Before we discuss swimming and my trials and tribulations with this discipline I would like to say thank you to Matt for allowing me to guest post on his site today. He has a terrific site and so it was an honor when he asked me to write a post discussing swimming.
The start of a triathlon begins with the swim. It has been stated that a triathlon cannot be won in the water but it sure can be lost. I have taken that as a statement that you can put forth so much energy in the water that you are not productive on the bike or on the run. I have taken that to mean that your mental strength can be tested in the water and you might fail.
My experience with the water and swimming has been similar to an EKG…..up and down. When I first started in triathlon I would swim and swim and swim. I had no clue about drills or breathing or flip turns. Just got in the water and swam the distance I was intending to swim in the event. This was logical because when I ran I never ran a marathon to train for a marathon so why would swimming be different.
Well, swimming IS different. It is similar to golf in my mind. You must practice and practice and practice if you expect to be any good and see improvement. That first event finished with me walking the last 50 yards of the swim (thankfully it was in a pool.) From there I hired a coach and found myself in the pool two to three times a week. We focused on drills at first and they were hard. I had no idea what I was doing and looked like a fish out of water with all the flipping and flopping. One year later I have improved my stroke to the point that I am 15 seconds per 100 yards faster. That is a lifetime in the water.
I practiced drills such as catch-up, finger drag, kick, pull buoy + paddles, and sculling. I never really understood the point of all of these drills until it became engrained in my head that these drills are how I should be swimming. Once I accepted that the drills would be slower because you focused on one area but eventually you would be faster because you combined them all I did get faster.
Now let’s be clear for a moment. Swimming in a pool and doing drills and swimming in the open water are two different things all together. In the pool you have the ability to see the bottom and in a triathlon it is organized. In the open water there is no such luck. They call the start to the triathlon a white wash and that is because you have hundreds of people rotating their arms and kicking and the water becomes like a washing machine. My first experience with a beach start and open water swim nearly resulted in my first DNF. I did not know what to expect and I was lined up incorrectly on the sand. I put so much effort into staying afloat that I lost all my momentum and wound up swimming a poor 14 minutes for a 500 meter swim and was being passed by everybody. I was actually second to last out of the water for this event.
I learned that I need to have a controlled aggression in the open water. That by swimming my race I would not be forced into the rush of the bodies. I had to control my adrenaline and be patient with my swim because form is more important than force. By my second trip to the open water, at the US Open Championships in Rockwall, TX I had a better stroke and much better form. This race was a deck start and racers were dropping into the water every 3 seconds. While you did not have hundreds starting all at once you still had swimmers everywhere. I just used my controlled aggression and refined swim stroke to make my way from buoy to buoy. I finished the 1500m swim in 37 minutes and felt on top of the world and that set me up for a great ride and run afterwards. This is what I mean that you can’t win the race in the water but you can lose it. My second open water swim was terrific and I was faster on the next two disciplines even though they were longer distances.
Swimming is not easy in that you don’t just jump in and go like when you were a kid. It is a discipline that requires work and determination. There is no substitute for practicing. You also cannot muscle your way through the water. The water requires form to get through fast. Think of being one with the water and don’t fight it. Once you accept that theory your time practicing your strokes will be pleasant and what you fear will become your favorite discipline.
If you are interested in becoming a triathlete and the swim has you worried I suggest that you start with races that are pool swims. I would also watch the videos that I linked and practice them repeatedly. I would also suggest that you join a master’s swim class. The instructor will help you get better and while not one on one, it is worth while because you will learn so much about swimming.
** Matt – Thank you for the opportunity to write about my swimming thoughts and be posted on your site. It’s an honor.