Friday, 24 August 2012

Zurich Lake Crossing - Fun, Sun and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikinis

Zurich lake crossing 2012
I am not really a regular swimmer these days.  In fact I haven't swum regularly since my college years, but I do enjoy a bit of a dip from time to time, so the prospect of doing the Zurich lake crossing last Wednesday afternoon  (22nd August) seemed appealing.  Especially given the pleasant weather and water temperature (the water has to be warmer than 21C in order for the event to get the go ahead from the authorities).

The only doubt in the back of my mind, was that considering I had not been in the pool since the 5th January (so more than 7 months ago) according to my blog, 1,500 metres of open water seemed quite a long way, especially when floatation devices were not permitted.  This in in contrast to the Limmat swim, which took place on the 18th August, where floats are permitted and where the river's current takes you down the course with a minimal amount of effort required.

There are lots of safety boats lining the course of the Zurich lake swim in case people cannot make the distance due to tiredness or cramps etc, but I didn't really want to enter and end up on one of those boats.  I decided if I signed up for it and got myself to the start line I would get to the finish line under my own steam, regardless of how long it took.

Now one thing you can rely on from the Swiss Germans is a well organised event and impeccable punctuality.  Having never been to the event before I wasn't sure how the system worked with regards to signing up, getting your clothes transported to the finish line etc, but from the moment I got there everything was signposted and very obvious.

When you arrive you pay your 20CHF (you are not able to sign up for the event in advance) and are given a swim cap with a number on it.  The number indicates how many people have already paid before you.  You also get a voucher for some food and a drink at the finish, and a ticket with your number on it, which you attach to your bag.  I was number 2,443, so 2,442 people had already entered before I arrived.  The swimmers are divided into groups according to their start numbers and then each group is allotted a start time.  The first start was at 15:00 and then my start was a few slots later at 15:48.  Around 20 minutes before your allotted start time you have a chance to join in a group warmup with the other people from your starting group.  This is led by some fitness instructors standing on a big stage and with energetic music blasting out from loudspeakers, and is quite fun in itself.  After the warm up you strip down to your swimwear, put everything you don't need for the swim in a bag and then deposit your bag next to the sign indicating the range in which your start number falls.  That's it.  All you have to do then is get in the water when it is time for your start group to leave, and swim to the finish line, where your bag is already waiting for you.

There were all shapes and sizes and colours and ages of people standing next to me in my group start.  I was very impressed by just how many people in a small city like ours are capable of swimming 1,500m over open water.  The organisers were expecting around 10,000 swimmers in total.

I was a little nervous as the minutes ticked down to the start, not knowing whether I could swim that far in open water or not.  Then it was time to start and there was no more time to be nervous.  The deed had to be done.  I waded into the pleasantly warm water and commenced with a nice gentle breaststroke.  Fast swimmers were meant to swim on the left hand side of the buoys and normal swimmers on the right hand side of the buoys.  I classified myself as a normal swimmer and so started swimming on the right hand side, but I soon found I was being held up by others in front of me and moved into the fast lane.

I got into a good rhythm and was really enjoying the swim.  Distance wise I had no idea how far I had gone or how much further I had left to go, till I saw a buoy indicating 650m had been completed.  At that point I was full of energy and knew that I would manage to finish the 1,500m stretch without too much stress (unless something unexpected happened, like getting cramps).  I am not really sure how many people had to drop out, as I was very much focussed on the swim and not so much on the other people around me.  From time to time I would switch to front crawl (freestyle), but I found the water went up my nose more when I did that, so I only did it for short sections.  Nevertheless it was much faster when I did switch to front crawl.  The water was pretty calm in general, but from time to time there were small waves.

I was really in the zone when I saw the buoy indicating 1,000m done and 500m left to go, and I started to speed up.  In the final hundred metres I gave a sprint finish doing front crawl and when I climbed out of the water I was breathing heavily but feeling fantastic.  I had done it.  I looked down at my watch, having no idea how long it had taken me.  I had completed the 1,500m crossing in 37 minutes.  On the website it said to anticipate spending between 30 and 60 minutes in the water, so I figured that my time cannot have been too bad for a seldom swimmer.

