accessibility · fitness · Guest Post

Guest post: Sam (the other Sam) rows for years and finally falls in and finds out it’s not so bad after all

https://www.instagram.com/p/BkqlfLDHQvn/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=g97ie04gf6vp

Sam is a recreational rower and sociologist.

fitness

Wellmania: Misadventures in the Search for Wellness (Book Review)

We don’t review a ton of books on this blog, but Sam came across this one and asked for a volunteer to read and review it.  I quickly said yes, because this is exactly the kind of thing I like to read in the shower:  a “lighthearted” tale of an Australian woman’s “misadventures in the search for wellness.”  Basically, a blog in book form.  (I’ll get to that whole reading in the shower thing some other time.  It’s a family quirk.  Once you get over the fallacy that books should be kept dry, whole worlds open up).

I actually started reading this book in the bath at Susan’s cottage way back in April, and about 60 pages in, I got out of the bath and, still in my towel, kind of ranted about the book.  “Listen to the way this woman describes her need to do this ridiculous detox!”

“My body was not a temple, it was a stockyard, where dirty animals passed through, where there was some horsetrading, it was busy and noisy and full of action.  Stockyards are dynamic places and useful things happen there.  But they’re far from the idea of the temple and they’re certainly not clean.”

It really set me off:  “She’s all ‘oh I was drinking and eating and sometimes doing party drugs and just generally having a good time so I decided to get CLEAN and of course the only way to do that is to STOP EATING FOR LIKE TWO MONTHS and let someone pummel me every day until I bruise.’

Susan, ever practical, said, “she wasn’t working then, was she?”

No.  Her whole job was this “detox” so she could write about it for a magazine.  And it took her to page 88 to even ask the question about whether or not this kind of radical fast was a good idea.  The first several chapters are full of “jokes” about how weak she felt or how her one spoon of rice on new year’s eve made her feel “full” or nonsensical explanations of the “theory” of fasting”:

“Part of the appeal — if you can call it that — of fasting or restrictive diets is the notion that you can reset your tastebuds.  It’s like a hard restart or system upgrade on your computer.  You switch it off and the buggy bits — the bits that crave salt and grease and sugar — can be expelled, and in their place your body will crave salads, vegetables and gallons of water.  Willpower isn’t necessary when this happens.  You just follow your cravings and they will lead you to the organic vegetable aisle.”

Spoiler alert:  it doesn’t work that way.  Of course she loses a ton of weight on this fast, but then the desire to, you know, be able to walk up the stairs, takes over and she starts to eat again and regains the weight.

That pretty much takes care of the “Clean” section of the book.  Then we have “Lean” (her years-long relationship with yoga, also done in obsessive every single day terms, coupled with colonic irrigation, though I might be confusing that with another part of the book). And finally we have the section on “Serene” (meditation and a quest for spiritual calm, in classes all over hipster neighbourhoods in Melbourne and Brooklyn, retreats in Sri Lanka and Bali, five day hikes in northern Australia).

The thing is, I can empathize with Delaney’s quest — I think everyone who reads this blog has gone down a lot of winding pathways trying to find balance between our sense of inner equilibrium, our strength, our experience of our bodies matching what we yearn for, wanting to find a way to be of the world but not pushed and pulled by endless distraction.

And while being a bit Breathlessly! Hilarious! in all of it (never trust a narrator blurb-writers compare to Bridget Jones), Delaney does have something of a critical gaze on what she’s doing.  She notes how much praise she got for being super lean after her fast, while saying clearly “this is not a real person’s body — this is not sustainable.”  She describes the irony of how the theoretically simple desire for wellness has spawned a complex, profit-based wellness industry, as well as the exploitation that comes along with any system that relies on gurus and acolytes (most notably, Bikram yoga).  And throughout the last section of the book, she explores why we may use Wellness to fill the space of morality, certainty and mystery that was once held by the organized religion for most people in the Western world.  All of this does help hold the skittery nature of her quest together, though I’m still never sure of her actual point of view.

