The Scribbler

28 March 2013

Swim kit test – Speedo power paddles

Recently the nice people at simplyswim sent me a couple of items of kit to test out. I’ve already reviewed the Pool Mate swim watch, so now it’s the turn of the Speedo Power Paddles.

According to the blurb on the box, these are designed to add speed and power to your stroke on your swim.

Now, I have a lot to work on with my swim – head positioning, breathing, kick, arm entry…it’s a long list, but no-one’s mentioned power before now, so I was curious as to how these would make a difference.

My first task was to put them together. The paddles come in a box with two lengths of rubber tubing that you can thread through the holes in the paddles to make wrist and finger straps.

There are no instructions with the paddles, so I used the picture on the front of the box as a guide and measured up against my own hands. This left me with a lot of tubing left over, so I ended up cutting one piece in half and threading both paddles with this.

Next up was the question of how best to use them. The blurb on the back of the box suggests they’re not the kind of thing you want to use for the whole of a swim session, so I thought I’d incorporate them in my warm up and as part of my technique drills.

I managed to find this video featuring Team GB swim coach Ben Titley and swimmer Liam Tancock  to give me a few ideas  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvqCa_dhbC8
The paddles they use are slightly different, but the principles should be the same.

So, off to the pool, I went to try them out. After a few warm up lengths, I tried the paddles first with the pull buoy and then without.

You can immediately feel how the paddles strengthen your stroke through the water and pull you along. It’s a good feeling until you get your stroke wrong and then the paddles are really unforgiving. If I dropped my elbow and let my hand flatten as it hit the water, the resistance was enough to completely stop my stroke and even force the paddle off my fingertips. It was a good way of making sure I concentrated on improving my hand entry on every stroke.

I found the tubing stretched a bit in the water, so I tightened up the lacing a bit next time I used them. But the first time, I just wanted to get on with my swim and didn’t want to waste time trying to fix them in the pool.

I could certainly see their value for giving you a good upper body workout and improving your strength through your shoulders and arms. When I took the paddles off to do my main swim set, I really felt the difference in speed and pull through the water.

I’ll carry on using them as part of my warm up and technique drills, but I do think they’re best used in moderation. I’ve built up quite a bit of upper body muscle strength and endurance through weight and resistance training on dry land, so didn’t experience any particular soreness around my back and shoulders, but I could see how this might be an issue for some people.

But for regular swimmers who maybe don’t have as much time for weight training, this could be a good way to add a some pool-based resistance work.

The paddles themselves could be improved if they came with a bit more guidance about how they should fit and how you can use them, with some examples of drills. Even just a web link to more information or the training video I found would be helpful to someone like me who is new to using them.

That makes me think they’re more a tool for a serious swimmer, or someone who benefits from regular coached swims. And if you’re looking to add more upper body strength in the water, then they seem like a winner.

I’m always keen to learn hints and tips to improve my swimming, so even if they just help me nail that hand entry into the water, that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, it’s always fun trying out new swim kit and keeping my training interesting.

simplyswim sent me the Speedo power paddles and just asked if I’d write a review of them, so all opinions are my own. They’re opening a triathlon section on their website soon, so I shall be interested to see what products they feature.

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24 March 2013

Starting to come good

Filed under: run,swim,training — The Scribbler @ 22:42
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A couple of weeks ago, I was wrestling with some thoughts and expectations ahead of my first race of the season. My training has been noticeably different to previous years, with a firm triathlon focus and I was reflecting that perhaps I ought not to expect too much from my running, as it hasn’t been my sole focus.

But this week has blasted those doubts out of my mind with a brilliant run. I usually train with my PT on Thursday morning, but a change of plans meant there was an option of a Friday session and a chance for us to take on a 10k together.

There had been a shimmer of snow overnight, the ground a frosty white, with a crust of ice over the edges of the Tyne. We ran together along beside the bridges, in casual conversation, watching our footing on the slippery patches. The early morning air was still and bitter cold, but moving in step together, I did not feel it.

Ian’s got me running forefoot and when I started to tire and drop back onto my heels, he got me to think about one of our running drills and suddenly the pace picked up, and I felt light and easy again.

I had not looked at my watch. We ran to feel, but Ian was mindful of the pace I’d told him I’d been doing in training and determined to see me break it.

