Aug 222010

Susan Dawson-Cook at 2010 USMS Summer Nationals

2010 USMS Summer Nationals

Before competing in the U.S. Masters Swimming Summer Long Course Championship in Puerto Rico, I tapered or greatly reduced my training for two full weeks. The first week, I reduced my yardage by about 25%, emphasizing high quality, fast swimming. The second week, I cut yardage by nearly 50%, again emphasizing fast swimming. The two days before competition, I did only easy swimming. Does the idea that reducing training improves performance seem paradoxical? I’ll admit that even though I’ve tapered dozens of times, that little voice in my head persists in nagging me and telling me maybe I should do just a few hundred yards more just in case I get too out of shape. In reality, rest is an important component not in order to maximize performance at a major athletic competition, but for planning weekly and even annual training schedules. Even fitness enthusiasts who never compete but train hard can glean a lot from what I’m about to say.

Too much training can have a negative impact on even the most talented athlete. Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts tend to feel that if they aren’t constantly giving their all and hurting, they aren’t getting better. Muscles that are constantly in a broken down state are unable to get stronger. In some cases, muscles are actually consumed in cases where there is too much training, too little calories consumed and too little recovery time.

Overtraining can have psychological as well as physiological consequences, leading to decreased sports performance, lethargy, increased risk of injury, and depression. Too much training also can lead to burnout, turning a passion into something you hate.

When building rest into your program, look at how you will rest in day to day training and the peaks and valleys that will happen in your training during your year-round schedule. Every workout and every week should include some recovery. It could come in the form of low intensity exercise or cool-down done at the end of a workout, recovery bouts (active recovery) between high intensity sets (Interval training) or cross training or gentler activity done on days between tougher workouts. How does this help? The cool-down releases toxins from the blood and muscles and keeps blood flowing properly from the extremities to other areas where it is needed. Cross training or gentler exercise on alternate days allows muscles used on one day to recover while different ones are utilized, enabling you to perform better during subsequent workouts. Weight training should never be done on consecutive days, unless the upper and lower body are worked separately (M – W – F – upper, T – Th- Sa – lower, for example).

Another important part of recovery is food and drink. Always drink plenty of fluids (until your weight matches what it was pre-exercise) and consume some carbohydrate/protein food source within 60 minutes of a training session. That way you can fend off the breakdown of valuable muscle tissue. Chocolate milk and yogurt and fruit smoothies are recovery favorites of mine.

Athletes typically have different phases to their competitive seasons. The intensity, duration and even the type of activity varies, depending on what part of the season the athlete is in. Many athletes take several weeks off every year (not usually at the same time) where they do no activity in their sport to refresh body and mind. Whether you are an athlete or not, you should consider setting up an annual plan that includes harder and easier phases and works in different modes of exercise. In your “pre-season,” do light activity in your preferred mode of exercise and also some other exercise in different areas. For example if you are a swimmer, you might set up a combination of swimming and Zumba (Latin dance) classes for cardio and then mix in some Pilates and yoga classes to get in some strengthening. In your early season, you might do longer workouts with an emphasis on quantity over quality. Then as you approach your important meets, there should be more rest between sets and swims should become faster and more precise. Then yardage is generally decreased 2 or 3 weeks before the major competitive event to ensure muscles are completely healed before racing. After the competition, some time off from the sport works best for most competitors to allow physical and mental recovery (and maybe some opportunities to enjoy other activities you don’t usually have time for) so you feel ready to work hard again the next season. After a major competition is a good time to take an extended vacation where walks on tours or a short hike or other “fun” activity is the only exercise on the agenda.

Don’t be afraid to make some adjustments to the training plan along the way. Listen to your body. Oftentimes it will give you signals if you need more rest. Overexercising can compromise the immune system, so if you become ill, make sure to reduce your training while you recover. Doctors recommend not exercising when a cold gets into the chest. If its just upper respiratory, take it a little easier until you feel better.

Massage and contrast water therapy (alternating hot and cold water) help to alleviate muscle soreness when you have overdone it. But your sore muscles may need a day of rest more than anything else. Don’t be afraid to accomodate them. Many athletes and fitness buffs find when they are more attentive to their bodies’ needs, their bodies respond by increasing performance level. They also find that their bodies aren’t constantly hurting anymore.

Aug 062010

USMS Summer Nationals 2010I’ll be flying to Puerto Rico for the U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course Nationals this weekend and I couldn’t be more excited about embarking on another vacation of fitness and fun. When I’m not competing in this championship event (which will include swimmers 18 to 90-something), I’ll be meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones, learning salsa dance moves, taking in the local sights, and enjoying the local food (and drink).

I’m especially looking forward to the the 1500 meter open water swim at Ocean Park, where I hope to see (but not necessarily get too close to) some marine life along the way. I’m also excited to be swimming in this super-fast pool, which is modeled after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Natatorium at Georgia Tech. I’m anticipating putting some lifetime bests up on the scoreboard to prove to myself and others that at 47, I’m fitter than ever.

Why do I choose to be super active when I travel? The answer’s simple. I can’t leave the house without getting dressed and brushing my teeth. Nor would I start my day without exercising first. Swimming and other activities soothe my mind, stimulate my thoughts, and give keep that passion for life running through my blood. I can already hear the echo of people cheering, imagine that rush of water I’ll feel when I plunge from the starting blocks into the cool race-temperature water, and feel the skin-tingling adrenaline rush I’ll feel after swimming each race all-out and then seeing my name up on the scoreboard.

With U.S. Masters pool meets and open waters being held all over the country (go to usms.org), there’s ample opportunities to plan a swimming vacation.

I love competition because an event on the calendar serves as an incentive to push myself harder. And I thrive off the sheer excitement of racing. But there are people of all personalities Masters swimming. You don’t have to love to compete or even to be fast. Masters swimming is for anyone who wants to improve their fitness level, lose weight, feel better, enjoy training with the camaraderie of others, or just hang out! So don’t be afraid to get into the competitive scene out of fear you won’t be good enough. Swimmers are a super friendly community of people! If you just show up, you’ll be warmly welcomed.

Aug 022010

I recently started doing some water training in my home pool. Its so nice to get up, throw on a suit (or not) and walk out the door. Because my home pool isn’t as long as the pool where I normally train, I do some vertical kicking and stationary swimming so I’m not constantly touching the sides. Here’s how you can do some stationary swimming in your home pool…

Buy a medium strength Versa Tube and a 6 foot Thera-Band. Loop one handled end of the Versa Tube to a diving board or ladder at one end of the pool. Attach it as close as possible to water level. Then tie one end of the Thera-band around the other Versa Tube handle. Then tie the other end of the Thera-Band around one ankle. Slide into the pool and get started. Try with or without a pullbouy, depending on if it improves your body position, since you will mostly be pulling anyway (the band around the ankle will restrict your ability to kick).

I have successfully done free, fly and breast stroke pull this way, but found it very awkward on my back. Have fun!