Health & Fitness.

A Fish, I Am Not.


So! Swimming!

I started this summer with basic recreational swimming abilities. Here’s my definition of “basic”: I could play in the pool, no problem, but I avoided the deep ends too far from the wall. And I hated open water where I couldn’t touch. Even going out on boats was something I avoided, and if I did it I kept my life jacket on 100% of the time and counted the seconds until my feet touched the shore again. If I jumped into the water, I usually held my nose. I knew nothing about strokes or breathing or even how long the pool was.

Before my first triathlon, I had learned to basically survive for 400m. No freestyle, but I did do a decent “breaststroke” and “sidestroke” and I could float on my back and kick. (I put those words in quotes because that’s what I call them, but I have no idea if that’s what they are. I don’t know – technically – if that’s what I’m doing, but it’s close enough to call it that.) I basically just floundered around for 400m.

After I decided to try another triathlon, Donnie taught me to freestyle. He started off teaching me good technique so I wouldn’t learn bad habits. But – it was a LOT to remember. Breathing bilaterally – every three strokes – on top of all of the ins and outs of arms and legs. I could barely make it to the end of the pool (25m) without hyperventilating. I would get to the end and be huffing and puffing. I wasn’t holding my breath, but I was breathing hard. Not at all calmly or gracefully.

I’ve been working on it ever since. NON-STOP. I swam 5 days out of 7 in the last week. And still, on my best day, I could only do 50m without stopping to catch my breath. I could do 75m if I would allow myself a period of sidestroke to get my breathing calm. 75m! And my triathlons are 400m. And the next one is – again – open water.

I was getting very frustrated. Although I was able to do the distances (I swam a whole mile last week) I could only do it in about 50m increments. And often those 50m involved at least a little bit of sidestroke to catch my breath.

The class I’m in through Fleet Feet has taken us on two open water trials. The first one I rode the whole way home in tears my anxiety was SO BAD. The second one? I ended up sidestroking the entire 300m swim because I could never calm my breathing down enough to put my face in the water.

So, last night, I decided I needed to try something different. That, maybe, I needed to sacrifice a bit of technique simply for survival.

Donnie has been saying that one of my problems is I’m kicking WAY too hard/fast. I’ve been working on slowing that down, but I decided last night to basically kick as little as possible. As a triathlete, you want to save your legs in your swim, so that’s not a bad thing…minimal kicking. And then, I decided to give up right now on breathing bilaterally and just breathe on one side, every other stroke.

And immediately, without any problems, I was able to swim 400m freestyle without stopping!

Now, I know that in the long run I need to be able to breath on both sides, but I’m just so very proud to have made some sort of progress I can’t see straight. The every-other stroke breathing seems to be EXACTLY what I needed to survive more than a few lengths of the pool. I’m not sure how this will play out in open water, since my anxieties are SO HIGH, but it can’t be any worse than my previous technique which had me huffing air in the POOL ever 50m. At least now, my pool breathing is steady enough to maybe survive an anxiety attack.

Maybe. I’ll keep you posted. We have one more open-water trial in two weeks. We’ll see how I do then. Donnie thinks I need to give myself time to adjust being IN the water before I start swimming. That way when I jump in I don’t go STRAIGHT into anxiety attack like I did the last few times I hit the open water. So, I’ll do that and I’ll try my every-other-stroke breathing pattern to see if I can stay calm and functional.

Any of you have any swimming tips you can give me? Especially ones that calm the anxiety?

7 thoughts on “A Fish, I Am Not.”

  1. I consider myself a decent swimmer, but I can only breathe to one side – not sure why you have to be able to switch sides (so you can see who’s on the other side?). I also do not flutter kick when I do freestyle – I do more of a frog kick (but it gets me where I’m going). I say do whatever works for you. As far as anxiety, can you just start at the back of the pack until you feel more comfortable with swimming in a crowd?

  2. I can’t really speak to anxiety, because I have never been unsure in the water, but I did a lot of competitive swimming when I was younger, and remember a few training bits.

    First off, it sounds like you are trying to go too fast! I know, it’s a race, and in the race you want to finish quickly. But if you really want to figure out your technique (and not be totally out of breath) while you’re learning, don’t be afraid to make your movements very slow and deliberate. When you are figuring this out, your limbs don’t all need to be in constant motion. If you need to glide to one side for a bit so you can suck in enough air to get through the next three strokes, do that.

    And breathe from your belly. Big breath in, then push it, slowly, all the way out while your face is in the water. All the way out. All of it. You are at the surface, you won’t drown. Just stop stroking and breathe if you truly run out of air before you’d planned. It happens to all of us, and it’s a necessary part of learning. And if you need to hang out at the edge of the pool, holding on and just feeling what it is like to breathe out all of your air, and turn your head to the side to take in a new breath, do that.