We turned and ran back towards our start point in the brightening light as the river began to come to life. As the end approached, he asked how I felt, and I answered honestly that the distance was starting to make itself felt in my hips, glutes and calves. “Ease back, then,” he said, “just a little,” and it felt like we just relaxed and I gained my balance again.

Not far to the finish, and we push on, my aching limbs forgotten. I even break into something approaching a sprint as we pick our finishing point, just short of 10K as it turns out, but mere metres. The time on the watch 53:48.

I can barely believe it. I haven’t run a 10K in under an hour this year.

I’d have been delighted with that if I’d raced it. But I didn’t race. I just ran, holding a conversation, dipping in and out of pockets of pace, and never once feeling like quitting, even when the aches hit. Looking at the stats later, we actually got faster every mile apart from the last one, and there was only a 4 second drop off on that one.

So there’s more to come. More to come from the new running style. More to come from the race experience. More to come from my competitive streak. Next Sunday’s race looks a whole lot more exciting. And that’s just the start of my season.

This week has also been swim focused, with three sessions in the pool for me. I almost always see an improvement when I get regular swim sessions in, and this week, I’ve been trying out some drills, paddles and working on my technique.

Today, I had the luxury of the pool to myself as I started and I decided just to get in and swim, no warm up, no drills, just a good endurance swim. I did 4x400m front crawl, with only 10 secs rest between sets, focusing on swimming smoothly, remembering to kick and trying to turn, rather than lift my head to breathe.

Timing each set with my PoolMate, I was very pleased to see I completed each 400m in around 8 mins 30 compared to my recent times of just over 9 minutes. It takes time to see a swim improvement, and there’s still loads to work on, but I’m beginning to see the benefits of the swim coaching and drills.

So, to borrow a phrase from Chrissie Wellington – no limits. Dream big, dream out loud at a high volume. Believe it and achieve it.

22 March 2013

Swim kit test – PoolMate watch

I’ve recently been sent some swim kit from simplyswim.com to test and review. First up was the PoolMate – a swimming watch designed to help with training, counting lengths, timing and working out how efficiently you swim.

Pool Mate swim watch

PoolMate swim watch

The PoolMate looks like a standard digital watch. The one I got was bright blue, but it also comes in black, grey and pink. It’s nice and neat and not too big and bulky to wear on your wrist. In fact, one day I tried it, I forgot to take my regular watch, so ended up wearing it all day at work.

It has four metal buttons that you use to set up the various modes and scroll through the information on the screen. The first thing I had to do was to set it up for the length of the pool, tell it how much I weighed so it could calculate the calories I burned and on which hand I would be wearing it. It was very easy to do and with a few button pushes, I was ready to hit the pool.

This watch is waterproof, but only suitable for use in a pool. It’s won’t track your distance or swim stats in open water. But it does allow you to set different pool lengths from 18m upwards, and you can even measure in yards.

In the pool, the screen was clear and easy to read. I just pressed the start button before I set off and began my swim.

I’ve got pretty used to counting my lengths now. But when I first started swimming, I was often concentrating so much on getting my breathing right, that I’d lose track.  You can set the PoolMate to show either distance or number of lengths as you’re swimming, and as I gave it a glance at the end of a length or two of front crawl it kept perfectly on track.

At the end of my warm up, I pressed the start button again and it went into pause mode before I started my main set. That was really useful as I could also time the rest in between swim sets.  I went on to swim 3x400m front crawl, using the PoolMate to keep a check on the number of lengths and pausing it after each set. Each time you pause, you can see the time taken for the last set on the screen for a few seconds, before it starts counting up your rest time.

The instructions that come with the watch warn you, that you should only press the buttons out of the water. That seems pretty sensible as you’re unlikely to be able to look at the watch as you swim, but you can glance at the end of a length or when you finish a set.

At the end of my last set, I paused the timer and scrolled through the options to see how long I’d been swimming, how many lengths I’d done in total, and also what the real time was. That’s a really useful feature if you’re busy trying to fit in training and want to make sure you can still get to work on time!

The total number of lengths was out by 1, but I put that down to the fact that I’d had to stop part way through one of my warm up drills to adjust the swim paddles I was also testing (more on those soon). Otherwise, the count was perfect.

Having seen my total lengths, I couldn’t resist rounding it off to a round number, knowing that would take my overall swim distance to 1.6K or 1 mile with my cool down. So far, I’d only tested the PoolMate with front crawl and related swim drills, but on my cool down I also tried a few lengths of breast stroke and back stroke. Again, it kept note of the number of lengths perfectly.

