skipper. Paddlers are often the unrecognized heroes of the channel crossing: they keep the swimmer on track, they pass them food and beverages, sometimes they need to force feedings and support morally the swimmer during the most difficult parts of the crossing. You need an experienced paddlers as much as you need an experienced skipper.

Wake up early on the day.
The first wave of the Rottnest is at 5:45am, the start of the Port to Pub at 6:10. This year, to have some breakfast and be on the boat on time I woke up at 3:30am. And all that I had to do was just eating a slice of brownie and drive to the Fremantle yacht sailing club. On the big day I really want to have breakfast before doing a 20k, but I will need time for logistic movements (taking my wife to the boat at the sailing club and then go to the start…or ask for a lift and some help…) and race preparation (registration, wool fat, wool fat, wool fat, anti chafing, zinc and sunblock).

This is what you need on the day: paddler and boat. The swimmer is on the middle.

Drinks and food. For drinks and food I understand that if you can stand it, then it’s ok. The best suggestion of all is to test a food or a beverage in advance to see if you can keep it down while swimming. Beverages? I heard that you can simply use Gatorade, but I may give a try to my own mix of electrolytes and fast release carbs. Somebody with many many crossings under the belt told me the secret weapon is degassed warm coke for the last 5k. Others swear on chocolate milk. On the boat they also had extra-sweet coffee. For food, a carb up one or two days before the event is advised, but then on the boat I saw hot cross buns, white bread, milk chocolates, bananas and even hard-boiled eggs.

Sunblock, anti-chafing and wool fat.
Looking at people ready to start the Rottnest and at my friends on the boat you can easily understand that sunblock and anti-chafing are never too much. For the sunblock, my friend says to apply a layer early in the morning, repeat the application later, and then to apply a further layer of zinc. This sounds to me a good idea if you have to stay under direct sunlight in February/March in Australia for four to six hours. Any form of anti-chafing is important as much as sunblock. I use vaseline under my armpits, around my neck and on my racing jammers seams when I do open water competitions, my friend uses an anti-chafing balm when he swims in the ocean, but for the crossing he goes for wool fat. A lot. I thinks the reason is that an anti-chafing balm is less messy, but it won’t last five or six hours. On the other hand wool fat is really messy and you won’t take it off easily. Wool fat is more likely to help you for all the duration of the crossing, and even if it won’t really protect from the cold, maybe it will help you feeling it a bit less.

Seasickness and hypothermia. Another friend of mine swam the Rottnest recently. She placed really well at the end, but when she finished her body temperature was 32 degrees. It’s incredible thinking to keep swimming and finish a 20k in rough sea conditions with strong currents even with such a low body temperature. Hypothermia is a real risk to calculate when swimming across the channel. I think that wool fat and hot beverages can help you to a certain degree, but they will never protect you. That friend of mine is really skinny, other people with more “natural fat” didn’t report any issue at all: natural fat is what can protect you a bit more from hypothermia. Maybe it is better to have some few more kilos around the belly than being pulled out of the water. Another problem that causes many people serious issues is seasickness. Especially with strong currents and high swell, seasickness can hit when you are most tired and already struggling through the waves. The problem is that with seasickness you won’t retain food and beverages into your stomach, and this sum up with fatigue and lack for energy: a recipe for disaster. My friend on the boat took a medicine for seasickness, you never know.

Almost there: the last few kilometers before reaching Rottnest.

Swimsuit.  People wear different styles of swimsuit depending on their starting wave. In the slower waves common bathers which are simple training swimsuit are the most popular choice, for men either as briefs or trunks. Personally I would rather opt for the former, but it’s a matter of personal choice. However in the faster waves then majority of people was wearing a racing suit. And here is the dilemma for me: leg pants or full body? The obvious answer would be full body, but is it ok to wear for 5 hours a really tight full body suit? I did 3 hours with my racing jammers on recently at a swimming pool meet, and I couldn’t stand it more: I did the final relay of the day wearing my briefs. If I decide to go for a full body I must find an effective way to prevent chafing, and also must wear the suit for several races in advance, to get used and so see where seams cause chafing. However, the fact that most fast swimmers in the crossing are wearing this model shows that maybe it is the suit to go for.

Finish.
The support boat must leave the swimmer at around 1k before the finish. The paddler can proceed a bit further but then they must leave too. The swimmer reaches the beach alone. There is a good recovery zone accessible just beyond the finish line, but it is better to decide in advance where to meet with the people from the support boat, because the finish area around the pub on Rottnest is heavily crowded and you will need your stuff soon as the only things you have with you are your goggles and cap.

I feel I must repeat this as a kind of disclaimer: I didn’t swim the race yet and these are just a few things that I learned by helping out two friends in their duo crossing. But I will and I really hope that as rookie I won’t get too many surprises.

A quokka at the pub.
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On swimming, tennis and approaches to life in general

I swim because I like it. This is obvious. Why I like it is less obvious.

