Saturday, September 29, 2007

the saffron revolution

i'm including 3 very, very special pictures with this post. i'm putting the 1st one above, the 2nd one in the middle, and the 3rd one at the end.

these photos are special because i think they illustrate a life lesson that we sometimes forget: the power of an idea.

ideas are a funny thing.

by themselves, ideas are nothing. they're just thoughts. figments of the imagination, products of contemplation. at the most, they become words and images spoken or written, to be spread between people and shared from one soul to another. sometimes with reverence, sometimes with none. they're just ethereal; nothing corporeal. just statements of wishes, hopes, and dreams. of how things should be, of what they can become...and what is this, what can it become, in the face of how things are?

but for all this, ideas still arouse the human spirit to supreme acts of passion. for some, they inspire fear, and loathing, and revulsion, or disgust, and motivate the person to behavior that borders--and sometimes exceeds--all notions of humanity and grace. for others, they inspire something quite the opposite: aspiration, adoration, animation, exhilaration, to an extent that can reach even so far as to the supreme act of human devotion. the extremes engendered are striking: cruelty versus kindness, brutality versus compassion.

ideas are a funny thing.

it's a wonder that there are those who are so afraid of them. so afraid that they would be willing to kill to see them gone...and spare no energy nor material nor time nor thought nor mercy nor moment of reflection to descend to whatever depths of darkness exist in this world to ensure that the utterance of such ideas are never heard or seen again on this earth.

it is even more of a wonder that, in the face of such darkness, there are still those who remain so faithful to them. so much so that they would endure any privation, withstand any onslaught, accept any suffering, to do nothing more than to repeat them as mantras again and again and again, and to do so with behavior that ascends in accordance with the greatest ideals of God's creation and the beauty of how life should be, so that such ideas--as insubstantial and insignificant as they are--can somehow can find their place upon the earth...even in full knowledge of the vast array of the forces arrayed against them, and in deep awareness of the consequences that may come.

ideas are a funny thing.
as Ironman athletes, we believe and then live within the power of ideas, particularly one idea: that anything is possible. we teach ourselves, then endeavor to exemplify, and later to demonstrate and then pass on to others, the idea that there is no challenge, there is no obstacle, there is no force great enough to stop the human spirit once it has set itself upon a course of action and dedicated itself to seeing its completion. we constantly stress, to ourselves and to the world around us, that nothing is impossible.

but we should know that the lesson we learn and also give is not a lesson that is ours alone. it is not a secret hidden within the mysteries of the universe. it is not a truth unknown to the human mind. our lesson is an idea, and so is something shared by all humanity, in a way as simple and graceful and beautiful and sublime as one person exchanging words with another.

we use an idea to carry ourselves through training regimes that cause others to quaver, and to lift ourselves to race distances deemed by many as unimaginable. we do this to inspire those around us, so that they, just as much as we, can improve their lives.

but there are others in this world who use an idea for things far greater: to confront the nature of evil and the full visage of its horror. they do this to change the hearts and souls and minds of the world held within its grasp, and to expand the confines of human imagination and human expectations beyond it, so that the suffering may witness more than just suffering and the weak may experience more than just oppression and the hungry may know more than just hunger and the forlorn know may more than just despair.

we use an idea to show what the world can be; they use it so that the world may yet know light. we use an idea to simply overcome the distance of a day; they use it to overcome a darkness that knows not time.

for all this, we are the same people. because we share the same idea, and we hope to make the world a better place.

this is the lesson we need to remember: ideas have power. they have the power to make change. not just in our lives, not just for ourselves, not just for even the people around us, but for the world as a whole. no matter the dangers that may face us.

there are always those who say this will not, cannot, must not happen. and they will do everything they can to stop ideas in ways most abhorrently profane.

but ideas do not die. they cannot die, even though people may die. this is because ideas, through us, are more than just expressions of imagination; they are manifestations of aspirations guiding us through all the long journeys in all the darkness of all the world.

always, through our actions, ideas can become truths made known as lessons then shared. sometimes, however, in the supreme moments when those actions rise to sublime heights of sacrifice and devotion, ideas can transcend the mere mortal to become faithful supplications to the divine, and in so doing become vested with a power most sacred that gives life to where there is none, so that there may be light in this, this that we can only begin to know as God's creation.

an idea has power. all we are doing is relaying it, so that it may have life--even as others do not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

endurance sports and kung fu (part 5) - functional strength and flexibility (angles and range of motion)

the majority of my previous posts regarding endurance sports and kung fu have attempted to present my observations regarding similarities and differences between the 2 areas, and the ways in which they could complement one another.

