Friday, July 13, 2018

Exploring Athlete Privilege—Part 1: Defining Privilege

I am lucky to be an athlete and have the body, conditions, and support to pursue my athletic goals. I think about this as I jump into the cold pool before 6 a.m. on a work day; as I run in a hot, humid Pennsylvania afternoon; as I wake up with sore knees, a stiff neck, and a ravenous hunger; as my students and co-workers look warily into my chlorinated, blood-shot eyes ringed with goggle marks; and as I brace myself with two hands to sit down on the toilet when my legs are just too sore to do it themselves.

I always think I could do more, work harder, eat better, sleep sounder. But I work with what I have, make choices to create even better conditions for athletic performance, and express gratitude that I can participate in activities I love every day.

Defining Privilege 

According to Sian Ferguson at Everyday Feminism, “Privilege doesn’t mean your life is easy or that you didn’t work hard. It simply means that you don’t have to face the obstacles others have to endure. It means that life is more difficult for those who don’t have the systemic privilege you have.”

Yes, I work hard and make sacrifices to dedicate myself to my sport, but I am also privileged that I have the body and the resources like time, money, and support to work towards my athletic goals. I am more privileged than many and maybe not as privileged as some, but recognizing my own privilege is the first step towards eliminating oppressive situations. Eliminating oppression in sports—particularly for women—is one of my goals.

I will continue to explore this topic in future posts. But in the meantime, consider this: what privileges have affected you and/or your athletic career?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Training through Fatigue

I'm not that old: I'm only 33, but a 33-year-old athlete body feels a lot different than 23- or 13-year-old body.

I'm as strong as ever, maybe even stronger. Mentally, I’m definitely tougher.

But I do not warm up as quickly and I do not recover as quickly as I used to. It takes me about a half hour to feel warmed up and ready for high-intensity training. When I swim, that’s about 1,200 – 1,500 yards. When I run, that’s about three miles.

Recovery time is worse. It's difficult for me to swim two days in a row or to run two days in a row with any intensity; however, I'm OK to swim with intensity and then run with intensity in back-to-back days, though I’m not sure why.

I feel tired most of the time. I take at least one day off per week and don't do anything other than maybe some light yoga and stretching on that day. I’ve worked with a sports nutritionist and feel confident that my meals aren’t the limiting factor. I. Just. Get. Tired.

The day after a full day off I feel like a new person.

But some days I have to go into my workouts feeling groggy. Sometimes I'll feel better after I'm warmed up, but some days I can’t reach my intended level of intensity. I used to get frustrated when I'd have those days, and it's still not pleasant, but I've learned how to get the most out of my tired days.

When running, it's easier because I don't have many expectations of myself as a runner. If I run and I'm tired and not making my expected splits, it's easy to shrug off and say that it's good that I at least logged some miles.

When swimming, I have much higher expectations, so it can feel devastating when I'm way off my times. But I keep remembering this quote I heard in Ronda Rousey's memoir that a champion is someone's who's the best, even on her worst day. I tell myself that as I get stronger, even on my bad days I will still be fast.

I've also learned to place less emphasis on speed during those days; instead, I focus on my technique:

  • Am I breathing correctly?
  • Do I have bi-lateral breathing?
  • Do I take a stroke before breathing off the wall?
  • Are my elbows high?
  • Do I have enough body roll?
  • How's my head position?
  • What are my legs doing?

This turns it into a mental workout. Sure, I should think about those items even on a fast day, and I do, but on a "tired" day it forces me to slow down and pay close attention.

I write my own workouts, so I have the advantage of tinkering with my sets, too, on a tired day. Instead of intense, repeat sprints or long, powerful endurance sets, I find a happy medium and integrate more stroke work (meaning strokes other than freestyle), which still give me a good workout but they slow down the pace and stretch my body in different directions.

It’s a cliché to say “listen to your body,” but it’s also good advice. I can’t sit at home every time I’m tired, but I can alter my workouts to accommodate and push through my tiredness.

How do you handle your workouts when you’re feeling tired and sluggish?

Friday, April 27, 2018

On Swimming as Fast as I Did in College: Recap of 2018 USMS Colonies Zones

2018 USMS Colonies Zone Swimming Championships
George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
April 14 -15

The week before Zones—my goal meet of the spring—I started to doubt myself. In my head, I’d hear things like, “You better swim fast or the past eight months of training were a waste of time” and “You should have done more to be better prepared.”

