WARNING: If you find yourself at masters and the coach hints that tomorrow you’ll do the timed mile, when another swimmer suggests doing the timed two mile do not under any circumstances get a glimmer in your eye.
Because the coach will notice.
Before I break the suspense of what’s more torturous – banging your head against a wall for 45 minutes or swimming two miles straight in short course yards – let me clear the air: I love swimming. Not because I come from a swimming background. Actually I was 24 years old when I learned how to swim and will never forget what the swim instructor said to me: what I like about you is that you swim slow. I love swimming because somewhere around 4 years ago, when I decided to compete as a pro – it struck me that in order to be good at triathlon you have to love swimming. Because swimming is part of triathlon. For some of you, that is shocking. How many times have you heard – or said, admit it – that you hate swimming. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like driving to the pool, getting into the pool, walking out of the pool with wet hair or even getting wet at all.
But I do love to swim. And if you’re going to get good at triathlon, you have to.
There’s been a lot of chit chat lately about swimming. For good reason. Triathletes are notoriously poor swimmers. Accept it - it’s hard to get good at something when you’re splitting your time between three sports. Especially something as technical as swimming. Not only that but most triathletes do not have a background in swimming. It takes only a few minutes of watching a children’s swim team to understand the benefit of starting to swim as a child. Children are kinesthetic learners. They don’t think, they just do. Enter adults: they think, they hem, they haw, they question, they overthink and then…they do. For those reasons, swimming for the adult-onset athlete is complicated.
It’s hard to sort fact from fiction, theory from bullshit when it comes to swimming. In all honestly, there is no one size fits all training plan for any sport. Jokingly, someone the other day suggested that swimming 9,000 yards a week and expecting to get faster is like running 15 miles a week and expecting to get faster. I set my 5K PR on 15 miles a week proving that what works for one will not work for everyone. Often it takes trying a few different approaches before you find something that works for you. Recognizing what doesn’t work is as important as recognizing what does work. You might find pieces of several approaches that work. The point is to take the initiative to try something new, give it enough time to see if it works and integrate those pieces into your year-round swim routine.
When it comes to improving the swim, I’ve tried everything. From Total Immersion to swimming masters 5x a week, being videotaped by different coaches, swimming only easy, giving up swimming. The only thing that has gotten me better is me taking the responsibility to improve myself. Asking the questions, listening to the answers, accepting feedback, doing the work then reflecting on how it influences my swim/bike/run. No single coach COULD do this for me, no matter how much I paid them. There has been no magic bullet to improve my swimming other the continual process of looking to improve and then making it happen.
And this takes TIME.
When I started swimming I was not good. I’m still not good but for a triathlete I’ve kept getting better which is the goal – slow but steady progress. If someone finds the magic formula for fast progress, don’t send it to me. You’ll never realize (or respect) the patient, often B-O-R-I-N-G work it takes to improve yourself at something. There were several breakthroughs I had in the past few years to improve my swimming. Since you should be thinking swimmy things right now because really what else is going on in triathlon, let’s talk about things you can do right now to improve your swimming (that don’t involve catch-up drill!):
Breathe every stroke when you’re going fast. Most triathletes think they need to bilateral breathe for better swimming. No true! Yes, it’s good for balancing out your stroke, having the ability to breathe no matter where chop in the water is coming from and stretching yourself out but when you want to go fast – you gotta breathe! Like a (real) swimmer once told me: OXYGEN IS GOOD! Years ago, while watching me swim, Greg G. told me: when you go fast, breathe on your best side only. Breakthrough! The time difference is about 3-5 seconds per 100. I’ve never breathed both sides in a race since then.
EVF. EVF. EVF. If you don’t know what it is, Google it, YouTube it or ask your Facebook friends. Early vertical forearm is the optimal position for a powerful catch and pull. When most triathletes struggle with swimming, I don’t even need to look at their stroke. The answer is often: stop dropping your elbow! Learn how to position your arm properly in (and through) the water. Stretch cords (or Vasa Trainer in case you have a bunch of $$$ laying around and wondering just what else tri-related you can do with it) are a great way to develop the EVF motion.
Paddles – use ‘em. In my swim bag, I have 5 different pairs of paddles. I use them all – a lot. When we are doing sprint 25s, I use paddles. When we are doing a challenging interval, rather than not making it I put on pull buoy and paddles. For some reason, athletes are afraid of paddles. If you use them wrong, they should just fall right off or you should have the kinesthetic sense enough to fix it. Use a paddle just slightly bigger than your hand. My personal preferences: (green) TYR Catalyst or StrokeMakers. I take off all bands except for the middle finger (but this is a personal choice). Want to get really strong in open water? Put on paddles when swimming in open water.
I love something between my legs. That’s what my masters coach told me. It’s the pull buoy! Like my paddles, I can’t do a swim without pulling. No, it’s not cheating, it’s not “fake” swimming, it’s not making up for poor body position. Well, maybe it is. But it helps me to keep up with faster swimmers and get that “feeling” of faster swimming. Sometimes feel in swimming is more important than fitness. Sometimes not. The pull buoy is a great way to focus on your front end stroke, rotation, breathing, head position. Too often swimmers use a pull buoy for easy sets – try pulling a hard set (with paddles!). You’ll feel on top of the water, improved form and again get that feel of faster swimming.
I’m with the band! I’m a HUGE fan of the band, add in paddles and you’ve got yourself a great strength set to prepare for open water. Get an old bike inner tube, tie your ankles together and there you have it – the band. Most people give up with the band because it feels like your legs are dragging the bottom of the pool. That’s the point! The challenge is to figure out the changes you need to make in your body position, stroke and turnover to reduce that feeling. Hint: press your chest (HARD) and turn your arms over.
