A trip down muscle memory lane

Yesterday morning I met up with an old friend, who I haven’t seen in far too long.

Morgan Williams is a senior triathlon coach and event organiser, who has previously served as national development manager for Triathlon England.  He’s also a Swim Smooth certified coach – coachmorg.com

I have been dissatisfied with my swimming for some time, so a couple of weeks ago made a 1-1 swim analysis appointment with Morgan, in the hope of seeing for myself, what my issues are and figuring out how to solve them.

If you have never seen yourself swimming before, prepare for a shock.  I’ve been considered by some, to be a reasonable swimmer but as the saying goes, the camera never lies.  After being videoed over six lengths of a 25m pool, Morgan walked me through almost frame by frame the horror movie of my swim stroke.

Where was my long, straight, balanced, propulsive swim stroke?

Well, it didn’t take long to see any number of reasons for the gradual decline in swim performance that I have experienced over the last few years.  The root cause (I’ll offer here) is an absence of coaching.  I haven’t been coached since I had 1-1 sessions with the late Ian Smith, former UK head coach of Total Immersion (TI).  I don’t wish to debate here the pros and cons of TI and Swim Smooth philosophies but to suggest that TI had worked for me, is reasonably accurate.  Gradually though, without critical observation, bad habits have crept into my stroke to the point where swimming is no longer an effortless display of balance and poise but a somewhat uncomfortable, strenuous effort to produce lacklustre times that for the most part, I’ve taken to not recording, preferring instead to monitor by feel.  Even my overall perception of performance had reached an intolerable low.

Going into the session I had a clear idea of what I wanted – to turn back the clock by about 6 years.  As it turns out, the swim-smooth coach certification program lacks the requisite flux capacitor for time travel, so I’d have to be open minded about the nature of my swim stroke issues, the steps to be taken for stroke correction and the amount of work its likely to require to make those changes stick.

The side-view over the water, revealed that during the breath, my head was slightly higher than I’d expected.

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Overhead view revealed a reasonably tidy kick, with a leading arm in full extension (over reaching).

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The consequences of over-reaching only became clear under the water, as the elbow of the leading arm dropped in the water.

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The under-water side view reveals dropping hips and arching back – both consequences of extending beyond my range of flexibility.

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Over extending also caused me to have a poor catch on the water and only creating propulsion relatively late in the stroke cycle and delivering power from the shoulder, rather than the larger and more powerful pectorals and lateral muscles.

Here’s a comparison shot of Beccy Adlington at the same time in the stroke cycle.  See how her elbow is high and the forearm is in the elusive ‘early vertical forearm’ position.

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The head-on shot shows how my arm is too wide and too straight – again, a weaker stroke than ideal.

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Once Morgan talked me through the flaws (there were more, I assure you), he recommended we try just one drill (rather than many) to effect a change in my stroke.  If you’re a follower of GI Tri Coached Triathlon, you’ll be very familiar with doggy paddle.  Now to let you into a secret – it’s a drill I shy away from – because I’m not very good at it.  As a rule, I recommend focusing on drills that are difficult to execute because the difficulty arises from a specific opportunity to improve technique. For me, doggy paddle, is no exception.

Spearing a little deeper (within my range of flexibility) and forming a catch a little sooner, first in the drill, then mixing drill with pull-bouy freestyle, before finally unaided freestyle swimming.

The work Morgan did, changed my stroke timing, drastically reduced the dead spot, increased my stroke-rate and caused me to use pectoral and laterals, rather than my shoulder.

For the stats athletes out there, here’s the objective data:

Beginning of session pace 1:40/100m (which would have soon become 1:45 as I tire easily these days)

End of session pace 1:28/100m (and felt like I used to feel when I was swimming 6-days a week).

So, in 90 minutes or so, I changed from not looking forward to getting into the pool, to remembering why I used to love swimming and an opportunity right now, to rediscover my love for swimming and recapture the performances of yesteryear, without access to a flux capacitor!

To book a session with Morgan go to www.coachmorg.com or download his app Evolve with Coach Morg


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Swim Session Plan 27 February 2018

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 159

This week, we use a volume pyramid to create a high swim-volume session, with consistent rest periods between repetitions.