The biggest problem with Wellmania is that Delaney tries to take an experiential tone throughout most of the book, and the nuggets of insight never really infuse her in-the-moment descriptions of what she’s doing.  You never know whether she really believes that her body is a stockyard or that detoxing is like cleaning out your filing cabinet.  And more problematic to me, I never figure out whether she ever comes to realize that there is no “one right answer” that will deliver the equilibrium and sense of inner/outer burnishment she yearns for.  In the final note of the book, she does acknowledge that “shooting for serenity” is an everyday, ongoing practice — but even in that, there’s an implication that “doing it right” means “doing it every day.”

In the end, it took me a couple of months to actually read Wellmania, because I was so put off by the “Clean” section.  I developed more affection for Delaney when I finally worked my way through the last two sections, and could empathize with some of her descriptions of wanting to hang onto the momentary wellbeing that come from focused presence in yoga or meditation.  As a shower read, I’d give it two and a half bars of soap out of five.

Vancouver cate

 

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto, where she is endlessly in search of equilibrium. (In this photo she’s in Vancouver for work two weeks ago, happily running around Stanley Park). She writes for the blog on the second Friday and third Saturday of every month.  

 

 

 

health · meditation

Meditate on this – Christine decides on a slow build to a new habit

This isn’t going to be a post about how I fight my brain in order to meditate. 

A large maple tree branch full of leaves against a blue sky with a few clouds in it.
This is the view from my hammock in my yard, it gives my brain the same kind of feeling that meditation does.

 

In fact, I really like meditating and once I sit down, I enjoy the process of bringing myself back to my breath over and over. I like the IDEA of it, and I like the practice.

 

Yet, I don’t meditate regularly.

 

It’s not that I don’t want to meditate, I just have trouble *starting* to meditate. 

 

Changing activities is a real challenge for me.  Even if I want to do the next thing, my brain hates to let go of the thing that I am already doing and transition into the next one.

 

So, I have to use some tricks to make that happen.

 

Through trial and error, over time, I have discovered that I can get over the transition barrier (that trouble switching tasks) by identifying how long it takes me to start to enjoy something once I switch into that activity.

 

Writing, for example, takes 5 minutes to become fun. No matter how much I don’t feel like writing in a given moment, if I spend 5 minutes at it, I stop fighting myself. Then I start to find the fun it, it starts to become rewarding.

 

With exercise, it usually takes 10 minutes before I stop fighting myself, before I can quiet the inner temptation to do something else – anything else. Once I hit that 10 minute mark, I am in the groove and I have fun.

 

So, I don’t let those initial feelings of discontent convince me to switch activities in that ‘warm-up’ time and as a result I spent my time in an intentional, purposeful way.

 

Oddly though, despite my desire to meditate, I haven’t applied that ‘warm-up’ approach to meditation.

The author, a white woman in her mid-forties, with light brown hair, wearing a black shirt, lies on a green mat. Her eyes are closed.
I’m not actually meditating here, obviously (how would I get a photo of that?), this was part of a photo project. Let’s pretend it is a meditation simulation.

 

It’s on my mental list of enjoyable things to do in a given day, but it rarely makes it into practice.

A screen capture of the timer screen of the Insight Timer meditation app. The words 'Starting Bell' are at the top, and a bowl is depicted below with the word 'Basu' on it. Below the bowl are four oblong shapes indicating the duration of the timer (Meditation 3 minutes), the interval bells (none), the ambient sound (none), and the ending bell (Basu is listed again). The word Start is in a white circle at the bottom of the screen.
My timer screen for week 1. One of the things I like about Insight Timer is how peaceful all of the sounds are.

It’s time to change that.

 

In July, I am going to incorporate a short meditation practice into my day, lying on my yoga mat, using my ‘Insight Timer’ app to time myself and to journal about the experience.

