I started training for my first triathlon a few years ago. I am not a seasoned triathlete by any stretch but I did have a solid athletic background as an NCAA and minor pro hockey player. Let me be the first to say, however; that trading shoulder pads for a wetsuit was not the smoothest of transitions. When I hit the pool for my first swim I was greeted with a grim reality: I couldn't swim! Swimming out to the dock at the beach had not prepared me for being able to cover the necessary distance of a triathlon. I tested myself on the first day to see how far I could go. I managed front crawl 1.5 lengths before having to surface and breaststroke my way back to the edge of the pool.
I was demoralized.
A 750 meter swim at this point seemed unattainable. How could I possibly manage to finish the swim section when I could even complete 1/10th of the distance? I splashed around the pool for the next 30 minutes and nearly died of exhaustion. I am sure that the lifeguards were keeping a close eye on the idiot in lane two who was bound to have a heart attack. When I dragged my butt out of the pool, I had never felt so tired in my life.
I almost quit.
Fortunately, my wife was a competitive swimmer in her youth and eased my frustration. She explained to me that swimming was a technical sport and that once I learned to swim correctly that the distance would be surprisingly easy. I was hesitant to believe her at first but I felt that I needed to trust her expertise. I began going to the pool and setting some attainable goals for each session. They were a simple as "swim three lengths without stopping" or "use my backstroke to get me a fourth length." I did this for about 6-8 sessions before I made the most important move of my triathlon journey...I joined a Masters Swim Club.
It wasn't until I began this practices that I started to improve my swim stroke and my body position in the water. Suddenly, I was able to extend my range. I learned how to use different swim tools like pull buoys and flippers to help with my strength and body position. Moreover, I was placed in a group that had other swimmers who were all at one time in the same boat as I was so they were very encouraging and supportive. This was huge for me because I was so intimidated being in a lane with swimmers who made me feel like I was standing still.
After my first night I checked my race calendar. I had nine more Masters practices before my first race. Over the next 6 weeks I improved dramatically. I am not going to lie and say that it was easy but I can honestly say that it did get a lot easier with each session. With the triathlon rapidly approaching, our coach had us complete an 800 meter time trial to measure our progress. I hadn't completed this distance yet so I was nervous but determined. We were given the opportunity to use a pull buoy for assistance but I chose to go without. This was an important mental barrier that I wanted to overcome while safely in the pool rather than in the middle of a race. I needed to know that I could finish the distance. I did.
Overcoming the mental barrier of the swim was the toughest thing I have had to do in triathlon, however; in the greater scheme of things, it really didn't take that long. Since that time I have completed several triathlons and I am now working to complete my first half-iron event. Last year, I went out for a swim with our tri-club and completed about 3k in Kalamalka Lake. I had to stop and afford myself a smile at the thought of my first few sessions in the pool. I also take a lot of pride that I was able to utilize my learning experience to help my mother get into the sport. She could not swim an entire length of the pool when she started. I told her to stay with it and that the first couple of months was "going to suck". She believed me and toughed it out. She completed her first triathlon at 59 years old and is now a mainstay at local events. Furthermore, she now enjoys swimming more than the other two disciplines.
If you are still scared, here are some pointers that may ease your fears.
1. It is ok to be scared. Only experience will help ease your fears.
2. It is ok to suck at swimming. You don't yet know how and you WILL get better.
3. The first 2-3 months of swimming is going to suck. Then suddenly, it will click for you! Do not get discouraged.
4. Join a swim program and/or get some swim instruction. You are just learning and need someone to correct your technique. There are lots of triathlon clubs that will help you get the instruction you need.
5. Guarantee yourself to attend a minimum of 10 coached practices. You will see such a big difference that you won't believe how bad you were at the start.
6. Pick a smaller event for your first triathlon or look for an event that offers wave starts. Fewer people in the water is less intimidating. A try-a-tri might be helpful but it isn't necessary.
7. Find out if the event offers "swim buddies". These are experienced swimmers who volunteer to swim with a nervous first timer.
8. Get in some open water swims before the race in your wetsuit. The compression of a wetsuit will feel funny at first and swimming in a straight line in open water is a skill.
9. Make sure you have a wetsuit designed for swimming. A shorty used for wake-boarding is probably not your best bet. Many local tri-shops will rent you a suit. This will also help with your buoyancy and body position in the water.
10. Breathe as much as you have to. Don't worry about bi-lateral breathing when you are tired. Oxygen is the first priority.
11. Avoid the pit. The pit is the centre of the swim pack and it will feel like a washing machine. Stay to the back or get over to one side of the pack. I like to get out to the side because it is less congested and less likely of having swimmers on either side of you. Furthermore, I don't bi-lateral breathe until the pack thins out. This way I breathe out the side where I am less likely to get kicked or splashed while taking in air.
12. Take a wide berth around the swim buoys. This area gets congested and there is a lot of contact that can cause you to panic.
13. Don't be afraid to use whatever stroke works for you. My wife is an experienced swimmer and I have seen her backstroking during an event.
14. Make sure you have a good warm-up before the race. Cold water can make it hard to breathe if it shocks you.
15. Use the boats if you feel panic. Panic zaps your physical and mental energy. By using a boat, you can calm yourself down and easily recuperate.
16. Don't worry. Completing a triathlon is about mental toughness. If you are thinking of signing up for a triathlon then you are obviously tough already.
17. Lastly, once you finish your first race you have to convince a friend that being scared shitless is normal and share your story!
There are a million tips that triathletes can give you as you tackle that first swim. I am sure there will be people that offer their recipe for success on the blog. If you are interested in doing your first triathlon and don't know where to start, drop us a line and we can help you get on the right path!
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