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The Lesson For Today…..
Today’s lesson for me was – data is great, but it’s nothing without context!!!
Following my better-than-expected result at Fambridge, my lovely wife, Susan, finally accepted that Triathlon is more than just a passing phase and consequently agreed that I could invest in the lovely Huub wetsuit that I have dreamed of for so long. No sooner had the purchase been authorised by the controller of domestic finances than I was on the phone to our local Huub dealer: Tri ‘N Swimwell. By 4:30 PM the same day, I was standing by the endless pool at their HQ, whilst (very inelegantly) inserting myself into a superb Huub Aerious 3.5. Happy days!!
Part of the deal of buying a wetsuit from Tri N Swimwell is that they include half an hour of free coaching – with video analysis – in their endless pool. So, being on their premises, I took advantage of that offer there and then. It’s amazing when you see yourself swimming on video. In my head, I’ve always imagined that I have the grace and poise of Michael Phelps (on an easy) day in the water. The video, however, told a different story with my stroke being not too dissimilar to the footage of the swimming elephant which recently went viral on YouTube!! Notwithstanding this my coach for the session, Gill had soon identified a couple of easy fixes which, even before the end of the session, I was beginning to incorporate.
The Proof of the Pudding….So to Speak….
Fast forward to Monday morning (three days later). Slipping into the pool for my Monday swim, I was eager to put my new technique into practice – and reap the rewards of enhanced pace, increased efficiency and new elegance in the water. And to be honest, the swim felt pretty solid. I was even seeing the effect of the stroke corrections as I applied them and that felt like real progress. So imagine my surprise when, at the end of 2400 Metres, I hit the stop button on my Garmin 920XT only to be presented with an average pace number about 7 seconds per 100 Metres slower than I was swimming just a week ago!!
I told myself that there must be a reason. A week of annual leave and a good few days in the Netherlands with a mostly cheese-based diet sprung to mind. But, later, as I uploaded my swim to Strava……and did the inevitable comparison with other swims…..that average pace number leapt out of the screen at me and almost poked me in the eye. How could fixing my obvious defects in my stroke actually make me slower in the water? It just didn’t make sense!!
If At First You Don’t Succeed!!!
So this morning, before most of the world was awake, I was slipping gently back into the pool to lay the ghost of the decreased pace that had begun to haunt me just 24 hours previously!! Again, I diligently followed the coaching I’d been given – keeping my rogue right hand close to the centre line, rotating gently from the hips and kicking from my Glutes. And it seemed to be working – not only did it feel pretty good but, pacing myself against the other early morning regulars, I was a little ahead of where I would normally be against them – in terms of Metres covered. This all bode well and so it was with confidence that after 2600 Metres, I bobbed up from the end of the lane and hit the stop button – ready to bask in the rosy glow of a faster-than-usual average pace figure. Almost with disbelief, however, I was met with a number almost identical to yesterday’s swim!!! Bollocks!!!
The mercifully traffic-free roads of the school holidays gave me space to mull it over as I cycled home from the gym. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t figure how better technique could actually make me slower!! Briefly I began to wonder if a year of hard slog in the pool had been washed away in half an hour of coaching. But, of course, that made no sense at all.
For Every Action…….
After a morning of email tennis and seemingly endless conference calls at work, my earlier concerns over my disintegrating swim had dulled. But the pain was still there and needed attending to. So, over a bowl of re-heated last night’s pasta, I decided to use my lunch break to crunch the numbers and get to the bottom of it.
Instinctively, my first port of call was Strava. Stacking my swims up against each other in my activity history, the change in the numbers was plain to see – but actually not as drastic overall as I’d at first imagined. Although the average pace was slower it wasn’t significantly slower; I was covering similar distances in similar times. Clearly, there was more to this than met the eye. Whilst Strava is great as a motivational tool, it only gives you part of the picture. In fact, in terms of swim metrics it’s about as basic as you can get – average pace, distance and time……and that’s it!! I suppose I can understand that; swimmers are a different breed to cyclists and runners so there’s probably less demand for GPS tracked segments, leader boards and bragging rights from them. But my tracking tool of choice – the Garmin 920XT – is a different beast to Strava entirely. In fact, it captures almost every detail of every stroke which is then faithfully uploaded to your Garmin Connect account and stored.
Given my Strava addiction, I must confess that I haven’t been into the PC version of Garmin Connect in months but, with my sudden thirst for data as my driver, had soon logged in to my Garmin Dashboard and began filtering my activity history to run through the detail of every swim with a fine-toothed comb. Unlike Strava, the Garmin Connect interface gives swimmers a heap of meaningful stats. And what’s better is that they are beautifully presented with groovy coloured graphs. Furthermore, here you can actually see every lap recorded together with how long it took, number of strokes and SWOLF (whatever that is). But the immediate thing that leapt off of the page at me was the graph data. Whereas my earlier (faster average) swims looked like a profile map of the Giro D’ Italia, the last two (better technique) looked more like a profile of the Netherlands – flat, even and consistent. A little more digging began to peel back the layers of the story.
I Believe We Have an Answer….
Until I started to apply some correction to my ropey stroke, it was clear that whatever I was doing in the water was creating ‘holes’ in the data. This was evident by the spikes on the graphs and the numbers behind them that showed multiple laps swum in just a few seconds – rather than the 28 or so it should actually take. I was also seeing a large number of laps recorded as ‘Backstroke’ or ‘Breaststroke’ – when I only ever swim freestyle. It didn’t take a degree in rocket science (or sports science) to work out what was going on.
My former ragged stroke was clearly confusing the poor little 920XT. In it’s effort to record my swim, it was being fooled into thinking I’d turned when I had not. In doing so, it was adding laps – which I had not swum – and making average pace calculations on those; rather than the actual distance in the water. Conversely, with my now largely corrected stroke, the full epicness of my inefficiency in the water had been captured accurately in stunning detail. Furthermore, every lap had been recorded now as ‘Freestyle’. Net effect – I haven’t actually got slower but I’m now seeing the world as it really is; rather than the rose-tinted goggles view, which I was seeing before. With a solid stroke, the Garmin knows how far I’ve swum and that is reflected in the data it harvests.
Although this hasn’t given me the smaller average pace number that I yearn for I do see it as a big positive. I’m now seeing nice flats graphs on my Garmin Connect dashboard; rather than the violent peaks which had, until now, been a defining feature of my swim data. But more importantly, I feel better in the water – and feeling more relaxed and fluid is really what it’s all about; the pace will follow.
So, as much as I love Strava, I’m going to keep it for what it’s best at – making me feel like a superstar when I blag the next bike KOM thanks to a 50 MPH tailwind or showing me an ‘Extreme’ Suffer Score the next time I try to hang with the East Essex Tri Club Group 1 boys. But, for swimming, I’ve resolved to revert to that lovely Garmin Connect dashboard and the acres of data behind it – pace and context all in one place.
I said it at the start and I’ll end with it – data is great, but make sure you’re getting the full story before you pin everything to just one number in isolation.