It's that time of the year again...physical tapering and mental charging is well underway for the ÖtillÖ Swimrun World Championships. Stop training and start writing is what works best for me in these final days. For us (Team Say No! to Doping) it’s the fourth time we participate in this classic swimrun event. I guess the main reason we keep coming back is simply because without pain there is no scale for our emotions. It’s only when we suffer, we learn to appreciate the value and meaning of things. Of course this does not mean that we start hitting each other with a hammer on race day...even though we have come close to throwning things at each other but that’s a different story.
When you move in different terrain the body and mind are subjected to different stress levels. The trick is to do something clever with the signals your brain receives. The rational brain processes this enormous amount of data and tries to make sense out of it. If you think of your body as a complex machine than the rational brain is the control center where an army of brain cells is flicking back and forth through pages of an ancient book with the title: "Pain signal interpretation for Dummies". Unfortunately there are quite a few pages missing and this is where the Feeling Brain comes in. It will just come up with something and does whatever it feels like. It’s a bit like playing the game Master Mind: it's a repetitve process of logic and intuition to figure out the correct 5 colors…we’ll get back to that later.
Course knowledge vs Body knowledge
So, every year there are heaps of swimrunners at the start line of ÖtillÖ. A lot of them have never put a foot in Sweden let alone Utö or Sandhamn. It’s true that one of the biggest advantages you can have as a team is to practice the course. If you know what’s coming you can adjust your pace accordingly. Also, your brain can be “in the moment” because it has already build a visual memory of the last 3km on Utö, the exit point of the pig swim or that nasty 1,5km trail section on Kymmendö Bunsön. End result: optimum pacing means less muscle fatigue and as such there is more stored energy left in the muscles to turn it into speed at the latter stages of the race.
So, what to do if you’re new to ÖtillÖ or simply don’t live in Sweden. Well, you study the maps. Certain terrain and weather conditions will cause specific (stress and pain) signals. As long as you engage your brain to recognize them and react with an appropriate action then the race will be a meaningful experience if not, then all these signals will be nothing more then an “unpleasant distraction” and that's a serious waste of energy, if you ask me.
So, in order to make things easy I summarized my personal “Swimrun Signal Play List”:
1) Lactic acid production ( i.e. running or swimming too fast on gravel or road sections, steep uphills, cold starts, not enough electrolyte in-take)
2) Muscle fiber/tissue damage (i.e. eccentric running on rocks, steep descents, sudden stops, sharp turns, sudden alterations in terrain conditions mainly)
3) Body temperature mismanagement (i.e. overheating on long runs or shivering cold on long swims or where run sections between swims are technical)
4) Brain drain fundamentals (i.e. over analyzing, thinking too much ahead, wrong focus, talking non-stop, negative team spirit, lack of mental preparation)
1. Lactic acid signals come in “different frequencies and strength”. Below are a few examples:
2. Muscle pain and fatigue signals are like "snipers in a war zone": they take their time to infiltrate but when they are strategically positioned and pull the trigger you will be lethally wounded. This trigger point will normally happen after 4-5 hours of racing after which it's the same for everybody: Are you mentally tough enough to cope with the pain while maintaining a certain pace to get to the finish line? Really, that becomes the question and it's not something you can train for. It's your primal survival instinct which only comes out on race day. Below a few ideas on muscle fatigue:
3. Body temperature mismanagement
Swimrun is one of the few sports where heat management plays a vital role to ensure optimum performance. During ÖtillÖ your body (36 deg C) has to manage well over fifty transitions where the temperatures ranges between air (20 deg C) and water (15 deg C).
