Oct 192015

The water’s where I go to regain balance when I’m stressed, to escape when life hurts. That’s why most days of the week even when the water’s cold, the deck is slick with ice or it’s pitch dark, I haul myself out of bed at the crack of dawn and submerge my head in chlorinated water.

Usually, I’m barely awake and a little disoriented when I first dive in. But when I emerge from my hour-long outdoor swim, I feel transformed. Instead of dull and lethargic, my thoughts feel focused and sharp and my mind feels relaxed and calm. All stiffness is replaced by a feeling of youthful exuberance and my skin tingles in a way that’s a pleasant reminder I’m alive.

Still…I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take this swimming experience outside the confines of a concrete rectangle. On countless beach vacations, I’ve dreamed of swimming beyond the buoys, crowds and stirred up sediment. I’ve gazed out at the sea and fantasized about swimming for hours with no worries about boat traffic or being carried away by a current.

When I first came across the Big Blue website, my husband was a new swimmer, training for his first triathlon. I bookmarked the site, followed Big Blue on Facebook and jealously read the trip itinerary. Wow–daily swims around islands in the Ionian Sea, crossing channels and hugging coastlines. Sounds like a swimmer’s dream come true. If only Chris was ready for that, I thought.

Five years later, Chris had completed countless triathlons and trained with the Masters swim team daily. Last spring after we finished a lake swim, I felt confident he could enjoy a swimming vacation. So I burst out with, “Can we please do that swim trip in Greece?”

Fast forward to six months later… Chris and I sit shoulder to shoulder on the deck of a boat called Mogli near Lefkada Island, Greece. We’re chatting with new friends we’ve met from Australia, the UK and Israel as the boat bobs over waves toward our latest island destination in the Ionian Sea. The sea between the Greek mainland and Lefkada is a swimmer’s playground with dozens of islands around to explore. Topped with olive and fir trees, they are rimmed in white limestone and aquamarine water that transforms into a luxurious blue as the water deepens. The sea is such a postcard perfect blue I’m tempted to close my eyes for a few seconds to see if its still there when I reopen them.

Neither of us are open water gurus. We worry the swims might be scary, that we might feel alone and vulnerable out in the ocean. But with the support of our guides on Mogli and the inflatable boats, we feel safe. Most of the time, we hug the shoreline of an island, hovering over a limestone bottom barely over our heads. Most significantly, our guides Michael, Jax and Noa choose fortuitous swimming spots with minimal boat activity and calmer water, escort us every stroke of the way, and offer us juice and water at regular intervals to keep us hydrated.

The trip feels like a magical dream. Every morning after a relaxing and scenic boat trip, we swim around different islands and enjoy long lunches in quaint villages. The three speed groups that have been established allow us all to swim at a pace that feels right. My pink swim group buddies are my husband, Chris, and Fran Lou. We are soon dubbed “the explorers” because we rarely miss the opportunity to capture a photo, propel our way into a cave or surface dive to recover a sea urchin skeleton from the bottom. All three of us are athletic and adventurous so we make a great swimming team. Suzanne Williams jumps in to join us for a couple of swims, instantly adopting the adventurous, explorer spirit, pointing out starfish nestled in the limestone beds as we swim along.

In the pool, I felt confined. In the Ionian Sea, I feel suddenly free. I cruise along, gliding through the buoyant, salty sea until every smooth stroke feels like meditation. Peering through that crystal clear water, I watch schools of fish dart out of my path. I slide my hand over beds of tilted and buckled limestone that have been subjected to millions of years of the earth’s compressive forces.

Without the predictability of a black line or a wall, my mind is excitedly anticipating what might happen next. Are there fish behind those rocks? Will there be bigger waves after we round that peninsula? Will we be able to squeeze into that cave?

After exploring a cave, Fran climbs up onto a big shelf of limestone outside its mouth. I take a picture of her smiling and flexing her muscles.

