I was an adult-onset runner. That seems weird, but it’s the truth. I didn’t run much as a kid outside of some random sports, so when I started triathlon at the age of 30, I had to learn to run. I was on swim team for a few years as a kid, but I considered myself a good swimmer. That is, until I tried to swim as an adult—apparently first-grade swim team does not translate directly to success as an adult swimmer.
I will never forget the first day of swimming as a baby triathlete. I had no recollection about how to really swim. How do I put on this swim cap? Do I jump in the water or use the ladder? Do my goggles go under or over my swim cap? How exactly do I swim freestyle?
After slapping myself in the face about 16 times trying to put on my non-silicone, hair-tearing swim cap and situating the cap over my ears, under my ears, then over again, I was ready. I wore my fancy new Speedo brand goggles. I eased myself down into the pool, scraping my back on the wall in the process. I dunked under the water, and came up quickly, sputtering.
Oh my gosh, I haven’t been underwater in forever! I thought. I gained my composure.
Okay, ready! I went under again and I pushed myself off the wall with my feet, and I began to flail through the water. After five strokes, I stood straight up in the lap lane—not even halfway down the pool. I could not breathe and my heart was absolutely racing. What in the…? I went back underwater and tried to swim to the end of the pool. I finally made it, and I grabbed onto the wall, struggling for air. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Had I ever swam at all?
That day in the pool was an opportune time to give up. To think I would ever swim in a triathlon seemed impossible. But I spent that morning swimming wall to wall, resting, struggling for breath, catching my breath, and then starting again. The next swim workout, I was able to do a little more. And with each workout… a tad more, and more.
One of the biggest hurdles for people getting involved in the sport of triathlon is swimming. If you did not grow on the swim team, learning to swim as an adult may almost feel impossible. But how does one pick up swimming as a grown-up? And also, learn to love it? The fear is real. But first, we must believe. Next, we need to get to work.
Up first is convincing yourself (your brain) that you love to swim. If you do not enjoy swimming, then go ahead and start repeating to yourself: I am all about this swim! I am a swimmer! I love to swim! Much of triathlon success (and failure) may be attributed to mental strength. So start tricking your mind into loving it now: believe that you love to swim.
If you don’t think you can do it, start with facts. Swimming really is a wonderful thing. It’s easy on your joints. It’s great for building your endurance. The water is pretty. Truly, we can learn to love the water by convincing ourselves that we do. Get to work on convincing.
When I was a teenager in my weird sport of Olympic weightlifting, training included one particular lift that I loathed. My mom would say, “Tell yourself that you love it!” I would roll my 15-year old eyes. But deep down inside, I began to repeat “I love this” before each training day. Eventually, that particular lift became my best and favorite lift.
Turns out, my dear Momma started me on this brilliant “believe” training even before any tri coach came into the picture.
Oh, work. What is it good for? Absolutely everything!
Swimming may feel like the most evil discipline of triathlon when you start. But even if you can’t swim a lick right now, you will see big fitness gains almost immediately in the pool—more so than on the bike or the run. But stay with it and push through. Because in a few short weeks, you will see your swim workout go from a pitiful 100 yards to a decent (but slow) 500 yards. A month or so after that, you’ll be swimming 1500 yards without dying, and you will be amazed at the progress.
Something you will hear often in triathlon is this: You cannot win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it. Practicing the swim is vitally important. First, it is quite dangerous to slack on the swim. You must work and train hard. In cycling and running, you can get off your bike or stop running and slow to a walk. In swimming, you better keep swimming.
Any swim start in a race, no matter the size, can be crowded and full of energy. The goal of the triathlon swim should be to feel comfortable in the water and also, to swim strongly to avoid fatigue going into the next part of the race. The more relaxed and less fatigued you are coming out of the water, the better your overall race will be. If you start a race completely petrified, with your heart racing and your mind blown, you are creating a dangerous environment for yourself (not to mention, probably a bad race).
The swim stroke you want to use is traditional freestyle, also known as the “front crawl,” because it will carry you the farthest with the least amount of effort. The front crawl is (should be) the fastest of all stroke options (as opposed to breast stroke or backstroke), although you are permitted to swim however you’d like in a race.
The front crawl basically consists of using your arms, in alternating front forward motions, to pull and crawl yourself through the water. Sometimes you may feel so terrible and tired swimming, the crawl terminology is eerily symbolic. The arm stroke is made up of three primary movements known as the recovery, catch, and pull. As your arms rotate, each arm goes through the motion of recovery, catch, and pull.
Learn to (eventually) breathe bilaterally (on both sides) during your freestyle. Standard bilateral breathing involves breathing every third stroke and will benefit you in rough water conditions where breathing on one particular side may be your only or best option due to the sun or waves. If you can’t handle breathing every third stroke, then swim one length breathing on the right—and come back breathing on the left.
As far as swim equipment, starting out all you need to start is a pair of goggles, a swim cap, and a swimsuit (and maybe a wetsuit…maybe). Invest in a good silicone cap. Silicone swim caps are thicker than latex and will not pinch or pull your hair. Some swimmers prefer the larger mask-style goggles while others choose traditional goggles you see on pool swimmers. There is no right or wrong choice here, but just be sure to practice with your preferred goggle of choice. Avoid new goggles on race day, because you never know when a leak will happen. Goggles should have a good fit and feel like they are suctioned to your head. Once you find a brand and model that you love—buy in quantity and hold on to them for dear life.
Don’t forget to get into the open water before your race. If you can start a race with a pool swim—even better.
Regardless, go believe that you love to swim…and get to work. You got this!
Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com.