4. Brain Drain Fundamentals
Roughly 20% of your energy is spend "between your ears" so if you want to race economic it’s worthwhile figuring in advance how best to engage your brain on race day. It basically boils down to ensuring a "happy marriage" between our rational brain and our feeling brain. As we all know, the feeling brain is “the boss in the house” but just a bit slow when it comes down to decision making. The only way to get some action out of "the Diva" is to keep it short and simple. It's almost like a restaurant menu, if you put 40 options there you spend double the amount of time to make a decision. While encountering different terrain and swim conditions I put my Signal Play List on a "3 seconds toggle mode". This engagement between body and mind shortens the time between sensing the slightest signal of “feeling crap” and an appropriate action to reduce the source of the problem by: reducing speed, adjusting stroke rate, cabbing down wet suit or taking a gel. Train it enough and it will become a subconcious brain routine which will burn the least amount of calories. Strong Neural pathways will be build between cause and effect according to the following body and mind algorithm:
Sense - Recognise - Judge - Process - Act - Fine tune (repeat ).
It's just like dancing....the Rational Brain is the Dance Instructor and is teaching the Feeling Brain to recognise each Song (Signal), come up with the right dance moves (Judge & Process) then adjust the moves according to changes in rhythm (Act and fine tune).
Our preparation slides for ÖtillÖ:
We participated in the third edition of swimrun The Escape from Svartholma. The 30km race organized by Strömfors Outdoor took place about an hour's drive East from Helsinki. Race director Topi Lintukangas and partner Sebastian Dannberg recognized the unique opportunity for people to re-live history in a backdrop of stunning nature. With careful attention to detail they developed a first class swimrun package with a 30km course on Saturday and a shorter 10km sprint race on Sunday.
The 30km race is limited to 40 teams only so I could clearly sense that the organization has put a lot of emphasis on providing a quality experience. My immediate reaction after crossing the finish line was: "Damn, these guys are masters at designing a course to test both your swim and run fitness. In a way it's the perfect "Cooper Test" to see if you’re ready to step up to longer and more demanding point-to-point races. For instance, almost all swim sections are longer than 800 meters making it more demanding than your average "5 minute power swim". Navigating skills, pacing, swim efficiency, equipment set-up turned out to be important factors where 20% (or 5,8km) of the total distance is covered in the sea. Good news for super swimmers like Janne Blomqvist and Juha Lindfors but more challenging for us "self-made swim wannabees"... Luckily the race also provides ample opportunity for the runners to claw back some time. Several fast-paced gravel runs with one suicidal 12km run in the middle make it a tactical race to see which team get’s to the final 3,5km trail section first.
So how did the race unfold for Team Say No! to Doping? Well, on race day we were not sure if we were going to start. Jasmina suffers a lot from breathing complications especially during the dry (hay) season. Having said that (cold) water does wonders for the lungs and throat so the fact that the first 900m swim was already after 300m of running gave us courage to start the race. At least we could say: Yes, we escaped from Svartholma!!!!
After a short bus and boat ride we all arrived at historic island of Svartholma for a collective warm-up. It never get’s boring…pre-race checks, race rituals, last sip of electrolyte drink, dip in the sea, loosen up those shoulders, hug here, tap on the back there. BANG!!!! the canon went off and the Great Escape was on officially on it’s way….try to catch us if you can!!! Entering the water for the first 900m swim I was relieved to see that Jasmina was able to keep up the pace. Not a bad start at all. Just in front of us we saw “swimrun fugitives” Juha and Jaakko (from Team IF Solvalla Vargarna aka Team Ju-Ja) getting out of the water. Not long after we managed to reunite with them and during the second (2,3km) run some very dark clouds gathered out of nowhere and within minutes we were greeted by “the Beast from the East": ice cold rain and wind coming from Siberia. How cool is that? Lucky for us, the shower only lasted for a few minutes before it turned clear skies again.
Entering the water again for the Classic Tripla Juusto" swim (i.e. Classic tripple cheese) you really needed to have some serious appetite to conquer this monster swim. Only three tiny slices of land separate the three swims of 1100m, 300m and 400m. Looking at Juha and Jaakko I was convinced they skipped breakfast in the morning because they went through this part of the course like it was just a little apetiser. On the other hand, we struggled to keep a
constant swim pace and straight line. Not having done this race before meant that we were a bit slow on transitions and aid station stops but that’s all part of the challenge to adapt ad-hoc.
