Becoming a Swimmer… or at least "tri"ing to!

Growing up in Arizona, I was always very comfortable in the water. I spent the summers in our swimming pool playing just about any game we could come up with. As I got older we began going to the lakes for jet skiing and water skiing. Then, once Kris and I were married we started scuba diving. Being in the water is natural – however, swimming is not. While I love being in the water, I have never had any formal swim lessons.  I know basic swim strokes from playing with friends who were swimmers, but never learned technique. So, I had some work to do before completing my first triathlon. Swimming laps was a new experience for me and the first few times were frustrating. Here are some things I have learned since:

  • Focus on your breathing – once you get into a rhythm with your breathing, swimming is pretty easy. The first few times I went, I felt like I was going to drown. I was out of breath after a lap and couldn’t settle in. Once I slowed down and got a breathing pattern, everything else clicked and I felt like I could swim laps forever.
  • Find someone who knows technique and have them give you a couple pointers. My cousins were on a swim team and I asked them to go to the pool one day for ‘lessons’. They told me a few things their coach tells them and it has made a big difference. We focused on 2-3 key things to work on and I feel much more confident in the water. Don’t try to do too much – just find a couple things to focus on and build from there.

Once you begin to feel comfortable with lap swimming, begin working on your open water swimming. Lap swimming does not equal open water swimming! Before my first triathlon I was feeling good. I had been swimming laps at our gym – even trying out my tri suit – and felt pretty comfortable. Our first triathlon was Blue Water where we had a 1000m swim in the Colorado River. We were told the water was mid-70’s and it was a quick swim because of the slight current. We figured it would be a good beginner open water swim; pretty calm, not too cold, not too crowded and a shorter distance than most olympic/long courses.

Since we hadn’t done any open water swimming, we decided to do a practice swim the day before the race – very short, just to get a feel for the water temperature so we knew what to wear. It’s a good thing we did because I was totally unprepared and panicked in the water. I couldn’t see the bottom, it was cold, things were touching me and I was getting caught in the plants … I didn’t know how I was going to get through the swim the following day … but, at least I knew what to expect.

Because of that practice swim I decided to wear my wetsuit for the race – I figured it would keep me warmer (the water was much colder than advertised) and it would provide a little protection from all the ‘stuff’ in the water (at least mentally).

I was so nervous that morning, I told the body markers the wrong number –
I ended up with Kris’ number written on me instead of my own.
I didn’t realize until halfway through the swim when I started to settle down a little –
at which point I began to worry about  having the wrong number written all over me.
Yeah, definitely nervous going into the swim!

Race morning I was starting to freak out a little – they put the buoys out and that 1000m looked like a long swim! We did our body marking and I put the wetsuit on. Before we knew it, the race had started.  Although there were moments I didn’t think I’d make it out of the water, I finally did. About halfway through the swim the panic started to settle down and I was able to put my face in the water and get some sort of freestyle stroke going (the first half was mostly side stroke with a little breast stroke). Here’s what I quickly learned:

  • If you are going to race in a wetsuit – practice in it! I’m very comfortable in a wetsuit – use them for scuba – but had never really swam in one (in scuba you don’t use your arms). When I started the race swimming in the wetsuit, I felt very restricted. I felt slow and inefficient in the water and I felt like I was unable to take a deep breath and control my breathing.
  • Scuba wetsuits are not made for racing! Invest in a good triathlon wetsuit – it makes a HUGE difference! We’ll review our wetsuits in another post.
  • If your race is in cold water – practice in cold water. I think that was also a part of my breathing problem – running into the cold water and trying to put my face in it took my breath away.
  • Practice sighting. Take time to go to a nearby body of water and try swimming in a straight line – it is much more difficult when you don’t have the line on the bottom of the pool. Get into your rhythm and practice looking for the buoys when you take your breath.
  • It is also a good idea to swim with other people – in a race you will get kicked, hit, and swam over – practice holding your own. The person behind you is looking for the path of least resistance. If you let them crawl on you, they will continue to. However, if you stand your ground, they will go around. My general rule is: if you hit, kick, touch me once and move on … no problem, it happens. But, if you continue, you will get kicked back. If someone keeps grabbing at your feet, give them a nice heel to the chest.  If they crowd you from the side and/or hit your head/face – bring your elbows out of the water a little more forcefully and wider than normal.  Once I learned to be strong and hold my position, group swimming has been much more pleasant.
  • Practice swimming without stopping. When swimming laps you have the benefit of a wall every 25-50m. As much as you think you don’t use it, it makes a difference when it isn’t there. We purchased a set of ankle bands from Sport Chalet that allow you to swim in a stationary position – we attached them to a tree near our pool. They work really well to get you non-stop swimming practice. The drawback is that you don’t have a sense of how much distance you have covered – which is why open water swimming is always important also.
  • Prepare yourself mentally. If you are not a swimmer, the swimming isn’t physically hard but is definitely a mental challenge. Physically, I love swimming – my joints don’t hurt and there is nothing uncomfortable about it like I experience with biking and running. Mentally, it has been the toughest of the 3 disciplines for me. What I found to work the best – come up with a mantra or chant that you can repeat to yourself while you swim. Make sure it is something positive and is easy to repeat. You will get to a point where you don’t need it, but it will help get you through the moments of panic when you start doubting yourself.
  • Ear plugs work wonders – especially in cold water! We use the soft moldable ones.

