learn to swim

Confessions of a Newbie Swimmer

“Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die. And when I’m swimming, sometimes I’m not sure which one it is.”

-Demetri Martin
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Some people (ok A LOT of people) say that swimming is the most dangerous part of triathlon.  While it’s true that people who die during triathlon generally do so in the swim, I’m not really sure whether this is because swimming is more dangerous or just because it comes first.  Personally, I’d consider myself far more likely to kill or maim myself during the cycling portion… though I could also see where drowning myself might seem a good alternative to the bike

ImageAnyway, my point is that swimming can be a pretty scary part of triathlon training, especially for people like me who are just learning.  That is why I thought it would be very kind and gracious of me to impart to all the other newbie swimmers everything I’ve learned thus far about the leg of triathlon (statistically) most likely to kill you.  

If you are anything like me, your initial visits to the pool have had you filled with anxiety and dread.  Being unable to breath comfortably during physical activity is not a particularly good time… especially when you are first learning to swim- with no concept of timing your breath or lung capacity to speak of.  What I would recommend in this scenario is to find a swim instructor who is more terrifying than the water.  Faced with the prospect of getting yelled at or publicly humiliated, the water doesn’t actually seem that bad.  However, if this option doesn’t appeal to you, you can also try having a more experienced swimmer or trusted friend come with you for moral support while you get the hang of things.  I would recommend picking someone not prone to mocking or teasing as the sight of you attempting not to drown in a public setting may be too much for even a good friend to resist.

Another method I found useful as a total newb was to inform the lifeguard on duty that I had no idea what I was doing was a new swimmer.  He would direct to me to a lane with a friendly swimmer, and then I would proceed to let EVERYONE the people swimming around me also know that I was new to swimming and welcome to feedback.  This was helpful in a few ways. First, by alerting the life guard and other swimmers that I was new, I let them know I was receptive to advice not only on my swimming, but also the pool etiquette.  In general, people were happy to assist in this capacity.  It also gave the lifeguard a heads up to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t drown.

Another tip I would recommend is to take lessons.  If you are really self conscious or don’t know how to swim at all, start with a private lesson.  If you already know how to rotary breath but could use a refresher, consider a program like Masters Swim.  I signed up for Masters Swim not knowing how to swim properly based on some bad advice from a YMCA staff member… much to the displeasure of the night coach.  In the end it turned out ok, but my introduction to swimming likely would have been a better experience had I started with the basics.

swimfamilyThat being said, I cannot speak enough about the benefits of swimming in a group like the Masters Swim program.  I find that my swimming anxiety is dramatically reduced if I am swimming in a class compared to when I am alone.  I also swim better.  I think this is partly because I have other people to pace off and partly because I don’t have time to think about what I’m doing.  Plus, it is a great opportunity to get constructive feedback on how to swim more efficiently and learn drills to improve my stroke.  I can honestly say I have picked up something new in every class, and it has made me significantly more confident about swimming on my own.

Besides that, there is a lot of value in the moral support of other newbie swimmers… especially when you bond closely over being terrified of both swimming and the coach (…mostly the coach).  Before I ever looked forward to swimming, I looked forward to seeing my swim family… including the coach.  She turned out not to be so bad once we got the hang of things and got to know her.. though she is still terrifying.

Having spent the past several months consistently swimming there are also actually a few things I’ve learned for myself.  For starters, regardless of how much I improve, there are still a lot of days I get in the pool and feel like I am drowning more than swimming for most of my workout.  I try to remind myself that every swim can’t be a great swim the same as every run won’t be a great run.  When I have a crappy day in the pool, I find focusing on my form and going slow helps.  I have also discovered that when I am tired and winded it not only helps to slow down,swimwall but also to kick less and really work on finishing my stroke and rotating my shoulders.  The more I push off on the last part of my stroke, the faster I tend to go- surprisingly regardless of how fast or swim or kick.

Back when I first started swimming, I would only go as far as the edge of the shallow end (and inhale about half the pool in the process).  Then with practice I could do the full 25 meters.  I thought it was HUGE progress when I started doing full laps, and now I’ve worked my way up to swimming 100m intervals.  The thing about swimming is if I am consistent, I find I steadily improve.  In the beginning it was by leaps and bounds every time I got in the water.  Now it’s more subtle changes, but I am still continually making progress.

