Each month, as part of our “Trials and Tribulations” series, we’ll try to give you an inside look at an Olympic Trials qualifier. The stories, backgrounds, hopes, dreams, obstacles, and accomplishments of a few of the 1,500 swimmers expected at next summer’s Olympic Trials. If YOU have a story you want to share, please email Trials.Tribulations.email@example.com.
We’ve been following the journey of 37-year-old Jeff Commings, the third-oldest male Olympic Trials qualifier in history. Last week, we discussed with Jeff Commings his accomplishments as an older Masters swimmer, and how his age affects his swimming. This week, we will discuss his training regime, how he approaches the age-old question of “strength vs. technique,” and keeping track of his progress.
Where are you at now in training?
Right now I am three weeks out from going out to a taper meet here in Phoenix. It’s a short course meters Masters meet. I wanted to see how fast I could go. I’ve been doing different things since qualifying. I’ve been stepping up my dryland. I’ve been doing sessions with personal trainer J.R. Rosania. He was instrumental in helping Gary Hall Jr. and Misty Hyman win Olympic medals.
A lot of the exercises he gives me are swimming specific. They have a swimming related goal. Whether it’s working on my core strength or my breaststroke pullout, or just working on my hamstring strength at the start of the breaststroke kick. Everything has a reason. It’s not like going to the gym and doing lat pulls and bench presses or general exercises. Every time I get in the pool, I think, “Oh, I remember that exercise last week with J.R., it’s supposed to help with this.’
The other thing I’ve been doing is working with the age group team at Phoenix Swim Club, with Coley Stickels, who is a very good coach in terms of keeping your mind engaged during workouts. The sets are physically demanding enough so you feel your stroke break down. I know where my weaknesses are. Working with him has allowed me to break down my stroke and emphasize my weaknesses and think, ‘What am I doing wrong? How can I increase efficiency?’ I don’t think he’s ever seen a stroke like mine before. He’s been marveling that I’ve had a very wide breaststroke pull. Every time I see him, he has a puzzled look on his face. (Laughs.) He doesn’t understand how I pull so wide, but because I’m an upper body swimmer. That’s how I swim it.
Those two changes have been really good for me because they’ve allowed me to be more mentally engaged in my stroke. Which is what I need right now, eight or nine months from Trials. Now is when I can work on my stroke, working with speed and endurance. Because from February to early June, I’m going to be working hard and going to be depending on my neurological system to know how to swim correctly when I’m broken down.
You’re tweaking your strokes?
Well, yeah. I can think of four times in my life when I’ve changed my stroke. This is probably the least dramatic change I’ve made in my stroke. Now, what I’m doing is working on hand pitch or finishing my kick. It’s not trying to lift my head, which in turn changes my body position in the water, or trying to have a faster hand speed. This is basically technically trying to be more efficient because I know that I can’t be as physically strong as I was 15 or 20 years ago.
But I can be as technically efficient as I was. And I think that’s what’s helping me swim faster. I’m more aware how technically sound I am. Because when I was in college, really for me, it was about getting stronger. That’s how I thought you got faster, by getting stronger. Now, I think about how I can use that muscle strength and tie it in with correct hand position. This started when I was training with the resident team 15 years ago in Colorado Springs. Every since then, I’ve been very in tune with my stroke and trying to make sure I’m swimming correctly than powering through the stroke. I know as I get older, the muscle strength goes away. I can’t be as strong. But I technically can swim correctly. And that’s what’s going to be important.
Can you work out as hard as you could when you were 20?
I don’t do a workout more than 4500. Ever. Two weeks ago was 5000. But that was an anomaly -- we just had a longer workout. My typical workouts I rarely go over 4000. It’s quality. Especially right now, four weeks from my taper meet. I’m doing a lot of race pace training. There comes a point in the season, about 8 weeks before the taper meet, where you really need to work on your race pace training. That means doing 50s on the 2 minutes, no more than 4 of them. What it does is get my mind and body into the rhythm of how I want to swim a race, so when I get to a taper meet, I can swim on autopilot. And not worry about my hand pitch, or if I am kicking correctly. It goes beyond working on starts and turns before a meet. I look forward to that time of the year because I can do 50s on the 2 minutes instead of the 1-minute. I enjoy getting into that mindset of racing because that’s what I enjoy most about swimming. Stepping up and racing somebody. Whether that’s the clock or a person, I really enjoy training for that. It makes the actual day of the championship race that much easier to handle. I’m not as nervous, or worried about my stroke or pacing, because I’ve been practicing it for so long, it’s basically ingrained in me that I dive in and should be able to do it.
Do you keep a diary of your efforts?
Yes. I’ve been blogging for the past 3 months, which you were wise to suggest. It’s kept me accountable to a lot of people and kept me accountable to myself. I log every gym workout that I do. It helps me think about what I do each day, and that’s one thing that’s really kept me invested each day in this journey. Even if I didn’t write a blog I’d still be invested in it, but it’s been a great tool to look back. I’ve read some blogs from three weeks ago and remembering workouts I’ve done. And it makes me more present in the moment instead of just waking up at 5am and going through the motions of a workout. I think about how I’m going to describe this workout because people will want more than just how many yards I’ve swam. It has kept me accountable not just to myself but to everyone who reads it quite often.
Jeff Commings is an author of the book, “Odd Man Out,” and writes updates about his Olympic Trial journey on Commings.Blogspot.com. If you know of more stories of Olympic Trial qualifiers, email Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.