... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Cadence Question

Akoni Pule Highway as dawn arrives
I would like to preface this entry by saying that I have been unable to train for four days because on Thursday the 17th I had three wisdom teeth taken out. While frustrating, it has allowed me some time to reflect upon the previous week of training, in which I pretty much kicked ass, if I do say so myself. Not so much in distances, but definitely in dedication. Knowing that I would be out of commission for several days, I planned ahead to make every workout count. I got up before 5AM every day to squeeze two workouts into the days, and I pushed myself. It was an interesting week in all three of the triathlon disciplines.

Pastels galore.
I tackled most of the swims in the mornings, arriving just as enough light crept into the sky to make things visible. These mornings, although hideously early, became like a meditation for me, a beautiful ritual bathed in soft colors that soothed and calmed me. Perfectly quiet, perfectly clean, with calm ocean and nothing in my mind but peace and solitude ... I sat quietly on the cool, damp sand, listened to the rhythm of the waves, then went through the many steps of getting ready to go in: earplugs, swim cap, goggles, headband. These steps, which were so tedious when I first started training, are now comforting and familiar.

Ready to go, ritual intact.
Because the air still has a little chill so early in the morning, the water felt thick and velvety warm when I stepped into it. The first few times, my stroke felt a little choppy and awkward but as I relaxed and rediscovered the ever elusive "trough," things smoothed out. Post-Ironman, I have been attempting to speed up my semi-leisurely stroke pace. Not focusing on traveling faster, just on moving my arms faster and increasing my stroke cadence. Faster and lighter seems to create less fatigue.

On the last swim before my stupid and annoying surgery, I looked up from the water and saw something moving on the surface of the water twenty yards from me. It didn't look like a dorsal, but it also didn't look like a turtle, so just to be safe I swam to shallow water where I could touch the sand. I stared and stared, trying to categorize what I was looking at. It was huge, first of all--at least five or six feet long--and it covered a lot of surface area. Sometimes it looked like there was a fin sticking up, but sometimes it seemed to just blanket the surface. I knew I couldn't go back into deeper water until I knew what it was.

Ahhh yes, peace.
A runner on the beach behind me had stopped and was also studying this mystery creature. Then, it made one fluid motion and its triangular edge became clear.
"It's a manta ray!" He called from the beach, and immediately I knew he was right.
I also knew that I wanted to swim with it. I waved to him and put my goggles back on, but by the time I reached the spot where it had disappeared, it was gone.

The rest of my swim I half-expected to touch a gentle giant creature each time I reach my hand out in front of me, but he never reappeared. It made me smile, however, being reminded that I do not swim alone.

My running experiences this week were an exercise in new techniques. Since mastering (okay, not master ... I will never completely master any of these things) the forefoot strike running style, I haven't made any huge changes to my form. After watching Ironman, however, I was inspired to play around with some observations I had made during the race. There were several key differences I noted that I wanted to experiment with:
1. Cadence!
The most consistent thing that I noticed amongst the Ironman athletes that is definitely not present in my run was their quick, light leg movements. Rather than longer, powerful strides, they ran with very fast strides that were shorter and lighter.
2. Lack of arm movement
Contrary to what I had read instructing runners to use a fair amount of arm movement in a forward-back direction (avoiding side to side movement) I saw that a lot of the athletes kept their arms relatively still, moving very little from their shoulders to elbows. Arms were held very close to their bodies with little to no swinging motion.
3. Slight forward lean
When I first started running, I had a fairly pronounced tendency to lean forward, especially as I fatigued. I broke this habit and now run fairly straight up and down. What I noticed at Ironman, however, was a very slight tip forward at the hips. Not a whole body position, just a subtle forward hint.

With these things in mind, I set out ready to experiment. Since my natural tendency is to keep my arms fairly still at my sides, this was the easiest to accomplish. I just like how it feels better and it seems to save energy. I tried to keep my upper body, in general, very still. (Not stiff! Very important difference). The forward lean was a little more challenging, because once I tip a tiny bit my natural urge to list forward kicks in and it's difficult for me to control. Focusing on relaxing my upper back a little and moving my chest lower rather than forward seemed to do the trick. As an added bonus, I noticed decidedly less muscle soreness in my back the next day.

The cadence question is a totally new one for me. I have never really paid attention to how fast my strides are unless I am trying to speed up or slow down. Looking at cadence, however, almost ignores these factors. In fact, what seemed most effective was to attempt to speed up my stride cadence without running faster overall, thus forcing me to focus on using light, short strides. What I quickly discovered was that this new way of moving uses completely different muscles than I am used to, and causes much less overall fatigue. While these new muscles felt weak and unsteady, the difference in breath was astounding--I felt like I could run much further this way without getting winded, especially when going uphill. In addition, using this technique allows my legs to feel more independent from my upper body, as if from the waist up I am floating on a steady line while my legs, like in a cartoon, move in speedy circles beneath me.

Astoundingly, using this theory over the course of 3.5 miles cut my average mile time down by over a minute and a half. Dramatic improvement for such a tiny change!

The same idea--cadence--was what I was working on during bike workouts this week. I have been reading about how successful cyclists keep their revolutions up rather than simply powering their way through hills on pure brawn in high gears. My philosophy up until this point has been "hold your high gear until you can't move your legs, then shift," which I am beginning to believe may not be the best approach ...

I've been trying to spin more, to stay in lower gears and to avoid fatigue in my legs. Much like upping my cadence while running, I have discovered that it uses a very different set of muscles and that although they fatigue in a different way, they definitely do fatigue. It feels more like a burn and less like  exhaustion, so between getting stronger and adjusting to this new burning feeling I think that I'll soon be convinced that it's a better way to go. I'm also fairly sure that it will help my run coming off of T2.

Between swimming, running, and biking cadence I have my work cut out for me. New timing, new feeling, new muscles ... this is what training is all about!

Give me another day or two and I'll be back out there (minus a few wisdom teeth but full of new wisdom)!

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