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.

RunCamp – the first 4 weeks

This is the first of 3 posts about my experience of RunCamp.

RunCamp is a 12-week practical course which aims to improve the running style and efficiency of participants. The courses are run at Southampton Common and Chandlers Ford with new venues being added as demand grows.

The courses are run by fellow LRR member, Ant Gritton. Ant is a runner and triathlete with a very good pedigree of achievements in both.

Each course has about 6 participants and I chose the Friday morning session which runs from 6:30pm until 7:30.

I’m lucky enough to know a few of my fellow students (namely Irene, Jules and Charles) so that helped break the ice.

In the first 4 weeks we’ve focused on one area of running form each week. So far we’ve covered:

  • foot landing under centre of gravity
  • propulsion
  • hip extension and high heel kick
  • arm swing

Each session follows a similar structure:

  • a short warm up
  • a recap of what we learned the previous week
  • a summary of what we’ll be doing
  • some drills focusing on the week’s topic
  • some strength and core exercises (normally quite challenging!!)
  • some intervals where we bring together what we’ve learned
  • cool down and stretches

The course to date has been excellent for many great reasons:

  1. Ant is a great teacher. He is clearly passionate about our sport and wants others to improve
  2. Each week we focus on one element of efficient running form and that ensures it’s not too overwhelmin
  3. The course highlights the importance of a strong core and for post-workout cool down and stretche
  4. The group gel really well. This is probably helped by several of the participants knowing each other already
  5. The sessions are fun, informal and there’s a good degree of banter and encouragemen
  6. Ant never judges anyone. You never are made to feel you’re doing anything wrong. The focus is on improvement for the better rather than dwelling on the bad

I decided to take the course because I felt my running had plateau’d a little. I also tend to run alone quite a lot and the sessions are a great way of socialising.

In my personal opinion, Ant has got RunCamp just right. To date, there’s not been one moment when I’ve felt even slightly negative about something we’ve done, been taught or the manner in which we’ve been taught it. Ant has also cleverly marketed the courses to fellow club runners and, indirectly, to parkrunners via social media and the amazing positive feedback he gets from the ‘students’ each week acts as the main source of his business; word-of-mouth referrals.

I can’t wait to enjoy the next 8 weeks of the course and share that enjoyment with the other students. I’m already finding that my running form is improving and it’ll definitely be interesting to see the improvement in my running performance over the next couple of months.

Ant’s RunCamp is currently focused in the Southampton area but I believe that he also has the business acumen and focus to build a franchise model across a wider geographical region.

If you want to improve your running technique and live in the Southampton area, you really won’t be disappointed if you invest in RunCamp. In fact, there’s no risk as Ant regularly holds trial sessions which are well worth getting up early for!!

Open water swimming for the first time

About 3 years ago, I visited Lakeside Country Park in Eastleigh for my first ever parkrun. At the time, the lake was being used for open water swimming and it was something that really didn’t appeal to me at all. 2 1/2 years later I signed up for my first triathlon and as it is being held at the same venue, it includes a 400m swim of the lake!

I certainly didn’t want my first experience of the lake to be during the Eastleigh Open Water Sprint Triathlon, so spoke with a friend and fellow novice triathlete, Clare, about going for a swim in the lake on one of TryTri’s supervised open water sessions. These are run twice a week (Tuesday and Saturday) from April until October and are open to anyone that can swim 400m without stopping. Well, after about 8 months of swimming 2+ times a week in a 25m pool, I guess that means I qualify for that criteria so other than having to get a wetsuit, there were no excuses.

Finding a wetsuit proved to be a little bit of a challenge! I’m sure it is for everyone but I didn’t comfortably fall into any particular size range as my chest isn’t exactly Herculean but my waist more than makes up for it! Given that I am hoping to lose a little more weight, I chose a size that accommodated my height and chest measurements but left me at the upper end of waist and weight measurements. The rationale being that it’d have to stretch to get me all in!

This morning dawned. I woke up at 5am and then clock-watched for about an hour before getting out of bed. I’d already got everything ready (wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, towel and swim pass – thanks to Chris Stocks for the latter) so it was just necessary to grab some toast and an Americano (thanks Tassimo!) before heading on the 5 minute journey to Lakeside. As I arrived, there were a good number of cars in the car park already. Clare was there as I got out of the car and we walked down to the changing rooms where we met Ben from TryTri who explained what was going to happen. As it was my first swim in the lake, I had to complete a waiver form but this isn’t necessary everytime you participate.

The changing rooms are clean and bright. They are small though and having several people in there at a time means that you’re jostling a little for space. There are also lockers although not enough for everyone. My advice, leave any valuable in your car!

Having put on my wetsuit, it was time to return to Ben to swap car keys for a swimmer number (which is on a silicon wrist band) before heading down to the lake. There were already several people swimming and the lake did look quite inviting! It was a glorious morning weatherwise with blue skies and the sun out.

As we entered the water, it didn’t feel quite as cold as I’d thought it was going to be which was a pleasant surprise. It was time for my first lap. I’m going to be honest… It was tough. I got about 100m (maybe less) and I had to rest. Having swum in a pool, I’d got used to the opportunity to rest at the ends of the pool and to be able to catch your breath at the end of every length of the pool. It was also surprisingly difficult to swim in a straight line! In a pool, this is easy. Just follow the tiles at the bottom the pool. In the lake, you can’t see the tiles at the bottom. For all I know, there aren’t any! 😉 In fact, as your hand enters the water, it disappears into the green murkiness! It’s like swimming in pea soup (or so I’d imagine given that I’ve not actually done that!)