Most triathletes I talk to HATE LOATHE the swim and dread doing it; however, I have actually learned to love swimming.  I have finally gotten to a point where I enjoy it more than I get anxiety about it.  In fact, after a few days out of the water I start to actually miss it. gasp!  It’s a nice break from the pounding and impact that come from running and cross training with the same mental alt-control-delete.

To the people still struggling, I’d say try and stick with it.  If you do it consistently, you will find it gets a lot easier.  You may even grow to like it.  Trust me, if I can get the hang of it than anyone can.  Now if only I could learn to love the cycling… Or find an indoor tri with a spin bike. 😉

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You Don’t Belong Here

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this.  For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”

-Henry Ford 
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On Wednesday morning I had my very first swimming lesson, and I thought it went pretty well.  I was both nervous and excited about my second class Thursday night, so I made it a point to head out of work early and ensure I got there on time.  As it turned out, I got there a little early so I spent about 30 minutes swimming laps before class.  Well, I thought I was swimming laps, the women in the lane next to me (who, unfortunately for me, happened to be the night coach) thought they were more of an abomination and insult to the sport of swimming.

lifeisfullofThat is at least what I surmised when she pulled me aside before the class even started and suggested I get a refund.  It wasn’t really a suggestion.  She actually told me that they should have made sure I knew how to “rotary breath” before I signed up.  I suppose I could see her point, but her delivery really sucked.  Plus, I had been very honest about my skill level (ie. swimming to avoid drowning)  when I asked about swim classes.  The woman who signed me up was emphatic about this specific class, and told me that I would pick things up more quickly because the class was a mix of beginner and advanced swimmers.  She stressed that beginners were welcome.  This was reiterated by the morning coach who assured me I would not be the only person in class unfamiliar with swim caps, goggles, and lap swimming.  After hearing the same message repeated by the other swimmers, I was really starting to believe them.  “You’re in the right place” they kept telling me.

Now I found myself in my second swimming class being told not to return.  The message was loud and clear: YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!  She suggested I get remedial beginner classes; and then, when the tears started, she told me to come back this morning and she would spend some time with me.  It was really the LAST THING I was interested in doing, but I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of knowing how deeply I was wounded.

After the huge blow, she proceeded to give me instructions on the workout along with everyone else. YES– she had me stay for the workout after kicking me out!  The other people in the class were super friendly and supportive, which only made me more disappointed that I wasn’t allowed back.  I choked back the tears and sucked it up through each group of drills.  After it was over, I bawled my eyes out in the locker room.   The other women who were in the class did their best to make me feel better.  They told me that the night coach is really tough on everyone; and it was obvious during the session that she did a lot of yelling (…and that the majority of the class was afraid of her).  They encouraged me to stick with it and offered itsnotoverto help with my swimming.

As upset and disappointed as a was, I was more determined than ever.  I certainly was not going to let some biotch tell me I’m not good enough.  I had been swimming all of 2 days at that point, and had already made HUGE gains.  My swimming wasn’t pretty, but I wasn’t sinking either.  I was plowing out laps like it was my job.  I understand that the rotary breathing is important; however, I was clearly willing to practice on my own and told them I would get my husband to help me.  I didn’t agree with her decision to kick me out when there were clearly people in her class struggling more than I was.  I wasn’t the only person not keeping my face in the water, but for some reason I was the only one singled out.

This woman, obviously didn’t know who she was dealing with.  Back in high school I was cut from the track team repeatedly before they finally relented and let me on the team.  They ultimately had no choice because I kept showing up to practice regardless of whether I was on the team or not.  I thought about doing the same with her class, but it wasn’t exactly a friendly learning environment… Plus, I think she’d have a conniption.   In an odd way, the parallel to the start of my running career made me feel slightly better.  I wasn’t good enough for the track team my first time out, yet here I am a week away from my first 50K.  Maybe it’s a sign that the same will be true for swimming.  I won’t just get the hang of it, I’ll become passionate about it.  Granted, there aren’t a lot of coaches out there who admire passion over talent, but I have to say that it’s gotten me a lot further in life than talent ever has.

My point is, this isn’t the first time I have put myself out there to try something new only to have someone tell me I’m not good enough.  I’ve never let anyone else deter me, so I certainly wasn’t going to let this woman.  Instead, I decided I would spend time in the pool everyday, even if it meant after a 13+ hour shift, until I got the hang of the breathing.  It would be my personal F- you to this women for kicking me out.

