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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Swim:

This coming weekend, I’ll be completing in the Masters Swimming Wisconsin State SCY Championships in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. This is not nearly as impressive at it sounds. When I was playing high school sports, the state championships were something you had to qualify for. It was a big honor just to go, let alone to win.

For Masters Swimming, all meets, including the state championships, take a more inclusive approach. You can even swim a limited number of events without qualifying at the National Championships if you’d like to. (You can swim more if you have qualifying times in them.)

This will be my third ever Masters Swim meet. The first one was this same competition last year, and the second was a very small local meet about a month ago:

The benefit of swimming in a small meet is that there usually aren't more than 3 people in your age group in any given event.

The benefit of swimming in a small meet is that there usually aren’t more than 3 people in your age group in any given event.

I was terrified before my first meet. I had only learned how to dive off the starting blocks two days before the event, and had only learned how to swim at all within the year prior. I hadn’t even done any triathlons at that point.

The atmosphere at Masters Swim meets, though, is ridiculously welcoming. There are athletes of all ages, shapes, sizes, situations, and abilities. The former college swimmers are apparent with their killer technique and bullet-like dives, and they have enough competition among each other to stay happy. The new swimmers are given the option of starting by diving off the side of the pool if the blocks are too scary, or even starting in the water and pushing off from the wall if they’d like. There was a blind swimmer at the state meet last year who had a friend tap him on the shoulder with a tennis ball on a stick when he was near the wall and it was time to turn.

I was afraid before my first meet that everyone would be watching me and if I messed up, everyone would see. The reality is that the only people who are really watching are your friends or family who happen to be there. There are 8 lanes of swimmers, and people might be interested in the competition, but the only reaction to finishing last is applause that you were out there trying in the first place.

This coming Saturday, I’m going to be swimming longer events than I ever have before. Part of this is because I’m just not competitive at the super fast sprints, part of it is to try something new, and part of it is because I miss racing the endurance aspect of my sports. Rehabbing my knee injury, I haven’t been able to run or bike long distances, so I might as well swim them.

I think every triathlete should try one swim meet. For everyone who has felt that panic in the beginning of a triathlon, with the waves and the elbows and the sudden inability to breathe, the starting blocks of a pool before a race are an experience worth having. It’s just as scary up on the blocks, but the anticipation doesn’t have such a chance to build, because before you know it the starting horn has gone off and there’s no time to think or panic, because you have to dive in already. It’s good practice for just going for it without dwelling on the scary, plus using those active recovery skills once you’re in the water.

Bike:

It’s now regularly in at least the 20s and 30s every day, with a few days in the 40s and glorious 50s. This means I’ve seen people riding their bikes again, and I am so ready to get back out there. Part of my physical therapy has been riding a stationary bike for 5 minutes at a time under my physical therapist’s supervision, and it’s been going well. She said that as soon as I get properly fitted to my bike, I can give it a try. I also have new aerobars and those amazing new wheels to install. I just need the time to get all this done!

Run:

I had a follow up running evaluation. I’ve been using a free metronome app called “Metronome” (real creative, guys) when I run to keep me at about 180 steps per minute. It works fairly well in the gym, aside from one annoying week when it kept flashing a bright light every beat that I couldn’t turn off, but when I run with it outside it seems to skip beats quite frequently, sort of negating the point. When I ran outside with Josh the other day, we wanted to be able to talk while running, so I didn’t plug headphones into my phone, just letting the metronome bonk out loud. We got some strange looks in the park, but whatever. I’m at the point right now where I don’t give a rip what anyone thinks about my knee rehab. I’m going to do what I have to do in order to get back out there.

I had also tried out an app called Cadence (not free) that analyzes the music in your library and arranges it according to bpm. It’s a great idea, but I don’t think it works all that well. The beats didn’t seem to match up to my metronome and were off enough that I felt knee pain when running to them. I haven’t used it much for those reasons.

