Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mind the Gap!

Dear Swimmers

Hope you're having a cracking week - the blue skies are back - wahoo!

In case you missed it on our main blog, here's the interview with our very own Kate Bevilaqua after she won Ironman Louisville in the USA last weekend - she's races again this weekend in Las Vegas at the 70.3 (Half Ironman) World Championships - good luck Kate!

As Kate mentions in the interview, she has been working with me for the last 2.5 to 3 years following all the exact same advice and principles that I deliver to you guys here in Perth on a daily basis. What's that I hear you say? "Why haven't you dropped your IM swim time from 62'30" down to 49'03"?" - well that's a good question! Let's focus on one potential reason (irrespective of technique changes you could make), courtesy of Tuesday / Friday 6.30am squad member Ray Steffanoni (thanks Ray!) - you have to "mind the gap!".

In our harder Fresh 'n' Fruity CSS sessions (Wednesday 9.30am, Thursday 6.15pm and Friday 5.30am & 6.30am) you hear me constantly harping on about three things: 

  1. pace awareness
  2. the benefit of swimming at (or close to) CSS pace - defined simply as the pace you're able to currently maintain for ~1500m racing
  3. ensuring you leave an appropriate gap in front of you, namely 5 or 10 seconds (or for the person in front to be at the green sign at ~9 meters before you set off)

Last week, 150 of you 'kindly' participated in an 800m time trial to find out exactly where you are at right now. Now we can come up with a million and one different reasons why you had a bad day (some of them genuine admittedly!), but in one fell swoop, you have everything you need right here as a benchmark of where you're at right now. You may or may not be happy with that point, but that's where it is, good or bad. The point is, what are we going to do about moving that point forwards? Firstly, here are your results:

...some very nice performance improvements from the squad - well done! We'll be re-assigning some of the lanes based on these results, but more on that below in Jeff Davis's email.

But what if you were one of the swimmers who didn't improve? Should you be embarrassed about this? Absolutely not! Should you dwell upon it and feel down? Balderdash! (a phrase from David Walliams "Big School" TV Comedy on the BBC - check it out, it's a classic!). Should you identify what is potentially holding you back and move forwards positively? Totally!

In an ideal world, during these 800m time trials (which are a slight variation on the 400m / 200m time trials we have done in the past) I would be able to get everyone's 1st 100m split and compare that with the average pace sustained for the 800m (which will form your target paces for the next 4-6 weeks). In a couple of the groups I was able to do this, and notably in the 9.30am Friday group (for those who missed Wednesday's time trial), I saw consistently swimmers losing 60 seconds in the 700m after the initial burst at the start, i.e. if the swimmer went out in a 1'30" for the 1st 100m, if they'd held this pace they would have swum 12'00" but were more likely to swim 13'00". So somewhere along the line they were swimming a whopping 9 seconds per 100m slower than the first 100m. This is a massive drop-off and something that needs to be addressed.

People think of time trials as all out efforts, but forget that a good 800m swim still needs to be paced well. One of the best pacing results from the whole squad was that of Suzi Scarff in the 9.30am squad. Her 1st 100m was 1'24" and her average was 1'25" giving her a time of 11'23" - brilliant pacing. The problem you get into with poor pacing is that if this is done on a repetitive basis (and I'm a serial offender for this, now in remission though I'm pleased to say!) session after session, week after week, you are never truly getting the most from each session and this is when stagnation, plateauing and even going backwards occurs. Let's say I tell you that your pace needs to be 1'40" per 100m on a set of 200m intervals but either through eagerness to swim hard / fast or through the belief that 1'40" is somehow too slow for you, you do your first interval at 1'32" pace, then 1'38" for the next, then the following six intervals progressively getting slower than 1'40" per 100m, then realistically you've only spent 10-15% of the session at the pace that you were a) meant to and b) will elicit the best performance improvements over time. 

Knowing this benchmark, accepting it as simply where you are at right now, and then slowly and diligently chipping away at it is how you move forwards - nothing more, nothing less. It's really quite simple, once you remove the part of the brain that's saying "go fast!" or "I am better than this" or "I should be better than this". If you're anything like me, your brain often thinks you're fitter than what your body actually knows you are. Control the brain, improve the body. Simple. Stick to the beeper - even more simple!

