“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.”
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…
Anyway, 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.
That 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, 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. 😉