Swimming is probably the most common reason many procrastinate participating in triathlon or hesitate moving to longer distances. Unless you grew up swimming competitively or playing water sports, swimming can be a lot like learning a new language; if you don’t practice often you won’t become fluent. Unlike riding and running, more power does not translate to better or faster swimming. And, since we are land mammals, swimming may cause added levels of anxiety further diminishing your desire to improve this discipline. For these reasons, progressing beyond the mental challenges associated with swimming is sometimes more difficult than the physical challenges. Mental strength training your swim can help reduce reservations, build confidence, and improve your ability to progress faster. Here are few suggestions to help strengthen your mind and build confidence with your swimming.
FOCUS ON FORM FIRST:
Swimming in any environment, pool, lake, or ocean is about proper form and technique. On the bike, you must make your way through air which, unless windy, is easy. Water is a much more dense substance that requires your body to be in an optimal position to cut (or glide) through it. Finding the proper form can be done in a number of ways including books, clinics, DVDs, coaching, or any combination thereof. There are various methodologies including Total Immersion, Ian Pope's Swimming Down Under, Freestyle with Jason Lezak, and many others. You can argue one methodology is more effective than another but the important thing is to learn an efficient body position and proper swim technique. Understanding the “how” of swimming removes misconceptions, educates, and sets you on a path to success. Following a structured approach to swimming builds confidence because it clearly defines whether you’re doing it correctly or just guessing. This is the foundation of good swimming.
QUANTITY and QUALITY
There are three parts to improving your swim; Form (covered above), Quantity of swimming, and Quality of swimming. It’s been said you need to swim three times per week to sustain swim fitness and four times per week or more to see improvements. I couldn’t agree more. The more you swim, the better your swim fitness. Logging laps improves endurance, builds muscle memory, and helps adaptation to water. You need to get in the water often and practice good form through drills.
So now you know how to swim and you are comfortable in the water. You have laid the foundation for speed. Speed comes through structured training or the “Quality” part of swim training. Swimming goes beyond just getting in the pool. Each day’s workout should have a specific purpose with an eventual overall goal. I like to subscribe low intensity type swimming on Mondays to help recover from typical high mileage weekends, intervals for speed on Wednesdays, and endurance sets on Fridays. On a fourth day, drills are in order because they reinforce good form. The combination of workout types builds all aspects of your swim; endurance, speed, strength, and form. And like the other aspect of training builds confidence.
Even after having all the tools, hesitation may continue to exist. The longer the distance, the more common the hesitation. Developing a strategy to deal with the distance (or other concern) proactively is the best approach. Let’s say you are doing half Ironman in 3 months and have concerns with the distance. You have 3 blocks of training to remove the concern. Each block is 4 weeks long. For the first block of training, your endurance swim (Friday’s endurance workout) should be the course distance (1.2 miles) broken down into 4 or more sets each at the desired race day pace. It will be difficult to hold the desired pace on the first Friday for all 4+ sets but stay with it as it becomes easier as you progress through the first block (4 subsequent Fridays). During block number 2, you do the course distance on each of the 4 Fridays broken down into only 2 sets (2 x 0.6 mile) but hold the same desired pace. During the last block, you do the entire distance on each Friday. This approach removes the fear of the “distance.” If you follow this method, the swim distance will be your least of you worries.
While you cannot win a triathlon in the swim, you can do substantial damage to your overall time by not giving swim training its due time. Removing the reasons why you don’t swim is where we need to begin. “I don’t know how to swim, I’m afraid of Open Water Swimming, the swim portion is too long, etc… Follow the steps above to building both your mental and physical swim strength.