 

In week 1, I’ll do 3 minutes, twice a day and if that is successful, I’ll increase in two minute increments each week.

 

I know those are very small goals but want to find that ‘warm-up’ point, and I want to keep the bar low. I’m not trying to do a great practice, nor a deep one, I’m aiming for a consistent one.

 

I’ll report back after week 1.

A screen capture of a phone app featuring a black screen with the word Journal at the top middle and the words 'Write your journal note here...' underneath it.
This is the journal page of my app. I like how plain it is.
fitness

The damn photo contest again (Sam and Tracy vent)

Something more recent blog readers may not know is that before we turned 50, Sam and I each took at turn at the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program. We both came away with mixed feelings. Some of the info was helpful and the focus on “healthy habits” matched a lot of what we already thought. But we both absolutely despise the photo contest. And since we are former clients, we each get an email encouraging us to vote on the best “transformation” every six months (every six months they have a new group commit to a year of coaching). That happened this week. And we started venting to each other all over again. Now we are going to vent about it to whoever wants to read on…

Sam

What I hate most about the Precision Nutrition photo competition is the dishonesty.

In the very early 1980s my very best friend wanted to be in our town’s beauty pageant but she didn’t want to take part in the bathing suit competition. They tried to reassure her that it wasn’t about looking good in a bikini. Instead, it was about showing that you took good care of your body and that you had confidence in a bathing suit. She argued back. We were both budding feminists. Isn’t it easier to have confidence if you look great in a bikini? How do you know who is taking care of their body? All you see is them in a bikini? But they were having none of it. She took part and refused to wear a bathing suit. She lost gracefully in a beautiful beach caftan. I miss you Leeanne!

The PN photo competition is the same. I asked about it when I was enrolled in the program. I said it didn’t seem to match all of their material on health and wellness. Why the focus on appearance? Like the beauty pageant, they said it was really about confidence and well-being. You could tell from the contestant’s posture that they were happier. You could tell from the glow of their skin that they were healthier. It’s an inner transformation contest!

Except what we are judging is the exterior. And this idea that you read things off a person’s body is pernicious. Like people who think they can tell you’re lazy by looking at your weight. Or worse, in children’s stories, that we can tell that you’re evil because you’re ugly. Or in the worst of children’s stories that your soul is deformed because your body is disabled.

So if you’re judging bodies, judge bodies. That’s not my thing. But be honest about it. Don’t say you’re judging health, wellness, or confidence.

Tracy

I don’t love dishonesty either. The whole idea of judging someone’s “transformation,” whether inner or outer, makes me really uncomfortable. And like Sam says, if you’re only going by the before and after photo, then it’s totally based on the body transformation.

If you wanted to judge something more, then how about asking them to write an essay? Or do a Q&A?

I look at the photos and I just feel really sad for the women in them. A year of working on healthy habits and it comes down to this? A photo to put beside your “before” photo so we can see and judge how you’ve changed. It’s excruciating to look at grown women posing in swimsuits or workout gear, under a headline that tells you for each how many inches and pounds she lost, so they can be scored in a contest.

It feels demeaning in all the ways a beauty pageant is demeaning. Surely we are more than our bodies? And surely we ought not be judged for our bodies, on the basis of whether someone finds them pleasing or approves of our physical transformation?

When I did it they spent an entire month trying to get us to have a professional photo shoot. Of course they would. The photo contest is probably one of their biggest ways to bring in new clients, and the better the pictures the better the (free) advertising. I quite resented that part too–the many arguments they gave to encourage everyone (when we are already paying a lot) to get professional “swimsuit” pics so they can use them in their advertising. For sure no matter who you are the amateur selfie smartphone “before” picture will not be as good as a professional “after” shot taken in a studio by an actual photographer with an actual camera. That would be true even if the “before” was taken just minutes before the “after”!

I hated the photo contest when I did PN, and I still think it’s the worst part of the entire year.

fitness

218 in 2018: Halfway there!