Years ago I did taekwondo and I am, or better I was, a 2nd dan black belt. I enjoyed taekwondo, nothing wrong with it; however taekwondo never really kicked in like swimming. Maybe because I got a lot of kicks in the face. Since I started swimming again I realized that my attraction for it never completely disappeared during the last 15 years, it was just quiescent, waiting to come back again to the surface. I have been thinking many times at what was the characteristic of swimming that hooked me for such a long time in the past, and still hook me now after so many years.

My wife plays tennis. She started a few years ago, she is not an elite level athlete but she has been taking classes since then, she joined a tennis club and she plays pennant in a local division. Before joining the tennis club she needed somebody to play with in the weekend. I was reluctant but when your wife asks it more than once, then you know you will help her. I had never played tennis in my life before, I still have no idea how a racket should be grabbed, but half an hour of tennis was not going to kill me, I thought. I played with her, or better…I threw her the tennis ball for two consecutive Sunday mornings. On the third she said to be sorry and suggested to go together to the swimming pool. I hadn’t been in a swimming pool for such a long time that I didn’t even remember where my goggles were. However, one Sunday became two, then three, then twice a week…the rest of the story is in the training pages of this blog. My wife’s efforts to steer me toward tennis just took me back to swimming.

For tennis lovers, don’t misunderstand me please. A lot of people love tennis and I have nothing against it. If you enjoy playing and watching tennis go for it. As for me, I felt asleep watching Roger Federer playing live. Great player, amazing athlete, but I was snoring. Watching two people throwing a ball to each other with a racket makes this effect to me. The truth is that tennis and swimming are two completely different animals. The first difference is in the language: you “play tennis”, but you don’t “play swimming”. Tennis is a game, swimming is not. Tennis is something invented and codified by people, with rules decided ad hoc to manage the game. Swimming has not been invented or codified as a set of rules by people. Swimming has always been there, just as running…or maybe even before, if you consider the very earliest stages of life. At the basics is the truth that our ancestors had to learn how to move in the water, because it represented an advantage and a quite useful skill. Swimming eventually became a sport, but it remains a skill. And one that can potentially save a life, maybe yours. It is a sport and a skill with ancestral links to our past. On the other end I am sorry to point this out but tennis is not going to save me from any life-threatening situation.

Even if I think that water represents a connection with our origins, nevertheless I am aware that this has not much persuasive force in explaining why I practiced in the past and I started practicing again competitive swimming. I like swimming as a sport because it’s just you and the water. It is a collaboration between the man and the element. When you race you do have rivals, but at the bottom line is nothing but you and Nature. And even when you consider rivals, if you are faster you win, otherwise not. Touch first the wall, or be the first to pass under a timing arch on the beach, and you win. Simple. No other complex rule. You don’t have judges giving you a hopefully impartial score that sometimes turns out to be partial and biased. You don’t have umpires trying to figure out with naked eyes if your ball shoot at more than 150km/h was a few millimeters inside or outside a white line. In swimming, the outcome of your race depends on you. The only external variable influencing your race is the water, but you race your rivals in the same pool, or in the same sea. The truth is that you are your first and biggest contender. If you loose you must accept it. No moaning, take your responsibilities: you have nobody but yourself to blame.

In swimming competitions you start, you swim, you try to go faster than anybody else, you finish. The most elementary strategy of all: just go head. Always. Do not overthink it, just keep going. I knew a coach from Croatia once that used to say that there is only one strategy he asks his athletes to follow for a 15 hundred: start as fast as you can, and then always increase the pace. In swimming pool event there is not much time indeed for calculation. Swimmers may want to divide their race with a negative split, or sprint at the end but the reality is that if you don’t give it all from the beginning don’t expect great results. Open water events need a lot more “strategical” thinking due to many variables: drafting, leading, staying in the pack, going alone, currents, buoys placement and so on; however even in open water basically the faster the swimmer, the further they go. You have to think, but still not much compared to a tennis game where you have to consider your and the opponent’s position, the ball, angles, the next move and who knows whatever else. Swimming is primal. Swimming bring your instinct to the surface, it is more heart than reason. Translated in everyday terms, in swimming you go far if you have balls.

Swimming shows a quite useful perspective to approach things in everyday life. You are basically alone, if you want something you must work to get it. And you have better to work as hard as you can. At the end take your responsibilities and do not blame any other else if you fail. Yes, it may be glory; however accept the reality when you lose and stop finding excuses when something doesn’t go the right way. Put your heart in what you do, don’t be afraid and show the world you have balls. This is why I like swimming.

What gives you an edge (part 2)

(to part 1)

How do you apply the “keep it easy” and “to be good at something, you must do it” principles to your swimming equipment? Recently, I wanted to buy some new training tool. Back when I was a competition swimmer we trained only with really basic stuff, but it worked. Hence, my two cents: if you can do without it, then you don’t need it. When I began swimming again some time ago I saw that everybody else’s mash bag in the pool was full with pool gadgets. Like a child, of course me too I wanted new toys. I am not talking about expensive equipment, usually swimming accessories are simple pieces of plastic. However, it’s better to use money wisely. So what can you fill in your mash bag that actually help you improving?

