It’s time to address the elephant in the room: swimming. I haven’t talked much about swimming yet, mainly because swimming is cruel. Swimming is not concerned with how hard you try, how good of shape you’re in, what your Vo2Max or Lactate Threshold values are, or even how often you swim. You can spend thousands of hours getting really good at swimming bad- swimming doesn’t care.
Swimming has been a very humbling experience for me. I used to think of myself as possessing a high degree of athleticism- and then I encountered swimming. I think the greatest difficulty for me has been the fact that I have been running for so long. In running, you are generally rewarded with increased effort. If you try harder, you likely will go faster. But, you could take the greatest runners of all time, put them in a pool with some provincial level tweens, and they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Initially, I approached swimming as a matter of improving my strength, physiology, ability to withstand pain, and ability to exert more effort. In my first real go of racing in water I averaged 2:38/100m for 500m. It was a very painful experience. After that, I vowed that I would learn to swim better. A few weeks later I went to a swimming pool and had my first encounter with a pace clock. I psyched myself up hard-core and then swam 100m all-out. By the end, my fingertips were pulsating and my head was about to explode off my shoulders. I swam 1 minute and 50 seconds. It was at this point that I realized I was not a natural at swimming.
By this time I had printed off the results from Kona 2009. The winner (Craig Alexander) averaged about 1:20/100m for 3800m. I literally could not fathom swimming that fast, not even for 100m! But, I kept practicing and over time I started to have hope that maybe one day I could be a good swimmer, which by my current conception would be being able to swim 1:20/100m, like Craig did at Kona in 2009. Over the span of about 3 months I got to a point where I could hold a little under 2:00/100m for 500m continuously. If I swam all-out for 100m I could swim about 1 minute 35 seconds.
Another 8-10 months goes by of trying to get mentally stronger, physically stronger, etc. Now I am down to a point where I can average 1:50/100m for a thousand metres continuously. Additionally, I am able to swim 1 minute 30 seconds for 100m if I am going all-out. I still can’t imagine how anyone could possibly hold 1:20/100m for 3800 metres. By this time, doubt is starting to creep in. I am beginning to think that learning to swim fast will not be possible for me. But, one day I had a motivating experience at Windsor Water World. I really psyched myself up and went all-out for 100m. This time I swam 1 minute 25 seconds. It was the first time I had ever saw something in the 1:20s. That was all I needed- it must be possible.
Eventually I decided to move from Windsor to Hamilton, mainly to get some swim coaching. One of the prerequisites for me to swim with the varsity team at McMaster was for me to be able to hold 1:30/100m continuously. My response to this criteria was, well how long is continuously? And after some coaxing, the coach told me 1:30/100m for a kilometre should be sufficient. I then went and swam a 500m time-trial. I swam 7:55 i.e. 1:35/100m for 500m. I had quite a ways to go before I would be swimming with the varsity team. But, I worked really hard over the next 8 months and eventually got to a point where I could swim a kilometre, all-out, and average 1:30/100m. I was finally “ready” to swim with the varsity team.
It was at this point that I had my mind blown. In my head, averaging 1:20/100m for 3800m was amazing swimming. I had held 1:30 for a kilometre, so I was starting to believe that maybe, just maybe, one day I would be able to do this. I showed up to practice and if my memory serves me correctly I believe the main-set had a piece in it where we were doing 5x400m on 6 minutes. In other words, if you swam it continuously at 1:30/100m you would just make the pace time. One of the swimmers said, “Coach, aren’t we going to be waiting around for quite a while? How about a 5:40?” I thought maybe the swimmer was joking…I had no idea if I would even be able to make three of the repeats and he was asking for the pace time to be shortened!? The coach yells, “Okay, on the red top,” and I then proceed to have my mind blown. I am swimming all-out from the get go. But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that I am getting lapped by almost everyone!! Why? Because they are averaging 1:10/100m for 400m!!!!!
It was then that I suddenly had a new conception of what amazing swimming looked like; it was averaging 1:10/100m for 400m five times in a row on a 6 minute pace time. Of course, now that I have been exposed to swimming for several years now, my current conception of “amazing swimming” is swimming 1:00/100m for 1500m straight. “Good swimming” is averaging 1:10/100m for 1500m straight. “Average swimming” is averaging 1:20/100m for 1500m straight. In other words, what I once thought was amazing, I now think is average!
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the workout. I was unable to make all five of the 400s, so for the final two I just swam 350m, and even that was quite challenging! But, this was not some strange occurrence, every workout had challenging pace times like this. After several weeks I realized what the coach meant when he said I needed to be able to swim 1:30/100m continuously. Put in my own words he was saying: “Swimming 1:30/100m needs to be pretty darn leisurely.” It was then that I decided to stop swimming with the varsity team because I was just getting good at swimming really bad.
It was at this point that I did some hard thinking. Of course, there was certainly a bit of doubt inside as to whether it would be possible for me ever to reach my goal of swimming 1:20/100m for 3800m. But, I started thinking about all of the people who were lapping me constantly at the varsity practice. Many weren’t much taller, weren’t much bigger, and I would imagine don’t have much higher Vo2Max and lactate threshold values. What do they have that I don’t have? Then the light bulb went on: They are more efficient than me.
It was at this point that I began to have a paradigm shift. Instead of focusing on working harder, suffering more, swimming more, etc. Why not figure out why they are more efficient than me? This is my current paradigm, and is a journey that I have been on for about 1.5 years now. For the most part, I could sum up my current approach to swimming in a single sentence: “If it’s painful, you’re probably not doing it right.” What I mean by this is that for someone who is technically very sound, swimming 1:20/100m continuously is leisurely. Thus, if swimming 1:20/100m is painful for you, then you are not technically sound.
That is the part that has been difficult for me. It is so backward for me. In running and in cycling you are rewarded for effort. In swimming, often times if you “slow the stroke down” and concentrate on “holding the water more” the perceived exertion level will come down, and you will often be swimming faster! For me, “slowing the stroke down” takes a massive amount of mental restraint because my natural tendency is to want to feel a lot of pain. If I am not in pain, then I am not working hard enough; that has been my approach to endurance sport all of my life. Thus, the hardest part about swimming for me has been accepting that increased pain does not result in increased speed.
My new philosophy towards swimming is twofold:
1) Most of the time spent swimming should be spent focusing on improving technique. Until you are swimming 1:20/100m continuously and it feel leisurely, you aren’t even remotely technically sound. Of course, going into a big race you need to have a good rhythm, so a month out from a race technical training goes out the window. But the other 11 months of the year I am spending 70-80% of my time in the water focusing on some technical aspect of the swim stroke.
2) Pure technical swimming is very far removed from actual swimming. You can do single-arm drill all day at a 2:00/100m pace but the moment you try and implement the technical improvements at a high level of exertion, often what you have been working on goes out the window. This is why I believe you should do repeats at a pace that is challenging enough that it gets you out of the “technical comfort zone” but not so challenging that you can no longer focus on the element you are trying to improve. So, for me, I do a lot of swimming on a 1:30/100m pace time. This is not so slow that it feels far removed from the pace I race at, but not so fast that I can’t focus on technique.
And that for the most part is what I am currently doing to improve my swimming. I am spending most of my time working on the technical aspects of the stroke, and I am spending a good deal of that time doing it at a pace that is challenging, but not so challenging that I can’t focus on improving the technical elements.
In a future post I will discuss what I believe to be the most important technical aspects that one should be focusing on, if they want the biggest bang for their buck. I will give you a hint: I learned a great deal about these technical aspects as I watched the individuals’ swimming 1:10/100m continuously, lap me every couple hundred meters.