As you all likely know I’m doing the 218 in 2018 challenge. It’s a simple challenge. The goal is to workout 218 times in 2018.

Our halfway mark is July 1. The halfway workout is 109. I’m at 108 and I’m about to get on my bike and ride 25 km. I think I’ve got this! Just under the wire….

Update: Almost 25 km ridden with Sarah this evening!

(Oh, please sponsor Sarah in the Friends for Life Bike Rally. I’ve made my minimum donation (twice over, thanks friends and readers) and she is just starting.)

What I have been up to? Biking some (but not enough), lifting weights, also dinghy racing, Pride marching, physio, and walking.

I counted a day’s worth of gardening. I’ve got a blog post in the drafts folder called “Does gardening count?” but since it involved shovels and a wheelbarrow and I got sweaty, I think yes.

Image description: A small sailboat on a trailer. Our sailboat. Our Snipe.

I’m actually less sure about Snipe racing but I counted that too. What’s the activity in it? First, there’s getting the boat in and out of the water. Even on trailer it’s work for me and Sarah. The hull weights 381 lbs. Second, there’s hiking. An excellent ab workout. Wikipedia defines hiking this way: “In sailing, hiking (stacking or stacking out in New Zealand; leaning out or sitting out in United Kingdom) is the action of moving the crew’s body weight as far to windward (upwind) as possible, in order to decrease the extent the boat heels (leans away from the wind). By moving the crew’s weight to windward, the moment of that force around the boat’s center of buoyancy is increased. This opposes the heeling moment of the wind pushing sideways against the boat’s sails. It is usually done by leaning over the edge of the boat as it heels. Some boats are fitted with equipment such as hiking straps (or toe straps) and trapezes to make hiking more effective. Hiking is most integral to catamaran and dinghy sailing, where the lightweight boat can be easily capsized or turtled by the wind unless the sailor counteracts the wind’s pressure by hiking, or eases the sails to reduce it.” Third, there’s a lot of balance required moving around in the boat. Finally, there’s a lot of pulling lines, ropes, halyards, etc.

I’m not sure what the rest of the year holds. Weights in the gym, for sure. Also bike riding. Also, more Snipe racing.

I’m trying to stay active everyday. See the Google Fit report below. That’s more than 1 hour of biking and walking each day. Not too shoddy, I guess. But I still feel like I’m missing something. I think it’s group activities and intensity. Mulling. Will report back.

fitness · running

Do you run in the rain?

Image description: Wet concrete ground with reflection of rail, some leaves, and Tracy's feet in running shoes.
Image description: Wet concrete ground with reflection of rail, some leaves, and Tracy’s feet in running shoes.

On Friday morning I had a dilemma. I was in Chicago, which is a great running city. But it was raining, and not just a little bit. I considered my three options: 1. skip it; 2. run on the treadmill; 3. go out in the rain anyway.

I had no intention of skipping my run. After a day in the car on Thursday, my body wanted to move. So option #1 was off the table. Treadmills are for the worst winter weather and it’s not winter. So that ruled out option #2. Besides that, I’m feeling really motivated with the 10K training these days and I didn’t want to miss my tempo run or slog it out on the treadmill.  So I head out.

At the beginning, it wasn’t raining all that hard. Just a little misty drizzle, really. It was kind of cool, which felt so good. I usually associate summer running in Chicago with heat and humidity. It was a pleasant change, actually, to run in the cooler wet weather.

But at about the half way point the gentle drizzle turned a bit harder. There were very few people out even before that. As I turned onto the lake shore pathway, it started to pour. But I was determined to do my tempo run and maintain the pace as best as I could despite the rain. When I turned around at the halfway point, I discovered I had been running in a tail wind. Conditions got a bit more unpleasant at that stage, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.

Image description: rainy day with low mist, tall buildings in background, concrete lakeside path with painted lines, lake on the right with sailboats on moorings.
Image description: rainy day with low mist, tall buildings in background, concrete lakeside path with painted lines, lake on the right with sailboats on moorings.