After about two days of this, I’d had enough negative thinking and anxiety, so I consciously changed my thought process. I told myself that I loved training the past eight months. It gave me something to look forward to every day and helped me to plan and structure my free time, nutrition, and sleep habits. Like the John Lennon quote, “Time you enjoyed wasting was not wasted.”

And, sure, I could have done more to be better prepared. One can always do more to be better prepared. But I knew I was as prepared as I could be at that time. I told myself I’d go give it my all, whatever “all” I had in me on those two days of competition.

On Saturday, Brian came with me. We got to the pool 15 minutes before warm ups which gave me just enough time to squeeze into my new compression suit. It only took me about 8 minutes to put it on this time, and once I had it on, I realized it was too big! Not so big that I couldn’t wear it, but big enough that I could have gone down a size. It was a little roomy in the hips and bust because I had lost body fat between the time I bought it and tried it on and race day. Oh well. It was still plenty tight and felt comfortable during warmups.

1st Event: 100 Freestyle
The 100 free is a sprint, so I went out fast and held it for as long as I could.

I won first place in my age group with a 55.94!

Not to be cliché, but my draw dropped. I had just dropped 1.62 seconds from my adult best time. I hadn’t swum a 55 since college. I looked for Brian in the bleachers, and he had moved to the edge of the pool and had his arms pumped in fists above his head. Before the race, I told him I was hoping for a low 57. Last year, this would have been a top 10 time in the nation for USMS.

2nd Event: 500 Freestyle
The last time I raced the 500, I felt tired and sluggish, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at Zones. But after the 100, I was feeling pretty confident, so I also went out fast—not at a sprint, but fast—and held just about the splits I wanted to hold. Brian counted for me, and I told him to move the counter up and down if my 50 splits went over 35 seconds. He only did it once, so I knew that I was on track to get a personal adult best. I hoped to go under 5:40.

I finished 3rd in my age group with a 5:36.59, shaving another 6.82 seconds off of my previous best time and was 14 seconds faster than previous seasons.

I was pleased enough with my performance on day 1 that it almost didn’t matter what happened on day 2. My mom went with me this day, and on the drive down I could tell I was much more tired than I had been the day before. I hadn’t swum in a multi-day meet for a few years, but I anticipated being a bit more tired, maybe a bit sore.

3rd Event: 200 Freestyle
In March, I had an amazing 200 free race because I was neck-and-neck with another swimmer the whole way until the last few yards when I pulled ahead to out touched him by .16 seconds to finish in an adult best time of 2:04.47. So, I was excited to race the 200 free again, this time against fast women.

I finished 2nd in my age group and 3rd overall with a 2:02.73, knocking another 1.75 seconds off my time.

Again, I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited to have done a 2:02, a time I hadn’t done since college. Mom gave me the thumbs up from the stands. I had put everything, everything I had into that race. I was drained. And I felt amazing.

4th Event: 50 Freestyle
I hadn’t raced the 50 free yet this season and hadn’t raced it in over a year. My previous best time was a 26.86, which I had done four years ago, but I had already beaten that time with my 100 split the day before with a 26.58.

I finished 2nd in my age group with a 26.36 and was pleased to have placed that high. I had kind of hoped to go a 25, but I’m pleased with the low 26.

I couldn’t be happier with my Zones performance. I surpassed my goals, felt amazing in the water, and enjoyed spending time with Brian and my mom.

What excites me is that I know I can go even faster than that. I know the weaknesses in my training and how to get stronger. I know my strengths and how to continue to use them. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

*I may be as fast as I was in college, but that's also about as fast as I was as a 12 & under!

Monday, March 26, 2018

“I Swam 9,000+ Yards Today. Now I’m Really Tired.”

I found my swimming practice journal from 1999 when I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. Most entries pretty much look like this: “I swam 9,000+ yards today. Now I’m really tired.” And when I got too tired? I took the “day off” and ran five miles instead.

1999 Swimming Practice Journal
Seriously. Page after page of this little blue spiral bound notebook documenting my daily exhaustion. I don’t know how I did it. My workouts were even longer and more frequent the year after that at Mercersburg Academy. I remember at least one of my teachers wrote on my midterm report, “I think Anne will have better class participation when the swim season ends.” That was a very tactful way of saying, “Anne falls asleep in class.”

Now I rarely swim over 5,000 yards per workout, and, thankfully, I’m not quite that tired every day. But some days I am exhausted. Some days my body hurts so bad, my muscles so sore, so twisted up in knots that I wonder how I can get out of bed let alone swim a few thousand more yards. Some days I wonder, why do I do this? I am not going to make the Olympics, or even the Olympic trials, I’m not going to break any national or world records. Hell, I’m a long shot from breaking the local masters swimming league records in my age group. So, what’s the point?

