Each year I’m fortunate to work with individuals who are new to swimming and have signed up for a half or a full IRONMAN. They come to me in hopes that I can help them get comfortable with the water and be able to go the distance of 1.2 or 2.4 miles come race day.
I usually have a 6- to 8-month window of time to work with them. This may seem like a lot of time especially coming from a bike or a run background. But, people progress and respond at different rates and swim is not like bike or run. Just take the very basic need for oxygen to survive. When people run or bike, they don’t need to think about breathing. They may observe their breath but the autonomic nervous system is in control here. If we had to think about breathing every time we needed oxygen, we would do nothing else all day. Put someone new to swim in the water and suddenly the risk of not getting enough oxygen is real and thoughts turn to breathing. There’s also the prone position, weightlessness and density of the water. It goes without argument that swim is different and therefore the same training principles one might take to run or bike might not produce the same outcome when applied to swim.
This is why people seek me out to help them. I have 15 years of experience coaching runners, cyclists, hikers and triathletes of all ages and experiences. I also have a knack for making them into swimmers. This is because I do not apply the same rules across the board. In fact, we don’t use rules, we use pictures and fill in the details together.
It’s easy to get caught up in perfecting technique. Some athletes come from other sports with success drivers that are based on pace. Some may get tangled up in what each body part should be doing at different times. Or, they are fixated on how many times per week they “should” be swimming. It’s hard to zoom out and look at the big picture. This takes trust, patience and focus. Helping a swimmer develop self-reliance and openness creates an environment for success in the water, especially the open water with all it’s uncertainties. Here are three big picture approaches to consider for long course swim training.
1. Look forward to your swims. There is no magic number of days that will equal a guarantee for comfort and success in the water. What is important is consistency and quality. Whether it’s frequent short sessions or one or two long sessions, what matters most is that you are looking forward to this time in the pool and that this time is well spent. If swimming four days a week causes you to sleep less and stress about getting to the pool, this interferes with enjoyment of the sport. It makes swimming a “have to” instead of a “want to.” Ask yourself how many days a week can you comfortably get to the pool. Trust and spend that time wisely.
2. At the end of the day, it’s about the water, not your arms, fingertips or head position. Drills and skills are essential. And while I love the structure and the discoveries that come from this practice, I also like to make sure my athletes have time to swim and focus on the water, how it feels and let go of conscious thoughts about technique and body parts. These types of swims help you connect to your environment and build trust that your body knows what to do.
3. Make enjoyment a priority. My greatest fail as a coach is when I can’t change someone’s attitude toward swim. Some people hate it and it’s what they need to “get through” in order to get on their bike. That’s a tough way to start a day as full as one that includes a half or a whole IRONMAN. Each swim during your training is a reminder of your ability to get outside of your comfort zone, continue to learn and explore. My greatest success is when I can figure out ways to help people learn to enjoy swimming because from here swimming becomes a “want to” and from there anything is possible.
Think about your swim broadly and creatively and then build the details of your training plan and skill practice around these basics. This means there are still racing techniques, drills and main sets to dial in on; however, remember that these pieces you and your coach are creating make up the whole picture of your event.
Here’s how it looks in practice. I once coached a Boston Marathon runner for her first triathlon. We talked a lot about why she was doing a triathlon. We discussed her fears and her definition of a successful swim. She also followed a structured training plan and practiced consistently.
During the swim leg of her race she thought Right onto Commonwealth Ave, Right onto Hereford Street, Left onto Boylston at each buoy turn during her triathlon swim. She took something she loves — running the Boston Marathon — and used it to conquer her fear of her race day swim. Her big picture was getting outside of her comfort zone and finding love for a new sport, triathlon. The rest followed.
It’s your swim picture. Be creative. Have fun drawing it and enjoy filling in all the details too.
Deanna Pomfret has coached fitness enthusiasts, runners, swimmers and triathletes since 2005. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Road Runners Club of America Certified Running Coach, Certified Functional Strength Coach and Owner and Swim Technique Analyst with Athletic Pursuits LLC. Deanna presents at clubs and symposiums on various fitness and motivational topics.The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.