This is my first season of triathlon. Swim, bike, run. Easy. Most of us have been doing these things most of our lives. I learned to swim in elementary school at the Lawrence YWCA (once while waiting for our ride, my brother threatened, “Don’t tell anyone we’re going to the Y because they’ll see girls in the car and know we’re going to the YWCA.”) I followed the natural progression of tricycle (green with a pickup bed) to training wheels (on a hand me down) to three speed (with a banana seat and brakes that locked when you peddled backwards). And as kids, we need to be told not to run.
I started training with TriFury in January, with Sharon Johnson‘s coached swim workouts Tuesday mornings and uncoached workouts Wednesdays and Fridays. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t know how to swim. I dragged my legs across the bottom like a trawler and spun my arms like a paddle boat. I couldn’t swim a lap without gasping for air. It was a horrible feeling. Not like drowning. It was dry. Suffocating.
During that first eight week session, my arms aching toward the end of a long repeat, I would imagine getting out of the pool, walking out, and never coming back. It would sting, but it would be over and done. Then I’d hit the wall for the last time, catch my breath, and feel the ache subside before the next repeat began.
This was the first time I had been coached in swimming. Sharon was able to critique my form and put it into words I understood. The drills she prescribed isolated different parts of the stroke and gave me a feel for the proper form. But when I’d try to put them all together, there was so much swimming in my head that I could hardly do one thing right. As I tired near the end of a repeat, my form would break down completely. If I was making progress, it was imperceptible.
Then toward the end of the first session, a change. When I began, I had to breathe every other stroke – same side breathing – to get enough air. Breathing can be as graceful and fluid as the rest of your stroke, but for me, it’s when everything goes to hell. I plunge my opposite arm deep, trying to push myself to air as quickly as possible; I forget my legs, dragging them behind; I just recover the streamlined position, then it’s time to breathe again.
Now I was breathing every third stoke, on opposite sides. Not only is this a sign of reduced effort that comes with improving form, it’s a key to further improvements. One more stroke before I breathe means a 50% increase in the time I can work on extending my reach, gliding, pulling and rolling. And those few seconds are enough to put those competing thoughts in order, and to feel the water and understand what it’s telling me.
This small sign kept me going, but progress was still painfully slow. I could remain composed for a length or two, but then my heart would pound and I’d think only about getting to the wall to catch an extra breath, working harder and sloppier to go slower. I wasn’t getting everything out of the workouts that I could. I was cheating myself.
That’s when I made a connection between my swimming and my running under coach Fernando Braz, especially his track workouts. Calling them track workouts is misleading, because there isn’t a 400 meter in sight. They consist of some combination of 1000 meter to two mile repeats with short recoveries, designed for a purpose. One of Fernando’s key ideas is that to improve and to compete on a high level, you must become comfortable with being uncomfortable; certain workouts will push you hard in the beginning, ease back to sustained, steady running, then ask you to go hard again to the finish. Such hard training serves two purposes. You stress your physiological systems so that they adapt and can perform more. And you prove to yourself that you can keep going, even when your legs and lungs are telling you to stop. In the two years I’ve trained with Fernando, I’ve made more progress than I made in the first nineteen.
In swimming, with its new sensations and new challenges, I was giving in too easily. I was giving up not only conditioning but the opportunity to work on technique, which is of such importance in swimming. I had to prove to myself that I could make through the repeat, the set, the workout and that there would be relief and reward at the end. Forget about the discomfort and concentrate on form. You can rest in a few seconds, a few minutes, an hour.
Success in triathlon’s disciplines depends on pushing your body to a physiological edge that your subconcious tries to pull you back from. You have to teach yourself that you have a choice, to listen or keep going.
Keep going. You won’t die. It just feels that way.
(The swimming in this video is so beautiful that it’s at once motivating and discouraging.)
- Rob Campbell