Go crazy, punch a higher floor

Terrence: There are so many inefficiencies in your stroke.
Terrence: That’s a good thing! It just means there are so many areas where you can improve! What you can change!!

Ironman Terrence Oakley, my new (phenomenal) swim coach, had been walking along the side of the pool and observing me as I swam 200 yards. It was our first session working together.

I committed to competing in the Cape Henlopen Triathlon on June 12 with my triathlete friend from work, and even though I finished the swim portion of the Bethany Beach Triathlon last fall, I still have major fear issues related to swimming in the ocean. I thought a coach might help.

So many inefficiencies in my stroke?

After finishing, I poked my head out of the water and expected Terrence to tell me I would need to learn how to breathe bilaterally.

I thought we’d focus on strategy.

But so many areas where I can improve?

I’ve been a swimmer for a very long time, at one point competitively on a swim team, but more recently in the last 2 years I’ve been in the pool twice a week for cross training.

What? I looked at Terrence.

What can I possibly change at this point?

When I run or swim on my own, ideas pop in and out of my head like one of those plastic Whack-a-Moles on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk. Just as I put one idea back into the hole another one is there right in front of me.

What popped into my brain as I was running a few days after my workout with Terrence was the memory of a conversation I had with my daughter, Mia’s, pediatrician before her second birthday.  I was telling him that although Mia was sleeping through the night, no matter what time she fell asleep she always woke up alert and well rested at 5:30 am. I was seeking his guidance on how to get her to wake up after sunrise because no matter how much sleep I was able to get, unlike Mia, I never woke up feeling rested. 

The pediatrician didn’t have a single tip to get Mia to wake up later (he always took her side), but he suggested that one reason why I was feeling fatigued might be because waking up at 5:30 am was interrupting my REM cycle.

Apparently babies spend more time in REM sleep, which stimulates the part of the brain responsible for learning things, than adults, and it’s the time you spend in the REM cycle that contributes to that feeling of rejuvenation when you wake up. Sure you need deep sleep (as opposed to REM sleep) to relax and repair muscle tears and replenish neurons, etc., but if you don’t get enough bouts of REM into the mix of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, it’s almost not even worth bothering. You just wake up feeling busted.

But Mia was nearly 2, I said. Why hasn’t my brain adapted to the change?

“These things can take a long time,” I remember him saying.

Mia, now an adult, is no longer an early bird. Yet you know I am. Sure on the weekends I can allow myself the luxury of sleeping in but I wake up by 5:30 and make an informed decision about whether I’m going to get out of bed or stay put.

It took me years to re-wire my brain so that I could wake up well rested at 5:30 am.

What could I change about the way I swim in 4 weeks?

“We’re just going to address one big problem at a time,” Terrence assured me. He said the idea is to focus on making clutch changes before the Tri. Everything else can come later.

Now with the Tri less than 2 weeks away, here is where I am.

Big Problem No. 1: My technique.

“Later we’ll work on breathing bilaterally, but right now you need to come up for air every other stroke,” Terrence said. For the last million years I had been getting air after 4 or 5 or even 6 strokes. This was how I raced in high school and it’s how I’ve been cross training.

This was an easy fix, though, because all I had to do was count: 1, 2, breathe, 1, 2, breathe, etc.

I can do that. 

Then Terrence told me to skim my fingers over the top of the water just before slicing my arms through the water at about my ear. I had been lengthening my arms so that they entered the water above my head, so this is taking a little more concentration than the 1-2-breathe pattern.

We did 100 and then 200 yard drills focusing on my technique, and by the end of the first week, I felt like I'd been swimming like that all my life.

I got this.

Big Problem No. 2: My kick.

“I want you to use a flutter kick,” Terrence said.


Terrence got down on the ground and demonstrated a flutter kick – straight legs, dainty pointed toes, tiny little quick movements.

“Nobody swims like that,” I said. 

That’s the kick every competitive swimmer uses, he said.

My first homework assignment was to do nightly Tabata sessions of flutter kicks with straight, pointy legs, held at 6 inches above the floor.

After trying to swim with my legs straight and my toes pointed and doing my homework, my legs - and especially my hamstrings - were fatigued and sore. 

"I YouTubed competitive swimmers and didn't see a single person swimming with straight legs," I told Terrence.

