A great swim sets you up for a great race, but if you need a little persuasion to hit the pool, coach and Triathlon Plus columnist Steve Trew offers some help in the Speedo Complete Guide to Swimming – free with Issue 24 of Triathlon Plus magazine.
I’m writing this with tea and toast, having just come back from the early morning masters swim session; 6am start; 24 times 100 metres swim and rest one minute 45 seconds. Add a 600m warm-up and a 200m warm-down and that’s not a bad start to the day, is it?
Why? I hear you ask, why? Why get up at 5:30am just to get in a pool? Because I still love it. I still love that feeling when it all goes right, when you really do get hold of the water and feel yourself accelerate forward; it doesn’t happen to me that often any more, but when it does, it’s so worth it. I guess my swimming career is in four sections; joining the local club at ten years old – as everyone does – but for me it was a false start. I only lasted a couple of years when secondary school and homework kicked in. For most (ex) swimmers that would have been it, but for whatever reason I re-started swimming at 15 years old and quickly learnt to love the whole thing. A lot of it was the mates I was making at the club and I wanted and needed to be a part of something. So I got lucky starting late, stayed with it, made the national champs a couple of times, had a few trips abroad and loved that too. And then I stopped.
Finishing college and starting a ‘real’ job (teaching in a London secondary school) exhausted me, until an inspirational PE teacher in the area persuaded me to start running, and that really was it for swimming. Then, along came that funny old sport called triathlon. I had the running, had once had the swimming (“That’ll come back quickly, won’t it?” Answer: NO!) and had cycled as a schoolboy. I entered my first race, and so it was back to the swimming pool in the lunchtimes, slowly building up the distance; 400m, then 600m, 1,000m, and then wonder of wonders – a mile! I was back, or thought I was. At the grand old age of 36, I rejoined my old swimming club.
A fish out of water is perhaps not the best cliché here, but I was out of my depth (sorry!) trying to train with 14- to 20-year-olds. It was so embarrassing! Getting lapped every six lengths, the kids ripping me apart, until there came an acceptance that I really was a swimmer, despite my age, and an acceptance from methat I could improve – but I had to live with both the hurt and technique advice. It got easier from then on.
But as injuries and bad knees took their toll, competing in triathlon became just too much. No worries – enter stage four of my swimming career; masters galas. Fantastic! Competing against all ages, with the races structured into a heat where every swimmer is near the same standard, regardless of age, so there’s little embarrassment. And I truly do still love it. I don’t get the injuries that I did from running, I can improve just by focusing on technique, I can still be competitive in my advancing years. I can still be part of a training group. So, you really don’t have to have started swimming with your mum throwing you in the water in nappies – there is hope for us older ones. The feeling when you get the next point of technique correct is awesome. However nervous you feel when you start, you do learn to love the water. I’ve worked with more than enough triathletes who had a real fear of the water, particularly open water.
You CAN and DO overcome those fears. It’s a focus on the five basic points of swimming technique and skill that make the difference: a flat body position; good rotation around the long axis of the body; legs and kicking used mainly for balance rather than speed; an early catch to the stroke and high elbows throughout. These basic techniques are totally linked.
You need leg balance for a flat body position, you need good rotation for an early catch and high elbows. That feeling that gets you through the early mornings and the tough sets (yes indeed, 24x100m!), that feeling which sets you apart from your fellow commuters because they haven’t done the early morning swim. That long stroke that enters the water with the hand gliding forward, push it then just a little further than you think you should, feeling the body rotation start with the shoulder and hip rotating downwards, feel the hand dropping to the catch position, holding the elbow high, then changing the hand pitch outwards and then turn and draw the water in and then accelerate backwards and hold in the water as long as you can and release and bring out high and do it again and again and again, 72 times each unrelenting minute, making sure that both the rate and length of stroke stay constant. Place! Press! Pull! Push!
That’s the feeling; the pure, clean, lucid, fluid motion and movement of swimming. That effortless moment when the body glides forward at such a speed that those people who have never been lucky enough to be real swimmers cannot believe that it can be so easy and to get there can be so hard. That’s the feeling.
JOINING A CLUB
Going to a swimming club session may feel intimidating, but you will be welcomed to any masters section. Yes, even as a triathlete! A masters group is going to include people of all shapes and sizes, not just the finely honed young swimmers that we see on television. Each lane has a different standard, so there is no need to back off. Go on, join today. Being in a club will make an enormous difference. A coach will instantly point out what is needed in your technique. They say, “The coach is the swimmer’s eyes on poolside.” It’s true. With running and cycling we can look at ourselves, with swimming we need someone’s help. Find your local club at www.speedo.co.uk.
This article is taken from the Speedo Complete Guide to Swimming, free with the new issue of Triathlon Plus magazine, on sale now!