2020: For the Love of the Swim

Practice swim the day before Norseman Xtri 2019. Eidfjord, Norway Drone Pic: Zach Walker

Many triathletes have a dislike for the swim portion of the race. Some have a fear of swimming in open water. Others just have never learned to swim properly and it is their weakest discipline so they don’t like it. Me? I have a love-hate relationship with swimming. Actually, it would be more appropriate to say; I love to hate it. It’s pretty common that former competitive swimmers seem to dislike swimming. I was a highly competitive swimmer from the time I was six years old until my sophomore year in college, a span of over 16 years. I swore to myself I would never swim lengths in a pool again. A promise I kept good on for 25 years. All those years away from the sport which consumed my childhood and high school days, I never once missed it or even thought I would be back in the pool. 

Fast forward to July of 2016, I decided I wanted to do an Ironman triathlon. I was fat, weighed over 110 Kg (242 pounds), out of shape and had not swum a workout since college. One can’t do an Ironman without being ready to swim 3.8 kilometres (2.4 miles). I found my way back to the pool and started swimming. It was awful! Now, not only did I find myself swimming laps in a pool but I was so out of shape, swimming 200 meters was now a monumental task despite it being something I once was able to do in under 2 minutes. 

I finished my first Ironman on November 12, 2016 in Langkawi, Malaysia. Certainly it was a monumental task for which I was ill prepared. I essentially went from a bar stool to Ironman in 3 months. I finished in 15 hours, 21 minutes. I had a decent swim of 1 hour, 8 minutes and 10 seconds; a time many triathletes would be thrilled with. My race was fraught with drama and adversity, (that is a story for a different time), but it was a feat which was supposed to be a one and done. The Ironman was something I did to check off a bucket list accomplishment, lose some weight and find a little fitness. Crossing the finish line was an emotional and life changing experience. Little did I know it was going to rekindle the competitive spirit living inside me. I still didn’t like swimming but I loved triathlon. I thought it might be something I wanted to try again, maybe even something in which I could excel.

Less than a month later I hired a coach, Colin O’Shea of COS Coaching, www.coscoaching.com , I told him I wanted to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2017 and someday maybe even qualify for KONA. It was a ridiculous list of goals, but for me I Dream Big, try the impossible and why not give it a shot. I can’t imagine what Colin was thinking when I mentioned these goals to him in our initial meeting. He certainly didn’t say I was crazy, but he had to be thinking, “this overweight 15 and a half hour Ironman finisher is delusional.” 

To make a long story short and to get back to the Love-Hate relationship with swimming, I, with the help of Colin, made good on all those goals plus many more. I qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, and competed in it October 12, 2019. I finished with the 8th fastest swim split in my age group, a 56 minute and 35 second swim.  

Practice swim selfie. Kailua Bay Kona, Hawaii 2019

I tell the story above so you have a little context in where I’m coming from. I love swimming on race day but I hate swimming every other day of the week. Last year in 2019, I swam over 518 km (322 miles) in training and racing. 140 hours is a lot of time to hate swimming and spend staring at the black line going by on the bottom of the pool. Of the three disciplines of triathlon; swimming, biking and running, it is my strength but also my least favourite. If I’m going to skip a workout the chances are good it will be swimming. Despite my hate, I’m thankful I have the skill and spent so many hours as a child learning to swim and developing the neural pathways to make it easy for me as an adult. 

I sometimes feel bad complaining about having to swim. I realise many a triathlete would almost kill to have the swimming skill I possess. I try not to sound ungrateful but I’m sure it pisses some people off. I’ve heard less than 10% of the people who enter triathlons come from a swimming background so I should be grateful. I guess all the time spent in the pool, thousands of hours as a kid, leads me to my strength and also my disdain of swimming. It consumed my life and I always wanted to be doing something “cool” like football or basketball but behold I was a good swimmer and swim is what I did.  

Bring on 2020! It was a goal of mine to swim more than I did in 2019. Try to appreciate swimming a little more. Swim a little more. Embrace the talent I have in swimming. Be more thankful. Search for some swimming goals to motivate me. I began to look toward the Otillo swim run events, maybe even try to swim the English Channel. 2020 was going to be about refocusing on the swim…

Then Covid-19 happened. Pools closed. Beaches closed. Swimming became the one sport most difficult to maintain some fitness. We could ride our bikes indoor on the trainer. Zwift became the place to be. Virtual Everesting saw a massive increase and experienced a cult like following and Zwift racing and virtual ironman races exploded in popularity. 