Warm Up:

200m easy pace

Technical set:

200m as kick with board

Main set:

200m                                       At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

300m or 400                          At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

400m or 600m                      At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

Skip, 400m or 600m            At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

300m or 400m                      At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

200m                                      At target race-pace, with 60 seconds rest

Warm down:

100m – 200m                       Easy to very easy

Total Volume:

1900m – 3000m

Coaching Points:

Calculate your target race pace per 100m BEFORE starting the session.  Don’t assume race pace is “as fast as you can go” – it almost certainly isn’t!

Early in the session, target race pace may feel quite easy, later on, it’ll be more difficult to hold.

Weekly Swim Session Plan 20 February 2018

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 158

At more than 80% of your forward propulsion will come from the pull phase of the stroke and that the pull is set up best by an effective catch, our technique work will inevitably frequent the front-end of the stroke.  This week, we refresh some of the drills that are useful for developing an effective catch.

Warm Up:

2 x 100m, the first easy, the second, steady.

Technical set:

5 – 10 x 50m kick with board (novices may need to break after each 25m).

2 – 4 x 50m sculling drill up the pool, swim back

2 – 4 x 50m 1-finger drill up the pool, full-hand swimming coming back

2 – 4 x 50m head-up life-saver / Tarzan drill (utilizing a powerful propulsive kick and high stroke rate)

Main set:

6 – 12 x 100m utilizing drill to help implement an effective catch before engaging the pull phase

Warm down:

100m – 200m     Easy to very easy

Total Volume:

1450m – 2700m

Coaching Points:

Take your time to form the catch before beginning to pull.

When in Rome

Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) isn’t what you’d call cycle-friendly, with its cars drifting across lanes, driving with no lights, minor unmarked roadworks at intersections, with spikes of rebar exposed to impale yourself upon, you could get into trouble on a bicycle very quickly. So, until the airport ever re-opens, allowing me to bring out a smart trainer and road or TT bike to train in the apartment, it’s down to the local gym.

Last night, I visited a new gym and pool facility for my first session.  I say new, the only thing new in this place is my enthusiasm for training indoors!

The equipment is old and the bikes in the gym have saddles that are just about tolerable but at least they don’t look like they belong on a Harley Davidson (as the ones in the other gyms in Erbil do).  Old equipment isn’t really an issue,  as let’s face it, in everything I do, I’m using some pretty old equipment that’s still just about functioning, so I should be a good fit.

The gym is men-only (the women-only gym is upstairs).  Consider a region that has suffered decades of oppressive dictatorship, wars with its neighbors, routine bombing of its northern reaches by Turkey, refugees from Syria, displaced by IS, who themselves got within 25km (16 miles) of Erbil as they advanced across Iraq.  These guys take fitness seriously. It’s a real possibility that some day, in who knows what circumstances, they may find themselves fighting for their lives and I have to say, they look ready! The gym is full of men that in most gyms back home would stand out from the crowd.  The work they’re putting in fills the air – quite literally.  Once you’ve been in there for a while, you don’t notice it anymore…. I tell myself.

What the Kurds boast in the gym, they lack in the pool.  As I jumped in for my swim session, I was faced with groups of men standing in the middle of the pool chatting, a few marching across the shallows with their hands over their heads that reminded me of scenes from Vietnam war movies.  Those that were swimming, swam widths, not lengths of the pool, in a style that most closely resembled the kids of my youth, swimming across the canal, heads high and gasping for air.  The balance of them were in the deep end, repeatedly diving off the side, displaying the antics of middle-aged teen agers.

I knew it would be challenging but determined to get by session done, I set about it.  Almost immediately, I realised that I’d have to modify the session.  There seemed to be no awareness of space or pace through the water.  After three collisions and several near misses, I resolved that they were so unused to someone swimming both up and back down the pool in one go, only to immediately repeat it, that they couldn’t help but step right into my path.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t deliberate either.

After half of my session (30 minutes) I got out of the pool and headed for the showers, feeling fairly dejected. I need to find ways of doing the training, not 101 legitimate reasons not to.

