“Well done. At least you weren’t last!” cheered my wife as I exited the swim leg of the Charlottesville Olympic distance triathlon. Small consolation given that out of the 249 competitors there were only 10 or so behind me. At least I didn’t have any problem finding my bike in the empty transition area. Flash forward two weeks. The Lake Dunstan Olympic triathlon. I exit the water in the middle of the pack after actually passing people in the swim. No, the competitors were not all disabled. I had just finished a Total Immersion (TI) swim camp. My time was down, my legs were stronger, and I finished the race 31/122 (25 percentile). A 15% improvement in placing in two weeks. Not bad at all. A month later I again came out in the middle of the pack in the Diamondman half-ironman.This posting is about my transition from a pathetic to at least mediocre swimmer. But before you read on, you should look at the clip below which shows one aspect of swim training that most of us miss: the need to make it realistic in the context of racing. You see, triathlon swims are contact sports like boxing and karate …
Like a lot of people in their 40’s (OK – LATE 40’s), I learned to swim as a child at the YMCA and my father’s sports club – the old Carlton Club in Toronto. This is a photo of my early adventures, with my older brother and very good looking mother in the background. My parents sent me off to summer camp where I recall swimming in very cold lakes, and of course we had the mandatory swim classes in high school. However, I never did any serious swimming nor did I get proper instruction.
I am grateful for my parent’s efforts since at least I learned to be comfortable in the water and to swim in places where I could not see the bottom. More on that later.
As an adult, I enjoyed swimming in the ocean when travelling in the tropics, and even took up scuba diving for a while.
When I transitioned to triathlons from just being a runner and cyclist, the swim part was my greatest concern. I went to the local pool here in Arlington Virginia and practiced doing lengths to prove the I could do the 1.6 km for an Olympic distance race. It didn’t take me too long to gain the confidence that I could do it, but I was anything but fast.
With my swimming I used the same techniques that I had learned 30+ years ago in my school gym classes. I had no problems doing several miles in my training, but I had reached the stage of ‘terminal mediocrity’ where I was not improving. Unfortunately, my unimproved performance fell short of what I expected of myself.
That inspired me to travel up to Vermont to triathlon training camp run by Total Immersion (TI). TI have created an entire business catering to poor swimmers who want to do triathlons.
The TI technique is based on the sensible theory that triathletes need to be as efficient as possible in the water. Yes, we can knock two minutes off our time by trying harder, but that will likely lose you more than that on the bike and run since water is much denser than air. By focusing on making us as smooth as possible in the water, and saving our legs, it is just what most triathletes need. You will either do the same time as before, but with less energy, or for the same energy be faster.
This is a great video showing the TI technique. Just look at how smooth he is in the water.
With the help of my TI course, the DVD and the book, I have consistently been in the middle of the pack. However, that is not good enough and I find that I have now ‘plateaued’ and am not improving. So recently I went and had my self videoed under water. I could see that while I had some very good TI techniques, there were others that were lacking: I was dropping my shoulder too much and crossing over my body with my hands too far. So I will work on these improving these techniques over the next few months, as well as getting in longer sets.
One big challenge that we face as triathletes is keeping up the interest through varied swim training sets. It is not always convenient to go along to the local Master’s swimming clubs. I use the book ‘Swim Workouts for Triathletes‘ for a season’s training plan. They really are excellent at keeping one’s interest up, and enhancing one’s skills.
I also have my underwater MP3 player which I wrote about here. I’m currently learning Russian with it.
So if you are like me and a poor swimmer, don’t give up hope. Go on a swim training camp and learn how to swim properly. It’s worth the investment.