When it’s time for another channel crossing, my heart rate accelerates. It’s harder work and the seas are choppier. The white limestone bottom drops out from beneath us and all I see through my goggles is cerulean blue water. Is the water one hundred feet deep or five hundred feet deep? Dozens of feet below me, a milky white jellyfish opens its umbrella like body before closing it again, propelling itself through the water. What else lies below us, I wonder. Fish, dolphins, sea turtles? A shark, perhaps? Not knowing makes the experience more exciting. It’s my adrenaline rush for the day.

On our final day, we stroke across a small channel from Skorpidi Island to Skorpios Island. Skorpios Island, once owned by Aristotle and Jacki Onassis, was recently sold to Ekaterina Rybolovleva, the daughter of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Swimming through crystal clear water alongside this idyllic island is like starring in a James Bond movie. The Spy Who Loved Me song plays in my head as I turn my head to breathe and see a stone wall hiding an expansive villa. Then I see acres of lush green forest, where security cameras peering out from the foliage serves as the only reminder that someone lives here and is watching our every move.  As we round another point, buoys prevent us from swimming too close to a second villa perched above the beach. A bodyguard wearing a crisp white shirt and sunglasses observes us from shore.

“Six thirty three,” Gary shouts when I touch the wall after a five hundred yard timed swim at Masters workout. I’m jarred back to the present. It’s been weeks since Chris and I returned from our wonderful vacation in Greece. But whenever I’m in the pool, my thoughts often drift across the Atlantic and back to the Ionian Sea and once again, I’m gliding through the salty sea, relishing how it feels on my skin. And after a hard workout, sometimes I close my eyes, float on my back and imagine I’m bobbing on the waves and that I’m still surrounded by amazing world of blue water and green islands that is Greece. That fantasy will just have to do until I get a chance to go back.

Mar 122013

Tricia Schafer wins a medal at a race

“I’ve been caffeine free for many years,” said Tricia Schafer, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. “My boyfriend and I decided to drop it because it made us irritable. Seriously, we’d get up, be all peaceful, then have a few sips of coffee and start bickering. The correlation was uncanny. I also struggle with anxiety issues and caffeine seems to make it worse.”

Over the course of a typical week, Tricia swims eight hours with the Phoenix Swim Club Masters, works out on a spin bike four days and runs 20 miles. She also sometimes competes. In the past, caffeine-rich products made her irritable, rather than giving her a competitive edge. “I have never consumed an energy gel. I just don’t feel like I need them. I sip on V8 juice between events or eat Clif Shot blocks (uncaffeinated).” She also easts Zing brand nutrition bars “because they are gluten/dairy/soy free and are super easy to digest. And they are delicious.”

Tricia breaks up her two to three hour a day workouts into increments “so I can eat real food in between efforts.” Her preference is to eat healthy, wholesome foods often in small amounts. “I hate feeling hungry and I hate feeling full.” In addition to Zing bars, she pours herself tall glasses of homemade juice comprised of celery, kale, chard, beets, and grapefruit, nibbles on nuts and seeds and often eats up to eight eggs daily. She usually also eats one serving of organic meat. Occasionally, she indulges in her favorite treat- coconut chocolate milk.

Tricia’s style of meal preparation is quick, easy, and super nutritious. “I’m a lousy cook and barely have the patience to cut veggies for the juicer, but I eat them as I cut them and often end up filling up on raw veggies and skipping whatever the next ‘regular’meal would be. If I’m hungry, I have to eat now.” While the average American craving instant food gratification ends up in the line at McDonald’s,  Tricia makes sure what she eats nourishes her active body, rather than filling it with crud.

Jan 172012

Just like your car, when you driving your body hard, it needs some maintenance and tune-ups. Many athletes and fitness buffs are very diligent about making sure they swim, bike or run a certain number of miles ever week, but devote little attention to pre- and post-workout stretching, massage, and recovery.