Reflecting on the experience last night, it came to me that in all my reading on the nature of culture and cultural differences, it suggests that to be truly culturally aware, we should strive to view any situation as a local person and within the bounds of ethical practice, respond to it as if you were yourself, a local.

It’s clear that the members of my gym see nothing wrong with standing around, walking the shallows, or swimming widths.  They aren’t about to change just because some expat has shown up, who expects to swim the length of the pool unhindered.  I’d switched to this gym because my last gym had no usable bikes and only an 18m pool.  Here, the pool is also non-standard in it proportions, being about 30m long but is at least 20m wide. If swimming lengths isn’t feasible, then perhaps I should just pick a spot, join in with the locals and swim widths?

Of course, it’s less than ideal but in this environment, compromising on expectations, so that I can settle into a session with a mindset that I can fully execute it, seems worth the trade-off.

I don’t think I’ve swum the width of a pool for forty years but maybe it’s time for an old dog to re-learn old tricks?

Ultimately, we have to train the best we can, with what we’ve got and for the time being, that appears to be all I have!


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Swim Session Plan 13 February 2018

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 157

This week, we are back to volume.  The standardized distance of each repetition may be adjusted according to fitness, experience, or target race distance.  A fast swim (generally) is a consistent swim, with minor exception, a continuous high but sustainable pace throughout.  Here we aim for consistent times across all repetitions.

Warm Up:

2 x 100m, the first easy, the second, steady.

Technical set:

100m as doggy paddle up, swim back

200m as kick with board (alternate with skating drill if preferred)

Main set:

Follow whichever main set suits you best.  Try to time each rep and aim for consistent times.

Novice / returning to fitness / super sprint and sprint distance athletes Standard distance up to 70.3 athletes Advanced swimmers / Ironman athletes
5 – 8 x 200m at threshold with 30 sec rest 5 – 7 x 300m at threshold with 1 min rest 5 – 7 x 400m at threshold with 1 minute rest

Warm down:

100m – 200m     Easy to very easy

Total Volume:

1600m – 3500m

Coaching Points:

Try to be disciplined in the rest periods.  Remember to exhale! These sessions will tend to creep up on you. They look easier on paper than they feel in the pool.

Don’t go out too hard. As a rule of thumb, if your effort is 5/10 at the beginning, 6/10 in the middle and 7/10 at the end, you’ll produce consistent threshold times through your session.

Faster Fasting

From the end of 2014 and well into 2015, I followed a strict low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet, in order to reduce my body mass.

At the very beginning of that period I had been somewhere around 125Kg (275lb) and by June 2015, I was around 98Kg (216lb) and still had a way to go to get to what I thought my ideal race weight might be. To some readers, it may be difficult to relate to these weights. I’m a big guy – I fill a doorway, so my weight may always seem high.

Suffice to say the shift in body mass had done wonders for both my cycling and running, with performance relative to my peers significantly improving. There had been a few issues in the early days, as I would bonk 50 miles into a ride when my body would be searching for glucose that just wasn’t available.  Later of course, when I was fully in dietary ketosis, I experienced no such problems and actually felt stronger and stronger toward the end of a ride, as my ride buddies would begin to fade.

That in isolation, is a LCHF success story.

Those that know me personally, may remember that in June 2015, it all came crashing down – quite literally.  In a cycling incident, that I can’t fully recollect but can only attribute to my own poor bike handling, I broke my hip (neck of femur), which resulted in surgery to pin my hip, a few days in hospital, three months using two crutches and a further three months on one crutch before I could again walk unaided.

To a person that had been experiencing ongoing success both in terms of performance and improved body composition, this was a huge psychological blow.  I did however remain determined to get back to it.  With a neck of femur fracture, the big risk is breaking blood flow to head of femur (the ball joint).  If the head of femur is starved of oxygen, it will become necrotic and a hip replacement will be necessary. In order to avoid that outcome, I resolved to do everything I could to repair the bone.

