For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
The “human torpedo drill” was the last straw. Three strokes of freestyle, roll over, three strokes of backstroke. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Secretly, I was hoping to slam into the wall and blow myself to smithereens. That was the day I quit the masters swimming group. I was bummed, because joining had seemed like my ticket to improved open-water swimming, and every training plan said it was a must.
Initially, I liked having training partners, structured workouts, and a coach, so I was all in. But after thousands, and thousands, (and thousands…) of yards spent worshipping at the high holy altar of mind-numbing, soul-crushing drills, I was neck-deep in despair. It was relentless, often taking up 40 percent or more of my workouts.
One-armed pull, pull with paddles, pull with buoy, pull with ankle band, pull with catch-up stick. Followed by individual medley.
Tarzan, Superman, Hypoxic Man. More IM…
Dog paddle, shark fin, frog kick, butterfly kick, dolphin kick, tombstone kick. More IM…
Fingertips, fists, hand drag, sculling. More…yeah…that…
And the toys! Fins, paddles, snorkel, pull buoy, kick board, ankle band, forearm stabilizers, catch-up stick… It was like being at an aquatic yard sale.
When Do We Get To Actually Swim?
Real, honest-to-goodness swimming seemed like it was always about to happen. About to happen. But what little freestyle I got was continually sabotaged by the drills because, they said, “swimming is technical” and “drills create muscle memory.” Except that sure, swimming is technical, but we’re not splitting the atom here. Except that although the learning curve is real, muscle memory—which is more about your brain than your muscles—is all about spatial awareness and is surprisingly resilient and easily recalled (think catching a football over your head after years away from the game). So, once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to get on with, you know, swimming.
When I was told to go faster, they said, “pull and kick harder in the drills.” Except that speed is less a function of force than of efficiently shaping the vessel. Except that swimming like your pants are on fire shreds your form and redlines your heart rate, which makes you go…uh…slower.
IM drills…oh, lawd. Not to worry, they said. The exotic strokes would help me “feel the water.” And—bonus!—they’d break the monotony of all that freestyling I already wasn’t doing. So…by not swimming freestyle, I’d become a better freestyler.
Okay. Yeah. Sure.
Except that if by “feeling the water” they meant “feeling like I’m being attacked by sharks,” then maybe I bailed too soon on my injury-inducing flailing. Except that dropping this sort of obstacle course into the mix when I was already pushing sand against the freestyle tide was…not helpful. It was like learning to “feel the road” by practicing my track stand. (It’s a real thing, YouTube it). Using one leg. On flat tires. While being swarmed by hornets.
Sweet screaming eight-pound baby Jesus. I was lost without a map in Dante’s circles of hell.
Thanks, But No More Masters Swimming for Me
In fairness, I understood the attraction of the masters swimming model. Everybody’s gotta be on the same page when you’re swimming four to a lane. And I get that “I’m training like Michael Phelps” is biblical writ for pool-based racing, where diverse strokes and razor-sharp techniques are the stock-in-trade. And who doesn’t like watching the coach pantomiming every wacky new drill from the pool deck? Who knew there was a floor show?
But as an open water triathlete, I was the odd fish in a school of indoctrinated pool racers. The method was madness to me. Dog paddle? One-armed freestyle? Hypoxic sprints? 500 yard tombstone kick sets? IM? When was I ever going to race like that? Never, that’s when.
Here’s the thing: I’m a swimming outsider, but after 35 years of racing bikes, 15 marathons, and a slew of tri-, bi-, and duathlons, here’s what I know: Regardless of the sport, if you aren’t already well and truly grounded in the basics, then most drills won’t help you unlearn poor technique. As I learned firsthand, they can make already-flawed technique even worse. Homogenized group training is often counterproductive, because it can trap you into doing someone else’s workout, not your workout. It’s the portal into the inertial time warp of “we’ve always done it this way,” and I long ago learned that it’s bad juju to allow someone else’s dogma to run over my karma. So, I tried. Really, I did. But the drills made me dread swimming. So, I quit.
Horses For Courses
Clarity arrived in the form of a coach with a sublimely holistic approach: Want to be a better freestyler? Then swim freestyle. No more IM. No more pool toys. No more endless drilling and then glomming it back together. My world became all freestyle, all whole stroke, all the time. I know…this is heretical to traditional drill-laden swim training, and nobody likes it when their sacred ox is the one getting gored. So I can see your eyes rolling out there in triathlonland as you’re thinking, ‘this guy’s a moron.’ Except that it reaffirmed what I already knew:
Rule #1: Training time is limited, so train like you race.
I got this advice many years ago from a pro cyclist, but it applies across disciplines. One-armed swimming? One-legged cycling? Grapevines and skipping? Yeaaaah……no. If it feels like you’re just jiggling around, then you probably are.
Rule #2: Never allow perfection to get in the way of being “good enough.”
I don’t need to be Lucy Charles-Barclay in the water; I just need to be competent. Or, as Craig Alexander reminds us: “It’s not about being fast. It’s about not being slow.”
Rule #3: Don’t forget Rules 1 and 2.
In The End…
The British have a proverb for this: “Horses for courses.” Put another way: Different people are suited to different situations. So, I’m not saying that the masters swimming model is wrong, only that it was wrong for me. I thought that I already knew how to swim, but I didn’t, and drilling with poor technique only compounded my weaknesses.
Has changing courses worked? When I jettisoned the group, I could barely hold two-minute pace for 100 yards, and my technique was a train wreck. After I threw out the pool toys, the drills morphed into a handful of technique-driven focal points that I practice in every swim, but only in the context of the whole freestyle stroke. With the focus on the whole stroke, the mantra became “never break the biomechanical chain.”
I learned to swim with ease under variable speeds, stroke rates, distances, recovery intervals, and race conditions. And I came to understand what Olivier Poirier-Leroy meant when he wrote: “No more swimming through the motions, but rather, consistent, well-intentioned swimming from the moment you get in the water.”
Today, I train comfortably at 1:30 pace. So, I’m not exactly Michael Phelps. But it’s a 25 percent improvement that has me racing with confidence at the pointy end of the age group, and I’m a lot more torpedo-like these days (oh, irony). If that’s not progress, then it’s certainly something very much like it. Best of all, I really like swimming now. And after all, isn’t that the point?
When he’s not avoiding IM drills and pool toys, Marshall Ellis is a fire ecologist in North Carolina, where he trains like he races.