In reality, the body maintenance is as important as the workout itself. Proper care for your body can reduce the incidence of injuries, reduce pain and inflammation and improve performance. Below are some tips to help you establish a preventative maintenance schedule for your body:

1 – Schedule massages regularly. Massage is necessary to keep muscles and the connective tissue that sheaths muscles healthy (long and pliable rather than lumpy and thickened). Massage also often alleviates muscle discomfort. If you can afford it, schedule one twice a month. Otherwise, learn how to do self-massage work with balls and foam rollers.

2 – Stretch major muscles worked after every workout. Stretching releases toxins that build up during exercise, improves circulation, restores length to tissues and incites a relaxation response. Always take nice deep breaths while stretching and hold stretches for 30-60 seconds per muscle stretched. Do not bounce the stretches.

3 – Identify overtight parts of your body and give them extra attention. Stretch these muscles more frequently or even do 2 to four sets of 30-60 seconds for these areas. For example, many people have tight psoas muscles (upper part of front of thighs) from sitting so much. This can tip the pelvis forward and place undue stress on the low back. You can stretch the psoas after work by getting down on your knees and taking a giant step forward with the right foot, resting your hands on the front thigh and then pressing forward with hips in the back, getting that lengthening stretch in the psoas. Then you can change sides. Sitting also tightens the chest muscles, which can be loosened by lying on top of a foam roller with the arms out to sides, palms up at shoulder level and letting gravity passively lengthen the muscles.

4 – Rest. Sleep sufficient hours nightly and take at least one day off from training every week. Never work the same muscle groups in strength training two days in a row.

Your body works very hard for you and you should give something back by nurturing it with some care and recovery.

Nov 092011

Susan after a swim in the La Jolla cove

Susan after a swim in the La Jolla cove

Some of my best workouts happen on days I almost talked myself out of exercise. Today was one of them. It might frighten you to hear the kind of mental chatter that rattles around inside my head, but perhaps you can relate to it as well. This morning, the workout protagonist (to be referred to as athlete or A) and antagonist (the sleepy sloth or SS) got into instant battle the moment the alarm sounded off. Sleepy sloth whined, “it’s too cold to swim.” And she’s right, actually. Hardly anyone in their right mind would swim outdoors at 6 a.m. when its less than 40 degrees. Athlete argued the water would be warm and once I got in and started moving, I wouldn’t be cold at all. So I got out of bed and donned the swim suit, slippers, and swim parka. Then SS said, “but with these cramps, no way.” Hormones were to blame for this agony. A argued the whole day would go better after the swim – I’d be calm, cheerful, happy, and understanding. So I ended up on the pool deck 10 minutes later and swam the whole Masters workout from beginning to end. I started out feeling sleepy, sluggish and bloated. And by the end of the workout, the cramps had dissipated and I even swam a 39.0 50 breast in the last 10 minutes of workout. Not bad! So I toweled off and ran to my warm car feeling bouncy and happy and like I accomplished something. Even better, I felt fantastic for the entire day simply because I started the day off with energizing exercise.

Oct 312011

A soak in the hottub can feel good after a long swim

I was swimming a series of 6 200 freestyles in my Masters workout this morning and relishing the experience of feeling fit. I wasn’t out of breath, my legs didn’t feel heavy, I didn’t feel my stroke fall apart or physical pain strike at the 150. Instead, I had this incredible feeling of freedom. And power. Every stroke felt long and smooth, every push off the wall powerful, every breath like my lungs had plenty of room and more for the air. The water rushed by my body like a massage, reminding me of my sleekness, my strength, my speed. And instead of thinking “this hurts,” I thought “Wow, it feels so amazing to be in such amazing swimming shape!” And indeed, I did feel amazing and have been feeling that way a lot, as if the water is really my domain.

I wish people struggling to make time or find the motivation for workouts could jump inside my body for just one workout and experience the sheer joy I feel being a fast, efficient swimmer. You don’t have to be a swimmer to enjoy that fantastic fitness feeling. You can be in walking shape, running shape, cycling shape and more. I have been out of shape (in the water and on land) before and I know it feels like the absolute dickens to workout when you are deconditioned and your body is fighting hard against you establishing a new inertia of activity over sedentary living. You have to hang in there long enough to experience that “I’m fit” elation. The fact that I love being fit means I don’t struggle with weight and heart disease and diabetes won’t be a part of my future.

