I. Monday morning swims are always the hardest. Technically, Monday is a rest day on my plan, but the pool is only open three days a week during the summer, so I find myself getting up at 5:00 on my rest day to get ready to go to the pool—which I admit has been a little harder to do recently than normal. I’m usually a bit worn out after the previous day’s long bike ride, and Monday reminds me that swimming, while mostly upper-body, really is an activity that uses each of the major muscle groups: arms, legs, and core.
The first swim of the week is often a speed workout, which involves lots of short, all-out sprints. Just like track workouts, the idea is to tax the body’s anaerobic system so that the fast-twitch muscle fibers strengthen, resulting in greater speed the rest of the time. The rest is just short enough to clear out the lactic acid and “reset” the anaerobic system. (“You get faster by going faster” is one of the basic rules of endurance training.) For example, today called for two sets of 5×100 yards with 30 seconds of rest between each 100. Those thirty seconds are just long enough to catch my breath before starting the next sprint. The two minutes of rest between each set is heaven. I lean back against the wall with the water up to my chin, letting it cool me down while I come back to myself. Eventually I resume noticing what’s going on at the pool around me, since I usually get very focused during these intense efforts. Then it’s time to start the intense effort all over again.
I’ve slowly been getting a bit stronger and faster during these speed sessions. Each 100 is a little bit faster than at the beginning of the season—maybe 5-10 seconds—and my 50s are much faster than before. It’s nice to see everything coming together. Now I just need a little more slipperiness and efficiency in the water, and I’ll be keeping up with the cool kids at the pool . . . or at least watching them lap me fewer times.
I don’t think a lot during these speed sessions. Unlike the endurance swims, where my body follows the line on the bottom of the pool while my mind drifts all over the place—trying to remember what lap I’m on, looking around at the people and noticing what they’re wearing and how well they’re swimming, thinking about Lisa and my friends, visualizing my next race, computing fractions and percentages of the swim that I’ve done, being mindful of my form and stroke efficiency, singing along to inappropriate lines from hip hop songs that stick in my head—when I’m doing strength and speed workouts, I’m mostly fixated on pushing as much water past me as I can and trying to remember how many times I’ve touched the wall in the deep end since I started this part of the set. It’s nice to be so single-minded.
This morning while I was warming up and then as I recovered between sets, I thought about the U.S. Olympic trials that Lisa and I have been watching nightly for the last week. I love watching the swimmers, runners, and field athletes doing what they do so well. (I’ve also watched a bit of the gymnastics trials, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to get into it. I respect the difficulty of what they’re doing and how they make it look effortless, but with the exception of doing a plank or two in my day I don’t feel a lot of connection with the sport. I do like the drama of the events, although NBC could dial it back just a smidge.)
It occurred to me the other day that, while I’ve always had a good understanding of how hard it is for the track athletes to do what they do, this is the first Olympiad where I can really appreciate the swimmers’ technique and times and not just the drama of who is going to win. I’ve never run under 5:00 for a whole mile, but I ran 800m back in the day near 2:15 and some 2-mile track races around 11:00. It was never fast enough to win, but it was fast enough to know what it’s like to run really fast. I know what air moving past me at 4:30 pace feels like, and it’s great. I’ve only done a handful of bike races, but I know what it feels like to descend at 50 MPH and to make that face when riding. That look is the 5 MPH difference between what I do for part of a workout and what they do for hours.
As I was leaning against the wall having done five 100-yard sprints at between 1:40 and 1:45 for each, I was thinking of the women and men I watched at the Olympic trials on TV the night before who swam 200m of freestyle in the same amount of time that I took for my 90-ish meters. The fact is, I have no idea what it feels like to swim fast. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’m so much faster and stronger than I was just a year ago.) While I do well versus my peers, there’s another group of swimmers out there that have more than just the skills and speed that I lack; they have also had swimming experiences that I’ve only dreamt of.
I’ll never swim as fast as Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin—or run as fast as Galen Rupp or Allyson Felix or ride as fast Jens Voigt or Kristin Armstrong—but it’s fun to think about maybe getting halfway there. It certainly makes those 100 yard sprints feel better.
II. Each trip to the pool is also an opportunity to fine-tune my insulin for the swim. Based on a few weeks of data, I can definitively say that if I don’t eat, lower my basal rate, or bolus any insulin before speed or strength workouts, my blood glucose will go up. But if I go to the pool or lake and do an endurance swim of a half-mile or more, it will go down. How much insulin do I need on a speed day to prevent going up? How much food (and possibly insulin) do I need on an endurance day not to drop very much? These are questions I’m asking myself and trying to answer three times a week. With NYC coming up on Sunday, finding the answer is a bit more urgent, which is another good reason not to sleep in on Monday.
This morning was a perfect opportunity to search for answers and gain extra confidence.
My BG at 4:30 this morning was 120 mg/dL (6.7 mmol). An hour later before my swim it was 108 (6.0). Those are pretty close to perfect for me for fasting readings. That perfection made “doing the right thing” more critical. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity to gather good, usable data by changing too many things at once, and I didn’t want to act too aggressively and possibly go low in the pool. Choices, choices, choices.
I was hungry, I didn’t have a lot of headroom for going low, and I had an energetic swim ahead. What to do? I decided to simulate this weekend . . . minus the endurance aspect, which I hope to account for on Wednesday or Friday. I set a 0% temp basal rate 40-45 minutes before I knew that I would start swimming, I ate an energy gel (20g of carbs) 10 minutes before the swim, and I delivered an almost insignificant 0.3 units of insulin to “cover” the food and the swim. (This follows the same ratio of roughly 65:1 that I’ve been using when I bike in the morning. It hardly seems like it should matter, but it does. And no, I don’t divide by 65. I say, “ClifBar = 0.6u, and a gel is half a ClifBar, so 0.3u.”)
What happened? My post-swim was 112 (6.2), basically unchanged from before the swim. That sounds like something very promising to try again. Later this week, I’ll try a longer, aerobic swim with similar fueling and see what changes I need to make.
Things might finally be starting to come together.
Disclaimer: Obviously, this is something that worked for me . . . once. Take a big ole grain of salt, don’t consider this as personal advice or copy it outright, and talk to your diabetes peeps before making any changes. Yadda yadda yadda.