De-Mystifying Swimming

De-Mystifying Swimming

Without question the biggest mystery for triathletes in training, is swimming.  The fact that you literally cannot breath half the time can be tricky, and the fact that drowning is a real possibility probably doesn’t help.

When our breathing gets out of control on the bike or run, we instinctively know how to slow down without fear.  But slowing down in the water isn’t as natural.

In each of my first four races I slowed to either a breast stroke or started treading water to catch my breath and slow my heart rate.  There are not many feelings worse!

That’s why I made it my mission to get that anxiety-piece out of my triathlon-puzzle.  I became obsessed with learning how to relax in the water.

The biggest breakthrough came when I committed to swimming every day for two straight weeks.  I didn’t go long (usually between 1-2,000 meters) but the repetitive nature of my practice made a huge difference.

I naturally got faster, but I really think it was because I was more relaxed. Being “tight” in the water (and land for that matter) is my biggest enemy.

After about 7 straight days of swimming I noticed a very simple thing: That first plunge into the water didn’t feel cold or weird or uncomfortable.  My body had adapted, and I really think that’s the biggest win you can have as a swimmer.

In today’s podcast we go back into the water for a follow up piece to “How To Not Suck At Swimming.” Part 2 takes a closer look at swimming technique, and more importantly ways to remove the mystery.

Coach Robbie lives and breathes open water swimming and he’s back with another round of great insight to becoming faster, stronger, and more efficient in open water.  Topics covered today are:

– Proper breathing – How and When
– Body Positioning and how to get it right
– Hand entry and exit – How and When
– How to deprogram from bad advice, including workouts that get you there
– How to structure a swim week of workouts
– Should you join a Master’s Team?
– Swimming square and why you swim crooked
– A big announcement from Coach Robbie
– Which country has the second most Crushing Iron listeners

If you feel you’re getting some good information, please subscribe and review on iTunes.

9 Things That Are Improving My Swim

Three years ago I could barely swim and vowed to get to respectable levels before IM Wisconsin. Last year, with Louisville a non-wetsuit race, I got even more serious.  I put a lot of time, study, and reflection into swimming and this is a list of stuff that seems to be working.

1.  It’s easy to forget how to swim.  Before my 10-day vacation, I was dialed in pretty good, but this morning it was a flopping baby.  After 1,000 or so meters, I “sorta” had it back, but why can’t it be just like riding a bike?  When I’m not on vacation I swim shorter distances more more frequently.

2.  Form isn’t everything.  While form is definitely something, once you get it “close” upper body conditioning is the key, and that too seems to fade fast.  Paddles really seem to help me relax and focus on using the strength of my lats, and I also use a pull buoy 80% of the time.

3.  Flexibility matters.  Today, there was a girl next to me with fins doing that crazy on-your-back thing up and down the pool.  She looked like she was made out of rubber and when she turned around to swim freestyle, she was unbelievably smooth . . . and fast.

4.  Work on your turnover.  For the longest time I was all caught up in my reach and glide and thinking about all kinds of BS, but if you get decent extension and turn your arms faster (with comparable catch and pull) you will pick up several seconds in your 100.  Of course, you need to build conditioning to do that.

5.  Relaxing isn’t always easy, but . . . it is crucial.  When you’re relaxed, your form and flexibility improve because you’re not thinking about it as much.  So much of relaxation is repetition, but I often repeat mantras like, “breathe, relax,” on each stroke and it puts me in a better state.

6.  Don’t hesitate.  My left arm doesn’t have the same range of motion as my left (nor is it as coordinate) so I’m constantly telling myself to “let go” with my left arm.  Just let it flow in a rotation that is perfectly timed with my right arm pull.

7.  Clear the fog.  I used to have problems with foggy goggles until I started letting them soak to adjust to the water temperature before I swim.  I just lay the pull buoy on my strap and do arm circles or whatever for 5 minutes and my goggles are gold.

