Sunday, October 9, 2011

One Stroke at a Time

As I mentioned in my duathlon post, I'd never been able to swim.  I used to say that "I could swim to save my life," but looking back I'm not even sure that was true.  How does a 28 year old, who has lived in Miami for 11 years, not know how to swim?

I'm not quite sure how I never learned to swim; I went to summer camp, the local pool, and the beach.  Surely I would have picked up something, but no.  It's not that I had a fear of the water, I just spent my time where I was able to stand and didn't venture much farther. 

At one point after college I even briefly took up surfing.  My first time out was in Hawaii with calm easy waves rolling in one after another.  In Miami our waves are generally part of a bad weather system which usually brings some choppiness along with it.  A couple times out in the windy conditions on Miami Beach and I realized that I had no business trying to surf without knowing how to swim.

Tri Swimming
Not being able to swim hadn't held me back from anything, but it was certainly going to make my venture into triathlon a big challenge.  Now that I was committed to completing a triathlon I needed to learn how to swim, but where to begin?  The bathtub, hot tub, kiddie pool, swimmies, a noodle?  A coworker mentioned classes that were offered at the University of Miami Wellness Center.  The classes were labeled "Adult Beginner Swim Classes."  A perfect fit for my lack of skills!

From February '11 - April '11 I joined my fellow "adult beginners" twice a week for an hour of swimming.  The class was made up of five of us with varying levels of experience, ranging from none to very little.  There were no egos in the group and we all genuinely wanted each other to succeed.  Over the course of the lessons I gradually increased my distance and began to feel more comfortable in the pool. 

Knowing that the race would be in open water I convinced my instructor and a fellow student (thanks April and Ronald!) to join me out at Key Biscayne for a little practice.  To call that swim a disaster would be putting it mildly.  The conditions were less than ideal, particularly for a confidence-building first time out.  Cold water (well, cold for Miami) shocked my system and sent my heart rate through the roof.  We stayed out for about 15 minutes and then found the warmth of our dry towels.  I knew I had a lot more work to do. 

With my first race coming up in May, I tried to make sure I swam at least three times a week.  My typical training week consisted of two pool swims and one open water swim (about 30 minutes for each).  I was feeling confident about my running and biking, but I was still very apprehensive about the swim.  I didn't feel ready for the distance and was concerned with what I'd have left after completing the swim leg.  I was still struggling with heart rate spikes every time I swam and hadn't quite gotten my breathing in check.  It's not that my cardio was bad, only that swimming seemed to make me disproportionally winded compared to the other disciplines. 

My open water swims exposed another issue: sighting.  I was already uncomfortable in the water and now I had to make sure I was staying on course.  Since I was having trouble sighting with the normal rhythm of my freestyle I had to get creative.  To help increase my comfort level I worked on my breast stroke (or my version of one).  I found that this style of swimming helped calm my nerves a bit; at least each stroke let me know I was going in the right direction.  I attempted to use the breast stroke as a recovery and rest period from my freestyle.  At worst I could use this during the race so I could avoid panic.

As the race neared I came to accept the fact that I was as prepared as I was going to be for this particular event.  I'd give it everything I have and hope to finish alive.  My only goal for my first triathlon was simply: don't drown.

Lessons learned
What was most frustrating about learning to swim was that while I was in pretty good shape (to that point, the best cardio I had in my life), it just didn't seem to translate in the water.  I became winded very easily, my legs tired, and my arms and back would fatigue quickly.  My atrocious form was forcing my body to work so much harder than it needed to.  Becoming more efficient in the water is key to long distance swimming and triathlon, and should be a major focus for any aspiring athlete.

I've now been swimming since late February (about 8 months).  I've made tremendous progress in the water and still swim about 3 days a week.  I've used the aid of Total Immersion, Swim Workouts for Triathletes, and just recently received some lessons from the Stroke Doctor.  While I still have a long way to go, I am swimming better than ever and am looking forward to longer races in the future.

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