TIP 1: So, if you have a chance to practice the course do it because it’s a big advantage to know in advance the changes in terrain, swim entry / exit points and aid station locations. It prepares you mentally and physically to spread your energy equally over the race. Efficient pacing and as a result heat management are two crucial elements in longer swimrun races.
By the time we got out of the water Team Ju-Ja had already disappeared with a lead of around 3 minutes. While trying to sneak out of somebodies backyard we got spotted by the owner and some friends having lunch. We said: "Sorry for tress passing your property, we are fugitives from Svartholma"... He replied in Finnish with: Aha, no niiin! which can basically mean everything from: "you crazy idiots" to "OK, no problem".. I hope it was the latter.
Back on the course we covered a short (1,5km) undulating run stretch mostly on gravel. By the time we entered the water for another 900m swim I could just see Juha and Jaakko about half way. I said to Jassu: Damn, these swims are friggin long I can barely see the exit points!...only to find out later from other participants that the total swim distance is actually closer to 6km's than 5km's. Well, as they say: "if it does not kill you, it will make you stronger...mmmh I hope so!"
Tip 2: spray your left shoe sole bright red and your right shoe sole bright green. Why? While the lead swimmer is busting his butt off the lag swimmer can easily help out by making sure the lead swimmer stays on course. In case the lead swimmer is starting to deviate from the fastest line the lag swimmer can tap the left or the right foot with a paddle to hint in which direction a swim correction has to be made. In addition, the bright colors make drafting a lot more easier and efficient. In the meantime the lead swimmer can focus more on maintaining an efficient "head down" swim position for longer periods. Jasmina is able to spot an ant with a beach flag at 1km distance, me on the other hand struggle to see anything but “cute dancing girls in bikinis”. Maybe it’s something Topi can organize for next year?
Time to get sweaty….starting the 12km run stretch we put on our turbo and while blasting over undulating country roads at a suicidal pace of around 4:15 minutes/km we soon reached aid station No 4, half way at 6km's. After cooling down our overheated radiators with some cool refreshments we continued our quest to the finish line. Unfortunately we lost too much time on the swims that we couldn't catch the leading team anymore when entering the 800m swim which led to a famous local bridge called “Savukoski”. Apparently when it was build, a unique slim concrete foundation was used. It was a revolution at the time but unfortunately the concrete pillars did not last and so the bridge was commercialy taken out of use way before it's design life. Being an engineer by background I found that stuff interesting but maybe it’s not... Anyway, we survived running over the bridge and while making our way towards the final to last swim of 550m we were wondering which way to go. The sign said straight ahead but there was no beach flag on the other side....did we miss something? Also, no sign of Team Ju-Ja so at the end we decided to just jump in and look around the corner to the left. Luckily we spotted the leading fugitives in front of us but with a broken pulling cord we decided not to mess around to fix it and just swim seperately to the other exit point.
Jasmina got out of the water with 5kg’s of nutritious seaweed attached to the broken pulling cord….I casually mentioned: Did you run out of gels or something?
Following on from there we could sense that we were getting closer to Strömfors because the terrain changed from undulating country roads to rocky trails which were actually good fun to run. Distracted by the smell of food we almost missed a turn and two minutes later we reached the final swim of the day. Not sure if you can call 20m a swim but jumping in the water without taking the effort to zip-up or put gear on was clearly a stupid idea…we both spend double the amount of time to get across and it looked ridiculous…luckily nobody was there to witness and record it...
Tip 3: Even though you can’t control Mother Nature, never assume things, be ready to react to sudden changes in conditions, until you're past the finish line.
A few minutes later we crossed the finish line in second place without any injuries. What a bonus! Team Ju-Ja smashed the course record of last year by over 45 minutes. We ended up being 5 minutes slower in our first attempt at this race. Next year we know more and hit that Iron Nail on the Head! But….first sauna, barbeque and pan cakes. By the way, has anybody seen our kids?
Hereby, I would like to thank Topi, Seba and all volunteers for a great weekend out with the family. We felt a warm and genuine welcome from the minute we arrived. Kiitos!
Elvin (6) shows how it’s done naturally (during his first 1km race)..
