Article image

by Allen Stark

February 1, 2006

Fun at high altitude training camp

When I heard about the Masters Training Camp at the Olympic Training Center in the Spring of 2002, I was very excited about the prospect and applied immediately. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn from the best minds in swimming at a state of the art facility. I listed all of my accomplishments, trying to spin myself as positively as possible. I didn’t mention that I have the physiology of a drop-dead sprinter in the body of a short breaststroker. This holds me in good stead in the 50 and 100 breast and I can manage to hold on to swim a 200 breast.  My butterfly is competent up to 50 M and after that I’m glad I have a whip kick. If I am going to enter a backstroke event I have to notify the meet director ahead of time so that they can have calendar watches for my lane. My freestyle has two speeds – all out sprint (up to 50 meters) and really slow (everything else).  I also didn’t mention that I get altitude sickness when I climb a ladder.  Nonetheless, I was really excited when I was accepted.  It was only with reflection that I began to worry that I might make a fool of myself. 

           When I got a list of my fellow campers and went to the USMS top ten list to look them up I began to suspect that we might be required to do some swimming other than breaststroke sprints (though why anyone would want to swim anything else eludes me): Distance freestyler, distance freestyler, young distance freestyler, open water specialist, 400 IMer, 200 backstroker, Laura Val.  My suspicions were confirmed when I got an e-mail asking for my best 200 Free LCM time.  There was a problem.  I’d never swum a 200 LCM Free.  I guessed it would be faster than my 200 Breast, but I wasn’t sure.  I was in real trouble.

           In mid-December I had tapered for our last SCM meet and was ready to swim sprint breaststroke. With six weeks to get ready for the camp I increased my yardage per week by 50% and made most of it sets of 200 and 400 Free, in the hopes of not being too embarrassed when I got there.  After a week, the biggest change I noticed was that my left shoulder hurt.  A rational person would alter their training to let their shoulder heal, but with 5 weeks until camp there was not enough time to be rational.  At 4 weeks to go, my shoulder was not worse and my repeats were actually improving.  A week later I was getting a cold.  Not a big deal, my colds last 2 weeks max and my symptoms were “above the neck,” so I continued to train.  2 weeks left and I had bacterial sinusitis and was on an antibiotic.  Only a fool wouldn’t slow down their training.  Guilty as charged.  10 days before camp I had bronchitis and was on a different antibiotic.  Not even I was dumb enough to continue training as before.  I took 4 days off and then swam “lightly” every other day.

On February 1, 2003 I flew into the camp.  I barely had a cough and felt the best that I had in three weeks and my shoulder didn’t hurt at all (unless I swam).  Colorado Springs was at 6,300 feet.  The higher the altitude the less oxygen there is available, which is why mountain climbers need oxygen tanks when they travel high.  Evidently mountain climbing and swimming are more similar than I had thought, because I was gasping for air while carrying my suitcases. 

           We met that evening at 4:45 p.m. for introductions and a tour of the facility.  The other swimmers were typical Masters Swimmers, all fit looking , very nice, and too polite to mention that I was gasping and turning blue.  The other people present included Nancy Rideout (the organizer and a truly wonderful person), our coaches, Scott Williams, Kris Houchens, Mike Collins, and our stretching and flexibility coach, Steve Thompson.

           I was going to make a joke about our coaches, implying that they were rigid and sadistic, but in fact they were wonderful, kind, knowledgeable people who were goal-oriented enough to not let my exhaustion or pride get in the way of my learning.  We had dinner in the OTC cafeteria.  We had to have our palms scanned every time we entered, which was kind of cool, but made me wonder what top secret experiments were being done that needed that much security.  The food was great and you could have unlimited servings (two pieces of pie are essential for replacing muscle glycogen).  .

           We got our schedules.  Our days would run from 6AM to 10PM with two swim sessions per day each 1 ½-2 hours long.  The rest of the time we would be eating, in seminars, or getting  individualized testing and feedback on flexibility, diet habits, strengths, etc.

           The first morning started with a swim workout .  At the workout I learned many things, among them was that if I had needed an oxygen tank before I really needed one in the pool where there seemed to be no oxygen at all.  Not only did I learn about prolonged anoxia, I discovered that while I was probably the fastest breaststroker there, I was definitely the slowest freestyler.  Unfortunately we were going to swim a lot more freestyle than breaststroke.

