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Written By Patrick Cogan

I am 34 years old and over the last eight years I have done almost a dozen triathlons. These include a half iron-man and numerous Olympic and sprint distances. I learned to swim eight and a half years ago. I did all of this while suffering from Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), a degenerative neuomuscular disease that makes even doing two simple tasks together extremely difficult. Imagine how much harder learning to swim was because you have to do a few dozen things together just to swim. Friedreich’s affects the way my brain communicates with every muscle in my body. This is everything from my heart and lungs to eyes, throat and stabilizer muscles just to name a few.

My start in triathlon was confusing and a little frustrating to say the least. It is not easy navigating the murky waters of USAT being a Physically Challenged athlete. Over the years I have come up with a few pieces of advice that I wish I knew when I got started which would have made my life boat loads easier. Hopefully the knowledge I am about to drop on you will convince you to either sign up for your first race or improve your experience.

1. Contact the race directors of races you are interested in!

Being a physically challenged (PC) triathlete is difficult, shoot, being a triathlete is difficult on its own! There are significantly more logistics that PC athletes need to plan for in order to have a successful race. In my case, I’m slow. Don’t get me wrong, given my challenges with FA I hold my own, but in comparison to non-PC athletes I take longer in each event. In my experience, many races are not USAT PC sanctioned triathlons. Due to this, I have learned that it is important to contact race directors to explain your situation to make sure they can handle your needs so you can register for the race. Every PC athlete is different but I explain that I need a handler with me for all 3 disciplines and I require a much larger space in transition areas for adaptive bike and run equipment. I also have many challenges with swimming so I need a significant head start in the water. Most race directors want physically challenged athletes at their races, they just may need some guidance from you. If there is a race you are interested, don’t be scared! Just reach out to the race director and so you can achieve your triathlon goals.

2. Follow the Race Director!

As I explained before, it is important to work with race directors to determine what will help you have a great race but not inhibit any other athlete. Most RDs are awesome and will really do everything they can to make sure you can do their race. If you have a good experience with a particular race director or triathlon company, then follow that person or group to their other races. If they run other races, then you know you should be able to do those races without an issues.  You have already built a relationship with that RD. You have helped them to expand their race offerings and they know exactly what you need. So the challenges you went through with the RD on your first race with that them will be greatly reduced. This means you will have much less stress going into race day so you should do even better at your next race. Being a PC athlete in triathlon is no different than other aspects of life. They become much easier when you realize that personal connections are key.

3. Plan ahead and remember that race day is the entire day not just the race!

It is important to remember that the race is not just swimming, biking and running.  Race day includes how you will get to the race, set up your transitions, get your number, put your gear on, use the bathroom, get to the race start and pack up and go home when it is all over. Even simple things like driving to a race can determine if you do a race or not depending on your physical challenge. I personally have my wheelchair, my recumbent trike which I use to bike and my hand cycle for the run. I am in a wheel chair so getting all my equipment to one location is difficult and requires help from others. Plan ahead and make sure you have someone who can help get you to the race or help you with your equipment and set up once you are there. If you tell the RD well ahead of time, he or she may be able to get you a dedicated volunteer for the day to help you with these types of logistics. People in the triathlon community are always happy to help but sometimes you just need to ask.

4. Make sure you practice with your guide, if you need one for your race!

Depending on your physical limitations, you may need a guide or handler. I personally can’t swim alone given my limitations. It is 100% not safe! In order for me to have a successful day on the race course, I need to find a swimmer strong enough to swim next to me and guide me through the swim and also protect me from getting pushed under by other swimmers. I can only safely swim on my back, and I pull to the right, so my handler needs to constantly keep me straight all the while protecting me from other swimmers. It is important for my swim handler to know how I swim before race day so he or she can determine the best and safest way to fulfill his or her responsibilities as my guide.  Finding a person who is able and willing to do this is NOT an easy task. People have their own lives to live but if they can help they will. Make sure to ask them well in advance of the race and have a backup plan in case life happens and the guide falls through. If you incorporate your guide in your training often, then he or she will be more committed to helping you with your goal. At this point your journey has also become their journey and they want to see it through. This will also allow you both to figure out what works, certain signals to give so you can adjust on the fly and it creates accountability to each other when either of you doesn’t feel like training. They are not just a guide, those people are now your training buddies. Triathlons are usually an individual sport but not for most PC athletes and certainly not for me!

5. Ask for help and be your own advocate!

I hate asking for help! Hate it! But sometimes doing the things you hate and are uncomfortable with are exactly what you need to do.  That is exactly the case with triathlon for some PC athletes. In order to race I am constantly humbling myself and asking for all kinds of help. Triathlon may be an individual sport, however, when you look deeper it is just a huge support group trying to help you succeed. Most volunteers want to help but they just don’t know how and don’t want to get in your way on an already stressful day. If you ask them for help and tell them exactly what to do, then they are happy to spring into action and your day just got easier! If you look around transition before a race, you will see many non-PC athletes asking volunteers and other athletes for help. Triathlon is a community and we are all there to help each other. We all put in the time, made sacrifices and suffer and because of this we want to see one another succeed. Asking for help is not a pain in the butt for those helping nor is it a sign of weakness. It shows that you are comfortable with the triathlon family that you are member of.

Finally the biggest piece of advice I have for PC athletes is just like in life, you need to be your own biggest advocate! Most RDs want you to do their race, so they will be happy to work with you. Don’t assume the RD knows what you need on race day. It is up to you to communicate with them. If you don’t communicate with them, then they won’t know the best way to help you.  Talk to your friends and family and let them know how they can help and support you. Tell them exactly what you need. Under my circumstances there is absolutely no way I could do a triathlon of any distance without help from the outside! At the end of the day it is on me to drum up the support crew so I can achieve my goal. When I see a race I want to do, then I do what is necessary to make it a reality and you should do the same!

Final Thoughts

These are some of the main tips that I have learned along the way on my journey from a new PC athlete navigating the complicated waters of triathlon to an experienced triathlete. All PC athletes are different and have different needs or challenges on race day. These are just some pieces of information to consider to give you some guidance whether you are a PC athlete thinking about getting into triathlon but have no idea where to start or have done a few races but want to make it better experience. I am always looking for more information to tell PC athletes who have come to me for advice so please leave your most helpful tips in the comments!

About Patrick Cogan

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Patrick Cogan is a PC athlete who has been involved with Triathlon for almost 9 years. His challenge is Friedrich’s Ataxia and throughout his journey he has started a foundation to help others living with FA called Project Wheels. When Pat isn’t swimming, biking or running then you can probably find him nerding out over the latest technology or superhero comic.

A few weeks ago I asked my athletes to send some testimonials for the new Endurance Swimming  website,  if they felt like doing so.  Shauna Barry went above and beyond and documented her journey from the time she signed up for her goal race through the successful completion of the event. As much as I love reading such a glowing review, I am posting this because it is a great insider look at how we can help people achieve goals when they ready to work fo them! I also love reading about why people get involved in the sport and why they take on challenges way outside their comfort zone because I find it motivating as I am sure you all do as well.  Thanks Shauna for such a thorough documentation of your journey. I am so happy that I could be a part of it and hope to be a part of many more!

