Archive for April, 2010

New Zealand National Championships

Friday, April 9th, 2010

I’ve spent the past week at the Henderson Pool in Auckland, New Zealand watching what the local media refer to as the “Commonwealth Games” swimming trials. Actually the meet is the National Championships. It’s also the trials for the Pan Pacific Games, the Junior Pan Pacific Games and several smaller internationals against the Australians. But as far as Radio Sport and Sky TV are concerned it’s the Commonwealth Games that really matter.

It’s always been that way. This country’s sporting people are obsessed with the Commonwealth Games. It’s strange. The meet is not particularly competitive. The main swimming protagonists are Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand. But without the USA, France, Italy, Germany, China or Japan it’s not really up to much as a swimming competition. The 2010 Pan Pacific Games will be a far tougher and better meet. Given the choice between California and New Delhi later this year I know where I’d rather be.

Swimming New Zealand tend to put a lot of store on the meet. They have to. SPARC, the government organization that funds sport in New Zealand, base many of their funding decisions on the results in New Delhi. Ironically they call it a pinnacle event. I suspect you could win the Pan Pacific Games, beat Michael Phelps but happen to have a bad afternoon at the Commonwealth Games and its bread and water for you for the next twelve months.

Because the Commonwealth Games could be looked on as being a lesser meet than the Olympic Games, the European Championships or the Pan Pacific Championships, I was surprised when Swimming New Zealand and the Commonwealth Games people here announced qualifying times that were the same as the times required to swim for New Zealand in Beijing. After all the Beijing times were in full body suit days and it was the Olympic Games. Even the Commonwealth Games most ardent supporter would admit it is not the Olympics. To make things even tougher the qualifying times had to be swum at the Nationals and in the Championship finals.

I know I wasn’t alone in thinking it was all too tough. New Zealand is a small nation. We don’t have ten swimmers in every event all within a percent or so of the world record. The men’s 50 here is good but it’s not the French final where Bernard and Bousquet and four others are beating the hell out of each other to see who can take the world record back from a presumptuous Brazilian. Swimming New Zealand, I thought, would be better off using the Commonwealth Games as a stepping stone to London; in much the same way as Snell was included in the 1960 Rome team – on trust, as an investment in the future. In Snell’s case the future just came a lot quicker than expected.

But I was wrong about the qualifying times. For the Commonwealth Games, I would still debate the merit of the having to swim the times in the Championship finals. But as far as the times themselves are concerned they are good times and they are fair. Take a look at the table below.

The codes I’ve used in the table mean the following:

MQT Male Qualifying Time

FQT Female Qualifying Time

WT Winning Time at the New Zealand Trials

PIC Current Place in Commonwealth of the qualifying time

As you can see the majority of the qualifying standards represent times that are currently 6th or 7th in the Commonwealth. That seems pretty fair to me. At a meet like the Commonwealth Games it is not unreasonable to expect the country’s swimmers to make it through to the final. Swimming has progressed a lot in the last two or three years and it hasn’t all been suits and steroids. This times set to get on the New Zealand Commonwealth Games team appear to be a proper reflection of where swimming is at, in the Commonwealth right now. The exception to this is the times required to swim in the 50s. These seem to be tough. To get into a sprint event at the Commonwealth Games requires a swim that right now would get you 1st or 2nd in the meet. That might be asking a bit much.

The fairness of the times is further reflected in the quality of the swimmers that have made it through. Dean Bell, Moss Burmester, Melissa Ingram, Lauren Boyle, Glen Snyder, Natalie Wiegersma and Hayley Palmer are good swimmers and will do New Zealand proud in New Delhi. Even from as far away as Florida I know a number of them have shown real character in their careers. Ingram alone on the World Cup circuit and her rejection after missing last year’s World Championships, Boyle in the red hot heat of NCAA competition, Burmester in the Beijing Olympic final and Wiegersma, the girl from Southland, New Zealand’s Alaska, in her after match interview,

“It’s bloody good down there.”

She just has to be the sort you want out there representing all that’s best in this country. All of you swim well.

Coaching Athletics

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

By David

It’s fun being on holiday in New Zealand. Best of all it is an opportunity to catch up on a decade of lost gossip. Last night I spoke to Dick Quax, once the track world record holder at 5000 meters and Olympic silver medalist at the same distance. Dick is now a pretty important politician and will shortly stand in the election for representatives to run the new Auckland super city. He’s a member of the Act Party which would normally put him too far to the right to attract my vote. On this occasion I’d compromise principle to give him a vote; he’s a good guy and would do an excellent job. Besides I voted for Margaret Thatcher the first time she was leader of the British Conservatives; so there is a precedent.