After that we went to our seminars.  One of our first lessons was on Altitude Illnesses.  Symptoms included:

1.     shortness of breath (√ )

2.     fatigue (√ )

3.     headaches (√ )

4.     insomnia (√ )

5.     frequent urination (√ )

I was five for five on the symptoms list (really seven for five as my shortness of breath and fatigue were so bad they should have each gotten two checks).

Our seminars at the Center were universally excellent.  We learned the latest thinking on technique for the 4 strokes, starts and turns, flexibility, physiology, psychology, nutrition, core strength, etc. It was all fabulous, and I’m not just saying that because I didn’t have to move.

On Sunday afternoon we had our first videotaping experience.  They have state of the art cameras that move underwater at our speed to film us.  I was really looking forward to this, however, I had not acclimated to the altitude yet (I still couldn’t breathe) and we went to be videotaped after a hard workout because, according to Scott Williams, “being fatigued accentuates your stroke flaws”  (I guess this means lying on the pool deck gasping for air is a stroke flaw).  Our last seminar that evening was spent reviewing the videotape.  One of my primary reasons to go to the camp was to find ways to improve my breaststroke.  Logically, then, the more problems they discovered the better.  Nonetheless, I had a fantasy that they would say “Wow, we should save this film to show the Olympians the way breaststroke should be swum.”

Let’s just say I got my money’s work from their critique.  After they had finished I thought I probably looked more like Grandma Moses than Ed Moses.

Monday was my 54th birthday and I awoke feeling much better.  Being exhausted had given me a good night’s sleep and I found that I could walk on level ground and breathe at the same time (though climbing stairs was still an adventure).  We had our blood drawn for general blood chemistry testing before breakfast, and afterwards I headed to the pool. I arrived alone and tried my key card. It didn’t work. I knew it, they had decided that I didn’t belong and deactivated my key. Soon other campers arrived and let me in.  I entered with dread, both because today was lactate testing day  and because at any moment the coaches might take me aside and wonder why I didn’t take the hint.  When this failed to happen I was left with two possibilities:1)it was just a malfunction or 2)the pool itself had decided I didn’t belong and didn’t want to let me in. I soon had other things to think about as I prepared for my grim assault on the lactate test.  It consisted of 5x200’s descending with the last one at maximum effort.  Before we started we had an ear pricked for blood and they got blood and measured our heart rate after each one.Surprisingly, it was more survivable than I had feared and although I was the slowest I managed to finish in the interval and keep them descending so it wasn’t humiliating.

That afternoon we had strength and flexibility testing and in the afternoon workout I had one of my personal highlights.  We were doing various stroke drills and after the “kick breaststroke on your back” drill, Scott Williams told me that I did the drill as well as anyone he had seen.  Since Scott is Robert Strand’s coach I took this as an extreme compliment since Bob Strand is one of, if not the, best Masters Breaststrokers.

On Tuesday I was feeling human.  Aside from our regular workouts we got to swim in the flume—an extremely high tech device to allow you to swim in one place as the current goes by you at a set speed.  We were filmed swimming as well as practicing streamlining.  It was fascinating to see how minor changes in hip and shoulder positions make big differences in drag. 

We had our second pool videotaping at the second workout.  Again they wanted us to be worn out for the taping and they were successful, but I had acclimated enough by then that I didn’t collapse.

The last day we got individual results of our testing and advice on what we should do regarding diet, strength training, pool training, etc.

We had our videotape reviewed by John Walker who is the OTC’s stroke guru.  Using the DartSwim system, he was able to show us frame by frame how we compared to Olympians.  He compared my stroke frame by frame with Brendan Hansen’s and it was obvious what I needed to work on. 

The camp was over too soon.  It was intense and there was an information overload, but the people were great and it really reawakened my passion for swimming.  After returning I gave two seminars to Oregon Master’s swimmers on what I had learned.

I started trying to implement the changes in my breaststroke that I had learned.  At first it was strange and uncomfortable and at our Association Meet in April my times were slow.  Bob Bruce (USMS coach of the year 2004) told me I looked like I was thinking instead of swimming.

By June, my “new stroke” was beginning to feel more natural and in August at the State Games of America, I went my fastest times in nearly a decade. Then at the 2004 USMS LCM Nationals I won the three breaststrokes in the 55-59 age group.  Would I do it again?  Absolutely!!!!

February is our month to highlight the annual USA / USMS High Altitude Training Camp. This month's article comes from swimmer Allen Stark of Oregon Masters. Stark is one of many noteworthy alumni of the USA / USMS High Altitude Training Camp.