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My pull, smoked goggles and “basic”paddles.

“Must have”, “nice to have”, and “don’t waste your money”

Paddles. Paddles are awesome. I always loved paddles. When I was a swimmer sometimes it happened that I cracked and crashed common commercial paddles in my hand  while swimming, it didn’t matter brand or size. So the grandfather of a friend of mine made me a particularly thick custom-made pair, the best paddles I ever used. Anyway, I digressed. Paddles are awesome because for me they are the best swimming-specific strength training tool you can have. Today’s paddles come in any size and shape, but I like sticking to old style classic flat paddles with a few holes drilled in. They build strength, take care of your technique, they are cheaper and do the job as well as all those paddles with such futuristic shapes that seem coming from science fiction films.

Kickboard. Kickboard is another must have. Remember that if a chain is strong only as much as its weakest link, with a kickboard you can realize whether your legs are up to the par. Mines are not, I always struggled and I am still struggling with kick sets. Back in the past I used a big foam kickboard, thick, flat, wide and long. I loved it because you could chat easily with your kick buddy, it kept your upper body up quite well. Recently I bought a smaller one, sligthly hollowed in the middle, so that you can use it as a pull buoy as well. Now I think that it makes sense to use a smaller kickboard, so that your body is flatter and your spine doesn’t make strange curves.

Pull buoy. This is the last of the three basic pieces of equipment I consider as “must have”. As the name says, you use a pull buoy when you want to pull just with your upper body, without using the legs. It helps with buoyancy, so that you can focus on your arms and don’t need to thick about your legs. It can also be used instead of a kickboard if you really want to struggle with some kick sets. I did the mistake of buying one too thick, and it slips out of my leg after a few flips. If I use it with the ankle band (see below) it works nicely.

Goggles. I know that this is not a piece of equipment and also I know that this doesn’t need any explanation on the reason it is a “must have”. I listed goggles here because you can pick up yours among hundreds now. Big, small, hydrodynamics, with extra durable silicon gasket, mirrored, polarized, 180 degree view and many other features. Some goggles are quite pricey, well over 50 dollars. As for me, basic is better. I tried my first swedish when I was 11 years old I think, and I never went back. You just have to take care of the rubber band, otherwise they will last forever, well past your swim life. They are small so they are quite hydrodynamic too, they don’t interfere with your swim, you usually don’t lose them when you dive, you don’t feel them on, if somebody breaststroke kick you in the face, their lens is not going to break and cut you around your eye. And they are the cheapest goggles out there. So that you can have a mirrored lens pair for outdoor and a light blue lens pair for indoor swimming. I also found in a pocket that I have a third pair with brown lenses (also called smoked lenses I think), which is the one that actually I use the most, both indoor and outdoor.

Ankle elastic band. Since you just have to cut a piece of thick rubber, the cost/efficacy value of an elastic band is the greatest. I don’t consider it essential, but if you want to do some set struggling against the drag, then you must try this. It helps a bit with strength I feel, and I found also that you must be concentrate on your technique otherwise your legs will sink down.

Fins. I didn’t use fins back in the past. That’s because in most swimming pool in Italy, for some obscure reason, you cannot use fins. I ordered my first pair recently and I hope they will arrive soon, because I need leg strength. In fact I think that fins relate to legs as paddles to arms. The only reason I consider fins as “nice to have” is that if you do long distance races as I did and I am still doing, legs are not as important as upper body…legs impose more metabolic demand than arms, while still contributing less to speed. But I recognize that a strong and powerful kick always helps, especially with butterfly. That’s why I ordered mine.

Snorkel. I think that a snorkel too should be considered as “nice to have”. I talked to people who swear on the awesomeness of snorkels, and they are about to be succesfull on convicing me buying one, but I never had one and I got along without quite well. Would I have won a national champs I had trained with a snorkel? I don’t know, but I don’t think I am going to shave off heaps of seconds from my PB now if I had one. What I think it’s good about snorkels is that you can do kicks keeping your body streamlined as when you swim. People says that it also helps concentrating on your stroke technique by eliminating the breathing variable. My take on this is that you do have to consider the breathing variable: what happens if you have a perfect technique with a snorkel on, but you don’t know how to properly coordinate your breathing when you take it off? I think that a snorkel should be a tool for people who already have their technique on tracks.

Wrist trackers for swimming. This is on my “don’t waste your money” black list. If you have a pace clock on the deck, I really don’t see the reason of spending quite a consistent amount of money on a portable wrist swim tracker. Do you need to know how fast you come in? Glance at the pace clock. Do you need to know how many strokes it takes to do a lap? Just count it. Do you need to count your laps? Come on, everybody knows how to count. Do you need to know your HR? Put two fingers on you neck for 15 seconds after the end of a set. And also, if you are at a really high level, you will have a coach doing all the stats for you, if you really need it. If you are not at that level…well…a pace clock will do the job. If you don’t know how to use a pace clock, you have better learn first, because it’s basic knowledge.