I think my massage therapist—whom I see monthly as part of my training—said it best: “You must really love swimming. Not everyone’s lucky enough to find something they love to do.”

And I thought, I do love swimming. And I am lucky. Swimming allows me to have some structure to my time, helps me create goals, and keeps me healthy—physically and emotionally.

So maybe some days I am very tired, and my muscles feel like a mangled, messy, mass, but it’s a worthwhile trade off to do something that I love. I relate to what Dara Torres (the 41-year-old Olympic silver medalist in the 50 free at the 2008 Olympics) wrote in her memoir: “I’d kept swimming because I wanted to – it made me happy and gave meaning to my life.” Of course, she was swimming as a career, and I’m swimming as a hobby in addition to my career. But still. I can relate.

I am less than three weeks away from my spring goal meet: 2018 Colonies Zones at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. I am nowhere near my “Wildly Improbable Goal” time in the 500 free, but I have dropped seven seconds in it, almost five seconds in the 200 free, and about a half-second in the 100 free. I feel pretty good about that.

Here’s hoping for a few more (adult) best times at Zones!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Setting the Baseline for My Wildly Improbable Goal in the 500 Free

I competed in the Germantown Masters Solstice Meet on December 2 because I wanted to set a baseline for my Wildly Improbable Goal for the 500 free. It was at a short course meters pool, so the meet had a 400 meter free, rather than a 500 yard free, but by the time I signed up, the 400 free was already sold out. Bummer. Almost didn’t sign up at all, but then my parents agreed to go with me. “Sounds like fun!” they said (not sarcastically).
Like old times, my dad wrote down my splits.

The pool was lovely: very deep and very bright, and there was a good stock of fast swimmers there from Baltimore, D.C., and surrounding areas. I felt good in warm ups, but as soon as I got out of warm ups, I got nervous! The 200 free was the first event, and I hadn’t been training or mentally preparing for that distance. I love the 200 free, have raced it a hundred times, but it’s a race that’s short enough that you’re supposed to sprint it, but long enough that you can fall apart if you sprint too hard or too soon, especially without the right training.

But then my dad reminded me of the times I swam at the Elite Meet and Junior Olympics when I was 12 years old. There were 28ish heats of 11-12 year old girl’s 200 free, and I was seated first at both (and won both, too). “That’s a lot of pressure, to be seated first out of that many swimmers,” he said. But there certainly wasn’t any pressure at the masters meet. I just needed to get my starting point, my baseline.

During the race, my stroke felt long and smooth and powerful. I was in lane one, but I could see no one near me – I was ahead of everyone, which included a mixed age heat of mostly men and one other woman. By the end of lap 6, I started to feel tired, felt a heaviness in my shoulders, but by then I only had two laps to go, so I gave it what I had left. The results astounded me:

200m Free Results
  • 2:20.67 (roughly a 2:06.72 converted to yards, which is three seconds faster than my previous best adult time)
  • 1st place age group winner
  • Broke the meet record for my age group by just over two seconds
  • 2nd place female overall
Between races, I sat with my parents in the spectator gallery that overlooked the pool. We passed the program back and forth, marveling at the ages of some of the competitors (62, 74, 81). I told my mom she could be in there competing, if she wanted to. We cheered for one of my childhood teammates as she swam the 50 backstroke. Soon, it was 100 free time.
Winning my heat of the 200 free
The 100 free is a pure sprint: just go out fast and hold it. This was my best, most competitive event when I was younger. But still I felt no pressure to do anything in particular. I had an end lane again, lane 8, but it didn’t matter because I was competing against myself, against the clock. I felt great for the whole race, though of course felt the fatigue in my legs and shoulders by the last 25. I didn’t have a great second turn, but it wasn’t hugely detrimental, though noticeable enough that my parents asked about it afterwards. But despite that, I did way better than expected:

100m Free Results
  • 1:03.99 (roughly a 57.64 in yards, about a half second faster than my fastest adult time)
  • 1st place age group winner
  • Broke the meet record for my age group by just over two seconds
  • 3rd place female overall
My parents took me to a BBQ place on the way home, which was delicious and worth mentioning here because no swim meet excursion is complete without an epic meal with family and/or friends.

Couldn’t have been happier about my races. Set a great baseline. It shows that the way I’ve been training lately has helped, so I will keep it up.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Wildly Improbable Goals: Swimming a 4:59.99 in the 500 Free

As a competitive swimmer, I learned to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time) goals.
For example, when I was 10, my goal was to break a minute in the 100 yard freestyle, and I did it when I was 11.

