What no one is telling you about swimming – going from zero to hero

When I had my rubber arm twisted into signing up for my first triathlon, the thought of the swim was my biggest fear. I imagined that I would get 100m into the swim freak-out, grab a paddle boarder and be disqualified before I even began. After talking to friends about this, the fear turned to doggy paddling around the swim course and not making the time cut off.

Mentally I was in a great place facing my first triathlon and first open water swim. As you can guess, I survived my swim course. In fact I loved it, completing the 1900m swim in 35 minutes. I did learn a few things about swimming that no one told me and that possibly put loads of people off.

It’s all about technique – this is probably one of the most important to get your head around. If you have a solid swimming technique the rest is easy. Thrashing arms and frenzied kicking is all show and no result. Total Immersion was my swimming bible from the start. Read the book, watch some of the videos and spend some time trying it out. It works. If you are really struggling, some coaching may help, but go to a coach familiar with these techniques. Having someone bark instructions and ever increasing lengths at you is not going to help.

Start slow – No one told me that my mind and body would fight me every stroke in the beginning. I used to be a scuba instructor, so loved being in the water. But trying to swim lengths in the pool was traumatising. My brain kept telling me that I couldn’t breath and was inevitably going to drown aka start panicking. Then my body would never settle making every length feel like a mile long. There was nothing more demoralising than finishing what felt like 1000m only to discover you had gone 175m.

This is where the techniques from Total Immersion played a role. I made the decision to forget about distance and focus on efficiency. Following the principals such as swimming downhill, acting more like a speedboat, rather than a tug boat and getting long and slippery, each lap had a purpose. I took loads of rests between laps, allowed myself to relax into the exercises and to focus on what I wanted to achieve from every stroke – Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

35 to 40 minutes once a week – that was my swim plan leading up to my half Ironman. When done right, swimming doesn’t have to be a hugely taxing cardio activity, you have your running and cycling to drive cardio fitness. Swimming should be efficient and low stress. I started to get out the pool feeling better than when I got in.

Adaptation takes time – There is very little to be gained in doing multiple swim sessions early on. Your body has not adapted to swimming. The muscles that you need take a few weeks/months to develop. You can’t rush this, as much as we all try. Use the early weeks/months to build technique. You will know when this happens; suddenly your swim will feel completely different. It will feel natural. Your body will not be fighting you. Breathing underwater will be completely natural and the sense that you are immanently going to drown will have completely disappeared from your mind.  At this point, building volume starts to happen naturally. You will be getting to the end of a 40 minute session and be pushing through 2000m, still feeling great.

Forget about all the gadgets – don’t worry about getting floats, paddles, buoys or any other training aid. Focus on getting the feel for the right technique and get the feel for swimming. You can always play with the toys later. This is about getting up to speed quickly and efficiently.

You should have a proper swim suit, I used my tri shorts, baggy shorts cause drag in the water and mess up the feeling of efficiency you are looking for. Goggles are another essential. You don’t want stinging eyes to distract your focus. I also used nose plugs. This allowed me to not worry about getting water in my nose and focus on the swim. A fitness watch was also very useful. I loose count after 3 laps, so having this helped me keep track on monitor my progress.

Keeping it simple and focusing on less, gave me loads more. I completed my swim course in 35 minutes, around 6 to 9 minutes slower than the fastest on the day, and all on 1 swim a week. For me, this proved that focusing on the 20% that returns the 80% gain is the way to go. If I wanted to bring down my swim time by 6 minutes, how much more effort would I need to put in and would this be worth it in the total event timescale?

Is the thought of a swim is holding you back from a long course triathlon? Get in touch



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