for this post on functional strength and flexibility, however, i decided to just focus in terms of how kung fu helps with endurance sports--largely because that's how i see it; i don't (or so far have not) seen much in the opposite direction. in fact, i've been finding that my functional strength and flexibility in endurance sports has been getting a whole lot more from kung fu than vice versa. if anything, kung fu training actually seems to be rectifying all the problems associated with (or caused by) endurance sports.

as i've mentioned elsewhere, endurance sports--especially when dealing with longer distances--is an exercise in repetitive motion injuries; it's never a question of if you will get them, it's when. and every season generates its own crop of nagging aches and pains.

as a means of preventing these problems, there's been growing support for "functional strength" or "functional flexibility" training. these terms tend to deal with theories arguing that currently dominant modes of training, rather than building the body's capabilities (and hence resistance to repetitive motion injuries), instead serve to create systemic imbalances in muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissue (and thereby create stresses that actually encourage repetitive motion injuries). in effect, current training methods are not allowing athletes to "function" at an optimum state for athletic performance.

functional strength and functional flexibility training espouses that a more effective training approach is to involve athletes in methods that build the body's capabilities in a performance-based setting, so that the training gains help the athlete's ability to "function" for athletic performance.

examples of the dominant paradigm of training include static, non-dynamic weightlifting and high-volume (either in effort or repetition) practices. examples of functional strength and flexibility training include new routines involving inflated plastic balls, balance pads, and elastic cable work.

you can see a sample of relevant websites on functional strength and flexibility training:
the concepts and methods of functional strength and flexibility training are spreading to triathlon. just like other areas of sport, they're being touted as means to improve athletic performance and prevent injury. you can check out a sample:
the last article is the relevant one for the purposes of this post. while it deals with the advantages of single-leg exercises, it refers to a lot of concepts and ideas regarding the notions driving functional strength and flexibility training.

in particular, it points out that the purpose of such training is to enhance physical performance of the body, which in sports requires physical motion across a broad spectrum of movements in a wide variety of scenarios. this means improvement of body mechanics in dynamic, unpredictable settings, with muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissue operating through differing angles, multiple planes of action, and ranges of motion.

i've excerpted a couple of specific sections, and bold-faced what i thought were the most important:
When looking at lower body biomechanics in endurance-based sports, we can easily see that much of the time force production is being generated by a single leg. Both running and cycling are skills requiring force generation in this manner. Our operational environment compounds this independent nature of lower body endurance sport mechanics. By operational environment I mean, physical laws such as inertia, momentum and impulse, which are minimized in traditional strength training. These components must also be dealt with throughout 360 degrees of freedom and must be taken into consideration if we want to perform optimally.

Since we know that specificity of training is the driving principle behind performance enhancement methodology, it would only make sense to take into consideration the simple observations discussed previously. If most of the force generation in endurance sports involves unilaterally biased lower extremity positions (one leg at a time), multiple joints, dynamic and multi-planar stabilization, and ground based force production, shouldn’t these be the driving principles behind lower body strength development?
and further:
Looking at the kinetic chain in action allows us to see how ground reaction forces are transmitted through the lower body and the core to facilitate fast and powerful movements. The various body angles that result from the manipulation of momentum require that the endurance athlete be able to produce force on a single leg concentrically, isometrically and, most importantly, eccentrically. The dynamic multi-planar environment of endurance sports also demands that a single leg apply the force in a proprioceptively driven manner. In plain English now, the ground-based leg has to control forces while the joint angles in the leg are continuously changing in all three planes of motion. This type of lower body training is rarely addressed in traditional strength training methodology. Instead, this type of work is usually limited to rehabilitative applications.

So what does all this technical mumbo-jumbo mean to the endurance athlete? It means that single leg training should take a priority position in strength training for endurance sports. It also means that the traditional strength paradigm that has kept most endurance athletes out of the gym is outdated and less than optimal.

Single leg squats, lunges and step-ups are a good start, but don’t stop there. Think about the varying angles that the leg sees and the forces acting on it (i.e. off road, construction, sand). Notice the position of the foot while the force is being applied to the ground. This means that you have to learn how to apply force while the foot, knee and hip are loading or unloading, in all three planes of motion.
i originally thought most of my endurance sports training followed these principles. under guidance from my coaches, friends, and whatever reference materials i followed, i seemed to incorporate training that i thought involved multi-angle, multi-planar, dynamic movements.

however, based on my history of repetitive use injuries, this apparently was not the case; based on my comparison of training methods to the ones described in sources like the ones above, this most definitely was not the case. from what i surmise, a lot of my training (particularly in technique work and weight training) were isolation exercises that reduced or eliminated multiple angles, multiple planes of motion, and dynamic movement.

