Sunday, January 30, 2011

My first 1,650 swim

Yesterday my Masters Swim Team conducted the 1,650-yard freestyle mail-in Swim Meet. Usually we compete against other numerous other teams in the area, but we have a large organization and it takes a long time to swim a mile, so the 1,650 race is done at each team's home pool and the results are then sent into the central office for tallying. Teams have until March 7 to send in their results, so I won't find out how well I did in comparison to others in my gender's age group until after that date. No matter, though. I did not swim this event to compete with others. I swam it to see if I could do it. And I did. Until yesterday, I had never swam continuously for more than 800 yards, and I had never swam more than 1,400 yards in a single workout.

As you might have seen in my previous post, my goal was to swim 750 yards all at once, and then swim sets of 100 yards until I was done. This goal was based on the fact that during workouts on my own, I often rest for a minute at one end of the pool between sets of 50 or 100 yards of swimming.

I blew away my goal yesterday. I swam the 1,650 yards continuously and completely. I did this in 29 minutes and 30.04 seconds. This is not a fast time, but like I said before, this is a monumental feat for me anyway.

I can't say that the experience was enjoyable, but it wasn't miserable, either. I swam well and without fatigue for the first 675 yards. Then I started thinking "this swim is taking forever and I haven't even gotten to the halfway mark." After another 200 yards of mentally fortifying myself with phrases like "I know I can do this!", I started getting a cramp in my right foot. Getting a cramp in my foot or leg is fairly typical when I've reached the point of fatigue. It is usually triggered by an overly-enthusiastic flip-turn, and once I get a cramp, the pain and deformity might subside for a time, but the sensation remains and won't go away until after I leave the pool. So here I was, halfway through my mile swim, and I was getting a muscle cramp in my foot. For a few minutes I feared that I would have to cut my swim short. But then I simply concentrated on relaxing my leg muscles and swimming more with my arms and torso. I also stopped doing flip-turns and instead gently pushed off the wall at the end of each lap. In a way, the foot cramp was a helpful distraction, as I soon reached the 1,250 yard mark. My foot cramp had subsided by then, and I knew at that point that I would finish the race without stopping. My teammates on the pool deck cheered me on.

I was the last person in my heat to finish the race, but there were very few spectators, and no one seemed to be watching me as I did a flip turn and began to finish lap 33. To celebrate the end of my race and the success in doing more than I ever thought I could do, I swam the last 25-yards at top speed. As I said, no one noticed this little display of bravado, but it generated a great sense of accomplishment to know that I still had energy to sprint at the end of a endurance swim. Mile be damned! I could have swam farther.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Training for a mile swim

The title of this post seems a little grand, considering that I haven't actually been training that much for my upcoming mile swim. I've only gone swimming 5 times this month so far, for an average of 1,170 yards per workout. This compares to 10 pool workouts in December (average = 893 yards) and 8 in November (average=913 yards).

On Saturday I will gather with my YMCA Masters Swim Team to complete a mile swim, or 1,650 yards. Since it takes a long time to swim a mile, this is not a typical Meet where multiple teams will be represented. Instead, we will time each other and send in the results to the regional organization to be compiled and compared against the other competing teams' self-reported race times. So it is a race, but an informal one. I have never swum 1,650 yards all in one workout before. The closest I've come is 1,400 yards completed in a 60-minute workout (by myself) with plenty of rest between laps. I have also done 1,400 yards during a swim practice with my personal coach, but again, this was a 60-min session with rests between sets of exercises. What's another 250 yards? I know I can swim a mile, but the question is can I do it without stopping to rest? I regularly go 500 yards without rest and once I was able to go 650 yards without resting. At this point my heart rate is fairly low (140 beats per minutes) during these long sets, so I should be able to swim at a slow pace indefinitely, or at least for a time long enough to swim a mile. I think my body can do it, but do I have the will power to keep going after I pass the 650 mark?

The point of this blog is to establish goals publicly and come back and report on my results. This ultimately pushes me and makes me responsible for following through. So I will be brave and state here and now that on Saturday I plan to swim continuously for 750 yards. I will be feel free then to take a break at the end of the pool and start again after a minute or less on a set of 100 yards, and I'll keep doing sets of 100 until I get to 1,650. My race time doesn't matter because I have no record to beat (and I'm already the slowest swimmer in my age group!). I just want to finish.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Chronic injury of muscle in upper back

About 6 times a year I feel a popping sensation in my upper back (during weight-lifting exercises, when swiming, or even house chores) followed by pain and 2-3 days of disability. This chronic injury is very frustrating and I wish there was someway to strengthen the tissue to prevent it from tearing again. I assume the injury is a partially torn muscle, but I suppose it could also be a partially torn tendon instead. But let's go with the muscle possibility since that has a slightly better prognosis...