Anyway, along with my growing ability to run at 180 bpm, the running evaluation PT said that although my stride is definitely better, and pretty darn good on my right leg, in slo-mo it’s apparent that I’m limping when I’m running. I’m tensing up my left leg (the injured knee) in my body’s attempt to brace myself for the impact. Unfortunately, this has the reverse effect of making the impact worse. This is because the tensed up leg keeps my knee straight instead of bent, putting the force of impact onto the joint. He said this should go away with time as I keep healing, but in the meantime to be conscious of it and try to land with a bent knee, hitting the ground with at least the flat of my foot and possibly even the ball of the foot.

I’ve also been given one-legged squats to do, twice as many on my left side as on my right side.

I’m up to 3 minutes running/2 minutes walking x4, and it feels pretty great. I often feel like I could just keep running without the walk breaks in between, but the risk of re-injury is too scary for me to try. This week I plan to increase to 3:30/1:30, and once I get to the full 20 minutes running with no or minimal knee pain (or pain during running that goes away after running is also apparently okay), I can start increasing speed (I’m currently plugging away at a slow 10 minute mile pace) and distance. Both of my physical therapists (my regular one and the running expert) said that my goal of 8 minute miles after swimming and biking “should be no problem.”

I’m still nervous that the first race is in early June and I still can’t run a 5k, but I’m hopeful that the cardio base from swimming and the strength base from strength training and PT will be enough to get me on the podium.

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Bonjour! C’est moi, le chat de tablier.

J'ai mangé votre pyjama

J’ai mangé votre pyjama

The first day of spring has arrived, and that can only mean one thing — it’s time to make another apron cake.

Today, I decided to tackle eclair et religieuse, which translates to a religious eclair. I could argue that most eclairs, if made well, are akin to a religious experience, but this one in particular is thought to have this name because when the little eclair is stacked onto the large eclair, dipped in chocolate, and dotted with whipped cream, it resembles a nun. That is, if we envision human body types the same way we do snowmen.

That's the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

That’s the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

The first clue I had that this recipe was perhaps a bit more superFrench than the Opéra cake came when I typed “eclair et religieuse” into Google. All the results were in French. When Google offered to search for results in English, correctly deducing that my French skills stopped after the first paragraph of this blog, I found a few more results, including a film titled Un éclair, une religieuse, which I can only assume is about a nun who found an eclair behind the altar, a blog with a very pretty eclair et religieuse pictured, but no recipe, and finally this recipeon the BBC’s website from something called The Great British Bake Off. Works for me.

As an aside, you may wonder why I never copy recipes directly onto this blog (other than recipes I learned from a friend or just consider a basic part of my repertoire). The answer is that I worry it can be a copyright violation or a form of plagarism. If I were modifying or making these recipes my own in any way, that would be different, but I really just make them by following the directions 95% of the time. I do, however, always try to include links to the original so if you’re interested in joining me on my French pastry adventures, it’s easy enough to do so.

The BBC recipe had the advantage of being written in English with the not insignificant challenge of using metric measurements and British terms for ingredients. Here’s a quick primer:

  • Apparently “corn flour” in British means cornstarch. I’m glad I looked that up before I dumped a pile of what I consider corn flour into my pastry cream.
  • “Double cream” means heavy cream.
  • “Caster sugar” is superfine sugar.
  • I’m still not sure what the recipe meant by “plain chocolate,” but I used bittersweet chocolate and it worked out fine.

The other main challenge was translating from grams to cups. I know that many serious bakers use scales to weigh their ingredients, and I don’t fault them for it. That being said, it’s not a direction I want to go in my own baking. I absolutely appreciate the chemistry and science of baking, but I also feel like some of the art gets lost in the quest for ultra precision. I measure, but don’t weigh, everything that goes into a cake or a pastry, but you can’t calculate the grams of panache that I also throw in. (That may be the worst joke I’ve ever made.)

