Saturday, February 25, 2012

Swim: Struggle to Proficiency

This is my story of how I learned to swim. A lifetime can be spent refining the swim and I still have much to learn and improve. I am by no means an authority on the swim but I want to share this story for aspiring triathletes challenged by the swim as I was a year ago.  It is possible to go from struggling in the water, unable to find a rhythm to mastering longer distances while gliding through the water.

Open water swim in Lake Superior last summer.  Final prep for a sprint triathlon, my first.

I found success swimming is built on a foundation of good stroke mechanics. Combine mechanics with a strong back / core / legs made possible by separate strength training and huge gains are possible with minimal training hours. Since I started swimming January of 2011 to today I have put in 40 hours at the pool and cut pace from 3:40/100m to 2:00/100m for a mile swim. Separately I studied video and read about swimming for 10 - 20 hours over the year. Work smarter not harder, right?

In January of 2011 I began swimming by tackling a 1500m in 55:14 or 3:40/100 m. At this point I realized I had long confused my ability to survive in the water with an ability to swim. This is a very noncompetitive pace and I hated every minute of it. My mechanics were horrible and I was not breathing right, I did not exhale completely forcing air into my stomach. I could not find a rhythm.  I muscled my 100m pace down to 2:40/100m for a much shorter 500 m with seven hours of if it feels good do it swimming and hated every minute that too. After that I got worse and went sideways and gave up swimming until mid summer.
All the gear needed for swimming.

My second attempt at swimming was done with the guidance of the Total Immersion Perpetual Motion Freestyle DVD. I did lots of drilling before attempting laps and focused on stroke count and efficiency. In six weeks and 15 hours in the pool I accomplished a 500m swim in 12:30 or 2:30/100m. The pace wasn't much better than self taught but I actually enjoyed swimming this time around as my mechanics were much more comfortable and I could breathe easy. After my sprint tri I gave up on swimming again until this January. I felt weak on longer distances because I had no strength. At the time I was doing endurance only work leading to muscle wasting and not enough testosterone. 

This January and February have been ridiculous. I suspect the combination of a lot of upper body strengthening from Jiu Jitsu / throwing big weights around, and the foundation of good stroke mechanics laid in the summer has led to huge gains. I have been swimming 1600m regularly and feeling strong doing it. At the beginning of January my pace was 2:35/100m for a mile swim and now after 10 hours at the pool it is 2:00/100m for a mile swim. These gains have far passed any ambitious goals or expectations I had. 

A wetsuit is the most expensive swim gear ever but swimming in cold water like Lake Michigan and Lake Superior makes it necessary.

Swimming is very nuanced for sure, hand position during any cycle of the stroke, head position relative to spine, rotation, breathing, kicking, etc... The Total Immersion DVD builds the stroke up one piece at a time and has lots of drills and accompanying theory for how and why to streamline and swim more efficiently/faster. At $30 it is not pocket change but it doesn't require financing either. Like all self coached things it takes patience and inner drive. I am sure there are similar swimming DVDs and learning materials that focus on mechanics that are comparable. What is important is that an intellectual pursuit and critical thought accompany the swim.


  1. I took some basic swim classes as a kid, but the rest I've figured out on my own. As a "larger" triathlete, I like the fact that swimming isn't as rough on my body and feel pretty comfortable in the water (having swum in lakes and rivers all my life). But I've studied up and think I am more comfortable with longer distances and slightly more speed now. I know it is still an area for improvement, but being the shortest leg of the "race", I'm wondering when you get to the point of diminishing returns compared to the same training time spent on the bike or run.

  2. Thanks for the comments on my blog. Btw, I originally taught myself using Total Immersion. I like it. Its controversial on the triathlons forums, but it has really helped me with long distance swimming. I did a 2.4 rough water swim in Hawaii and I felt pretty fresh at the end of the swim. In fact, later that afternoon I went on a 7 mile hill run. Anyway, I still use a lot of TI techniques. I need to revisit my front quadrant swimming.