Becoming a swimmer

Generally, triathletes are divided into two categories in regards to the swim: lifelong swimmers and adult-onset swimmers.  The former swam competitively throughout their childhoods and have no trouble jumping back into the water years later and becoming front-of-pack swimmers.  The latter often spend months or years frustrated in the pool as they try to learn a skill that is so completely different from the athletic events in which they participated while growing up.

I don’t really fit into either of these groups.

I didn’t swim competitively as a kid.  I took the regular rec center swim lessons that many American kids did while growing up.  I had to repeat a few levels.  It certainly didn’t feel like something for which I had a natural aptitude.  But I did take lessons long enough to learn the basics of all the strokes.  I mean, I couldn’t actually do all the strokes, but I knew the general idea.

When I was in high school, my mom brought up the idea of taking a course to become a swimming instructor.  She thought it would be a good summer job to have and would keep me from having to flip burgers or do hard labor (thanks, Mom!).  So I agreed, and my older sister and I took the class together.  This time, I actually learned how to do each stroke.  I didn’t learn how to do them all well, but I got the general idea.  It still didn’t feel natural, and I specifically had a hard time with breaststroke and butterfly.  The timing of the strokes was a huge struggle for me.  I didn’t quite have them down by the time the course ended, so I had to practice some on my own.  I would drive down to the local rec center and either attempt flail across the pool (butterfly) or spend half the lap floating when I should have been gliding (breaststroke).  And I just kept trying, lap after lap after lap, until something clicked.  The “click” didn’t turn me into a master of these two strokes, but it did allow me to have a basic understanding of the timing and of how each stroke should actually feel which let me properly demonstrate it and pass the class.

Then, I taught 3-6 year olds how to blow bubbles and float for a few years and promptly lost the ability to do those more advanced strokes.

I did, however, eventually start swimming for fitness.  Once I quit running track, I swam on and off fairly regularly, depending on what else was going on in my life and whether there was a pool available to me for free or not.  Even after taking year-long breaks, I could always hop back in the pool and swim far enough that boredom, not fitness, was my limiting factor.  I was slow, but I wasn’t struggling from wall to wall.  And I liked swimming.  I found it peaceful and comforting.

So when I decided to sign up for my first sprint triathlon (with a pool swim!), I wasn’t worried about the swim.  I knew I could get through it.  I felt the same when I started training for my half Ironman.  I knew I could cover the distance.  I was worried about the bike because I was a complete newbie to cycling when I started triathlon, so I actually cut out a lot of the swimming workouts and replaced them with more cycling.

And I totally managed the swim.  However, throughout my first few years of triathlon, I didn’t see a ton of improvement in that area.  So once I signed up for an Ironman, I decided to start attending Masters swim team.  At the very least, I figured the other swimmers and the structure would help me improve, even if I didn’t increase my actual yardage much.

fairmont

Sure enough, I improved pretty significantly last year.  So significantly, in fact, that my brain fell behind my ability.

Throughout the past year and a bit of attending a Masters group, I’ve been plagued by a lack of confidence.  This lack of confidence didn’t cause existential angst.  It didn’t bother me at all because until recently, I didn’t even realize it was there.  I just assumed I couldn’t hit times or learn strokes or hit certain milestones.  100s at 1:40?  I can’t do that!  And then when I did… 100s at 1:35?  No way!  A 1:04.95 in the 100yd freestyle?  That’s way too fast.  The time must be wrong.

I find myself doing this constantly, certain I can’t keep up with a particular person or hit a particular time.  A month or so ago, after mentioning to my coach that I hit the interval even though I was certain I wouldn’t be able to, he said, “You know, I think you need to start adjusting your expectations for yourself.”

And he’s right.  I need to start seeing myself as a capable swimmer instead of just as someone who can swim well enough to compete in triathlons.  I need to notice my improvements and get excited about improving further.  In short, I need to become a swimmer.

Even with my regular Masters workouts, I think I still have a lot of room for improvement.  I swim about 7,500 yards a week, a far cry from the 15,000-20,000 that “real” swimmers do a week.  While I don’t have the time to do that regularly, I’ve decided to do a swim-focused block of training this winter.  I am going to spend eight weeks focusing on swimming.  I plan on doing this in January and February for two reasons.  First, during that period of time, I’ll be happy to be indoors.  Second, it’s not a period of time that will be chopped up by holiday traveling.

I’m—dare I say it—excited about seeing where a more focused approach to swimming this winter takes me.  I’m sure it will help me in my triathlons, but I’m already trying to think like a swimmer and consider my open swimming times as well, not just this year but in the years to come.  It can take years of pretty dedicated swimming to reach your full potential, so I’m looking forward to seeing just what that potential might be for me.

