Archive for March, 2010

More Fun Than The Things I Should Be Doing

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

By David

First I must explain, then agree and then apologize. The content of this article refers to a lengthy reply from Brent discussing previous Swimwatch articles promoting the benefits of long distance conditioning. His reply is well worth reading. The discussion is important as it affects the content of what some poor bugger in a swimming pool is going to spend the next four years of his life doing. Besides, Brent’s right, writing about it is more fun than the things I should be doing. In this article I have taken extracts from Brent’s replies and commented on them. This is unfair which is why it would be best to read his reply in its entirety.

Brent said – “When you are training aerobically, we can’t really say that you are making yourself faster anaerobically. It is much more complicated than just saying “the faster you can swim aerobically the farther ahead you start.” I’ll move on because that’s really beside my point. I feel like you probably know all this, but you are trying to pull one over on your readers and me to help prove a point.”

I absolutely agree that aerobic improvements are not proportional to anaerobic racing improvements. Every season I have tracked the time and percentage improvements of swimmers in the distance conditioning period in the hope of finding a formula that related aerobic improvement to racing times. I am satisfied no such formula exists. In every case though, improved aerobic distances and times have resulted in faster race results. I don’t know whether better aerobic results mean sprinters train better anaerobically or directly contribute to the race performance. It may be both. I am satisfied that “the faster you can swim aerobically the farther ahead you start” and the faster you will race. And that is not just to help prove a point.

Brent said – “This may come as a shock, but I am an advocate of a strong aerobic base as long as it accomplished well in advance of racing time.”

I knew that anyone who took this amount of time debate the merits of distance conditioning had to be a believer at heart.

Brent said –“ The low yardage group ended up with much more power in the water (and speed) than they started with, but before tapering the training group actually had less power in the water (tested on power rack) than they did before the season. After tapering the yardage group regained their power to about the same levels, and they dropped some time, however, they dropped less than the low yardage group.”

This sort of logic really annoyed Arthur Lydiard. Group A did something and got one result. Group B did something else and got a different result. So what. What about Group C that did both things for an equal period of time? What result would they get? After all that’s how a balanced distance conditioning program works. To clarify this point the table below shows what a typical Lydiard swimming program would look like for a 50 and 100 swimmer. They would do weights all through the 26 weeks. Incidentally the distance of 100 kilometers was not arrived at by chance. Without referring to anyone else we tried all sorts of distances in an effort to replicate the physiological changes that occurred in a runner training 100 miles. We got closest at 100 kilometers. The real point though is that a good program is not a matter of choosing between distance and power – it’s a matter of doing both; lots of both.

Brent said – For the ones that can’t yet, we’ll settle for lower numbers during basal aerobic phases (which by the way can’t last 25 weeks for everyone). My message here is that we shouldn’t rack up the yardage for the simply for the sake of hitting a number.

The table above clarifies the 25 week confusion. It’s actually two seasons of 12 weeks per year. I agree there will be swimmers who complain about 100 kilometers and use the old “I’m a sprinter” excuse to dodge a bit of hard work. However, every national class swimmer can swim 100 kilometers for 12 weeks. It’s not that difficult; “Racking up the yardage” is not “simply for the sake of hitting a number”. Racking up that mileage is because that’s the time and distance it takes to produce aerobic physiological changes. That’s how we arrived at 100; certainly not because it was a nice round number.

Brent said – When dealing with sprinters, however, we should look at track’s sprinters. We don’t see sprint runners out running lots of miles. In Michael Johnson’s (400 meter world record holder) base endurance phases he was reported as doing 15 miles a week, and he ran the 400!

A week ago Brent was telling me not to look at what someone else does and follow the pack – only joking. The point here is the same as I have mentioned above. A Lydiard program is not suggesting Michael Johnson should have abandoned his weeks of 15 miles of sprint training. After all see how similar this is to the ten weeks in a Lydiard program. What Arthur is suggesting is that Johnson’s 400 would have been faster and he may still hold the 200 record if he had added a few weeks of aerobic conditioning before he did the 15 miles of sprint training. I know a few runs around Auckland that might have done Michael a “power” of good.

