Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Don't Let A Little Swim Stop You!

So many times I have heard people say that they would do a triathlon if only they didn't have to swim. It seems that the swim part of the triathlon is what keeps so many people from attempting their first tri. I always tell them that the swim is short in a sprint. Anyone can do it. It's nothing! Don't let the swim stop you from doing one.

Image from oyster.com

Almost anyone, if they are motivated and in fairly good shape, can get in a pool or lake and swim 400 to 600 yards straight. In most sprints, that's all you need. In some of the sprints, the water is shallow enough that you can stand up and walk if you get tired and there are also folks in kayaks out there that will let you hang on and rest for minute if you need to. Almost all my problems in the swim have been when I have gone out too fast at the start. I've learned to relax even if I have to slow down for a minute.

Most people go into triathlons from one of the other three sports, running, cycling or swimming. Sometimes the strongest swimmers are not the fastest in a triathlon. I came into the world of triathlon through cycling. I was a fairly strong cyclist back then and doing regular rides with the bike club group, which consisted of several triathletes. I would see their race shirts and hear their race stories and wanted to try one for myself.

Image from fuelrunning.com

The only problem was I couldn't swim. Yes, I could dog paddle, tread water, float on my back and get from one side of the lake to the other in a haphazard manner, but I didn't know how to freestyle. I didn't know how to put my face in the water and breathe from side to side. My head was always out of the water when I swam or either I would be totally under water swimming. Way too anaerobic for a tri swim!

Image from tumblr.com

Image from tumblr.com

At that time I was working with a guy, S, who had sons that were competitive triathletes. He told me about some upcoming triathlons that were good for beginners. One was in June and was the Buster Britton triathlon at Oak Mountain State Park in Birmingham, AL, practically in my back yard. I signed up!

Image from blog.al.com

After three years of cycling, I was determined to give triathlon a try. I was too embarrassed to join a swim group so I went to the local library and got a book on master's swimming (similar here and here). I read about how to free style and breathe correctly. I found a time when the indoor pool at the JCC was empty and I took my book, my goggles and my swim cap and taught myself how to swim. It wasn't pretty! I recommend hiring a coach to work one on one with you if you can afford it instead of the way I did it.

Image from Amazon.com

The swim in the Buster Britton tri back then was 600 yards (now it's only 400 yards). It was March so I had three months to work on my swim. It didn't take me long before I could swim 600 yards without stopping. I went to work and told S that I had swam 600. He told me that I needed to swim two 600's before the race just to make sure I could do it and and to make sure I could cover any extra yardage when/if (but mostly when!) I got off course.

I swam one 600, rested a few minutes, swam another 600. I did that at least twice before race day. I also started running and worked my way up to three miles before the race. The sprint was a 600 yard swim, 16 mile bike ride, and a 3 mile run. I had the bike part down since I'd been biking in century rides, MS150 rides and 30 to 70 mile group rides with the bike club.

Before the race I went out to Oak Mountain to practice swimming in the lake and had a canoeing friend spot me. I didn't swim long, maybe 5 minutes tops and thought I was going to drown! Then I did a short bike and run on parts of the course. I knew I could do it if I just settled into a rhythm during the swim and stayed calm and focused on breathing and moving forward. Moving forward would get me to the end and out of the water! That was my goal for the swim. Then I would kick ass on the bike.

On race day I started out too fast in the swim and got out of breath and panicked, but managed to calm down and finish the swim in about 12 or so minutes. The bike part was a breeze even though I was a little tired from all that swimming. (ha!) The run was hot, but I finished the race in under 1 hour 30 minutes (1:27:00 I think) and placed 2nd in the beginner category. That was 1999. I was hooked!

After the race, I had a little more confidence in my swim ability so I started swimming with a master's swim group 3 days a week at the JCC. It was much more fun swimming in a group than by myself. The coach corrected some things I was doing wrong and the other swimmers pushed me to go faster.

That is why I cringe when I hear people say they can't do a triathlon because of the swim. I know if I can do it anybody can! The biggest part of a triathlon is the bike segment. Being strong on the bike is key if you want a chance at being competitive or not. You have to hold your own in the swim and the run, but you don't have to be a fast, expert swimmer to get to the finish line. You just have to be good enough to get through that part and onto the next. Believe me! I suck at swimming, but in sprints I usually place in the top 10 of my age group, if not the top 3.

So please don't let the swim stop you! I have now been training and racing for over 14 years. It has helped me deal with the anxiety, stress and depression of divorce, raising a child on the autism spectrum, financial and career struggles and just general everyday life stuff. Not to mention the being tone and fit part. That part rocks!

I can't say I like the swim training part or even that I do it regularly anymore unless I have a big race coming up, but I never let it stop me. Triathlon training and racing is a great way to stay fit and feel good about yourself in an endorphin-induced high kind of way! I came into the sport in good health and had been continuously exercising for years before I started swimming. If you have been inactive or are not in good shape, I would get to a doctor for a check up first before attempting to swim or race.

Image from iamtri.com

That being said, the swim is really not that bad! It's really not. I wouldn't lie to you!

And for all you males out there who haven't discovered tri shorts...

Image from facebook.com

Thank you!


  1. Do people still wear speedos? I guess if you're a triathlete, the extra wright of shorts is not acceptable, but there must be a better option, especially for guys. Up here, swimming is most difficult, only because of the weather. But if I wanted to be a triathlete, Id try to be like you. I wouldn't let swimming hold me back.

  2. It is rare to see someone in speedos these days but it does happen.