Triathlon training – learning to swim

A few weeks ago, I posted an entry called ‘Everyone has a Weakness – it’s time to conquer my fear‘. If you’ve not read that post yet, it may help to explain the context of this one, as I’ve finally take that first daunting step of my triathlon training – I’ve finally been swimming! I use the word ‘swimming’ loosely, but for the first time in my life, I’ve combined the three sports of swimming, biking and running as part of a triathlon training plan to finish my first ever multi-discipline event next year. Given the fear surrounding this, I thought I’d start a series of posts which track my progress, both mentally and physically, in conquering this demon – although I’m able to run 100 miles, starting the swimming aspect of this triathlon training journey feels just like those first tentative runs did. Can I? Will I?!

The build-up

My plan with swimming is to go twice a week. My first session was on a Friday evening at 6pm. It’s one of the longest Friday’s I can remember. I tried hard not to think about the fact I was going swimming, but all through the day I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, and whenever I thought about it, my mouth went dry. During the early part of the afternoon thoughts began to enter my head – ‘the Tri isn’t until next July, I’ve got loads of time, I don’t need to start it just yet‘. The inner Voice – which I didn’t know I had until my first hundred-miler – kicked in and it told myself to stop turning this into something it wasn’t. ‘You’re going swimming in a pool, not open water. You can touch the floor in most of it, and grab the sides in all of it, so stop making the monster bigger than it is.’ Wise words, thanks Voice. I went to get my bag ready.

Packing the gear for my first swim firmed up my resolve
Packing the gear for my first swim firmed up my resolve

Once my bag was all packed up, I felt better. Like when I’m struggling for motivation to go for a run, once I’ve got my running shoes on, I know I’ll get out of the door. Same with this swim triathlon training – once I had my bag packed, I knew I’d go. I also started to think back to when I began to run. The first time I shoed up and went outside, I didn’t have any thoughts at all about running a half-marathon or marathon, and I’d never heard of an ultra – the thought of someone running further than 26 miles never even entered my head. All I wanted to do was run. Although swimming doesn’t have the same appeal to me as running, I’m applying the same mentality. Don’t think about this as training for a 1.2 mile open-water swim. Think about it as going for a short swim in a safe pool. The real triathlon training will start next spring, when I start swimming in open water. So for now, I tried to play it down in my own head and to hope, at least in some small way, to enjoy the process.

Later that day, I headed off to the pool, giving myself plenty of time to get a discount card sorted and get myself settled before getting into the water. The lovely lady on reception signed me up and explained how it all worked. I thought she looked game for a bit of sympathy, so I told her it was the first time in years that I’d been swimming in a pool. She smiled kindly, said ‘you’ll be fine‘ and proceeded to tell me where the changing rooms were. Hmm. There was a kids swimming lesson on before the open swim session started, so I sat with the parents by the viewing window trying to pick up some tips from the youngsters. They all looked pretty handy to me, and I was secretly hoping that at least one of the white floats they were using would be left for me to grab. Even through the glass, I could hear the echoey noise of splashes, shouts and whistles which had so terrified me as a child. In a few minutes I’d be in that water, with that nauseating reek of chlorine. I began to feel nervous again. My mouth was dry, my hands sweaty. I resisted the impulse to lick my palms to restore order.

I figured that I’d be faffing around for ages in the changing rooms, fiddling with my goggles, warming my shoulders up, checking and double-checking anything and everything to further postpone the dreaded moment of immersion. So, about 10 minutes before the kids lesson was due to end, I made my way into the changing rooms. Much to my surprise, three minutes later, I was ready. Swim shorts – on; locker – locked; goggles – on my head; wrist band with locker key – on. I was the only one in the changing rooms, so I took a few minutes to compose myself – moving my shoulders round forwards and backwards, breathing deeply and generally psyching myself up. I spotted an almost full-length mirror next to the door where I’d come into the changing rooms. I couldn’t resist the urge to have a smirk at myself – me! about to go swimming! – so I padded over to see if I looked the part. Well, I had swim shorts and goggles on, but the eyes told a different story. There was fear in them, and no mistake. I popped the goggles down over my eyes – much better. I grinned widely. The door opened. One of the kids dad’s walked in to see me stood smiling at myself in the mirror. ‘Alright?‘ I greeted him, trying to sound confident. He eyed me warily, and said nothing. Awkward. Thankfully, the kids lesson had finished and they were filtering back into the changing rooms. Great, I can escape. I skirted the dad and quickly rounded the corner to be met with a wall of kids, all taking their post-swim shower underneath a large sign which said ‘Please shower before entering the pool.‘. Ah. I’ll just stand round here then, shall I? With the kids. Awkward.C’mon kids, hurry up!‘ I’m thinking. ‘Quick, fiddle with your goggles, Timbo! Don’t just stand here!‘ Oh God. Help.