So if you’re not there yet, keep trying because it is a goal worth achieving. To elevate your fitness level to that place where you just might hear that voice of gratitude inside your head saying, “Thanks for making this all possible, for letting me live in this amazing body that can do so much more than I ever imagined.” And then you will know that fitness has become a part of your life that you will never let go. And if you are there, please share your experiences of enlightenment with other readers.

May 042011

Susan Dawson-Cook, 200 Breast, USMS Spring Nationals

Susan Dawson-Cook, 200 Breast, USMS Spring Nationals

I am home safe and sound after four exciting days of swimming in Mesa with 1817 other swimmers from all over the country. Among us were Olympians (including Gold medalist, Rowdy Gaines), USA National team members, and people like myself out there swimming to stay healthy.

Over the course of the meet, I swam five personal best times, proving to myself that I am only getting better with age. I placed 6th in my age group in 50 breast, 8th in 200 breast, and 9th in 100 breast. I also met some amazing swimmers who were there to give their all, despite coping with cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart failure, and other severe and/or chronic illnesses. These people remind me what a wonderful gift it is just to be alive and serve as inspiration to help me keep my chin up when I face what is really nothing more than a petty difficulty or two compared to what these people face.

When a competition goes well, I like to analyze what went right so I can replicate the conditions again the next time. Hopefully you can glean something from my analysis and use it to your advantage in your next race.

1 – I tapered well for the meet. I did a 10 day taper, gradually reducing yards, emphasizing speed work and I halted all cross training activities. I also avoided spending a lot of time on my feet. This is particularly important for breaststroke, because my kick is such an important part of my stroke. I know a couple of swimmers who went out and did a 50 mile bike ride 2 days before the meet – not a good plan.. Patience is a virtue when it comes to a successful taper. I waited until after the meet and then bounced all over the place in Zumba on Monday 🙂

2 – I got lots of sleep before and during the event. 8 or 9 hours a night… Stretching before bed helped me relax so I could go instantly asleep.

3 – I hot tubbed and stretched every night so I never experienced any muscle soreness. I also did a very long cool down (400 to 500 yards) right after my last race.

4 – I avoided static stretches pre-race, which have been proven to reduce power to muscles for a period of time afterward. I did “shake” the muscles to keep them super loose.

5 – I stayed away from the pool as much as possible when I wasn’t racing. I found the 1800 people plus family and friends mob scene very over-stimulating and needed to have time away from this chaotic scene. Some swimmers around my age are also very exclusive of people outside their clique and I prefer to stay away from those people as much as possible.

6 – I stayed covered so I didn’t get cold or lose energy from the sun.

7 – I made sure to do some fast swimming during warm-up. I watch my times, so I’m sure I’m really warmed up. It takes longer to warm up a 48 year old body, so I need to spend more time in the warm-up pool than I used to.

8- I got back in the warm-up pool very close to my sprint events so that I was “keyed up and ready” to swim super fast. There is nothing worse than doing a sprint and not feeling fast until the race is almost over!

9 – I swam my own races. This may not work well for everyone, but I find that if I am too concerned with what other swimmers are doing, I forget what I am doing or allow myself to get psyched out. In Masters swimming, you often don’t know what kind of times swimmers are capable of doing. Some people put in very slow entry times, whereas I always put down my best times in nationals. If a swimmer who has put in a slow seed time is suddenly way ahead of me, it is easy to start freaking out and convincing myself I’m swimming a disastrous race. I try to focus on my own race so I don’t swim a poor race needlessly. I always have a plan for what I want to do and I try to stick with it first and foremost and go by how I feel instead of by what is happening around me. Within the boundaries of swimming my own race, I compete with others.

What I did wrong? There were a few things…

1 – This was the first nationals I attended where I actually did not enjoy myself at all. It was very crowded there, I had some personal issues going on and so I never felt relaxed. I didn’t laugh and joke with people like I usually do either. I hated the hotel where I was staying and kept wishing I was at home all weekend. I feel like I would have swum even better had I felt a little light-hearted.