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Escaping the Swimming Plateau

I’ve been dealing with a swimming plateau since, well, practically since I started swimming. I was a lifeguard and a swimming teacher in high school, and the classes I took to become certified in those areas means that I have a basic understanding of the correct form for the major strokes and the ability to do said strokes passably for a maximum of 5-6 strokes as a demonstration.

I didn’t start swimming for fitness until I quit track in college.  Swimming allowed me to take advantage of the free access to a pool and to break up the monotony of running. I really enjoyed it and, even after never swimming more than the required 500 yards in lifeguarding in-services for years, I picked it up relatively easily. I quickly added volume to my long, slow swims without much effort and remember swimming my first mile and quitting only because I was bored, not because I was tired. Since then, I stopped and started swimming regularly based on whims and my passing fancies (and free access to a pool). I never had much trouble picking it right back up again and hitting the point where I can swim a mile or so without exerting myself too much.

The relative ease with which I do this makes me think I might have some sort of affinity for swimming. However, due to the on-again, off-again nature of our relationship thus far, I’ve never been able to fully reap the benefits of that affinity. Even when I actually started training for a triathlons, swimming took a backseat. I knew I could swim the 1.2 miles in a half Ironman. I had no such confidence in my ability to ride 56 miles or to run 13.1 miles after the previously mentioned cycling. So I exchanged one swimming workout a week for an additional cycling or running workout. This was the right decision at the time, but my swimming never advanced noticeably further than is accomplished by regular ol’ getting-back-into-shape.

Ironman 70.3 swim exit (2014)
Ironman 70.3 swim exit (2014)

This year, I focused more on swimming, and while I did see improvement in the 1000yd time trials I did during training (an overall drop of over a minute), some of that was because of the different efforts I put into them. I swam the first one hard. I raced the third one (against myself, but still…). My actual races this year didn’t give me a realistic picture, either. My 1500m swim leg was 30:36 and my 1.2 mile swim leg was 33:08 compared to my times from the previous year at the same distances of 27:14 and 38:54. I’m pretty sure the former course was long and the latter was short, so they weren’t the best measuring sticks. I do feel like I’ve improved some this year, I’m still a back-of-the-front-of-the-pack swimmer like I have been since I started triathlons. This isn’t exactly uncommon. Once a basic level of competence is reached, swimming often takes a backseat in triathlon training. The reasoning is simple: you can train hard as a swimmer four times a week and take 3-5 minutes off your swim time or you can focus on cycling and/or running and take off 6-10 minutes in those disciplines. If you are looking for an overall PR, it’s a pretty obvious choice.

The water is very low this year. Usually, the swim exit would be way up where the green rug takes a sharp turn.
Swim exit at Jordanelle (2015)

But, as I said earlier, I think I may have an affinity for swimming, and as such, I’d like to reach my potential. So I finally gathered up all my motivation and started attending the masters swim team that meets (really early) in the mornings at my pool. I didn’t get a really good sense of what it was like my first day because we worked solely on breaststroke. So I basically drowned for an hour and spent the next couple of days so sore I could barely cross my legs. I made sure to ask the coach (who was very helpful and didn’t make fun me at all, even when I am sure I looked like a drowning rat) what the typical schedule was so I could try to avoid breaststroke days in the future.

So I started regularly going to the pool at 6am for masters once a week. Now, I’m a morning person. I’m productive in the mornings, I like being awake when I know others are asleep, and I find the time very peaceful. But I like to get up early and do some reading or writing. I like to get up early and maybe do an easy swim, run, or bike ride and enjoy seeing the sun come up. Waking up at 5am so I can go swim until I feel like my lungs are going to explode and my arms are going to fall off is less appealing. And that’s exactly what happens at masters where I have learned at least one very important fact about my typical swim workout—I spend way too much time resting between sets when I do swim workouts.

I set out all my stuff the night before (actually, I stuff it all in a bag-- laying it out is step one).
I set out all my stuff the night before (actually, I stuff it all in a bag– laying it out is step one).

Usually, when I finish a set and am tired and out of breath, I’ll stop, take a drink from my water bottle, shake out my arms, sigh dramatically, look at the clock, groan, give myself a little pep talk, and then start out on the next set. This is probably a hold-over from my track days where we would have nearly full recoveries between our reps. This makes a lot of sense when you are running 200s, 400s, and 800s as training for 200s, 400s, and 800s. It makes less sense when you are swimming 25s, 50s, and 100s as training for races that are 500+ yards, and that means that most swim workouts look a little different than most track workouts.

