Saturday, January 31, 2009

My IM Nightmare

No, I don’t mean Ironman. I mean IM as in those three pesky swim strokes besides freestyle. Those nasty strokes – fly, back and breast - that quickly separate the triathletes from the real swimmers in any pool.

Wednesday morning I jumped into the masters workout in El Cerrito, near where I live in Berkeley. Even though for several years I attended masters workouts on a regular basis when I lived in Santa Cruz, I still find it extremely intimidating to join a new program, and thus I’ve avoided it like the plague in the past 15 months since I moved. But having recently admitted to myself that not only am I a much slower swimmer than in the past, I truly do push myself harder when swimming in a group, I committed to adding a few coached workouts to my weekly routine.

Wouldn’t you know it, I landed smack in the hands of a completely IM-obsessed coach. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, nor precisely where to seed myself among this group of swimmers. The slow lane was wide open so I happily claimed it as my own, a chance to slowly assimilate into the pack. The workout started like this:

400: kick/drill/swim x 25’s, in IM order

8 x 100: odds kicking (no board) / evens swimming for time, in IM order

6 x 25: odds off the wall with 3 butterfly strokes, take one breath, remainder free without breathing / evens stroke of choice

And then, as if there were any breath left in me, we were treated to a freestyle respite:

4 x 100: breaths per length = 4, 3, 2, 1 x 25

There was more, but by that time I was in such severe oxygen debt that it’s too fuzzy to remember.

Afterward I spoke with the coach. “Are there particular days of the week with a specific focus for the workout? IM day, distance day, speed day…that type of thing?” He just smiled at me and said, “Not really. I generally give quite a bit of IM because I’m an IM guy.” In my mind I shouted, “What is WRONG with you?!!” but out loud I said, “Well, I’m a triathlete, but I’ll do my best,” knowing I would probably see him again soon for some more pre-dawn torture. He kindly encouraged me to try IM as much as possible, and even offered some great feedback on my feeble breaststroke; but he also empathized with the fact that I do want to get a solid workout (as opposed to an hour spent flailing about), and suggested that anytime I have my own lane he will be happy to custom-craft a swim set just for me. Whew!

I would love to be one of those powerful, graceful swimmers who glides through the water as perfectly as any dolphin, my butterfly stroke showcasing my incredibly toned back and shoulder muscles. In reality, while I can make it from one end of the pool to the other swimming fly, I rarely do so in the presence of other humans, sparing them what must be an awfully painful sight as well as the Good Samaritan urge to practice CPR.

I talked to MJ after my workout, proud on the one hand that I had mustered up the courage and discipline to make the 6am practice, but discouraged on the other by the IM-whooping I received. I couldn’t help but take solace in MJ’s description of her own IM strokes. “My backstroke looks a lot like my freestyle. My breaststroke looks a lot like my freestyle. In fact, my fly looks a lot like my freestyle,” she admitted. What a relief to know it’s not just me who resorts to freestyle when the coach isn’t looking!


  1. MJ's comments are perfect.

    It's hard to explain to masters' swimmers (pool racers, I like to call 'em) the specific needs/technical demands of triathetes. I catch hell for my relatively weak/nonexistent kick, and they don't realize it's because we have to save our legs for several hours of land-based locomotion immediately after the swim.

    Good on you for talking the coach about your specific needs; most good ones I've met do understand we are looking for something to make us better swimmers, not just good pool racers.