Anyone who had seen me do my very first swim session at the end of December would have taken a sharp intake of breath at the shock of being told I’m going to swim 2.4 miles comfortably by July. I know I definitely was. Here follows the scenario for my first dip in the pool….
By the time I got to the wall after the first length my breathing was sharp and laboured. At the wall I clung on for a second or two gasping deeply before pushing off to complete the second length. Half way through the second length I gave up turning my head to try and breathe. It was pointless. I just powered as hard as I could to get to the wall before I passed out. That wall by the way was twice as far away on the second length as it had been for the first. My fingers grasped the edge of the pool, my feet finally found their footing to render me up right in a more familiar and comfortable position, and I spent a whole minute or so hyperventilating.
Hyperventilation and high pitched squealing noises whilst trying to suck in litres of air to recover from oxygen debt are no strangers to me. Those who have trained with me or been around me whilst I’m training don’t bat an eyelid at the torturous noises I frequently make. This is quite normal and common place for me and I can sustain it for quite a while without actually dying. However, this usually only occurs whilst I’m sustaining all-out maximal intensity sessions and should not happen within the first 50m of a swim warm up.
Once I’d recovered I pushed off the wall to try again. This time I slipped gracefully through the water powerful and fast, turned quickly at the wall and demonstrated a huge turn of pace to race back to the start again. Without needing a second to regain my breath I quickly concluded and announced that I was going to swim the whole of the Ironman swim course breast-stroke! I can swim breast-stroke no problem and I’m actually not too bad at it, but freestyle, forget it. Unfortunately though, I’ve had to face facts. We all know that freestyle should be the faster and more efficient stoke. So freestyle for 2.4miles it must be……somehow!
Despite my first horrendous swim experience I forced myself to battle on with the front-crawl stroke. To start off with I would battle with the temptation to switch into breast-stroke half way through a length in order to get to the end of the pool without drowning. Persistence paid off and gradually the idea of doing the Ironman course breast-stroke subsided in favour of possibly just doing half and half!
My saviour at this point became the pull-buoy. I found that I could use it to aid my buoyancy and body position and enable me to isolate my arms to work on getting a better grip and propulsion on the water. This meant I could get some relaxed rhythm and timing and also generate some speed through the water. It helped to lessen the effort I was putting in and along with better timing of my stroke and a more streamlined body position I found I could actually breathe better between strokes too. I remained training like this for a while to build up the technique of my arms, the technique of my breathing and to build up some strength and endurance in my upper body.
The time came when I knew I needed to remove the pull-buoy in order to progress. It had rapidly become my crutch and wasn’t easy to let go. The first time I swam without it I completed four good lengths freestyle. This was nothing to rave about but was a breakthrough at least. I gradually shifted the balance of pull-buoy lengths to non pull-buoy lengths until one day I ditched it completely. From that point on I’ve felt confident to call myself a competent freestyle swimmer and it’s great reward for being persistent and taking my time to break the big goal down into manageable, achievable chunks no matter how frustrating and worried about lack of time that I’ve felt .
It’s so tempting to want to just bash up and down the pool and do length after length to get used to it. Especially because the distance is so huge to cover during the Ironman and I’ve a short amount of time to train for it. It’s tough not to panic about still being so far from being able to swim close to 4km continuously and feel like I should be able to do at least 2-3k solid continuous swimming by now. But I know enough to know that building good foundations whilst learning, particularly in a very technical sport like swimming, is really important and will serve to make much better improvements further down the line. One of the things that I’ve been really strict about doing is lots and lots of drills and technique practice. It can be arduous but it’s the only way to break down the complex cycle of the freestyle stroke to work on its smaller specific components. Every session I will do at least 20mins of drills and it really helps to set me up and make my stroke much better for the main set of work. I really enjoy this bit of swimming, working on analysing and breaking down the technical requirements of the stroke. It’s much like the rowing stroke with the feel, the timing and the finesse required to be efficient and move through the water fast.
I feel much more comfortable and at ease in the water now and I’m making some positive improvements week in week out. To give an indication of where I was when I started out in my first few weeks of swimming, my absolute flat out 100m was 2:05min. I then progressed to being able to do sets of 5 x 100m with 30 seconds rest at 1:50-1:55 pace. Since doing a few weeks of longer endurance focused swims I’m now in a position where I can swim comfortably for 1000m blocks at 1:50-1:55 pace. I’m now hoping to work on bringing the pace of my shorter intervals down some more and then increase the repetitions of the steady pace longer blocks, gradually lengthening them out to 2k, 3k and 4k continuously in time for mid July. But before that I’ll be introduced to some open water swim training. I can’t wait to get my new wetsuit and give it a go – I’m sure that’s going to be a whole new swim experience all over again!