Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Swimming Lessons

Returning to "serious" (read: amateur) training myself lead me back to the masters pool for the first time in six years.  It's been a humbling first eight weeks.  Getting dropped on long swims by guys who I used to lap.  The guys are encouraging me to hang in there.  I admit, this has really helped ease the constant pain of masters workouts.  The encouragement and input on my form was also missing.  The only early encouraging bits have been while swimming IMs and breaststroke where I was second in an intrasquad meet at 200 and 400 IM and first in 100 and 200 breaststroke beating some of the freestyle swimmers as I swam breaststroke.  Heck, I was close to my freestyle time!  HA!  Some things you just never forget how to do.

At Christmas, I swam with one of my club coach's high school varsity team.  Every day was 4-8,000 yards and 30-90 minutes of water polo and cross training.  We even did 10,000 once.  I needed it.  I was middle of the pack on most sets.  Back of the pack on longer sets.  Front of the pack in breaststroke and kicking.

I also visited my varsity coach from high school.  In 2011, the swimming record I set in 1987 is 24 years old.  I was introduced to the guy who will break my record if he graduates from the same school.  He seems like a good kid.  He asked me all kinds of questions about breaststroke, nutrition, stretching, strength training, and club swimming.  He is a really nice kid.  I'm glad that I have gotten to know him a little.  In 1987 (when Ronald Reagan was president, gas was $1.23/gallon and the tyrannosaurus rex roamed the Earth) the rules were a little different.  For example, now you can do a dolphin kick at the start and each turn.  In 1986 was DQ'd once (incorrectly upon video review I'd like to add) for dolphin kicking out of a turn.  (It was the guy next to me.)  I was sad to find out that the kid missed my record at the Sectional meet by 0.35 seconds when the week before he missed it by 0.04 seconds.  Next year he'll get it.  He reminded me of me.  Willing to do "whatever it takes" to rewrite the record board.  His eyes got as big as saucers when Coach Tom told him the sets I used to do followed by showing him the actual times I did on repeats.  Tom had the managers record that data, even has heart rates.

This means that I will have held the 100 yard breaststroke record at Hoffman Estates High School for 25 of the 33 years in which the school has been open.  Just shows what hard work can get you.  I've never been the most talented.  You'd have to take a number to be the next person to tell me that I suck.  (I notice that there is never a shortage of those people.)  The difference in me is when most guys call a training session complete, I keep going.  Flashback to Matt Erbele and I finishing a 125 mile bike ride and doing eight seated climbs up "The Wall" - a local 18% grade hill of 0.97 miles.  Matt and I would finish repeat number eight, barely able to balance on our bikes from fatigue, look at each other and say, "One more for Pele?" Yup, one more for the legendary Hawaiian goddess of fire.  Somehow, we'd make it to the top of the hill one more time.  Handling beat down workout after beat down workout... and coming back for more with a glow in our eyes.  That is my talent.  That glow in the eye is back.

The last four weeks the gaps to the guys in the pool have gotten smaller.  I'm back leading all kicking sets, even when my mates are wearing flippers.  I'm not only making send offs on 1:20, but now I'm getting rest.  My legs are coming back, even with all the running I'm putting in.

My friend Mary (though she swam for U of I- I don't hold that against her), lane mate and one of the coaches - has really kept me vigilant on my form.  Oh, good Lord, what was I doing in the water?  Mary used my iPhone to video me and since that day I've been working on changing the "form" exhibited in the water.  As the form has come back, so has some of the speed.  I'm considering entering a couple of late season masters meets (after I'm done teaching CompuTrainer classes) just to see how I do.  Don't get too excited, I have a swimming past.  That means I'm not going to ANY MEET unless I'm pretty sure I'm ready.  I'm nearly sure.  Using the knowledge I have as a triathlon coach and mercilessly applying it to my own swimming and triathlon training - I have a picture of where I am.

That picture isn't as pretty as I'd like it to be.  As light from the new year brightens the picture... it looks better every day.