How Craig Lewin (who just swam across the Catalina Channel) helped me to learn to love ocean swimming and why having a performance coach mattered to me:

It is February and I am up skiing with my family in New Hampshire.  I feel the lag in momentum that sometimes you get if you are an outdoor athlete who loves the feeling of working towards a goal and new challenge and doesn’t have one.  The Peaks2Portland 2.4 swim race popped up in my email and I thought….ummmm I could do this. One small glitch, I am not an ocean swimmer.  I enjoy swimming in the pool and swam in high school but when I get into the ocean, I feel like I am floundering and drowning (legitimately, I imagine the lifeguards must view me as a swimming risk!) I am also slightly scared of the waves and their ability to pummel me at any given period of time.  I LOVE running-and consider myself a runner, first and for-most and have discussion fatigue about my chronic ankle injury (save yourself- don’t ask me how my ankle is doing). Swimming is a good-for-my-ankle-sport so training for a swim felt like a win in the ankle-recovery-department.  Swim more + don’t beat up my ankle + take a new challenge = I’m in.  I quickly adopted this positive goal that I clearly needed in mid-February and then did what most performance athletes do, began to let every friend on the planet know about my goal.

First, in order to sign up for the race, I needed a kayaker.  I called my sister, whose only real experience kayaking involves capsizing on a family outing with a former boyfriend (which while possibly comical at the time has unfairly become my mom’s only memory of her kayaking experience). Like me, she was up for a challenge!  She was also up for a chance to redeem her kayaking reputation and game to support any wacky goal I had in mind.  She had gotten married out on Little Diamond Island (one of the Casco Bay Islands the year prior) and the race would swim/kayak past the dock, so we figured he would join us for the day and be considered an, “anniversary visit.”  I signed up for Peaks2Portland, paid the money and my training goal began.

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As I casually dropped my goal into almost every conversation with friends from all backgrounds…the neighborhood, work, parents from my kid’s playdates (it was hard for me to hold back- I started to get excited). I faced a lot of questioning remarks and skepticism, “Cold water, very cold! Why would you want to do that?!”  I would glibly answer all while semi considering the obstacles they were mentioning (“I actually do NOT like cold water,” “yes, there might be sharks but as far as I knew, most sharks were in warmer water,” “I’d have to look up some statistics on shark attacks in the northeast,” “No, no I have not done an ocean swim before…” Then the conversation would circle back to the water temp (again, and again).  Occasionally, I’d become engaged in a discussion with a friend who I could tell wanted to have a realism-discussion with me where they sort of weighed my odds of really doing this race at all “Have you swam that far before?” (answer= no). Truth be told, this all egged me on more (nothing more fun than a challenge that people aren’t really sure you can do OR one where they can’t figure out why you would even want to try!)

How to train for something when you have no experience and no real baseline of what to do: 

I went to my parent’s house in Ogunquit Maine and had my dad and husband walked the beach while I got pummeled by waves.  After witnessing me stumble around in a state of vertigo and the disorientation for about 30 minutes in 50-degree water with hands that were feeling numb, my dad offered who never really gives advice, casually mentioned, “Shauna, someone must have done this before, you should learn from someone who has experience with this.” Point taken.

I noticed a number of my friends from Breakaway had discovered Endurance Swimming. This felt like a party that had been going on that I had been missing out on …clearly, I needed to get myself invited to this party to help me with my race!  I reached out to Craig via email and he gave me a brief orientation on where to be and form-filling out (safety first) and attended his pool training in Peabody.

Here is what I learned from signing up with Endurance Swimming:

  • There is NO BETTER way to learn how to improve your swim technique than from an incredibly accomplished athlete (have I mentioned Craig’s recent 21 miles swim?!) I thought maybe his swim skill could rub off on me just by signing up for the class.
  • Craig has a direct-style, fun personality and he can see things I cannot. (All very important in a swim coach!)
  • Craig has a variety of genius insights that if you are a hungry- for-answers-type of athlete, he will share on a whim or if you pepper him with questions (which I do, repeatedly, Sorry, Craig) he will respond in a thoughtful way no matter how granular the question (“So, when I turn my head, approximately how much of my air should I breath out?”- response, “Not all of it or you will start to sink a little)
  • EVERY SINGLE TRAINING CLASS I ATTENDED I LEARNED SOMETHING NEW- OFTEN MORE LIKE 5-10 NEW THINGS. After class #1 brain and body were tired from trying hard to change old habits some which I had been taught (note, the swimming community no longer does the “S” movement during the underwater portion of the swim) and some which I made up over time from reading or watching videos!
  • “Swim in the conditions you are going to race in. If you are doing an ocean swim- swim in the ocean, feel the buoyancy, experience the conditions, see if you get sea-sick.” (I cannot underestimate the value of this very important lesson. As I write it, it sounds like common sense but, guess what? I DO get sea sick while swimming in waves and turning my head side to side for an extended period of time. Duly noted!)
  • Technique: Craig teaches technique in the pool using a variety of drills to break down your stroke and then a few to simulate group swims (ie 3 of us all swimming in one lane to practice swimming together.) He also video tapes you throughout, so if you are a visual learning (yes, I am) you can SEE what he is saying.
  • Sometimes what you THINK you are doing- you are really NOT doing. I listened attentively and wanted to be an A+ swim student (maybe I could master is all in the first one or two classes). Craig noticed my arms were not entering the water properly, I focused so hard on changing that and then, he showed me the video of my efforts. Yea, I wasn’t fixing it, maybe just thinking really hard about it, though!  Seeing this helped me to make the brain/body connection.
  • If you have bad posture out of the water, chances are, you still need to work on it IN the water. (Put my head down/align with my spine, pull my shoulder’s back and suck in my stomach ….or I will dissolve into a rounded shoulder swimmer who could be mistaken for a floating rock.)
  • Cadence: ”Pick up the pace or it is not really swimming,” Craig Lewin, June 2018.  Over my swimming history, my freestyle seemed to have morphed into a leisure-swim-stroke Moving my arms at a faster clip was an important piece of getting across the Portland waters in my race successfully.
  • Ocean Group Training: I cannot underemphasize the importance of going with an experienced coach to an ocean swim training class. First, the group of people that will drive 1 hour to attend an ocean swim class in Swampscott are people who truly want to get better at swimming. They are also, even if apprehensive or going through their own emotions about ocean swims, very positive people. Wet-suit clad, with our brightly colored safety inflatables strapped around our waists, we attacked Saturday mornings!
  • Ocean Drills: Craig has you swim into the waves, out of the waves, over to the buoys, you name it, he mixes it up.  Ocean exposure with the Craig-safety net, was invaluable.
  • “Feel the pull of the wave and if you are getting pulled into it, don’t take a breath on that side or you will take a big drink” (Paraphrased quote, but you get the gist.)
  • Sighting Efficiency: Previously, I had been taking the “scenic route” in the lake (ie zigzagging.) “Don’t follow the swimmers around you. I once was leading a race and had sun in my eyes and took a whole bunch of swimmers off-course with me,” That was a mindset shift for me and debunked my theory that all the swimmers in the triathlons (in fact everyone one of them except for me) knew exactly where they were going on the course!  Practice sighting every 6-10 strokes. Keep your head up for 2 strokes- one to see, one to adjust.  Craig answered specific questions I had about every little details about how to sight ie: when to breath, how high to lift my head….and having an experienced coach to work through the details with you was critical.

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On July 28, I successfully swam Peaks2Portland with a time of 1:11.  My first ocean water crossing. I am still riding high from the accomplishment (yes, it is several weeks later). I could not have done it without Endurance Swimming or if I had tried, I am not sure I would have enjoyed the race as much as I did.  My sister did not capsize and now is officially, our family’s “best kayaker.”  I saw a number of friends I knew during the race and met a few more new ones!

