Monday, 15 September 2014

Getting Into Swimming - An Idiot Guide for Runners and Cyclists : Roy Yeow

Of the 3 disciplines in triathlon, swimming is normally the most dreaded activity. Swimming is probably the reason why many triathlete-wannabes did not make it into triathlon. It should not be, as swimming should actually be zen like and relaxing. There could be various reasons why swimming is difficult for a lot of people and based on my journey thus far from a runner to a triathlete, I will try to share my observation and how to overcome the obstacles and hopefully, giving you enough to make you into a triathlete you wanted badly.
Group training in pool to simulate Triathlon crowds, courtesy of Total Immersion Malaysia
Before we go into the details, there are swimmers that use freestyle and others use breaststroke to get through the swimming leg. Nothing wrong with using either one of this. The heck, you can even use butterfly to power your way through your triathlon (800M - 3.8KM distance depending on the type of race), but obviously I doubt this is the most energy efficient thing to do. I personally prefer to use freestyle as if you do it right, it actually save the legs for the other legs... duh (in this I mean saving energy for cycling and running). However, the toughest part in freestyle is you have to keep your head down to swim efficiently, making it tough to see where you are going. With the right training and practise, sighting can be improve and freestyle is more efficient. There is a reason why the pro uses freestyles exclusively.
Open water swim session by Swimon in PD, pic by Swimon
Unlike cycling and running, to excel in swimming (read freestyle), it is all about techniques. It is no longer just getting out of your doorstep and making the mileage. You need to analyse and retrain every part of your body. From head to hand to leg to breathing, it is all about minimising the drag. As water is 829 times denser than air, a slight improvement on your technique will improve your swim. For those that swim ala Kampung style, I suggest that you review your technique and improve on this. The least this will do is to make swimming more relaxing and easy, giving you ample energy when you hit on your saddle for your bike and run in your triathlon. I was blessed that we have a superb swimmer in the team - Irene, that shared her knowledge to improve my inefficient style (Irene was our ex-national synchronised swimming athlete so it is in her to swim like a fish).

For you guys that is serious in improving your techniques, browse the Internet, there are plenty of tips to make you a more efficient swimmer.

If you do not know how to swim at all, I actually deem that better, as you do not have any bad habits that you have ingrained in your mind for years. You can actually start fresh and learn to swim correctly. All you need to do is, get a good swimming coach (no not those that teach you how to swim leisurely, which actually could be teaching you wrong swimming habits, get those triathlete coach).
Existing Putrajaya lake during Half IronMan Putrajaya, pic by Julia Othman
Once your swim is more efficient, you can start focusing on improving your swim through sets and repetitions. Apart from doing drills to improve your techniques, it is now time to put in the distance and speed. This is where it is similar to cycling/running. Tempo swim, interval swim, long swim needs to be incorporated as part of your training.

This is where the third part and probably the biggest challenge for new swimmer is, we only get to train in swimming pool while races mostly are in open seas or lakes. Open water swim (OWS) is obviously different. There is no four walls you can lean on, you cannot see the floor, there is no lines on the floor to guide you, there is current and waves, there are living beings that will scare the shit out of you.

From my view, it is all about your own confidence and phobia, get over it and you be fine. If you cannot yet, do not fret, slowly work on it. Firstly, get into the sea and try out one thing at a time. Lately because of the boom of triathlon in the country, there is now OWS sessions being conducted in Port Dickson almost every month, you should join if you intend to experience and improve your open water experience. Life jacket, kayak, first aider services are available that ensure safer environment to give you confidence in OWS.
Glad to run out from the sea in my first triathlon in Morib, pic by Tristupe
Once you get into the sea, just relax and float. You will be amazed at how our body are not built to sink. With that assurance in mind, tune in to the flow of the sea. Embrace the currents and waves and use the energy to help you, never fight the nature. As for the rest of the unknown, such as you cannot see the floor, well, if you have train adequately in the pool, you do not have to bother about how deep it is, cause it makes no difference to you when you are swimming on the surface.  Start swimming a shorter distance and come up and see your surroundings. Increase your distance slowly as you gain confidence. You will also need to start working on your sighting and turning once you can swim confidently.

The last part of swimming is the stress of swimming closely with many people during race day. In a mass start race, you will see over  hundreds of people cramp on the beach side and rushing into the water. It is like a stampede and this is another part why swimming is not so much a welcome discipline for many in triathlon. My advice on this, start from the back where you are more comfortable. Feel your way, learn from others and as you gain more experience, you will know how to handle these physical wars.

As for me, after almost a year of jumping into triathlon, I can safely said that my swim has improved tremendously (though I am still slow compare to those regular swimmers). The improved efficiency gave me the confidence in races, at least I do not need to worry about meeting swim cutoff but focus on getting through it without wasting too much energy. Through OWS session and also race participants, I have gained more experience and confidence to continue to improve on my swim leg.
Swimming itself can be very therapeutic and is a good recovery activity after a heavy workout - run or cycle. Swimming also provides a full body workout that helps in your life. If you can, make swimming part of your life, just like any other workouts you are doing.

Having said that, if you are into triathlon, do remember swimming is actually the shortest of the three disciplines, so train well and train smart. I hope this article give an insight on how a runner, a non-swimmer, overcame the challenges to start the journey into triathlon. We all can do it!

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