My first triathlon training swim

After what felt like an eternity, the kids, all gawping at me by now, filed out of the shower area and into the changing rooms. I was in and out of that shower as fast as an otter on the hunt, and through into the pool area in record time. I headed round to the shallow end and sat with my legs dangling in the water, casting my eyes round for one of those nice floats. None. Bugger. Other than the life guard, there was nobody else in there. This made me feel calmer. Something clicked inside my head. I set my watch, slipped into the water, and took my first meaningful strokes for many years! The first strokes of my triathlon training plan! That’s where the otter analogy ended. I managed a few lengths of breast stroke, always glad to reach the end and stop for a breather. Thankfully, but annoyingly, my goggles kept steaming up, so I had to de-mist them after a few lengths anyway. Before this session, I planned to swim front crawl in the triathlon, so after a few lengths of breast stroke, I tried a length of front crawl to see where I was realistically starting from. It was exactly as I remembered at school – totally and utterly exhausting. Half way down the pool, I was gasping for breath and managed to suck a good mouthful of water into the back of my throat. I coughed and spluttered, the sound echoing and reverberating around the almost empty pool. ‘I can’t pretend that’s not me’, I thought, glad of the water to hide my embarrassed face. I gathered myself at the end of that length, taking the next one gliding on my back, just kicking my legs, in order to rest my now-heavy arms. I could see the life guard as I slowly edged past her seat. She wasn’t laughing on the outside, but I thought to myself that she must be having more than a little giggle at me on the inside! Two thoughts ran simultaneously through my mind, firstly ‘you’ll never guess what I’m training for!‘ and secondly, ‘you’ll never guess who I’m related to!‘ (this guy). In spite of my embarrassment, discomfort and fear, I smiled broadly!

I continued this pattern of strokes for the remainder of my session. Lots of breast stroke, a few front crawl, and some back gliding when my arms needed to recover. I managed 25 minutes, which I’m reasonably happy with. Here’s the stats:

stats of my first triathlon training swim

Immediate after thoughts

As I got changed after the swim, I had mixed emotions. There was a feeling that I’d achieved something, albeit a small accomplishment – I’d actually been swimming, which was a huge effort in itself, but also, as the stats show, I managed 738 yards, or 675 meters. The pool is 25 meters in length, so 27 lengths. So, on the plus side, I covered just over one third of the total distance I’ll cover on race day, on my first attempt. I keep telling myself this. The downsides are that I had to stop after each 25-meter length, and that I could only manage three of those lengths using front crawl, which is the stroke I hoped to use in July. I snapped a quick photo of myself post-swim, and I think my eyes sum it up really well:

A selfie of Tim Vincent after his first triathlon training swim
The eyes have it… 1.2 mile open-water swim? Hmmm.

I’m lucky in that I know a few triathletes, and I’m even luckier in that I know one who was in my exact position regarding swimming last year, only to go on and complete the exact race I’m looking to do next year. I grabbed a coffee with Ian last week, and he told me that he swam the whole 1.2 miles breast stroke! This was a huge mental shift for me! Absolutely massive. I thought the prohibitive nature of the wetsuit would make this impossible, but Ian assures me that although it’s harder in a wetsuit, it was easier for him doing that, than trying to do the distance front crawl. He also told me lots of things about the race itself which have settled the demons down a little. One of the most encouraging things he told me was that I had the endurance, I just had to get the swim technique nailed and then it would be fine. I guess I knew that, but to hear somebody else say it is really helpful.

The plan going forward

So, the plan for improving my swimming over the next few weeks is simple – next time I go to the pool, I’ll aim to swim a little further, and try to do two lengths each time, before resting. And I’ll aim to do at least one more length of front crawl each time I go. Then I’ll see where I’m at. When I started running, I’d do two or three miles. Then I did five miles, then 10K, then a half-marathon, then 20 miles, then a full marathon. Shortly after that, I ran back-to-back marathons, then a multi-day race with around 50K per day, then my first 50-miler, then 100 miles. All of those lessons that I have learned from doing that, I’m going to apply to my triathlon training. All I have to do is just go a bit further each time, right?

Help, mockery and advice all more than welcome – comment below 🙂

2 thoughts on “Triathlon training – learning to swim

    1. Ha! Thanks, Kim! I still can’t put my face in the water, but at least the thought of swimming doesn’t terrify as much as it used to. Are you training for something in particular?

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