I’ve been getting more contacts these days about becoming a marathon swimmer, and I think the idea in the Midwest is catching on as we have a couple of more options for the sport. I wanted to provide a how to manual based on my experience for the logistics of it all, because it can be really fun! There are a couple of tough spots, and a little knowledge can go a long way. I feel like I’m providing a lot of information here, it’s like four articles all in one. I may break this up a bit in future postings, but with SwamThat Race right around the corner, I wanted to get the information out to our swimmers with enough time to truly prepare for their day.
Let’s start with sighting because everyone swim in a straight line in the pool, but no one swims in a straight line once that line disappears and they are in open water. There are multiple ways to sight outside of dropping your feet and lifting your head which is basically a full stop. One option that most people don’t think of is going into another stroke pattern. People that do this generally convert to a Breast stroke, I’m also fond of sighting in a Butterfly stroke. Both of these patterns have opportunity within your breath to sight the course directly in front of you. If you are sighting while in Freestyle, I teach this as part of a bilateral breath pattern. Take for example you are coming up on a right side breath and want to sight the course. When you left hand is extended, lean on it slightly and pull your head up while making your breath attempt. Look quick to try and sight a buoy, get your breath in the process and close the stroke normally. If you are going to sight in a single side breathing pattern it’s not quite as efficient, but ultimately the same, lean on the opposite side hand, pull the head and sight within the breathing motion.
I mentioned Breast Stroke, and there is an important safety element to this stroke. If you are ever off balance for some reason, examples are: hit by and unknown object, goggles are leaking, kicked or hit by another competitor, or you’re off course. I teach students to go into Breast Stroke because you square up, and spread out while protecting the head and gaining a sight line. Practice this in the pool, so that it’s automatic for you. It’s a nice skill to have.
If you need help, a lifejacket or extra flotation is not available, and are being approached by Kayak assistance paddler, don’t pull on the side of the boat. You will want to mount the front tip of the boat by wrapping your arms tight around the bow. This centers the kayak and gives you a rest. Also if you need to be taken into shore, this is also a safe way to transport you without putting a safety crew member in jeopardy. They are there to help, but if they are incapacitated, then two people need saving.
Getting someone’s attention is easily done by taking off your swim cap and waiving it in the air as high as you can. Safety personnel are always scanning the water, and this is easily sighted.
Timing waves is a skill, and trying to breathe through a whitecap is unwise. In the waves you’ll probably have abandoned any hope of a bilateral so this is predominantly a single side breath exercise. You will want to breathe on the opposite side of your body from the direction of the wave, and you’ll want to breathe in the trough of the wave. So the logical question is how to time this? I slow my stroke pattern and extend my long hand as discussed above in sighting. With your long hand you can feel the rise and fall of the wave if you are keeping your shoulder high in the water. Your hand will operate as a bobber. Once you feel the wave lower or your hand pass through the whitecap, you’ll be in the trough the very next moment and have a window to get a breath. You may find a pretty consistent rhythm, but I recommend maintaining awareness and you high bobber, because the waves can be inconsistent and provide little or no warning. It’s better to miss a breath, than inhale a wave. This situation is also why I encourage all swimmers to be bilateral breathers, it’s a really long day if you can only breathe on one side, and there’s a straight line wind coming from that direction.
Sighting in waves is best completed in a Breast Stroke, so that you can pick your head up through the crest of the wave. Stopping motion, and dropping your feet may leave you prone to cramping, and although you can swim with a cramp, it is best prevented with continual motion and appropriate feedings.
I’ve taken in multiple types of feedings, one of which I take a lot of crap for (Squeeze Cheese), but I’m going to break down the basics for you. First I must defend the brilliance of Squeeze Cheese, (PS Nabisco if you are reading this, I totally deserve sponsorship). It’s pressurized cheese in a can, this means 1) Protein, 2) Fat, 3) Salt, and I’m Keto so it’s everything a distance swimmer needs! Also it never goes bad, and is basically self-sealing. It floats, can be tied to a line with a duct tape loop, and it’s easily thrown in the direction of your nearby kayak support, but I digress.