which brings me to kung fu.

i know there may be skeptics, but i will repeat this to anyone who is willing to read or listen: kung fu helped my athletics.

since i've started with kung fu, i've found the following:
  • a lot of the repetitive motion injuries i struggled with have seemed to resolve themselves and gone away, and a lot of the nagging discomfort in my body (muscles, joints, bones) seemed to have done the same.
  • i can feel a greater level of physical coordination and mind-body awareness, particularly in terms of neuromuscular motor activity (i.e., volitional body movement).
  • moreover, and perhaps most significantly of all, i've started to develop a greater level of flexibility, in combination with what might be called "dynamic looseness" or "suppleness." by this, i mean that before my body was in a state of constant tension (to a degree i did not know until i started kung fu) that led to bouts with muscle cramping, muscle strain, joint pain, and difficulty holding to good technique. in contrast, now i feel far less tension, with a much lower level of aches or pains, and a much greater ease in holding good technique
i think the reason behind this is that the kung fu i've been learning has effectively served to give the training i should have been getting but didn't. that is, it's given me the functional strength and flexibility training i should have been getting: multi-angle, multi-planar, dynamic movements.

i should point out that these results may be dependent on the type of kung fu i've been learning. there are many styles of kung fu (trust me, many, as in so many it's almost hopeless to try and name them all), with varying philosophies, modes of movement, and methods of training.

the ones i've been learning are the styles connected with northern China, particularly those that are commonly perceived as "soft" styles in the West. specifically, i've been learning 2 "soft" styles (bagua zhang and tai chi) and a "hard" style (long fist). the training i've gotten in these styles have called for remarkably intricate, subtle movements demanding balance, flexiblity, coordination, awareness, and constant variation that i as an endurance athlete was not familiar with--usually, in endurance sports, you lock your mind into the proper technique and just repeat it like a metronome; in kung fu, you have to move in constant awareness of yourself and your surroundings, and in a way that adapts to constantly changing variables and conditions. the net effect is my body having to move in all sorts of different (and seemingly bizarre) ways.

you can get an idea of what i'm talking about by checking out the following videos from my class:

northern long fist, tantui lines 1-5:

northern long fist, tantui lines 6-10:

bagua zhang, side A, palm 3:

bagua zhang, side B, palm 3:

without getting into details about kung fu styles and terms like northern long fist, tantui, bagua zhang, or palms, suffice it to say that by looking at these videos you can clearly see the types of movements that are stressed so heavily by functional strength and flexibility training. in tantui, you can see a lot of double-leg and single-leg movements applied in dynamic, multi-angle, multi-planar orientations. in bagua, you can see the same orientations, but with an added element of twisting and turning. this is why i think kung fu has served to provide the training prescribed by functional strength and flexibility methods, and why it's helped me obtain so many of the benefits predicted by such methods.

i should note that all of these results are nothing new to kung fu followers. most instructors you'll encounter will always assert the ability of kung fu training to generate the kind of improvements i've encountered. as an example, you can reference the writings of Adam Hsu, a prominent representative of the northern kung fu styles i've been learning (in the interests of full disclosure, i should mention that he's a a grandmaster in the international kung fu association my lessons are in):
the article on taiji quan (tai chi) doesn't match the videos i have on bagua zhang. but while being separate styles, tai chi and bagua zhang are both considered "soft" styles, and both tend to yield the same benefits...that, and i've started studying tai chi as well, so what i've been saying for bagua zhang and long fist also applies to tai chi.

of course, i'm not going to advise anyone to start learning any random kung fu style. some styles are very likely not compatible with endurance sports training (especially Ironman)--i'm referring to more physical, force-driven, high-intensity styles, which would likely only serve to give workouts tantamount to zone 5 anaerobic threshold training sessions...these are good for endurance sports, but only in small and highly discrete doses.

the best styles, at least in terms of assisting endurance sports (and sport in general), are those that complement aerobic training requirements without overwhelming the needs or goals of a clearly thought-out workout schedule.

having said this, i'm going to repeat the message i've been giving to everyone in person: people should give this a try. i can't say it'll work for everyone; but i can say it worked for me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

international talk like a pirate day

yeah, ok, so this doesn't really have a lot to do with triathlon (although it does, in a way, but just bear with me here for a moment).