I still have a long way to go with my swimming – I am still a slower swimmer – but, I have come to enjoy it and be able to get through the swim portion without panic. If you are unsure of your swim skills, just give it a little time and practice. My first year of swimming:

  • Fall 2009 – signed up for first triathlon and did some lap swimming in the pool at our gym.
  • November 2009 – Blue Water olympic triathlon – 1000m swim in Colorado River – scuba wetsuit, cold water, with the current – first half was panic, wanted to quit but to stubborn to.  Time: 30 minutes.
  • March 2010Bartlett Lake olympic triathlon – 1500m swim in Bartlett Lake – another cold water swim but this time I had a triathlon wetsuit. However, I did not practice swimming in it so I still panicked in the beginning and had trouble catching my breath. I was able to settle in a little quicker this time and did not give as much thought to quitting, but was still slow.  Time: 42 minutes.

May 2010Ironman 70.3 Florida – 1.2 mile swim in Bay Lake – finally a warm water swim! However, it was in Florida, so I was a little freaked out at the idea of gators in the water. This was the first race where I started before Kris. The first two triathlons had only two waves – men then women. For this race, there were over 20 waves – each age division started at a different time and they put the 30-40 year old men in the last 4 waves. Waves started every 3 minutes – so, every 3 minutes I had big guys coming up behind me … this is where I learned to hold my position and actually started to feel pretty comfortable in the water. I got into my rhythm pretty quickly and only had a few bouts of side stroke and breast stroke.  Time: 55 minutes.

  • Summer 2010 – decided to actually start practicing my swimming. We cancelled our gym membership shortly after our first triathlon so we hadn’t done much swimming in preparation for Bartlett and Florida. During the summer we were able to swim laps in the pool at the ASU Polytechnic campus. One of those days I invited my cousins to join us. They helped me with my technique and breathing and gave me a few drills to work on. Since then, my swimming has gotten stronger and a little quicker. We also headed up to Saguaro Lake to practice open water swimming. 
  • Fall 2010 – As Ironman Arizona approached, I knew I needed to get more comfortable swimming in cold water. That was when we invested in the ankle bands and began swimming in our backyard pool. The temperature of our pool quickly dropped and I put on my wetsuit and headed out for a swim. Once again – panic … yes, in our 5 ft play pool. I couldn’t believe it – we weren’t much more than a month away from Ironman and I couldn’t even swim in our pool. I was determined not to get out of the water – I stood there for what felt like an eternity trying to figure out how to get through it – how would I get through Ironman if I couldn’t even swim in my backyard?! I eventually put my face in the water and got in a few minutes of continuous swimming. I think I ended up taking a breath with every stroke because I could not get control of my breathing … but, I kept going.  At most, I was in my pool for 20-25 minutes and couldn’t have swam more than 200m … how was I going to get through Ironman?  When I got out, I took a shower and stood there with no control over my breathing or extremities – I was so cold and disappointed.  When I checked Facebook that evening, there was an article from my massage therapy office talking about stress and how to overcome it … perfect timing! One of the suggestions was to come up with a mantra you can repeat to yourself and I thought, ‘I can do that’. The following morning I rode my bike to work, stressed about the pool incident and trying to figure out how to overcome it. As I pedaled, I thought about what I do in running races … I take it a mile at a time. In a swim, all I need to do is take it one buoy at a time. I suddenly began repeating, ‘one buoy at a time, I can do this’ while I pedaled to work.  That became my mantra. The next time I got in my pool, I jumped in, put my face in the water and started repeating that to myself … it actually worked.

    November 2010Ironman Arizona – The week leading up to the race, I was starting to freak out. I began questioning our training & lack thereof. I knew I could finish the bike and run but had to make it out of the water first. The water temperature was dropping a degree a day and reality hit that I had never swam more than the 1.2 miles in Florida … this was double that, and the water was COLD.  All I kept thinking was I didn’t want to get pulled out of the water – I didn’t want my Ironman day to end with the swim. I had 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the 2.4 miles. Even with my slowest swimming, that should be no problem … but, how would my body react to the cold, especially after that much time, and how would my body react to swimming for that long? Surprisingly, once I got in the water, all the fears and anxiety were gone.  I didn’t even need my mantra as I swam along – I got into my rhythm, swam freestyle the whole time and had the quickest pace I’ve had in a race. The part I still need to work on is my sighting – I ended up swimming over 3 miles – but still finished in under 2 hours.           Time: 1:53

      No matter what point you’re at with your comfort level of swimming – you can do it! For those of you in the Phoenix area:

      • Masters Swim Teams – we’ve heard great things about this swim group and I’m planning on joining them this summer to build my skills.
      • Saguaro Lake is where we’ve gone to do our open water swim practice – they have a nice protected cove area where lots of local athletes swim called Butcher Jones.

      If you’re ever looking for a swim buddy, especially when you go out for an open water swim, give a holler – I can use the practice, too! – Mindy


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