Heat, Waves, and Head Down

I am struggling in this Antalya heat. It’s ‘cooled’ down to the low 30’s but the humidity is high. After a several weeks, even with precautions and rest, the body and brain just start running more sluggishly.

I hit the sea today a bit later- around 10:30 so I was sure to encounter waves. I entered in near the cliffs where I could do repeats along a stretch of water where there is cool water flowing into the sea from underground rivers.

I was committed to doing at least a warm-up swim (or should I say “try not ot over-heat” swim), though I was not feeling great. If I were to do nothing else for the day, being loyal to a gentle, loosening warm-up is one of the best practices I have adopted this last year, and I intend to strenghten my commitment to it.

Because I was unsure how my energy would work out and because of the waves and the parasailing boat traffic I chose a safer stretch parallel to the beach, 75 meters out along the buoy line, starting from the cliffs and heading west to another buoyline that marked the parasail boat loading area. It gave me about 350 meters to do repeats in. This way I could set an initial goal of 5 laps, then add more or stop early according to my condition.

By the cliffs the sea had a pleasing 3 cm layer of cool water that gave me a slight ice cream headache. But my hand would cut below to water that felt like an unpleasantly warm bath. As I made my way west on the first lap the water would warm up gradually, so at the farthest end my skin in the water felt like I was standing behind the exhaust pipe of an automobile. The contrast from one end of my course to the other was that dramatic. I could not wait to get back to the cooler half! And I noticed a huge increase in how energy flowing through my body in that cooler water- like it was pumping energy into me rather than taking it away.

The wind was coming directly into shore so I had constant waves and chop hitting me from the sea-side. I think these would be considered very rough water for lake swimmers, though this was maybe a 2 on a scale of 5 for our potential (swimmable) waves here. Strong, but not annoying.

However, these waves created the central feature of concentration for my skills today. Waves are the test of balance- and specifically, ACTIVE balance, which is our ability to hold balance all through the stroke cycle, not just when holding a static drill position. The waves don’t pause and don’t warn you of their punch!

I have focused my neuro-motor programming this summer on building my long-distance stroke in preparation to go past the 3 hour mark on longer swims. I have to build extreme ‘ease’ into the stroke mechanics, drawing nearly all my power from the core rotations, and paying attention to the most minute opportunities to turn off unnecessary muscle work to conserve energy while preserving pace.

So my critical focus points:

Keep the head down, especially when breathing. A lifted head is deadly to balance in rough water.  The waves will exploit this weakness, sink the hips, and separate the body between two dynamic layers of the water- your head and shoulders being shoved around by the surface chop and the hips/legs grabbed by the dense layer below- in a way, pulling you in two different directions.

Keeping that head down during a breath in rough water is extremely challenging unless:

1) Your timing is perfect.

2) You can afford to skip a breath on this side when a wave blocks it, and take one on the next.

Bi-lateral breathing is a required skill for any open-water swimmer. We have to be able to change our breathing patterns and breathe to any side according to the conditions.

Aim for targets a bit deeper and wider than normal.

This was essential to help the head stay down, to keep the whole body parallel to the changing surface of the sea, and for the body to hold stable rotation angle while those side-waves were trying to slosh the body around.

I used these two focus points to build a Stroke Thought*- my entire length of body kept long, sliding through that top layer of the water, not letting any part drop below to be torn between the two layers. I was melting into that top layer of the water so I would flow with the waves, letting them wash over me, even as they came at my side, to be as fluid with them as possible, while I cut forward.

I didn’t assign a catchy name for this stroke thought. For me its just a body-sensation that I am familiar with, and know without using words to identify it.

And I made sure to just hold water with my catch and let the rotation of my core power me past the holding point. This is not possible with a straight-arm catch because that style creates a long lever arm which demands the small shoulder muscles to work a lot harder, and loses the advantage the core power gives. Core-power works the best when you have a generous overlap in the stroke, a high elbow catch that forms far out in front of the head, and during the catch below the body the elbow held at a right-angle as if you are about to arm-wrestle someone. (This is hard to imagine from mere words, I know. Even a static, 2-dimensional picture would convey the position and movement with difficulty). This whole sequence is the essence of Active Streamline.

After the first lap I imagined my energy would handle 5 laps total, to break an hour. When I did 3 laps I decided to do 6. When I did 5 I decided to do 7. And at the end I debated adding more! But I was not intending to deplete my strength completely and I had already spent 90 minutes under that intense sun. So I headed out.

On my best laps I held 295 strokes (approx 1.18 meters per stroke on the straightest path) and over 14 lengths, my times were between 5:30 and 6:00 minutes per length, for somewhere between 90 seconds per 100 meter pace to 100 seconds per 100 meter pace (again, assuming a straight path).

A pleasing swim after feeling so under-ambitious this morning. Going 90 minutes in this heat, under those kind of waves I feel a lot more encouraged about being able to make progress this month on my distance swimming goal, even while the heat is overbearing.

The heat, however unpleasant, just requires me to be even more in control of my energy flow than ever. A necessary skill for any open-water swimmer.

** **

* Focus Points are single, simple and objective pieces of motion that we can pay direct attention to and control- Stroke Thoughts are a combination of Focus Points to create a more complex, subjective sensation we hold during the stroke- we develop these as skill increases, and the brain can successfully handle more than one Focus Point at a time.

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