What gives you an edge (part 1)

As any other swimmer, I always want to get better. Which basically means getting faster. And I am always looking for “something” that can spark even the tiniest of improvements. It can be some newly published research result, some new training program, or some piece of equipment. In my quest for improvement I realized a couple of things, and this is what I want to share with this post. In the first part of this post I deal with some basic principles that I (try to) apply to my training.

I am not going to disclose any well-kept training secret (I don’t have any and I am not a coach). I am not going to reveal any revolutionary stroke technique (I still have doubts on mine). I am not going to suggest any supplement (I keep my use of supplements limited to vitamins and fish oil). I don’t mean to endorse any particular swimsuit (although I really like my new briefs). And I am not reviewing and giving marks to newly developed pieces of equipment (I already give marks as job, and that’s enough). So if you were waiting for a secret weapon, this post is not for you.  But if you want to realize what you can do to improve, then keep on reading.

The two most universal training principles (for me)

When I plan my workouts, or consider to buy gears or equipment for the pool or the weight room (which is actually my living room), I always try to stick to two basic principles. This is because I realized that actually work.

Principle 1. Stick to the basics and keep it easy. My father often told me “don’t turn easy stuff into complex staff by using unuseful stuff”, which I often translate as “why would you connect two points with a curved line when you can draw a straight one?”. When you  complicate things too much you progressively find yourself inside the process of complicating nothing but the process itself, until you get completely distracted from your goals. The process is important until it helps you reaching your goal, but if the process becomes the goal then you are doing something wrong. You can try to devise a highly sophisticated undulated periodization training scheme, but I suggest you to experience first the amazing results you can get from the old, plain and simple linear periodization. Build your aerobic threshold and work on technique, build your anaerobic threshold, build your speed, build your strength in the meanwhile, add volume little by little and slow down before an important meet. If you never tried this, give it a shoot. On a first instance, I believe that nothing (no device, no supplement, no swimsuit, no equipment) will boost your performance as much as a simple, linear and well planned training program. You have the permit of thinking about more complex stuff at the elite level.

Principle 2. To be good at something, you must do it. Again and again. I think that everybody agrees on the fact that if you want to learn swimming, you must get wet. No shortcuts. If you want to swim faster, you can try all the dryland strength training routine that your mind can devise, but if you don’t spend your good time in the lane, no magic will ever happen. Everything can help, but nothing can substitute thousands of actual strokes. I know that it’s nice to have some equipment to help you with buoyancy, pull, strength, breathing, technique or whatever else; me too I like gadgets and trying new things. But remember that swimming is an ongoing discussion between your body and the water. Nothing is allowed to interfere. Thus, if you want to be good at swimming “raw” you have to swim raw. I always read that if you want to get strong, you must lift. I remember that my overhead press was under the par, less than half my bodyweight, with a regular barbell, from the rack. Then I started doing overhead presses and handstand push up three times a week. Guess what happened? Now I can strict press almost my bodyweight with a thick bar, after cleaning it from the floor. Easy. So you want to swim faster? First thing to do: show up more often at the pool.

In my opinion, summarising these two principles, simplicity and practice is what gives you a real edge, on a first instance. In the second part of this post I review how these two principles apply to widely used swimming equipment.

(go to part 2)

Mental approaches to a meet: a taxonomy of outcomes

Putting on cap and goggles is one of the most important phases in approaching a race: it’s the step separating “almost ready” to “ready”.

When people discuss the psychological aspects of approaching a competition they may mention visualization techniques, or they may talk about the attitude needed to be successful in a race. All this is fine, however I think that the big picture is quite more complex. Winning a race or reaching one’s own competition goal require not only careful consideration of any mental and physical aspects, but also a reflection about the overall meaning that the meet has for you. Everybody is psychologically different as much as our body is different: peoples may share many similarities, but you will never find an “another” yourself: “your mileage may vary” both mentally and physically. In my previous competitive swimmer life, as well as in these first races of my recent masters swimmer life, I arrived at the “take your marks” moment under a bunch of different mental, physical and motivational conditions. Depending on how these variables were mixed, the outcomes have been different. Let’s try to make a taxonomy of how the mental aspects intersected with the physical and the motivational one.

You are physically ready, you want to win at all cost, it’s an important race.  Let’s say that you are in a really  “over the top form”. Not that form that you reach twice a year, but just once in a life. You will realize after some years that on that day you literally where in the best shape of your life. Let’s also say that you are very hungry. I don’t mean that you practiced so much that you would eat alone a whole roasted cow along with two pots of smashed potatoes. I mean hungry for victory. You want to win. And you want it really, really badly. You think that nobody but you deserve to win (this is a quite personal perspective, but if you ever competed in swim races you know what I mean). In the two hours preceding the race you scare the shit out of people around you just with your eyes. Let’s also hypothesize you are competing in the most important race of the season (for my level, the nationals final). Now you have all the ingredients for the perfect storm. Your race is all heart and no reason. You have just one strategy: no strategies and balls out. Outcome: you do the race of your life. The race you will simply remember forever.