That leads me finally to point 3, and the topic of this post: mind the gap. The upside (and it is a big upside!) of swimming in a squad is that the motivation to complete hard sessions like this and measure yourself against your friends is quite simply massive. The downside is that not everyone will be swimming at exactly their threshold pace - there's typically a 5-7 second differential between the swimmer leading the lane and the swimmer at the back of the lane. Is this a massive problem? No, not really. Given that you will still feel a drafting benefit from sitting 5 to 10 seconds behind another swimmer, 1'36" per 100m sat behind 2 or 3 other swimmers will likely feel more like 1'40" or 1'41" per 100m and thus nicely account for some of these differences. But this is also why we need to minimise that drafting as much as possible on key sessions like these...set-off too close and/or repetitively short turn, and you're really doing yourself a disservice long-term. You need to be able to be diligent enough to maintain the gap in front of you. It's not always easy to do this (I know!), but if I could proffer some advice, it would be to work on doing just that: minding the gap.

In Friday's session you will have the opportunity to do a variation of the following set:

  • 4 x 100m at CSS pace, with 1 beep recovery (or your approximate average pace for the 800m time trial which will be very close to the 400m / 200m tests that we've used previously)
  • 1 x 400m at CSS + 3" per 100m (i.e. 3" per 100m slower than the 100m intervals)
  • 4 x100m at CSS pace, but with only 15 seconds rest (we will use the re-sync button on the top of the Tempo Trainer for this)
  • 1 x 400m at CSS + 1" per 100m
  • 4 x 100m at CSS pace, but with only 10 second rest

...this will be a tough set, but a fair one. You'll all feel it's too easy at the start, but then be challenged by the end. But you'll do it, if you pace correctly and if you're diligent about those gaps!

So please, save me some breath on a Friday morning :-) and let's get minding those gaps, pacing correctly and truly tapping into the benefits of swimming at this pace and progressively chipping away at it - and if you do, maybe in 6 weeks time you'll be writing an email like this one from Jeff Davis in the 5.30am squad who's now swimming nearly 8 seconds per 100m faster than he was 6 weeks ago - well done Jeff!

"Hey Paul,
A little bit hard for me to share how excited I was this morning with my 800m time… So I'll do it over email.
6 weeks of doing the 530am Tuesday / Wednesday / Friday sessions took me from 13:15 to 12:14 (or something like that anyway).
I have been stuck at 1:40 per 100m pace for years so this feels like a massive break through!
I understood the concept of "CSS" but now I've seen it actually work. The discipline of 3 sessions a week, respecting each session (no cheating), and operating at / around threshold has helped me a lot.
So a big thank you from me!

My thoughts:
  • I was actually relieved to move to lane 2. What I found was that the short repeat sessions (Tuesdays and Fridays) I was ok in lane 3. But Wednesdays would blow me up big time. I got to the point where I was honestly nervous before turning up on a Wednesday morning cause I knew it was going to be too hard! Interestingly, while I was relieved to move down a lane I think other people see moving lanes as a "demotion" of sorts. I just never saw it like that. I think there is a bit of "ego" around which lane you swim in. But who cares? Don't you want to do whatever makes you a quicker swimmer? I see guys in other lanes doing short turns and jumping on feet and I laugh – how can you be getting anything from that?
  • Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack talks about threshold sessions where if you are working above threshold you can only do a little bit of work at that level (like trying to pull your threshold up) whereas working just below your threshold you can do a lot more work at that level (like pushing your threshold up). Obviously we do a bit of both of those over the course of the week. But lane 2 felt like I was able to sit just below threshold – and therefore do more work. It was comfortably uncomfortable. And almost straight away I was getting through the Wednesday set (my suspicion is that we're not talking massive numbers here are we? Would it be like 4-6 seconds / 100m between the groups???). The start of the long sessions in lane 2 would feel easy to me – but that was ok because it would always catch up with me by the end of the session. Over the weeks I started feeling stronger and stronger over those distances. Which meant I could jump on the front and do some of the harder work. Then today, after 5-6 weeks in lane 2 building my strength and aerobic base I could jump back into lane 3 and hold my own (still lots of better swimmers than me in lane 3 but the point is that I didn't feel totally out of place).
  • I would also say that mentally there is a massive difference in being able to lead a lane and being the worst swimmer in the lane just struggling to hold on. I don't know what it's worth as a % but being one of the strong swimmers makes you swim better. It's probably the puff your chest out factor!"
Hope this helps crew going forwards into a great summer of Swim Smooth in Perth!


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