for those of you living in a cage, today (September 19) holds the rather auspicious and increasingly famous moniker of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

info about Talk Like a Pirate Day can be found on the Wikipedia entry ( to summarize the entry, the holiday is an informal celebration of humor started in 1995 by 2 (very bored) friends. it exploded into popular consciousness when it was publicized by syndicated columnist Dave Barry in 2002, at which point it expanded into international celebrations held in locations around the world (hence the addition of the word "international" to the title). check out a sampling:
you can get a feel for the growing scale of the movement by referencing the current Yahoo! news story: Tomorrow You'll Pay a Buccaneer for Corn

basically, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, people celebrate in an air of whimsy by talking like a pirate (costumes, weaponry, and brigrand behavior purely optional). in terms of what constitutes pirate lingo, i compiled the following list of websites:
and if you want to learn how to be a pirate, there's always the romantic image shown in cinema--just look up classics like Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Treasure Island, or even the modern Pirates of the Caribbean. personally, my favorite is Errol Flynn's Captain Blood, but Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is a very close second; speaking of which, there is a very educational You Tube video:

i know, i know, not much to do with triathlon.

here's my response to that:
  • um, fun. yeah, you know, fun. as in just chilling out, relaxing, and relishing life for awhile. check out my post on this: playlist: the joy of race day morning
  • triathletes, in a way, sort of are the pirates of the athletic world. i mean, seriously, just think about how hard it is to get the requisite training and equipment. for that matter, recall all the machinations and surreptitious activities involved in getting them. conniving for extra race day entries, competing against fellow cohorts for the treasure of equipment deals, dealing with the scurvy dogs of abominable drivers/boaters/pedestrians, sucking bilgewater on the swim, avoiding the shiver of timbers on the bike, doing everything to not be a landlubber on the run, some would say the behavior demanded of the sport borders on piratical.
ok yeah, yeah, it's a stretch.

whatever. enjoy the day. arrrrrrrrrr, matey!

Monday, September 17, 2007

miles with w.b. yeats

w.b. yeats received the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. ostensibly, his poetry revolved around themes and materials drawn from Irish culture. he was one of the prominent figures in the Irish literary revival of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was intended to restore Gaelic identity against historical English domination.

despite this, i still find his works universal. a lot of his writing (not all, but most) crosses cultural boundaries, since they deal with subjects that pre-occupy--whether we admit it to ourselves or not--so many of us: life, death, the meaning of both, the nature of living, the sense of the spiritual. he deals with these in a way that is not so abstract (at least, he did in his later works...his early material was borderline ethereal), nor cold, nor preachy, nor melodramatic, but instead gives an air of reality treated with warmth and respectful sensitivity that rises to understated elegance--something that seems to only magnify the impact of his writing.

yeats is one of my long-time poetic favorites. i love his stuff. it speaks to me. i find myself going back to him again and again. i'll catch myself running through his lines in my mind at various points in the course of random days, particularly on days most contemplative. i'll also find myself reciting his poems in the middle of a training set or in the midst of race day.

i know it might seem odd that i'd think of poetry like yeats in sport. admittedly, his stuff is sobering, deeply reflective, and intensely provoking on deep themes calling for thought involving concentration lasting days. basically, it's stuff you'd identify with words like methodical, careful, diligent, deep. not the kind of things you want to be when you're trying to roll in a race.

but you know, his words flow like the waters of a deep river: continuous, unwaivering, unstoppable, inexorable, strong. and as serene as the face of truth accepting the inevitability of the eternal--very much the kind of things you want when you're trying to roll in a race.

that, and...i keep saying this, but i'll say it here again, because in yeats i feel i have a sympathetic voice who can demonstrate what i mean: there are certain truths in life, certain truths we too often cover up or ignore or brush over or hide, just so we can survive our lives; truths which are laid bare through suffering and pain and misery and agony that burns and strips away our lies and deceit and ignorance; truths which we must ultimately face before being relegated to all eternity.

training. racing. each one is a microcosm of this mortality. and so a device which exposes such truths.

once we make our peace with them, we can stop merely surviving and we can start really living, with full meaning and in full appreciation of the true nature of the mystery we have been given: life.

and it's then that our race begins to have meaning.

here's a selection of some of my favorites from yeats:

The Old Men Admiring Themselves In The Water
I heard the old, old men say,
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--- Those dying generations --- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shalll never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

What Then?
His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

All his happier dreams came true -
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
`What then?' sang Plato's ghost. `What then?'

`The work is done,' grown old he thought,
`According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought';
But louder sang that ghost, `What then?'

