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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Adult Onset Swimmer's Dilemma, or How I Had a Swimming Breakthrough and Jumped into the Fast Lane

If you know anything about my history, you know that swimming is my weakness (to say the least). You would also know, by reading other posts in this blog, that I spent a lot of time obsessing about this and how I could improve.

During the first year of learning to swim, it was exceptionally frustrating. With the exception of my first Ironman (which was a current assisted, salt water, wetsuit swim), I was logging slow times in all my races. In the pool I wasn't faring much better. Starting out, I swimming well over 2:00 per hundred yards for sustained efforts, and struggling to stay afloat. With heavy volume, I was able to get this down to just over 1:50/100, but I still didn't have confidence or speed I wanted to really be competitive.

The result, of course, was that I exerted much more energy than I should have in my race swims. Then on the bike, I would have to play catch up, which killed a lot more of my energy. Needless to say my run suffered. All because I couldn't hang on the swim.

I spent hours combing the swimming message boards, watching videos on YouTube, trying to discover "the secret" to faster swimming.

There was no shortage of information, of course, but most of it was conflicted. Some would say to focus on the "glide", and become smooth and graceful in the water. Others would say to increase turnover and power through short intervals to get faster. Both pieces of advice had their merit, but each also had their downsides.

For the "focus on glide" group, skeptics would point out that gliding creates a "dead zone", where you actually slow down before you can propel yourself forward. In practice too, it's difficult to maintain a "glide" when you feel like you're sinking, thus poor form may develop. This, combined with the slow rate of turnover, would result in diminishing returns, and one wouldn't be able to become truly "fast" in the water.

The "focus on turnover and fast intervals" crowd was typically the "fish", who have been swimming since a young age. They have been conditioned to handle heavy volume, and already have good swim form, so this approach may not work for the new swimmer.

After trying both methods and not seeing much of any results, I began to realize that perhaps both of these approaches were neglecting what I referred to in the title as the adult onset swimmer's dilemma: that adults who are learning to swim have not had the basic fundamentals of swimming developed in them from an early age which would make them feel comfortable in the water. Regardless of the swimming technique they employ above, they will not reach their true potential.

At least this was the case for me.

The solution for me became to take a hundred steps back and start from the beginning. The very first step would be to learn how to become comfortable in the water, without even taking a single stroke. Once comfortable, I would begin to take slow and deliberate steps to incorporate swim strokes and increase turnover while staying comfortable in the water. The result a pretty dramatic improvement in speed over the course of an offseason. Even more dramatic results have been made over the course of a couple years.

Below is a list of the steps I took to improve my swimming. By no means am I a fish, but I would say that I'm as good as I want to be at swimming, as long as I can translate this speed to the open water (which is another challenge in and of itself). Before I took these steps, volume alone had taken me from a 2:00+ per hundred swimmer to a 1:50/100 swimmer, although not comfortable. Taking these steps led me to comfortably swimming sub 1:30/100 paces, and even sprinting 100's in under 1:20 (my fastest 100 so far is a 1:17).

Again, this is just what worked for me, but may not work for everyone. But this is some advice that I hope can help someone who may be struggling with swimming (note: I don't go into "proper form" here, since more experienced people can weigh in on that topic, and do in multiple areas around the internet. This simply lists ways in which on can more easily apply and put into practice that form for optimal improvement over time).

  1. Start from scratch. What worked best for me to get comfortable in the water was to order the Total Immersion DVD set. Total Immersion helps people to get comfortable in the water before tackling harder concepts like breathing, taking strokes, etc. Their method falls within the "glider" category listed above, but it's important to note that learning these skills is simply a starting point. Speed and turnover come later, once we can swim comfortably. I simply followed the 10 lessons and got comfortable in the pool. A small, but very worthwhile investment in your swimming success. After a few weeks, I found I was comfortable enough to taper down my use of these drills and increase my swimming volume.
  2. As I began to incorporate swimming into my workouts, I would start my warm up focusing on balance using things like the pencil drill, making sure the top of my head, my shoulders, and my butt were all out of the water. This would help me find my alignment from head to foot in the water, making sure I wasn't dragging my legs, or digging my head.
  3. I would also use my warmup as an opportunity to focus on my balance and rotation. To do this, I used a swim snorkel (so that I did not have to focus on breathing to the side), and took slow strokes concentrating on my form, keeping my body balanced and aligned, and focusing on rotating during each stroke. This worked very well to test out what worked and what didn't as far as rotating, catching, and pulling. Granted, you will go slower when you're wearing a swim snorkel, but you also pick up valuable new techniques. I continue to use the snorkel during the warm up set of every swim I do.
  4. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of distance swimmers, and try to mimic their techniques.
  5. I filmed myself every few weeks to analyze my form, both above water and under water. I was also fortunate to get some good feedback on these videos from my coach at Smart Triathlon Training. The first time I filmed myself, I was shocked. While I felt like I was swimming smoothly in the water, watching myself as I swam was very revealing. The small changes I was able to make after viewing my swimming form made a pretty dramatic difference in my swim times. Make sure that you film yourself when you're fresh and when you're tired, that way you get a good perspective of how your swim deteriorates with fatigue. That will really tell you what you need to work on.
  6. The pull buoy became a very good friend. There is much debate as to whether or not the pull buoy is a crutch or something to use frequently, but I tend to side with the latter, especially after reading this post by triathlon coach, Brett Sutton. For those of us who are adult onset swimmers who are not interested in leading the packs in the water, and are content with finishing close enough to the front of the swim to be competitive on the bike and run, the pull buoy can be a very useful tool. I found a number of benefits to using a pull buoy with great frequency. a) I was able to swim more volume without fatiguing, b) I was able to maintain my form for longer sets, c) I was able to focus on technique during my swims, and d) I was able to increase my turnover over time (while maintaining the same number of strokes per length), and thus increase my speed. I tend to only use the pull buoy for longer sets over 300 yards. If you're looking for races with a wetsuit swim, the pull buoy may not be as much of a crutch as you think. Even if your A race is a non-wetsuit swim, you can still benefit from early season endurance builds using the pull buoy, and then get more race specific closer to the race. 
  7. After all of the above were in place, I then worked on increasing my speed with short, hard intervals. Typically, this consisted of 25s, 50s, and 100s (mostly 50s) on longer rest intervals so that I could make full recovery. In a typical week of swimming 4-5 times per week, I would do at least 2 speed sessions of 1,000 to 2,000 yards total. My go to speed set has been 250 warm up (with snorkel), 250 pull, 10x50 hard, 5x100 hard (add 10x25 hard with 250 warm down to make an even 2,000).
Happy swimming!