How I went from a lousy swimmer to passable

When training for my first triathlon, my swimming was so bad, it looked more like a distressed swimmer simulation. The harder I tried, the worse I got – until finally, a breakthrough.

When you watch some people swim, I think their brains naturally figure it out so easily, I don’t even think they know how to explain to someone who stinks *SO* bad.  You see, not only did I struggle with the stroke, form, flexibility, posture, breathing, head position, power delivery or anything else. I had the most critical issue of every problem anyone can ever have. I had no idea how to improve other than to just keep trying.

This piece is the key to making real and steady improvements.  When it comes to training in repetitive motion sports, it is important to build good habits early so that all that training can pay off.  Otherwise, it is like making minimum payments on a credit card.  You keep paying, but nothing actually gets paid off.

If I could go back, the first thing I would tell myself is, “Fix your breathing”. The microscopic gains that can be made without fixing breathing are just not worth grinding out. Face it.  No one wants drink half the pool by the end of the workout. (Consider yourself spared from all the puns I considered here.)

I have an unnaturally low sense of fear and danger. This is not to say I am a thrill seeker. It is more to say I did not breathe well, but did not worry I would drown.  That, however does not reduce the biological reaction to being out of breath. The urgency to breathe with the normal desire to look forward caused many young swimmers, including myself to swim more like dog paddling meets freestyle than just freestyle.

To fix this, I worked on drills designed only to increase my awareness of breathing, my comfort in breathing, environmental acuity in knowing where the top of the water was in relation to my mouth and related notions. Combined with this, I abandoned the preconceived notion that I would swim perfectly according to some image in my head and just breathe on the same side if it evened out my effort and rhythm.

Much of this advice came by way of various coaches who have instructed me until it finally sunk in.  Pat Rohner and Kendal Smith were among those who kept urging me to get better with small targeted instructions.

I still struggle to swim well, but breaking through these terrible blockers:

  • Not understanding what I am trying to do
  • Not knowing what to improve
  • Trying to fix too much at once

Has allowed me to move into a phase of improvement that allows for more gains with less work.

So, for anyone working on breathing or past it, my advice is simply this.  Find a good coach to help you fix one thing at a time, while helping you to understand not just what motion to perform, but what the underlying motivations are driving that instruction.  Then, proceed to measure your wonderful gains.

Good luck to all the other struggling swimmers out there. See you on the other side of the buoys 🙂

Lessons from finishing last in my first sprint triathlon

In my first sprint triathlon (in 2010) I wanted to believe that I could do it like most things in my life – might not be the best, but would not be the worst. I could not have been more wrong.

For anyone who reads even the first chapters of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven R. Covey knows that you cannot cheat a natural system. A computer programmer who does not actively participate in sports may not do that well “cramming” for his first race. That is exactly what happened and the results were predictable. Of all the men who finished, I finished dead last. Every grandmother and grandfather who finished all passed me. Even the ones riding cruisers rocking the streamers on the handlebars.

At this point, I faced two choices:

  • Acceptance
  • Change

In some ways, I still don’t entirely understand all the forces that make me do the things I do. Ego, soul seeking, or maybe just a rock head. I chose to make a change. Like most changes, the decision is far easier than the execution.

My wife asked me a few times why I would keep at this. Each struggle just somehow makes me more determined to win.

I found out:

  • I suck at swimming, biking and running
  • I have exercise induced asthma
  • Sitting is the new smoking
  • You cannot out exercise your diet
  • Failure to measure destroys steady gains
  • Finishing is about determination
  • Performance is your training plan

In the coming weeks, I hope to break down my discoveries into discrete lessons. In the process, I hope to better my own understanding as well as help those who may happen upon these posts.