Craig’s coaching ability is a true gift.  That coupled, with his amazing skill as an endurance swimmer, makes him one of the most highly regarded swim coaches in the northeast.  If you want to improve your swim performance, I strongly recommend giving his class a try!”

 

 

One Of My Favorites!

If you are looking for a drill that helps you with your balance, body position, rotation, kick efficiency and breathing then look no further. This is the drill for you.  The 6 Kicks and Roll drill is probably my favorite drill to do when warming up and recovering between hard sets. It is great for warming up because it activates up all the small muscles that you need for rotation when swimming. It prepares your body for the pre and main sets to come and sets you up to have a more efficient kick and body position throughout your workout.

This drill can be complicated so don’t get frustrated. Just remember why you are doing the drill and focus on that one piece of the stroke throughout the drill.  If you get too frustrated, then move on to a different drill and come back to this.  This drill really works the foundations of freestyle swimming so it is great to start to incorporate it into your workouts. If you are struggling, then you can try throwing on a pair of fins to help give you the lift from your kick that you may be missing.  You can also build off this drill by adding in a stroke during the rolling phase of the drill.

There are a few key points to remember when doing this drill.  You want to make sure you keep your eyes looking down and your neck relaxed.  You also want to start your rotation from you hips and core instead of from your shoulders.  This will make turning your head to the side easier especially when you are breathing.  The roll from one side to the other should be smooth and relaxed.  It shouldn’t be rushed. It is better to only do 2 good rotations during a length of swimming instead of doing 20 bad ones.  Go slow, be patient and most importantly try to have some fun learning a new and complicated drill!

Let us know how you do with this drill and please let us know some of your favorites. I am always looking for new drills to incorporate in my workouts.

Good luck and have fun.  Remember, Successful swims are build with Endurance!

Liquid Lunch!

After my last blog post I received several questions about my nutrition plan and some of the gear I used for my swim and during my training. This post is going to focus on nutrition and fueling. I will do a follow up post focused on some of the gear I used in a few days. None of the following is a recommendation of any sort. This is the feeding plan that I have come up with that work for me and my body. My hope is that this will help give you some ideas of new foods and/or feeding intervals to test out. Some may work and some may not but that is the only way to find an optimal plan for you! I hope you find this helpful. I am providing links with every image of where I purchased my products from in the event that you do what to give them a go.

Test, Test, Test!

I can’t reiterate enough that what I am about to describe is not a recommendation. This is the nutrition plan that I have come up with that works for me and my body.  Throughout my training I have tried many different feeding intervals and foods. The following is what I have found works best for me. It keeps me fueled, hydrated and most importantly does not cause any stomach issues. The only downside is that it makes me have to pee..a ton! Keep in mind that when you are coming up with a nutrition plan that works for you, test it out extensively in training. If something isn’t working for you in training, then it certainly will not work on the big day.  You should experiment often until you find exactly what works best for you.  Overtime you may have to tweak your plan but it is worth it because nutrition can make or break you come race day.  You should be confident in your feeding plan and nothing new should be introduced to it on the day or even a a week or 2 weeks leading up to your big swim.

My Fuel Sources

Carbo-ProIMG_20180729_102420Carbo-Pro is a pure complex carbohydrate powder. I love it because it has no flavor when mixed with water. There are 100 calories per scoop and I will generally put 2 scoops per 20oz bottle. This is enough for 1 hour of feedings. This type of carbohydrate is quickly absorbed and helps your body use muscle glycogen as the main fuel source. This will help reduce the use of muscle proteins as a fuel source. 1 serving of this has about the same amount of carbs as 1/2 lb. of cooked pasta. For my long training swims and the Catalina Channel, this was a perfect fuel source to help keep me going.

GU RoctaneIMG_20180729_102440GU Roctane is the other powder based fuel source that I use. This is where I get my electrolytes, amino acids, caffeine and additional carbs during long training swims and my channel attempt. It is not overly sweet and the flavor is very subtle. After I do a feed with this, I usually instantly perk up and am more focused. 2 scoops of this mixed with 20oz of water is another 1 hour of fuel for me.

Cliff BarIMG_20180729_104128Cliff Bar is the only real solid food that I will use. I will eat half of a chocolate chip Cliff Bar every 2.5 to 3 hours. This provides protein and fiber so that I don’t get feelings of hunger and it breaks up some of the flavors so I don’t get sick of my other feeds. The only down side to this is that it requires chewing which makes the feed take longer than just liquid and gels. I also drink about 12oz of water with this to prevent dehydration from the protein in the bar.

GU Roctane Gel91g0OJfnm1L._SX522_I use the GU Roctane Gels only as needed. If I am feeling depleted and need a quick pick me up, I will use one of these. Within a minute or two of eating the gel I begin to feel better. The flavors of these are powerful and they can be very sweet. Be sure to try out different flavors when you are training to make sure you can stomach it. Personally the thought of eating a chocolate or peanut butter flavored GU in the middle of a 6 or 8 hour swim is nauseating. So I tend to stick to the fruit flavors but if you hate fruit then obviously you would want to pick a different option.

The Feeding Plan

I like to keep my plan relatively simple. I feed every 30 minutes and then the last hour to two hours of my swim I shift it to every 15 minutes if I am struggling.  My feeds alternate between the Carbo-Pro and the GU Roctane. On the bottom of the hours I drink half my Blender Bottle of Carbo-Pro which is about 10-12oz of water and Carbo-Pro which is about 100-125 calories. Then on the top of the hours I drink half my Blender Bottle of GU Roctane which is about 10-12oz of water and Carbo-Pro which is about 100-125 calories. Every two and a half to three hours I will do my normal feed plus half of a Cliff Bar and an additional 12-18oz of water. Depending on how I am feeling, I may ask for a GU Roctane Gel once every few hours for a little extra boost.

That is the plan I follow for the majority of the swim. If I am starting to fade in the last one to two hours, I start to feed every 15 minutes.  These feeds are not so much for fuel but just for quick mental breaks. These feeds are about 10 seconds and usually involve a quick swig of Carbo-Pro or GU Roctane and a quick stretch. My normal feeds average around 15-20 seconds unless I need to pee in which case they may be closer to 1 minute.  The plan is very simple and it works great for my body. I take in an average of around 250-350 calories per hour and about 20-24oz of liquid. Everyone is different so the calories I take in may be too much for some and not enough for others. This is why it is very important to experiment in training.

Medications & Sea Sickness

There are a few additional elements to this plan that are very specific to me. For the past month of training including my Catalina Channel swim, I have been dealing with a shoulder injury. In an effort to keep the pain to a manageable level, I take Advil prior to swimming. I will then take Tylenol after 4 hours of swimming and then another does of Advil 4 hours after the Tylenol.  This is not a long term solution and definitely should not be a practice followed for more than a few days in a row but it was necessary for me in order to get through my long training swims and my Catalina swim.

