“Would you ever do a triathlon, Courtney?”
“No, never. Not for me.”
“Never? Oh…why not?”
“Meh. Not really interested. Also, can’t swim.”
“Really? Can’t swim at all?”
“Weeeeeell, I can tread water a bit, doggy paddle, and, of course, keep myself afloat in a pool with a drink in my hand. As for structured, proper, freestyle swimming, no. No, I cannot.”
I’ve had some variation of the above exchange with a number of people over the last few years. Up until June-ish of 2015, it was entirely true and usually enough to end the conversation about triathlon. If I was in a particularly testy mood, it would leave me slightly annoyed and wondering why people kept asking. I resisted the temptation to argue that not every runner has to progress to multi-sport. I was just fine with my marathon running, thankyouverymuch. Occasionally, people would press further and point out that adult swimming lessons were offered in most pools around the city. Touché, friends. Touché.
To be honest, pool swimming had never appealed to me. I wouldn’t describe it as a phobia exactly, but there were always a couple of things about the pool that gave me the heebie-jeebies. I cringed at the thought of my bare feet touching the slimy floor (still wearing flip flops, by the way!) and I challenge you to name something grosser than band-aids and hair in and around the pool. Ick.
However, the more people asked, the more internally curious I became. Why couldn’t I learn to swim? Aside from my fear of death by assorted flotsam and jetsam or being strangled by a stray hair in the water, I couldn’t think of a single reason. After all, my six-year-old niece was progressing through lessons, and a couple of my co-workers had just signed up for a Stroke Mechanics summer class.
Defeated and out of excuses Inspired, off to Learn to Swim 1 I went. #stillnotdoingatriathlon ← I actually used this hashtag on Instagram a few times as I was reporting my swim progress. We all know how that turned out now, don’t we?
After Learn to Swim 1 & 2 + Stroke Mechanics, I still wasn’t all that confident in the water. By then, I had registered for my first triathlon, and I wasn’t convinced of my ability to swim 750m in under 30 minutes in open water. I certainly didn’t feel like I had the endurance to do so, and I was dreadfully slow. My friends were supportive, and most people told me to just keep logging the mileage (metreage? yardage?) at the pool and I would be just fine. Consistency is key, everyone said.
I’m all for the idea that consistency is key. To be a better swimmer, you have to swim. Duh. I would add to that by agreeing that although consistency is key, you are not going to improve if you have poor technique. I wasn’t fine in my first triathlon swim, and that was the reason why. I never really got the flutter kick down, which is crucial to freestyle swimming. Sure, your kick doesn’t do all the work for you (at least, it shouldn’t), but an inefficient kick can really slow you down and expend a whole lot of unnecessary energy in my experience, making it nearly impossible to properly build endurance. I was going to the pool regularly, so the consistency was there, but swimming for 500-800m per session and feeling completely exhausted with no improvement at all.
Post-triathlon, I was stuck in a place where I was no longer learn to swim material, but I also could not find a masters group whose base skills I met. 100m uninterrupted and the endurance to go further? Ha. I was stuck in swim improvement purgatory. Luckily, my boyfriend was working with a great coach who was about to run an 11 week group program and there was room for me! The group was the ultimate game-changer for my swim. If you have the resources to do so, my biggest piece of advice for new triathletes, especially for those who do not come from a swimming background, is to invest the time and money in being coached (in a group, if you can).
I am definitely still a slow swimmer, but I am finally seeing some big improvements. After the 11 week group ended, I was in that sweet spot where I could finally seriously consider joining another group. I settled on the Toronto Triathlon Club for a variety of reasons. It took a few weeks to adjust to hearing the alarm go off at 5:00, but I enjoy having my workout finished by 7:00. Now, to translate that to my running the other two days per week. 😉
Working hard to fix my technique and finding a swim coach/group to work with have made a big difference. With swimming as my weakest discipline, I tend to focus most of my time and energy on improving it. We’re experimenting with adding a third swim on the weekends that is more focused on endurance so I can really let my body absorb the work of my weekday sessions.
I’m not sure I will ever love swimming, but right now I am motivated by the challenge and improvements that are coming. Some days I feel like Michael Phelps, and other days I honestly think I might drown in a 25m pool surrounded by peers and lifeguards.
I leave you with one of my favourite articles about swimming written by Jesse Thomas. It started as a little joke among friends last fall, but I definitely find myself drawing on its wisdom occasionally, especially in that glorious moment when it’s all done and you give yourself a little internal high five because you didn’t drown.
“My swim is over. Thank you, Lord Jesus.” Ha.
Do you come from a swimming background? If not, how did you learn to love the pool?