Years ago Dick coached track athletics in the US. It was fun to compare notes of my experience doing the same thing in swimming. We agreed on the good, the bad and the ugly. But that’s for another day. Eventually our conversation got around to coaching in New Zealand; the death of Arthur Lydiard, Arch Jelley’s appointment to the Coaching Hall of Fame and the comparison between the two coaches.

After we finished talking, I decided to Google Arthur and Arch to see if anyone had written a comparison. There was surprisingly little to find. However I did come across an article written by Joseph Romanos for the June 2007 issue of the New Zealand magazine “VO2 Max” [Warning: large PDF file. If clicking through, you’re looking for page 114, which looks like this].  In it Joseph makes the following observation:

“Trying to evaluate the impact of an elite level coach, two factors become most important – longevity and the number of high-class performers the coach produces. So, while I salute Arch Jelley for coaching such a remarkable runner as John Walker, the athletics coach who gets most credit must be Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard coached for half a century from the early 1950s, and revolutionized thinking on training for distance runners. He was innovative and inspirational. To produce one champion is quite something, but Lydiard coached Murray Halberg, Peter Snell, Barry Magee, John Davies, Bill Baillie, Jeff Julian and Ray Puckett in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Later he coached runners like Dick Tayler and Heather Thompson and advised Ian Ferguson and company, the canoeing legends of the 1980s, plus triathletes, swimmers, horse trainers, rugby players and goodness knows who else.”

Before commenting on the shortcomings of this extract I must tell you that Joseph Romanos is the best writer on sport in New Zealand. He writes well, he knows sport around the world and he’s fair. When I was last coaching in New Zealand I made my share of mistakes and had some wins as well. On several occasions Joseph publically pointed out both in full and fair measure. I should also say that the balance of his article in “VO2 Max” is very good. Joseph praises the long line of coaches that have served New Zealand’s athletes well. There are of course some names he’s included among the greats that I don’t think should be there and some names he’s left out that should have received a mention; Ross Anderson in swimming for example. For some reason Joseph never liked Ross Anderson but the man was a very good swimming coach.

The article also makes the point that coaches in New Zealand have not always been treated terribly well. Isn’t that the truth? The single biggest difference I noticed between coaching here and in the US was the status, respect and importance the Americans give their coaches. I couldn’t believe it. From what I’ve seen New Zealand is improving. That’s important. Good coaches produce good athletes. They need looking after.

So while there is much to admire in Joseph’s “VO2 Max” piece the paragraph copied above falls well short of Joseph’s normal high standard. First of all he leaves the impression that Arch coached for five minutes and Walker was his only good runner. That’s just not true. Arch is in the 85-90 years Master’s category now and in 2010 still produced the national 1500 meter champion, Hamish Carson. For longevity Arch is in the super league. Joseph then produces a list of great athletes coached by Arthur but, apart from John Walker, fails to mention any of the fine runners coached by Arch. For example, double Olympians Neville Scot, Robbie Johnson and Rod Dixon or American mile record holder Steve Scott; or the following athletes who were either National Champions or represented New Zealand, Alison Wright, Ian Babe, Ian Studd (Commonwealth Games bronze medalist in 1966), Sonia Barry, Denis Norris, Ray Batton, Maree Bunce, Andrew Campbell, Sharon Higgins, Michael Hindmarsh, Glenys Kroon, Jared Letica, Geraldine MacDonald, Gary Palmer, John and Val Robinson, Hazel Stewart, Mark Tonks and Lloyd Walker. And that’s not a bad list of “high class performers”.

Joseph then refers to Arthurs work with swimmers. Now that’s true. Arthur even included a chapter on the work he did with me in his biography “Arthur Lydiard – Master Coach”. Without Arthur’s input I would never have coached nine national representatives, four Olympians and one current Master’s world record holder. But the same thing exactly could be said about Arch. Every day I apply many of the principles and methods I first learned from Arch; especially as they relate to speed work and anaerobic conditioning. My swimmers have Arch to thank for their fartlek sessions and the 6×50 on a minute final time trial. Most importantly Arch curbed my enthusiasm for killing swimmers off with impossibly difficult anaerobic sets.

The real problem in a discussion like this is leaving the impression that one is devaluing Arthur’s legacy. I would never do that. Four of the New Zealand runners mentioned by Joseph were Olympic medalists. The work Arthur did in Finland earned him that Country’s highest awards. The care and attention he paid to helping me was generous beyond belief. My point is only that Joseph Romanos should not promote Arthur’s record by devaluing either Arch’s longevity or coaching record. Arthur Lydiard would never have done that.