Additionally, I get severely sea sick! The thought of being on a boat or in rough seas is enough to make me want to throw up. This is sad because I love being in the ocean. Sea sickness usually leads to vomiting and once you start vomiting up your feeds, then none of the nutrition from feeds is staying with you. This sickness will most likely be severe enough to force you to end a big swim. Luckily I know this about myself and it is important for you to know this about yourself too.  Since I know I get sea sick easily, I take Bonine before my big ocean swims. It isn’t enough to just take it an hour before, I have to start a few days prior. I will take 1 pill before bed 48 hours before the swim, then 1 pill 24 hours before the swim, then 1 the morning of or 1 hour before the actual swim. You need to build up the medication in your system for it to be fully effective. I do this before all my ocean swims and all my Scuba dives and it has kept all sea sickness away. I personally prefer Bonine because it does not make me drowsy like Dramamine. Dramamine makes me fall asleep instantly and then I am out for days. Bonine will make me a bit hazy on the first day and then I have no hazy feelings at all after the first 12 hours or so of taking the first dose. This is why I start 48 hours before and take it before bed. By the time the swim rolls around, all those side effects are completely gone and I feel totally normal. If you don’t get sea sick, then you are lucky and none of this matters to you but if you do then you need a plan!

I hope you find this helpful as you experiment with different feedings plans. I am always looking or new ideas for myself and to pass on to fellow swimmers. I would love to hear what works for you during your training and long swims and so would other swimmers, so if you are comfortable sharing please post some of your plans in the comments!

Check back in a few days for when I write about some of the gear that I used for my swim and to learn how to make “Channel Grease!”

Thanks for reading!

 

Leading up to the swim I had a lot of emotions. It was a surreal experience to think that I had been training for 9 months and the day was finally here. The 6 weeks leading up to the swim I had injured my shoulder. Every swim I was experiencing pain, so that alone made me very nervous about the swim. The swim is hard enough on a good day when you are 100% so going into it injured really hurt my confidence.  On the day of the swim, I got up and did some stretching, got some breakfast and did some last minute shopping and prep work for the swim that night. The plan was to meet at the dock at 7pm to board the boat and ship out by 8pm to start around 11pm.

After checking in with my coach, Dan, and my support swimmers, Joe and Rob, I checked the weather one last time.  The weather forecast for the night was great and the water was perfect.  Around 12pm I ate a very plain high fat high protein lunch which was a can of tuna, a can of potatoes and an avocado. After lunch I went to sleep for about 3 hours. This was about all I could do to try to make sure I was wide awake for the swim late at night.  Once I got up I had my last meal before the swim which was the same as lunch, then it was time to shower, pack up and go.

My parents, Joe, Rob and myself piled into the rental car with all the supplies and made our way over to the dock around 6:15pm on July 19th.  Once at the dock we met up with Dan and Guy, the other kayaker. There was a slight curve ball thrown my way when we arrived luckily Dan and the crews of the Pacific Star and Bottom Scratcher sorted it out before I got there.  Dan gave me an update and basically the Pacific Star engine had flooded and that was the boat I was scheduled to go out with. Luckily there were no swimmers on the Bottom Scratcher so the Pacific Star crew took over the Bottom Scratcher and we went out in the Bottom Scratcher instead of the Pacific Star.  I am very appreciated to the owner of the Bottom Scratcher for making this happen otherwise I may not have gotten my chance to swim.

Once everything was sorted, we boarded the Bottom Scratcher and started to get settled in. After we were all on board, I met with Steve and Marc, my CCSF observers. At this point I signed the paper work and then it truly was no turning back. But for me, the no turning back moment was when I applied for the swim back in March. At this point, Marc and Steve did a support crew briefing to explain how the swim would go, the questions they would ask during the swim, what they were looking out for and to learn the roles of everyone on the support crew. Once this was done, I helped my Dad/Crew Chief make sure all the feeds were ready and the plan was all set and talk to the kayakers about my feed plan.

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My feed plan was very simple. On the bottom of the hour I took in about 150 calories of Carbo Pro and water. Then on the Top of the hour I took in about 150 Calories of GU Roctane. Every 2.5 hours I would also take in ½ a chocolate chip cliff bar and a bottle of water.  At hour 4 I took 2 Tylenol and at hour 8 I took 4 Advil. If I needed an extra boost I would toss in a GU Roctane Gel with Caffeine in it.

The plan was set and everything was in motion so at this point I went to the bunks and tried to sleep. Even though I slept a good chunk of the day, I was still tired because I am an old man and like to go to bed at 9pm. So between the jet lag and it already being late at night, I was tired.

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Before I knew it my mom came and woke me up, because it was time to get ready to swim. At this point I was ready to throw up, I’m still not sure if that was because I was nervous or sea sick but it didn’t matter it was time to get in.  Just before getting in, I got my lights ready and clipped on my suit and goggles. Everything was on and my dad was greasing me up with a mixture of Lanolin, Vaseline and zinc oxide. Then around 11:10 pm, Dan set off on the kayak and shortly after it was my turn to jump in!

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Once I got the clear to jump in, there was a lot running through my head. I was very nervous and it was pitch black. The crew had a spot light shining on the area that I needed to swim to in order for the swim to officially start. They also warned me to watch out for the ropes that mark off the swim zone.  So I’m already nervous and now I somehow have to try to not get strangled by ropes in the water in the pitch black.  Ya, I am feeling really confident about now. So I jump in and swim to shore. The water felt like a comfortable temperature but I was really cold. This made me even more nervous. I made it to shore, climbed out, got my rock for a souvenir and was ready to start. In order for the swim to start, I had to put both arms up and walk into the water. As soon as my feet hit the water, I had to drop my arms and that started the official swim time.  I did what was asked of me and as soon as my feet hit the water my arms dropped to the side and I was off.

The first 30 minutes of the swim was an absolute nightmare for me. I was very nervous and in my own head.  The water was high 60s and I was freezing. All year I have been training in water between 55-61 degrees so I was really freaking out. I could not understand why I was so cold when the water was so warm and then I started panicking.  How the hell was I going to make it 20 miles if I am freezing in the first 30 minutes.  That was problem number 1.  Then about 5 minutes in I started having goggle issues. Keep in mind I have been training with these goggles for months.  They were filling with water like crazy and I had to keep stopping to fix them. The water in California is much saltier than at home so my eyes were on fire and I couldn’t see anything.  This made it extremely difficult to actually see the glow sticks on the kayak and the boat to navigate.  I was all over the place, zig-zagging between the kayak and the boat.  That was problem 2.  As if that wasn’t enough, I started to have issues with my swim cap.  This was a cap I have used several times before and it wouldn’t stay on my head.  I was really going nuts at this point because it was causing my goggles straps to fall off and make my goggles continue to fill with water.  I was so cold and frustrated I refused to stop until 30 minutes.  I made it 30 minutes and fixed everything, took my feed and tried to settle down. The good news is that I wasn’t thinking about my shoulder pain because I was having so many other malfunctions.

The next 2.5 hours were bad but not as bad as the first 30 minutes.  For me this was the mentally the hardest part of my swim.  I was so cold and still could not figure out why and I wanted to quit. I am all for a challenge and I don’t quit.  I told myself there were only 2 ways I exit that water.  I either make it to mainland and walk out or I get pulled out unconscious.  During my mental fart, I kept telling myself that I can’t quit because Joe came all this way and Rob is spending his day off with me and I am going to really be letting them down if I get out before they even get to swim.  Then I started thinking about how I would have to explain to everyone at home over and over and over about why I quit.  That was a thought that made me sick to my stomach.  It certainly would not sit well with me and I don’t have the funds to take another shot at this any time soon so I just kept taking strokes.  The next feed came and went. Dammit, I was still cold!