I knew we were short on flour, sugar, and butter, so I went to the store to buy the basics along with the chocolate and a few other small things I’d need for the pastry. I did this before I calculated how much 75g of flour or sugar is. Let’s just say, I didn’t need to buy the two extra bags of each.

Once I was home, though, I used a combination of random Googling, my calculator, and this amazing conversion table to go through the rest of the recipe and make the changes. For the record, 75g of flour is a mere 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons. (This got complicated.)

Since I already did the work, here are the conversions for the rest of the BBC recipe in case you want to play along at home. All of these are approximate (see the bit above about science versus art):

60g butter = 4 US tablespoons (to further complicate things, during my research I learned that apparently British tablespoons are different than American ones, but I’m not clear if (a) that’s true and (b) that’s only for butter).

75g flour = 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons

500mL of milk = 2 cups

75g of sugar = 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons

20g of cornstarch = 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon

25g of flour = 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons

150ml of heavy cream = 2/3 cup

The eggs translate 1:1, British to American. (That was a joke. A pretty good one, actually.)

So here we are, almost 800 words in, and we haven’t even gotten to the baking yet.

The eclair pastry starts with a choux dough, which sounds super exotic, but was actually incredibly easy to make. All you do is put butter and water on the stove together until the butter melts, then stir in the flour super fast and cook and stir for about 5 minutes. I loved the way this dough looked, so springy and grabable:

I choux choux chooooose you!

I choux choux chooooose you!

After that, it’s just a matter of adding a few eggs and piping it into 2″ and 1″ circles to bake into nun bottoms and nun heads.

I drew misshapen circles and...

I drew misshapen circles and…

...filled them with misshapen dough

…filled them with misshapen dough

I have a serious piping bag problem at the moment, which is that I’ve lost all my tips except for the thin narrow one (this guy), and I’m out of piping bags, so I’ve been cramming my one, often inappropriate tip, into the corners of Ziploc bags. This is a situation that could be easily remedied by buying a new set, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Hence the un-round nature of my pastries.

But oh my goodness, they looked great when they came out:

I almost ate them all right then.

I almost ate them all right then.

The recipe instructed me to draw those pencil circles on the parchment paper. I was a little upset to see that the graphite circles transferred onto the pastries themselves. But I figured that a little graphite never hurt anyone (I did not look this fact up to confirm, so please don’t put any stock in it) and pushed forward anyway.

The crème pâtissière isn’t what I think of as a pastry cream, but was more like a vanilla custard. At any rate, it seemed to take forever to make, but turned out nice and thick and rich.

The real problem was filling the choux pastries. My lack of an appropriate pastry bag and tip was a problem. The recipe helpfully suggested using a “jam syringe” as an alternative, but alas I have never heard of or owned such an implement. I ended up using a combination of my one sad tip, a Ziplock bag, a skewer, and my fingers to shove the filling inside, then tested to see if I had enough filling by picking up the pastry to see if it felt heavy-ish. It was a highly precise process that ended with my hands covered in crème pâtissière.

The eclair et religieuse as a whole consists of a little eclair filled with crème pâtissière and covered halfway with ganache stacked on top of a big eclair filled with crème pâtissière, and covered halfway with chocolate ganache. Then whipped cream is piped along between the two eclairs to make a “collar” and on top to make a “habit.”

This is what my little nuns looked like when they were all assembled:

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations looked artistic when they were finished.

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations look artistic when they’re finished.

My husband’s commentary on my interpretation of eclair et religieuse: “After my first bite, a good deal of it stayed on my nose, but I left it there to enjoy later.”

Like this post? Check out A Night at the Opéra, the first in the series of apron cakes. Honestly, it’s probably funnier than this one, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that.

As part of my ongoing rehab of my knee injury, my physical therapist referred me to a PT downtown who specializes in analyzing running form. Running has been getting less painful for me, but we thought it would be worthwhile to have my form checked out in case I was doing something to aggravate the healing injury.