By revisiting my swimming past, I've reignited my love of the pool.  It was always there, just buried by a bit of mental clutter.  I'm a swimmer.  I have the heart and lungs of a swimmer.  I'm an athlete who can bike and run with the tenacity of an experienced swimming champion.  One who has remembered "what it takes".  One who has revisited the mistakes in training logs from years gone by.  I remember what it takes.  I watched the old VHS tapes.  Reviewed yellow,  24+ year old training logs.  Sometimes a champion needs reminding he's a champion and the effort it takes to stay a champion.

Most importantly, I remember who I am as an athlete.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Slow Now Fast Later

A client asked me to explain how heart rate training works again.  I love explaining it again because this means my clients are starting to understand the concepts and how it affects their health and training.

Simply put - park your ego at the gym door.

Mark Allen has the best formula for most of the heart rate stuff.  Contrary to the opinion that heart rate and power are two different numbers - they can be applied together.  How?  Well, some things you'll have to learn only as a client of mine.  One of my clients (last fall, 2009) had an FTP of 221.  Today - 340 at the same heart rate.

In consulting we tell our clients to go slow in the beginning in order to go faster later on.

Mark Allen on Heart Rate Training (Posted from

Working Your Heart
The secret of training smart
Updated Summer 2009
During my 15 years of racing in the sport of triathlons I searched for those few golden tools that would allow me to maximize my training time and come up with the race results I envisioned. At the top of that list was heart rate training. It was and still is the single most potent tool an endurance athlete can use to set the intensity levels of workouts in a way that will allow for long-term athletic performance. Yes, there are other options like lactate testing, power output and pace, but all of these have certain shortcomings that make them less universally applicable than heart rate.

In our sport there are three key areas of fitness that you will be developing. These are speed, strength and endurance. Strength is fairly straightforward to do. Two days per week in the gym focusing on an overall body- strengthening program is what will do the trick. More time for a triathlete usually ends up giving diminished returns on any additional strength workout. These two key days are the ones that will give you the strength in your races to push a high power output on the bike, to accelerate when needed on the run and to sustain a high speed in the water.

Next are the focused workouts that will give you raw speed. This is perhaps the most well known part to anyone’s training. These are your interval or speed sessions where you focus on a approaching a maximal output or your top speed at some point in each of these key sessions. But again, developing speed in and of itself is a fairly simple process. It just requires putting the pain sensors in neutral and going for it for short periods of time. A total of 15-20 minutes each week in each sport of high intensity work is all it takes.

Now for the tougher part…the endurance. This is where heart rate training becomes king. Endurance is THE most important piece of a triathlete’s fitness. Why is it tough to develop? Simply put, it is challenging because it usually means an athlete will have to slow things down from their normal group training pace to effectively develop their aerobic engine and being guided by what is going on with your heart rate rather than your will to the champion of the daily training sessions with your training partners! It means swimming, cycling and running with the ego checked at the door. But for those patient enough to do just that, once the aerobic engine is built the speedwork will have a profound positive effect their fitness and allow for a longer-lasting improvement in performance than for those who blast away from the first day of training each year.

What is the solution to maximizing your endurance engine? It’s called a heart rate monitor.

Whether your goal is to win a race or just live a long healthy life, using a heart rate monitor is the single most valuable tool you can have in your training equipment arsenal. And using one in the way I am going to describe will not only help you shed those last few pounds, but will enable you to do it without either killing yourself in training or starving yourself at the dinner table.

I came from a swimming background, which in the 70’s and 80’s when I competed was a sport that lived by the “No Pain, No Gain” motto. My coach would give us workouts that were designed to push us to our limit every single day. I would go home dead, sleep as much as I could, then come back the next day for another round of punishing interval sets.

It was all I knew. So, when I entered the sport of triathlon in the early 1980’s, my mentality was to go as hard as I could at some point in every single workout I did. And to gauge how fast that might have to be, I looked at how fast the best triathletes were running at the end of the short distance races. Guys like Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina were able to hold close to 5 minute miles for their 10ks after swimming and biking!

So that’s what I did. Every run, even the slow ones, for at least one mile, I would try to get close to 5 minute pace. And it worked…sort of. I had some good races the first year or two, but I also suffered from minor injuries and was always feeling one run away from being too burned out to want to continue with my training.