2 – I got too inside my head before my 200 breaststroke and so I didn’t meet my expectations in that race. I also don’t think I adequately warmed up that day because I got annoyed with the crowds in the warm-up pool. Again, a little patience would have paid off if I had had more of it…

I hope some of you will share your thoughts on competition and what works and doesn’t work for you!!

Apr 272011

USMS Spring Nationals logo

USMS Spring Nationals logo

My count down began two weeks ago when I started tapering for U.S. Masters Swimming Spring Nationals. A decrease in yardage increased my excitement and anticipation of the event. Only “X” more days raced around in my brain! After fine-tuning my starts in practice, doing about 1000 breast stroke pullouts in my home pool and refining some particulars of my stroke, I feel sleek and fast in the water. I indulged in a massage yesterday and have rolled and stretched and hot-tubbed every night this week before bed. I bought a fresh pair of goggles yesterday, tested them in the water this morning. Bags are nearly packed and ready to go. So all I have to do now is drive up to Mesa and start swimming with 1818 other people who have the same plan!

Some people think I’m crazy to compete. “Why would you want to do that at your age?” they ask. As if I should spend my weekends playing bridge and rocking in my chair at 48. Pleeeze! Others, who share my competition and swimming passion, understand what I’m up to completely. There is so much more in it for me than getting a fast time and a medal. That is just part of the story. No matter what time I swim, it is an opportunity for me to express my gratitude to God that I can swim, that I am healthy, that I look fit, that I love to workout. This is a gift I no longer take for granted!

Swimming in an event with so many fit people of all ages – from 19 all the way to 95 – also inspires me to keep on striving to be my best. Nationals, wherever they are held, is a place where people of many generations, professions, and states and countries can come together and share a common love for swimming. I always meet so many interesting people at nationals. Often its the people who aren’t famous who fascinate and inspire me the most because of their perseverance and determination.

A swimmer friend of mine was so ill in January, she had to be fed intravenously. Now she is back in the water competing and expects to win many of her events. I know another woman who underwent chemotherapy last year, now she is swimming 4 events in nationals. People compete alongside fathers, mothers, sons and daughters at this event; enjoying a family weekend of friendly competition. Others enjoy reuniting with friends they’ve met from all over the country over the years.

Is the competition fierce? Sometimes. There is nothing like showing up the first day and seeing nearly 2000 swimmers competing and/or in the warm-up pool to get your adrenaline sky-rocketing. A long warm-up and a few conversations with familiar faces always calms me down in a hurry. But in the end, its a smile, handshake and a pat on the shoulder or a hug after a race, a warm conversation on the sidelines, cheering and encouraging teammates and finishing the competition feeling grateful to be alive and that I have so many special people in my life that makes it all worth it for me.

Apr 172011

Practice swim in La Jolla Cove

Susan taking a practice swim with some Ford Aquatics Masters swimmers in La Jolla Cove

Having the right shoes, swimsuit, goggles or other piece of equipment or accessory can make or break your performance and comfort during training and competition. Here are a few athletic items I can’t live without:

1 – I Bungee laces for my running shoes. I wrote a produce review on these a couple of years ago and got instantly hooked! If you do triathlons, you will love these. No more hopping around on one foot as you try to tie your laces when your muscles are still trembling from the ride. The elastic allows you to slip on your running shoes like slippers. These are also great for seniors who have trouble reaching their feet.

2 – Trail Running shoes for aerobics. In the 80s and 90s, well-cushioned aerobic shoes were par-for-the-course. Then they became more like a glorified walking shoe: stiff and with very little cushioning against impact. Since then, I’ve been looking for another solution. Many running shoes, such as Nike Vomero offer excellent cushioning, but limited lateral support. Most recently, I invested in an Avia trail running shoe. Awesome! It gives me lateral support, sole flexibility AND cushioning and I feel like I am back in business.

