Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tips for overcoming fear of open water swimming

This morning, I had the pleasure of conducting an open water swim clinic with my good friend Krista Shultz ( The attendees were primarily beginners with very little open water experience. I began the discussion by querying the group whether they had anxiety about open water swimming. All of them indicated that they indeed had some fears about swimming in open water. Even though I had anticipated this might be the case, I was still somewhat surprised by the degree of anxiety these athlete’s were facing.

The issues were varied. I tried to tackle each of their concerns in an effort to alleviate their discomfort and make open water swimming enjoyable rather than a burden.

Wetsuit constriction
Even a perfectly fitting wetsuit feels restrictive compared to swimming without one. In addition, a wetsuit changes your body position in the water and if you are donning a full suit, it can change your arm swing. If you never wear your wetsuit before race day, these feelings will be unfamiliar and can cause a panic attack in the water. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen during the race is to periodically wear your wetsuit prior to race day. If you do not have access to open water, wear your wetsuit in the pool (just be sure to wash it well after). The more often you wear it, the less strange it will feel on race day.

Mass start
There is no question; the start of a triathlon is frenzied. People jockey for position with no regard for those around them. There can be kicking and hitting. It is not for the faint of heart. Novice open water swimmers (and anyone who wants to avoid the fray, for that matter) should position themselves to the outside or to the back of the group. Try to minimize the number of people immediately around you. For those athletes feeling especially panicked by the mass start, let everyone go and then start your swim. Swimming a Masters workout can help emulate the feeling of a triathlon swim – often workouts have crowded lanes and there can be contact with swimmers around you (I often leave with bruised hands).

Not being able to make the distance
Whether you are racing in a sprint or an Ironman, you should swim the distance in training non-stop at least once to give yourself the confidence you make the distance and the time cut-off. I am constantly amazed at how often people ignore swim training until the last minute. Swimming is not like studying for an exam; you cannot cram.

If you have trouble breathing during swimming in the pool you will have trouble breathing during swimming in the open water.  The most common breathing problem is trying to breathe in and out when you turn your head.  After you take your breath when your head is turned, blow the water out when you head is back in the water. Swimming, unlike running and biking, requires long, slow, controlled breaths. Practice this in the pool until it is second nature.

One of the biggest concerns people have is swimming off course. We have all done it! In fact, earlier this year, almost the entire men’s pro field swam off course at a big race. Know the course beforehand. Some courses are triangular while others are a rectangle. Figure out which side the buoys are on and whether the turn buoys are a different color. Practice bilateral breathing in training just in case the buoys are on your non-preferred breathing side. The buoys can be hard to see, the sun may be bright, the waves very tall. Do not depend on the person in front of you to keep you on course. Yes, you can swim on someone’s feet. But, lift your head every few strokes to make sure you are still on course. Practice lifting your head during your swim training in the pool.

Sometimes, even after all of the mental and physical preparation, a panic attack occurs during the swim. If that happens, turn over on your back and float or grab onto a kayak. Take a few deep breaths until you feel calm and then continue your swim. Try counting your strokes or singing a song to keep yourself calm.

The overwhelming theme here is that you must practice to overcome your fear of the open water. Each of the steps needs practice in the pool first and then implemented in open water. Whenever you have the opportunity to  swim in the open water, take it! Over time, you will feel much more comfortable.

I applaud the athlete’s who came to the clinic. They recognized their fear of the open water and took a major step to overcoming it. They did not wait until race day and just hope for the best. I believe they all left with a little more confidence.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Most Embarrassing Moments

Today I updated my resume. No, I did not toil on my professional resume. I am referring to my resume of most embarrassing moments. Undoubtedly, my resume of most embarrassing moments is quite full already. But, it is always nice to keep things current.

Many of the incidents on that resume are falls of various sorts. One such fall happened during my second race as pro in Oceanside, CA in 1998. The race took place at the pier with a very long run in to the water. I bolted when the gun fired and ran hard to establish a good position before we hit the water. All of the sudden, I tripped.  I was sent flying through the air very ungracefully. Just in case anybody in the crowd missed my acrobatics, the announcer shouted, “There’s a woman down!”

I got back up and finished the race with dignity (I was third). I thought nothing else of the fall until the next morning. The front page San Diego Union’s sports section featured a photo which captured the very moment I was hurtling through the air. There are 25 women horizontal and one woman exactly parallel to the ground.

Another bit on my resume of most embarrassing moments was in college. I was rushing to join some friends at the pool to hang out. I threw on my two piece swim suit and a pair of shorts. When I got to the pool, I took off my shorts only to find out I had nothing on underneath. Yikes.

And that brings me to today, the day I unintentionally added my resume of most embarrassing moments.

Let me set the scene.

The background: I went for a run this morning with Diesel.

The time:  8:45 am (i.e. rush hour).

The place: The intersection of Valmont and Foothills Parkway (i.e. very busy).

The scenario: I was waiting patiently for the light to change, with Diesel standing at my side. There were a lot of cars at the various points of the intersection.

The Moment: The light turned green so I began running through the intersection. Midway through, a motorcycle went by and gunned the engine. Diesel jumped in fright and moved from my side to directly in front of me. I too was jarred by the sound and was a little off balance. I tripped over Diesel and suddenly, I went splat onto the pavement. I was sprawled out in the middle of the road, slightly confused and extremely mortified. I stood up, walked to the other side of road and assessed the damage. My left knee and elbow were instantly black, blue and yellow and scraped. Diesel was not harmed. (Note: Aside from a little bruising, including my ego, I am fine).

