In The Zones

Last weekend I traveled to Piscataway, NJ, to compete in the USMS Colonies Zone Short-Course Meters Championships. The meet was held at Rutgers University in a BEAUTIFUL indoor facility – a 50-meter bulkhead pool plus two warm-water warmup pools. Despite a winter snowstorm that dumped up to two feet of snow in some areas, the meet attracted Masters swimmers from a ten-state area – Maine to Maryland.

I had a really good meet. I felt good (it was hard NOT TO in this gorgeous, fast pool). I reached the goals I had set. And I had a great time seeing lots of people whom I used to swim with and coach when I lived in NYC. With all the snow falling outside, the Rutgers natatorium was like the inside of a cocoon where nothing else existed but the water and the events. I somehow got in the Zone at Zones. Since this is something that each of us strives for in competition, I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things that I did in the weeks leading up to the meet to help me get where I wanted to be. Maybe something here will click for you and help you in your next race or meet.

1. I had a goal. My goal this year was to swim national Top-Ten times in my age group (50-54). I achieved this in a long-course meet in July. Rutgers Zones was my chance to achieve it in short-course meters. I’ve had the 2002 Top-Ten times on my bulletin board all year. I knew what splits it would take to get on the list in each event, and I used those splits as guidelines when I went to the pool to practice. And I used my goal to GET ME TO THE POOL on days when I didn’t feel like swimming.

2. I focused in practice.. My practice time is limited to about two hours total per week, so there’s NO WAY that I can out-train my competition. My only hope is to out-smart them by training and racing with more attention to detail. I know that I really have to FOCUS when I get in the pool, and do sets that are race specific. I try to be conscious of SOME aspect of technique on every single lap. If you are interested in some of the key practices that I did to prepare for the 50, 100, and 200 breast and for the 400 IM, check out the following on our website:
11/05/03 IM Practices
12/11/03 400 IM Practice
11/06/03 IM Practice without Actually Swimming an IM
11/13/03 IM 50s with Sculling & Kicking
11/25/03 Getting Ready for IM
12/04/03 Taper Practice for Breaststroke Races

3. I paid a lot of attention to my TURNS in practice. This is one of the places where I can gain speed even if I’m not in the best of shape. In practice, I think about how I position my hands, body, and toes on every turn and breakout. I know that if I can’t hit perfect streamline positions on every turn in practice, it will NEVER happen in a race. With all the excitement and adrenaline running through you in a 50 breast, or when fatigue sets in on the 7th turn of a 200 breast, streamline has to be an instinct, not something that requires brain cells

4. I did a lot of breaststroke drills in practice. Breaststroke is perhaps the most physically demanding stroke. It also demands good timing – and a different timing for each of the three races – 50, 100, and 200. If I swam a lot of breaststroke in practice, I’d most likely get in a groove or a rut for one pace and one form of timing. My solution is to do mostly drills when I practice breaststroke. Each of the breaststroke drills requires slightly different timing, so I never get caught in a rut. When I swim whole stroke, it’s for short distances and I consciously choose the number of strokes that I’ll take per lap – anywhere from 7 to 12, depending on whether I’m working on 50, 100, or 200 timing. I did only one practice where I actually SWAM some 100s and 200s breaststroke. I’m not saying this is the way to go for every swimmer, but if your practice time is limited, this is something you might consider.

5. I trained with a swim tether. Wow. This was new. Glenn showed me how to use the tether at our swim camp in July. I purchased one and started using it at the 20-yard pool where I train here in Vermont. It’s proof that you don’t need a big, fancy pool in order to work on technique or get faster. I tied one end of the tether to a lane-line bolt and the other end around my waist, and swam 40s. The first 20 (against the tether) would be an exercise in streamlining and power. The second 20 (WITH the tether) would be an exercise in RATE — how well could I maintain perfect technique while moving my arms and legs at what seemed like warp speed. Training with the tether taught me a lot about what I needed to do with my head and arms to get streamlined in breaststroke. It also gave me a feeling of HOW FAST I needed to move my arms in a 50 breast or at the end of the 100 or 200 breast. It’s also a heck of a workout. I was heaving after each 40. I managed to do 10 X 40 with the tether at one practice, but typically I did just 5 X 40.

6. I visualized my races. This is always a key way to get an edge on your competition, but it becomes even more important when you have minimal training time. I tried to use those quiet moments just before you fall asleep or before you get up in the morning. I tried to use all those down times between events at the meet. I often turn off the radio and use the drive time between home and the pool. A race is how long? Forty seconds? Two minutes? Ten minutes? It’s amazing how many two-minute quiet zones you can find in a day. The first few times you try this, it might take 10 minutes to visualize a 40-second race. But if you keep visualizing that same race, you’ll get better at it. It gets easier to focus your thoughts and to stay focused. You may, like Glenn before his Trials-winning 200 breast, get to the point where you can start your watch, start your visualization, click the watch when you’re done, open your eyes, and find that you’ve hit your target world-record time right on the nose. I must have visualized my five Rutgers races dozens of times each in the week before the meet. I got to the point where I could visualize the exact number of strokes that I’d take in each particular event, and how I’d feel during each lap. The thing is, when you visualize, you can PROGRAM IN how you want to feel and how you want to look on every stroke and at every wall. Think of it! You can program in NO FATIGUE. You can program in LOOKING LIKE DAVE. You can program in ANYTHING your mind is capable of conceiving. And when you program it in, the chances are good that it will be there on your desktop during your race.

7. I watched GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE and GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE TURNS & PULLOUTS over and over again. How many times? Hundreds, if you count the editing and production process. I even watched them on my laptop on the long drive from Vermont to Rutgers. Dave Denniston does so many things perfectly. I’ll never look like Dave in the water or be as fast as he is (his 200 breast is more than a minute faster than mine!), but he shows me what is possible. He shows me things that I need to think about and aspire to. He swims in a way that inspires me. I figure that watching 30 minutes of Dave is worth about 90 minutes of training time. If that’s the case, I certainly out-trained any of my competitors…or out-smarted them. Did it work?

Well, I’m waiting to see how my times hold up for this year, but based on the 2002 Short-Course Meters Top-Ten list, my times at Rutgers would have placed me in the top five for my age group in the 50- , 100- , and 200-meter breast; and in the top ten for the 200- and 400-meter IM. I went:
50 BR 40.29
100 BR 1:31.48
200 BR 3:23.36
200 IM 3:15.29
400 IM 6:58.70

If you can’t GO SWIM, go THINK ABOUT swimming.