I honestly don’t remember learning how to swim. This is partly because I am the fourth of four children and partly because my mother was a PE major who taught all of us from the time we were born I guess. Some of my earliest childhood memories are from being on the bottom of the pool looking up (I really liked being underwater when I was very small) or jumping off the diving board and swimming to the wall. I was definitely less than five at the time because my family was still in Germany and we didn’t return to the States until I was five. Anyway, though I have always swum, and always enjoyed swimming, I have not always enjoyed working out nor have I always competed. I swam age group in Texas back in what seems like the dark ages now before there were pace clocks or goggles or even styrofoam kickboards. The ones my team used were made out of wood and being waterlogged all of the time made them very heavy and rather splintery. I stopped swimming at the age of 15 because there weren’t any college scholarships for women in those pre-Title IX days although I did end up swimming for my college team mostly because they were so pitiful it was easy to feel sorry for them. The workouts, that were coached by the lacrosse coach, consisted mostly of just swimming with no rhyme or reason and certainly no stroke instruction. In those pre-hair dryer days I would walk back to my dorm in the winter weather and have frozen hair by the time I got there.
Several years past by and I still swam recreationally and usually daily, but when I was about to turn 45 I thought it might be fun to compete again. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be in the US Masters Swimming Top Ten although I sure didn’t know what that would entail. I had seen a Masters team swimming at my local pool so I came to workout one day. What an eye opener. Stuff I used to take for granted, like being able to swim backstroke, seemed to have disappeared and to make Top Ten I would have to be faster than I was at my peak thirty years before. Nevertheless, six months later I swam in my first Masters Nationals and I placed in all of the events I swam with my highest finish a second. I was faster at 45 than I had been at 15 in every stroke but backstroke (somehow that has never returned), and I made Top Ten in the United States that year in all four strokes. I also held the state record for Utah in every single event in my age group from the 50 free all the way to the 400 Individual Medley. Now that I am 53 I am sort of used to being in the Top Ten in the United States although one year I made Top Ten in every single short course meters freestyle event and that was pretty special. Being in the Top Ten in the world is still a huge rush for me though. Now I am one of the coaches of the local team and I actually enjoy workout.
So what does all of that have to do with your swimming? I am not going to promise the moon but I want everyone to understand that goal setting, dedication, and work can bring results. The first piece of advice that I have for anyone thinking about competing in a triathlon where swimming is not your best event and may not be something you do well at all is join a team. While it is possible to achieve results by swimming alone, those results will be longer coming and harder to reach. Team swimming with a coach provides camaraderie (a great incentive for days when you don’t feel like working out), technique instruction (a necessary component even for an experienced swimmer), and varied workouts (absolutely essential for maintaining focus and developing strength). If there are absolutely no masters teams in your area, find out if you can swim with a local high school team. At the very least find a professional coach to help you out, to evaluate your stroke and to give you workouts to do on your own with interval times appropriate to your level. And when you swim with a team, don’t insist on only swimming freestyle. Although you may never compete in a stroke other than freestyle, learning how to do all four strokes and practicing them in workout will boost your strength and endurance much faster than swimming freestyle on its own.
What can I help you with in this column? I plan to provide pointers that are fairly universal, workouts that can help you on days when you can’t swim with a team, and ideas for developing greater strength with activities that are water based but aren’t swimming. I also have many triathlete friends as a resource for questions about swimming in triathlon races as those are very different from pool swims.
So look for me once a month and try this workout out:
Warm Up 500 yards or meters
Kick 4 x 100 yards or meters going hard then easy by 25. Take 15 seconds rest after each 100.
Swim 6 x 100 with #1,3,6 as hard as you can go and 2,4,5 nice and easy. Take 15 seconds rest after the easy ones and 30 seconds rest after the hard ones.
Swim an easy 200 working on nice long strokes.
Swim 6 x 50 with #1,3,6 as hard as you can go and 2,4,5 nice and easy. Take 15 seconds rest after the easy ones and 30 seconds after the hard ones.
Swim 6 x 25 with #1,3,6 as hard as you can go and 2,4,5 nice and easy. Take 15 seconds rest after the easy ones and 30 seconds after the hard ones.
Swim an easy 200 working on nice long strokes
There you go. That’s about a mile and a half and you should feel tired but good.
I help coach Utah Masters here in Salt Lake City. I have been listed in the Top Ten in US Masters and Top Ten in the FINA world rankings.