The grievance: At least fifty people witnessed my fall and not a single person asked if I was ok. Wow. Talk about apathy.

The aftermath: I still had to get home, about two miles away. I started running, very gingerly at first. Diesel must have known something was wrong. Usually he runs beside me or behind me, but now, he was running in front, pulling me back to the house.

The moral: If you fall and nobody sees you fall then you didn’t really fall so try to fall in private.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ironman Addiction

I wrote a post last year about exercise addiction. One thing was very clear from the responses to that post; many of us are exercise addicts. I believe there is a special subset in that group, those who are not only addicted to exercise in general, but to Ironman specifically. Year after year, in spite of the time commitments, financial burden, and physical and emotional toll, athletes clamor to sign up for Ironman races.

A recent conversation with an athlete I coach centered on this very issue. She has raced Ironman every year for the past many years. Next year, work obligations will not allow her the time to train the same number of hours and so she questioned her ability to appropriately train for Ironman. I offered her a very radical suggestion: Take a year off from Ironman and focus on the other distances. She was incredulous at the very notion, she had not thought about not doing Ironman. When we talked it though, though, she became excited at the prospect of doing shorter races and honing her speed.

My last Ironman was in 2008. My gut shut down yet again, rendering me dizzy, depleted and unable to finish the race. I decided that it would be my last Ironman for a very long time. It seemed silly to continually damage my body doing a distance it seemingly rejected, especially with so many other racing options.

Triathlon is very Ironman-centric and I, too, was heavily on the band wagon. I could not imagine planning an Ironman-less season. I anticipated that my training and racing would be unfulfilling in some way, that I would be less of a triathlete. I could not have been more wrong.

My training evolved to fit my racing goals. I substituted much of the long distance training for shorter and more intense workouts. I began to really enjoy the training format. I did not miss Ironman after all. I originally thought I could not be satisfied without that smug feeling of contented exhaustion from training all day. But, I was.

It has been 11 months since I raced my last triathlon. I have not ridden my bike for almost as long. I have again been surprised that after the initial feeling of loss, I am not discontent. Just as the transition out of the Ironman realm was relatively seamless, so has been my transition to running.

I have realized that I don’t need to log the endless training hours to quell my addiction. I need to have concrete training and racing goals, and if those are met (or almost met), I am satisfied. I am still able to push myself in training and see the fruits of my labor on the race course. That is what my addiction craves.

Triathletes have trouble breaking their Ironman addiction, even if their bodies are shattered or their personal lives unable to handle the strain, because there is a belief that the high from training for Ironman cannot be replicated by training for other events. Or, there is a fear that training fewer hours will result in being less fit. Perhaps, there is a sense that anything less than Ironman is unsatisfactory. Yes, there is a certain pride in telling others that you have finished a gazillion Ironman races.And, of course, there is the Kona carrot beckoning year after year.

Take a break from Ironman for a while. Recharge your batteries. Get faster. Experiment with other races. Change up your training. Work on your weaknesses. Try to qualify for a World Championships at another distance. Ironman will still be there when you are ready to revisit the distance, only this time you will be renewed, faster and raring to go.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why do you race?

Do you train to race? Or, do you race to train? These are very different approaches to training and racing and there is no right or wrong answer. At the outset, the motivations for each seem similar, but I believe, there is an inherent difference.

Training to race

I have been a competitive athlete for 35 years (gasp, that is a really long time). My early life revolved around achieving time standards for various swim meets such as junior nationals, senior nationals and the Olympic Trials. My coaches bred the team to race and all of our training was centered on accomplishing whatever goals we set out for ourselves. Certainly, we swam until our arms were ready to fall off, but the ultimate prize was time improvements at the swim meets.

It is tough to break habits, and as I morphed into a triathlete and now a runner, my training is still centered on achieving racing goals. Don’t get me wrong, I love to train. But, ultimately, I love racing more. My training is systematic and well thought out months in advance with an eye on whatever races are on the horizon. I am extremely competitive and I like to throw down on the race course. Even after so many years, I am disappointed when goals are not met and I go back to the training to do better the next time.

Racing to train

This past weekend I ran the Liberty 4 miler in Denver. At the finish line, I spoke with a competitor. This was our conversation.

Runner guy: I have not missed a day of running since November of 2009!

JZ: Really? I am not impressed. In fact, I think that is stupid.

Runner guy: Well, I have run 3 half marathons and 2 marathons this year and even I PR’ed the marathon.

JZ: Maybe you would have gone even faster had you taken a day off. I really do not understand this whole business of streaking.

Runner guy: I have it all worked out. Have you heard about the 1 day hard 3 day easy plan? That’s what I do. And, it is hard to take a day off now. I have to plan something really special.

I later apologized to Runner guy for my unabashed candor (sometimes words just come out of my mouth and I have no control. I think it is hereditary, my mother does the same thing.). Clearly, though, this person races to train. After I thought about our brief exchange, I realized that his motivation, while not congruent with my own, is really ok. Training is his passion and racing is secondary.

Over the years, I have encountered athletes who race to train. Their training strategy is very different from those who train to race. The workouts tend to be more haphazard without clear goals. Often, the workouts are more social or tend to be race-like. Easy rides turn into long rides. Days off turn into a smash-fest with the group. While some race goals may be met, often they are not because the training was not tailored to the racing.

The reasons are for training and racing are different for everyone. If it is done with enthusiasm and enjoyment, that is what truly matters.