You are physically ready, you have no possibilities to win, it’s an important race. You won’t be in that “once in a life” shape, but let’s say your are in a condition that you can reach twice a year, if you do your homework right. This too it’s an important race, maybe (for my previous level, not for an Olympian one) an open national. But you know that even shaving off heaps of seconds from your PB, you would hardly come in more that the 7th~8th place. You give your best…but the point is you are not hungry. Outcome: you swim with the handbrake pulled up and you desire to forget the race.

You are not supposed to be physically ready, you have nothing to lose, it’s an important race. You are not supposed to be physically ready, your coach says you will be in top form within 5 weeks, but not now. You are about to participate in a relatively important race where you have nothing to lose and nothing to win, but it happens to be a race that you had been craved to participate in for years, and eventually you did it (for me, it was an open international meeting, a round of the FINA long course series). So even if you are just 75%~80% ready, even if you know that the position doesn’t count for you, you are super pumped up. You look at yourself and you feel big. So you swim big. Outcome: you don’t know how you did, your coach doesn’t know how you did, but you just did the second best race of your life.

You are not physically ready, you have nothing to lose, it’s not an important race. You are far from being in a good shape, but you don’t mind because you have nothing to lose and the race has little meaning, at least for you. You do it just out of curiosity, as a test. Your are relaxed, you try to do your best, but nevertheless it’s difficult to gave it all. Outcome: not that bad, you made it a day, but you don’t really know what your real potential is.

Is this determination? Or did I just see something wrong?

You are not physically ready, you want to win, it’s not an important race. It can happen that you decide to do another “test” race at a meeting which doesn’t carry all that meaning for you. You know you aren’t in a good shape yet, but you also know that you can nevertheless place well: you could go home with some metal in the pocket, maybe not the brightest one, but still metal. Your race tactic is “wait-and-see”: ready to bite, but just if needed. Outcome: not too bad, you had lots of fun, you enjoyed your nice swim. And at least you know there is still room for improvement.

You are not physically ready at all, you want to win, it’s not an important race but it has meaning for you. This is the scenario when you are in really poor conditions. And you know it, but you don’t mind because you want to win, or at least you want to give all: even if the meet hasn’t any big importance to anybody else, it carries a special meaning to you, and that matters. This is not a test, and you have your good personal reason to do well. So you give it all.You go balls out. Outcomes: even if you go balls out you are in still in a sub-par condition, so you hit the wall soon. It hurts, but you make it through the end grinding your teeth. At least you demonstrated to be around and alive.

On retirement and return

Despite what you may guess from the title, this post isn’t about superannuation. It’s just about a swimmer’s retirement from competitions and his eventual coming back years later. I just wanted to write a couple of words on how and why I decided to go back to swimming, although on a different level of committment compared to the past. I was inspired by  reading this article written by Julie Tullber for The Conversation. The author makes an analysis of what made possible Grant Hackett’s (temporarily successful) return to high level swimming years after his retirement from races. I don’t pretend to compare myself to Grant, we come from two different planets (and that mean to be still too close). I don’t even know whether I can call myself a swimmer in front of him. However, I was inspired by Hackett because he was my swimming hero when he was the king of 15 hundreds despite being just one year older than me. I still remember watching him in awe on TV during the 1998 Perth Swimming World Championships. Then, his return to high level competitions after training for just 6 months is amazing. This is undeniable. But this post is not about Grant, it’s about some motivational factors that push somebody back to water, after he has even forgotten whether he still has a swimsuit or not.

Rewind

Let’s go back some years. It’s 2001. I make one of the choices of my life: I decide to go to a university (relatively) far from home. But I don’t want to give up swimming, it is a huge part of my life, it helps me shaping my own identity. So I decide to sign up for a local swimming club. The first year everything is perfect and smooth: training is great, PBs crumble, lots of fun and also top marks at school. However the second semester of the second year I have a crazy class schedule: I cannot train with the same load/frequency I used to, and that I need in order to be competitive (for my standards at least). I have to make a choice: swimming or university? Together with my coach I decide to reduce my weekly training sessions for some months, waiting for a better tomorrow. Which doesn’t arrive. At the end the reason for slowing down first and eventually retiring is just a matter of consideration about the future.

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Before

A 20 years old male swimmer knows if potentially he can make it to the olympics or if he can just reach the final of an open national championship, maybe without making it neither to the national team. Sad but true. Dreams are fine, but when reality arrives, it may hurt. At this point logic reasoning tells you that a future in competitive swimming is short. By graduating instead one never knows, you may open yourself to endless possibilities. However I don’t decide to stop competitive swimming overnight. It happens slowly, and maybe it’s better. When I do my last competition, luckily I don’t know that day it’s going to be game over.

