Lessons on the road to becoming an Iron Girl: Swimming vs. Not Drowning...practical tips for the beginner triathlete.

I know that I've said it before, but when I decided to do a triathlon 5 years ago, I did not really think through what it would actually take to do so. It just looked so darn cool to me...I was sold the first time I saw a triathlete running at Stone Mountain. He looked like a gazelle...with such graceful and seemingly effortless movement. I had one simple thought..."I could do that".

But y'all, I had no idea what "that" really was or how much work doing "that" actually took. Case in point...I couldn't swim 10 feet, let alone the 400-600 meters required for triathlon sprints or beginner races. So, the first thing that I had to work on in my quest to becoming a triathlete was...learning how to swim. This was a daunting challenge and I almost gave up a few times...but I learned so much along the way...about myself and the swimming portion of the triathlon training program. Here are a few of my thoughts about swimming and endurance racing: 

Disclaimer...I am by no means an expert in swimming, but I share my perspective and these few insights with the hope of encouraging newbies in the sport. 

1. Get Help! If you are new to endurance racing or new to swimming in general, I strongly recommend that you get a coach to help you with this part of your training. Many of the triathlons that you are considering participating in are done at parks, with open water (e.g., lakes, oceans, etc.) swims. So it is imperative that you are well trained and ready for this first leg of the race. The benefits of having a coach supersede the basics of learning to swim to include training on how to manage the swim in a high adrenaline, competitive, and often crowded environment. A good coach will prepare you for the real race environment. I really love team sports, so I joined a triathlon team at my gym. It was a wonderful experience. We generally hated the hard workouts...together. 

2. Equipment matters. Training for the swimming part of triathlons is more than just hopping in the pool and swimming laps...so you need more than a pool and swim suit to do it. You will likely need the following items for your swim session...especially if you are working with a coach/team or using a prescribed swim training regimen: 
  • Basics: At minimum, you should be prepared to purchase a silicon swim cap, 2-3 pair of swim goggles (because they sometimes break or get lost), and a couple of comfortable swim suits, especially if you are swimming in chlorinated pools...which eventually break down the fibers of swim suits
  • Training: Most training programs are aimed at increasing your speed and efficiency in the water. This is done with the aid of specific equipment. If you don't have this equipment already, consider purchasing a kick-board and a pair of training fins, which are different from scuba fins (used to develop your kick), and a pair of swim paddles and a pull buoy (used to develop your stroke). 
  • Special racing equipment: Depending on the time of year that you are racing, you may need to invest in a triathlon wet suit. The purpose of the wet suit is to keep your body at a healthy temperature when swimming in cold water (e.g., prevent hypothermia). However, because of the materials used to make wet suits, they also help keep your body afloat. This is a bonus for all swimmers as it makes it easier to swim on the surface of the water (e.g., swim faster). This is definitely an investment worth making...especially if you are a novice swimmer. They can be either purchased or rented, so don't be afraid of the costs.

3. Stay in the water! As a beginner or novice swimmer, I struggled with feelings of drowning...even though the pool was only 3 feet deep. I was sort of afraid of the water, so I needed to spend more time in the pool to work through this fear. The more time I spent in the water, the more comfortable I became with being in the water, and the easier it became to learn to swim. There was not substitute for this. I was in the pool at least 4 days a week. The more I swam, the better I became at swimming.

4. Not all water is the same. What do I mean? Well, if you only train in a 4 foot pool for your upcoming race, you may not be fully prepared to swim a long distance in a lake...that is 10 ft or more deep. Trust me, this does matter. This is not a deal breaker, it is just something to be thought of and try to deal with during your training. Here are a few suggestions of how: 

  • Consider training at a natatorium or deep water swimming pool. The feeling of swimming in a pool that is 8 ft deep is different that in more shallow pools. It is however, more similar to the feeling of swimming in an open water environment like a lake. 
  • Make sure that you get some open water swims in prior to your race. If your are racing locally, this can be done fairly easily. I do recommend that you take a strong swimmer with you to your open water swim...for moral support...or maybe rescue assistance.

5. Off season training. Since endurance is usually built over time, it is important to swim as much as you can even during the off season. Consider joining a master's swim team or swim club at your local gym or swim facility. Don't be intimidated by the term "master's swim" though...it doesn't mean that you have to be a master swimmer to participate. The purpose of these types of team is to help you master the swimming forms, increase endurance, and increase your swim distance.

That's all that I can think of for now. I hope that these tidbits of information are helpful to you as you prepare for your first triathlon. 

Love you much, 

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