Brent said – You basically said yourself that sprinters aren’t able to swim well when the set gets long.

No, I didn’t say that. What I said was sprinters, who hadn’t done distance conditioning found it difficult to do long sets at a fast pace. That’s because they haven’t been trained properly. One of the three swimmers I mentioned was a 200 specialist but won the 50 at a US Nationals, the other was a 50 specialist and got a bronze in that event at the Pan Pacific Games. The third was a 200 breaststroke swimmer but swam the 100 in her National relay team. They were all sprinters, near enough. They could also do a pretty good 10,000. There is a difference between not wanting to do something and not being able.

Brent said – Also, as I kind of touched on, the principle of training specific to races close to the big meet, and doing lots of power and sprint work for sprinters favors the idea that power is lost with distance training but can be regained. Think about it…

That’s a valid argument although I wouldn’t put it quite that way; as you can well imagine. I would say that power temporarily takes second place while other needs are addressed. Power is not lost or considered unimportant. It is a vital part of good swimming and will be nurtured in full measure at the right time. In fact it will be nurtured better as a result of arriving at that stage of training with an aerobically fit, well conditioned body.

Thank you for the discussion – it’s been fun.

Distance Training: The Case Explained

Friday, March 26th, 2010

By David

I was pleased to receive a comment from Brent to the article on “The Case for Distance Training”. It would be best to read his comment in full, but if you are in a hurry I have attempted to extract his crucial points and copied them in the summary below.

“Please tell me – what does 20,000 or even 14,000 yards a day do for a sprint swimmer? Why would someone racing for less than a minute need to train aerobically so much? This article talks a lot about who is training with this much yardage, but not about why they do it. I am not saying that lots of yardage is never good, but it isn’t for everyone. Fact: distance training decreases maximal stroking power. Fact: maximal stroking power is continually shown to be very highly correlated to maximal swimming velocity. In my opinion, the benefits of lots of yardage are not worth the loss of power in sprinters. Right now I feel like quality trumps quantity for sprinters.”

Brent is quite right. No one should swim 100 kilometers every week just because Phelps or Lochte are reported as swimming that far. That’s asking for far too big a leap of faith. Of course there should be a good reason. After all it’s a bloody long way to swim. Only a complete moron would do it without some idea of it physiological outcome.

So what does happen when an athlete swims 100 kilometers a week for 25 weeks a year? In the five years it takes to develop an international level of aerobic fitness that’s 125 weeks and 12,500 kilometers; or New York to Los Angeles three and a bit times. Here is a simplified description of the physiological changes that occur. Remember though I’m not a doctor. However the descriptions are accurate even if they are not couched in medical terms.

First there is a 40% increase in the density of the muscle’s capillary bed. A detailed study completed in Poland recently concluded with the following statement. “Endurance trained men have 821 capillaries per mm2, that is 40.3% more than untrained men (585 per mm2).”

A similar Manchester Metropolitan University study concluded that “endurance exercise training results in profound adaptations of the cardio-respiratory and neuromuscular systems that enhance the delivery of oxygen from the atmosphere to the mitochondria and enable a tighter regulation of muscle metabolism. These adaptations effect an improvement in endurance performance that is manifest as a rightward shift in the ‘velocity-time curve’. This shift enables athletes to exercise for longer at a given absolute exercise intensity, or to exercise at a higher exercise intensity for a given duration.”

So what is the practical effect of these changes? One National Champion I coached began by swimming 26×200 meter sets in 2.45 with a heart rate of 160. Four years later the same swimmer was swimming the same set on the same interval, at the same heart rate in 2.16; same effort 18% faster. All the physiological changes mentioned above had occurred. This swimmer could now swim at a 100 meter rate of 1.08 without dipping into her anaerobic mechanisms. Her base aerobic pace had improved from 1.23 per 100 to 1.08. When she added anaerobic training to that she quickly came down 13 seconds to 1.10 when she was training at 1.23 pace and 55 when her training aerobic pace was 1.08.

At its most simple the faster you can swim aerobically the further ahead you start and the faster you will swim when you dip into your anaerobic and speed energy systems. And that’s true whether the event is 50 or 100 or 200 or 1500 meters.

