Triathlon Training - How to Do a Triathlon If You Can Barely Swim

by Pool Builders on 08-05-2009 in Articles

When I first started doing triathlons, I could barely swim the length of a pool without gasping for air. Does this sound familiar? I was a long-time runner and a proficient cyclist, but when it came to the water I was extremely uncomfortable. I was very thin and always felt like I was sinking to the bottom of the pool. And most triathlons are not held in pools; they take place in natural bodies of water, such as oceans, lakes, and bays. This, of course, adds another difficult dimension to the swimming leg of the triathlon. Despite my poor swimming skills, I have completed two Ironman triathlons, four Alcatraz triathlons, and countless others of varying distances. Here's how I did it:

Hire a relaxed swim coach for private lessons. You want someone who will not push you. I know this sounds counter-intuitive because we usually think of coaches as people who push us to the edge and beyond our limits. But if anxiety in the water is one of the reasons you don't swim well, you need someone very easygoing who will guide your form but allow you to go at your own pace. And take private lessons; you don't need an audience - yet.

Don't kick. Okay, you can kick a little if you must, but don't kick very hard. Why? The largest muscles are in your legs and they use up a lot of oxygen. Hence, if you kick hard, you will breathe hard and tire quickly.

Tuck your chin and un-arch your back. If you try to keep your head up and out of the water so you can breathe, your back will arch, causing your legs to drag low in the water and resist your forward motion. Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest and relax your back. You will find your rear end floating up to the surface and your legs along with it, making a nice even plane on the surface of the water.

Reach and rotate. Reach high with your arms like you're trying to grab hold of a cookie jar on a shelf that is just beyond your grasp. Gently rotate from side to side like you are spinning on a spit that goes from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. When you turn your head to breathe, turn just enough for your mouth to barely clear the surface of the water. This will keep you from over rotating, getting out of sync, and slowing down.

Wear a wetsuit. No, it's not cheating and in most triathlons you will wear one anyway to stay warm and for added buoyancy. The better you float, the easier it is to swim, and the faster you will go.

Learn the art of sighting. So you're now ready to swim in your first race, but where are the lane markers? Try swimming without sighting and lane markers, and you will find yourself zig-zagging all over the ocean. To "sight" takes a little practice but it's basically pretty simple. Every third stroke when you go to breathe, take your breath, and then look straight ahead in front of you before you put your head back into the water. Pick one spot to focus on and head right for that point. Each time you look up to sight, you will look at that spot and you will find that you are automatically making the adjustments you need to stay on track and keep from zig-zagging.

Breast stroke, if you must. If you get tired or nervous, just slow down a little and breast stroke. I did the breast stroke around a pier for my entire first ocean triathlon. I was dead last but I still made it ashore!

Practice so much that you dream about swimming. This may sound a bit odd but swimming didn't really "click" for me until I put in tons of practice time, so much so that I started dreaming about swimming. I would swim in a bay after school every day and one night I had a dream that I was a tiny bug skimming the surface of the water in that bay, barely touching it. Right after that dream, I found that I had actually become a strong, confident, relaxed swimmer.

Above all, enjoy the journey. It's an amazing feeling to take on such a great fear and overcome it. The strength you draw from that can be used in many future endeavors. So many people just stick with running and biking and never attempt triathlons because they hate to swim. You are different. Congratulations!

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