Standard swim workouts are often structured with a group of sets that look something like this:

8 x 50 on 1:00
4 x 100 on 2:00
8 x 25 on :35*

Basically, during the first set, you will start another 50 every one minute. So if you get done with the 50 in fifty seconds, you rest ten seconds then go. If you get done with the 50 in fifty-five seconds, you rest five seconds then go. The rest of the sets follow the same pattern. I’ve known about this convention of swim workouts for a long time, but I’ve never done it. And it makes a huge difference. The workouts are tough. I have to pick a pace that I can sustain throughout the reps, but I don’t want to go too slowly and eat into my recovery time (or look like a slow poke). After attending for a few weeks, I can already see these quick sets making a difference. Form is important while swimming, and when I start getting tired, my form slips. Doing these sets while tired and gasping for air gives me the chance to focus on keeping form while I’m tired. And all that practice will be useful at the end of a 2.4 mile swim.

Clock
Death clock. Only it counts up, not down.

Form is vital for speed in swimming—in my opinion, even more so than when running because of the drag you create in the water if you don’t have good form. The other benefit to masters class is having someone who can critique my stroke and offer suggestions. Like I said before, I’m a decent swimmer. My form is very far from perfect, but it’s honed to the point that online articles about how to better your triathlon swim leg are typically not very helpful. Even after going just a few weeks, I’ve gotten some good advice for my stroke. My most recent breakthrough? To keep my hips right at the surface of the water and to give me a better body position, engage my core muscles. Very obvious, but something I probably would not have figured out on my own. Time to actually add a core workout into my routine.

Masters class is early. It’s tough. In fact, these workouts are probably the toughest swim workouts I’ve ever done, and that’s a good thing. With a renewed focus on swimming hard and the added bonus of useful stroke critiques, I’m hoping that I will be able to make some real progress this winter.  I’ll have something better than poorly measured open water courses  to mark that potential progress.  So that we don’t swim all over each other while sharing lanes, we swimmers divide ourselves into lanes based on speed.  I’m currently in the third fasted lane (out of four).  Moving up to the second fastest lane is on my radar and has become an off-season goal for me.  Maybe it’s finally time to move on from my perpetual swimming plateau.

Fairmont-- before and after (my phone does not take high quality pictures at night)
Fairmont– before and after (my phone does not take high quality pictures at night)

*This workout is for demonstration purposes only. It is probably really worthless as an actually workout.

Wetsuit legal!

I just got the “heeeey, don’t forget you’re signed up for a race this weekend” e-mail from the Utah Toughman that my dad, Rob and I are doing as a relay.  I was skimming through when this gem caught my eye: “Wetsuits Legal for age groupers.

YES.

In case you guys don’t know, wetsuits help with your buoyancy in the water.  Without any extra work, you float better and your body position is better in the water. In other words, they make you faster.  I’m not sure if this next part is true, but sometimes I think this is particularly advantageous for people like me with a low body fat percentage.

This helps me with my goal time for the race.  I’ve never done a timed open water swim without a wetsuit, so I was kind of struggling to set a goal time.  I feel stronger in the water than I did last year, but would the extra strength make up for the time I’d lose because I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit? Now, I’ve got a solid swim time to start from when making a goal.  So, I’ve got two goals:

  1. PR in the 1.2 mile distance. This is my if-I-don’t-manage-this-I-will-be-disappointed goal.  Last year, I biked 56 miles and ran 13.1 miles after finishing my 38:54 swim leg.  If I can’t manage that time in isolation, I will be pretty frustrated with myself.  But then, things happen on the swim that affect your time that are completely outside your control—buoys drift, the run to T1 is long, goggles get kicked off your face, etc.  This goal leaves room for some of that to happen.
  2. Break 35:00. Guys, I really don’t think this will happen.  This is as more of a stretch goal than the previous goal is a safe one.  I would have to PR by almost four minutes to hit this time.  I’m not fluent in swim times, but it would require me swimming faster by almost 10 seconds per 100m.  A much more reasonable goal would be 37:00 (which would also please me to no end!), but 35:00 just keeps sticking in my head, so I’m going to hope for it.

When I thought that I wouldn’t be wearing a wetsuit, my plan was to go out like I would go out for a full half-Ironman and then pick up the pace on the way back in.  Now that I know I’ll be wearing a wetsuit, I might change that approach slightly.  I still want to swim harder on the way in, but I think I’ll focus a bit on swimming harder on the way out.  Specifically, I want to focus on actively kicking the entire way through.  When I’m doing a triathlon, I save my legs by doing a pretty weak kick so I can save my legs for the bike and the run.  This time, I’m going to try to maintain a strong kick from the get-go.  I want my legs to be tired as I run to transition.

Just a few more days!  Because this is a low-pressure event for me, I’m really excited.  I get to spend some time with my parents, race with two of my favorite people, and—most importantly—get an unreasonably large milkshake afterwards.  And I will take a picture of it, even if it does make me look like a self-obsessed millennial.

This was when I tried my wetsuit on when I first got it-- right after a run. I was sweaty, and getting the stupid thing on right was impossible.
This was when I tried my wetsuit on when I first got it– right after a run. I was sweaty, and getting the stupid thing on right was impossible.