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Perspectives on Swimming

April 13, 2013
2013 Bell Buoy Challenge gets underway (Photo Zports)

2013 Bell Buoy Challenge gets underway (Photo Zports)

Many people struggle with the swim portion of triathlon. What can you do to improve? Here are my thoughts on this: first a more psychological tip and then some more practical tips.

In the spirit of full disclosure let me say that I like swimming. I had not thought about this for a while, but my son asked me the other day what my favorite sport is and I said swimming. The reason I start this swimming article with it is because I feel that if you want to become a better swimmer, a love of swimming is going to be a prerequisite. I am sure I like swimming because I am better than the average person at it, so you could argue that is the reason I like it. Certainly no one is born a swimmer, and at some point one has to practice and practice and practice to become better. Which one came first is debatable I suppose, but the bottom line is that it would help if you can enjoy and look forward to going to swim. Let me give you some ideas.

If you enjoy company, find a friend of about your same speed and get them to go swim with you. Better yet join a masters club and you will surely find some good friends about your speed. I coach a masters class with many regulars that use my class to meet and catch up. They become very friendly with each other and laugh, and this makes the whole practice a lot more enjoyable. On the other hand, if you are in need of solitude there is no better sport than swimming. Swim on your own and once you put your head in the water there is nothing that will bother you. I just raced Ironman 70.3 San Juan and had a talk with a local triathlete that swims an hour a few times a week in a nice protected cove with clear water. He finds it to be very therapeutic and he looks forward to visiting the fish. He tells me that the same fish can be found in certain spots of his swim route and he recognizes them. They have become his swim friends.

Once you find some joy in swimming without basing it on performance then you will be free to let it happen. You will come to practice and not be so hung up on improving every day. This will in turn create that pattern that would allow your body to assimilate the swim volume required to develop swim endurance and swim strength. This is the first step to becoming a good swimmer in my opinion. Ideally you will then make swimming part of your weekly routine and swim year round. I know many triathletes that complain about how the swim is their weak sport but at the same time they only swim in the weeks prior to the event and drop swimming over the winter or the off season. This will make it even harder to improve. Of course you will not drop swimming if there was enjoyment right?

If you like to swim and the above does not apply to you as much, then how can you improve? My first thought is to break the pattern. You love to swim and have your lane mates and you always go third. Or you love to swim on your own and never miss. My suggestion is to break that pattern up. Do something different. Masters swimmers tend to swim too hard all the time thus cementing their bad patterns. They can get really fit but speed will not improve if technique breaks down. Lap swimmers, on the other hand, do not swim with enough intensity and when race day comes they cannot access that additional gear. Balance is the key. Ideally you want to combine some easy swimming on your own with drills and some more intense swimming with your friends for that intensity that can only be created with a little competition with your lane mates.

My final tip is to go back to basics. Get your stroke filmed and have someone with knowledge critique it. Find the right drills to correct it. Learn how to float, learn how to kick, and in freestyle it would be good if you could rotate and do exactly what you do on the right side also on the left side. Learn how to properly catch and not drop your elbow. This is what I do with junior kids learning how to swim. If you were never a junior kid learning how to swim then I suggest you try. It’s never too late to learn. Many people say that swimming can only be learned as a kid, but I am not totally convinced. The problem is that kids, unlike adults, are taught to learn the basics instead of piling up yards as hard as possible. If adults were also taught to learn the basics and not concentrate on lap after lap to build endurance I bet they can also become good swimmers. It just takes time to do this, and it will only happen if they enjoy the swim lessons as much as the kids enjoy theirs.

Luis Vargas

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