By then I was soaked right through. But I felt really good because it was pretty temperate, and the rain kept me from over heating. On my way back up Michigan Avenue towards the hotel, I stopped in at Starbucks to get a soy latte. That’s when it became really clear that I was totally wet from head to toes. I stood in line dripping in my running gear while everyone else was all dressed for work, picking up their coffee on the way.

When I got my latte, it was still raining really hard, but by then it didn’t matter anymore. So I just took a few sips so I wouldn’t lose any on the way back, headed outside, and ran back to the hotel (the Omni). Both times I went running on the weekend, I was offered a cold bottle of water when I walked in the front door. And on the rainy day, I was also handed a nice fresh towel so I could dry myself off.

I’m really glad I decided to go for it and not skip my run or do the treadmill. It’s a good reminder that when the temperatures are reasonable and it’s not an electrical storm, running in the rain is kind of pleasant.

Do you run in the rain?

fitness · Guest Post

Step Counters and the Guilt Triangle: Food, Friends, and Fitness (Guest Post)

After a few years of participating in our employer’s annual team-based “step challenge,” Tracy decried step counters on Facebook. I then boldly announced that I would provide a counterpoint blog entry in defense of them. (Spoiler Alert: Did I actually think she would be wrong about something?)

My teammates and I (“Ahead by a Century”) have been stepping for just over 25% of the 100-day “Global Challenge.” This initiative involves teams of 7 combining their daily fitness activities tracked by step counters. A mobile app encouragingly shares the team’s progress, releases virtual badges for achievements, provides health information, etc.

Having done this challenge before, I knew there would be highs and lows in using a “stepper” (as I started calling it while being thoroughly searched by US airport security guards after forgetting to remove it for the metal detector/x-ray thingy). So, to prepare for this blog entry I have kept a brief journal. Over the past 31 days I have occasionally ranked my stepper as a motivator, with 1=not motivating, 2=somewhat motivating, 3=highly motivating. From my 15 entries, my stepper shows an exercise motivation level of an average of 1.8 so far.

Stepper

With each entry, I have described how and why I reported that particular rank. Let’s compare my first, middle, and final entries:

First Entry: Went for a walk at night to get to 10,000 steps. Stretched after soccer, smelled lilacs, and walked off the Wendy’s Frosty I bought!

Middle Entry: At day 11 I have noticed that my pattern seems to be guilt to exercise from either the bad food I eat or the fact that my team is counting on me. The stepper itself is not motivating, but it keeps me honest in a way that I probably would not be without it, especially at 11:30pm at night.

Final Entry: Many, many days of <10,000 steps. Will walk today. Guilt.

Certain patterns have emerged in my 15 comments. These include:

Getting to a certain number of steps: 7 mentions
Mention of food or beverages: 6 mentions
Statements of criticism or guilt: 5 mentions
Statements of affirmation and satisfaction: 3 mentions

Early in the step challenge, I noticed that “I enjoy the exercise when I do it, and it offsets my guilt or gives me something to enjoy.” However, mid-way through I also noted that “when my frustration or tiredness is stronger than my guilt I do not exercise.” On some occasions I expressed frustration with the stepper itself, such as on a travel day I wrote: “Dropped it and it slid into the airport bathroom stall beside me, and I almost didn’t say anything to get it back.”

There were days when I cut myself more slack, such as when I spent half of a day in a hospital’s emergency room. “Getting sick puts the step challenge off the table,” I wrote. “I feel like I’ve let my team down when my exercise for the day is walking to and from the various rooms of the hospital building (but at least I didn’t take the wheelchair!)”

A quarter of the way through my step challenge, I have determined that my friends (challenge teammates, soccer team, etc.) push me to exercise, and guilt over food or drink often pulls me. I describe myself exercising just to work off the pizza I had, or running in circles in my bedroom just before midnight just to get to an even number of steps.