“GET READY, SET….GOOOOOO!”.....it does not matter where we are: pre-school, super market, parking lot, airport…..”the race to beat papa or mama is always on”...anytime of the day. Sprinting like a maniac across the school yard I am trying to keep up with some turbo charged speedy Gonzalez. This “rocket boy” has no mercy for a half-a-sleep, stiff old man. Like a squirrel in “rally mode” Elvin jumps over tires and benches without effort or loss of momentum. My desperate shouts for a “false start” are in vain as he rapidly approaches the front door…”damn there is only 20 meters left to go”….papa with a heart rate that should be forbidden at 7:30 in the morning makes a final attempt to close the gap. In the last 5 meters, when Elvin has already started to slow down, convinced of his epic victory of the day, I make a final surge before slamming into the building wall. Just like in a 60m indoor sprint final. While still gasping for air I hear Elvin say: “that was fun papa! Let’s do it again!” to which I reply: “yeah sure, man if it doesn’t kill me it will make you stronger, right?...”.
So, what’s my point? Well, kids are naturally gifted to accelerate their physical development. They do it by embracing failure and with a phenomenal sense of playfulness that make us all look like a bunch of nutty professors trying to re-invent the wheel. Wow! As we get older, whether we like it or not, we have already subconsciously defined our limits even though we consciously try to ignore them on race day. Kids on the other hand, go out sprinting whether it’s a 100m race or a 1km race….they have no set boundaries when it comes to speed, endurance, mobility, balance and coordination. “Ignorance is bliss” when developing your own unique natural running style at a young age. It only starts to become an issue when we stop running and moving around naturally and start to live sedentary live styles.
Swimrun not for the crazy, sexy, cool? Think again...after reading this “adult rated” review I am sure that the young (and not so innocent) will rip open your next shady on-line purchase while reading the content description: “stick it between your legs, it feels soft yet rough enough so it does not pop up and by the way the maximum size for usage is a whopping 60cm! Be ready that your kids might say something like: Wow dad awesome! I didn’t know you were into XXX rated blow-up dolls. The only way to win this is to leave them in complete confusion by saying: “dude listen, your mom and me only dig the real stuff and by the way your insulting our most essential and beloved pool boy!” Also known to most us in the swimrun community as: the pull buoy!
I am not going to hide it…Jasmina knows…if there would be a tinder for PB’s I would flirt with every single pull buoy out there. Besides designing, building and experimenting with my own PB’s I like to try out different models on the market to see what works best for me and Jasmina. Guess what, I figured out by now that the “feel good” factor is probably the one that makes the difference for me. When this feeling wears off it’s time for something else and even more exciting. This process keeps repeating itself. Yes, it’s true the grass is greener on the other side….as far as pull buoys is concerned…. gotta watch my words here. So, there you have it, I have an extramarital life with my pull buoy collection! Hey at least it’s better then a boring barby doll collection, right? If you decide to start a relationship with a new pull buoy then here are a couple of take away’s for your upcoming “speed date” session. In a nut shell:
1) Weight – you have to carry this piece of kit with you to the finish line. In the water you don’t notice the weight but if you have to run with a 1kg PB on your leg or wrapped around your waist…..it will start to bounce or drop. It’s annoying and it distracts your attention. My advise: the lighter the better…but not those “super skinny models because they tend to break in no time when you lay on top of them coming out of the water”…choose a “firm and sturdy model” they last a lot longer and are more reliable.
2) Length – whatever they say: “size DOES matter”….the maximum length a pull buoy can be is 60cm this is to prevent people turning up with….you guessed it: ”blow up dolls or worse”….. All fun aside…a massive pull buoy can be cumbersome on technical trails where zig zagging your way through forest becomes more like a “tree vs pull buoy” wrestling contest. Nowadays the general trend is that a swimrun pull buoy length is about two times the length of a conventional swim pull buoy….after plastic surgery and a botox job of course.
