Learning to swim…

At the beginning of 2012, I decided to enter Ironman Wales (September 2012).  I was a keen cyclist and runner already, and despite not having been swimming since my school days thought it would probably be ‘like riding a bike’ and come back naturally (or at least no worse). I was wrong, my first swim ‘training’ session was a disaster, and involved me struggling to finish a 25m length of the pool, before having a mild panic attack.

Determination got me a long way, and I managed to build the distance up enough (swimming 3x a week, around 2.5km-3km per session) but was never fast; probably around the 1:45 to 1:50/100m pace. It felt like an exponential amount of effort was required to get very little increase in speed.

By the time Ironman Wales arrived, I was comfortable swimming 3.8km and did a fairly respectable 66min swim time, although I think the swim was short or there was some convenient whirlpool currents helping me along.

A few years of triathloning passed, and my swim pace stayed identical, irrelevant of how much (or little) swim training I did. Swimming was boring to me, and only ever a necessary evil. Perhaps because of this, or because in an Ironman event the swim is the shortest part to try and shave time off, I didn’t ever try and seek improvements in this area. I was content that my swimming wasn’t awful, and that my cycling and running were good enough to make up for my weak swim.

I then qualified for the Ironman word championships in 2015. Suddenly, every minute could count. Laurence at Athlete Service suggested I try out the endless pool they have, which is like a swimming equivalent of a treadmill. You swim on the spot against a moving jet of water, and it has mirrors and a camera underwater, so that you can see just how bad you are.

The first session was a revelation to me. For the first time I could see (with Laurence’s help) all the places I was going wrong. There wasn’t really a silver bullet i.e. one thing that I could quickly change and instantly make me swim faster, but lots of little bad habits that accumulated, as seen in the video below.

The main areas Laurence suggested I change (actually, not all at once, but over a number of sessions; you correct one thing and then notice other areas for improvement) were;

  • My right elbow always dropped low
  • Poor body roll
  • Single sided breathing (causing asymmetrical stroke).

Correcting these issues hasn’t been easy. I had to accept that initially my swimming may actually get slower as my stroke was deconstructed and I learned a new technique that felt very different. A great thing about the endless pool, is that you don’t know how fast (slow) you are swimming, which allows you to really focus on technique without feeling guilty about swimming slowly, as I would in a pool (as crazy as this may sound).

My technique is still a work in progress, but my pace is now improving and greater efforts seem to get a greater return in speed. Most importantly, I feel like I have broken through a glass ceiling that I have struggled with since 2012, and the future will now bring further improvements.