So I did go and swim after work last night.  I went even though I got out late, got stuck in traffic, and knew I’d only have 30 struggleminutes at best before the pool would close.  I practiced the drills we did in class and tried my best to get comfortable with having my face in the water.  Then this morning I got up early and met Miss-You’re-Not-Good-Enough at the pool.  I had been absolutely dreading it, but it turned out she was much nicer (not nice, but significantly less bitchy) when not teaching a whole class.  It only took 15 minutes with her for me to get the hang of turning my shoulder and breathing properly.  She couldn’t get over how quickly I picked it up and how “beautiful” and “streamlined” I swam once I got it.  She even admitted she was impressed, though the look on her face said it all.  It was quite priceless, actually.

She didn’t invite me back to class, but at least now I know how to swim properly when I practice on my own.  I also have the card of the aquatics director (who tracked me down in the locker room when I was crying).  She told me to touch base with her and we would “work something out”.  I’m not sure if this means swimming with her or in a different class, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get it down.

When I first signed up for swim classes, I just wanted to learn to swim well enough to finish the half ironman.  However, now that I got kicked out of swim class, I’m determined to be the best swimmer I can be.  After spending time with numerous horrible coaches in high school and college and over 5 years with an abusive ex, I’m certainly not going to let one swim coach with a chip on her shoulder bring me down.  I think I have enough experience in dealing with self-esteem bashing jerks to be able to handle her.  In fact, I find that the best method is usually to make them eat their words, and I think I’m already well on my way to doing that. 🙂

Entering New Territory

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life

as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

-Booker T. Washington 

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             Thank you Man Bicep! Love this one!

Today I entered uncharted territory: I started swim lessons. This was a HUGE step for me, and the final piece in my triathlon training journey.  I had intentionally saved swimming for last because I knew it would be the most difficult for me.  I was so nervous about the class starting that I literally got no sleep.  I was up every hour on the hour and just lied awake most of the night.  I was afraid that my total lack of experience would be an issue and that the swim instructor or other class members would be impatient and mean.  What I found when I arrived was quite the opposite!

ImageThe swim coach assured me that I would not be the only person foreign to lap swimming (as well as swim caps, goggles, etc), and although that was a total lie and I was the ONLY inexperienced person in the class, things still went remarkably well.  The first half of the class I tried to get the hang of putting my face in the water and breathing properly, but I was really struggling- despite the best efforts of the coach to help me.  I just couldn’t get the hang of the rhythm, and found I didn’t have enough time to get air in before putting my face back in the water. I ultimately figured I could either spend my class time working on the breathing or attempt to do the work out .  It seemed more helpful to focus on the workout and practice proper breathing on my own time.  

Once I did give up on putting my face in the water, I was actually able to keep up with the rest of the “slow” group.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how many laps I was able to swim with fairly minimal rest in between. The other swimmers were not bothered by my total newbiness, and that was a huge comfort.  In fact, they were all very supportive, assuring me it would get easier and that I was in the right place.  One swimmer even offered to work with me on the breathing outside of class, which was a super kind gesture.  Even the life guard introduced himself and offered support….which made me wonder just how badly I looked like I was struggling.  I later found out that he was the one who had taught the swimmer who offered to help me how to breath properly a few years earlier.  It appeared I was not the only person picking up swimming as an adult after all.  

Maybe it was the fact that I was so much younger than everyone else that caused everyone to take me under their wing; Imagehowever, I’m noticing that people at the YMCA are like that.  It’s like a little community there with everyone on a first name basis, which is probably why new people stick out like a sore thumb to them.  It’s comforting to be in such a warm, friendly environment when taking on something as anxiety provoking (for me) as swimming.  There is just something about putting my face in the water that makes me tense up and hyperventilate! Yet, I think if I am going to overcome that anxiety and get the hang of swimming properly that the other swimmers are right about me being in the right place.

Being in that pool today, I was pleasantly surprised with myself.  Of course, I was not thrilled about being unable to conquer the breathing, but I was excited that I was able to swim so many laps.  More than that, I was keeping up with people who have a lot more experience at swimming than I do.  Given that I have almost 8 months before the half ironman, I think  hope I should be in good shape.  