3) Material – the most commonly used material for a PB is EVA foam (or similar). It is soft enough to prevent rubbing, rough enough to prevent it from popping up out of the water or slipping down your leg whilst running. It’s also hydrophobic (i.e. the opposite effect of a sponge… so it sheds water rather then absorbing it – makes sense no?). Finally, if you drop it on the rocks it does not break but merely gets a dent (at most). There is also a trend where pull buoys are made of a harder and perhaps smoother material like (hard) plastic, composite or (polished) epoxy / glass fiber. I use both kinds and don’t really have a preference. I guess the good thing with foam is that you can make small shape adjustments quite easily. Secretly I am still waiting for a pull buoy with some sort of (kinky?) latex cover for extra smoothness. I already experimented with a latex cover around the shoes for this reason with mixed success I must say.
4) Shape – hold on now!...this is getting really personal…I like my ideal pull buoy to be quite bulky. The upper and lower floatation elements need to be quite large so that my legs are lifted as close as possible to the air / water interface. In other words I want to prevent my
legs and feet from sinking or dangling behind me. It’s always amazing to experience the additional amount of drag a pair of shoes generate when you do your first outdoor swimrun.
5) Fit – this is THE most important criteria if you ask me. It needs to fit like a glove. A good pull buoy just sits there and shouldn’t move at all. In “pull buoy Kamasutra” terms: “treat it like a lady” – no excessive squeezing force should be applied by the legs. This means that the “bridge of the pull buoy” (i.e. the part that is thin) needs to be just the right size so that the contact pads on either side fill up against your inner thighs all the way. Like this you will have no unwanted water turbulence and maximum friction to prevent the pull buoy from moving. Recently ARK has come up with a pull buoy shape that is slightly different in the sense that it has cut out a little bit of foam on one side of the pull buoy which allows it to be snug around your “family jewelry” even more.
6) Body type – today most manufacturers make a “one size fits all” type of pull buoy but with 3D printing advancements I am sure that in the future you can choose certain shape dimensions to suit your body type. For instance I have rather long skinny o legs whereas Jassu has more short bulky muscle legs so the shape of the pull buoy should be tailor made to fit in between two different kind of legs that have different buoyancy behavior. So remember: if the PB simply feels good (i.e. nice and tight) in between your legs…that’s a good thing and you don’t need to be shy about it to your partner either. Trust me Jasmina has thrown at least half a dozen of my tailor made prototype design’s in the bin. After a pool swim I would ask her: “so tell me how was your speed date? She would say something like: “we had a great time but it was slightly too long so it did not take long before we got into a fight”…oops sorry to hear that darling.
7) Effect of body position in the water – swimming with a pull buoy (and shoes on) is entirely different than normal swimming. In fact I dare to say that it has almost nothing to do with conventional swimming because there is no leg kick involved. All the power and propulsion comes from your upper body, yet your core must be strong enough to keep your body in a straight line to prevent “snaking”. I don’t have a lot of body fat so I lay relatively deep in the water which means that I have to displace more water to move forward. Other people have more body fat which helps them to float better and displace less water. So my point is that I need relatively more pull buoy floatation compared to naturally talented swimmers who tend to have more body fat and therefore often swim with a smaller pull buoy. The last thing you want is a pull buoy that is too big because then your body rotation will get messed up (i.e. your center of gravity is too close to the surface resulting in bobbing from one side to the other) which will negatively affect your catch and push phase as well as your ability to swim straight.
8) Effect of swim technique – as mentioned earlier there is a huge advantage if you frequently swim in the pool with your race gear on (i.e. unused shoes, wetsuit, pull buoy and paddles). Only then you will notice that other muscles are over used and others under used compared to swimming just in your swim trunks. The gym is a good place to strengthen those muscles separately.
9) Effect of swimrun suit and paddles - Swimming with a big pull buoy allows for swimming with big paddles because there is less drag due to improved buoyancy. At some point it becomes more of a power or pure strength work-out I feel. Depending on the type of wetsuit in combination with your pull buoy (i.e. high or low buoyancy effect) it is trial and error between laying deep in the water (which is great for maintaining a straight line and good technique) or laying close to the surface (which is great to save energy and generate speed). Not easy is all I can say….and there is continuous debate about what supposedly works best….time will tell. I just stick to running fast to compensate for my stif swimmers
ankles….One thing I am a big believer in is that your wetsuit can be thin and less buoyant as long as your pull buoy can compensate for it. It does wonders for your average running speed.
