I have been swimming for almost a year now. I have worked with numerous coaches listening intently to what they have all been telling me and then trying my best to apply the learning’s in the water. I have progressed from barely being able to complete 100meters without a break to swimming a 1min 40-45 seconds per 100meters during races. I had numerous panic attacks during swim training (race simulation) and also during the swim for my first 3 triathlons. After a lot of time in the water I have overcome my fears and no longer worry about escalating into a panic state during a swim. I am happy with my progression but not yet satisfied. My goal is to come out of the water in a position to challenge for the lead on the bike; to do this I must 1st get my times down to 1:30 / 100m and then start working towards 1:20 / 100m.
One thing that I can’t help noticing is the startling differences between good swimmers and the rest of us. In the Muskoka Long Course Triathlon this year (2009), the top swimmer swam 28% faster than the 50th place swimmer, whereas the top runner was 19% faster and the top cyclist was just 12% faster than 50th place. Good swimmers seem to move through the water effortlessly and are able to swim for much longer periods of time. Good swimmers seem to finish sets in a composed manner, well within themselves and ready for the next drill. I on the other hand finish sets gasping for air not really knowing how much I have left in the tank for the next drill. I feel like I am putting everything that I have into each drill in order to show improvements, but improvements don’t come as often or as quickly as I want them to. Good swimmers make it all look so easy.
Last weekend after the Cobourg race, Richard Pady suggested that I check out Mr. Smooth; a simulation of the freestyle stroke in its simplest from at swimsmooth.com. I committed the smooth part to memory by repeating it many times over in my head, it is almost impossible for me to remember details like a website right after a race. Later, I checked out the site and was impressed with the application that allows you to view Mr. Smooth’s perfect freestyle stroke form a variety of angles. I watched the application intently and then decide to check out the training videos. I read the criteria for each category of swimmer noting that advanced swimmers average less than 1:30/100meters; I then queued up the intermediate video presentation. I also listened to the advanced presentation just to see what I could learn from it. I then decided to check out the beginner video as well which was geared to swimmers just starting out.
The first point that Adam Young (one of the creators of Mr Smooth) made was about breathing; stating that by far Mr Smooth’s best attribute was his breathing technique. Young went on to explain how important is was to start breathing out as soon as your head is submerged in water and to continue breathing out until it was time to take a breath. He discussed problems that could occur related to holding your breath; tension, Closter phobia, increased drag. I have suffered from all of these symptoms mentioned and wondered if I was holding my breath. To drive his point home Young suggested that the viewer try holding your breath while cycling or running and then breathing quickly in a gasp so as to better understand the impact we are causing ourselves in the water.
I headed down to Lake Ontario for a swim. When I first started my swim I made a point of not changing anything, but paying close attention to what I was doing. Without a doubt I was holding my breath and then breathing out hard right before each breath in. I focused on changing my breathing pattern to a constant exhale, this took a lot of concentration as I have become used to the gasping pattern. By the time I finished my swim about 45 minutes later, I was nowhere near as tired as I normally would be. Somehow along the path of learning I missed this key component to effective swimming. I am sure that my coaches must have mentioned this to me; however I have always been so focused on breathing in that I never stopped to notice what I was doing with the air. I knew that I had to get it all out before I raised my moth out of the water for a breath but never took it to the next level where I breathed out in a steady flow. It must be difficult for a coach to spot this flaw as it is happening under the water.
I went out for a swim again the next day and could really feel the difference in the reduction in tension. With less body tension and a more even level of air in my lungs I hope to improve my streamline position which has been chronically poor with legs dragging. I also tried holding my breath during a run workout similar to what I had done while swimming. It only took 1 time of holding my breath to realize the extra level of strain I was putting on myself. I can’t believe that I have been doing this to myself for an entire year, or maybe it took me a year to understand; either way I am done holding my breath. I am excited to find out in the next race (Muskoka 70.3) how my breathing change will impact not only my swim time but the energy level I have left to complete the bike and run.