Running indoor on treadmills and even running outside were still possible in many areas. Some people were even completing marathons in their back yard and even at least one guy completed a marathon on his balcony. Now that is Crazy! Running over all was pretty easy to keep some fitness if you had access to a treadmill.

Swimming though is very tough to replicate. Even if you have a pool in your backyard they are often too short to get any real workout in. Swimming in place with a tether on your ankle is maddening and arguably a place to learn bad habits. Stretch cords saw a huge increase in demand. For 3 months I had no swimming. For someone that is a self confessed swim hater it sounds like a dream come true.

Some say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe its true, but for me it wasn’t the absence of swimming proper, that made me miss it. It was the realisation of how much I depend on swimming in the other disciplines of triathlon. I take a holistic approach to triathlon. Everything contributes to training and recovery. So many variables are inextricably linked to success. Sleep, stress, family time, work time, nutrition, happiness, sadness, flexibility, strength, general health, injures etc. Despite many of the variables listed staying largely the same for me, a lot changed in my training in small ways. After many conversations and analysing my training one thing seemed to have the biggest impact. The lack of swimming was affecting everything! I realised my hate of swimming was evaporating because of what swimming does for everything else.

In my training I was fortunate to be able to still bike and run outside. Swimming was replaced with some strength training and stretch cords. My day to day life didn’t change much. What did change though was my drop in fitness. It was gradual but noticeable. Why was my cycling and running suffering despite the load staying relatively equal? Why was I experiencing more niggles? My hips were tight. My hamstrings ached and my calves were screaming. I seemed to be acutely aware that I was headed toward an injury if I wasn’t careful. I was doing yoga, spending time on the roller, and attending online stretch and strength sessions with my coaches and others in our group. Yet my fitness seemed to be spiralling out of control. What was the reason? Was it the lack of swimming?

Finally after three months of lockdown the pools have reopened. I have started to swim. I didn’t have the glee in my approach that others had to get back in the pool. My goals of swimming more, and appreciating it more, seemed like a distant memory. It’s still a challenge to make it to the pool and I still hate getting in the water but I’m back. I have now been back in the pool for just over a month and I can tell you the swim fitness is still not there. The speed is definitely not there. I’m patient in knowing that it will return. I took a 25 year break from swimming and got back much of my form in a few months despite being much older. With some patience and a good plan it know it will come back. Most everyone is in the same situation. Three months is merely a drop in the bucket(pool?).  

Always excited to get out of the water in Ironman 70.3 Bahrain 2019. Photo credit: Darren Wheeler Instagram@thatcameraman

What is bringing me some love of swimming is the increase of fitness in my cycling and running. My hip flexors and glutes are loosening up, my calves have miraculously felt better than they have in a long time. Flexibility is improving, my chronically tight hamstrings have begun to feel some relief. I notice when I do flip turns in the pool my hamstrings get a short stretch with every turn. My calves and shins get a different pull with every kick. Using fins seem to shake loose my lower legs and help recover from a long run. My legs are cramping less on the bike. My fitness on the run seems to be improving and I find the long rides a little easier. 

So for the “swimmers” and “non-swimmers” alike, I think it’s time to appreciate the swim for what it does to help the other disciplines. I hear it all the time from athletes, “my swim will not improve much so I’ll focus on the bike and run.” Well, Maybe it’s time to focus on the swim to help the bike and run. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the swim for the multiple benefits of recovery and fitness it adds to the other disciplines. 

For many there are no races in the foreseeable future. There is no rush to find fitness in the pool. Now is the perfect time to work on your form. Hire a coach for a couple of sessions or at least invest in a video analysis to help you see what you’re doing wrong. I know quite a few triathletes who have learned a ton from YouTube videos. In fact, I still watch YouTube videos on swimming to stay up to date on the latest info or learn a new drill. However, now is the perfect time to learn correct form and build the fitness with the correct technique. Starting back in the pool reinforcing old habits and poor form will only delay your improvement. Having a video analysis with an experienced coach will help you see what you are doing wrong, give you drills to fix it and do it without feeling the pressure of an impending race. 

If there is one thing to learn in 2020 it is to be adaptable and be able to change focus while still feel like you’re moving forward. For the first time in many years I have found some love for swimming. 

2020, Hate Less = Love More. Including swimming!