Swim, Bike, Run – seems simple enough. I know how to swim, I know how to ride a bike, and I also know how to run. In all seriousness, I looked at triathlons as something I could quickly learn and maybe something I could be pretty good at.
you're going to be a natural
When it comes to the water, I’m a Marine, I grew up in Florida, and I’ve been surfing in California for more than a decade – swimming will come naturally. I put on my swim cap, tightened my new goggles, and got a good push off the wall for my first lap session. I came up gasping for air moments later. I’ve traveled a whopping 25 meters. “Ok, you probably need to warm up,” is what I tell myself. You haven’t done anything like this in awhile. I take off again, and as I struggled to get back to where I started, this time, I came up gasping in disbelief. I pulled my goggles up to get a good look at reality, and it says I can’t do this.
This style of swimming is nothing like I have ever done before. I was at a complete loss. I could barely make it 100m, how was I ever going to make 1900? That was just for a Half Ironman too; I couldn’t even fathom swimming nearly 4000 meters. And that’s just to start the race. I started scouring the internet to find a clue to what it was I was doing wrong. I kept coming across things like relax and get comfortable in the water. Get comfortable in the water? I have paddled out in some serious surf and swam some long distances in full uniform with boots on. I’m comfortable, that can’t be it. The only other solution offered was to get fit. I was already running 6-minute miles and hitting half-marathon distances. I was in shape.
"I am going to drown"
I struggled for the next month or so, watching videos, reading articles, and attending master swim classes at a local gym. Some things were helpful, others were not, but I did gather a better understanding of freestyle swimming and, more importantly, open water freestyle swimming like in a triathlon. The problem with all this is that I was still utterly exhausted in a few hundred meters. I couldn’t even make it a tenth of an Ironman distance, let alone half. I had already committed to the 70.3 Ironman in Florida. It was evident to me now. I am going to drown.
Google for the win
It wasn’t until I searched something along the lines of “In great shape but get tired swimming,” that I finally found something that made sense. I found a great article that precisely explained what I was experiencing. I was in great shape, had a good VO2 max, and struggled swimming just a few hundred yards. The answer. “just keep swimming.” I wish it were far more complicated than that, or not a tagline from a kid’s movie, but it was the truth. The article discussed how fitness and “swim” fitness are not one and the same. It went onto explain how spending hours in the water working on things like stroke technique was the equivalent of working on stride length when you can’t even run to the end of the block.
Everything starts to click
If one of my clients couldn’t run a mile, I wouldn’t be working on their cadence or foot angle. I would say just get out and run. That was the entire premise of this article. When it comes to swimming, if you’re in good shape, know how to swim, but are struggling, you need to just swim. It went on to explain that somewhere in the 500-meter range, things would begin to click. That made perfect sense to me because I believe the same applies to running. Somewhere around 5 miles, the wall comes down, and everything just opens up. So, I took that advice to heart, got my ass in the water, and started swimming.
I treated this like any other exercise and started pushing myself to failure. I would try and swim unbroken for as far as I could and then try to squeeze in another 25-meter lap, often having to stand up just halfway through. The point was that I was swimming to my absolute limit. I would then take an extended break to recover and go again. Within a couple of days, I was swimming face down, unbroken, for 300m. Not long after that, things started getting more “comfortable.” Then one morning, not long after I started swimming like this, my distance more than doubled. I stopped at 1000m, took a deep breath, and realized I could have kept going. The next day I swam the full 1900m face down, unbroken, and in 40 minutes. That’s one minute off the average pace for my age group for the 70.3 Ironman triathlons in 2018.
get your ass in the water
Since that day, my time has started to improve, and I have begun to work on things like stroke. In hindsight, I guess it was about getting comfortable in the water. Everything just made more sense when put in the appropriate context. I was lucky enough to come across an article that did just that. You know it’s funny because I often dive right into any new thing I take on. Skydiving, I wasted no time with a tandem jump. The first jump was all on my own in an AFF course. First men’s physique competition, I coached myself. Renovate a house? I can do that; I’ll figure it out as I go. Other times though, I have spent so much time trying to study and learn technique, I never actually do it. I have fell victim to this mentality through more than just swimming.
Sometimes we just have to do it. We have to jump in and start swimming. I have sat around more than once, waiting for the perfect plan, the best approach, the right angle, or attempting to master a specific technique. The whole time I was doing those things, I was drowning. Never keeping my head above water, and that initial idea, whatever it was, eventually died. Get your ass in the water. Doesn’t matter how much you gasp for air, or how far you can go. That will all come in due time.