ImageIn other riveting news, I also started spin classes today!  It was super fun too!  Adam and I went together, but I don’t think he was quite as enthusiastic as I was.  In fact, I noticed I was the only person smiling through the entire workout, which I don’t completely understand… Doesn’t everyone love endorphins? 😉  By the end of the class, I had covered over 23 miles which is kind of ridiculous even for a bike.  That’s sub 3 minute miles!  Plus, that was on top of my hour of swimming (no rest for the weary there!), 4 mile run (on the dreadmill at 9 min pace), and full leg workout with the trainer.  I think it’s safe to say that I am going to be very sore and hungry tomorrow!  Don’t worry, I did at least take a nap in between my leg workout and the spinning.  🙂

 

Tomorrow it’s back to work, but I am hoping to get out early enough to catch the next swim class afterward… that is if I am still able to move by tomorrow…  Hopefully I will get some decent rest tonight.  If nothing else, at least I get to sleep until 4:30 instead of getting up at 4 for the pool!

My New Home and the Next Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
-Lao Tzu 

 

 

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Sadly, I am almost finished with the last of my training sessions.  :’-(  As it worked out, they wrap up just in time for the Bimbler’s Bluff 50K.  I think I can safely say that I am in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and I’m hoping that will be enough to carry me through what I know will be a grueling run.  As an added incentive to hang in there, I have asked the women I am fundraising for to write some notes of encouragement that I can carry with me and read when I’m exhausted and want nothing more than to quit.  More than just having the letters to read, it will mean beyond I can even express in words to have them with me through the day.  It’s a tangible reminder to why I will be there.  Plus, I also feel like it’s a great symbolic gesture to carry them (the women, not the notes) with me on that day to overcome the challenge together. After all, our strength is drawn from our sense of community.  In reality, I think it might be the thrivers who will truly being carrying me through the day and not the other way around… 

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My cool new swimming gear!

Despite all the initial drama with my trainer, I have to admit that he has kind of grown on me… sort of like a little brother who annoys the hell out of you but you love him anyway...  Once we had a chance to hash things out, we were able to build a pretty solid partnership; and I am truly bummed to see it end.  As much as I would love to continue training even on a once weekly basis, between the amount of time I’ll be spending on triathlon training and the need to cut back on expenses, I just don’t think it will be feasible the next few months.  I suppose I will have to resort to kicking my own butt for awhile.  At least it’s something we all know I have experience with.  Plus with all the swimming, biking, and running that is about to commence, I am hoping I won’t lose too much ground in the conditioning department.  Besides, I always have Insanity and P90X to fall back on for cross training… and my trusty pull-up bar. 😉

The positive part about my training ending is I now have the time and funds (well not really, but I’ll make it work) to start swimming.  Up until this point I have only known how to swim to avoid drowning, so I definitely have A LOT to learn… Possibly even more than with cycling. Maybe I should be more scared… Better yet, maybe the swim instructors should be!

However, I am determined and committed. (I would like to cite the fact that I found a swim suit, goggles, and swim cap all in the off season today as proof!) I have been trying to find an affordable place to swim with a flexible pool schedule for quite some time now, and let me tell you it has been no easy task!  Ultimately, we decided that the Greater Waterbury YMCA will be my new home- for at least the next 8 months anyway.  

I picked the Greater Waterbury YMCA over our local one because they have two pools instead of one and a way more flexibleImage lap swim schedule.  In fact, I don’t think there are any hours that they don’t allow lap swimming during the day.  They also have off street parking AND for some reason the membership was cheaper… which makes no sense because it’s all the same organization.  Anyway, now that we joined, we can go to either one so I guess it doesn’t really matter.  Adam had pushed for the YMCA over the other pools I looked at because they offer spin classes (in addition to a multitude of other classes which I’m kind of excited to try out… if I ever have spare time between all my other athletic endeavors).  They also just did a 10 million renovation so the facility itself is really nice, nicer than our current gym actually and with more equipment including bikes!

As sad as I am to close the chapter on my personal training, I am equally excited about taking the next step in my journey to becoming an ironman (or at least half of one)!  I already signed up for swimming lessons and am hoping to take my first one tomorrow after work.  I am happy that my new home is filled with friendly, helpful staff, AND that they have a triathlon club which starts up this winter.  I am really looking forward to taking on this next challenge and making another step in the direction of my goal… I just hope I don’t drown in the process 😉