by NormD Jul 9th 2011
If I'm going to compete at my best, then I'm going to need to train properly - and by properly, I mean learning how to do what I do better and more efficiently, not just by doing more of it! I've swum on and off for several years but not with enough regularity or structure to really get much better beyond simply being able to swim for longer. The longest swim I've ever done was the Nokia Thames Swim last year, a 3.6km swim from Hampton Court to Kingston Bridge down the Thames (not as grim and full of dead bodies as you might think - but no shortage of weeds and duck poop!). I did this at a relatively sedate pace, coming in at 1:20.38. Training for this involved trying to swim more regularly, and a couple of long swims of about 2km in the run up (but only in a 25m pool). I also hadn't swum very much in my wetsuit, and so bottled it on the day and did in a tri-suit (the only swimmer in my wave not in a wetsuit).
So as part of "taking it a bit more seriously" I need to think about my swimming performance beyond just getting to the end.
Step 1: Wetsuit time
Even swimming in my wetsuit was a major problem last year. I was not familiar with it, had a rising panic in open water that immediately broke my breathing rhythm and gave me +15bpm at least, and wasn't preparing properly leading to not enough room around my shoulders to allow truly free movement.
I'm lucky enough to live just down the road from the 91.3m long Tooting Bec Lido - the largest open water fresh water swimming pool in Europe. This is a local Mecca for people wanting wetsuit time - if you turn up any time outside peak hours (when it's full of kids, particularly on sunny days) then over 50% of the swimmers will be in wetsuits. It's not really an open water experience, but it's certainly better practice than a swimming pool.
So I've been building up the distance and confidence in my wetsuit, and most recently (last Monday) managed 22 lengths non-stop. It feels a bit odd being proud of only 22 lengths - but that means 2,008m - by a considerable margin the furthest I've swum in a wetsuit. Also the first time I've used Bodyglide around my neck to prevent chaffing - that stuff is magic! I still found I got gradually less motion as I went through, but i'm not sure if that's due to fatigue or wearing a slippery tri-suit underneath, and therefore the wetsuit moving around on my body.
Next long wetsuit swim is scheduled for this Monday where I'm going to try for 3km, a highly impressive sounding 32 lengths! (33 lengths is closer, but then there's a long walk back to your bag). My wife signed up for the Humanrace Hampton Court Swim (this year part of the Speedo Open Water Swim Series) which is this year's equivalent event. I seem to have signed up too - and it's next Sunday (July 17th) so I've not given myself much time to train - but this time I am determined to do it in a wetsuit, and that'll give me a lot of confidence for the swim segment of a long course triathlon.
Step 2: Drills
Swimming further and further at a gentle pace isn't really the right way to swim faster - in fact when we had the pleasure of spending some time with Rick Kiddle a couple of weekends ago (more on that later) he said you should never be swimming more than 200m in one go in your training. So, the other essential element I'm looking at is drills - something of which I have no experience in any discipline. I did a quick search and found a site that explained 4 pool drills and set out yesterday to the local gym pool (19m) to give it a shot.
This is where they came from, on Tri Newbies. Take a quick look so you know what I'm on about.
After 8 warm-up freestyle lengths I realised just how much a wetsuit helps. Going back to some speedo shorts I felt very heavy! Maybe they use less supportive water in the gym pool... I was working from home yesterday so needed to get out and back in an hour. As it's my first attempt, I was going to go for 8 lengths of each drill, with 4 freestyle lengths in between each - no set rest period, but aiming for no more than 60 seconds. This session was about experimenting with something new rather than keeping to a rigid plan. So, off we go...
Touch and go (catch-up stroke)
Good fun! Not too hard to get to grips with, but concentration required to hold off starting one stroke until the next one has finished. I tried to keep my arms really stretched out to work on length of stroke. It felt like I was definitely needing to reach out further, and the strokes felt controlled and strong. Very quickly I can see how this is a good contributor to technique.
Thumb to thigh
I found this one quite easy - it felt very much like my swimming stroke as it naturally is - I've been told I have a good long reach and naturally quite relaxed and complete stroke, good for open water, so I'm not too surprised that this was fairly easy. What I did find was that doing it directly after the catchup drill I was naturally stretching out a long way forward without really trying - this combination made my stroke feel really strong, and it also meant I could easily allow a little 'drift' in each stroke - nice for improving efficiency on longer swims. I also found the combination meant I was naturally rotating in the water which felt really good.
Now the fun starts - I knew this would feel odd, but I had no idea how much I'd find myself thrashing along yet only going at snails pace. It's like swimming through air, there's hardly any resistance on your arms and the stroke is complete so quickly there's no time to get the next one ready or breathe! I stopped after one length to giggle at the state of it and must have looked like I was in trouble as I was asked by the lifeguard if I was OK. Yes, thanks, I'm fine, I'm just laughing at my swimming. 8 lengths took an age, and was knackering - but the aim is to teach you how to get most thrust form your arms, I can see in time once the novelty wears off, modulating arm position bit by bit to maximise the pull will be very very useful, and will improve the effectiveness of the whole stroke. The couple of quick freestyle lengths I did afterwards felt like swimming through treacle.
Balance and rotation
The instructions point out this is just one of many balance and rotation drills. This is the one I went into with most trepidation - and rightly so. Swimming with only one arm is bloody difficult! Particularly when breathing on the opposite side. I've never been so pleased about my swim a few months ago where I just knuckled down and learned bilateral breathing - if it wasn't for that I'd probably have drowned during this drill! I can see how in time this will be an important drill, but at this stage just staying swimming and not sinking or breathing water was the challenge. Definitely the toughest drill and one it'll take a few attempts to get better at.
In summary, the drills were fun, and I can see how they would contribute to swim technique. I'm going to try and get one lunchtime drill session in per week, and once I'm comfortable with these take a wider look at what other drills are out there.
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