Go from drowning donkey to dolphin with Rich Allen’s tips for mastering your swim

People always ask me if it’s possible to go from drowning donkey to dolphin in the water. “Can I learn to swim with a degree of competence?” My answer is always yes and their response is always the same: “That’s easy for you to say – you’re a pro.” Yes, my swimming is pretty good these days but that’s not to say I haven’t struggled before. Believe me, I know that sinking feeling.

I started my triathlon journey when I was 17. At that time, my main sport was rugby and I was training to physically resemble a brick. This was great for tackling big buffoons, but when I hit the pool for my first swim training session, I hit the bottom of the pool. I struggled to finish the triathlon club workouts over the coming weeks, with only general fitness and determination getting me through.

All this effort was to no avail. My first open-water race was done in my mum’s sailing wetsuit, which was a two-piece with a metal bar linking the two parts together. It was heavy and the female fit did me no favours. As soon as the gun went off I was taking on water faster than the Titanic and I seriously thought I was going to drown.

I was floating low in the water, which just encouraged people to swim over me. Being a rugby player, I enjoyed the physicality but the swim technique went out the window as I tried to fight back. It was an utterly awful experience which steered me more towards duathlons for the next two years.

So yes, I do know what it’s like to start from scratch, but how did I get to be a confident swimmer? Well, there were four steps in my evolution from drowning donkey to dolphin, none of which mattered until I figured out the final step.

Firstly, I found that as I started to train more and more I wasn’t getting much faster. It was frustrating to put in the hard graft with little to no reward. Someone suggested that I had a few swim lessons, which I did. Following three pitiful lessons, I threw in the towel, finding out the hard way that paying more for a highly experienced swim coach is definitely worth it. A few months later, I was lucky enough to work with one of the top Australian Olympic coaches during a training camp in Sydney and in a matter of weeks my technique had drastically improved.

Secondly, spend hours in the pool. Triathletes in general love going out for a four-hour bike ride but ask them to swim 5,000m and they’ll have a fit. There are no shortcuts with swimming and as long as your technique is sound, you have to put in the mileage. I returned to Australia the following two winters with the goal of improving my weakest discipline. I was swimming 5,000m to 7,000m, six days a week, and while I was fairly knackered, I found that swimming started to feel natural. I actually felt like a swimmer.

Thirdly, and this is probably something that you don’t want to hear, it didn’t happen overnight. I had to be patient. I steadily improved each year but it did take a good few years until I was coming out in the lead pack of elite races. I kept working on my technique, I kept swimming the high mileage and I kept getting better. I was fairly happy, but it was still not good enough until I hit step four.

Fourthly and finally, I’d been trying to improve my swimming when one day it dawned on me: I was trying too hard. Every breath, every stroke, every leg kick I was analysing my technique. Was my hand entering correctly? Was my elbow high? In short, everything was perfect but the results were not. How could this be if my stroke was perfect and I was training as hard as possible?

Then one day I had an epiphany while swimming with five-times world champion Simon Lessing. His stroke didn’t look that good but he was incredibly fast. I noticed how relaxed he was in the water – almost jelly-like. I gave it a go, thinking only about my breathing and relaxing. Within a matter of minutes I was swimming faster – much faster. I was there – I had evolved.

Now, I’m not saying that you can jump in the pool and as long as you’re relaxed you’ll swim like a fish, but try working on your technique in the warm-up and then switching off and relaxing. After all, when do you ever see a tense dolphin?

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