Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Flip Side of Injury

I used to shun the idea of the flip turn while doing my swim workouts.

For one, I am not a swimmer. I came to triathlon from running. All triathletes start from somewhere, and we tend to be rather possessive of our respective “background” sports. In a way, it gives us the opportunity to put a disclaimer on our weaknesses, while highlighting our inherent strengths in the multi-sport world.

Over the years I’ve taught myself to be a decent swimmer and have taken the time to register for weekend clinics so I can be at the mercy of swimming as an actual sport, rather than 1/3 of my training schedule.

(Another thing about triathletes, we’ll sign up for anything that’s meant to make us better—especially in the water where most of us struggle).

Swimming as an actual sport is a completely different experience than training for a triathlon.

I won’t pretend to know all about “actual swimming,” since I’ve only heard stories of athletes layering old bathing suits and pantyhose on to create drag in the water while they swim, leaving behind arms that sting with lactic acid in a way that makes you see God. My repertoire of strokes is nowhere near where it needs to be for me to have any business completing an Individual Medley (a series of laps where you use all four of the main swimming strokes). In fact, I consider the “dog paddle” to be among my official swimming strokes. And my backstroke is admittedly modified so that I a) don’t get water in my nose, and b) enjoy a lower abdominal workout while pulsing through the water.

Be that as it may, I have taken the time to get somewhat competent in the pool, mostly because my ego was stroked in a motivating way throughout my career as a triathlete. All it takes is for someone to inquire about my past as a swimmer in high school or college, and I start to fantasize about the raw potential that may be dormant inside of me.

In actuality, my past consists of my cousin and I creating our own synchronized swimming routines to the song “Fever” by Madonna, and seeing how long we could hold our breath under water while swimming from one end of the pool to the other. Still, something about the way I swim makes people believe that I'm good in the water.

I chalk it up to my, “lane-claiming-eye contact.”

At my gym there is limited time to swim laps since it is frequently worked in around such activities as “Hokey Pokey in the water” for toddlers, and the dreaded “family swim” which basically means there are no lane lines and people just frolic about in an unorganized way.

When a lane opens up, you can immediately suss out the athletes in the room. Goggles and swim caps appear from beneath bored thighs that have been pressed into plastic chairs for a half an hour as the clock ticks away at a maddeningly slow pace (accompanied by a background of splashing, screaming and “that’s what it’s all about!” sung in 10 different pitches). You need to be swift if you want to lock down the lap-swim lane when it opens up.

I usually lunge toward the water, immediately dip my toes in and sit on the edge of the pool. Then I proceed to jam my hair into the swim cap, while putting my best “eye of the tiger” face on. This must make people think I know what I’m doing in the pool—but really my expression is more about being disgruntled at having to swim, rather than forecasting any success I may have while covering 3200 yards.

Once in the water, I can hold a steady pace and am able to swim at more than one speed. I’ve mastered bionic breathing and have a pretty good stroke and kick, but Michael Phelps I am not.

I’ve been training for triathlons for five years now, and have never done a flip turn. My rationale for this is that in the open water during a race, there will be no wall to push off from. Therefore, why should I bother incorporating this skill into my swimming when all I need to do is get good at the forward progression of my body in the water?

But the other night I noticed a sharp pain in my elbow. It was in the arm that I use to push off the wall when I swim. That week I swam several interval sets, and started to realize that jamming my hand into the wall to turn around during a fast 50-meter sprint (16 times in a row) may have been the reason for the pain.

With nothing else to do in the water but think, my mind started to reel with possible pitfalls that could result from this “tennis elbow of the pool” issue. Within minutes I convinced myself that a “can’t get this wet” cast would have to be placed on me, or worse, the arm may have to be amputated altogether!

(Another thing about triathletes: If there is even the inkling of a threat to our ability to complete training as prescribed, we are “all in” for any solution that will enable us to continue working out like crazed cardio junkies).

Immediately I recalled my attempts to learn the flip-turn months ago. Water in the nose, flailing about, premature rotation that put me too far away from the wall to get any push, and (the best) hitting the wall for the push-off, but aiming myself to the floor of the pool so that I essentially used all of my force to launch my face toward a cement surface.

Flip-turns, for me, were a blizzard of bubbles and confusion.

All of this, better than amputation.

And so, I adopted the “sink or swim” mentality (pardon the terrible pun) and decided to just go for the flip-turn. I didn't want to end up with an arm that was too sore to swim at all.

Something incredible happened after that. All of my workouts improved. Not just in the pool, but on the bike and during my runs. The flip turns started to feel natural to me, and made it easier to keep moving along at a faster pace. This gave me a new confidence in my swim workouts, which in turn encouraged me to feel that confidence in each stride of my runs, and each “push” on my rides. It was as if some new facet of me as an athlete was unearthed that day, and I received a gift that enabled me to activate that “personal record” feeling I usually only experience in races when I realize I’ve bested my performance from previous years.

How could a flip-turn have such an impact on my training?

I think I’ve figured it out.

This year I’ve been really focused on trying to feel the same way I did in years past with my training, because part of me is really nervous that I’m not as prepared for this season as I should be. My mile splits in running have been a little bit slower than usual; and most of my cycling has taken place inside on a spin bike since I was coaching a couple of advanced cycling programs at the gym. In the pool I felt okay, but swimming isn’t going to make a dramatic different in my race times, so I didn’t care as much about any progress there.

The flip turn gave me the opportunity to be “new” at this sport again. Incorporating it into my swims made me think about those workouts differently. I started to look forward to swimming more than biking and running, which meant I became less obsessed with how my times were in those workouts. I had become so distracted by my doubts and fears, that I was holding myself back in those workouts.

Nailing flip turns reactivated my goals and renewed my belief that I am capable of anything. In this case, I was forced into a new skill out of necessity; but it has reminded me that the body is always up for improvements so long as you allow your mind to be on board, too.

Don’t wait for an injury or setback to come along and force you to do things differently. Challenge yourself to try something new even if it doesn’t seem necessary or useful for anything. You might be surprised by the domino effect that comes with one small change.