Around the hour mark, the thoughts of how cold I was started to consume me. I was in a really bad place mentally.  I took inventory of where I was at physically and I didn’t have a single sign or symptom of hypothermia.  I thought how is this possible. I am so cold but am not hypothermic.  It was only then that I realized I was cold not because I was really cold but because my mind was telling me that I was tired! I usually go to bed at 10pm EST and at this time it was 12am PST which was 3am EST.  At this point my body is usually fast asleep in a warm bed for hours and with jet lag and being up late my body was telling me it is time to sleep so I’m going to make you cold. This made me feel better because I knew this was a mental issue not a physically issue. I was still cold but I knew it was not the type of cold that would put my swim in danger. I just had to stop being a baby and ride it out.  At this point I just focused on my stroke and tried to think as little as possible about being cold.

Finally about 90 minutes, I stopped for a feed which included some warm water which I drank and dumped on myself and it felt amazing. I also was met by my support swimmer Rob. This was perfect timing. Instead of focusing on my stroke or being cold I could just swim and enjoy the company in the water.  The water was pitch black and so was the sky. I could see nothing but the glow sticks on the boat, the kayak and on Rob’s head.  So during this hour I literally could see nothing but glow sticks which was kind of cool.  I was swimming much straighter and the zig zagging had stopped.  I was still cold but it was becoming manageable. Before I knew it the hour was up and it was time for another feed and for Rob to leave me.  Once my head popped up, I heard a song from college blasting form the boat.  Joe brought a speaker to keep me going during feeds. Joe, Rob and I were all having a great time doing a little dance, laughing and enjoying the experience. It was so dark I don’t think anyone could see the dancing but it really helped snap me out of my funk.  I knew there was a reason I wanted Joe and Rob as my support swimmers and this was it.  The energy they brought to the boat was amazing.  Here it is 1:30am in the middle of the ocean and Joe was blasting music having a great time.  This got everyone on the boat up and having fun. After about 60 seconds by feed was over and it was time to start swimming again.

At this point I was just thinking “just make it to the next feed.”  That is exactly what I did. I tried to focus on my stroke as much as possible and nothing else.  An extremely fun experience that I noticed around the first hour through the rest of the night was the bioluminescence.  My arms and the bubbles with every pull lit up the water.  It was just the coolest thing to see.  The water was pitch black.  When I looked down all I saw was darkness and then flashes of light every time my arms took a stroke. Focusing on this was very meditative and I started to enjoy the experience more so.  Swimming at night, other than being tired, was so cool and this was just the icing on the cake.  Around this point in the swim, I was getting stung by something. I don’t know if it was jellies or something else. The stings didn’t hurt much and the pain didn’t last like a normal jelly fish.  Who knows this all could have been in my head, but the I actually liked the pain from the stings.  It kept me awake and allowed me to focus on something other than the cold.  This stinging only last about 30 minutes and brought me to the 3 hour mark.

At 3 hours it was time for kayak switch. Dan was out and Guy was in.  At this point I took an additional GU Roctane Gel with caffeine and this was the best decision I made the entire swim.  The caffeine woke me right up and the cold feeling instantly went away.  I was awake finally after being a pathetic mental wimp for 3 hours.  For 3 hours all I wanted to do was quit, but I refused to let myself.  If I had quit, then all those weekends that my parents and wife gave up to help me train would have been for nothing. I had a boat of people who would have spent half the night wasting their time and staying up late if I quit and I would have let down so many people.  I was ecstatic to be done with that part of the swim. Now that I was feeling better, I put my head down and I was off.

At the next feed, it was Joe’s turn to be the support swimmer. I was terrible with listening to the feed signal this entire time.  Basically in order to get my attention because it was so dark, the kayakers had to scream and just about ram me with the kayak to get me to stop.  So hour 3.5 they get me to stop and my head pops up and as I am feeding I hear Joe yell out my name and jump in the water.  He was definitely excited and ready to go! But as soon as he surfaces you hear him yell “Oh no, I lost my goggles. They fell off!”  It is pitch black and there are no lights because it is 2:30am.  One of the crew members grabs a spot light and tries shining it where Joe jumped in trying to help him find the goggles.  Joe thought he saw them, so he divided down into the darkness then surfaced a few seconds later with his hands empty.  His goggles now belonged to Davy Jones and sunk into the abyss. After he pops up, I heard Rob yell out “Good job Joe, you are blowing the swim!” which got me laughing.  Joe said he was fine and didn’t need goggles so he came next to me and we were off.  Joe only had a light on his waist not both his head and waist, so it was hard to tell if he was with me or not but he went to the Rio Olympics for the USA for Triathlon and he swam with Rob and myself at Boston College, so I knew he would survive.  We swam the next hour together and then joe was out and I was back on my own.

 

As I was swimming, I started to get into a rhythm. I enjoyed how dark it was both in the water and in the air. Even though it made you feel insignificant and alone, it never bothered me because I knew I had my crew supporting me and they cheered for me throughout the night.  Over the next few hours, the water remained black but the sun started to rise.  Rob got in for his second shift and I think it was at this point I heard them playing the song “Good Morning Sunshine” from the boat.  That gave me another good laugh.  At this point we were about half way done with the swim and my injured shoulder started to give me some trouble. It was painful but manageable at this point, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just so happy that the sun was coming up. It gave me an extra boost of energy and once I enjoyed seeing around me for a second, Rob and I were back at it.  I felt like I was making no progress and it really didn’t help when Rob would flip over on his back and hang with me doing backstroke.  I thought for sure I was going nowhere.  We made it the hour and Guy, kayaker, said I was swimming at a good clip and my stroke looked great.  Little did he know that the shoulder pain was starting to increase.  Before Rob left the water he said something about me being happy that the sun was coming out.  All I remember was that my response was “That was the longest night of my life.”  Who knew that 6 hours could feel like an eternity! Rob got in the boat and the kayakers switched and I was off again.

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From this point on, I felt as though my swim was unraveling. Every time my left arm took a stroke, it was a grinding pain. I knew all the power was coming from my right side and I was basically swimming with one arm.  At the next feed, I came up and asked Guy if I made any progress and he assured me I was swimming great.  My stroke rate when I started the swim was 65 stroke per minute and only dropped to 62 strokes per minutes over the course of the 7 hours. Because of this and the fact that I was in good spirits almost every feed thanks to my support crew, no one knew how much pain my shoulder was in.  But pain is my thing. I usually don’t mind it. I can grind it out and handle it. I felt like I was going nowhere and as the time went on the pain just got worse and worse but I told myself just get to the next feed and you can stretch.

After an hour by myself, it was time for Joe to jump back in for his second shift. He entry this time was much more successful. He was able to keep all his gear on this time around. I don’t remember what was said at this feed but he was excited to swim in the day light and I was excited he was in the water so I could enjoy the company and hopefully not think about the pain in my left shoulder. Apparently, I was slowing down, because Joe started to do some back stroke at some points and kicking my butt. My shoulder was hurting way too much for me to even care, I just tried to keep my head down and grind out stroke after stroke. It was at this point that I started seeing tanker ship after tanker ship fly by us. They were big and they were not stopping.  Our timing must have been impeccable because we didn’t have any close calls with the big boats.

At this point land was close and I was 9 hours into the swim but I had no clue how far we were or how much longer.  I didn’t ask for the distance at any point in the swim until now.  Even at this point I didn’t ask the distance, I asked roughly how much longer. Dan told me I need to keep pushing because I was swimming against the current and to plan for about 2 more hours of swimming.  Even though at this point my arm was pulling no water, I thought to myself I can handle 2 hours.  I never asked the distance because if at hour 5 he told me 6 hours to go, I would have probably lost my mind.  Hearing 2 hours left is way better than hearing 6 hours left.  Some people like to know but I am not one of those people. I figured if I just kept moving my arms, I would eventually beach myself like a whale! Amazingly, even with my arm not really working I was still laughing with the crew and my stroke rate was still 61 strokes per minutes.  I felt really good aside from the one shoulder which was encouraging. At this point I was making it to Rancho Palos Verde, I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be using both arms or one arm.  Nothing was going to stop me!