Top Coach, Arch Jelley

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

By David

I had lunch today with Arch Jelley and his wife Jean. It is very possible you won’t recognize the name. Arch is a quiet man who has never practiced the self promotion so characteristic of many other sporting personalities. His record as one of the world’s leading track coaches takes some beating. He coached John Walker, the first man to break 3.50 for a mile and Olympic 1500 champion. He advised Rod Dixon, winner of the New York marathon and coached a fistful of other international athletes, such as Pfitzinger, Wright, Norris, Carson, Moore and Wilde. For a couple of years in the 1980s Arch contributed to the career of America’s best miler, Steve Scott. While I’ve been away from New Zealand he’s been inducted into the Coaching Hall of Fame and has served a term as President of Athletics New Zealand. Not a bad sporting Resume so far, I’m sure you will agree.

I first met Arch early in Alison’s running career. We lived in London at the time and wanted Alison to return to New Zealand for a summer of track racing. That had more appeal than a British cross country winter spent plodding through a muddy field outside Slough or over London’s frozen Parliament Hill. I called Arch to ask if he would look after Alison while she was in New Zealand. He did more than that. He asked me what training Alison was doing and suggested some major changes. He sounded surprised and impressed with Alison’s 100 miles a week of aerobic conditioning. He sounded equally surprised and unimpressed with my description of her anaerobic and speed work training. A week later a long letter arrived setting out an alternative track schedule.

For six weeks we followed Arch’s program. He kept the anaerobic weekly mileage (60 miles) the same but severely reduced the number and size of the interval sets. It is probably a small exaggeration but before Arch came along my idea of speed work was to run as far and as fast as humanly possible; and often more than was humanly possible. No wonder Arch was unimpressed with the description of my anaerobic training. He probably couldn’t believe it. Best of all he introduced Alison and me to his signature Monday afternoon eight lapper. It’s a tough anaerobic run and not for the faint hearted or under conditioned. Arch also reduced the intensity of my speed work sets and introduced such novel ideas as time trials and 50/50 fartlek runs.

And it worked. In her first race in Auckland Alison beat two of the mainstays of New Zealand’s middle distance running, Shirley Somerville and Sue Haden. Two months later she won the 1500 meters National Championship and was selected to run for New Zealand in a New Zealand/Australia dual meet.

Clearly a relationship had been formed that was well worth preserving. For six years I called Arch most Monday mornings for advice and instruction. Alison won New Zealand, Scotland and United Kingdom national championships. She competed in world track and cross country championships. She set national records in New Zealand and Scotland, one of which, thirty one years later, still stands as the New Zealand National Open Record. None of that would have happened without the input of this quiet Auckland gentleman.

In my career I have been especially privileged to learn much of the coaching trade from Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard from track and Duncan Laing and Ross Anderson from swimming. They are four world class master coaches. They are examples of all that’s best in the New Zealand character; straight and tough; no bullshit. If one day my coaching comes close to their standard I will be well pleased.

So what else is Arch Jelley like? Well he has a lethal sense of humor. Last weekend one of Arch’s runners, Hamish Carson, won the New Zealand 1500 Championship. Arch was asked to present the gold medal. As he shook Carson’s hand I’m told Arch looked puzzled and asked, “What’s your name again?” At lunch today we were talking about Kim Smith the fantastic New Zealand 5000 and 10000 meter runner. She’s ranked in the world’s top ten and is as skinny as a rake. I’ve seen more fat on a butcher’s pencil. Arch couldn’t resist. “Pity she’s so overweight,” he said. He is forever doing that sort of thing. As the plane taxied into Warsaw airport a few years ago Arch saw the name spelt in Polish and muttered, “They don’t know how to spell the name of their own airport.”

He’s had an interesting career outside of athletics as well. On the same trip to Poland John Walker said, “Well this is our first trip to a communist country.” Arch said, “No I’ve been to Russia before.” Turns out that in World War Two he was a young submarine navigator protecting convoys delivering supplies to the Arctic Russian town of Murmansk. Now that was a really dangerous job. He’d never even mentioned it before. After the war he came back to New Zealand, got a degree and became a school teacher. He ended up as principal of one of New Zealand’s leading and biggest teaching primary schools. I tell you what; young teachers could not have had a better person to teach them their trade. Neither could young coaches.

Why One Hundred?

