‘Lanza baby YEAHHHHHH! ‘
And so began an adventure for everyone, four blind or visually impaired athletes, (VIs) a guide and two multi-purpose coach/guides.
Five days of a d-i-y coaching course at Club La Santa, Lanzarote, with eleven sessions on offer focusing on technique over the three sports, and the chance to do a couple of fitness tests along the way. Impairments ranged from totally blind athletes to those with almost enough sight to ride a bike solo. But the athletes react differently to different light conditions. One needs funnelled bright light and carries a torch, one has vision reduced even further in bright light. One reacts to flashing lights so spent a sleepless first night – the two tiny red lights on the fire alarm in the bedroom appeared as disco strobe lights to her. One of my first morning jobs was to perch on a stool and cover them with kinesiology tape. The other job was to talk to reception and ask the cleaners not to ‘tidy’ any belongings as the VIs struggle to find them again. Mental mapping, especially in a new place, takes a huge amount of energy and carries high anxiety levels. And at Club La Santa all accommodation looks identical wherever you are, even as a sighted person!
Day one – Swimming in an outdoor 50 metre pool for the first time for everyone was a great experience. One to one coaching was on tap and we had two swimmers per lane, only one crash and everyone received individual input on their own specific points for improvement. Productive session. Any more than two swimmers and the result is carnage. I still don’t know how visually impaired athletes know where the end is, this proved to be difficult due to the pool markings being a faint blue instead of a bold black strip. Bruised fingers and heads all round I guess.
Visually impaired athletes run session
The run technique session was great as we picked up some total strangers in the resort who agreed to help us, so we had a one to one guide to runner ratio. Ace. Loads of fun with blind athletes teaching new guides. A spot of Greek dancing in the warm up and playing snake got everyone laughing. Everyone was then standing tall – running with golf clubs, or canes, held above their heads, what a difference. Correct posture can be difficult for some visually impaired athletes, this could be due to interpretation – to move forwards you put your head forward, it could be anxiety – they are curling up, waiting for that fall. Whatever the reason it’s important to explain why everyone should run with heads and chests up and that’s where the use of their white canes above their heads made for an effective drill. Swopping guides led to some consternation! I learnt people need lots of time to adjust to new guides and asking them to run at chatting pace, rather than nose breathing, allows this. The whole session was on the grass, not the track, to reduce stress on the body and all of it should have been aerobic but at least 50% of people ignored that. Running with a guide is a constant encouragement to do the equivalent of half wheeling in cycling and pace can just build. Some questions asked about how 180 cadence could produce a different pace so we completed pacing experiments.
Ramp tests later on were a doddle, watt bikes are stationary! And all I had to do was watch other people trying hard.
Hardest was making sure everyone could get to the sessions they wanted. Bit like that game of how do you get a fox a hen and corn across a river but you can only take two at once, remember that? If person A takes person B then person C has enough vision to take person D somewhere else – or do they? But then person E is stuck ..and so it went on. By day one no one is orientated enough to find their own way round.
Day two starts with the La Santa stretching and the general run – a couple of miles steady run for me, guiding Andrea. Having seen her max heart rate the night before I spent the whole run trying to get her to slow down to run aerobically at under 80% of max. She can’t see to read a HR monitor but I know she runs slower than I do when racing and her max heart rate happens to be identical to mine – job done, we can use my garmin with my zones on her wrist and I read it, ha ha. She is a committed ‘middle effort’ trainer and is unimpressed with the idea of slow, and of potentially facing a slower Park Run time back home if she changes. Oh the wonders of pride and ego. This could be a long process! – or I could get sacked as her guide. Now that would be a shame.
As La Santa only has one tandem we went for studio biking and had a useful session playing with cycling position, the four parts of the pedal stroke and cadence. No-one can read a cadence monitor but several renditions of ‘Nelly the Elephant’ got the pace of 90 cadence across. I think a metronome may work better next time! We then played with this, faster cadence for a minute on, minute off and some very fast 10 second spins.