It was at this point that I needed to stop to stretch more often than every 30 minutes. I made the call to chunk the swim up into 15 minutes segments and do my feeds every 15 minutes.  I didn’t need the fuel because I felt fine, I needed to 20 second break to stretch.  Right after the first 15 minutes, I saw everyone on my boat run to the other side and basically abandon me and Guy. After what felt like 15 minutes went by I started to get pissed off because I knew it was time to stop, but I wasn’t allowed until the Kayaker gave the boat a 2 minute warning.  There was no one on my side of the boat to hear the warning.  Finally they all come back and apparently there was a large pod of dolphins swimming by the other side of the boat.  The pictures were cool but I was too busy swimming to see it.

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An hour of feeds went by and land was getting closer…kind of. All of a sudden I hear a splash and I see Rob in the water with me and then I look up and see Joe flying in the water right behind him. This was the last leg. We were in the last mile and I had Joe and rob swimming next to me. I was starting to get a little emotional because I could see the landing point very clearly and I was finishing unless I got hit by a boat or attacked by an animal. 9 months of training and 19 miles of swimming  was done and only 25-30 minutes to left.  I took a feed and started swimming with the crew.  15 minutes later I took my last feed and I thought how could this be the last feed, I am so far away. It seemed like land would never come no matter how hard I would try to.  Sure enough it was my last feed and  as I was swimming closer and closer to the beach I still had Rob and Joe with me but then I saw my coach Dan swimming on my other side and my dad was in the water swimming along side.  This was the most amazing feeling to be able to finish with the people who worked so hard to get me here. My mom would have been swimming right next to me but someone had to video the finish, so she sacrificed herself to stay on board and film.

The last 15 yards were interesting to say the least. It was not really a beach. It was more like a ton of rocks and kelp that were 3 feet deep and you had to glide over them until the surf pushed you in.  My exit was far from graceful. I beached myself on a rock like 5 feet from the exit. The rock had slippery kelp on it and I slid right off it back in the water and finally stumbled out of the water.  I had done it! All the pain was gone and I felt great. I had done what I trained and set out to do so many months and miles ago.  On the beach I hugged my dad and we took pictures and enjoyed the moment. It felt really special. It may have been the first time one of my physical goals actually merited being proud of. This was a feeling of accomplishment like no other. After all the pictures and videos I found a rock as a souvenir for my finish and we swam back to the boat.

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At this point my left arm wasn’t working. I couldn’t lift my arm even 2 inches off my side so it was a one arm swim to the boat.  My mom was waiting on the boat to help us get on board and then I was quickly taken by the observers to sit and make sure I was okay. After that I had to clean up some battle wounds I got while trying to exit the water.  Then it was time for pictures by the lighthouse on the way back to the marina. Once I got my phone I saw that Joe and Rob had made a bunch of videos documenting the swim and giving commentary. The videos were absolutely hysterical and were a real treat post swim! Once back to the marina it was time to go back to the hotel, clean up and pass out.

This swim was an amazing experience for me.  It would not have been possible without a strong support crew. There are so many people that I owe a thank you to. First and foremost my supportive wife who let me take on this crazy challenge and stayed up all night texting the crew making sure I was safe.  She was also one of my main kayakers during many of my training swims. I need to thank my parents who were my crew chiefs during the swim and spent weekends kayaking for me during training. Joe Maloy and Rob Keely were amazing support swimmers, who kept me motivated through the swim but also made sure I had fun even when I was suffering.  They really kept me going the entire swim.  I want to thank my coach and kayaker Dan Simonelli for putting together a thorough training plan that more than adequately prepared me for the swim and for being able to kayak for me during my swim.  Guy Morgan was my other kayaker who really kept my spirits and confidence up and he took some great videos along the way.  I also need to thank some of my swim buddies and kayakers who helped me train at home which include Ken, Mike, Will, Jaclyn, Dave and Kim.The two lifeguards, at Lifetime Westwood, Gio and Ron were always there for me and probably watched more swimming than anyone.  They really took an interest in this attempt and became friends in the process. It was much easier going to the pool in the morning when I knew I would be greeted by one of them. Both amazing people and I never drowned so they definitely did their jobs!  Peter Zeiger and Crimson Aquatics were extremely supportive of this goal and the first to know about this endeavor. Peter took an interest right away and was a greatly appreciated sponsor.  I am so very thankful for his support. Finally I was lucky to enough to have the support from a few companies that made training and fueling  the swim a little bit easier. Thank you New Wave Swim Buoy for the buoys and bright caps, Pepper Togs for the amazing swim suits, Finis for the great training aids and GU for all the nutrition for my training and feeds during my swim.

Lastly, watching all of  my Endurance Swimming athletes, strive for and reach your goals motivated me to take on the Catalina Channel Swim. So thank you for all of your motivation and support.

As you can see this was not a solo effort. Everyone played an instrumental role and for this I can’t thank you all enough. Without the help and support of all of you, this swim would not have been possible so thank you!

Crush The Catch!

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One of the most difficult elements of freestyle swimming to perfect is the catch.  There are many subtle movements that go into making the optimal catch.  Mastering the catch can take months or even years depending on how often you hit the pool.  Here is a drill progression that can help you speed up the process and bring your swimming to the next level!

1.  Press and Relax Drill

  1. Start on your stomach with both arms out in front about 8-10 inches below the surface of the water.
  2. Pick one arm and press your hand and forearm down while lifting your elbow up and forward.  Your finger tips will go from aiming in front of you to aiming toward the floor.
  3. Hold this position for a second or so and then relax the arm bringing it back to the original position.
  4. Repeat this with the other arm.  Continue to alternate arms like this for a few 25s.

 

2. Press, Relax, Press, Pull Drill

  1. Start on your stomach with both arms out in front about 8-10 inches below the surface of the water.
  2. Pick one arm and press your hand and forearm down while lifting your elbow up and forward.  Your finger tips will go from aiming in front of you to aiming toward the floor.
  3. Hold this position for a second or so and then relax the arm bringing it back to the original position.
  4. Repeat step 2, hold the position briefly, and then continue to pull through keeping the elbow high.
  5. Repeat this with the other arm and continue to alternate arms for several 25s.

 

3. Press and Pull Drill

  1. Start on your stomach with both arms out in front about 8-10 inches below the surface of the water.
  2. Pick one arm and press your hand and forearm down while lifting your elbow up and forward.  Your finger tips will go from aiming in front of you to aiming toward the floor.
  3. Hold this position for a second or so and then continue to pull through.
  4. Repeat this pattern with the other arm and continue to alternate arms for several 25s.

These three drills are a great progression to help you learn the freestyle catch and slowly implement them in to your stroke.  After getting the hang of these 3 drills you can then follow them up with the Catch Up Drill focusing on the hand and forearm press and high elbow under the water and finally moving on to the normal freestyle swim.

Good luck with these drills and come back for more tips to help you improve in the water!

 

Heads Up!

Your head position may be a major factor keeping you from becoming the best swimmer you can be. 

The effectiveness of all strokes depends on head positioning, and when incorrect, misalignment of your body will result.  If your head lifts too high, your hips and legs drop causing a dragging movement, ultimately slowing you down.  Next thing you know, it feels like you are swimming uphill with your body struggling to make it to the other side of the pool.