After climbing out of the water there were several stands offering free soup to the swimmers.  Then you moved into another area where the bags were piled up next to signs indicating the starting number ranges.  I found my bag and put my clothes on, then headed towards a funnelled exit.  As you passed through the thinnest point of the funnel you had to show the number on your swim cap and the number on your bag, so they could make sure that they matched and that you were not stealing someone else's bag.  This was a good check, but not infallible as you could easily have rummaged around in other people's bags and extracted individual items from them and put them into your own bag before passing the control.  But this is Switzerland after all, and theft is not that common, especially not amongst the participants in such an event.  I have been to cycling events in Switzerland where people leave their racing bikes unattended, worth thousands and thousands of Swiss francs, and if you were so inclined you could steal them by the dozen.  The trust principle seems to work though.

After the bag control we were given some risotto, a bottle of water and a custom made green plastic drinks bottle (as a souvenir of the event).  Then we were free to enjoy the atmosphere, sunbathe and mingle.

I had to leave however, as I needed to get to Jeff's Wednesday night running class, the last of the series.  We always repeat the benchmark run we did at the beginning of the series at the end of the series, and I was eager to see if I had improved.  Having just done a 1,500m open water swim, and still recovering from a heavy gym session (including plyometrics) on Monday, I was not that hopeful that I would be able to beat my previous time.  In the end I did though - I shaved 11 seconds off my time, down from 5 minutes 30 seconds to 5 minutes 19 seconds.  So Wednesday was a glorious day for me.

If you are considering to do the Zurich lake swim next year I urge you to go ahead.  It is a lot of fun.  If you are wondering why you should pay 20CHF to swim across a lake that you could normally swim across for free, I can tell you why.  Firstly there is the group atmosphere.  Then there is the safety factor - on a normal day you would be at risk of getting decapitated by a speedboat or run down by the paddle-steamers when you are crossing the middle part of the lake.  Thirdly there are the freebies that you get - maybe not worth 20CHF in themselves, but when combined with the atmosphere and the safety factor, 20CHF is a price well worth paying.

Zurich lake crossing 2012 - Group warm up

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Sub 3 hour marathon training - incorporating plyometrics into my routine


Plyometrics or "plyos"  is a method of training muscle elastic strength and explosiveness to enhance athletic performance.  The term plyometrics was coined by Fred Wilt in the 1970s/1980s after watching Soviet athletes training for track and field events, but the method itself had been around since the late 1960s/ early 1970s (known then as the "shock" method and credited to Yuri Verkhoshansky).  The idea behind plyometrics is to induce an involuntary eccentric contraction (as the athlete lands from a height) followed shortly afterwards by a concentric contraction as the athlete jumps upwards.

In simple terms plyometrics involve a muscle lengthening followed by a shortening muscle action.  This is known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).  Plyometrics exercises can be divided into fast SSC exercises like depth jumps and slow SSC exercises like squat jumps (shown in the illustration above).

The depth jump is part of the original "shock" method used by the Russians in the 1960s.  To perform a depth jump the athlete jumps or steps off a box and prior to landing he pre-activates his muscles in anticipation of the impact.  On landing he bends his knees slightly to absorb the impact and then he jumps immediately upwards again.

My use of plyometrics

At this stage in my sub 3 hour marathon training I am trying to focus on improving my speed endurance, and in addition to interval sessions and tempo runs, plyometrics training is another method that I am experimenting with.  My core weekly routine at present consists of one 30 minute tempo run, one intervals session (or Yasso 800s), one plyometrics and strength training session, one long run (currently building upwards from 15km) and one Pilates lesson.  The rest I play by ear.

The plyometrics exercise that I used in my strength training routine on Monday was the squat jump.  Having read more about plyometrics, as of next week I will alternate between squat jumps and the depth jump.  The former is a slow SSC exercise and the latter is a fast SSC exercise.

Plyometrics training is not for everyone.  For a start it is not suitable for people with knee or hip problems, due to the high shock forces involved.  It is also important to have a good strength base before embarking on a plyometrics program.  For this reason it is more suited to well conditioned athletes.

My strength base is reasonable (through doing running, yoga and Pilates), but as I am not accustomed at present to strength training, I was aching all over today.  The plyometrics squat jumps were partly to blame I am sure, but I also did a lot of gym work on my quads and hamstrings, and some upper body work too.  Hopefully after a few weeks my body will adapt to the plyometrics and strength training and I will suffer from less DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).  I had been planning to run today, but considering how much DOMS I am experiencing, I figured my body needed a day off to recuperate.

Tomorrow is the repeat benchmark performance test as part of the weekly Wednesday night running sessions.  I hope I do a better performance than last time, but considering my tough gym workout on Monday I will not be too surprised if I don't.