Fast Forward

12 years later. In the meanwhile I move from one continent to another, I complete my post-graduate studies, I gain 30 kg, I start strength training, I lose 28 kg, I get a job, I change workplace, I move to another continent again. I am happy with my job, my family and my morning strength training routine. Then on a “cold” August Sunday morning (we are downunder here) my wife, who doesn’t even swim, suggests to go to the swimming pool. But not to any swimming pool. To the swimming pool, that of the 1991 and 1998 Swimming World Championship, that of Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. I think about it a while, then I consider it an opportunity to do some cardio, so I start checking if I still have a swimsuit and my old Swedish goggles somewhere. The following Sunday I go again. And then again. And then also on a mid-week day. Then mid-week days become two. Then…I am back. I think to sign up for some competition, I look for a masters swimming club. I commit to training and eventually I start doing swimming races.

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Now

I set goals. I am hooked again. I am extremely far from what I used to be and how I used to swim, but after less than 5 months of training I am doing better than I had ever imagined, and this is enough motivating for me. What made all this possible?

Past preparation for the 15 hundreds. This has been accounted for Hackett’s return, so somewhat may apply to me too. Simply, if you swam a lot, your body will never forget it. A retired swimmer is always a swimmer. You just need time to oil your joints, clean up your cardiovascular system, and get muscles running again. How long does it takes to do this? And to which level can you be back? Maybe it depends on your age, but for sure your body can be back if your mind wants it. One of my old coaches once said that if you stop for 6 months, you can call yourself an ex-swimmer. He was wrong. Once you are a swimmer, it’s forever.

Taekwondo for 3 years, followed by 4 years of strength training. Even if I have been training for less than 5 months, I did taekwondo and I am still religiously sticking to strength training. This somewhat helped me with mobility, flexibility and strength development. And also it kept my musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems working. I just need to do heaps of laps to grease the groove.

I make time for swimming. I committed to training because I manage to make time for it. Swimming is not clashing with other aspects of my life, which was one of the reason I quitted when I was 20~21 years old. Of course, I wake up at 4:20am to make it fits into my schedule, but this is exactly what “making time” means.

The need to redefine myself in a new place. Who experienced moving to another country already knows: if you live abroad, you often need to create a new identity for yourself. Swimming is contributing to this; it’s helping me in redefining myself with an identity in harmony with where I am living now (by meeting new people and by making me feeling part of a community).

That primordial desire for competition. This highly depends on each of us, but I always enjoyed competitions. They make me feel alive, just like the taste of challenges. Competing, struggling during the race, sometimes (few) winning while other (many more) loosing…all this strengthen incredibly body and mind.

The masters swimming environment. In masters swimming you can create pressure for yourself if you want, but you really need to want it. The environment is not creating pressure upon you. You are independent. It’s your responsibility to be ready for a meeting, but at least you participate only if and when you want it.

There is no single reason why I am back to the pool and to swimming races. I don’t know whether this is going to last in the future (I hope) or coming again to a (temporary) stop, but I enjoying being a swimmer again.

 

 

My two cents on iron and swimming

First disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in medicine, applied physiology, sport science or whatever other academic discipline is even loosely connected to what I deal with in this post. I don’t have either a certificate as a strength training or swimming coach (by the way, I am an applied linguist). My only “expertise” comes from my personal experience in lifting iron, swimming, and some readings. Therefore I don’t give in this post any piece of advice, just explaining from my perspective based on my own goals what is to me the relationship between lifting weights as a form of strength training and swimming. What follows are some considerations about what I did and what I am doing as “lifting”, along with a rationale for what I am planning to do with my strength training program now that I picked up swimming again. In case you decide to give a try to what I am doing or planning to do, I shouldn’t be considered responsible. Do your homework (and seek real experts advice) before starting any kind of training program.

Second disclaimer: if it ever happens that you decide to read this post a first time, consider also to come back in the future, as I may update it as often as I play around with my training programs (which is not every week, but every 3~5 months) or add some more readings under my belt.

In the weight lifting room when I was a young swimmer. The first time I grabbed a barbell I was 15 years old. Or maybe 14, I don’t remember well. Our swimming coach introduced us to the “gym” just behind the pool deck, and when our middle school gymnastic teacher knew it, he said that it was wrong to start lifting at such a young age. At the end, the gymnastic teacher was proven to be wrong, and I am happy because since then I have been enjoying lifting. The “gym” behind the pool deck was just a room next to the toilet where somebody had placed a bench press, one barbell, a flat bench and a pulley machine with four stacks of weights and some attachments: one handle, two short attachments for biceps curls/triceps extension, and one longer for lats pull down. I don’t remember dumbbells, but our coach demonstrated creativity with that restricted equipment. The bench press was the exercise we did the most, followed by triceps extensions and biceps curls. Lats pull down and pull down behind the neck were popular too. Lower body workouts were almost unknown instead. We did the gym workout after the swim session for 30 minutes to 1 hour. I remember just two types of workout: either a circuit training at the pulley machine mixed with some abs work, or a “pyramid” at the bench press. The pyramid was nothing but a sort of program were we did progressive sets increasing the weight up to our 85% max while decreasing reps from 8 to 2. Our coach explained that he wanted us to become stronger, not bigger. Of course, thinking at the high reps number we did for the exercises at the pulley machine and considering the rep range at the bench press, I don’t know whether that program made us bigger or stronger or both…for sure it helped anyway, even if at 17 years old my body weight was 59 kg (for a bit less than 170cm).