There are two frustrating aspects of Brent’s comments. The argument that quality trumps quantity is just bloody insulting. I’ve coached three female swimmers who could swim 100×100 meters going every 1.30 and average 1.06. In one set the last 2×100 were in 59. One of the swimmers was an Olympic Gold Medalist, another a Pan Pac Bronze Medalist and the third a Pan Pac semi-finalist. Their time of 1.06 for that set was probably better quality than sprint swimmers could swim for ten of them. For a well trained athlete further does not mean slow. Any coach would be hard pushed to describe a 1.06 pace for 10,000 meters as lacking quality.

The second frustration is the argument that long distance swimmer “decreases maximal stroking power”. This is a similar argument to the “you’ll lose your speed” argument. Arthur faced that comment all the time. His curt reply was, “Where will it go?” Brent’s claim ignores the fact that most distance coaches have only ever argued for 50% of the athletes time to be spent doing big distances. The other weeks, the other 50%, focus on power, speed and anaerobic conditioning. That’s plenty of time to take care of the speed and power aspects of the athlete’s preparation. This summer I coached a 33 year old male swimmer to two Master’s world records in the 50 and 100 meters butterfly. Before his swims we spent ten weeks doing all the stuff Barry would drool over. For ten weeks he never swam further than 16,000 in a week. But he did it on top of a steady aerobic base. That’s why it worked.

I once asked Arthur, “What’s the most important stage of your training program?” He answered, “The speed-work period of course; because that’s when you get ready to race.” That’s from the man who invented long distance training.

Arthur’s Run

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

By David

Arthur Lydiard is best known as the architect of the long distance conditioning method of training. He introduced the world to the idea that running 100 miles a week was good for you. What is less well known is the 24 mile Sunday run that was a staple ingredient of Arthur’s program. He called it the Waiatarua. A few years ago when I was what Alison describes as a, “svelte young thing” I ran the Waiatarua. When Alison was one of the world’s best middle distance runners she also added the Waiatarua to her list of accomplishments. I was impressed by that. Competing on the European circuit, running in the Commonwealth Games and winning national championships was all well and good. To be a real runner though; you first had to master the Waiatarua.

There is hardly a New Zealand Olympic medalist that hasn’t run the Waiatarua. I know that Snell, Halberg, Magee, Walker, Moller, Quax and Dixon tested themselves high on these hills west of Auckland before their Olympic efforts and emerged victorious.

Sadly though, the days when I could run Arthur’s signature course have gone. Even Alison would probably find the full circuit a bit much these days. Perhaps though it was still possible to pay our respects; by car. Last Sunday we drove around the Waiatarua. I’d forgotten the magnificence of what it’s like up there. Let me try and describe it to you; to convey the special qualities of this stretch of road that fashioned a dozen world class athletes.

The view that awaited us

I thought we’d start in the parking lot of the Westview Medical Center in the Auckland suburb of Glen Eden. Westview is an appropriate name and their clinic backs on to West Coast Road, the first stage of the Waiatarua circuit. The first few miles are through typical old suburban Auckland; that rambling mix of houses on quarter acre sections and small warehouses advertising quality used furniture and warrant of fitness checks for $50. The houses are big, brick and boring; reflecting New Zealand’s character at the time they were built. Every mile or so we pass a New Zealand dairy. Other countries don’t really have dairies. I suppose they could be described as mini-mini supermarkets specializing in milk, soda, bread and newspapers. The road is an easy series of gentle undulations; giving no warning of the perils to come.

Suburban Auckland ends and rural Auckland begins as we pass the Artisan Winery and the road noticeably and deceptively begins to climb towards the Waitakere Ranges. Now there are long stretches of road with no houses; replaced with small farms and scrubby second growth bush. The houses here are newer and more interesting; the product of those who can afford to live on an Auckland ten acre lifestyle block. The footpath is only on one side of the road now. Soon that too will end and we will need to share the road with the Waiatarua’s limited number of cars.