Then came the heart rate monitor. A man named Phil Maffetone

So he told me to go to the track, strap on the heart rate monitor, and keep my heart rate below 155 beats per minute. Maffetone told me that below this number that my body would be able to take in enough oxygen to burn fat as the main source of fuel for my muscle to move. I was going to develop my aerobic/fat burning system. What I discovered was a shock.

To keep my heart rate below 155 beats/minute, I had to slow my pace down to an 8:15 mile. That’s three minutes/mile SLOWER than I had been trying to hit in every single workout I did! My body just couldn’t utilize fat for fuel.

So, for the next four months, I did exclusively aerobic training keeping my heart rate at or below my maximum aerobic heart rate, using the monitor every single workout. And at the end of that period, my pace at the same heart rate of 155 beats/minute had improved by over a minute. And after nearly a year of doing mostly aerobic training, which by the way was much more comfortable and less taxing than the anaerobic style that I was used to, my pace at 155 beats/minute had improved to a blistering 5:20 mile.

That means that I was now able to burn fat for fuel efficiently enough to hold a pace that a year before was redlining my effort at a maximum heart rate of about 190. I had become an aerobic machine! On top of the speed benefit at lower heart rates, I was no longer feeling like I was ready for an injury the next run I went on, and I was feeling fresh after my workouts instead of being totally wasted from them.

So let’s figure out what heart rate will give you this kind of benefit and improvement. There is a formula that will determine your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, which is the maximum heart rate you can go and still burn fat as the main source of energy in your muscles. It is the heart rate that will enable you to recover day to day from your training. It’s the maximum heart rate that will help you burn those last few pounds of fat. It is the heart that will build the size of your internal engine so that you have more power to give when you do want to maximize your heart rate in a race situation.

Here is the formula:

1. Take 180

2. Subtract your age

3. Take this number and correct it by the following:

-If you do not workout, subtract another 5 beats.

-If you workout only 1-2 days a week, only subtract 2 or 3 beats.

-If you workout 3-4 times a week keep the number where it is.

-If you workout 5-6 times a week keep the number where it is.

-If you workout 7 or more times a week and have done so for over a year, add 5 beats to the number.

-If you are over about 55 years old or younger than about 25 years old, add another 5 beats to whatever number you now have.

-If you are about 60 years old or older OR if you are about 20 years old or younger, add an additional 5 beats to the corrected number you now have.

You now have your maximum aerobic heart rate, which again is the maximum heart rate that you can workout at and still burn mostly fat for fuel. Now go out and do ALL of your cardiovascular training at or below this heart rate and see how your pace improves. After just a few weeks you should start to see a dramatic improvement in the speed you can go at these lower heart rates.

Over time, however, you will get the maximum benefit possible from doing just aerobic training. At that point, after several months of seeing your pace get faster at your maximum aerobic heart rate, you will begin to slow down. This is the sign that if you want to continue to improve on your speed, it is time to go back to the high end interval anaerobic training one or two days/week. So, you will have to go back to the “NO Pain, NO Gain” credo once again. But this time your body will be able to handle it. Keep at the intervals and you will see your pace improve once again for a period. But just like the aerobic training, there is a limit to the benefit you will receive from anaerobic/carbohydrate training. At that point, you will see your speed start to slow down again. And that is the signal that it is time to switch back to a strict diet of aerobic/fat burning training.

At the point of the year you are in right now, probably most of you are ready for this phase of speed work. Keep your interval sessions to around 15-30 minutes of hard high heart rate effort total. This means that if you are going to the track to do intervals do about 5k worth of speed during the entire workout. Less than that and the physiological effect is not as great. More than that and you just can’t maintain a high enough effort during the workout to maximize our benefit. You want to push your intervals, making each one a higher level of intensity and effort than the previous one. If you reach a point where you cannot maintain your form any longer, back off the effort or even call it a day. That is all your body has to give.

