Swim For Triathlon - Benefits of a Training Camp

This time last year I was not remotely interested in swimming.  Now I swim three times a week and recently clocked 36mins for a 1.9km open water swim.  Which, for me, is astoundingly good.

What changed?  Quite simply, I was taught to swim... all over again.

You might think you can swim, but if your last swimming lesson was taken forty years ago with your Mum as the instructor, let me tell you, there's a lot to learn.  

Liz my wife has always been a 'keen swimmer'.  I wasn't.  I'd sit in our car reading a book while she was in the pool cranking out lengths.  Dull.

Only once did I attend regularly back in 2009 and that was to endure 400m, the distance I'd have to swim in a sprint triathlon in which I'd agreed to accompany my brother-in-law.  

At the time, 400m seemed like a huge distance.  My arms got tired, I was out of breath and I couldn't wait to get out of the water.  MORE
Last December we visited Club la Santa in Lanzarote and wrote about it here.  Liz booked a two-day intensive swimming course and due to a bookings snafu, we needed up getting two places for the price of one.  I didn't really want to learn to swim but I thought, "why not".  This video, shot at the time, shows how badly I swam.

Paul Webb and Liz at C la S
The coach was Paul Webb, who has his own swim school, and he utterly transformed my view of swimming.

After two days with Paul I appreciated the subtle complexities of the sport.  It took on a whole new focus.  

So over last winter Liz and I swam once, sometimes twice a week, trying to remember Paul's lessons and put them into practice.  

Eventually I thought I might be able to manage a triathlon, entered the local half-ironman distance event.

We increased our swimming to three times a week, the third session being open water in the loch at the end of the road.  Plus I was given some great speed sets by Tim Egge of TrainSmooth.com who I emailed after listening to one of his podcasts.

The pool sessions gave us the confidence to swim in open water, and we each use a bright orange tow-float for visibility and safety.  Once we acclimatised to the water temperature (and there are techniques for this) we thoroughly enjoyed loch swimming.

The logical next step was to book places on a week-long training camp called 'Open Water Swimming For Triathlon' back at Club La Santa in Lanzarote.  Here we made yet another huge leap forward.

Dan Bullock
The camp was run by Dan Bullock of SwimForTri.  

There were roughly three sessions a day, the middle one sometimes being pool and sometimes dry-land exercise.  Video analysis was almost daily, and with Boo and Ralph assisting we made great progress.

It's difficult to put into words what we learnt without trying to sound like a would-be coach, but I'll try.  

* My rotation improved - I can feel my shoulders and whole body rotating on each stroke.  This presents a more streamlined profile to the water so you slip through it with less drag.

* My catch improved - there's a swoosh of water when my hand passes close to my body and I can feel a small surge forward on each stroke.

* I have slowed down my stroke - and I go faster through the water!  This was the 'lightbulb' moment.  Swimming part of the Ironman course at Puerto del Carmen, we had a masterclass in slow swimming from Ralph.  He seemed to take ages between strokes, yet he shot through the water like a seal.  OK, maybe a sea lion.    

Three heated outdoor 50m pools
"When you put your hand in the water ahead of you, try waiting until the bubbles have stopped before you pull and catch".  

That was just a drill, but this slow-hand approach, as opposed to windmilling arms, made all the difference for me.  

In my local half-iron distance event I swam 1.9km in 43 minutes.  After this swim camp I cut it to 36 minutes.  Seven minutes is a heck of a saving.

There was excellent practical advice too.  

I have a dodgy shoulder, common among swimmers but mine is through kayaking.  One morning it felt quite bad and I was going to quit a session when Ralph asked if he could try to improve my wetsuit fit.  

By getting the legs higher, the arms higher and then the entire body higher, he created so much space around my shoulder the neoprene was no longer pulling.  I was able to complete the session because the pain completely vanished.  

In future, I will always put on a wetsuit the way I was shown by Dan and Ralph - not YouTube.

Please don't think I have swimming sorted.  There is still so much to improve.

What makes swimming hard for most people is sinking legs - they drag behind like an anchor, more resistance for the arms to overcome.  One of the main roles of the kick is to keep the legs high and streamlined behind the body so there's less drag.  

Triathletes like swimming in wetsuits because they feel their legs floating and the temptation is to not bother with a kick (at which point I bet you just said "that's me!".  Yeah, me too).

Swimming in a pool, wearing a wetsuit, the video camera reveals why this is not a full solution.  I'll explain my own 'problem' so you'll understand why.  

If the body doesn't rotate effectively, then to breath, the head has to make a further twisting motion.  To allow this to happen, the opposing arm (right arm if breathing to the left) tracks wider and straighter.  

To counterbalance this action, the opposing leg (left leg in this case) kicks wide.  Breathing bilaterally every three breaths mean that a weird, un-streamlined arm and leg kick is happening every three strokes!  It didn't feel like I was doing it but from above, my stroke looked like a horror story.

But that's good.

There are clear points to improve and a set of drills to help achieve that, courtesy of Dan and SwimForTri.  

Before we went, Liz was worried that an open water swim camp for triathlon would be stuffed with ultra-competitive alpha males.  The reality was entirely the opposite, with female swimmers in the majority, very few of whom would rush off after swimming to complete an interval set on the bike.  It was friendly, relaxed, fun and hugely instructive.  


Martin Hainey said...

I just found your site, really interesting. Do you have a video of how you swim now versus how you used to?

Simon Willis said...

Hi Martin

When I wrote this I realised that I needed an "after" video to contrast with the "before" Trouble is, the videos I have were taken early in the swim camp and don't show the real progression.

On the sessions Dan shot video towards the end of the camp I wasn't swimming, I was resting ahead of the Ironman 70.3 race.

Just to make things awkward, our local pool won't allow video to be shot on the premises, which is a real pain. We were going to shoot some surface video in the Loch yesterday but it was just too damn cold and I had to get out after 25mins.

If I get some decent video of how I swim now I will post it.

Thanks for taking the time to write.


Stella Hammond said...

congratulations on learning to swim properly and I'm glad you are enjoying it so much. I agree that many people think that they can swim but we could all improve a lot. I have done a lot of cycling and running and have recently been considering taking up swimming so that I can compete in triathlons.

Stella Hammond @ Palm City Pools

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