10) Seawater vs lakes – not surprisingly swimming in salty (sea) water requires less additional buoyancy material due to the natural buoyancy effect of seawater. Is the impact big so that you need a pull buoy for both salt water and lake water? I don’t think so but you definitely notice the difference. You just have to get used to it and adapt…
11) Effect of swim distance (short vs long) – different strategies apply here….if the individual swim distances are short but many, it means that your swims need to be explosive (so use a big pull buoy and big paddles). It’s a bit like a “tractor pulling” contest where all the power comes from the upper body and the rest simply follows. It’s not very efficient but it’s fast. If the distances get longer this strategy is not very economic and I don’t recommend it. Then it’s better to consider playing it safe and downsize your pull buoy and paddle combination a little bit. Of course there are different ways to approach this subject so it depends what your strengths and weaknesses are. Think about it and try different set-ups.
12) Sea state conditions – in rough weather where there is significant swell and waves it may be better to opt for a slightly smaller pull buoy. The net effect is that you lay deeper in the water so you’re not thrown all over the place and it’s relatively easier to swim a straight line. Flat sea state conditions are more forgiving so you can go for a bigger pull buoy and paddle set-up and power yourself to the next transition.
13) Consumable – pull buoys don’t last which is a great thing if you ask me. It just means that you can try out a new one every season. Don’t swim around with a damaged or even leaking pull buoy at some point the foam will absorb water so it will become heavy and loses its buoyancy effect. Yes, it will slow you down.
14) Models - there are hundreds of different pull buoys on the market. I have tried a lot of them (but not all). Here are three of my favorites: ARK (KEEL), Swimrunners (Super Croc / piraya), HUUB (Big buoy). Again, selecting a pull buoy is a personal preference. Everybody is different so my advise: experiment as much as you like during the off season until you are happy with a model. Then stick with it for a season. If you’re still friends by the end of the year that’s great if not, understand why and change model.
15) Mechanical doping – powerful batteries are getting smaller and smaller. I am waiting for the team that uses a pull buoy with integrated battery powered propeller. I tell you what: if I ever catch a team cheating, don’t come to me and say: “Hey it’s not what you think it is….its a pull buoy with integrated vibrator”….I wouldn’t be surprised….
16) Race history - Inspired by the ÖtillÖ World Series race in Utö….also known as the island of Love. It’s the place where we were both “pull buoy virgins” while battling our way to the finish line for the very first time. Can’t wait to get there.
See you out there. I hope you got something out of it. If nothing else, a good laugh.
Good luck to those athletes racing in Hvar. As for Team Say No! to Doping, Jasmina and me will be racing at swimrun Utö in May.
All the best,
Team Say No! to Doping
Partner: Jasmina Glad-Schreven
It’s January 5th 2019 and we’re about five months into our daily cold-water immersion routine. So far, this alternative approach to a “chronic cold & cough free” winter seems to work. Our kids (Elvin and Viivi) are pretty determined to proof us wrong though. Every day they consistently smother us with a fresh dose of “highly trained bacteria” ready to infiltrate deep inside our bodies. Now here’s the thing, in the past we simply used whatever was available from the pharmacy to prevent us from getting sick. But…. more than often we ended up being sick anyway… so last September (basically after ÖtillÖ) we decided to try something else and rely on a more natural approach to stay health. As far as cold water therapy is concerned the experts say that it raises the amount of white blood cells that in turn boosts your metabolic speed rate. So, besides the (side) benefit of losing weight (white fat) it also triggers a process that is more effective in fighting off unwanted diseases and infections. Eureka! This is exactly what we are interested in: 1) staying healthy and 2) injury free. Now the question is: Does it work? Well, in our case we have not been sick for five months so I guess there is some truth in it, provided you do it the right way…but more about that later.
Me: Thomas Schreven
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