See you at the races.
Mark Allen
6 Time Ironman World Champion

Friday, February 11, 2011

Always Be Positive and Positive Attracts the Negative

WARNING: this blog is gonna get real

My high school swimming records are 24 years old this week.  That is more of a statement of the park district and private club talent going into the school than the "speed" of my records.  I would have just been one of the state qualifiers at Fremd, Schaumburg, Barrington or Palatine high school; but at Hoffman Estates - the record has lasted longer than two decades.  How long ago did I set those records?  Ronald Reagan was U.S. President.  Gas was "outrageous" at $1.25/gallon.  Get the picture?  Time to see them go.  I think one will go for sure.  The other one has a shot at making it one more year.  Both of the kids - I say kids because I am old enough to be their dad - are good kids.  Good students.  Courteous.  Have a sense of school team history and respect.  Exceptional.  I am truly hoping they break the records and go to the state championship.

Spring of my freshman year of high school - one day after earning a varsity swimming letter - the cross country and track coach told me, "You'll never be a good athlete." After I told him that I had decided to focus on swimming and would not be running in the fall.  Ironically, he was the first person I ran into when my wife and I landed back in Chicago following finishing in Kona.  The stunned silence and dumbfounded look on his face said it all when I showed him the very large silver medal I got in Kona at the Ironman World Championship.

Over this Christmas break I stopped in to see my old high school swimming coach.  I always do.  He did help me pay for college after all.  He introduced me to the kids and asked me if I'd work with them on some of the "tricks of the trade" in order to make them faster.  I did.  They listened.  What I taught them were the exact same things that he taught them - but I'm a different face.  The guy with the yellowing name on the record board.  A guy with six NCAA Division I varsity letters and a lot of other honors; paid for in blood, sweat and tears - literally.  It helped make a difference for them.

Recently I have gotten back on the horse as far as training goes.  An injury here and there.  Some "deceleration poisoning" (read: bike crash).   Rest.  Recover.  Eat right.  Gain weight anyway. (I can eat one piece of lettuce a day and gain weight.  Up yours skinny people.  Let's go ride a course requiring power.)  Get a little lazy.  Get RIF'd and MUST spend time searching for work.  Get "out of work" when the company goes belly up and MUST spend time searching for work... or start a business in your passion.  Coaching, and business is good great.  I have awesome athletes and good people to work with.


That was me when cleared as "healthy" enough in order to "train enough so I can train again".  (I'm leaving out some of the personal struggles Lorrie and I went through aka: cancer(s), deaths and that which will rename nameless because if I put it in here you just wouldn't believe the emotional beat down we've had.)  I was taught that when you get knocked on your ass you get up and start again.  You make your own luck and opportunity.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

While we have had things we've had to manage through together we did have one thing - each other.  The darker things got - the harder we seemed to laugh together.  That's how you know you have the right spouse.  While we've been down on our luck we've still always considered ourselves blessed and fortunate.  We pick up the "hard hat and lunch pail" and go right back to work on our dreams.  This is life, not some dress rehearsal.  If you want to live well you have to earn it.

Everyone who blogs has had mean and negative people send you messages and email.  Recently, I've had people I once called friends and even a cousin I grew up with remind me how negative some folks around me are.

When I was a kid I was a really good baseball player.  I was a very good hitter.  I didn't hit many out of the park.  I just wasn't naturally strong.   I needed to get stronger for baseball.  Swimming - upper body workouts, fitness.  Why not?

I started winning.  A lot.  A few of the guys and I started to gel as a group.  We started winning more.  Pushing each other harder.  Now our team was winning championships and setting records.  Every time my family got together with certain people some were positive toward my results; they were pretty great.  Some people I swam with from day one never gave me credit for the hard work the guys on my team and I put in.  They weren't happy in there own skin.  Never good enough and they will put that on you if you let them.  I never did.  It always has pissed me off and made me feel sorry for them.  Not only do they "not get it" but I'm a close friend.  You always give your close friends the truth, but help them improve with encouragement.  I offered - many times - to help them train.  No interest.  So, I went to the weight room alone through the summer nights of high school while others played.  (Some of those guys are still great friends.  Scott, Junaid, Keith, Nate, Brock, and Greg)  These negative people recently wrote me a message last week reminding me that, "I rarely support what you do..."  Yeah, no shit.  I was there.  I remember.

Stay positive and keep getting up off the floor.  No matter how many times you get kicked in the face and spit on.