Gels: Gels, and all things made by the endurance sports industry. Gels are great because you can tuck them into your suit. If you are swimming something that does not require a support paddler, but is long enough that you want extra nutrition gels are the way to go. They are simple to use; 1) retrieve gel from stash, 2) bite off top, and put it back into stash, 3) consume gel, and put empty pack back into stash. I want to make sure no one is littering. I will warn that chocolate can leave a suspicious brown stain, when not stashed appropriately. Yeah for gels!
Liquids: Liquids are necessary, and make great feedings especially for the glucose fueled athlete because you can pack them with sugar. I like to take in liquids from Camelbacks tied to the deck of a kayak. They usually have about a three foot hose, and that’s plenty of distance between myself and the boat to not touch. They close easy, there’s plenty of liquid so running out is unlikely, and there is nothing to toss, or reel in making it easier on your paddle support. If you using bottles I recommend a duct tape loop, and a squeeze bottle. Wrap the bottle with duct tape a couple of times, make a strand that is larger than the bottle (to tie onto), and then tape back onto the bottle once more. Scrunch up the part that’s not taped to the bottle, and tie on a line. The line should be long enough for your paddler to toss to you, and reel back in with ease.
Balls: I make a nutrition ball that will hold me in keto, but also pack in some sugar. I call them my salty nut balls, because that’s what they are. My nut balls are absolutely delicious and a delightful nutritional source.
Here’s the recipe:
Equal parts: Peanut butter, Nutella, and Marshmallow Cream (about a half of a cup)
1 scoop favorite protein powder
1 scoop favorite collagen powder
A couple of spoon or MTC Oil (keto)
Beat until blended, I put a Gas X in every other ball, and bag them by two’s as a feeding.
Roll in desired coating to keep them from getting too sticky. This can also be a nutritional source so be creative. I’ll use coconut flour, chia seed, and a bit of salt. See; Salty Nut Balls.
Feeding on these takes the patience of your paddler, but ultimately they retrieve on from a feeding bag, and drop it in your mouth. I developed these as they don’t require chewing, and when sized appropriately will dissolve while tucked away in your cheek allowing for unobstructed breathing.
Here is a general instruction on how to take a line, ball, or gel feeding in:
1) I Get my feeding ready, open the gel pack, get the bottle from your kayak spotter etc...
2) Take a really big breath and hold it
3) I flip over on your back
4) I Let your feet fall, OR start up a slow kick... This is a comfort thing, if I'm tired I may let my feet fall, if I feel like I may cramp, I'll kick them to keep active.
5) Take in the feeding quickly, trying to hold your breath in to maintain buoyancy. "This is important, if you let your breath out, you'll have to tread water, this increases the chance of cramps, panic, and nutrition loss"
6) I then throw the bottle back to my spotter, or tuck the gel pack away, flip and go.
This all happens in 20 seconds or less...
Note: Some people will tie their bottles to the kayak so that their spotter can reel them in without having to chase them down.
Now for the pits, and chafing trouble spots:
Next to breathing, and feeding this is the most important part of your day, because bleeding can just ruin everything. I’ve tried everything because no matter how clean, or what kind of water you are in, there is a goober that trying to get after you. Things just rub! I would say the single most important item in your swim bag on race day is Zinc Oxide. You can leave all others at home if you have it, with that said I take a multilayer approach. Aquafor works well as a base coat, I’ve also used Lanolin oil, or Vaseline. These will all wear off over time, but if you put a healthy layer of Zinc Oxide over the top it’ll hold up all day, even in extreme or dirty conditions.
One last note about acclimation; there’s this crazy little nerve in your face that controls your gasp reflex. It’s good to dip your toes in the water, and splash some water on your face to begin the acclimation process. This will allow you to jump in for your start, and with no surprises to your body be able to gain confront as you start your swim.
