Monday, November 16, 2015

Road To IMWA—Story Of My Swim

It is now about 3 weeks to the Ironman Western Australia (IMWA), and the excitement is mounting. This coming Saturday and Sunday will be my final monster workouts—about 6 hours cycling on Saturday, and between 3.5 to 4 hours run on Sunday. After that I will begin to taper for the race.

I have said in the past that I don't have the time to train fully according to the standard Ironman training programme, not even the beginner's programme. So I had to prioritize. This time I'm putting a bit more focus on the bike, followed by the run. The swim is my weakest discipline, but I've been neglecting it throughout my preparation for the race. Of course if I had the time and energy, I would have liked to spend the time that swimming deserved, but because of time constraints, I'll have to be satisfied with whatever that I've done for the first leg of the race.

About 5 years ago, some of my regular readers would remember how bad my freestyle was as reported here. Well, I'm still not a great swimmer today. Although I have finished an Ironman race at the Ironman New Zealand, I swam a mixture of freestyle and and breaststrokes for the approximate 4km swim. The swim is the shortest discipline in the Ironman race. But although one can hardly win the race on account of the swim, he can surely lose it!

Throughout the months of training for the IMWA, I've been researching on swim techniques. Unlike the good old days, today the internet is a rich source of information on practically anything, and swimming is no exception. A big hindrance to me is the lack of upper body strength. That problem could be addressed by doing some weight training at the gym, of course. But I just don't have the luxury of time.

I'd like to believe that I've improved quite a lot since 5 years ago when nonstop swimming even 50m in the pool at Likas Sports Complex seemed like an impossible task. But there is still a lot of work to be done to become a fairly good freestyler. I have tried out several different approaches in the freestyle, and I have come to a point where I can safely say that a great deal of time had been wasted because for a long time I tried very hard to swim based on the principles of Total Immersion. It looks very elegant, very smooth, and effortless; but it just doesn't work for me! Check out this youtube clip of a beautifully-executed Total Immersion swim by a famous coach.

A friend tried to convince me to swim the length of the pool with the least number of strokes. He said that the lesser is the number of strokes, the more efficient is the swim. It sounded like a romantic idea of energy-saving way to swim, i.e. less work for more distance. For a while I was taken in; that's why I spent a lot of time trying to swim the Total Immersion (TI) way.

Characteristics of the TI is the long glide in each stroke and the 2-beat kicks, thus the purported "energy-saving". But after a while, I realised something very interesting about the TI; if I can compare it to cycling, it is a lot like pedaling once, and let the momentum move the bike, and then when the bike slows down, pedal once again and let the momentum move the bike forward again. Thus the movements of fast-slow-fast-slow. The cadence or amount of pedaling may be reduced substantially over a given distance, but I don't think that is a more efficient way to ride a bike! Although I can gain a slightly longer distance per stroke with a glide, what I realised was that it takes more energy for the arms to launch the body forward again to build up the momentum in each stroke; and it is that snapping action of the arm that I disfavour so much because of the energy requirement.

In the end, I reverted back to the almost continuous strokes, i.e. with minimal glide so as to prevent losing the forward-moving momentum. In this way, I can use slightly lesser energy in each stroke because I can ride on the momentum. But the downside is that I may eventually have to endure more strokes per given distance. It's a trade-off between number of strokes vs energy requirement that I'm happy to take. I don't mind the few extra strokes for a more consistent (lower) energy requirement in the arms. I'm not saying that the TI is not a good technique. I dare say that it may work wonderfully well for some people. Just not for me.

The only thing that I have maintained about the TI up to now is the 2-beat kicks, i.e. just one kick per arm pull. I'm convinced that that can help a lot in saving my legs for the bike and run legs of the race.

Someone asked me if it's entirely necessary to learn the freestyle for triathlon races. My answer is that it's not. My view is that for shorter races, i.e. Sprint and Olympic Distance triathlon, the breaststrokes is good enough. But what I've realised is that for longer distances such as Half Ironman or Ironman, the freestyle if done properly can have huge benefits in the later stages of the race. That's why I'm forcing myself to learn the freestyle. In the end, even if I finish the swim leg within the same time with a breaststrokes swimmer, I'm quite happy because I'm gonna start the bike leg with much fresher legs.

Those are the theories, of course, but now let's see if I can make it work at IMWA in 3 weeks' time!

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