I can pick out the “swimmers” at the start line of any triathlon. They are the only ones who don’t look like they are about to puke. One of the biggest hurdles for many people getting involved in the sport of triathlon is swimming. If you did not grow up on the swim team, learning to swim as an adult may be incredibly challenging. So how do you pick up swimming and learn to love it, when you don’t really know how to do it (or do it well)? First, you believe. Next, you work.
Believe: The first “to do” on your list is to convince your brain that you love to swim. If you don’t enjoy swimming, then go ahead and start repeating to yourself: “I love to swim. 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.
Swimming really is a wonderful thing. It’s easy on your joints. It’s great for building your endurance. And the smell of chlorine? Heaven! I love smelling like a pool after a swim.
(Perhaps I do not use the correct soap.) It reminds me of the hard work I put in before some folks are even awake.
You really can learn to love the water by convincing yourself that you do. When I was a teenager in Olympic weightlifting, my training included one lift that I loathed. Each day on the drive to the gym, my mom would say, “Tell yourself that you love it!” I would roll my eyes. But internally, I began to repeat, “I love this” before each session. 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.
A common saying about triathlon swimming is: You cannot win a triathlon in the swim, but you can 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 coast or slow to a walk. In swimming, that’s not an option.
Second, the swim start in a race is often crowded and full of intense energy. The goal of the swim should be to feel comfortable in the water and also, to avoid unnecessary fatigue going into the next part of the race. The 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 mind distracted, you are creating a dangerous environment for yourself (not to mention, probably setting yourself up for a bad race).
I will never forget my first day of swimming as a new triathlete. 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 cap and situating the cap over my ears, under my ears, then over again, I was ready. I wore my fancy new Speedo 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.
OK, 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 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.
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 successive workout, a tad more and more.
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. If you stay with it and push through, in a few short weeks, you will see your 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 stopping, and you will be amazed at the progress.
Learn to 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.
For swim equipment, starting out all you need to start is a pair of goggles, a swim cap and a swimsuit (and maybe a wetsuit). Invest in a good silicone cap, which is thicker than latex and won’t pinch or pull your hair. Goggles should have a good fit and feel like they naturally suction to your face. Once you find a brand and model that you love, buy in quantity and hold on to them for dear life.
Now, go believe that you love to swim … and get to work.
Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is a 2015 Klean Team USA member, lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.