Thursday, September 13, 2007

playlist: the joy of race day morning

it always gets me how people react to race day.

the tension is usually so thick you can cut it out of the air and have it on a plate for breakfast.

you see it in people's eyes, from the moment they blink in response to the morning alarm, to the time they show up wide-eyed at check-in, to the interlude standing awestruck just before the start. you hear it as a murmuring of whispers, a low hum beginning with the grumbling rise from bed, pitching into low voices tracking equipment and supplies, rising into unison with others as everyone makes their way for the climaxing sound of the starting gun. you feel it in the chill of the early morning, struggling in the darkness into uniform and gear, fumbling in grogginess with straps and laces and fasteners and closures, mumbling stiffly to review last-minute checklists, and stumbling into transition to shiver with all the others as everyone awaits to begin the en masse launch out the starting line.

the emotions are best described with words like uncertainty and mystery, urgency and impatience, anxiety and fear, acceptance and resignation.

it's so odd, because these aren't things you'd associate with a voluntary activity, particularly one which participants took upon themselves to pursue. if anything, these are things indicative of activities people try to avoid--the kind usually associated with words like...stressful. painful. tortuous. agonizing.

of course, the witty among us would argue that this pretty much summarizes race day. for triathlon in general, and for Ironman in particular.

but i often wonder if it has to be this way.

sometimes i just get sick of it all. the tension. the trepidation. the nerves. the dread.

what happened to things just being fun?

yeah, fun. you know, fun. as in: the opposite of all the words i just wrote above. as in: the kind of thing that is not dread, or nerves, or trepidation, or tension. as in: the kind of thing that makes you want to do what ever it is that you are looking to go 140.6 miles in less than a single day.

yeah, fun. the kind of thing most people in this sport seem to have forgotten. or, at least, seem to have suppressed.

i remember fun. i remember it from when i was a kid. back when everything was all brand new, and the world was a big wide open place, and time seemed to move with all the magic of a crystal-clear morning unburdened by care or responsibility, and each moment came with all the freedom of a radiant blue sky aglow with all the untold promise of a beaming sun dawning gracefully in the caress of a child's wondrous eyes.

i remember fun.

it began something like this:

sesame street:

and on days when things really got going, i also started with this:

electric company:

i have to admit, every day was like this because i was too young to know any better. i was too young to have accumulated any of the cares and weights and fears and burdens of adulthood. too young to understand the wounds and scars that come with age. too young to know the realities that underlay each day.

but you know, i think that's the beauty of being a child. it's the time in your when you can live free of the terror of adulthood, or the hurt that comes with age, or the dangers that darken each day. it's the time in your life when you can live the way we were perhaps meant to live--and more importantly, gain the memory that we were once able to do so.

it's important, because i think that's where we learn the aspirations of what is possible: aspirations towards ideals, aspirations about hope, aspirations of faith...aspirations that come to sustain us through the onslaught of later years in the long race that is the journey of our lives.

high hopes:

the ugly duckling:

not that childhood was about living in a fantasy world.

on the contrary, it think it's when we actually learn to deal with reality, and in a way that's so much better than as adults.

as adults, we seem to be constantly taught, reminded, cajoled, coerced, seduced, fooled into believing that life must be lived in certain ways: that there are rules, restrictions, limits in terms of what can be done, in terms of what might be done, in terms of what should be done. it's a life without imagination, without dreams, without possibilities; a life of the unfeasible, the impossible; a life of futility.

as children, we are told, shown, encouraged, presented, offered, given something else: freedom. freedom to believe--and then live--in imagination, dreams, possibilities, with the only prerequisite being the work of our limbs and the diligence of our minds and the faith of our hearts, by which all our lives shall be made a reality in fulfillment of our best aspirations.

hi ho:

bare necessities:

this is what i'm really getting at by bringing up fun.

the sense of unconstrained, unbridled, unfettered life. living. in a way that brings out the best in what we are blessed to have of it. the way we tended to have in the early days of our youth.

just kids, running around not knowing any better, thinking they honestly could do anything if they believed and tried hard enough.

following the leader:

you can fly!:

this is the kind of thing i often don't see on many race day mornings. too often, what i see (and admittedly, sometimes feel myself) instead is tension, trepidation, nerves, dread--from adults who in their adulthood have been taught, reminded, cajoled, coerced, seduced, fooled into thinking so.

for me, what i often see brings up just too many of the negatives of rules, restrictions, limits, unfeasible, impossible, futility.

this is not what i want to be thinking about when i'm looking at 140.6 miles of Ironman.

what i want to be thinking on race day morning is freedom, so that i can believe--and then live--imagination, dreams, possibilities, to which i can apply the work of my limbs and the diligence of my mind and the faith of my heart, and make of my life a reality in fulfillment of my best aspirations.

and the way for me to do that is remember the time in my life when i was able to do so, so that the memories can sustain me through the onslaught of the long race that is the journey of my life. this way, i can live the way i was meant to live.