Three miles from the Waiatarua summit at the corner of Kauri Loop Rd. just past the stunning Otimai Girl Guide’s home the serious test of the Waiatarua begins. Now there are no footpaths or secondary scrub. We enter a world of thick native bush and steep, very steep hills that will climb without relief to this runs highest point 1000 feet above Auckland’s harbor. Did you ever wonder what quality made Lydiard the world’s best middle distance running coach? Whatever it was, it was the same quality that caused him to select a run that has its steepest climb, its toughest moments half a mile before the summit, half a mile before we reach half way. I have never seen a steeper section of open road. And yet if you are good enough, if you want to challenge the world’s best runners in Zurich, Cologne and Berlin you run hard to the summit of the Waiatarua.

The next six miles are not for the faint of heart either. The road along the summit of the Waitakere Ranges is a roller coaster of steep rises and falls. There are some stunning rewards that partially compensate for the effort to get there. Nowhere in the world is native bush as lush and green as in New Zealand. Silver Fern, tall Totara and Rimu line the path and provide much needed shade. Through gaps in the trees it is possible to see across the City of Auckland to the Waitemata Harbor and out to the Hauraki Gulf where Russell Coutts defended and won the America’s Cup. Best of all is the stop at Arthur’s small waterfall for a drink of cool water. The healing properties of the spring water from the grotto at Lourdes could do no better. Refreshed we run strongly toward the idyllic township of Titirangi at the end of the Waitakere summit portion of the Waiatarua.

The last four miles from Titirangi are the reverse of the Waiatarua’s first few miles; down the hill, past the designer houses and into the suburbs, past big block houses, small businesses, car dealers and corner dairies. Finally we turn on to West Coast Rd. and stride down the gentle slope back to the Westview Medical Center. There are few training experiences as satisfying as running the Waiatarua. Standing at the end looking up at the mountains, knowing they set their test and we overcame. This run is hard. It has history and tradition. It is so much more than 24 miles of tarmac. It is a road that builds champion runners. The really sad thing is that when Alison and I drove around it last Sunday morning we didn’t see one runner making use of the best training ground in the world. We were not alone though. Along every straight, around every corner they were there – the spirits of Moller, Snell, Halberg, Magee, Dixon, Wright, Walker, Roe and Quax. They would have been there on a Sunday morning.

The Case for Distance Training

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

By David

When Arthur Lydiard set Snell, Halberg and McGee the task of running 100 miles a week the athletic world was in awe. Fifty years later there’s not a world class middle distance runner anywhere that doesn’t run that mileage – as a minimum.

The reality of the distances run by athletes today was highlighted in a recent Track & Field magazine discussion with the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor. She is also the American record holder for the marathon (2:19.36) and the half-marathon (1:07:34). Kastor was asked, “How much mileage have you been putting in?” Here’s her answer, “We haven’t really focused as much on mileage this time around as we have on quality workouts. I was typically getting up to 140 miles per week and keeping it up there for a few weeks in a row in the past. This time, I’ve gone to about a 120 miles and feel great doing it.” Imagine that, she’s cut her mileage by 20 miles and is still running 20 miles further than Snell ever did.

Nick Willis is New Zealand’s best 1500 meter runner. He won the silver medal in that event at Beijing and is known as a short distance, sprint trained athlete. And yet here’s what he told Track & Field a few weeks ago. I’m, “currently enjoying a deserved end-of-season break but will soon return to training 90 to 100 miles a week.” There you have it – even the short distance guys are running 100 miles these days.

The greatest distance runner in the world today is Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia. He holds the 5000 and 10,000 world records and, in case you think that isn’t good enough, he won both those events in Beijing. He regularly trains 150 miles a week and does most of it at 7000 feet. He makes Arthur’s distances look like an afternoon sprint session.

The same thing has happened in world class swimming. When I first got Toni Jeffs to swim 100 kilometers a week it was unusual anywhere in the world. Brett Naylor, New Zealand National Coach, told me these distances “would never work in swimming.” In 1992 I was asked to give a talk to a New Zealand Swim Coaches Conference about the reason for swimming 100 kilometers a week. I suspect the only coach in the room who agreed with my reasons was the visiting Australian National Coach.