In conclusion, because I have been so focused on achieving a certain number of steps, rather than associating the exercise with my health, so far overall I have not been motivated by my stepper in positive ways to increase daily activity levels. I’m not sure that this is what the Global Challenge folks had in mind, but at least this added “mental exercise” has given me pause for reflection on my current habits.

Now if you’ll excuse me…I have to finish this post and get off my computer to go for a walk, as I’m only at 3000 steps and it’s already 5pm.

Elan Paulson is soon to be newly employed, and is an occasional FIAFI blogger.

IMG_8500

running

Sam misses running and sometimes even cries about it

Pride Run selfie of Sam, Sarah, and Susan. June 2017. Also, Sam’s last ever 5 km running event.

On the blog, we often simplify things. We say Tracy is the runner and I’m the cyclist. That’s mostly true except Tracy is back to commuting by bike for fun and convenience, not speed. And me, I’ve had a complicated relationship with running through the years and though we’ve broken up for good now I really really miss it.

It’s not been easy. See Sam struggles not to run, ever!

The other night I was really upset (moving stress, family stress, new big job stress, all the stress!) and I wanted nothing more than to run with my feelings. See “Angry running” and running as running away.

But I couldn’t. Not with my busted knee. Even if I go the full surgical route and get total knee replacement, I’ll never run again. Instead, I ate some ice cream and watched some Netflix, not the healthiest substitution, but I got through the rough patch.

It’s hard. It’s a big change in identity. I’m still struggling. When the photo above of last year’s Pride Run came through my newsfeed I burst into tears.

Reading the post you can see that even then I was having issues.

The Pride Run is one of my favorite athletic events. There are runners of every stripe and speed, kids, runners in costumes, walkers, and so many people cheering the runners on. Such a great atmosphere. This year I registered early but once again ended up with knee issues that meant I couldn’t really train for the event. Other than my holiday running streak there hasn’t been much running for me this year. Instead I was going to regular knee physio. Thankfully Sarah ran with me and helped keep me running at a reasonable pace. We set out to run 5 and walk 1 but a couple of times we ran extra minutes to make it uphills or to the water station. I was so slow–my slowest, happiest 5 km ever– but I was running. I was smiling. And in the end nothing hurt. What a happy day!

Now I’m not running and still, my knee hurts. This year’s Pride March was tough even walking it. I feel like I might need “goodbye running” therapy! Or maybe something new to take its place, like Snipe racing.

I’ll report back from time to time and let you know how life after running is going.

Have you ever given up a sport or activity, even one with which you had a complicated relationship, like running and me? How did it go? Advice welcome.

fitness · yoga

Good/bad yogi me? How about just yogi me?

I’ve been doing more yoga lately, which makes me very happy.  I like taking time out for focused and thoughtful movement, some of which is easier and some of which is harder for me.  I’m reminded of limits and also opportunities– there’s a modification of most yoga poses for lots of people, and I’ve gotten comfortable with not trying to kill myself to do something that I simply cannot do that day, these days, or ever.  Like this one– not happening:

A person (I think just one but am not entirely sure) with a head on the floor, leg(s?) behind head, arms behind back.
A person (I think just one but am not entirely sure) with a head on the floor, legs behind head, arms behind back.

One of my favs is this legs up the wall restorative pose, which I could do all day:

A woman in turquoise tights and a purple top lying down with her legs up and against a wall. She looks relaxed (probably because she is).
A woman in turquoise tights and a purple top lying down with her legs up and against a wall. She looks relaxed (probably because she is).