Now, it’s well known that us triathletes like our kit, especially gadgets. And since I started running I’ve got used to tracking my training with some sort of app or watch and downloading it to pore over the stats when I got home.

So I felt a bit strange when there was nothing to download and no watch to recharge with the PoolMate. There is upgraded version, the Pool Mate Pro that does allow you to download your swim stats to your PC. But with the basic watch you can still review a lot of information about your session, including time, calories burned, swim efficiency and number of strokes.

Because I’d paused between each of my 400m sets, I was able to see that I’d swum them all at a similar pace. And I was very happy to see that they were all faster than my competition time from last year.

It does take a bit of button pressing to go through the different screens to get all the stats and at one point I managed to get the erase option by mistake. Handily, you have to confirm you want to erase a swim, so I didn’t lose my data. I guess once you’re used to the sequence of screens, it becomes easier to scroll through to get the information you want.

And, as for recharging,  the PoolMate takes a standard watch battery and the manufacturers reckon it should last 12 months, depending on how often you swim. But they do warn you to take it to a professional watch repair or send it back to them to make sure it remains water tight.

So, overall, what did I think of the PoolMate?

I think it’s a great swimming watch at a reasonable price. It’s simple to use and a good way of keeping track of your swim sessions.  I liked that you could also check on the real time when you were in the pool and that it’s small and neat and comfortable enough to wear as a regular watch.

My only criticism is that although it can provide a lot of data, it’s not so easy to view it after your swim. And if you wanted to compare performance over a period of time you’d have to find some way of recording your stats, maybe using a spreadsheet, or upgrade to the more expensive PoolMate Pro.

I reckon the PoolMate would make a great gift for a regular pool swimmer or help encourage someone who is looking to improve their swimming and getting frustrated with counting their lengths or taking times from the pool clock.

I was sent the PoolMate by simplyswim.com, who only asked that I write a blog post about it. The views are entirely my own.

17 March 2013

I passed :-)

On Saturday morning I took the last part of my assessment to become a Level 2 gym instructor and I’m very happy to say that I passed.

It’s something I’ve been working on since September, learning through books and online tutorials about anatomy and physiology, then the principles of fitness and planning a programme. I sat a couple of theory exams in November and presented a load of course work at the end of January, so the final element was to take someone into a gym environment and demonstrate a workout and to be assessed on that.

I was incredibly nervous. It felt way out of my comfort zone and I so wanted to do well. For the past couple of weeks people around me have been telling me I’d be fine, I’d breeze it, I’d put the work in, I’d be sure to pass. And that’s really nice to hear, especially from people whose opinions you trust and people who have themselves taken similar fitness qualifications.

But still, I couldn’t be sure. I’m very good at book learning, recalling facts and demonstrating that I understand the principles behind them. But I’m far less comfortable with practical tasks. And with so much of this course being conducted online, with no direct contact with the teachers, I hadn’t had the chance to see what they were expecting.

I knew I knew it, but could I show it? It was a bit like sitting an interview or taking your driving test. There are things you have to demonstrate safely, but also things you have to remember to show you are doing, like observing the client, getting feedback on the level of exercise, making sure they understand.

Luckily my client for the day, Erika was very understanding as we got to the assessment centre very early and sat waiting in the reception area. Nerves were absolutely on edge as I spotted other people going in for assessment and my time came and no one had been over.

But it was fine. They were just a little delayed and I got chance to look around the gym and check out a couple of the machines before the assessment proper.

The gym is just a regular community gym, rather a nice one actually, but we had to work around other people there using the equipment. That meant I didn’t do things in the order I’d planned in my head. But once I got going, I was fine. I got into the swing of demonstrating and instructing, moving around to watch from different positions and pick up on key posture and teaching points.

The time flew and a couple of times the assessor asked us to move onto the next exercise. As we came to the last set of weights, both machines I’d planned to use were busy, so he asked if I could substitute another one. I even managed to cope with that.

And suddenly we were stretching and it was done. A bit of feedback in a side room, a couple of questions for me to answer based on the session and then the good news that I’d passed. The assessor even asked if I’d thought about taking it on to the next level.