And then I wanted to break two minutes in the 200 yard freestyle, and I eventually did that, too.

Later I wanted to break five minutes in the 500 yard freestyle. 4:59. But I never did. At a 5:11, which I did as a 15-year-old high school sophomore, I never even got close.

When I returned to swimming as an adult, I knew I’d have to set new swimming goals. There was no way I would ever be as fast as I was when I was 15, half my life ago when I trained 10 times a week, often 8 to 9,000 yards per practice. Plus weights. And some running.

As an adult, even in “peak” training time, like when I trained for the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim or USMS Nationals, I never trained more than three times a week, rarely logging more than 9,000 yards in a week, let alone in one workout.

But I started to wonder: how fast could I be if I trained like that again? Could I ever train like that again?

I found an old set of workouts that the college swim team coach sent home with us for a Christmas break. Last week, I completed one of the 5,000 yard workouts on the same intervals as I had in college with no problem. But, in college, I would have woken up the next morning and done another workout of the same caliber, and then again the next evening, too, and then again the next morning, and so on.
Swimming in College
Would I be able to do that again now? I don’t know. I mean, maybe. My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to, but maybe I could do it if I took time and built up to it. But why would I want to? What would be the purpose?

I don’t know why I’d want to...but I want to! I want to know how fast I can be. I want to know if I could ever break five minutes in the 500 free. OK. That’s outrageous, especially considering that the last time I raced it I went somewhere around a 5:55. But...what if?

Last year while hating my job and contemplating new career paths, someone suggested that I read Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck. What I remember most was the discussion about Wildly Improbable Goals, which, as the name suggests, are goals that are wildly improbable—but not impossible.

Beck states that when you write down your goals, you create a search image: “Forming a goal, especially if you write it down and visualize it, creates a search image that programs your brain to focus on anything resembling or leading to that objective.” She means that if you have a goal and mean to achieve it, you will start to find—and seek—ways to make it happen.

So here it is: my goal is to break 5 minutes in the 500 free before I’m 40 years old.
Look, I don’t actually think I can break 5 minutes in the 500 free. The top time in the nation in my USMS age group this year was a 5:16. A commendable time, but still a far cry from a 4:59. The national USMS age group record, however, is a 4:46.92, set in 2012. So...improbable—but not impossible—for a woman in her mid-30s to break five minutes in the 500 free.

Although I don’t think I can break five minutes, I’m going to love trying to. I’m going to be wowed in some other way as I test myself and push my swimming body to the limits. For the first time in my swimming career, this goal feels like it’s more about the journey of accomplishing a goal, rather than about the goal itself.

I have a lot of questions about how I should approach this, but I feel confident I'll find ways to answer them. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Recovering from Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: The Left Knee Edition

In my short running career, I have received (earned? accumulated?) the following running injuries that halted my training:

Stress fracture (fibula)
Walking Cast. Ended high school freshman year cross-country season.
Torn quadriceps
Ended high school freshman year track season.  I did not train for a running race until I started training for my first half-marathon about 16 years later.
Stress fractures (foot bones)
Soft cast. Ended training for my first half-marathon.
Nearly ruptured Achilles tendon
Walking brace. Luckily happened after my first half-marathon and (only) marathon.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (a.k.a. runner’s knee) in right knee
Ended training for my first ultramarathon.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome in left knee
Ending training for general trail running/hiking.

I’m slowly recovering from my latest bout of knee pain. With the help of some PT exercises to strengthen a very specific part of my glutes, I’m running about three times a week, five miles at a time with no knee pain! I keep track of my workouts and paces, and I have definitely seen an improvement.

I missed running, and I’m thrilled to be building mileage again, but it’s discouraging to have my progress halted with each injury. It feels like I’m starting from scratch each time, even though I have kept up my fitness level through swimming.

Usually, it takes me at least three miles to warm up and feel good during my run. I haven’t quite gotten back to the point of feeling good—it’s all a struggle. My body feels heavy and slow, and I can feel that I’m not running as well as I had before my injury. With more training, I know that I’ll get back to feeling good again, but this in-between stage is frustrating. I want to push harder because I want to get faster, but I don’t want to push so hard that I get injured again.

I also have to consider my running goals. Do I want to train for the Ironmaster’s 50K again and hope I stay healthy and uninjured? Or do I just want to use running as cross-training to supplement my swimming goals? Or run to build strength/endurance for multi-day hikes? 

For now, I’m just going to slowly build mileage, keep up with my PT exercises, and see what happens in a few more weeks.