Monday, January 27, 2020

Why triathletes are poor swimmers - part two! Getting more confident in the water...

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Me doing the Thames Swim in 2010Following the recent blog article on exploring why the majority of triathletes claim that swimming is their worst discipline, I promised to take some time to pass on some advice from those in the know designed to help you become a more confident and faster swimmer.

I’ve broken the following article down into three sections, looking at some of the more common ‘problems’ facing amateur triathletes:

Fear of open water swimming

Graduating from the pool to open water swimming can seem a little daunting.  Perhaps the following sentiments will sound weird if you fall into the aforementioned group, but personally I far prefer open water swimming to pools!  Yes, the water is often colder, less clear and can even contain some interesting aquatic life – but for me there’s nothing more tedious than swimming up and down a lane for an hour or more.

If that still doesn’t convince you, here are a couple more thoughts that might help put your mind at rest:

1. Wearing a triathlon wetsuit makes you incredibly buoyant!  If you’ve never worn a wetsuit while swimming before, you’ll be surprised at just how easily you float in the water. Seriously, if you ever do find yourself in difficulty in open water, it really is easy to lay back and you will stay afloat with minimal effort.

2. Most lakes in the UK are actually not that deep! Or even if you do get out of your depth, shallow water is often just a few feet away. If you want to try swimming in the sea, just swim parallel to the shore at a depth you feel comfortable with.

3. Wetsuits really do help keep you warm.  I won’t pretend that UK water is exactly warm, but with a good wetsuit and maybe a rash vest (a tight-fitting t-shirt worn under a wet suit) you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get comfortable in the water.  If you suffer at the extremities, companies like BlueSeventy do neoprene swim booties, gloves and caps.   These will certainly help until the summer months come along.

If your fears are more on the psychological side, triathlon and qualified Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) coach, Kim Ingleby, advises the following mental techniques to prepare for swimming in open water:

1. Spend some time the night before writing down a mind map of how you would like your first open water experience to be and then write down any areas that are concerning you – combined with a solution next to them.

2.Think of two to four qualities you want to feel – e.g. Calm, confident, relaxed, focused, etc – which you can almost use as a mantra to keep you focused … if these are challenging just try I’m ok – and or Breathe… Choose four qualities you would like to have to swim with confidence – common ones chosen by clients are calm, confidence, focus, strength, and power but choose what works for you – note down all the times you have felt this.

3. Choose a piece of music which represents you swimming confidently open water – close your eyes and imagine yourself swimming confidently in the open water – observe how you look, feel and any sounds you may notice. Breathe deeply and fully begin to believe it is possible – then replay the movie with all the observations, repeating the four words that give you have chosen to feel.

Feeling like you’re not progressing with swim technique

As we’ve already discussed in part one of the story – the triathlon swim is all about technique!  With water some 800 times denser than air, the efficiency of the stroke and delivery of power is critical to making fast and smooth progress through the water.

To get better at swimming the advice really is very simple – don’t try to do it all on your own!  Getting a coach, or at least joining a masters swimming group, is a great way to get some personal attention from a poolside expert that can spot little things in your stroke that may be slowing you down or causing you to waste energy.

Triathlon coach, Andy Bullock, explains:  “The aim when swimming should be to reduce drag, increase propulsion all to improve efficiency. Because swimming is a movement like no other, this means a greater time, and concentration need to be spent practising the skills and technique of swimming than running or cycling; almost like you did when learning to walk.”

Regular time trials (200m, 400m, 800m etc) are a great way to check your fitness levels and swim efficiency, but to make large gains it really is invaluable to have an extra pair of eyes – or perhaps even a poolside or underwater video camera – to look over your form. What ‘feels’ completely natural to you now may be obviously far less than efficient when you see it back on a TV monitor!

Not enjoying swimming alone

This is another common reason cited for why triathletes don’t swim more.  Let’s face it, it’s not exactly the most sociable of sports – hard to have a chat when your head’s under the water two out of three strokes! But swimming in a group can be fun and can provide that extra incentive to get up early or head out at the end of a long day.

When open swimming in a group for the first time, Kim Ingleby recommends agreeing on waypoints and targets for each leg of the swim, and that the lead swimmers should wait or even swim behind less experienced swimmers to give them the added comfort of being watched over.   After a few sessions you can start to have a bit more fun and perhaps have races to the next buoy (remember, it’s easy to float in a wetsuit if you’re knackered when you get there!) or take it in turns practising drafting one another (take advantage of this in the swim, you can’t do it on the bike!).

As I’ve said, I accept that I might be in the minority – I’m personally excited that the weather should soon be just about warm enough to let me start swimming in my local lake on a regular basis.  From experience, I seem to find it much easier to get up at the crack of dawn to head to a cold lake than I do a warm(ish!) swimming pool.  But trust me when I say there’s nothing to be afraid of and that it is possible to make big gains in the swim with just a few short coaching or masters sessions.  And if anyone fancies a swim up at Lake 32 of the Cotswold Water Park sometime soon, let me know!

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs