Perhaps the biggest challenge in tri is learning to swim, but taking those first steps made Elizabeth Hufton feel young again…

Tri challenge: learning to swim

Here in the UK, I think it’s fair to say provision for learning to swim isn’t brilliant at school. My primary school had a 10m x 5m outdoor pool that was rarely warm enough for small children to swim in. All I can remember of the two lessons a year we had in it was trying to avoid swallowing the flies who’d come to a watery end on the surface.

Fast forward 20 years and it was time to give swimming another go. The appeal of whole-body fitness and low-impact exercise, as well as the challenge of learning a new skill, was one of the things that drew me into triathlon from running, but picking up freestyle as an adult was not straightforward. I started by signing up to an adult learners’ course at my local leisure centre. Memories of childhood lessons immediately came flooding back: with the cold changing rooms, rusty lockers, barking teacher and dank showers, it was just like being at school (minus the flies, and plus about 20 degrees in temperature).

You’ll hear mixed reports about learning to swim in that kind of environment, but for me the 12-week course was a bargain and a great introduction to the very basics of swimming freestyle. By about halfway through the course most people had lost enthusiasm so it was almost one-to-one coaching, too. I came away with some kind of stroke: it took several more years and input from specialist coaches to bring me even close to average in the swim part of a tri race. It was a great foundation though.

For those of you yet to take the plunge, we’ve started this issue’s Training Zone with a very rudimentary step-by-step guide to starting freestyle. I have to issue a caveat: any coach will tell you that you cannot learn to swim from the printed page alone; nor from watching videos on YouTube or having a mate explain it poolside. To really get ready for triathlon swimming you do need that eyes-on input from a qualified swimming coach, ideally one who specialises in teaching triathletes. But this is a great place to start, so dig our your 20p for the lockers, put those chilly childhood memories to the back of your mind and get cracking!

Elizabeth Hufton, Triathlon Plus Editor

A late starter, Liz took up running 15 years ago and completed eight marathons before turning to tri in 2008. She’s raced Ironman twice with a ‘speedy’ PB of 13hrs 43mins.