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Many a beginner triathlete looks something like this: A fine cyclist and decent runner, someone who was never on the swim team but enjoys the ocean on holidays. Thinking they have all the skills they need to crush a triathlon, they sign up for a sprint-distance race. Sounds fun! Then the swim starts, and it turns out to be not-so-fun. Maybe they start to panic; an awkward freestyle turns to dog-paddling and then a slow backstroke. The bike and run are fine for a first-timer, but that swim? Devastating.
When this happens, don’t quit! Many new triathletes then join a local swim team or Masters swim group, where they encounter lots of friendly swimmers doing fast laps focused on refining the catch and a high vertical forearm. But when our newbie hops in, they can sometimes feel confused, embarrassed, and out of breath in 10 minutes.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, some variant of this is all too common. Many would-be triathletes drop out at this stage, while others limp along for years, just trying to get by in the swim. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
How new triathletes sabotage their own swim skills
It makes sense that so many people turn to swim teams and Masters groups early in their triathlon journey. Many gyms and pools offer these options for adult swimmers, and most of the time, they’re the only option the gym offers for adult swimmers. But many of these groups often operate under the assumption that the adult already knows the fundamentals of how to swim.
Many adults assume they know how to swim, too. But swimming for a family game of Marco Polo at the lake is much different than swimming for triathlon; that’s something many adult-onset swimmers aren’t aware of (or don’t want to admit). At a structured swim workout, the focus is on the workout itself, not the underlying skills to carry out the workout. Many coaches do not have the time (or knowledge) to address the two most important things adult-onset swimmers must address before they will ever be able to swim well: fear and fundamentals.
Many adults, even those who would never describe themselves as ‘afraid,’ do not have real confidence in deep water. Yet new tri swimmers don’t realize this; they seek help to get faster, not more water-confident. “Do not expect to advance if you don’t feel completely safe. Safety comes before stroke development,” said Melon Dash, founder and president of Miracle Swimming School. Dash begins all her adult learn-to-swim classes with an understanding of how the water works. This is essential for learning to breathe, float, and, eventually, swim faster.
Adult-onset swimmers typically don’t have the fundamentals that life-long swimmers got as children. Adult-onset swimmers have no swim muscle memory, plus they’ve got an adult ego getting in the way of learning. The fundamentals are the start, said Taren Gesell, author of Triathlon Swimming Foundations (and Triathlete contributor). “You need to be able to breathe, not panic, and not sink.”
What adult-onset swimmers need to know
First, address fear. Be honest with yourself: do you feel confident floating in deep or open water? Can you float horizontally and vertically? Do you feel you can always get enough air? If not, start with those basics. A program like Miracle Swimming or swim safety classes are a good start.
Second, be an informed consumer. Do not assume a well-regarded Master’s or community program meets the your needs. The average swim coach learned swimming young, was a competitive college swimmer, and is great at working on the fine points of technique, but doesn’t necessarily have insight on teaching adult fundamentals.
Gesell explains: “Programs that dive into stroke drills when an adult has sinky legs or can’t reliably breathe in the water are like putting a square peg in a round hole; adult swimmers need an on-ramp.”
Consider starting with a comprehensive fundamentals program. Before you sign up, ask:
- Has the coach worked before with similar adults? How did they progress?
- Does the program separate advanced swimmers from those working on fundamentals?
- Do they assess, and teach, proper body position and breathing techniques first?
- Have they taught people who were afraid of the water? What were the results?
Don’t rule out online programs—many swimmers progress wonderfully with rigorous use of appropriate books, videos, and online instruction, like Total Immersion, which has links to local coaches trained in the method.
Finally, give it time. It will take months to transform that desperate backstroking into a confident sprint triathlon, 70.3 or even a full Ironman, but it will happen. Confidence, proper swim position, and muscle memory can be built—but not overnight. So find the right swim lessons for you, and get started!