I love my local yoga studio, Artemis Yoga, which is near my house, beautiful inside, and filled with friendly and chill yoga aficionados of all sorts.  I’ve also been supplementing my classes with at-home yoga, using the Bad Yogi youtube videos.  Erin Motz is the Bad Yogi, and she has a veritable cornucopia of yoga video classes for every mood/method/body part that one might want to practice with on the mat. I did her 30-day yoga challenge last year, which included some undoable-by-me workouts; I just ignored them and did some other happier-for-me classes.  The videos are 10–20 minutes long, which is enough to make me feel good and also squeezable into my schedule. If I’m feeling the need for more, I just do another video. Bad Yogi yoga is explicit about welcoming everyone to yoga, demystifying the practice of yoga, and offering a variety of ways to enjoy what yoga has to offer.  This sounds great to me.

Yesterday I decided to check out the Bad Yogi website in more detail. I’m rather sorry I did, because I found that Bad Yogi has branched out into health and wellness and fitness and nutritional advice, replete with lots of messaging about how to be GOOD.

Bad Yogi advertisement for a Cleanse Kit, saying "be good, feel good".
Bad Yogi advertisement for a Cleanse Kit, saying “be good, feel good”.

Apparently, being good may sometimes involve cleansing, whatever that is (although I see an avocado graphic, and I like avocados). Excuse me, but what does cleansing have to do with yoga? What does cleansing have to do with being good? With feeling good?

Tracy wrote a great post on cleansing here (spoiler alert: four days of non-diary coconut ice cream may not be a great idea).

I get it that there’s a whole industry around “cleansing” (as opposed to actual cleansing, which to me means something to do with laundry), and I happily ignore it.  But I’m really disappointed that my online yoga friend Bad Yogi is promoting this.  And with the extra ka-pow message of “be good”. No.  No on so many fronts:

  • No to me being asked to be good– I can be how I choose.
  • No to me being asked to be good– I can be how I am.
  • No to identifying being good with doing some food deprivation regimen.
  • No to linking feeling good with being good (that’s way too much to untangle right now).
  • No to linking feeling good with eating particular food items (or abstaining from them).
  • No to making feeling good a goal (maybe that’s too high a bar sometimes).
  • No to more things I haven’t listed but would agree to if someone else told me.

Here’s where I am on yoga:  I’m there. Just there. I’m not good, I’m not bad, I’m just yoga-ing.

What about you, yogic readers: what’s your yoga about these days?  I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

fitness · swimming · training

Thanks, Coach! Thoughts on Drills, Good Form and the Importance of Mixing it Up (Guest Post)

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.

I had an epiphany in the pool last week. I finally figured out what was wrong with my kick! And as anyone who has struggled with mastering an athletic or other skill knows, nothing beats the sweet satisfaction that comes when you suddenly get it and never look back.

This underscored for me why regular technique check-ups are an essential part of a good training regimen and highlighted the critical role that coaches can play in that process.

Spring is a time of renewal for me. After the relentless pace of the academic year, I need time to recover, to recharge and then to reflect on the big picture and set goals for the coming year. Part of this process is to take a look at those things that tend to turn over year on year unless we think consciously about them, such as course content, teaching methods, service activities, volunteering, kids’ activities, finances and … fitness and health!

Over the years, I have found the refreshing change of format from indoor to outdoor swimming is a great time to check in with where I am at with my training.

First, in addition to being outside, I also go from swimming at night to swimming at sunrise. There is something about the early light of a summer morning (I swim at 6 am), with its promise of day ahead that fills me with inspiration.

Next, unlike the rest of the year where, aside from open Sunday practices, we swim twice a week at a set time with the same swimmers, we can swim as often as we like in the summer and choose from 15 different practice times. Since lane composition on any given day or time is rarely the same, this adds an element of spontaneity and fun to practice. Training with different swimmers gives us a chance to break out of old patterns and habits (like who leads the lane, who is “best” at this or that stroke etc). I also love being able to reconnect with friends who swim at other times during the year and to meet new people.

Finally, our canny coaches take advantage of the more relaxed summer mood and the different swimmer combinations to mix it up in our workouts too.

