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March 28, 2007

Reach, Glide, Pull

It’s been several years since I’ve been a dedicated swimmer. More importantly, it’s been far too long since I’ve had a swimmer’s mentality.

But this year, I’ve managed to swim somewhat consistently (at least once per week, frequently more often) for almost the entire winter. And it took a while, but I’ve rediscovered one crucial aspect of the swimmer’s mindset: the understanding that working harder isn’t always the best strategy.

Not only that – but I’ve found that this philosophy is applicable to other areas of my triathlon regimen as well.

For several months, I’ve spent countless workouts hanging on for dear life behind a group of masters swimmers - at first just trying to stay in contact for a portion of the main set, then straining to make common interval times, and finally working to keep pace through an entire workout.

During those intervals, there’s always a point where I find myself slowing down, and my first instinct is to increase my arm turnover in an effort to take faster, more frequent strokes. It’s the runner’s instinct: to gain speed, move your legs faster. Same with the bike: to gain speed, increase your pedal cadence. Makes sense, right?

Well, yes – but only on dry land. With swimming, stroke rate isn’t everything. It isn’t even an important thing. In the water, it’s more about the dynamics of your stroke, and how smoothly your body can glide through the water. To gain speed, you don’t need to move faster – just more efficiently. But when you’re a runner who’s been conditioned to move more rapidly by working harder, it’s hard to focus on stroke mechanics instead of effort level.

I’ve finally remembered that the most efficient stroke consists of a long reach, a glide phase, and a strong pull. If your reach isn’t fully extended, or if you don’t let your body glide through the water before pulling, you end up exerting more energy while moving more slowly.

I’ve realized that when I’m swimming the fastest, it feels like I’m exerting minimal effort. I’m reminding myself that the best way to get through a tough swim workout isn’t to strain to the point of bonking, but to keep focused on reaching, gliding, and pulling. And that’s where the lesson applies to my overall training plan.

With the Big Sur Marathon four weeks away, and Wildflower the following weekend, I’m at the point in my training regimen where my body tiptoes the narrow ledge between peak fitness and complete exhaustion. My workout times from week to week have become slightly slower as the overall volume of mileage and yardage has increased to a point that’s barely manageable.

When that happens, my usual tendency is to try and work harder with every workout, to assure myself that I’m still as fast as I want to be – which is my runner’s mentality stepping to the forefront. But recently, I’m remembering to adopt the swimmer’s mentality instead.

At this phase of my training, working harder isn’t always the best solution. When I’m in my best shape, the majority of my workouts feel very smooth, and I feel like I can maintain the effort indefinitely, but I don’t have that extra gear to shift into when I’m looking for more power. I’m not posting my fastest workout times right now, but at this point, I don’t really need to.

For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be easing into each workout as gently as stretching my hand into the water ahead. I’ll keep gliding through each session, before pulling myself smoothly toward the next one. I’ll finish the workouts, and keep finishing them, until it’s time to taper off. Then when race day comes, I’ll have confidence that I’m ready for the task.

So there you have it: the swimmer’s approach to triathlon training. And to think – while doing all those laps during the winter, I thought I was merely a runner working to improve his stroke mechanics.

Sometimes, these lessons just sneak up on you.


Downhillnut 3/29/07, 7:56 AM  

The sneaky lessons are the best kind! They integrate themselves into your life before you know it and they stick.

Backofpack 3/29/07, 5:47 PM  

Thanks for sharing some swimming wisdom with those of us who are non-swimmers. I'll try to keep the same thoughts in mind as I juggle the next few races. Saturday is the first of many and I definitely need to move smoothly between them!

Matt 3/29/07, 11:08 PM  

Man, that's so true. Thanks for the reminder. I'm a bull in the water. I'll think about this in the morning.

SkiRough 3/30/07, 6:37 AM  

"I’ve spent countless workouts hanging on for dear life behind a group of masters swimmers" Ha. I had the same exact sentiments when I first started going to the pool. I literally used to puke after the workouts.

Can't wait to hear about the new bike!

Annette 3/30/07, 8:25 AM  

It sounds like swimmers are more patient than runners. I guess it's happened - you have transitioned from runner to triathlete. Congratulations! :)

By the way, I loved your comment on my blog about bringing sweaty back. I literally laughed out loud! :)

Anne 3/30/07, 5:24 PM  

I think you're taking the right tact to play it slightly conservatively between now and the taper. You seem to have a knack for avoiding those injuries and this is probably why.

craig 3/30/07, 8:38 PM  

So it's grace instead of pace, huh? Enjoyed the post.

Bruce 3/30/07, 10:51 PM  

Thanks for the swim tips. I like to swim once a week too just to vary the training a bit and always seem to be struggling to find extra speed. You're so right about the swimmers mindset needing to be different to that of a runners. You need to work with the water not against it.

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