Beginner's Swim Guide

author : jacmil1
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A beginning triathlete's guide to conquering the swim

Triathlon is a pretty fascinating sport to others, especially those who are not in the sport! People are curious and quite often are interested in attempting one. However, more often than not, the one thing that holds them back is the swim. Of all three disciplines, the swim is the one thing the majority of beginner triathletes fear, unless they have come from a competitive swimming background.

I am here to tell you, there are few things more rewarding that conquering this fear of the swim, but it takes practice. After reading this article, I hope you feel a bit more comfortable and excited to go out there and face your fears, and let it be the first step towards achieving your triathlon goals!

We are going to cover three basics of swimming. Getting started in the pool, moving to open water swim practice and finally, RACE DAY!

First off, if you are new to swimming, the number one piece of advice I can give you is to invest in a few lessons with a local swim or triathlon coach. Getting the basic technique down first will pay big dividends later. Jumping into the pool and swimming lap after lap with bad form will only ingrain this poor technique into your muscle memory. These bad habits will be hard to break later. If you are unsure as to where to find a swim/triathlon coach, check your local YMCA or Triathlon Club.

Before hopping into the pool for that first time, you are going to need some “toys” to play with in the pool. And, that is exactly how you should think of your swim equipment! “Toys to play with!” Make it fun! So, what toys do we need?

The most important and necessary piece of equipment will be goggles and a swim cap. You can’t really swim without these! As far as choosing your goggles, this is a very individual choice based mostly upon the shape of your face. For the first time, I would recommend not ordering these online but going to a store where you can try them on. Be sure they are comfortable, seem leak free and you have good vision looking through them. Save your receipt and packaging just in case they don’t work once you actually get in the water with them. If you are swimming outdoors on sunny days, tinted goggles will work best. If you are swimming indoors, go with the clear lenses. As far as swim caps, the majority are latex or silicone. Latex will be a bit more budget friendly and these are the type you get at most races. The silicone ones are a bit thicker, don’t pull your hair as much, but cost a bit more. Again, this is personal preference. Personally, I feel latex stays in place better than silicone.

Now, the onto the “fun stuff!” You can definitely start your swim training without the following, but once you get a bit more into your swim training, you will probably want to invest in these things; pull buoys, pull paddles, kickboards and fins. Depending on where you do your swim training, a lot of pools will have this equipment available to use. However, most triathletes I know, like to have their own “stuff!” Pull Buoys are put between your legs to hold your legs up. These help with body positioning and strengthening. Pull paddles are placed on your hands to make it a bit more challenging on the pull phase of your stroke. Again, this helps with strengthening and the pull phase. Kickboards are held in the hands to strengthen and perfect the kicking portion of the stroke. Finally, fins are used for various reasons. Sometimes, in the beginning athletes may use these to get through a portion of the swim workout. They are also used for kick sets and ankle flexibility.

Once you have had a few lessons you will want to begin your formal swim training. If you don’t have a triathlon coach, you can find detailed swim workouts in books, in our Silver and Gold training plans here on BeginnerTriathlete, or even on YouTube. Usually, swim workouts contain a warm-up set, a drill set, a pull and/or kick set, the main set and a cool down set. The swim workouts are written by distance in yards, such as 25, 50, 100, 200, etc. Most often a pool length is 25 yards, so 4 lengths or two down and backs equal 100. Sometimes, a pool is set up for “long course” which is 50 meters for one length. Therefore, it would take only one down and back to get to 100 meters (versus yards.) This may cause you to vary your swim workout somewhat. A swim workout can also be written by “rest intervals” or “on the clock.” If it is written on rest intervals, it will state to swim a certain distance and then rest of a certain amount of time. (For example: Swim 10 x 100 with 15 seconds rest after each 100.) If it is “on the clock” which is how Master’s Swim Programs are executed, an example would be, (Swim 10 x 100 on the 2:00/100) What does this mean?? It means, you look at the pool clock and leave on a certain “interval time” such as “on the top” meaning when the big hand is on the 12. If it takes you 1:50 to get the 100 in, you get 10 seconds rest until you take off for the next 100.

As you get into longer practice sets, such as 300s, 400s and on up, it becomes a challenge to count your laps if you don’t yet own a Garmin watch or some other brand of training watch. Some suggestions are to bring 10 pennies or stones. As you complete each 100, move a penny or stone from one side to the other. You can also break a set into subsets. So, if you have a 400, think of it as 4x100. It also helps to break the 100 into odds and evens. If you are taking off it is 1, coming back is 2, heading back out is 3 and the final lap home is 4. So, odds are out and evens are coming back.

Next we get to the Open Water Swim, or OWS as it is affectionately known to triathletes. Let it be known that is very common to be nervous or afraid to swim in the open water of a lake, ocean or gulf. You leave the comfort of a closed pool with lane lines and a black line on the bottom of the floor to being in a big body of water with no markers, fish swimming around you and sometimes little to no visibility to the bottom of whatever you are swimming in! The most important thing about OWS is to never swim alone! Always swim with a group or a swim buddy. If there are only two of you, always know where the other one is. Before your race day, it is very important to practice open water swimming! The things you should practice on your OWS practices are: entries/exits, sighting and drafting. Also, practice how to control your breathing and heart rate. These tend to run high on race morning, and knowing how to control them becomes an important skill.

Finally, you get to your RACE DAY!! Of course, nerves will be very high in the days leading up to the race and even more so on race morning! This is true of just about everyone racing. Of all the years that I have been racing and coaching, I still get nervous on race morning. I feel nerves are good! They make you feel alive; it means the race is important to you and it gives you adrenaline, which helps to make you speedy!

I feel a swim warm up is very important prior to the race. It allows your body to adjust to the water temperature (even more important on chilly days or with chilly water) and it helps relax you somewhat. I love swimming out and looking back to the shore with the sun coming up and all of the athletes getting ready to start their day. It makes me realize how fortunate we are to be able to participate in this sport. A swim warm up will also allow you to notice if there are any currents, which will help you decide which side of the starting corral to line up on. Once it is time to line up in your corral, you will want to decide where in the group to place yourself. This will come down to your swim strength, your comfort level and experience as well as the current direction, if there is one. If you are a slower swimmer or very uncomfortable, you will not want to line up front and center and that is OK! Go to the middle or the back, especially if it is your first race! For your first race, or first few races, take your time with the entry. Try to not get your HR up too high and keep your breathing under control. The start of a swim can be very crazy, especially in the front where the strongest competitors are. There is no reason to be there unless you are a very strong swimmer or an experienced triathlete. Once you enter the water, your HR and breathing will more than likely elevate or even feel out of control. This will usually settle down once you reach the first turn buoy and get your swim underway. Know this feeling is temporary and just about all of the athletes, experienced or not, are feeling this way! Try taking slow deep breaths to get thru those first few minutes! Before you know it, you will reach that final buoy and be finishing up your swim! Start kicking your legs a bit quicker to get the blood flow going back to the legs before you stand up. Once you stand up, if you are wearing a wetsuit, unzip and pull it to the waist before taking off your swim cap and goggles. Otherwise, you will be fumbling holding your cap and goggles and reaching around to take down your wetsuit.

Alright! You did it! You made it through your first triathlon swim! Congratulations! The hardest part is over! Smile, be proud and get on the bike portion and realize your accomplishment!

Jackie Miller


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date: September 29, 2017