Joining a triathlon club to help improve my swimming

I’ve been swimming for almost a year now and although I progressed well in the first few months, I’ve felt as if I’ve plateaued recently. It’s difficult to pinpoint why but I have a number of excuses:

  • too heavy and dragging a fat belly through the water that acted as an anchor rather than  buoyancy
  • too little upper body strength – these weedy arms are inheritted
  • not enough time in the water
  • too much time spend ploughing up and down the pool and not enough doing training sets

In reality, much of the issue is down to technique and although I had a SwimSmooth video analysis earlier in the year (February 2013) and I managed to make minor tweaks, I’ve not really improved enough given the number of months that have gone by.

In parallel to this, I’ve friends who have improved their swimming efficiency and technique by attending regular lessons, attending SwimFit sessions, etc, etc.

At roughly the same time that I did the SwimSmooth session, I contacted Southampton Triathlon Club with the intention of signing up and attending their coached swim sessions. However, back then (February), I’d not done a triathlon and was worried that my abilities in the pool would make me the worst swimmer hence I never got around to attending a trial session. Instead, I continued to make little progress in the pool or, subsequently, in the lake when I started open water swimming. The latter really helped with my endurance (being able to swim 350 metres without stopping every 25 metres is quite a feat at first, let alone doing that for several laps.

Last week, fellow parkrunner, parkrun Event Director, fellow Lordshill Road Runner, fellow lake swimmer and friend, Tamsyn, posted a FB message asking for people’s opinion on Southampton Tri Club vs Tri Team Wessex. This started a good conversation about the clubs, their coaching and what level you had to be to feel worthy of being involved. This got me thinking that I really needed to do something if I want to improve my technique in the pool and open water so I emailed Julian, the club’s chairman, reintroduced myself, checked my diary and decided to go to a session at the Quays.

There were a couple of things that had put me off joining before (other than feeling I wasn’t good enough). These were:

  • the Quays was too far away
  • the cost of membership seemed prohibitive at £22 a month

However, in recent months, Denise has been diving at the Quays weekly and I’ve been taking Daniel diving weekly too. The location and proximity to home was really not a barrier at all.

Compared to running club membership, £22 a month sounds a lot (LRR yearly membership is £25 for comparison). However, for that £22, you’re getting the opportunity for several coached swim sessions each week. Because some of these clash with other things I do and a couple are too far away, I’m likely to do 2 per week, but that’s still at least 8 sessions per month which works out at £2,75 per session. That’s a bargain. Clearly, you’ve got to find sessions that fit in with your own schedule but 2 of them do for me, so it makes a great deal of sense to join and make the most of those two opportunities per week.

Anyway, enough of the logic behind my decision and a little more about what happened.

I arrived at the Quays at about 7:40pm, nipped into the changing rooms and got ready. As I was putting my gear into a locker, Julian arrived so I chatted with him. Shortly into our conversation, Tom, another newbie turned up and we got several questions answered.

We then went poolside. There were several lanes full of STC members. I recognised a few and had a quick chat with Liz, a fellow LRR who I’d not spoken to before. We got introduced to our swim instructor, Steve Cooke, who was very friendly and immediately put me at ease. We were also informally introduced to our other lane swimmers and given a summary of what we’d be doing:

  • warmup – 200 metres warmup freestyle
  • warmup – 200 metres freestyle with pull-buoy
  • various technique drills
  • cooldown using breast-stroke and back stroke

We were also told that if we couldn’t do the required number of lengths/laps, that was fine. Do the best we could was the advice.

For the warmup, I set off first. No pressure then!! As we swam, Steve watched us and took notes (or might have been completing his shopping list?!) I got to the end of it and didn’t feel as if I had to call it a day at that point. Phew! I wasn’t the fastest in the lane but then nor was I the slowest.

At the end of the warmup, Steve offered a couple of tips for improving my technique and then we started doing some drills to help start ironing out issues with our existing technique.

The drills were tough at times and I’m struggling to remember some of them. The first was a kicking drill with the pullbuoy held in front with two hands. This was tough as it’s amazing how little the kick (or at least my kick) contributes to propulsion.  I found it a little difficult breathing during this drill as you have to lift your head up.

The next drill was called, by Steve at least, the chicken arm drill and enforced keeping your arm close to the body (similar to the zipper drill) but with a high elbow recovery. I didn’t find this drill too bad. I didn’t feel like a chicken, but I got the idea.

Another drill was one where you had both hands on the pull buoy ahead of you and had to take alternate strokes but always returning to having both hands on the pull buoy (the swim catch up drill I believe). By this point, I was starting to get overwhelmed with all the information we were being given and my brain, and subsequent technique, turned to mush!

We then put what we’d learned into practice with some freestyle and Steve gave more advice or reiterated where we’d forgotten something. One of the things I’ve always struggled with is the high elbow catch and he suggested a hand entry technique which would make it difficult not to get it right. I think he was right.

Our last water-born adventure was a game of SWOLF. First of all, we had to prove we could swim fast… or at least faster than our slow pace. I think I managed to convince Steve that the negligible speed improvement was still an improvement (or maybe he was just being kind).

Having got through 50m of swimming fast (er), it was time to swim 50m and count our strokes. We each set off 5 seconds after each other and off we went. For the 50m, I managed to remember to count and came back and gave my score which was added to the time that I’d taken to swim the distance. I can’t remember what my score was to be honest!!

We were then given the challenge of improving out SWOLF handicap by 2. I put in an extra effort and, although I lost count on the first length (and ended up doubling the number of strokes for my 2nd lap), managed to reach the target. Everyone else did, some by 10 or more. My rationale was not to overdo it. I didn’t want to be teacher’s pet!! That’s my excuse at least!

Finally, it was time for the cooldown and the dreaded breaststroke!! I can’t do breaststroke. Simples! However, I did manage to get from one end of the pool to the other using something that was a distant relative of that swim stroke (and which my Garmin miraculously recognised at breaststroke. Technology, eh?!) so maybe there’s hope for me!! One length back on my back and it was time to get out of the pool.

Steve was a great instructor, made us all feel at ease, offered great advice and made me feel confident that over the next 3-4 months, I should be able to improve my swimming technique.

As soon as I got to my PC this morning, I signed up as a member of Southampton Tri Club and I’m looking forward to trying out their Wednesday morning session at Fleming Park tomorrow morning from, wait for this, 5:45am! Yes, I know. It’s a crazy time but then training for multi-sports is pretty crazy at times.

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5 thoughts on “Joining a triathlon club to help improve my swimming

  1. Wow – 200m as a warm up! That’s quite a lot in my opinion. It sounds like it was a really helpful session and that the drills will improve your technique. I’m currently assessing my next set of goals and may give Soton Tri Club when I’ve rescheduled. Well done, James 🙂

  2. Thank you, I really needed to read this, I myself have been try to get into tri alone, but just end up not knowing what im doing. So having been trying to pluck up the courage to join STC and Lordshill RR for a while, I think I might give them a go now. Good luck with everything!

    • You have absolutely nothing to lose. Contact both clubs and you’ll be able to take part in a trial session for both swimming and running training. Both clubs are really good and you’ll find that several LRR are either members of STC or are currently considering it. Good luck.

  3. Pingback: A year of achievements | Running - one step at a time

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