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Old picture: 17 years old and 59 kg. Walking away disappointed after finishing a 200 BF in 2’09”. But it was my PB.

When I moved from my hometown to Venice to study at the university I signed up for the local swimming team, which a that time was one of the strongest male swimming team in Italy, with a lot of awesome fast guys. Their “gym”too was a room on the pool deck. But this one was more “gym” than my old one. We had a squat rack, a bench for bench presses, an inclined bench for presses, a number of regular benches, sets of dumbbells, a leg extensions machine and a pulley machine with four stacks (this last one was already quite familiar to me). The gym layout was not the only big change. We were assigned to a professional strength training coach, a big guy who’s name was Roberto Bellan, a former bodybuilder. Roberto had us pump iron and then pump iron again. In just one year my bench press max went up more than 20 kg and my body weight 4 kg. However, what counts is that I demolished almost all my swimming PBs, both on short and long distances: I was faster and I also had more endurance. Once I asked Roberto, ” but aren’t we going to be too heavy to swim with too much muscle?” he answered in perfect Venice dialect “on a first base a strong muscle has always endurance”. And after having said that he had me pump another set. I remember doing split workouts for upper and lower body parts (leg workouts were quite gruesome), a careful selection of reps and weight, and a terrific attention to form. He had us often training with our top weights, but with perfect form. What Roberto said me, that a strong muscle has always endurance, still sticks to my mind. Roberto’s approach, supported by the results I got when I swam in that team, is mainly what informs my strength training philosophy still today: you must lift to be strong, and if your muscles are strong, they don’t give up.

In the weight room again when I didn’t touch any chlorinated water. I didn’t decide to retire from swimming overnight. It happened slowly, until I realize that I couldn’t training seriously anymore. I moved to another country, to another continent to study…and I ended up living there for 10 years, before moving again. During 10 years in Asia I officially became a “former swimmer”. And my body weight went through the roof: I put on 30 kg. When I realized that I needed to do something soon or I was going to die even sooner, I picked up taekwondo, just because as I was busy with my graduate school studies and I needed something that didn’t require too much time: the taekwondo gym was just 100 steps away from my house, and they had adult 1-hour daily sessions in the evening. In three years of taekwondo I somewhat managed to drop 8~9 kg. I was not good at taekwondo, because to be good at it you need quite a bit of legs strength and flexibility, something I never had (many other swimmers don’t have it either, I guess). However taekwondo was good for me, because of many flexibility exercises, leg drills, aerobic circuit workouts and compulsory forms exercises it helped in putting back on tracks my joints and my cardiovascular system, which were by then became almost rubbish. When I graduated and began working, my job didn’t allow me to do taekwondo in the evenings anymore. That is when I decided to sign up for a gym membership, so that I could train in the morning. I started going to the gym 6 days a week, always doing some steady bike first and then some of those strength training exercises that I learned years before from Roberto. I dropped 15 more kilos in just 8 months. Weight lifting worked great, so I began studying and researching strength training by myself since then.

After about one year of gym membership, I realized that I didn’t need it actually. My home could be my gym (consider having a look at this site to get an idea of a really badass strength training mindset. This site had me change completely my approach to understanding what “building strength” means). So I began training with body weight, a sandbag and a kettlebell. Later I added also a couple of wooden rings and parallettes. I did kettlebell squats, cleans, push/presses, snatches, sandbag deadlifts, sandbag presses and carries. I also did a lot of gymnastic rings sessions (it’s a shame I cannot find a spot to hang rings now, I loved doing wooden rings exercises) and rope skipping.

Kettlebells
These are 2 x 24 kg, but I also have 2 x 28 kg. Kettlebells are awesome.

In a few months I reached my goal body weight, and I finally dropped 25~26 of all those 30 kilos that I had gained. I had also created the habit of training early in the morning, and I still do my lifting workout just after waking up, even if now occasionally I swap them with going to the pool.

