I've been swimming for two years, and in that time I've had two major breakthroughs. The first one was very rewarding, and really made it possible for me to complete my first triathlon.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't exactly have a swimming background as a child. Oddly, my near drowning at the age of 13 didn't affect my dislike of water - I really had never enjoyed swimming. I couldn't swim at all before I started training for triathlon at the age of 29. I don't mean that I was slow - I mean I hadn't been in a swimming pool since Reagan was president, and I was wearing floaties on my arms then. I didn't even own a bathing suit - and certainly not a swimming speedo. Once I had decided to learn, I started with the internet. I read about swim technique, and I practiced some moves in front the computer. My first practice stroke resulted in me putting my hand directly into the ceiling fan above my head and practically breaking a finger.
It didn't take long before I was bored with that. I went to a fantastic local swim shop called Paradowski's and purchased some goggles and a jammer style speedo. I graduated from practicing in front of the computer to the short and shallow pool at my apartment complex. I had to go very early in the morning since swimming laps in that thing would be pretty disturbing to any other patrons. I swam from one end to the other - I thought it went well, even though I was out of breath. Of course it only took a few strokes to go across this pool, kicking off the wall got me half way I think. I caught my breath and did it again. I was pretty good! I tried swimming two lengths, down and back, before taking a rest. It was tough, but I made it OK. My first thought was: "this is f'ing boring. I've gone like 5 lengths of the pool and I pretty much mastered it!"
Next up, a group swim with coaching hosted by the best triathlon club in the world - TCSD. I showed up the first night without any intention of getting in the water, I just wanted to get a feel for how it worked. It was one of the most intimidating nights of my life. I've always been capable and very independent, and showing up in a foreign environment and asking for help made me feel extremely vulnerable. I met the resident coach, who right away was friendly and seemed ecstatic to have a beginner. She instantly put me at ease (to some extent at least) and started asking about my swimming background. My "swimming background"? Was she joking? I told her the truth - and her smile turned to concern. "Are you comfortable in the water?" she asked, which was her polite way of saying "Am I going to have to rescue you?" My ego kicked in, and I assured her I was fine. That was true: I wasn't scared of water - I was scared of looking like an idiot. I didn't get in the water that night, I just watched. I don't remember a lot about it, but I remember being confused by kickboards, fins, buoys and the crazy drills they were doing.
Two days later I attended the group swim again, this time prepared to get in the water. Coach put me in the "stroke lane", which is the shallowest lane and right next to the wall. Think of it as the "short bus". I believe there was one or two other people in the lane with me, and they turned out to be much more advanced than I. Coach told us to swim 100 meters for warmup - one lap in the 50 meter pool. I started off, and didn't even come close to making it to 50 meters. I was drinking water and choking and flailing - I grabbed the wall, probably only seconds before the lifeguard was going to jump in after me. I took a few seconds, then made an attempt to continue. I think I swam the 50 meters in 3 segments, grabbing the wall after each. Once I reached the end of the pool, coach had walked down to greet me. I was completely exhausted, I couldn't imagine swimming further than 50 meters in a day. She offered a few tips - somehow making it sound like with a few adjustments I would be swimming like a pro - and then sent me off on my return trip. Once back to the starting point all of the "stroke lane" occupants were given a pretty lengthy lesson, and did quite a bit of stroke practice in the air. Coach got really frustrated with me because I couldn't do a "pull" in the correct orientation, even in the air. She made me get out of the pool and physically moved my arms for me - and I still didn't get it. Somehow I didn't understand the complicated jargon she was using like "left" and "towards the ground".
My first night at the pool was rough. But because of a welcoming atmosphere, I came back. I made every workout (twice a week) from November through March. I spent every night in the "stroke lane", getting comments along the lines of:
- You're doing it completely wrong
- You're swimming like a bear
- You need to rotate your hips
- You need to open your eyes
- You're head is supposed to get wet
- Flailing wildly doesn't help
- Kick your feet. No, not like you're on a bicycle
Often we would go out for beers after the workouts. I remember vividly my tenth week of swimming - my 20th session in the pool went pretty well. For the first time I started to feel comfortable in the water. I swam 100 meters without stopping for the first time - and it felt easy to boot! We went out for beers after and coach told me "You really had a breakthrough tonight. You looked good. You looked like you were drowning much more slowly". I'll never forget that. With one sentence she lifted me up, made me smile, and reminded me of how far I still had to go.
That was my first breakthrough. I went from sinking to swimming. What was amazing to me was that it wasn't gradual. I didn't get a little bit better each week until finally I "got it". It happened overnight. On Monday of that week I swam like I had been pretty much since day one - and on Wednesday I was swimming like I knew what I was doing. How did that happen?
Part of it was that I had some practice with what I was supposed to do, and was finally starting to get some of it correct. But the main reason was that I had finally got my body position right. Well... not right, but way better than before. I, like many beginners, swam with my feet dragging down behind me. If you think of how you would look from the side as you swim, you should be a straight horizontal line. My profile up until then had looked much more like a hockey stick - with my feet well below the surface of the water, acting like an anchor. This happens when your head is too high - normally because you're trying to get your face out of the water so you can breathe. What I was able to do on breakthrough night was to breathe without lifting my face too far out of the water. This kept my feet near the surface, and improved my body position.
This made a world of difference. I no longer felt like I was sumo wrestling against the water as someone blasted me in the face with a firehose. I was now laying on top of the water, nice and comfortable. I have no idea how fast I had been swimming in my early weeks - but as of week 10 I was swimming 2 minutes per 100 meters. That's not fast - but it's a far cry from where I started, and it was enough to get me through my first season of racing.
The important thing is that this wasn't a improvement in fitness, but an improvement in technique. In endurance sports it's usually better to be more efficient than to be stronger. Here's the takeaway points:
- body position is critical. Most of us drag our feet below us and keep our head too high out of the water. Rotating properly should allow you to get your face out of the water to breathe without having to lift your head out of the water. Try to be horizontal. If your butt is out of the water, that's a good sign. Get a coach or a friend (or a video) to take a look at your position - I find that my mental idea of what I am doing and the reality of what I am doing are completely different.