Searching the internet revealed some interesting tips on bone growth and what it was going to take to get me well again.  In the early days of repair, I was taking 11 different complex supplements of vitamins, minerals and enzymes to help my bone repair.  In addition, I had found a rule of thumb that suggested that a person normally requiring 2000kCal per day, when suffering multiple fractures, would need as much as 6000kCal to provide the energy required for normal bodily function and bone repair.  This may be why when people have broken bones, they feel unusually tired.  The alternative is either some parts of the body’s function simply shutting down, or an extended period for the bone to heal, neither of which seemed to align with my goal.

So, for six months, largely immobile, I consumed huge amounts of energy, in addition to the self-prescribed cocktail of supplements. Sure enough, my strategy for repair of my hip actually worked.  It’s now as strong as ever and still has three 6” long screws going through the neck, into my head of femur.  With as much energy as I’d been consuming, there was an inevitable daily surplus of energy.

I had used dairy as a main source of energy when I needed to get up to 6000kCal.  The thing about dairy, is its relatively high in carbohydrate (as well as fat and protein).  You can probably imagine what happened to my body mass.

I happen to like dairy, butter, cheese, cream, milk. If your digestive system can handle lactose, what’s not to love?

Many people following a LCHF diet hit a plateau. While once the weight fell away, now it just stays the same.  Dairy is often a contributor to this and in my case, I’m fairly sure of it.  I never really cut back the dairy from my diet and consequently, my weight hasn’t come back down since I got off crutches.

I managed to complete two long distance races in 2016 but in 2017, I failed to finish an Ironman.  Not finishing is a complex physiological and psychological issue, both at the time and post-event and I don’t propose to go into detail of that here. One undeniable contributory factor though, was my body mass.  On race day, it was too high.  Carrying a 20Kg weight for 140.6 miles is something the pros wouldn’t want to do, so why should I take on that challenge?

So, here we are.  The real beginning of this blog.  All that came before was just background.

In the time since I started LCHF, the Real Meal Revolution 2.0 was published.  It combines the LCHF principles of diet for people who are carbohydrate resistant (as I believe I am) with intermittent fasting.

Fasting isn’t new of course, it’s been recommended from wide ranging of sources, from nutritionists, preachers, sports coaches, to business gurus.  I have (like most things) tried it.  Of course, my idea of fasting for one day, may have been slightly wrong and here’s why:

If you wake up, skip all your meals, go to bed, get up the following day and eat breakfast, you may have been fasting for 36 hours total.  When you start your ‘day’ of fasting, it may already be 12 hours since you last ate.  It’s a difficult day.  The last time I tried it, I had a headache by the afternoon, threw in the towel at around 4pm and ate something. By 6pm I was fine and vowed to never fast again.

However, since coming back to Iraq on this trip, I have been particularly strict about my LCHF diet and right now, it’s just 2 hours from breaking by first 24-hour fast.  Basically, I had lunch yesterday, skipped dinner.  Felt pretty hungry last night but awoke feeling fine. Skipped breakfast and now, I’m good and ready for lunch.  It’s not been too bad and I have again remembered what having an appetite feels like.

We will see whether 2018 can be a repeat of the 2015 body mass success story but for now and for the first time in a long time, I feel in control of how that story goes.


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Swim Session Plan 6 February 2018

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 156

My coaching tutor, Simon Ward of The Triathlon Coach.Com recently published a recommending kicking drills for between 10 and 20% of weekly swim volume.  To kick well, requires good kick technique, glute and core engagement and swim posture, all of which will help improve body position, reduce drag and aid propulsion! What’s not to love? Well, it’s hard – but like most things, it gets ‘easier’ with practice. Let’s get started!

Warm Up:

2 x 100m, the first easy, the second, steady.

Technical set:

5 – 10 x 50m kick with board (novices may need to break after each 25m).

2 – 4 x 50m skating drill (alternate left and right arm lead)

Main set:

5 – 10 x 200m utilizing drill to help implement a compact, rhythmic freestyle kick.

Warm down:

100m – 200m     Easy to very easy

Total Volume:

1550m – 3100m

Coaching Points:

Feet should be pointed and slightly rotated inward.  Think of the kick coming from the hip, not the knee.  Legs stay relatively straight but not tense. There will be some slight movement in the knee, particularly as the leg straightens on the down beat of the kick.