A friend recently suggested we enter a triathlon together. As an impulsive person who loves a challenge and secretly hankers after a hot tri body, I immediately said yes. I love running. I’m a demon on the spin bike. Swimming sounds like fun. What could possibly go wrong?
I conveniently forgot my breaststroke was slower than a hamster and I don’t own a bicycle. But why let such trifling matters get in the way of a good race? So we signed up to the Shock Absorber WomenOnly Triathlon determined to succeed.
The following week I began my baby tri training in earnest. By this I mean I ran to the leisure centre, swam two lengths and lay by the poolside gasping for air like a fish out of water, before riding my imaginary bicycle home and collapsing into bed. Evidently triathlon training wasn’t quite as easy as I first thought.
I called my friend and, between sobs, told her I didn’t think I was cut out for tri life. ‘But you love running,’ she said. ‘And you’re great at spinning? So just learn to swim!’ She had a point. Swimming was definitely my weakest link. But I didn’t have a clue where to start.
Too busy smoking fags behind the bike sheds to pay attention in PE, I failed to master swimming at school and had no idea how to approach it in my thirties. A quick Twitter session revealed that adult swimming lessons are perfectly normal and lots of wannabe triathletes return to pool school. Galvanized by my Twitter friends I called Swim for Tri and booked a lesson.
My swim teacher Keeley was firm over email and insisted I bring goggles and a swim cap for my first lesson. Did I really need all these fancy accoutrements to learn the front crawl? I felt like I was going back to school, and there was a reason I didn’t concentrate the first time round. Authority figures bring out my inner rebel.
Fortunately in real life Keeley favoured the positive reinforcement approach and upon arrival I was instantly put at ease. Held at the Market Sports Health Club in Shoreditch, the pool is reassuringly shallow, which significantly reduced my fear of drowning.
Technique is key
Although I can manage breaststroke, front crawl is beyond me and I didn't want to look like a total loser come race day, so we started my swim training from scratch. Step one, Keeley made me swim a length holding a float, practicing breathing out underwater as I kicked my legs behind me.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but one of the main reasons I’m not a great swimmer is because I don’t like getting my face wet. Not because I’m scared of water, I just don’t like ruining my makeup. There goes my hardcore adventure girl reputation. But as soon as I’d overcome this rather pathetic obstacle I was breathing out underwater with ease. The swim cap and goggles were also an absolute godsend.
Stage two, float still in hand, I practiced using one arm to propel myself down the pool, and then the other, alternating while still relying on the security of the float. This sounds incredibly simple, but learning how to swim properly is exhausting. Not only do you have to learn to breathe, but if your aerobic capacity has yet to increase, half the time you’re out of breath because you mistakenly swallow a pint of water, and the other half you’re just not fit enough to pull your body weight along for a whole length. But after each interval I felt a little bit stronger and Keeley’s endless encouragement definitely helped.
After several experimental lengths, to finish off my first lesson Keeley urged me to ditch the float. Fairly convinced I was going to end my days in a shallow pool in Shoreditch, I embarked upon my first float-free front crawl with fear. But thanks to Keeley’s expert tutelage, suddenly I found I was swimming front crawl, all by myself, and I wasn’t dead. Within the space of one hour Keeley had gently coached me from hamster to little fish and I was delighted.
Admittedly when I tried to recreate the magic in the grown up pool the following day it was a different story. It took me several goes to get the hang of swimming without crying because I couldn’t touch the bottom. But the great thing about swimming is, much like running, with the right technique and the right attitude it doesn’t take long to see results.
Six weeks later and, while I might not be the fastest swimmer in the pool, I am pleased to say I can manage 20 lengths of front crawl. The key is repetition and not being afraid to utilise the humble float as a handy training tool. It's worth practising in open water before your first tri though. Despite all my hard work, when race day rolled around I struggled with adapting to lake swimming. Check out my race report here. But thanks to my newfound love of swimming, I'll definitely be back for more.
Fancy entering your first triathlon? Follow Swim for Tri’s straightforward beginner's swim plan and tackle your first tri with confidence.
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