By Dougal Allan.
In my first iron-distance race in 2014 I swam 1h03m for the 3.8km at an average of 1.40/100m pace. At the age of 29 and with no previous background in swimming I was satisfied with this time, given how truly terrible my swimming felt and looked when I first started to prepare for the event. However, it left me with a deficit of 18 minutes to the front of the race that day, illustrating the often-stated fact that ‘you cannot win the race in the swim, but you can certainly lose it’. Flash forward to my most recent race over this distance: Ironman Australia in May this year, I swam 52min at an average of 1.23/100m pace, leaving me less than seven minutes off the pace as I started the bike. While this is still not earth shattering, especially for a professional triathlete, it shows a massive improvement in five years and gives me a great sense of satisfaction when I reflect on the process that took me there.
One frustration I have is when fellow ‘adult-onset swimmers’ comment to me how they ‘wish they could see improvements in their swimming the way I have’. Generally this frustration arises out of an awareness that they simply have not put the same measures in place to achieve the improvements I have managed for myself. When I reflect, these are six of the most important ingredients I can now extract from the process I have experienced in my pursuit of better swimming:
- Patience: Often I hear triathletes say they want to chop five minutes off their swim time next year. While this might be realistic for some, my experience is that the decrements in swim times are often agonisingly small. However, by remaining passionate about the process (rather than outcome) you can virtually guarantee that unless you are already swimming front pack, you will always see improvements in speed and/or efficiency in your swimming by sticking at it. Just keep in mind that swimming is unlikely to offer you huge rewards in an instant, rather it is a longitudinal process that rewards those who persevere.
- Consistency:Relating to the first point, you need to realise that you cannot just ‘come and go’ with swimming if you expect to improve, you have to keep at it. In the five years I have been swimming for the purposes of triathlon, I do not think I have had a single week off. Some weeks it is only one or two swims, others it might be eight, but it continues and never ends. Unless you have a history in the sport, the moment you stay out of the water for a few days or weeks, you will go backwards quickly. Keep at it.
- Technique:When I look back, the blocks where I have made the biggest leaps forward in my swimming are usually those where I have been able to spend time in front of a good swim coach who has critiqued my technique. It is all well and good getting in and doing the miles, but swimming is a highly technical sport and without a qualified set of eyes giving constructive feedback you could be missing some big opportunities to swim better.
- Open water:It might as well be a different sport to pool swimming. For a period I was seeing big gains in my pool times, but nothing was transferring to the race scene. It wasn’t until I started to do structured and purposeful open water swims with other bodies and in race simulated settings that I started to see noticeable transference into the races. Being in a wetsuit and in a dynamic environment is very different to the pool and should be practiced often, especially in your race specific training phase.
- Change gears:I have realised over the years how important it is to train the ability to move at different speeds in the water. If you spend most of your time swimming at a constant speed you’ll find it hard to execute an effective swim on race day. The trick is to carry as many tools in your tool box so you can accelerate off the start line, hold a good breathing and sighting rhythm when the pace settles, lift the pace to get onto someone’s draft, ease back and conserve energy when the opportunity arises and generally change through your gears as you response to the race dynamics in the water. Make sure you are training across all your energy systems and the full speed and endurance spectrums in training.
- Mobility:Finally it has been through many trials and tribulations that I have discovered the importance of swimming mobility. To achieve speed as a swimmer you need two things: 1) good propulsion and 2) minimal drag. While propulsion relates more to specific aspects of the swim stroke (eg. catch), minimising drag relates to achieving a streamline potion in the water. Hip, shoulder and thoracic mobility are three critical areas to focus if you want to optimise your position as a swimmer. This will also help reduce your chances of swim-related injuries such as shoulder impingements. Talk to your coach or a qualified sports physio (with an understanding of swim mechanics) if you wish to get more insights on mobility.
The biggest breakthrough I had as I tried to become a better swimmer was when I began enjoying the sport. For me this had a lot to do with joining a squad and creating more social opportunities as a swimmer. When you enjoy something, you are more likely to commit yourself to the process and that will be where results start to flow back. Be kind to yourself and remember how powerful your language can be. I used to laugh at myself and describe myself as an awful swimmer often. Somewhere along the way I decided that if I was putting all this effort into trying to improve, I needed to start giving myself more respect. Interestingly, as I started to talk about how much stronger and faster my swimming felt, I would see evidence that this was in fact the case. Keep your thoughts and words positive and it will have a flow on effect to performance.