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

By David

If you are sick of Swimwatch stories about distance conditioning; I do understand. I think this is story number four on the subject. That means it’s time to move on to something else. I did see a contributor to one of the chat rooms said he enjoyed our stories about growing up in New Zealand. I wasn’t sure how to take that remark. After all Swimwatch was set up to discuss swimming not the youthful misadventures of life in rural New Zealand. Having said that, it was probably the constraints of country life that forced me into running and swimming huge distances at a young age. There was no movie theatre to go to, no main street to patrol, no shops and no pub.

Even the nearest potential girl friends lived twelve miles away; certainly motivation enough for an occasional long run. My mother seemed to enjoy the thought of her son doing all that running. I was pretty certain that the turn-around point was none of her business. I could spend the rest of this story telling you every detail of that run; the steep climb out of the Ruakaturi Valley, the clouds of dust thrown up by the occasional passing car, the long twisting path beside the Hangaroa River and the solitary one hundred meters of tarmac outside the Marumaru School. It might not have had the perils of Lydiard’s Waiatarua, but the scenic attractions at the turn-around point were better.

But enough of this distraction: how did we decide 100 kilometers a week was the correct build up aerobic conditioning distance? Well, we wanted a weekly distance that satisfied the following criteria.

* Was far enough that it would result in the heart, lung and blood vessel adaptations required from aerobic training.
* Was not so far that the distance could not be covered at a good pace. The distance had to be swum fast; for example 100×100 on 1.30 in 1.07. Plodding through some huge distance each week was not going to result in the required physiological changes.
* Might take a few years to work up to but was a distance sprinters, middle distance and distance swimmers could all be expected to swim.

At the time I was fortunate enough to have access to Lydiard’s advice and a good swimmer, Toni Jeffs, capable of swimming whatever we thought would work. Some of the things we got her to do were pretty moronic. To start with, I explained to Arthur that a mile run took about the same time as quarter of a mile swimming; a 4 to 1 ratio. Obviously, that meant 100 miles running was the equivalent of 25 miles swimming. Arthur agreed and for that season’s ten week build up Toni swam 25 miles (40 kilometers). We obeyed all the other rules such as a hard day, easy day pattern, seven days training and double sessions. Toni managed the distance without much difficulty and that was the problem. The distance was clearly not far enough to cause the discomfort required to stress the athlete; to bring about the required physiological results. Toni was swimming fast enough but it was too easy. She wasn’t getting aerobically fit.

I felt 40 kilometers was well short and suggested to Arthur we needed to double next season’s build up to 80 kilometers. Arthur thought even that was too conservative but agreed to go along with my suggestion. So for the next ten week build up Toni swam 80 kilometers. The results were better, but Arthur was right, it was still too easy. Toni was clearly finding it harder than the 40 kilometers but not hard enough. The speed she swam the 6000 main sets was good but wasn’t causing her to dig as deep as this sort of training normally demands. The distance was still too short.

Stung by getting it wrong again and concerned that the experiment had already taken twelve months I proposed we increase the distance by 50% to 120 kilometers. I will never forget the first few weeks of this build up. It was dreadful. Toni was plodding slowly through impossible sets. She was constantly tired. She complained of sore shoulders, arms, legs; everything really. Her weight training went out the window. She got colds and coughs that wouldn’t go away. None of this was normal. Clearly 120 kilometers was not working. We gave the build up away and after two weeks off moved on to the season’s speed work. Something worked though; that season Toni won the Oceania, New Zealand and New South Wales championships.

“What about splitting the difference?” I asked Arthur. “Let’s set the next build up at 100 kilometers a week.” He agreed and that build up Toni swam 1000 kilometers in the ten weeks. Her speed was good. She was clearly hurting but was recovering sufficiently to hit the next hard day well and she still had sufficient enthusiasm to get through her weight training. In other words the effort, adaptation, discomfort and speed were all very similar to those same factors we had observed a hundred times in some of New Zealand’s best runners during their weeks of 100 miles a week training. When Alison was ranked in the World’s top 10 track runners, many of the runs that made up her 100 miles were at 6.00 minute mile pace. At 100 kilometers Toni was doing the swimming equivalent.

Since then I have helped nine swimmers fast enough to swim in the US National Championships; and Americans set a high standard. All of them tackled ten weeks of 100 kilometers. Only two made it to 1000 (Jane and Toni). A third got to 990 (Skuba). All the others were between 850 and 950. Recently though I have formed the impression that for the very best, 100 kilometers is too easy. We need to progress. Twenty years on and yesterday’s 100 is more likely to be 110 or 120 kilometers today. I just wish Arthur was still around to call. While I’m in Auckland it wouldn’t even be long distance – if you’ll excuse the pun.

And that’s definitely the last word on this subject. For our reader I’ll try and remember something odd that happened in the 1960s.