Below is the text that I wrote one day in November 2010 when I was recovering from my latest injury:

I think I finally identified the muscle that I keep injuring in my upper back. But there are so many of them, I'm not sure. My latest suspect is the semispinalis muscle that lies either side along the spine underneath the trapezius and rhomboids. I surfed the internet looking for muscles that extend (straighten) the neck which are oriented paralel to the spine and which seem to be in the same location as my injury. There are several, but when I read that the semispinalis muscle also aids in extending the ribs, I felt a little more confident that I've diagnosed at least the site of my injury. You see, I sing bass in my church choir and sometimes when I injure my upper back and neck, I can't sing the low notes as strongly or loudly. This is a strange thing to link up with an injured back muscle, but if the semispinalis does indeed work upon the rib cage then it makes sense that an injury to that muscle would cause some disability in the finely-tuned actions of the ribcage muscles when forcing air out of the lungs during singing. I hope you see the link. I must admit that the website that I found this information on does not seem to be the most reputable. I don't see anything to make me doubt its veracity, but I have a weird feeling about the service that American Academy of Manual Medicine promotes. They also don't use punctuation well on their website!

Friday, January 14, 2011

365 days after starting a whey protein supplement

I ingested 12 pounds of this stuff in 2010.
It was exactly 1 year ago that I started taking a daily dose of whey protein. I had no prevous experience taking whey, and I have never used a dietary supplement before. I went to and browsed the different brands and products available and determined that the most positive reviews were regarding Optimum Nutrition brand 100% Whey Gold Standard. So I clicked and ordered it. Over the last year I have consumed a little more than 12 pounds of this product for a total investment of $100.

My daily dose consists of one glass of milk with a scoop mixed in. The powder does not dissolve all that well. The spoon I use to mix it in the milk usually has clumps that I lick off after some hesitation. I drink this "milk shake" in the evening after my daily weightlifting workout (although sometimes I skip the workout). I had actually wanted to add the whey to my morning breakfast since the cereal I eat contains little protein by itself. However, the clumpiness of the powder mixed with the milk poured over my cereal just was too gross and so I quickly shifted to a glass of milk in the evening. The vanilla ice cream favor took some getting used to, but now I am so accustomed to it a plain glass of milk without the whey powder tastes a little bland.

So why have I added whey to my diet, and was the outcome worth the expense? I must admit that even as a 35-year old, I desired a more muscular body that I could show off at the pool or beach. I still desire to be bigger, but it didn't happen. The whey protein does not appear to have increased the size or shape of my muscles in any obvious way. I took before-and-after photos to compare; sorry, these are not for public display! Apart from the photos, I can report a greater satisfaction with my muscle definition around my shoulders, back, and abdomen, but this is nothing that I can see in the photos I took. I believe that in the last year my pectoralis have gotten larger. Specifically, I think there is more muscle just below my clavicles, as they don't seem to stick out as much. I have also noticed more "cleavage" between my pecs, but my chest hair obscures any view of this. In sum, I want to believe that the whey protein improved the size and strength of my muscles but I've got no data to support that.

Of course a protein supplement alone will never build muscle tissue unless that tissue is worked to the point of failure. It is only when the muscle fibers tear or break (at a microscopic level) that additional protein is integrated into their structure, increasing the size of the muscle fibers. It is entirely possible that I did not work my muscles hard enough during the past year to encourage such muscle growth. Indeed, this is probably why I have not seen any obvious change in my physical form over the last year. Certainly I have not slacked off on my exercise program,  but I have concentrated much more on muscular endurance (via swimming and running) than hypertrophy (via weight lifting).

Has the whey supplement been a waste of money then? My answer is a firm "no." I am very confident in saying that the whey protein improved my health. During my adult life it has been typical for me to get a cold virus or some other illness twice a year. However, in 2010, I did not have symptoms of any such illness. There were a couple days in November when I had a slight sore throat and I thought it was the beginning of a cold, but the sore throat went away and my body apparently fought off the bug with success. As a biologist I am well aware that the body's immune system is very complex and relies on great quantities of protein to manufacture immune cells that seek out and destroy pathogens. I believe that while the whey protein did little to bolster my muscle tissue, it did provide the needed resources for my immune system to function at peak efficiency.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Updated Body Measurements Page

It's been six months since I last updated my blog's page on the effects of my fitness program on body measurements. So I've now gone through the page and updated things to reflect the state of my body in early Jabuary 2011. Click here for the update. In sum, my biceps and chest circumferences have stopped increasing, my body weight dropped, and I'm still not as cool as Michael Phelps was in 2008.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Second swim meet kicks my &$$

