Perhaps the most intimidating thing a new triathlete faces is standing on the edge of the beach, next to a couple hundred other people, staring out into the water. For those people who did not grow up swimming, the first event in triathlon is quite likely the part that has kept them from giving the sport a chance.
Two years ago, this was me. I was 33 years old, overweight, and had never been able to successfully swim one lap of freestyle in my entire life, and I’d had plenty of swimming lessons growing up. This is an intimidating situation to be in. Having to learn a skill like swimming as an adult is a unique experience, who do you get to teach you? I only knew about swimming lessons for children, and had no clue there were locally available programs to teach adults to swim, so I embarked on doing most of the work myself.
After going through the process and guiding a few other new triathletes, I found that there are a couple of common questions that I had, as well as everyone else that I’ve worked with.
I can’t swim with my face in the water, what can I do?
One important thing I would tell someone who is avoiding trying triathlon due to this concern is that there is no requirement to swim freestyle. Especially if you are looking a sprint distance event, a significant percentage of the participants will not swim the whole course freestyle. The first two triathlons I did were 500 meter swims where I used the breast stroke with my head above water. With that said, freestyle would be the preferred means.
“One of the hardest concepts to understand about swimming is that technique matters more than fitness.”
Most often this is what unnerves someone: they jump in the water and start trying to swim, suddenly they have water in their nose, their goggles leak, when they turn their head to breathe they get more water in their mouth, and they don’t get enough air. Very quickly their pulse skyrockets due to the feelings of panic multiplied by the effect of not getting enough oxygen, and swimming comes to a screeching coughing halt within a few strokes.
If what I described above sounds familiar to you, then pay attention. The most important thing that you need to prioritize is not swimming, it is getting comfortable in the water. One of the best early drills I found for this is to stand in the shower with your face into the stream, breathe out, turn your head to the side, breathe back in, and continue this cycle for a few minutes. You are practicing having water in your face splashing around and having to breathe at the same time. From there, move to your kitchen, put a bowl of water on the table put your face in it and breathe out, as you need to breathe in turn your head to take a breath. You are in complete control here, so you are just getting used to controlling your breathing with water.
Finally, you are ready for the pool. Once you can do the above comfortably, it is time to try bobbing in shallow water; start in water about chest or shoulder deep. You are going to do the same thing you did with the bowl, you will dip down exhale, come back up to inhale. The point here is to feel completely in control. Once you are comfortable here, you are ready to try swimming. Push off the wall and take slow strokes, kick your feet gently being conscious to keep your heart rate down, when you turn to breathe, give yourself as much time to get as much air as you need. Get comfortable doing this one end of the pool to another, pretty soon you will start getting faster as you get more comfortable with breathing in, and voila’ you are swimming!
Who can help me?
There are several programs out there that you can use yourself to help learn to swim. Many gyms with a pool do offer swimming lessons aimed at adults, as well as several available for purchase. There is a large amount of free content out on the web where the instructors discuss fine tuning technique. “Swim Smooth” is another well-known program that has successfully helped quite a few people learn to swim.
In addition to purchasing a program, consider joining your local triathlon club. They very likely have a certified swimming instructor who works with club members, or you will encounter at least a few people who had to learn to swim as adults and could be invaluable resources in helping you learn yourself. I’ve run into two or three within my own triathlon club.
I can only swim one lap and then I’m exhausted, what can I do?
One of the hardest concepts to understand about swimming is that technique matters more than fitness. Every other sport we preach; “build the engine, build the engine”. But with swimming that is not necessarily the case. Am I saying that fitness is not important? No, I’m not, but what I am saying is that technique is far, far more important to master. Every time I go to the pool I am reminded of this concept when I get in the water; I am a fit individual and not a bad swimmer at this point, but sometimes I get smoked on 100 repeats by the guy next to me with a belly the size of a basketball. This illustrates a couple of very important points: that having good swimming technique can make up for some of the fitness gap, and if you are still needing to lose a few pounds, the swim is the area that you will find yourself most able to compete.
“The most important thing that you need to prioritize is not swimming, it is getting comfortable in the water.”
Focus on your technique, and critically evaluate where you are having problems. Are you exhausted after one lap because your heart rate is maxed out? Take a lap as slowly as you possibly can without sinking, what are you feeling? Are you having trouble breathing? Are you drifting side to side? Are you still kicking really hard for how slow you are going? If you struggle to breathe, look at my answer to the person who is struggling with this above, and start working on your comfort level with those drills. If you find yourself kicking furiously, learn to use a swim buoy so that you can work on your pulling technique without having to worry about keeping your feet afloat. If you find yourself drifting, start again by going slow and with every stroke reaching as far forward as you can, trying to hit an imaginary target directly in front of your forehead.
