My feelings about the swim section of the Ironman swing between thinking this will be the most manageable part of the race, to being quite convinced I’m going to drown, or, if I’m spared that fate, having to cling on to a friendly canoe and being dragged ashore, thus ending my participation before it’s really begun.
I am a very slow swimmer, although generally I can keep going for a while. We have been attending coached sessions with GTC for close to 3 years now and over this time I usually make one or two sessions a week. These comprise an hour’s lesson, with usually 5-7 similarly-competent swimmers in the lane, with a mixture of drills and sets, focusing on improving technique and building endurance. When we joined the club, Paul and I could barely swim a length of front crawl, let alone significant continuous distances, and our technique was awful. With dedicated, persistent coaching, we have come on leaps and bounds, and both managed the 1500m open water swim in rather unpleasant conditions for our standard triathlon in the summer, as well as the Great Scottish Swim on Loch Lomond (Paul 2 miles, calm water; me 1 mile (due to childcare arrangements), very choppy water – what a difference two hours can make) and I also took part in a work swim relay for charity where we swam the length of Loch Lomond (39km) between us (my bit was about 3km) on quite possibly the wettest day in history.
However, while Paul seems to have taken off like a torpedo, and gets consistently faster as the months go by, whilst my technique continues to improve, and my endurance increases, I seem to remain one of the slowest swimmers ever to dip their toe in the water. This continues to be a mystery to me. Perhaps my technique is not that good and I have an over-inflated view of my style I hear you ask. A very valid point indeed. But a number of coaches have had quite close looks at my stroke/position/technique, and whilst it is certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is deemed to be ‘pretty good’. But as an excellent and trusted coach once said to me, ‘I just can’t work out why you are so slow’.
I personally think there are a number of factors involved. I think there is still much that can be improved with my technique for sure. But I also think I have a very bad habit of staying comfortable when I swim. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that I have a bad habit of doing this with all aspects of training. When I first did all my charity running, and, not surprisingly was a very slow runner, I trained myself and just went on lots of slow, plodding runs, getting slightly longer each time. No drills, no intervals or hill reps, because they make you feel quite out of breath and a bit sick, and frankly who wants to run fast up a hill. Not me thank you very much. And the same is true for swimming. But of course we don’t get any better if we don’t push ourselves. In swimming however this is compounded by the fact that breathing is underwater and I tend to get a bit panicky when I get out of breath underwater and this is, I think, the second reason that my swimming speed has not progressed well.
So much of sport is psychological. And not just for top end athletes, but for all of us. We put our own barriers up for so many aspects of training and racing – I can’t do that, I’ll never be able to manage that so I won’t even try, I’m so far behind I might as well just stop etc etc (I may write about this separately later). But one aspect of psychological wellbeing impacting on physical performance is with breathing as they are closely linked. The first time I took part in an open water triathlon (the Wee Beastie at Loch Lomond) I set off for the short 400m swim, very close to shore feeling absolutely fine, but due to the mass start of men and women all flailing around at once, going off too fast and breathing too quickly I started to panic and literally thought I was going to drown. I nearly called one of the canoeists over to rescue me until I realised I could actually touch the bottom, so I then walked/pretend swam to the end (heartened to see many fellow racers beside me doing the same) before getting on with the rest of the race. I now always hang back in mass starts and make myself start slowly to keep my breathing in check before settling in to any open water race.
But when you are pushing yourself at swimming and so a bit out of breath, it can be difficult to distinguish natural exertional dyspnoea (out of breathness) with panicky hyperventilation, and my reflex is to slow down to get my breathing back under control when actually it’s completely fine to carry on. As I get fitter, I am also tolerating being out of breath for longer, but I just need to keep saying to myself while I’m swimming, ‘it’s OK to be out of breath, keep going’.
And I am starting to see a difference. Which of course is because over the last six weeks I have done two main things:
- I have increased the number of times I go swimming. As well as the two GTC coached sessions per week (and I now make sure I go to both of these every week and push myself at both) I also do a third session myself.
- I have changed the way I train. As mentioned in point 1 I am pushing myself at the coached sessions rather than sitting behind drafting someone in front (which I was a bit guilty of doing). I am trying to push each set and not hold back if I’m out of breath. I am also taking advice on my uncoached third session. Given that the swim is so long in the Ironman I had decided that this third session should just be a long continuous swim. That would make me feel better about covering the distance and also I could chart my progress on an excel spreadsheet (who doesn’t love an excel spreadsheet) in terms of distance and time. Of course this is not the best way to train, and taking on board advice from the swim coaches at the club, and from various Ironman training books I now have, I have changed this session to more drills and sets, which will be much better in the long run.
As the New Years dawns, I am feeling quietly hopeful that my swimming will come on leaps and bounds – not just in terms of improving enough to get out the sea alive in the Ironman, but hopefully it will be good grounding for when I get back to doing normal triathlons.