race day should be like any day, and any day--every day--should be like life: joy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

videos: swimming technique (part 2)

so i've found some more swimming technique videos for freestyle stroke--some posted by reader's suggestions (thanks Solon and mirko!), and some found doing random searches on Youtube.

these videos are no particular order, although i do organize these between those that are more focused on showing technique (like in part 1) versus those that present drills meant to improve technique.

the technique ones are:
the first ( is a japanese website containing 3-d animation of technique for various swim strokes. you can select any of the strokes listed in the right-hand column. the second has videos of various Olympic swimmers, and you can select to see videos of any one of them. the third has little commentary (instead it has a slightly annoying soundtrack), but it's useful for additional video footage.

the drill videos are:
some of these have commentary, some simply have soundtrack. but they give you a good basic introduction of the core swim drills frequently used by competitive swimmers to improve their technique.

i should note these drills aren't something to just gloss over in your training. you ignore them at your own peril. it is widely preached (but sometimes little observed) that proper technique is crucial to good swimming, because water is a much denser medium than air, meaning that relative to air it magnifies any flaws in technique and exposes any weaknesses in form.

newbies often recite a number of lines to avoid drills to improve technique:
  • technique is something only for competitive athletes, and that it won't make much of a difference for a non-competitive beginner who "just wants to finish"
  • technique drills don't help improve fitness, which is the main issue for newbies trying to finish a race
  • technique drills are boring, and they look goofy.
this is delusional. worse, it's dangerous.

triathlon isn't a joke. no sport is. you just don't show up on a saturday morning and say you're going to do an Ironman, or an Olympic-distance race, or a sprint. even ignoring the idea of competition, just finishing a race is often hard enough. particularly for newbies. particularly for those with little athletic background.

technique is important. technique is significant. technique is everything.

here's why:
  • proper technique means more efficiency, which means more forward motion with less effort, which means greater output of progress with less input of energy. this means less prospect of exhaustion, less chance of quitting, less likelihood of collapse, and less probability of turning into a manifestation of walking death. incidentally, for swimming, this also means less chance of drowning...kind of a big deal, yeah? especially if you're someone who "just wants to finish"?
  • technique is a fundamental component to fitness. technique minimizes risk of injury, meaning it enables you to train more--with more intensity and more duration. this means it allows you to pursue greater fitness goals.
  • technique may be boring, and they are most definitely goofy. in fact, they make you look like an outright dork. however, in training circles, there is a frequently cited mantra: you sometimes have to learn how to move slow in order to eventually move fast. this means that in order to generate the physical performance you want, you have to begin your training with basic fundamentals...and those fundamentals are taught by such things as drills.
technique drills are meant to ingrain proper form into you neuro-muscular pathways, so that you build muscle memory that allows you to hold movement patterns that are the most efficient and least injury-prone. this muscle memory enables performance with less conscious effort, meaning less mental energy is spent on body mechanics and more is spent on pursuing race goals (competing, or simply finishing).

in all truth, anyone with any experience in sport (not just swimming, and not just triathlon) devotes a percentage of their time on technique. in fact, more advanced athletes actually tend to devote more time on their technique. you'll frequently find them holding workouts with technique drills as the main component. sometimes, you'll even see them incorporating technique drills into every workout, as part of the warm-up, cooldown, or break in a mainset. this often holds regardless of the season--while technique drills are largely viewed as prominent in the off-season, you'll also see them as common elements in the height of in-season.

suffice it to say that technique drills are useful, and if advanced athletes use them, it is worthwhile for newbies to do so as well.

granted, these videos don't replace personal, qualified coaching--and people should always consult good coaching if at all possible. but at least these videos offer some means of helping you visualize technique and technique drills for freestyle. use them well.

Friday, September 07, 2007

videos: swimming technique (part 1)

swimming always seems to pose the biggest issue with many newbies. i know it did for me. and i see it every year when our school team (USC Triathlon...holla!) takes in a new crop of members.

a lot of the anxiety, i think, can be attributed to a number of factors:
  • swimming, particularly competitive swimming, isn't something most people do as ordinary daily activity. when most people think of exercise or fitness, the first things that come to mind are usually running, basketball, football, etc. (basically, activities on dry ground). even for those who spend time in the water, many don't do much more than splash around in a backyard pool, a community park, or a local diving hole. as a result, the idea of swimming continuously any more than 400 meters is a completely alien concept.
  • water is an alien environment. it may be refreshing, it may be invigorating, it may be a shock to the system, but it is not natural host environment for the human body. we breathe air, not water. we stand on earth, not water. we sit on the ground not water. we live our lives on the surface, not water. which means that for most of us, our minds and our perspectives revolve around life on land. this makes the thought of sustained immersion in water an disquieting, sometimes intensely uncomfortable thought.
  • swimming, much more so than cycling or running, is technique-intensive. because water is a denser medium than air, it poses greater resistance and is much less forgiving to obstructions relative to air. this means that factors which would be minor drag sources in cycling or running become major drag sources in swimming--enough so that even seemingly minutes changes can make a significant difference in performance. as a result, for those learning the 3 sports within triathlon, swimming demands a much greater demand on attention and time for improvement.
the net effect of these factors is that newbies invariably find themselves struggling the most with swimming.

