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Mission impossible: part two
Posted by: Annie Emmerson
Posted on: Wednesday 29th October 2008


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Budding Ironman, Stelios Marcou, has now been under the expert wing of Dan Bullock at swimfortri for eleven weeks. His training has suffered it's ups and downs, but thankfully, in the last couple of weeks, it's taken a turn for the better. This weekend he will race with his new improved swim stroke, at Ironman Florida. Mission impossible: part two (read part one here) takes us through his final few weeks of swim training before his Ironman debut, the big question is; did he manage to knock off a massive 11 minutes from his Ironman PB?


It's has been a few weeks since you last heard from me and things have been going swimmingly. The last eight weeks has seen me in the pool four times a week. What with holding down a full time job, as well as fitting in long bike rides and runs, there has been little time for a hell of a lot else.

My first session with Swimfortri at the Truman Brewery was a real eye opener. Before we got in the pool Dan (Bullock) wanted to have a look at my overall flexibility, core strength, and demonstrate the perfect stroke on the Vasa Trainer. The Vasa Trainer is a fantastic and very unique machine, which simulates on dry land, the catch and pull phase of the freestyle stroke. It trains your arms to pull through the correct plane. Repeating this exercise over and over helps build up that so very important muscle memory. Once the technique is grooved, resistance can be added to build strength through the stroke.

From Dan’s initial assessment it was very clear that my flexibility was quite poor on my left side, this was mainly attributed to the bike crash last year where I smashed my collar bone. It would become clear through the video playback in the pool, that this was seriously affecting my streamlining in the water and was causing a braking effect due to the problem I was having maintaining a straight arm, which in turn was leading to a poor and late catch. On the back of the land based assessment Dan prescribed a series of stretches and core strengthening exercises, which I would have to find time to perform daily.

The endless pool is a 15 x 8ft pool with a turbine at the top end which simulates a current. So in effect, you are swimming on the spot and very much like a treadmill for swimming. There are cameras above and below the surface covering at least five angles. Depending on what the coach wants to look at a live feed is projected onto a large screen by the side of the pool so that the stroke can be analysed.

Under video scrutiny there were a few things going on with my stroke that were limiting forward propulsion. Firstly, my legs where scissoring wildly, which was causing serious drag. We also needed to work on my rotation so that I could swim on my side more and minimise my frontal profile. My catch was occurring quite late due to poor flexibility so was missing a good third at the beginning of the stroke, coupled with a big lift when I would turn to breathe, it was obvious there were quite a few things that we would need to work on.

To begin with Dan set up an online progress sheet, which we both have access to and where testing results and coaching notes can be uploaded. He then broke my stroke down so that I could focus on individual areas. Drills, drills, drills! Torpedo drill, release from the hip drill, swimming with fists, finger trail, shoulder tap... I guess doing the drills made the endless laps in the pool less monotonous and made me actually think about the correct form.

It’s all very good mastering the drills, but if you can’t co-ordinate it all together in your full freestyle stroke, then that’s not much good. This was the problem I was experiencing in the first six weeks. My timed swims improved marginally and I managed to drop 14 seconds from my 400m time, where my time went from a lowly 8:12 for 400m to just under 8 minutes at 7:58. Although an improvement was achieved it didn't seem much relative to the time invested and hours spent in the pool. Dan was not only very reassuring, but also very realistic in terms of my expectations. Apparently it takes 10,000 repetitions to eradicate a bad habit from your stroke and learn a new one. This was clearly going to take time and dedication. The bottom line is; that there really are no shortcuts.

My next session at the endless pool was a fitness test. This is where, after a very brief warm up, the water pressure is cranked up to threshold pace and you swim against a set current for 30 minutes. Although I had a few endless pool sessions under my belt, nothing had me prepared for this latest onslaught. Dan set the water pressure to 550psi and told me to swim away. It was 6.30am and all I had managed to force down my throat at that time in the morning was a banana on the train journey in. Unlike swimming in a regular pool where you can touch the wall every 25m,33m, or 50m, take an extra big breath and take a sneaky look at your watch or clock, in the Endless pool you are just swimming against a constant current. After a few minutes you really have no idea how long you have been swimming for, and after what seemed like an eternity I found myself being progressively pushed to the back of the pool. Try as I might I just couldn't work my way back up towards the front. The current suddenly stopped and I stood up. "How was that"? Dan asked, "Brutal", was my response. To add insult to misery I had only been swimming for 12 minutes! Dan advised I take 60 seconds recovery and we would go again. I lasted another 13 minutes before we decided to call it a day. It was hard not to be disappointed and although Dan had said well done, I left the Truman that day with my tail between my legs. I think the combination of low blood sugar, being half asleep and not being prepared for the session had got the better of me.

By the time I had got to work Dan had already sent me an email, he wanted me to get back in the endless pool for a technique session as soon as possible! The next session was purely technique, and 75% of the session was purely based on sculling. Over the years Dan has been fine tuning variations of drills on the classic scull techniques, and how to catch and hold onto the water through the propulsion phase of the stroke. As the hand enters the water and glides forwards there is a very technical, very slight turn of the hand where it positions itself to be able to literally catch the water. The sensation you should be feeling is like pulling against a solid wall of water, and in turn pulling your body over your arms rather than the other way around. Although the theory behind it does need to be explained by an expert, the feeling cannot really be taught, and that’s what these sculling drills teach you to feel. What I thought was a very minor insignificant aspect of the stroke, was to be one of the most important aspects. The remainder of that session consisted of streamlining drills where we worked on keeping the head still, whilst swimming and not letting the body collapse when I turned to breathe. When I got out of the pool we moved straight to the Vasa trainer to instill that high elbow catch and build up some muscle memory.

It was two days later at the Thursday fitness session when the breakthrough swim came. Everyone who I had spoken to over the previous weeks spoke of it all coming together. After my apparent lack of progress I never quite believed it would happen. I first noticed something different when a few minutes into the main set I found myself at the front of the lane. I would normally be hanging off the back or somewhere mid pack. By mid set I was putting almost a length into the other chaps and getting stronger. Bizarrely I left the session rather perplexed and unable to face the reality of it all. I spent the next two days pondering, whether what happened on Thursday, was a fluke or not. The Saturday swim’s main set incorporated a T30 (a timed 30 minutes straight swim). So after a 1200m warm-up and sub-set I started the clock. 1600m later, and in quite a crowded lane, I had just swum faster and further than I ever had before in 30 minutes, it really was no fluke things were falling into place. This was evident in my latest fitness endless pool sessions where the pressure was cranked up to 750psi and I maintained a 46 stroke average per minute, this was down from 52 strokes per minute. So, not only was I swimming faster, but in turn my stroke count was reduced so I was swimming more efficiently too. One of the benefits of the endless pool, especially when the water pressure is cranked up, is that you are forced to streamline to overcome the current. Strength and power don’t really come into the equation. It is purely a case of technique that comes into play, otherwise you are shunted to the back of the pool very quickly.

So things are definitely moving in the right direction. Although nowhere near Phelps calibre yet, it feels like I have made huge leaps in terms of progression. The fact that I have knocked almost six minutes off my 1500m time is a testament to this. The elusive 11 minutes from my Ironman time that Dan claimed we could knock off might just be within my grasp. Following a hip flexor and glute injury, that I have been suffering from over the last few weeks, the swim might be the best event of the three! That’s if the sharks or rip tides don’t get me first!


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