I joined a Master's Swim Team this year and I participated in my second meet on Sunday. I signed up for three races: (1) 25-yard freestyle, (2) 200-yard freestyle, and (3) 25-yard breaststroke. The first race was great. Wow, do I like the short distances! I can really power through them, skip the breathing, and be done in a matter of seconds. I am not particularly competitive because I'm new to swimming and in such a short distance a race is won or lost based on one's dive. My dives are rudimentary. Anyway, I submitted a seed time of 16.0 seconds and ended up with a race time of 15.87 seconds. Beating the seed time is the ultimate goal of this kind of competition; there are swimmers in other heats that swam faster than me, but much of Master's Swimming is all about beating your own records or expectations. Thus, my 25-yard freestyle was a successful race!

The 200 freestyle is a different story. My dive was bad (apparently my head was up), and this pulled my goggles down from my eyes to my mouth. During the first 25-yards I had these thoughts in succession: "My face feels funny; I wonder what that is about.....Oh, my goggles have slid off my eyes. Damn!.....Well, I'm swimming fine with them where they are, so maybe I can just ignore them.....[flip turn happened here]..... No, they are in my way as I breathe, so they must be moved.....I'll stop at the 50-yard mark and discard them......" And so that's what I did. After 50 yards, I stopped at the wall and attempted to pull them off my head and set them on the side next to the starting block. But they got hung up on the starting block and so I had to untangle them and place them next to the starting block. I then pushed off and swam hard to try to catch up with my competitors who didn't seem that far ahead of me at this point. In fact, I was probably the first to the wall at the 50-yard mark.

Two competitors in the 200-free have finished while I struggle on.
Well, after 100 yards of top-speed swimming, at which point I think I actually had caught up with my competitors, I was spent, and I had half the race to go. I couldn't keep up the pace. I slowed down and concentrated on long strokes and small flutter kicks. I skipped some flip turns as I ran out of energy and the concentration required to execute them. My eyes stung from the chlorine. My breathing was off my stroke rhythm.

I finally finished at a time of 3:12 (my seed time was 2:30), and as stopped at the wall and prepared to get out of the pool I realized people were clapping for me. That was a nice gesture, really. I guess everyone's been in my position before (goggle malfunction), and the folks were trying to keep my spirits up. I would have appreciated that a lot more if I wasn't completely exhausted and feeling extremely ill. I almost didn't have the strength or coordination to get out of the pool. I felt very drunk as I walked back to my friends at the other end of the pool, and then I sat down and concentrated on not vomiting and getting some blood back into my head. My friends were doing all they could to revive me but all I could do was grunt in return.

It took a banana and about 30 minutes for me to recover from my exhausted and confused state. Meanwhile, I missed the 25-yard breaststroke race. No problem there. Missing a race is better than dying in the pool! After I was back to normal and in the car with my girlfriend heading to a restaurant to meet some friends, I said to her: "You know, what happened today was the worst thing that can happen at a swim meet, and guess what? I'm OK. I'm not defeated. I can handle it!" And I was right. The following day (yesterday) I got back to business with my exercise routine. I ran 2.5 miles on the treadmill (some of that was at a 4% incline) and I lifted weights in the evening. And today I had swim practice with my coach for an hour. I swam 1400 yards, the most I've ever swam in one workout. I'm a great athlete and I look forward to my next swim meet.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sudden drop in body weight

I just updated the graphs and descriptions of how my fitness program, started about 2.5 years ago, has changed me in terms of physical dimensions. Please see the full page for considerable details on my body weight, fat percentage, and chest circumference has changed over the years. One big thing I noticed is that in 2010, my body weight reached a peak of 175 pounds in August and then dropped sharply to 171 in December. While 4 pounds is far from alarming, if you look at the trend in the graph below, you can see that the change is nevertheless significant.

What's that unusual drop in body weight in December 2010 about?
I have no convincing explanation for this drop. My stress level at work has been creeping up lately, but it's nothing I haven't handled before. My food intake might have decreased just a little over the last couple months, but so has my average exercise intensity and duration. I'm not sick or injured in any way, and in fact, I'm experiencing just the opposite kind of feelings, as I have recently fallen in love with a great gal. That's got to count for something, and love should not decrease one's body weight!

Of all the explanations above, I've got to conclude that the stress from work has taken its toll. My psyche is usually the last one to know when I'm stressed out. Usually my body gets sick or injured, and then I realize I've been under too much stress. Perhaps this drop in body weight is a signal to keep that stress in check and get back to a more relaxing pace in my work. Easier said than done!