That’s a lot of information, but more of a quick hit on the big subjects. I may break all of this apart and provide more details in future articles. If you were to have any questions please write me, and I’ll do my best to give you a Swim Genius answer. Thank you Swimmy People, Much love!
The Mysterious / Miraculous Swimmer Muscle; The Psoas
Why is the Psoas the most important swimming muscle that you’ve never even heard of?
First the why. My experience was a locked Psoas within the course of an ultra-marathon swim. I finally got it unlocked after about 8 miles of excruciating pain. Since I’ve had some personal experience with the Psoas, I of course did the research and figured out how to work with it. Since then I’ve had multiple personal swim students, and an online acquaintance both suffer from a Psoas related injury, both of which I was able to assist in diagnosis. It’s sad but Western Medicine practitioners often miss this one, or diagnose it as a sciatic nerve issue, as the Psoas is not as clearly understood from an athletic community perspective.
So what’s a Psoas: It’s the deepest muscle in your core, and the only muscle to connect your spine to your leg. A stabilizer muscle that connects your torso in the thoracic section of your spine, to your femur in your leg. This means that a weak Psoas muscle could be the cause of your pelvic, or lower back pain.
It’s important because it helps in controlling your core rotation, stability of the spine and leg flexibility. In other words, every single swim stroke rotational movement is affected. Even your shoulders are affected as you’re not able to gain full extension and rotation of your spine to gain maximum propulsion. The Psoas moves your legs forward, and are involved in everything from getting out of bed in the morning to running the marathon segment of your Ironman. They stabilize your ability to go up the stairs to picking up that item you dropped this morning. As they are central in your body they also interplay with your organs as they are a muscle formation that your organs sit on. They are directly next to your colon, and your core circulatory system of Aorta and Inferior Vena Cava. They are also directly connected to your diaphragm through ligaments and fascia, so they also affect your ability to breath. Now that you know all of that I’m sure you’ll agree that the Psoas, is the most important swimmers muscle.
You may be damaging / tightening your Psoas if you:
Sit for long periods of time.
Engage in excessive running or walking.
Sleep in the fetal position.
Do a lot of sit-ups (the Psoas completes the top portion of the motion).
What to look for in your freestyle swim stroke.
You’ll see a staunch swimmer center over their core. This is generally seen as a good thing.
You’ll see little movement in their hips from side to side. This is also generally considered a good thing.
You’ll see a centered shoulder line, with tightness in their hips, so inability to engage their obliques in the finish of their stroke, and minimal (short) shoulder rotation emanating from rotation in the spine.
You’ll see their quads dragging a bit low in the water.
You’ll see minimal kick movement from the hip, and if asked to do the butterfly the kick will only emanate from the knees.
Similarly this will affect the ability to operate in Breast-stroke as the kick width suffers.
Finally, let’s not forget, that they may seem out of breath.
As I coach a lot of triathletes looking to improve their swim, I see a lot of runners who are tight through their ankles to their lower back, when they are struggling with establishing a kick, the Psoas is often a part of a larger issue.
What to look for in your every day:
Pain in your lower back or hips.
Sudden difference in the length of your legs.
Problems with posture.
Now how do we take care of it?
Try not to sit so much.
Flexibility work / massage.
My favorite way to get at my Psoas is with a foam roller. I’ll place it lengthwise down my leg, with the top part just to the side of and under my belly button. I lay on it allowing the foam roller to sink in between my pelvis and pubic bone. Once that becomes comfortable then bend the leg at the knee and roll to the side on the foam roller. You can also get to them from the back, by laying on the foam roller in the thoracic region of your spine and rolling up and down while tilted to the side.
Another way that is less painful, and a good starting point is to lay down on the floor and extend your legs vertically up a wall. Hold this for ten minutes and then try the foam roller. If you are unsure, and may think it’s your sciatic nerve, lay flat on the floor and touch your opposite ankle to your opposite knee to stretch the affected area. If this does not help, it may be your Psoas.
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