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Head Position Drill

To improve your freestyle technique, perform the Head Lead Kick Drill prior to your freestyle workout. This drill will enable you to feel the angle at which your head will cause your hips to fall, allowing you to adjust your head position accordingly.

  • Start out by relaxing your body in a floating position with your arms at your side, kicking lightly.
  • Begin floating with your eyes and head pointed forward, towards the other end of the pool.  At this point you will notice your hips and legs will be dragging in the water.
  • Relax your neck until your nose points directly at the line on the bottom of the pool. Here you should feel your hips and legs rising up towards the surface.
  • To breathe, pick your head up out of the water and breathe while looking at the other end of the pool.  Here you will feel your hips and legs drop significantly.  When done breathing relax your neck and you should feel your hips and legs rise back up to the surface.

 

Head Strong Posture Trainer

Another effective and quick way to optimize head position while swimming is through the use of the Head Strong Posture TrainerThe Head Strong Posture Trainer can be worn comfortably throughout a practice.  The Head Strong Posture Trainer provides real time feedback.  When your head lifts beyond the optimal position causing your hips to drop, the Head Strong Posture Trainer will gently tap you on the back signaling you to relax your neck because your body is out of alignment.

Perform the mini set below while wearing your Head Strong Posture Trainer:

  • 1×100  Swim looking forward so the waterline is at your forehead.
  • 1×100 Swim with your Head Strong Posture Trainer on.
  • 3x: With your Head Strong Posture Trainer on.
  • 3×50 1st round breathing every 3 strokes, 2nd round breathing every 5 strokes, 3rd round breathing every 7 strokes. Pay close attention to your body rotation and hips in the water.
  • 2×50   Sprint with your Head Strong Posture Trainer on.  Focus on when you begin to feel the Head Strong Posture Trainer tap you and work to keep it from tapping you throughout an entire 50 sprint.
  • 6×25 Body roll drills with your Head Strong Posture Trainer on focusing on spinal alignment and a relaxed neck.

Give this drill and set a try and watch your swim instantly become easier!

Have fun and and come back for more tips and sets to help bring your swimming to the next level!

Although high elbows during the recovery phase of the stroke are not totally necessary, it is an important element when learning to swim better freestyle.  This allows you to learn the proper entry spot of the hand in the water.  Below is a progression of drills that you can do to improve your high elbow recovery, setting you up for an efficient entry and pull:

1. Shark Fin Drill

In this drill, start on your side with one arm out front 8-10 inches deep, palm down, arm inline with the shoulder.  Lift the elbow of the top arm to the ceiling keeping the forearm and hand relaxed.  Keep lifting the elbow up until the hand is relaxed right next to your shoulder/chest area with your knuckles pointing forward.  Hold it here for a couple of kicks and then relax the arm and bring it back to the side.  Do this a couple of times on one side and then switch arms.

 

2.  Shark Fin Touch

This drill allows you to work on balance, high elbows, and point of entry.  Start on one side with the arm out front 8-10 inches deep in line with the shoulder.  Lift the top arm up at the elbow keeping the forearm and hand relaxed.  This will make the shark fin.  Pause here for a couple of kicks, then swing the forearm forward and touch the water with your finger tips only where you would enter.  Then go back to shark fin and then back down by your side and breathe.

 

3. Stop Stop Switch Drill

Stop 1: Kicking on the side with one arm out front, 8-10inches deep, palm down, in-line with the shoulder and breathe.

Stop 2: Lift top arm’s elbow up to the ceiling so the hand is parallel to the chest/shoulder and make a shark fin and pause.

Switch: Swing the forearm forward and enter the water finger tips first take the stroke and repeat on the opposite side.

 

4. Catch Up With Finger Tip Drag

Start on your stomach with your arms shoulder with a part.  Start your pull with one arm while leaving the other arm in front of you.  As your elbow leaves the water to start the recovery, drag your fingers tips in the water next to your body.  Once your recovery arm enters the water pause for a brief second and then repeat with the other arm. This will help you get your elbows nice and high. 

 

Next time you are at the pool give these drills a try and see what you think.  All of these drills will not only help you with your recovery but they will work your balance and body rotation as well!

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See you at the pool!

Balance Out!

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One of the most important elements to swimming an effective freestyle stroke is balance.  This list of drills will help you to improve your body rotation and balance on both sides.  Start incorporating these drills in your swim workouts and see the results!

1.  Side Kicking

This is a very simple drill in which you start on your side with your head looking at the black line and your arms by your side.  Don’t forget to keep your neck nice and relaxed.  You want your chest, hips, and tops of your feet facing one wall.  Start kicking, keep a small and consistent kick going.  You will want your top shoulder out of the water and your top hip at the surface of the water.  When you breathe, don’t move your body just roll your head so your eyes are looking at the ceiling and breathe.  Do a couple lengths in a row on one side and then do the same on the other side.  This drill will help you to find your balance point on both sides.

2. 6 Kicks and Switch

This drill starts with you side kicking on one side with your arms by your side.  Before starting the roll, take a breath and put your face back in the water.  Once you are stable roll your body, as a single unit, so that your stomach goes under the water and your chest and hips face the opposite wall.  Make sure to keep the head looking down throughout the entire roll.  Once stable on your other side, breathe and take 6 kicks.  After the 6 kicks repeat the roll to the other side.  This is a great drill to help you smooth out your roll and go from one balance point to the other.  Don’t forget to keep your kick small and consistent throughout the roll.

3. 1 Stroke 6 Kicks

This drill is exactly the same as 6 Kicks and Switch except instead of having both arms by the sides keep the bottom arm out in front of you so your palm is down and your arm is in line with your shoulder about 8 inches deep.  After your 6 kicks take 1 stroke while rolling to the other side.  Once on the side keep the arm out front, kick 6 times, breathe, and then take a stroke and switch again.  When you roll from one side to the next, remember to roll the body as one unit.  The focus should be on a nice smooth and continuous roll and keep the neck relaxed as your roll from one side to the next.

Give these drills a try to help you improve your balance. Videos of all of these drills can be found through a simple youtube search for all of you visual learners!  If there is a drill you like better, put it in the comments so all our readers can improve their strokes!

Good luck and keep on swimming!

Today is the final part of this series on preventing shoulder pain through proper recovery and entry technique.  The final portion of the recovery and entry that can help prevent a shoulder issue is the entry depth.  The goal depth for a swimmer to shoot for is 8 to 10 inches deep.  If the entry depth is shallower than this,  it can create a shoulder problem later on.  If the entry depth is deeper than 10 inches, it will lead to inefficiency in the stroke and pull.  We are going to focus on entering to shallow since this can cause damage in the long run and because it is an extremely common problem in swimmers.  A brief side note, entering deeper than 10 inches is not likely to cause injury to a swimmer but it will create inefficiency because the swimmer will grab and pull less water.  Now on to the fun stuff!

Why do swimmers want to enter 8 to 10 inches deep?  Entering 8 to 10 inches deep is the perfect depth is because the latissimus dorsi is activated and the SITS muscles are bypassed at the start of the pull.  When a swimmer enters shallower than 8 inches, he or she is using the SITS muscles to initiate the pull rather than the lats.  This will put a great deal of pressure on the SITS muscles which can lead to tendonitis or impingement in the long run.  This is also inefficient because starting the pull from less than 8 inches is not a linear motion.  This is more of a pressing down motion, which results in lifting the body up not forward.  This shallow entry depth is the major problem that is seen in many swimmers.  If a swimmer has the proper body position, this upward motion is unnecessary and a waste of energy because the swimmer is already as high as he or she can be in the water.