it doesn't help that swimming is rife with arcane terms and concepts like quadrants, rotation, catch, recovery, extension, sculling, centerline, hydrodynamic stability, form drag, bernoulli's principle, hypoxic breathing, sighting, drilling, drafting, surging, and chasing. add to this the onslaught of open water, pollution, waves, sharks, surfers, boaters, anglers, other swimmers, poor weather, deep deep penetrating cold, and incredibly revealing clothing that just pretty much reveals every weakness and flaw in your body to the ogling enjoyment of the greater public. given this menagerie of elements, it's no wonder that swimming is seen as a massive enormity of fear-invoking mystery to many newbies.

the kicker, though, is that learning to swim (at least, competitively) can be an incredibly frustrating experience. because it is so heavily technique-dependent, it requires refinement of swimming technique. but for newbies who aren't familiar with swimming, it is difficult to refine the technique when 1) you're just trying to learn how to move, 2) your attention is focused on just trying to keep from drowning, and 3) you are in an environment where you can't even see what you are doing.

coaches will tell you what you are doing wrong. other swimmers will offer you advice. you make a conscious effort to do what they are telling you. but invariably, it seems you. just. can't. do. it. at least not right. at least not the way people want you to.

and there is sooooooooo much stuff to keep track of:
  • finger positioning (close together, but not clenched; loose, but not too all the time)
  • hand positioning (11 and 1 o'clock on entry, but following S-curves down the side, and slapping the hip flexors on exit)
  • elbow positioning (elbows high above the water, elbows bent under the water, but straight in front and back along the water)
  • arm positioning (reaching waaaaaaaay forward, then bending over a barrel, then extending waaaaaaaaay back, then bending elbows high, and starting all over again)
  • body positioning (rolling along the centerline with each stroke, turning at the waist and hips, aligned parallel to the surface of the water)
  • leg positioning (following the torso, kicks tight and along the surface).
it's just a lot to deal with for someone just starting out.

and when you try to watch what other people are doing, you suddenly discover that there's this issue of the most crucial part of the stroke (i.e., the part under the water) being hidden (because it's under the water) in a way you can't easily see (since it's under the water) without looking like a pervert or voyeur (by looking at people while being under the water).

which is why i thought it helpful to compile a series of swim videos on YouTube dealing with swimming technique relevant to triathlon (namely, proper form for freestyle). these videos, if nothing else, should help provide a visual reference to show people what your coach and other swimmers are telling you, with a breakdown of all the things to keep track of for proper technique and showing all the elements of form that occur under the water (i.e., the important part).

i found 2 coach-oriented videos:
i also found videos that follow the freestyle technique for several world-class swimmers (if you don't know these names, you will):
in addition, i found an excellent series of videos by Halo Swimming, featuring their star athlete (and world-class triathlete) Sheila Taormina:
i should note the last set of videos from Halo are clearly promotional videos (presumably marketing tools for the company), and so you'll get a sense of the sales pitch from the videos. despite this, they are still insightful and offer a lot of material for people looking to better understand freestyle form.

obviously, your swim technique isn't going to become world-recording-breaking overnight. like i said, swimming is very technique-intensive, and people who haven't grown up with competitive swimming will not have had the technique ingrained into their muscle memory, meaning it just won't be second nature. for the uninitiated, it's going to take time to learn the technique to the extent necessary to swim without conscious focus.

of course, having the aid of coaches, fellow swimmers, and YouTube videos will help--but make no mistake: they won't replace hours and hours (days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months, years and years) of constant practice and repetition. that's where the personality of the athlete comes in, and that's something nobody can help you with...that's where it's all on you.