The evaluation started with me filling out a form about my running history, which unfortunately didn’t include anywhere for me to brag about how great I think I was last season. I’m joking, of course, but filling out my current running information (2 minutes of running and 3 minutes of walking at a leisurely 10 minute mile pace) felt like I wasn’t telling the whole story. I wanted to write in a postscript: “And I need to be able to run a lot more way faster, okay?”

At any rate, I filled out my form and changed into running clothes. If you’re ever going in for one of these, make sure to wear shorts, as obviously the knees should be easily visible.

The PT started by pinning up the back of my tank top so he could see my lower back. I felt weird and exposed on a treadmill with my shirt half pinned up, but (and this became a mantra throughout the evaluation) I wanted to be able to run without pain more than I wanted to be modest.

After I’d warmed up a little bit, he had me run at my current 10 minute mile pace while he filmed me from several angles. He spent what felt like a long time behind me where I couldn’t see what was happening, filming my overall form, just my feet, and just my low back. Then he came to the side and did the same thing — first the overall form and then a zoom in on my feet. I was trying not to act like I was working very hard, because I felt like my pace was very slow, but it was the most running I’d done since before I’d been injured and I was getting out of breath.

After the first filming, he brought me to another room to watch the video in slow motion.

I’m not going to lie — the first relief was that I looked relatively fit on the screen. Since I’ve been unable to run or bike, I’ve been swimming as hard as I can, but I’ve still gained about 10 pounds. I’m not someone who focuses on weight (or at least I try not to be). I evaluate my body based on how functional it is at doing the activities I want it to. And I know that once I’m able to get back to my standard triathlon training, everything in my body will regulate itself again. But the truth is that last season when I was training so hard, I came up with all kinds of innovative ways to sneak extra calories into my food so that I was getting enough nutrition and I might not have stopped doing all of those.

At any rate: I looked fine on the video so let’s just move on.

My main diagnosis is that I am over-striding when I run. That means I’m taking steps that are too big. As a result, I’m striking the ground primarily with my heel, which means that my knee is pretty much straight and all the force from hitting the ground goes straight into my knee.

Check out my awesome arrow work!

Check out my awesome arrow work!

Related to this is that I’m also going up and down quite a lot when I run. That is, there’s too much vertical displacement of my body. He showed me the line of my shorts in slow motion, and I was making quite a large jump up and down.

He explained that I was running at about 164 steps per minute, but the ideal is about 180 steps per minute. I found it interesting that it apparently doesn’t matter how fast I’m running – the steps per minute should be about the same.

So what’s the cure? Well, I’ve been running with a metronome app that I downloaded. I have it set to about 175 bpm right now, because 180 is a little too drastic of a switch. I’ve been practicing this for about 2 weeks now, and although it originally felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, it’s gotten much, much easier. Today I had no pain while running for the first time since the injury, and it felt almost natural to run at about 175 steps per minute.

Increasing my cadence like this means that every step is a little shorter, which leads to me landing on the flat of my foot instead of the heel. Check out how that translates to a bent knee, putting the force of the impact on my quad instead of my joint.

In case you were wondering, no, I don't run on the carpet in front of the blinds. Photos taken for demonstration purposes only.

In case you were wondering, no, I don’t run on the carpet in front of the blinds. Photos taken for demonstration purposes only.

Running (on a treadmill) to a metronome is not the most stimulating endeavor, so I started looking for songs at my desired pace. Well, you can try searching for that yourself, but 180 is certainly a very popular number, and many, many folks across the Internet have put together extensive playlists. Here are just a few.

I’ve just downloaded the Cadence app, which is, at this very moment, analyzing the music in my iTunes library to add the bpm to the songs’ metadata. I’ll let you know how it works out so that you don’t have to waste a few bucks on it if it sucks. 🙂

How about you? Do you all know about this magic 180 number already? Do you pick your running music based on your cadence needs?