The switch in training focus was obvious last week when the theme was “Skills and Drills”. Not everyone was thrilled, however. Many Masters swimmers swim to stay fit and it is natural to focus on speed and endurance. But as we grind through thousands of meters a year, even the best technique degrades. These slippages are subtle but over time they have an effect. For older swimmers particularly, bad habits can increase the risk of injury, but attention to technique is also an important element of performance improvement. Getting faster or stronger is not just about pushing the heart and lungs, it is about moving as efficiently as possible in the water.

Since swimming movements are complex, it is impossible to think of everything at once. Working on technique usually requires breaking a stroke down into its components (kick, pull, catch, breathing, rotation, turns and so on) and focusing on one element at a time, often in a progression of connected steps that are brought together at the end.

For my part, I love doing drills because I always learn (or re-learn) something and I enjoy sensing the subtle variations in movement that typically ensue. Most of the time drills are useful to reign in sloppy form or to undo entrenched habits. But every now and then, a drill brings about a shift that transforms your technique. And that is what happened to me last week as we worked on flutter kick, the weakest component of my freestyle and backstroke.

Though I am very good swimmer, the relative ineffectiveness of my kick has been an endless source of frustration. As a runner, I have a lot of leg muscle and power on the pavement but in the water my torso, shoulders and arms do most of the work. Kick sets are my nightmare – moving my legs faster and harder never seems to make a difference to my speed while exhausting the muscles after a very short time. Given this, I was not relishing last Tuesday’s workout focused on kick and flip turns. My lack of enthusiasm however, was no match for my amazing coach.

Our primary coach this summer is one of the founders of our club who was, until a few years ago, the head coach of our youth competitive teams. This shows in her style of coaching, which is very relaxed and understated. Rather than emphasizing straight up effort (something kids hate, but which many Masters swimmers delight in), she keeps you busy with sets that integrate unusual drills (with names like alligator breath), designed to work on correct form in the water.

Do not get me wrong, many of these drills are in fact very hard work, but not in the usual “grind it out” way that we typically associate with effort. Rather, this kind of focus on form is taxing because isolating weak or difficult parts of the stroke takes us out of our comfort zone and requires concentration, something that is hard to sustain as physical exertion increases.

Great coaches know that to get swimmers to make changes to their strokes, they have to be creative – and sly. Under the guise of working one item, say, kick, they will design a drill that passively works on another skill, like body position in the water. Done well, leaving some of the drill work to occur naturally, without drawing attention to it directly, allows swimmers to approach the drill without preconceived ideas about what should happen. This creates the mental space for them to just experience the water, something that provides invaluable physical feedback on what the body is – or is not – doing.

So what happened last Tuesday? We did a lot of kick, but the focus was on tightening the glutes, not on leg movement. Using the large muscles of the glutes is essential for a strong kick, but it is easier said than done. Part of the problem is getting the amount of muscle engagement right. At first, I tightened the muscles as hard as I could, with little noticeable effect. When I mentioned this to my coach, she said: “Relax. You’re trying too hard. Let up a bit. Experiment with it.” I persevered, but the sweet spot remained elusive.

Then we worked on flip turns and my mind focused on hitting the wall correctly with my toes. What my coach did not mention is that turns help your kick because you must release the glutes to initiate the turn. It provides a break in the muscle effort that also allows for subtle recalibration before reengaging the muscle after the turn. Midway through the set I came off the wall and – bingo! – felt a surge of power as my glutes engaged at the just the right level.

All of a sudden the kicking felt, well, not pleasant, but like it was making a difference, not just to the forward motion of my stroke but also to keeping my body horizontal at the surface of the water. I was astounded at the change – I have been swimming since I was a toddler, and noticeable improvements are pretty rare.

It goes without saying that I will need to continue to focus on my glutes for a while until it becomes an unconscious part of my stroke – practice makes permanent, as they say. I am also curious to see whether the perception of fluidity I have now will translate into faster times.

Even if it does not, however, with each practice my kick feels easier and more natural, which is reward enough.

Thanks, Coach!

Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.