Swim with masters. I’ve been swimming with my masters team for over 10 years. You simply cannot push yourself as hard when you swim alone – doesn’t matter what intervals you are given, trust me. We are all competitive and when you swim with others, that switch flips and you’re an animal hunting down the feet of the swimmer in front of you. Masters is motivating, fun, social and ass kicking – plus, swimmers talk a lot more about beer than power to weight ratios. And every practice ends in the hot tub – can it get any better than that?
Become a swimmer. Wear an Ugli suit. Do a swim meet. Get a mesh bag and fill it with pool toys. Learn to talk the lingo (on the :30, send offs, hypoxic), join a team, dive off the blocks, swim all four strokes. Most triathletes have an aversion to swimming so it’s no wonder they aren’t good at it. They focus on the negatives: the black line, getting wet, being cold, it’s so boring! Embrace it all and make friends with it. Back when I started triathlon, my husband had me join a cycling team, do a bunch of criteriums, mountain bike races and group rides. The result: I "became" a cyclist and get better at cycling. Do the same for swimming.
Snorkel the shit out of that set. A swimmer’s snorkel is another way to mix things up in the pool. Without the distraction of rotating to breathe, you can work on head stability/position, catch/pull, balance, hip/hand timing. Snorkels go great with pull buoy, paddles, even fins. I also find I breathe a little more labored or differently which is great preparation for those moments in open water when your breathing pattern gets disrupted. For extra fun, bedazzle your snorkel with colorful tape and stickers. For extra cool kid points, learn how to flip turn with it.
Make an honest effort to improve your open water swim-ability. New Flash: To swim well in open water you need to SWIM IN THE OPEN WATER! When your training is specific to the demands of racing, you’ll see racing progress. Pool swim speed does not easily transfer to open water. What’s so different about open water? Besides no lines, wetsuits, chop, sighting, other swimmers - in open water you swim long, steady sets. When was the last time your masters team did tempo 1000s? You also get no push off from a wall so you need strength in your stroke – not in your legs/push off (enter paddles & pull buoy!). You also need to mental focus. The more you swim open water, the more you figure out what you need to do to swim better in open water. You cannot do this in a pool.
JFS. In other words: just fucking swim. No better way to state it. Triathletes have a tendency to talk about swimming, think about swimming, question their swimming, declare their hatred for swimming, justify not swimming, blame away their poor swimming but the one thing they will rarely do? GO SWIMMING! Sometimes, it’s that simple. If you want to get better at something, you have to do more of it. More is more (sort of). If it’s a form issue, spend a month doing short sessions of drill work with shorter, faster sets (25s, 50s) where you hold form while going faster. But if not – to breakthrough you *likely* need to swim more. Swim a few more times a week. Doesn’t have to be long, just get in the water & swim 30 minutes. Also, just as you do with your bike and run, include a weekly long swim. Get to the point where swimming 4K in an hour feels like nothing.
Did I make you feel like swimming? No? Just wait.
On weekdays, I swim at 10 am. This is a lovely mix of stay at home moms and men who either work from home, don’t work or work jobs where they can disappear for long periods of time with no one noticing. Among my lanemates is usually Tom who falls into a separate category of only working when it doesn’t rain (roofing business). I like Tom. Even appointed him my lane husband. Tom who once declared his best event as REST, who confessed that he used to swim his 500 in 4:48 in high school (why he is now swimming with me is a mystery). Tom who is not afraid to walk half of a kick set.
We are an unlikely pair – he, huge; me, small. My best open water preparation is swimming free in his wake of fly.
We work well together.
My latest Tom story: Just today we were cooling down with 5 x 100 on the 1:40 when I noticed Tom running in the lane next to me. If breathing with a snorkel is a challenge, laughing your ass off with one is downright hazardous. When I asked him why he was running, he said “because Gary wondered if I could run a 100 in 1:40.” The answer: he could. And just to prove the point, he did it again.
On Tuesday, we do distance free at masters. Long sets. It’s never a good sign when you come back to the wall after warm up to see three white boards, all turned around with the workouts hiding.
The coach tells us that today we get a choice of a mainset. She turns around the first board:
5 x 500
4 x 600
50 x 50 on the :50
10 x 100 + timed mile
Timed 2 mile
This is distance free, my friends. This is what most masters programs are lacking! If you’re going to excel at triathlon, you have to do long sets. It’s not even a matter of fitness (ok, it is), it’s a matter of mental focus and strength.
If you want to know how to immediately find yourself alone in a lane at masters, choose the timed 2 mile. When the coach asked our choices, I shouted TIMED TWO MILE, jumping up and down, giddy that I get to do something for the first time in my life. And my lanemate?
Crickets. Tom had switched lanes.
I had a goal and hit it. The hardest part? Counting that many laps. And with 10 to go, breathing to my right to see Marty waving at me, finished with his workout, as if to say you are about 1 lap away from being the only idiot left in this pool swimming on the clock.
And this is my final point about improving your swimming: you’ve got to do the thing you don’t want to do. I didn’t really want to count that many laps. Nor swim in a lane on my own. Or swim that long without my pull buoy and paddles (GASP!). But sometimes to get better at what you want to do, you have to do what you don’t want to do. Think about that. If you don’t want to make time to go to the pool another day or take the extra time to drive to masters or meet with a swim coach – maybe it’s time to do that and see what happens.
Yes, the pool is uncomfortable, inconvenient in terms of time, money (shall I go on?) and arguably even return on investment for actual swim splits. Yet the purpose of swimming more is not necessarily to swim faster. It’s to triathlon faster. You emerge from the water feeling better and you’ll bike/run better too. Triathlon – it’s one sport, folks. Learn how to weave 3 parts seamlessly, efficiently and you’ll go faster.
And what better time to try some new swimming things than early in the new year?