Each lap is 350m and I must have stopped for a bob about about 4 times on the first lap. At times, the water felt tidal as I was swept off course!! I’m sure that it was just that I simply can’t swim in a straight line without a guiding hand! The only thing that constantly helped me swim in approximately the right direction was knowing that the sun was on the right side of me! On the first lap, I rarely
‘spotted’ the next buoy and that was what was causing me to swim an erratic path. ‘Spotting’ involves raising your head and looking for a point of interest (in this case, the next buoy) regularly during the swim and adjusting your course accordingly. This is vital in open water swimming and a useful skill to practice! I will!

So, my first lap was shameful but I’d made it around! Clare was waiting for me and we had a brief chat before heading off for a second lap. This time, I knew what to expect and was a little less apprehensive. I’d also warmed up which made a big difference. This time around the lake, I spotted more regularly and relaxed my breathing. I made more use of the natural buoyancy of the wetsuit and rolled my body more. I’m still not able to bilaterally breath (no idea how I’m going to master that!) but it wasn’t too much of a problem. As I swam, I tried to remember all of the things that I’d learned from the pool; straight body, extend, kick from the hip, engage core, etc etc and things did seem easier. I made it around the lap without stopping! I’d even go as far as to say I enjoyed it… I think! Clare decide that two laps was enough and I was left to decide whether to go for another lap. Given that I swim 1km in the pool on each session, I wanted to do that same in the lake. Time for lap number 3…

As I did each lap, it seemed a little easier than the previous one. My route from buoy to buoy was slightly less erratic and the distance between the buoys didn’t see quite so far. At the end of the 3rd lap, I chatted briefly with a novice triathlete who had swum half a lap and was undecided as to whether to do a 2nd. This gave me the impetus to swim one more lap.

I have no idea how long each lap took me and don’t really care too much! 4 laps completed. 1.4km swum in a duck pond! Did I enjoy it? Yes, definitely! Am looking forward to doing it again.

The next challenge was to get out of the water with wobbly legs! However, the real challenge was getting out of the wetsuit. I make a complete hash of that until Ben provided some invaluable advice. Pull the suit down as far as you can then with one leg, stand on the suit, pull the leg out, step sideways and repeat. It worked. Phew! Another bit of advice is to cut some material off the bottom of the wetsuit so there’s a bigger hole. That’s not advice I’ll be taking with my brand new £140 suit! :-S

Time to get changed, have a quick shower and get home before work. First lake swim completed and successful. Looking forward to the next one!!

Quick reminder – – some useful transition tips

The (hidden) costs of taking up running

Often running is touted as a cheap way to get fit but the reality is that it can cost a lot of £££s.

During your first few runs, you may be wearing an old pair of trainers and a cotton t-shirt but it won’t be long before you realise that running in a sweaty top and getting blisters isn’t an enjoyable way to exercise.

First purchase – a half-decent pair of running shoes. These are likely to cost £50 or more but are worth every penny. If you can afford it, go to a specialist shop and get a gait analysis. If not, do lots of research on the internet before committing to purchase. Also, if you’re pounding the pavement regularly, expect to change shoes fairly regularly.

Tech shirts – these are made of special materials that wick moisture away from your body which keep you dry and cool when it’s hot and dry and warm when it’s cold. Try wearing a normal cotton T-shirt for a long run and you’ll need to wring it before too long! Tech shirts tend to cost £15+ and if you plan to run 3 or 4 times a week (and don’t want to be constantly washing them), it’s best to have 3 or 4. It’s worth investing in a range of long and short sleeve versions for different weather conditions.

Running socks – a normal pair of sports socks just won’t cut it! You’ll end up with sweaty feet and that means one thing; a nightmare for any runner – blisters. A far more sensible (and comfortable) option is decent running socks. In the same way that tech shirts work, decent running socks wick moisture away from the skin to keep it dry and cool. Expect to pay £6+ per pair and buy 3 or 4 pairs to begin with.

Shorts – again, tech shorts will keep you cool and dry during your runs. Expect to pay £15 or more and invest in 3 pairs.

Heart rate monitor – to benefit the most from running for fitness, it’s useful to know what your heart rate is during your exercise. You can then adapt your workout to focus on fat burning and improved aerobic capacity, run faster and/or longer (for more information, check out ‘Heart Rate Training Zones‘ and MarathonGuide’s guide to heart rate monitoring). The most basic HRM monitor will cost £40 but you can pay £100s for additional features such as GPS, onboard analysis of workout performance, etc.

Fitness/activity tracking app (if you have an iPhone or other smartphone) – it’s great to be able to track your fitness over time and to be able to share how well you’re doing with friends via Facebook and Twitter. There are a plethora of apps available. The most popular app for the iPhone is Runkeeper. Costing £5.99, it’s not going to break the bank and is well worth this and more. If you’re feeling a little cost-conscious, there’s a free version. Try that first, realise that the Pro version has some excellent features (training workouts, audio stats, integrate ipod controls and others) and then upgrade. 

As you’ll see, the costs soon mount up:

  • running shoes £50
  • 3 x shirts at £14 each = £45
  • 3 x socks @ £6 each = £18
  • 3 x shorts @ £15 each = £45
  • 1 x heart rate monitor @ £45 each = £45
  • Fitness tracking app @ £6 = £6

brining the total to at least £209. It’s easy to spend more and buy more equipment so keep a careful eye on what you’re spending and look for sales etc if you want to run on a shoestring.

Running is certainly much cheaper than a gym membership (and a whole lot more enjoyable in my view) and worth every penny for enjoyable workouts.