Monday, September 03, 2007

the nagging injury blues

yeah, so i've been dealing with a little bit of a nagging injury.

it happens. particularly anytime you're asking you're body to take a physically greater load, which is pretty much anytime you go training, triathlon or otherwise. it's just a risk that comes with the territory.

for me (and most everyone i know), you pretty much expect that you're going to have a certain amount of injury time every year, and the only question is just how much. it's not so much a reflection of training methods, or technique, or volume, or nutrition or recovery (although, they all do play a role). it's also simple statistics: given a baseline of injury rates for an average level of activity for an average population sample, you expect the probability of injury to rise in direct correlation to the rise of activity level in the population. in which case, it's never a question of if you are going to get injured, but when.

all injuries are bad, and never any fun. apart from the actual injury itself--and the accompanying pain and damage--there's the setback in training, loss in conditioning from the downtime needed for recovery, and the process of methodical, careful, almost ginger rehabilitation.

but for me, nagging injuries are the worst. you know the kind i'm talking about: the ones that never seem to heal, and just linger, just enough to prevent resumption of workouts but not enough to be debilitating. to me, these are excruciating for 2 major reasons:
  • they involve the added psychological torture of temptation--your body tells you that you're *so* close to being healthy and being what you want to be (healthy, vigorous, alive), but then just when you think you're ready, it closes shut the door of hope again and throws you right back into the dungeon of somnolescence. it's kind of like handing a tray of food to a starving man, and then snatching the food away from him just as he starts to take a bite
  • they are distorted, with the proportion of the physical damage being relatively out of scale with the level of debilitation, to the point that it's absurd. invariably, nagging injuries are located in obscure, remote, seemingly trivial places of the body (i.e., toes, the nip of the arch, the connective lining underneath the hamstring, even the deepest depths within the great glory that is our gluteus maximus). for all this, they simply do. not. allow. you. to. move. it's almost comical. it's like an elephant that winds up tripping over a mouse.
i've experienced a slew of injuries over the years that fall into this category: illitobial band syndrome, piriformis syndrome, trendelenburg syndrome, toe/ankle/knee/hip strain, plantar fasciatis, tendinitis, etc., etc., etc. even though the list of components in the body are finite, i'm sure this list goes on into infinite...and if medical science started to run out of injuries like this, then God/Yahweh/Allah/Shiva/Buddha/whatever would happily figure out new ones.

most injuries of this kind are identified as repetitive stress injuries: injuries that are the result of stress repeatedly placed on an affected body part, to the extent that it gradually starts to break down. although, thinking about it, they're probably all repetitive stress injuries, since i'm pretty sure the main reason they arise is from the grinding cadence of the miles that are so endemic to endurance sports. it's akin to how water erodes earth--given enough time, a river will wear down even a mountain of solid rock into a valley.

for me, right now, it's a calf muscle strain. that's right, a calf muscle strain. in particular, a muscle on the rear of my chin leading from the Achilles tendon to the back of the knee. how incredibly simple. how incredibly minor. how incredibly trivial.

and yet it's managed to derail almost my entire training schedule. it hurts on the push-off from the wall while swimming. it hurts on the downstroke of the pedal on the bike. it hurts with every footstrike on the run. it even hurts walking hills and going up or down stairs. sometimes it even hurts lying down in bed.

originally, i thought the rehabilitation for this was going to be simple. a couple of weeks of rest, and then everything would be right back to normal. so following this logic, i gave myself 2 weeks, then doggedly went out on a trail run to keep my conditioning from evaporating any further.

imagine my chagrin to find the injury not only still present, but actually worse.

how lovely.

at present, i'm finding myself coming up on 6 weeks of no cycling or running, and the pain still there. it's a twinge, just a tinkle of teasing. just enough to make me feel like things are getting better. and some hours of the day it's fine, but at other hours of the day it's not. just enough to throw my mental state into discomfort, and worse, send my training schedule into uncertainty.

well, actually, beyond uncertainty. i'd describe it as hell.

whatever conditioning i built up over the summer has pretty much been shot to oblivion by now (the rule of thumb is that the average person loses 90% of their aerobic conditioning within 2 weeks of complete physical inactivity...i'm pretty much waaaaaaaaaay past that at this point). meaning that instead of going into Ironman training with a good base of fitness, i now face the prospect of starting with no fitness whatsoever.

how much lovelier even still.

there's no better feeling then being at the bottom of a mountain and then looking up and realizing just how far you're going to have to climb...commencing from the bottom of the deepest valley.

ah yes, the loveliest thing of all.

and the worst of all of this is that there's not much i can do except rest--that is, do nothing. which is kind of contrary to athletic nature. i mean, as an athlete, your inclination is to be active, pro-active, to take action, to do something. anything else is passiveness, laziness, indolence. one of the things of being an athlete is to participate in your own destiny, to be able to play a role in creating change, to exert an influence in making a difference...especially on your own life. which makes it maddening to have a problem whose prescription for treatment is inaction and whose nature just simply will not respond to your attempts at control.

i suppose this is why they say that it's always agony to wait and always agony to be helpless. a nagging injury--even more so than an ordinary injury--is both.