Even in the United States there are unbelievers. It’s usually coaches who are too lazy to be at the pool the hours needed to swim 100 kilometers who deride the reasons for swimming that far. At one Club I had a parent – her name was Julie – who was forever sending me emails complaining about the “empty miles” her son was being asked to swim. I wrote carefully crafted replies, I gave her copies of my book and included explanations on distance training in the team’s weekly newsletter. Sadly, nothing worked; in her mind 100 kilometers was a disaster. The same mother was breathless with excitement when she heard Ryan Lochte was visiting a local pool. She pleaded with me to send our swimmers to hear him talk. I agreed and arranged for one of the swimmers to ask Lochte how far he swam each week. “Between 90 and 100 kilometers,” he replied. I already knew that would be his answer. I once spent a valuable 20 minutes at a swim meet in Ft. Lauderdale talking to Lochte’s father and coach about the training distances he used. The mother’s next email waxed eloquent about how wonderful the Lochte’s visit had been. A week later she was back complaining about the dangers of swimming 100 kilometers a week. For some people reality is what they want it to be.

The world’s best swimmer is Michael Phelps. How far does he swim? Here is a quote from his website. “Bowman actually started training Michael Phelps when the Phelps was still 11 years old. He pushed Phelps to swim at least 90 kilometers each week. According to him, kids at that age, are able to increase the size of their hearts and lungs in ways that are no longer possible later on; the larger the heart and lungs, the bigger the aerobic engine. Phelps has been training almost 5 hours a day and 7 days a week without any rest day.”

What about Alain Bernard, the magnificent French 100 meters freestyle Olympic champion? Here is what Swimnews Online recently said about his training. “The big date was January 4, the moment when a tick-over, keep-fit rate of 5km of training a day since September 2009, post-Roma09 world titles, stepped up to 14km a day (100km per week). “Of course, I am not going to say that it is easy. I lack endurance. But I am happy to be back,” said Bernard”

Swimming and track are beginning to show a similar picture. Distances that everyone once thought were extreme a few years ago are becoming normal. And it’s not going to stop at today’s distances. Bekele runs his 150 miles per week at an incredible 5.40 per mile pace. He is showing us the way of the future. Just ask yourself, is a 150 miles per week at 5.40 pace man going to beat a 70 mile, 6.30 pace athlete? Yes, of course he is. The aerobic equipment he brings to the problem is so vastly superior.

Swimming needs to pay close attention to the lessons being learned in track athletics. One hundred kilometers a week was cutting edge stuff in 1992 and is normal in 2010. But to prepare swimmers for 2016 it will not be nearly enough. For that task swimmers should already be swimming 120/140 kilometers per week. Not only will 120 kilometers be the new norm, like Bekele, the distances must be swum at faster speeds. Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman is reported as saying, “We continue to develop Michael as a complete swimmer. That means some emphasis on the distance freestyle. On Halloween, he whipped off a 5,000 yards free for time in a 46:34. That’s under a 9:20 per 1,000 yards average. I was impressed with that. In fact, it is probably the most impressive thing he’s done, and it might be one of the most impressive things he ever does.”

It also offers us a glimpse of the future. A swim pace that was exceptional for Michael Phelps must be the norm for 2016 champions as they work their way through each day’s 20 kilometers. In Swimwatch we have often reported the quote from Lydiard, “I never invented a long slow distance method of training. I invented long fast distance.” Looks to me like he was right again.

What Is It Like, Being In New Zealand Again?

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

By David

Air New Zealand is a fantastic airline. There is no need for me to tell you this. Every year the company is rated one of the world’s best carriers. Last week Alison and I were half way across the Pacific in our economy class seats on NZ005 when a steward appeared and handed me a full bottle of French champagne and said, “Welcome back to New Zealand Mr. Wright. How’s the swimming going?” The last time I was mentioned in a New Zealand newspaper this chap was probably still at high school. It was good to be back. I’m not promising champagne but if you get a chance to fly Air New Zealand give them a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

The answer to the steward’s question is seven years; two in the US Virgin Islands and five in south Florida. Enough time I thought for New Zealand to have changed; maybe improved, maybe not. But it hasn’t changed. Everything is so familiar.

The most deceptive speed camera in the world is still in New Zealand, sitting on a steep section of road just outside Henderson. I’m told the camera catches 48 speeding cars every day. The average fine is a modest $50. While I’ve been in the Virgin Islands and in Florida that one camera has earned the New Zealand Government $6.1 million.