Instead of doing what would seem logical: going to the pool a couple times a week and spending all of your available time working on your fitness; spend 1/3 of your available time working on perfecting your technique. The swimmer’s tools (fins, pull buoy, snorkel, and kickboard) are tremendously helpful in correcting stroke, kick, and breathing technique. These things will pay enormous dividends for you if you can dedicate the time to the process and not just building the engine. A simple google search will reveal mountains of data explaining how to use them.
Should I do a pool or an open water swim?
If you have the opportunity for a pool swim as a beginner, especially for your first triathlon, it will really help with your anxiety. You will be able to see the bottom, you’ll feel comfortable in a place that you’ve been there before and it takes out the chaos of the mass start.
For pool swims, you will likely have to turn in your estimated swim time, or about how fast you can swim 100m. Most of the time swimmers will start one or two at a time every couple of seconds. This is a triage tool to help keep the pool moving faster. The fastest swimmers will likely start first. It is counter-intuitive, but the back of the line is often easier to swim in. People in the front are racing, they will swim over and around you trying to go faster, at the back of the back more people are there just to complete the event, and there is less jostling for a few seconds of advantage.
“Remember, you aren’t training to just do a swim, you are training so that you can get out of the water with enough energy to grab your bike and take off.”
For open water, there are two ways to start, usually a mass start where everyone is in a big mass and charges into the water, or something similar as the pool where two or three people start at a time. If you are new to triathlon, and this is your first mass start, let everyone dash into the water, and walk in behind them. As you swim stay to the outside, the closer you are the buoys, the more crowded it is going to be. As a new swimmer, being around lots of other people thrashing about in the water is unnerving. I would strongly recommend that you practice in open water if possible. I would also suggest practicing by sharing a lane with another swimmer, being touched, kicked, and bumped is a part of the process.
How far do I really need to be able to swim?
This depends a lot on the distance of your first event. Are you starting out wanting to do a Sprint distance event (likely 400-750 meters) or are you wanting to start with an Olympic distance event (1500 meters)? I really do not recommend people choosing to do a full distance or half distance triathlon as their first event.
Remember, you aren’t training to just do a swim, you are training so that you can get out of the water with enough energy to grab your bike and take off. A general assessment would be that you need to be able to comfortably swim one and half times the distance of your event. One of the important things to consider is that if you are doing an open water swim, and the entirety of your training for this event is in the pool, the open water will be a bit harder than your training environment since there is no wall to push off of. If you are doing an open water event, I would strongly recommend training in a 50-meter pool for this specific reason.
“Practice by having a friend swim in your lane. They should swim up behind you and grab on to your feet, you should bump sides, or even have them swim partially over you.”
One other suggestion is to combine your swim and bike training days once a week, especially in the winter when you are doing your bike training on a spin or electric bike. This allows you to get accustomed to putting your shoes on quickly and getting on the bike ready to go a little fatigued already. You can easily do 2/3rds of a triathlon this way once a week without over working yourself, without the impact of running your risk of injury is low.
What do I do if I get kicked?
If you decide to do an open water swim, you are most likely going to get bumped and kicked at the start, and even if you do a pool snake swim, you are likely to have to navigate around people who are swimming at different speeds, some will be passing you and others you will be passing. The most important thing to understand is to “hold your line” which means that you pick your direction and you hold your position and allow others to move around you. If you attempt to move over to accommodate someone else, it creates a confusing situation where neither of you can communicate.
Practice by having a friend swim in your lane. They should swim up behind you and grab on to your feet, you should bump sides, or even have them swim partially over you. These are all things that are likely to happen during the race, and it is best if the first time you experience them is in a controlled environment, so when it happens in deep murky water you do not panic.
Swimming is a great activity that should not be intimidating. I know fear of the water kept me out of triathlon for years, and it really shouldn’t. Most experienced triathletes will tell you that it is frequently the easiest part of the race. One important thing to understand is that if you polled a group of triathletes, a lot of them would tell you that swimming is their weakest event. Triathletes are not typically world class swimmers, many were in the same situation that you may find yourself in now, as an adult needing to learn a new skill so that they can conquer a new challenge. Good luck, and swim strong!
By Drew Hardin