Swimming. Ah, the enigma.
I haven’t grown to love the swimming part of triathlon – yet. I remain ever hopeful that the day will come; I’ve had glimpses of it to tempt me (see here and here) and the gossip among ‘the swimmers‘ aka the dolphins is that there is serious fun and enjoyment to be had. So swimming love exists apparently, I just have to wait until I can stake my claim.
In the meantime, I have approached my swim sessions with something like unease and trepidation. Especially the open water swims, which I frankly dread.
The feeling I get after a swim makes it all worthwhile, so I can’t go so far as to say I hate it. Finishing a swim produces a certain feeling of relief that I can only compare to being at your in-laws’ for dinner then hearing your partner say that it is time to go home. Cue: absolute ecstasy. Except with swimming you’ve also done a workout, so it’s even better than that.
Plus, I simply can’t allow myself to hate swimming. I have already set my heart on some stupid triathlons that require me to swim stupid distances in the stupid sea. So I have to think positive, embrace the challenge and keep at it, because as humans we tend to believe that with practice and hard work, comes improvement.
And that’s the thing. Where is my improvement? Aren’t I overdue?
I threw this exact tantrum a couple of weeks ago, as I was leaving the house for a normal morning’s swimming session. A tantrum and feeling of despair which was then exacerbated by a mediocre performance in the pool, and a rather portly older gentleman who got into the lane next to me and swam faster than me, length after length after length. After length.
Now, I am the first to admit that I am not a great athlete. But I could have run rings around my new arch enemy, outside of the water. Literally, give me a pair of shoes and I could run around him for about an hour and a half. Give us both a bike and I’d yell ‘On your right’ and overtake him 6 times in three laps. I know this because when we both jumped out of the pool to leave, I overtook him as I walked casually out. I overtook him walking. But I couldn’t even keep up with him, swimming.
So let’s agree for argument’s sake that I’m not unfit. Well, what the hell is wrong with my swimming?
I sat myself down at my kitchen bench (which is my new thinking spot – it just got built before Easter)
Firstly, I reminded myself that I am indeed seeing slight improvements every single time I get into the water. Each week I have set myself a little extra challenge, and so far I have accepted and conquered all of them. For instance, I have been working on bilateral breathing (where you take one breath on the right and the next on the left) which is really a fundamental swimming skill but has been difficult for me to master. I have also been doing drills and practicing little skills such as letting my head drop/float rather than holding it stiff and wasting energy. Small things that have made a world of difference to my comfort in the water, slowly but surely.
Compared to where I started, with the Great Pool Panic of October (still only 6 months ago) the improvement in my swimming is huge, and getting bigger every week. And it’s not an easy thing to get good at. I was reminded of this in the Easter Sunday Grimsey’s Adult Swimfit session, when a recognisable face came up to me at the registration desk and said she would be trying her first Swimfit session that morning. It was a lady from my gym, who is a very strong swimmer and regular patron of the pool (where she also laps me, over and over again)
She joined me in the beginners’ group (with what I felt was a bit of fake modesty) under the guidance of Trent Grimsey. We set off on our warm-up, but at the first buoy I looked around to find I couldn’t see her. When I finished and made it back to shore, she told me she’d had a panic attack. She went on to have a few more over the course of the session and got quite angry with herself. I told her about my first session (remembering that this was only my third!) and tried to give her some hints to deal with the terror of the open water without feeling like an absolute fraud telling a seasoned swimmer how to operate.
So improvement? Yes, it’s there.
But despite all of these good things and the reassurances I took from them, as I sat at my kitchen bench one thing remained clear. A clear thing, which was also disappointing.
I have not got faster – at all.
DISCLAIMER: I still believe speed doesn’t matter – I’m on this journey to push myself and test my limits as part of a fun adventure that makes good use of my pulse. Because I do only have one pulse and I’ve decided I’d better do good things with it. And swimming rather slowly still beats sitting down and drinking beer I believe.
SIDENOTE: There is also a well-used triathlon saying that goes something along the lines of ‘you can’t win a triathlon in the swim’. Which is true, because it’s the shortest leg of any triathlon so if you finish the swim with a lead, that can easily be taken away from you in the bike and run legs, so it genuinely doesn’t matter if I’m not the fastest swimmer.
BACK TO THE DISCLAIMER: So neither being fast nor winning a triathlon concerns me – but if I come last in the swim, I’m on my own for the bike ride and there will be nobody to push me in the run. If I’m too slow in the swim, there is a risk I won’t make the cut-off time and will end up disqualified from the race. And frankly, if I’m seeing such great improvements in everything else involved with swimming, why is speed the only factor unaffected?
After pondering these things for a while (very slow, not getting faster, getting more comfortable though, reasonably fit, strong desire to at least get a bit faster so that portly older gentlemen don’t lap me) I decided I was doing something wrong. There was only one thing to do – Google it.
Extensive triathlon research has taught me that Google can’t always be trusted – it builds you up and then tears you down without regard for your success. So it took some considerable time and effort to carefully read through pages and pages of results, weeding out rubbish advice, clicking on links, diving down rabbit holes and following the warren’s maze in the direction I felt drawn to, until I had some answers.
Answers! I was amazed to read how complicated swimming technique can be. It soon became clear that I have barely scratched the surface of learning how to swim. I am not sure there would be another sport like it in the world, in terms of the level of skill involved in performing perfectly. Maybe tennis? No, probably not, because world-class swimming requires a level of consistency and control of everything – from the angle of your neck within a fraction of degrees, to the spread of your fingers at all times, to the rhythm and movement of your littlest toe and a myriad of things in between – that isn’t required in tennis to the same extent.
First things first, my trusted swimming advisor site www.swimsmooth.com advised me that I need to increase my stroke rate – IE how quickly my arms go round. Typing that out makes me realise that this should have been obvious, but trust me it wasn’t. I had been so fixated on securing an efficient glide with my lead arm, that apparently I have been overgliding.
According to the site:
Overgliding is where a swimmer has introduced glide to their stroke and is losing efficiency from the introduction of a deadspot, normally at the front of their stroke. This will show up on the ramp test at low stroke rates where speed will be slow for the level of effort.
As the stroke rate is increased slightly above their natural stroke rate, the swimmer gains efficiency and will often pick up some speed for the same level of effort. Or the effort level could actually drop as stroke rate is increased.
As soon as I read the word overgliding, I knew I’d been doing it. So this information sounded good to me. But how to increase my stroke rate? I Googled some more.
Tips For Raising Your Stroke Rate – perfect!
– Relax and go with the flow of your new stroke rate. Trust your stroke technique to hold together, don’t think about the actions of the stroke too much and just concentrate on the rhythm and timing of it.
– Think about starting the catch earlier.
– Keep the lead hand in constant motion, it’s either extending, tipping, catching or pulling. It never actually stops moving in good swimming technique.
Good old swimsmooth.com again. Luckily, they also included this tidbit of information:
As stroke rate increases, every swimmer gets to a point where they are fighting the water and their efficiency falls away.
So don’t expect miracles, I guess. Armed with all of this, I decided to start increasing my stroke rate. But just to be sure, I Googled some more on the perfect stroke technique.
When your arm is fully extended in the water, the first movement of the catch is to point your fingers to the bottom of the pool. Keep your wrist straight and your elbow bent above your forearm. This arm position forms a strong paddle with a lot of surface area to “catch” the water. Two things to avoid during the freestyle catch: fully straightened arms and crossing the center line of the body.
Wait, what? No fully straightened arms and no crossing the centre line of the body?? Are you sure?
Yes I’m sure, idiot. (ok the site didn’t really say that bit) Take a look at your arm position when you lift yourself out of the pool or push away from your desk. Notice how you achieve the most power by spacing your hands just outside your body, keeping your wrists straight and strong, and bending your elbows near 90 degrees. Feel how your pectoral, tricep and forearm muscles are engaged and strong. Now, take that same position to the pool and feel the power in your underwater catch.
Ah, whoops. I had been ‘pulling’ myself through the water with straight arms, in all my sessions. I thought that was good technique – probably because I thought stretching my arm out in front of me and gliding was good, so I continued that arm position down through the water.
I wasn’t sure whether I crossed the centre line of the body, but as it wasn’t a tip I’d heard before I was pretty sure I did. Whoops again.
For the next few swim sessions, I practiced putting into motion all of this new advice. Firstly, I swam purposefully extra slowly, with my arms bent underwater and my hands traveling down my sides rather than underneath me. It was really hard and took a lot of getting used to. But on the plus side, forcing myself to swim really slowly with my face in the water didn’t scare me like it used to. I didn’t panic, even when I inhaled water or when things went wrong.
For the first time, I truly felt like a beautiful mermaid playing in the water; I did half a length and twirled around, heading back to the end with my super slow but much improved technique. I stopped mid-stroke, to reset and make adjustments as required. I felt as comfortable as if I were on land and simply trying to run with perfect form.
Buoyed by this breakthrough, I went swimming every day for a few days. As you do. And swimming got easier and easier. I was no longer getting jelly arms after 300 metres. I wasn’t out of breath after 800 metres, even when breathing bilaterally.
Now this, this is a breakthrough, I thought. Remember that tidbit I found that said ‘As stroke rate increases, every swimmer gets to a point where they are fighting the water and their efficiency falls away‘? I realised that with my incorrect stroke technique, I had been fighting the water all the time, even with a very low stroke rate. Every session, every metre had been a battle between the water and me trying to pull myself through it.
By comparison, this morning I went for a swim and for the first time I truly felt like I was moving smoothly. It was a joyous experience. I pondered my blog posts, the delicious lunch I was planning on making today (couldn’t be bothered in the end, but the intention was there) and whether OJ Simpson will ever admit to his children that he murdered their mum. Such interesting thoughts, especially in comparison to the usual ‘ARGH don’t drown you effing moron! ARGH breathe for god’s sake!! ARGH don’t stop kicking, what the eff are you doing?! ARGH swimming is bloody awful!!’ – although with more swearing in it, if I’m honest.
I didn’t time myself, because I have realistic expectations. But I know I can get faster with this new technique, because I wasn’t so tired and worn out over short distances. So I’ll time myself in the next session and start working on a bit of speed. Which is really exciting.
And the lesson from all of this? I don’t know anything about triathlon. In the same way as nobody is born with natural triathlon talent, nobody is born with the triathlon knowledge. It’s perfectly OK that I really have no clue what I am doing. But the information is out there and I will find it.
So if you are training or struggling with training, don’t give up. Research your problems and you will find a way – or at least some funny cat videos to cheer you up and take your mind off it all.
Now I’m off to stake my claim at ‘swimming love’. Move aside, slow coaches!