Open water swimming in the lagoon should have provided some relaxation but several participants found it quite stressful. We practiced deep water starts and turns in preparation for racing at Eton Dorney in May. All the contact between people and the lack of clear sounds bouncing off walls as reference points made this very disorientating for some. We also had a shortage of effective tethers, which didn’t help. Blind and visually impaired triathletes race in open water tethered by the thigh to their guide’s thigh. The tether can be up to 80cm long and can be elasticated. Now that could lead to some hilarious issues in a busy open race start. And no, the tethers are not usually quick release. Andrea and I swim attached by a flat, elasticated running lace which works fine – the round laces roll off down the leg as we discovered during the morning.
Paddle boarding later did provide some relaxation for the VIs and a certain amount of stress for me on kayak safety duty. I leave that for you to imagine.
8am on day three saw Andrea (VI) and I standing in the dawn light, with a tether that worked, for the 1km open water swim. This is the furthest she has ever swum in open water and ideal prep for the Great North Swim where we have an entry for the mile. Deep water start practice and a time of 22 mins dead, no stops, steady and consistent. Nailed it. We warned safety we were tied together and their reply was ‘Cool, love it’. So do we!
Ran back to be at poolside for more one to one coaching sessions. How do I explain spearfish drill to an athlete blind from birth who has never seen a spear or a fish? Went for concentrate on feeling the water first on your fingers, not your forearm. Seemed to work, but Katie came out of the pool looking like I’d beaten her up. Lane ropes sure cause some damage when you keep swimming into them, both shoulders grazed and bruised and bruises all down her arms.
Time for fuel and a quick coffee before on to run drills. Lots of balance exercises this morning. Athletes who are blind or visually impaired have very poor balance generally as they have no focus point for good propreoception, therefore these types of exercises are brilliant for them in terms of strength, stability and injury prevention. We also ran in bare feet to enhance that sense of freedom that it is so hard for VIs to find.
Day four – Stretch and run, now part of our daily routine. Spin class, nice and uneventful, lots about core and one legged pedaling.
Blind athletes open water swim
Open water swim, really interesting. We back-tracked a bit and started by building more confidence by swimming in the leisure pool which is so glacial you need a wetsuit to get in. We managed to cobble together new tethers; breakthrough, they worked. We used quick release number belts with shoe laces attached and wrapped around thighs, then catapult elastic (otherwise known as swim warm up bands) between the swimmers, bingo! Blue Peter rules. One blind athlete preferred to swim untethered with someone on each side of her, enjoying the freedom of movement. Tethering felt scary with the bumping. We practiced in the Leisure pool then headed to the lagoon for a swim. Great for me to learn – guiding this person by voice calls and estimating stroke count to get her to certain points.
Tandem, tired legs, a gentle trip to a cafe for ice cream made a great final afternoon for me.
The principles of coaching are the same whether sighted or visually impaired. ‘Do no harm’, treat everyone as an individual and try to hear what they are saying. Start from the individual’s starting point. Andrea does over ten hours of training a week, so does Paul. Paul may not even get a race, he has no regular guide, and one who volunteers may well be slower than him – his final power on his ramp test was 320 watts. That is both commitment and frustration. So when you ‘can’t be bothered’ remember them. Maybe they were bothered today and someone forgot to come and help them off the treadmill ……
Blind triathletes go to Para National Championships
Outcomes of the week include all four blind and visually impaired athletes are going to compete at the Para National Championships at Eton Dorney in May and two of them are going to race in their first open standard races this year. This is on top of the growth in confidence and knowledge we are all taking away – along with bucket loads of fun and laughter.
With thanks to Vision of Adventure, (A charity providing active holidays for VIs, they started all this off), all the VIs for their patience with their guides, our spontaneous volunteer guides and to Club la Santa staff.
Kath and Paddy Finn firstname.lastname@example.org 07837658961