Amby Burfoot sent a comment after reading my recent post How to be Kaizen while swimming slower than ever. “I admire how you remain open to trying new things after decades of the same old, same old.” This is partly correct. I did the same old for 25 years from 1965 to about 1990, but shortly after starting TI I began experimenting and was so thrilled by the discoveries I’ve made it’s become a deeply ingrained habit.

In that post, I contrasted the far greater number of occasions for error or inefficiency in swimming with those in running. Given the almost limitless opportunity to fix and improve stuff in your swim, why are so few people inclined to pursue change in–or critically examine–their swimming. The dual culprits in this are the nearly universal inclination to view swimming as mostly an aerobic activity–like running–and the unfortunate tendency of most folk to fall into autopilot mode while ‘following the black line.’ (This phrase is oft cited by those who complain that swimming is boring.)

In group practice–i.e. Masters–an additional impediment to noticing/examining/fixing is the feeling of being on a hamster wheel–in a group chase with three or four other hamsters. Until a month ago I hadn’t swum with the local Masters group in nine years. But since I resumed–partly to prod myself to swim more often, partly for the social aspect–I’ve found value in the great discipline it requires to maintain a personal and purposeful focus.

A typical skill that has served as a prod to this kind of focus (and the new thing on which Amby commented) is the new way of breaking out from a push off, with which I’ve been experimenting the last two weeks. As I wrote in my last blog, while watching video of Lou Tharp during a 1650 race we both swam on Dec 11, I noticed that he traveled a long way on his pushoffs. (I counted laps for him, but was too busy with that to notice then.) Though Lou is a left-breather, he took his first stroke and breath to the right on each push off, then began breathing left on his very next stroke.
When I first tried it I noticed a tendency to drift left, a couple of times brushing the lane line on that side. Like every other worthwhile skill, it requires practice to refine and imprint. For those of you curious to try it, I asked Masters Coach Matt Kessler to shoot a clip of me doing this last night. Notice the two consecutive breaths after each push off. On that second breath I have to be very conscious of using my right hand and arm to maintain direction.

What’s been the effect of this new push off on my practice performance? Well. on Dec 11 in my 1650 race my average pace and total strokes per 100y was 1:35.5 and 70 strokes. Last night in practice, during Mat’s main set of 5 rounds of 5 x 100 on 1:45, I averaged 1:32 to 1:33 at 64 strokes.
And this shows one of the values I derive from swimming a race. Besides testing my strength of focus, I can also collect data on my performance and use that to set mathematically specific improvement goals. I call this an Improvement Project. (In the past I’ve gotten data of similar quality from a time trial performed during practice. Besides my time I need one other metric–tempo or stroke count–to create my data set.)
I hope to swim another 1650–two if possible–between Feb and May. My goal is to shave a minute or more off my latest time (and Adirondack 65-69 record). I’ll need to hold a pace of about 1:30 per 100y to do so. I’ll be highly confident in my ability to do that if I can swim sets of 100 to 200y repeats in that pace or faster, taking fewer strokes, or at a slower tempo, than I project for the race.
I expect my new breakout and first stroke to be one of the skills that help me attain that goal.