The qualification itself would allow me to go and work in a gym and create weight and cardio programmes for clients, show them how to do exercises safely. And now I have the basics, I could top it up with something like a 1 or 2 day course to teach spinning or an exercise class. But ultimately I’d like to go down the personal training route. So that’s something to focus on in future.

For now, it’s been my first step into seeing if I could do it. If I could manage the demands of working full time, studying under my own guidance and still keeping up with my own interests and training. And I have. And I’ve learned a lot along the way.

This is something I wouldn’t even have thought of doing a few years ago, but I have really enjoyed it and it’s tested me. I’ve had loads of support, particularly from Ian who first made me think about doing it, and Simon from the gym at work who gave up his time so I could run through a couple of practice sessions.

Erika was a brilliant test client, putting up with loads of form filling and getting hot and sweaty on a treadmill. She must have been sick of hearing me by the end of the assessment. And my running pal Diane gave me a big confidence boost when we managed to work out together at the gym. Needless to say, Gary has supported me too and seen first hand the frustrations at not getting things right first time, or my nervousness about taking the exams.

So, if you offered to help me out, sent me a good luck message or tweet, a massive thank you.

5 March 2013

Further adventures of the distressingly accident prone

No snow at parkrun this Saturday, but it was bitingly cold on the town moor, so I jogged off across the grass to warm up.

‘Hmm, must tighten my shoe laces before I start. Oh, this grass is about softer than I expected. I’ll run that way to get back on the path. Oh no, that’s even worse!’

The town moor claimed my left trainer. And less than a second afterwards made sure that sock could never be described as white again.

‘Now what? Wet muddy sock inside the wet muddy shoe? Or sockless on my left side?’ The muddy accessory was turned inside out and dumped with my fleece by the fence as I tested out my new barefoot trainer. I was very glad I hadn’t worn my brand new shoes.

Not quite the start I imagined for my first time out in my 50th parkrun shirt, but we were soon off and I was on a mission to chase down a fast run. I pelted off, too fast at first in truth, into the wind and towards Gate 1.

Runners at Newcastle parkrun

Running along Grandstand Road at parkrun

The turn along Grandstand Road, sheltered by the trees and showered by the warming sunshine saw me swipe off my hat and enjoy my favourite part of this route. I recently watched a video on barefoot running and one of the bits of advice that stuck in my head was a subtle thinking about lifting the hips. So I gave it a try, and felt like I really covered the ground more quickly, overtaking a couple of runners.

I kept turning on the power, then easing it off, conscious of keeping my feet light and hoping my sockless state wouldn’t mean blisters. But shortly after 2k and the return to the moor paths, I got a stitch high up in my ribs. I hardly ever get a stitch, so I reflected on a tough week of training, eased back a little and concentrated on my breathing. I managed to shift it, but I knew I’d lost some pace going into the tricky 3rd kilometre.

Back into the wind over the roughest part of the course and it was tough going, so it was a relief to turn back onto the smooth tarmaced path and know there was just 1km to go. I kept thinking lift the hips and used the lamp posts as markers, picking a spot to power on to.

There were a couple of girls close by me who had overtaken me and I managed to catch and pass them. Into the final corner and one of them was close by again, but I knew I still had the push and I powered down the last few metres, overtaking another couple of runners to cross the line in just over 27 minutes.

I was hoping for something closer to 26, but can’t really complain after a fantastic week’s training. The tri day on Tuesday really kicked things off and I’ve enjoyed every session this week.

On Thursday, I trained with Ian on the beach as usual and it was a tough session, but so nice to finish in daylight, with the sun peeking over the rocks. At the other end of the day, I hit the pool for my second swim of the week.

I don’t normally double train on a PT day, but I hoped the swim would help me avoid aching muscles and it meant I could have a complete rest day on Friday. I fell into bed on Thursday night, with the satisfying tiredness of a great set of training.

On Friday morning, I got into work early to do a practice gym session with Simon, one of the instructors from the work gym. It’s the first time I’ve tried my instructor mode, and it gave me loads of confidence ahead of my final assessment in a couple of weeks’ time. Still loads to think about and make sure I cover on the day, so I hope to get a few more practice sessions under my belt. But it’s fantastic to have such great support.

On Sunday, I explored a new route on my bike. It felt fantastic to be out, just enjoying a fairly easy effort, but out for a fairly long ride and finishing off with a rather steep hill. Next time I’ll ride it in reverse!

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