3 – TYR Durafast swimsuits – If you are like me, you find it irritating when in a matter of weeks, your suit is so stretched out already that its close to your knees on a forceful wall pushoff. The Durafast lasts longer than most other swimsuits on the market today. I am still wearing a suit I bought last August and I’ve even worn it in the hot tub a few times and it hasn’t lost its shape. The Nike suits I’ve purchased have also held up well.

4 – Lane Four Selene goggles – If you don’t want to go to work with dark rings around your eyes, these goggles have soft rubber that barely leaves a mark. To me, this is a huge benefit, because I don’t like getting to work looking like a mean person. The anti-fog coating does come off pretty quickly with these, but putting a little liquid soap inside and rinsing them seems to do the trick.

5 – Long hooded swim parka – Protects you from the cold, sun and wind. I have gotten a whole lot of value out of the 100-something dollars I spend on my swim parka. I used to always get cold at meets and now I never have a problem. I swim much better when I don’t get chilled between events. You can buy these from swimoutlet.com and other swimming stores. Most swimming clubs offer them with the team logo.

6 – Foam rollers – When a masseuse isn’t close at hand, you can massage your own body by rolling a foam roller beneath your muscles (think of rolling your muscles like dough). It lengthens the muscle and reduces discomfort, rigidity and knots in connective tissue. You can order these on my web site at www.susandawson-cook.com/personal_best_stretch.htm. Stretching is something I also can’t live without and if your’e not sure how to do it effectively, my DVD will teach you how!

The next product I’m going to try is My Own Bottle (myownbottle.com). Plastic is just plain bad for you and its really hard to see if there’s mold growning in the bottom of a stainless steel bottle, so these glass bottles piqued my interest. You can wash them in the dishwasher and reuse them so you’re not wasting; the downside is that it wouldn’t be safe to use them at the pool.

Mar 122011

If your pre-race prep consists of leaning over and reaching for your toes, think again. Performing static stretches, which involves lengthening any muscle and holding it, can actually slow your swim.

Research shows that performing static stretches before a workout or sporting event decreases eccentric strength and the rate of force production in the muscles. In a nut shell, your muscles won’t react as quickly or efficiently and optimal performance will be inhibited. However, mobilizing the muscles and joints before a race can be very beneficial. Not only can that improve performance, but it can reduce the potential for injury.

You can warm-up major muscle groups doing dynamic stretches involving movement patterns. Dynamic stretches differ from the “ballistic” stretches that ruled in the 80s, which basically involved bouncing a stretch that should have been static (such as reaching for your toes and then continually bouncing to see if your hand will eventually touch the ground).

Bouncing a stretch near its elastic limit can tear tissues. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, increase body core temperature and improve range of motion. Some examples include lunging side to side, marching with high knees, pulling the heels to the hips and other similar movement patterns that move muscles and joints enough to stretch them and improve their range-of-motion. When you do dynamic stretches, always move in a smooth and fluid manner and avoid moving muscles beyond what you perceive as a comfortable range.

When choosing which dynamic stretches to do pre-race or -workout, it is prudent to think about which muscles and joints will be activated most during your swim. Breaststrokers, for example, will want to prep all muscles in the legs and hips and also perform range-of-motion activities for hips and ankles. All swimmers should perform some complex shoulder movements before their swims (think about doing movements that mimic weight training activities such as internal and external rotation for rotator cuff, chest flies, lateral raises, etc).

Racing or training with well-prepared muscles is always safer than forging forth with ones that are inadequately or inappropriately warmed up. So save the toe-touching for after the race and go for pectoral flies before you step up on the blocks.

Feb 212011

Personal Best Stretch: Move Better Than Ever

Susan Dawson-Cook and Jennifer Rischard in Personal Best Stretch

I am attaching a link to a short segment from my DVD for your viewing pleasure. To order Personal Best Stretch, please go to www.susandawson-cook.com You can also post comments or send me an e-mail at susan@corazondeloro.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEYvsG-1IK4&feature=player_detailpage