Radio Sport talk back is as awful as ever. When is New Zealand ever going to agree on which eleven players should make up the nation’s cricket team? I was pleased to hear Brendan Telfer’s voice back on Radio Sport. He’s New Zealand’s best sport’s broadcaster. I heard he suffered a serious brain bleed last year and wondered how he was getting on. He sounds back to his best. Unfortunately his ability to pick a cricket eleven is as bad as it was seven years ago. New Zealand plays Australia in a cricket test that starts today. For American readers, a test match takes five days. Australia is expected to win. We were however given a glimmer of hope last week when nude photographs of the Australian vice-captain’s girl friend appeared in several Sydney newspapers. We’re all hoping one of Australia’s best players has been put off his stroke – if you’ll excuse the pun.

National Radio still discusses the same unique subjects. For example right now I’m listening to a report on measuring the density of a kiwi fruit. I’m not sure how many of you are interested in this topic. It evidently has something to do with transmitting sound waves through the fruit and the weight of the fruit. So when you purchase a New Zealand kiwi fruit in a south Florida Publix supermarket you can be assured that the science that got it to you in good condition has been broadcast to this county’s four million patient listeners. I’ve just been told the kiwi fruit broadcast will be followed by a discussion on the management of effluent on New Zealand dairy farms. As I said it’s good to be back.

I visited the Lloyd Elsmore Pool in Howick yesterday. Nothing anywhere will ever beat the Onekawa Pool in Napier as winner of the “Worst Pool in New Zealand” championship. But seven years ago Lloyd Elsmore was a close second and featured in several Swimwatch reports on pools to avoid. Not anymore. The Council has built two new pools and has fixed the air conditioning and lighting. Jane refused to swim in the old pool, it was so bad. I think she’d quite like the new version.

One thing that hasn’t changed – thank God – is the country’s medical care. I went to the doctor today to renew a prescription that I should have seen to before we left Florida. I’m glad I waited. The doctor here charged me $30 for the consultation and $9 for the drugs; that’s $39 total. The same visit in Delray Beach would have cost me $100 for the prescription visit and $120 for the drugs; that’s $220. The Pharmacy here gave me an invoice that said the cost of my drugs was $107, the Government paid $98 and I paid $9. If Obama wants to do the same thing in the US, what could possibly be wrong with that? It sure beats the hell out of paying for another 30,000 troops to invade someone else’s oil reserves. But it’s not just about money. The service here was quicker, the rooms were newer and cleaner and the consultation just as professional; better care at 17% of the price. Sounds like a good deal to me. It makes you wonder why seemingly intelligent Americans cling to their expensive, inefficient, capitalist shambles of a system. Just before I left Florida a good friend of mine was diagnosed with a form of cancer. For 24 hours he had to wait for a medical insurance executive to approve the money for his treatment. In this case there was no problem apart from my friend’s 24 hours of stress wondering whether care or profit would win out in the insurance agents mind.

Another win for New Zealand is fish and chips. I’ve had them twice since I’ve been back. They are as good as they ever were. I have no idea why Americans cannot do fish and chips. Even the fish is different. In New Zealand the fish is thick and juicy. The American version is thin and dry. The batter is different as well. Here it’s lighter both in color and texture. I feel confident discussing this subject. When I was at high school I traveled sixty miles by train each Friday to swim in my swim team’s club night. Every week I sat on the train eating two pieces of fish and one scoop of chips. After four years and 208 fish and chip meals you become a bit of an expert on the subject. Any New Zealanders reading this, about to set out on their OE, give American fish and chips a miss. Save your money for the UK. They know how to make fish and chips. They may have even taught us.

So what else have I noticed and enjoyed. Here’s a list; a friendly, reserved people, Marmite, small cars, fantails and tuis in the Titirangi bush, Vogels bread, my brother, the accents, not being asked where I’m from, no one wants to invade another country and newspapers that don’t have pages of stories about overnight shootings. New Zealand always was a great little country to live in. It’s good to know that those responsible for its care have done such a good job. It’s still a bloody good little place.