Moving cast iron around and swimming today. When I started swimming again and I signed up for masters swimming competitions I kept my strength training workout pretty the same. Only recently, since I am swimming 6 sessions a week, I reduced my strength training workout from 6 to 4 weekly, because 1) I don’t think that doing both workouts for 6 times a week works, 2) I do two swimming workout early in the morning every week now, in the time I previously use to allocate to my strength training, 3) I really want to see whether by doing less I can obtain more (consider the concept of abbreviated workouts or some strength workout volume suggestions by successful strength coaches).  For all this year I have been modelling my strength programs on Dough Hepburns’ “program A”  and I must say that I am quite happy with the progress I made. Early this year I also invested in a thick barbell, a set of dumbbells with thick attachable silicon handles, and 150 kg of cast iron plates, which allow me firstly to manipulate progress increase better than set/reps number or resting time, and secondly give me a wider selection of exercises and movements.

Thick dumbbell
One of my Olympic dumbbell with a thicker handle.

Even if every couple of month I play around with my training programs, what constitute the core is:

  • Constant, small and calculated progressions. Every workout I add reps, or sets, or volume, or I decrease resting time. But I always do a little something more than the previous workout (to do this you need to keep track of every single workout. I log details of all my workouts in a diary).
  • Use of low reps/heavy weights. What is “heavy” is quite individual. I usually do between 2 and 3 reps for set for a weight that allow me  to do just that, maybe only a couple of reps more.
  • Use of “high” number of sets. If you want to be strong, you need to lift heavy. But lifting heavy once will not make you strong. For the main exercises I usually do between 7~10 sets.
  • Keeping rest short. I keep rest between sets relatively short, even if I lift within the 2~3 reps range. Usually between 45 seconds and 1’10” (to help me doing this I bought some years ago a gymboss. I consider the 20 dollars I spent on this little timer one of the best investment of my life).
  • Use of compound movements. Even if sometimes I swap exercises, the core of my training are always compound movements: squat, cleans, cleans and presses, strict presses, push and presses, snatches, snatch grip high pulls, deadlifts. And since I don’t have a rack or a bench (and I am happy without), I must clean the weight every time I do a front squat or a press, and I also must lowering it down as quietly as possible, because I train at home and my wife (as well as the neighbors) would never allow me to drop almost my body weight from overhead.

And tomorrow? My plan for the (near) future is to keep the core of my strength training as it is, maybe I will play around with Dough Hepburn “program B” or approaching some form of Wendler’s 5-3-1. Anyway, I want to keep my focus on strength (and power) development. Is this fine with my swimming goals? Is this approach fine with swimming at all? I needed to have a look at some more “scientific” source about the relation between strength training and swimming before deciding to go this way.

What I found is that (as always happens in any field of research) except for a few things, different research papers on the same topic seldom agree on the conclusions. However, what has been reasonably proved is that dryland strength training combined with swimming is better at improving swimming performance than a swimming only program. The problem is that “dryland” strength training means different things to different people. Sometimes it’s body weight exercises, others is a form of resistance training, others again free weights. Looking at the types of strength training, it has been showed that circuit training and weight training are in no way detrimental to swimming performance and that a circuit training program including weight training improved both speed and endurance in swimmers. However it must be noted that dryland maximal strength training has the potential of improving performance only if it is periodized correctly. As for which kind of exercise to use apparently both free weight training and assisted weight training can improve performance without any particular difference, however it has also been stated that swimmers need more specific form of resistance training to improve performance, compared to cycling or other sports, because it appears at least that non-specific dryland resistance training alone does not improve speed in swimmers in distances up to 200 meters. But can strength training interfere with the development of other capacities? It seems that when it is combined with endurance training  it does not affect the capacity of increasing vo2max, so another good reason to give strength training green light. And what about strength training for masters swimmers? Firstly, many sources confirm that strength training is not used only to improve performance, but also to prevent injuries, which is fundamental in adult swimmers. It has also been guessed that while younger swimmers focus on speed, endurance, strength and power, on the other hand masters swimmers usually focus only on endurance, and this can be one one among the causes of performance decrease in masters athletes. However most of these studies focus on swimming pool performance evaluated mainly on short distances (100m or 200m) or middle ones (400m), so I felt the need to answer to one more question: what is the relation between strength training and long distance swimming? Riewald says that even distance swimmers benefit from exercises designed to improve power, which is defined as the ability to generate large amount of strength quickly, such as in Olympic weightlifting. He also states that swimmers needs at the same time to improve simultaneously power and endurance to maximize performance. In order to reach this goal, even Olympic (and power) lifts can be used to develop strength and power (which seems to me an approach similar to Roberto’s).

Recovey tools
Don’t forget recovery: foam roll, massage balls, elastic bands and voodoo floss can do wonders.

So in my understanding maximal strength training can go along with open water and long distance swimming training, as power as well endurance could be trained, to a certain degree at least, together. However, in designing a strength training program which focuses on building power and endurance, one must bear in mind a correct periodization matched to swimming goals, as well as a sport specific approach in the selection of part of exercises. Upon this understanding, my future step will be to devise for me a program focused on increasing overall body strength (such as playing with the above mentioned “program B” or 5-3-1), by introducing at the same time some more sport specific movement (like the use of elastic band resistance exercises for high reps) and some more in-water resistance work (more use of paddles and maybe investing in a pair of fins).