To illustrate the pressure on the shoulder of entering the water less than 8 inches, try this small exercise.  Next time you are at the pool go to the shallow end.  Put your arms on the wall with your palms down, and squat down so your shoulders and hands are in line with each other.  Now press down with the palm as you would if you were swimming.  You will feel your shoulder muscles doing all the work and none of the lats.  You can even do this sitting at your desk reading this blog right now.  This simulates the muscles working when you enter the water and start your pull from a depth less than 8 inches.  Now imagine sprinting and really putting a great deal of pressure as you pull, that is a lot of pressure that you put on your shoulder.   You can now simulate doing it the right way by standing up a little and angling the arm so that your hand is about 8 inches lower than your shoulder, turn your elbow up slightly, and then put pressure on it.  The lat should activate and there will be little to no SITS muscle activation.  That is what you want it to feel like when you pull.  There are a few reasons why this is the goal feeling when swimming.  As we discussed earlier, pulling with the lats is safer because there is less chance of injury.  It is also faster because the lats are more powerful muscles and they are fatigue resistant.  In this case it is also better because now the swimmer eliminates the downward press that lifts you.  With the proper entry depth the swimmer can from 8 inches deep immediately into your grab and pull.  Now you are no longer wasting energy and everything you do is moving you forward rather than up and then forward.  Swimming is a linear sport and everything moves from front to back and back to front.  Any time a part of a swimmer’s stroke is not linear, then he or she is introducing inefficiency and a higher risk for injury into the stroke.  In this case, if a swimmer enters too shallow then he or she is pressing down.  This is not a front to back motion so it is inefficient and creates and opportunity to get hurt.  A good way to tell if you are entering at the proper depth is to be aware of what muscles you feel working.  Depending on where you feel the tension in the body, you can get a general idea of your entry depth.  If you enter too far out front and are 1 to 2 inches deep, then you will feel the pressure in your deltoid.  If you are entering 2 to 4 inches deep, then you will feel the tension more in the triceps and a little in the armpit.  If you are 4-6 inches deep, then you will feel the tension in the arm pit.  Finally, if you are 8 to 10 inches deep then you will feel the lats doing all the work.  So based on this you can get a general idea of how deep you are actually starting your pull.  Check out the video below.   Franco (the swimmer in the video) is demonstrating the proper pull depth and the proper grabbing of water.  This should help give you an idea of what you are shooting for with your stroke!

The best drill to work on this is the stop-stop switch drill which is explained in part I and II of this series.  This entry depth is associated with keeping the elbow nice and high as you enter the water and entering the water half way between your head and full extension.  To get an idea of where this entry point is stand up and lean over as if you were in a pool.  Now take one arm and extend it in front of you in line with your shoulder and roll slightly as if you were swimming.  Now look up and observe where your elbow of the extended arm is.  This is the point that you want your finger tips to enter as you are swimming.  This will help you to bypass that depth less than 8 inches and it will put your hand right where you want to be as you extend the arm down and out.  Another neat little trick that can help figure this placement out is to aim your fingers for the bottom of the T on the wall that you are swimming toward as your finger tips enter the water.  This will put your hand roughly at the proper depth.  Another common flaw related to this is when a swimmer enters perfectly but then relaxes the wrist and lets the hand drift back up to the surface.  This is just as bad for the shoulder as entering to shallow because the swimmer is still starting his or her pull from the surface rather than 8 inches deep.  This is causing the swimmer to put more pressure than  wanted on the SITS muscles as he or she pulls.  Below is the video of the stop-stop-switch drill.  This drill is used to correct many different problems and that is why you are seeing it so many times throughout this series on recovery and entry technique:

Another good drill to do is shark fin with a touch.  This drill is when you start on your side kicking with one arm extended in-line with the shoulder, palm down, with the hand 8 to 10 inches deep.  With the top arm you will lift the elbow to the ceiling and let the forearm and hand relax so that they end up next to your shoulder roughly 4-6 inches from the body.  Hold this shark fin position for a couple of kicks, then when you are ready you will swing your hand and forearm forward keeping your elbow nice and high and touch the water with your finger tips where your goal entry position is and hold it for a few kicks.  Then when you finish this, bring the arm back into shark fin and then bring it down back by your side.  You will repeat this several times and then you switch arms and do the same thing with the opposite arm.  When doing this drill make sure you are not breathing when the elbow is up, only breathe when your top arm is relaxed resting on your side.  This drill really allows you to zone in on where you want to enter.

 

The last drill to work on this is catch-up drill with finger tip drag.  This drill will allow you to work on the high elbows and the entry at a tempo closer to normal swimming.  With this drill you will do regular catch-up drill and with every stroke you want to drag your finger tips across the water keeping the elbow nice and high.  The focus should be on driving the hand, finger tips first, into the water half-way between your head and full extension to get to that entry depth of 8 to 10 inches deep.  Your goal should be on keeping the elbow high as you enter the water and then extend out and down.  All these drills explained above should help you come closer to achieving the goal of keeping the elbow up and entering 8 to 10 inches deep which sets you up for a safe and efficient pull!

The goal for any level swimmer, especially in the off-season, should be to really zone in on technique so when the season does start and the volume starts to increase the technique happens naturally.  This type of training will make you much faster as a swimmer and it will help to protect your shoulders and help to reduce the risk of shoulder injury through your swimming and/or triathlon career.  Many swimmers do not enjoy doing drills and beating the technique into their heads, but it makes life much easier in the long run.  Even though this type of training can be very tedious, it will really help to give you the muscle memory necessary to keep those shoulders safe and it will help your mental training as well.  These drills can be difficult and they take a lot of focus, so doing these drills after a hard set is always a good idea.  Normally in a hard speed set the first thing to go out the window is technique.  By doing these drills as recovery from a hard set, you are reminding your body of what it should be doing.  This will help your body remember the technique more effectively and it will train you to keep your mental focus even when you are tired and are suffering.  The common technical flaws described are not necessarily things that all people do and sometimes people will develop shoulder pain from other parts of the stroke not discussed in this series.  The goal of this post is to pin point a few key areas to focus on that I have seen cause shoulder pain in many swimmers in the recovery and entry portion of the stroke.  There are other points in the stroke to consider that may cause shoulder pain and injuries that I will be covering in future blog posts.  Some people are lucky and may make these errors and will never get a shoulder problem.  Other people are unlucky and may do everything perfect but the repetition of the stroke alone is enough to cause this type of pain.  Whichever category you fall under, it is always best to practice proper technique to help prevent these injuries and to increase stroke efficiency.  The best thing that you can do to make sure that you have safe, efficient technique is to get a video analysis of your stroke.  This way you have a coach look at you and tell you what looks good and what needs work and best of all you get to see it in action!  This is a service that I offer and you can get more information on this by contacting me by commenting on this post or by checking out my website www.enduranceswimming.com.  Most local coaches should offer this service as well and it will really help improve your stroke!

I hope that you found this series helpful in providing you with guidelines to a safe and efficient recovery and entry for the freestyle stroke!  Make sure you practice all the drills seen in this series as much as you can to really make the technique second nature.  You will be swimming faster and pain-free before you know it!  Be sure to check back for our post on dry-land exercises that will help prevent injuries in swimming and make you a faster swimmer.

Stay safe out there!