"That was just a drill,"  he said.

He told me I'd be able to incorporate a slight bend at the knee as I progressed.

"But not yet."

In our most recent session, Terrence timed me, and my speed had improved immensely.

More important, it doesn't feel like I'm racing. 

"You're more efficient," Terrence said. "You're using less energy and as a result moving through the water more quickly."

Big Problem No. 3: My form.

You want to keep everything in a straight line, he explained, hence the straight legs. “Imagine you’re on a stick, or a spit, with everything rotating evenly, all at the same time.”

I was visualizing a rotisserie chicken.

"Or think of moving through the water like a corkscrew," he said.

Terrence said I lift my head as I swim.

He told me to keep my head in line with everything, looking down at the bottom of the pool when my face was in the water. When I was turning to get air, he told me not to lift my chin. 

“That only gives me like half an inch above the water to get air,” I said.

“A huh,” Terrence smiled.

Big Problem No. 4: Getting air.

Opening my mouth to breathe half an inch above the water turned out to be a Little Problem. The bigger issue now that I'm coming up for air every other stroke is that I don't have enough time to exhale.

Remember for years I was taking 4 - 5 or even 6 strokes before lifting my head to breathe and took plenty of time to exhale. My new challenge is learning how to blow air out of my lungs quickly and fully because every time I take a breath in it's like pouring water into a glass already full of water. 

Getting air has been a consistent challenge in my running, too, and my physical therapist Kevin's given me some strategies and exercises to get my diaphragm to relax by decreasing the tone. I'm incorporating these exercises before I swim but I'm also practicing blowing air out of my mouth loudly and powerfully. I'd been in the habit of breathing in through my mouth when I swim and exhaling through my nose. Now I need to breathe in through my mouth and out through my nose and my mouth.

My brain cannot concentrate on more then one thing at a time, so getting the flutter kicks (mostly) down has been clutch before working on getting air. 

Big Problem No. 5: Fight or flight.

I began feeling as if I was working at my VO2 max - the maximum amount of oxygen my body can use when I'm exercising vigorously -  as soon as I entered the ocean during the Bethany Beach Tri. My heart was racing and I'd only been in the water a few seconds. This was the greatest challenge of that swim. I struggled to recover and to regain any sense of rhythmic, controlled breathing. Since then I noticed the same thing happens nearly every time I get into the pool. (It happens when I run, too.)

We've basically got two energy systems when we move. The first one, while it's readily available, like money in your pocket, it's only good for a few seconds and doesn't buy much. That's the energy system we use when we get up from the couch and walk to the kitchen to grab a snack from the fridge.

It's also the energy system we use when we're lifting heavy weights or sprinting as it's the loose change in our pocket our body reaches for when we go from a rested to an active state. While much of what you're able to do with this energy system and for how long has to do with your genetics (or how much money you inherit from your parents), you can adapt, or train, to go a little longer using this energy system. One way to do this is to superset your workouts by reducing how much you rest between exercises.

Terrence has me doing this during our drills in the pool by varying the amount of time I rest between repeats. You can also do this in the gym by supersetting two different exercises back to back without resting. 

The second energy system is the one we use for cardiovascular or endurance exercise. Because this system is not readily available and thus takes longer to kick in it's not uncommon to feel almost panicked when you first head out for a run or start swimming laps as you burn through the money in your pocket and run to the ATM so to speak. One way to train the cardiovascular energy system to kick in more quickly is to start out more gradually. 

So now when I get in the pool, I take the first 100 yards so slowly that it barely feels like I'm moving. It's like using pennies to pay for a latte instead of dollar bills.

This takes focus but I'm hoping it'll make a difference in a few short weeks. This also gives me time to adjust to the water temperature, which can be a factor even if I'm wearing a wetsuit (which is a Big Problem we plan to address next week).

Terrence also coached me to float on my back and as I try to slow my breathing. He says learning how to float can be critical. During the indoor Tri at Equinox a few weeks ago, I did this early on, and he was right. It was clutch. 


The closer I get to the Tri on June 12, the more my fears about the swim pop in and out of my head. But if I've learned anything in the past two years about developing a fitness regimen, it's the importance of trusting my training.

To re-wire my brain.

See you next time!