    Finally, have you tried using some assistance floats to isolate your arms/legs for technique? Use a float between your legs if you want to work on just arms/breathing timing, and once that’s down, grab a kickboard to hold in front of you so you can just count strokes (instead of doing them), kick, and breathe (looks like: side breath-face in water-count 1-2-3-other side breath-face back in, all while you’re gently kicking).

    There are a lot of other proper swimming technique bits (dolphin kicks, s-pull, recovery breaths) that you can work in, but the bottom line is, if you are not comfortable, you are flailing, and if you are flailing, you are not making much with the forward progression.

    Lastly, if you can, take some masters swimming lessons. At least a couple, with a swimming (rather than multi-sport) instructor will at least help you figure out what you, personally, need to work on.

    Your whole fitness > running > triathalon journey has been so inspiring (I have been lurking here since before Nyoka), I can’t wait to see how you kick swimming’s butt, too! Good luck!

  3. I second the floats to isolate your arms/concentrate on your pull technique. Something like these. They helped a lot when I swam in high school. And yeah, for getting the breathing down a kickboard — or even just holding on to the side of the pool and kicking gently — works wonders.

    Also, Lynn Cox is one of the best open water swimmers in the world, and she just wrote a how-to book: Open Water Swimming Manual: An Expert’s Survival Guide for Triathletes and Open Water Swimmers.

  4. I was going to say the same as the comment above – slow down. Focus on the stroke and the breathing and glide a bit. People tend to take on the swim as if the whole thing is a sprint. A slower steady rhythm will help your time better than a bunch of fast and slow sections.

    As far as breathing – do it when you need it everyone is different. If the rhythm of every other stroke works for you then that’s what works. It’s good to get where you feel comfortable with either side but that doesn’t mean you have to use both sides. Do some laps on all right and some laps on all left that way you have both sides whenever you need them. If you’re ever in open water with a chop then you’ll have the side you need to turn your head in the opposite direction.

    Funny how people are different – I feel the same way about running as you do about swimming LOL

  5. I am a late in life swimmer, too — I avoided it for 20+ years, then got pulled out by a very scary riptide at the beach, and finally caved and took a swimming class. I was in the slow lane with the two middle aged moms, both 20 years older and significantly faster swimmers than me…after I accepted being the official dunce of the class, I had a great time ๐Ÿ™‚

    My big takeaway from that class was that it’s all about the glide. I had been thinking that kicking = moving forward, but all that motion was actually interfering with my streamline and slowing me down in the water. 3 kicks (right-left-right, or vice versa) per arm stroke, then streeetch into the glide. After a second or two, when the propulsion from that side slows, kick-kick-kick as I switch arms, lather rinse repeat. This is all for freestyle, because that’s all I know, because who am I, Michael Phelps?? I just don’t want to drown.

    Am I a fast swimmer now? Absolutely NOT! But am I comfortable doing it for a pretty long time? Yeah. And I could definitely get out a of a riptide now ๐Ÿ™‚ It took me a long time to build up to it, but by the end of the class I was doing full pool lengths and back no problem.

    Also also: bilateral breathing is for CHUMPS. Takes way too much thinking when I am concentrating on my form. I’m with you, breathing every other stroke is way better. Leave the bilateral for the competers — you and me are completers, and we breathe when we WANT ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. I’m with Bobbie; why do you need to breathe from both sides? Sounds like this rhythm isn’t working for you, and you might be hyperventilating, or just not doing what works for you.

    I’m also one who was swimming in lakes from a young age (my family had a rustic cabin on a remote lake we went to in the summers), so have been pretty comfortable in the water all my life. I think the key is just practice and experience. You need to get to the point where you are comfortable and yes, relaxed in the water. You’ll glide better, you’ll float better, you’ll expend less energy and be more efficient in the long run.

    Getting coaching from a Masters coach is a great idea, if you want to improve technique and ultimately go faster. But it sounds to me like you’re trying too hard, trying to improve a lot in a short amount of time (admirable, but difficult; don’t be so hard on yourself!). Just like it took you several years to get to where you are with running, look at swimming as a skill that takes time and practice. Clearly you have the stamina and ability to swim the distances necessary for your tri. So what’s to be nervous about? Be happy with (and proud of) the improvements you’ve made, and know that you will keep improving with time and practice.

  7. As a triathlete, you need to be able to breathe on both sides. If you are doing an open water swim and the sun is too bright on one side, breath on the other. If you have waves hitting you one side, breathe on the other. I started swimming and triathlons by breathing on only one side. Once I did my first OWS in a river that had horrible currents, I realized that I was screwed. I very quickly learned to breath bilaterally. It may be hard now, but stick with it. You will benefit greatly.

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