8.  Pull yourself.  A lot of people refer to it as pulling yourself over a barrel or a wall instead of pushing water backwards.  When my hand enters the water, I try to find that pressure from my wrist to my elbow (the wall) and literally pull it back.  The key here is pulling with your lats, but also using the other side extension as leverage.

9.  Drink.  I never used to have a water bottle at the pool, but now it’s mandatory.  It definitely keeps my energy level a little higher and, maybe more importantly, lowers risk of dehydration/exhaustion, which I always used to battle after long swims.  I typically put a scoop of some kind of electrolyte powder with the water because it’s easier on my stomach.

I have fallen in love with swimming because it used to scare the crap out of me but it’s morphed into a fun challenge I chip away at every day.  For the record my IM Wisconsin swim was 1:20, IM Louisville was 1:06, and I fully expect the Chattanooga current to whisk me under an hour.

New Podcast – How to Love Swimming

Here’s the first Crushing Iron audio podcast, duly titled the Squadcast (More on The Squad coming soon).  This is basically the student talking with the coach about how to, not only get better with excellent drills and workouts, but love your time in the pool.  There’s a bunch of good information in here that can take a long time to figure out, but is now translated in ways that everyone can understand.

Let us know what you think and what else you’d like us to discuss.  Next Podcast is on Open Water Swim training, including, how to simulate in a pool, beating anxiety, and importance of a solid warm up.

Click the orange arrow to get going.

How You Can Swim Safer and Faster In Triathlons

Here is a great article written on open water swim safety by my coach, Robbie Bruce.  Even though I posted this after my analysis, Robbie’s perspective is the precursor for a lot of my opinions on swimming smart, safe, and fast.  He looks at what’s right and what’s wrong with Ironman swims and gives a ton of solid information, including 8 things you can do now to be a better and more confident open water swimmer.

Triathlon Deaths – By Robbie Bruce


Over the past few weeks a lot has been written about in regards to the amount of deaths in triathlon especially in the swim portion. A lot of blame has been cast, towards pretty much everyone, and plenty of solutions have been suggested. The fact is, the blame falls upon us all. This problem will likely never see a 100% turn-around with zero deaths but there are plenty of ways we can improve while still keeping the sport tough.  Here is USAT fatality study discussed:

Dangerous conditions and temps- 

FINA (International Governing Body) came under some scrutiny in 2010 when American’s best open water swimmer Fran Crippen, 26 died during the 10k Marathon Swimming World Cup in the UAE.  It was reported the water temp was a balmy 87 degrees with the air temp hovering around 100.  Was he equipped to swim and race the distance?  More than anyone.  But, were the conditions unsafe?  FINA has since set minimum and maximum water temp regulations but others have not followed suit.

From the OTD article:

“There is a growing consensus that a warm-up or pre-race water acclimation area can help relieve athlete anxiety, but races are not required to provide one.  USA Swimming and FINA, that sport’s international governing body, have set minimum and maximum water temperature regulations for open-water races, but USA Triathlon officials have not.”  (There are rules about when wetsuits can be worn.)

Veteran Southern California open-water and triathlon coach Gerry Rodrigues is sharply critical about the absence of water temperature “collars,” and maintains that the sport must protect amateurs in that area.”

“Generally, most triathletes are under-prepared for their triathlon open water swim segment,” he wrote in an email interview with “Outside the Lines.” “Introduce the extreme element of super cold water, coupled with their anxiety from a crowded field race environment, lack of prep, fast race start without warm-up, a tight wetsuit and a predisposed health condition, the formula is now there for increased problems.”

I absolutely agree that both USA Triathlon and WTC should implement a water temperature “collar.”  That was my concern for athletes doing Ironman Tahoe.  Some water conditions are often deemed too rough and many races have cancelled the swim portion of their event.  Don’t get me wrong.  I will swim in anything.  I am lucky enough to have a background in open water swimming and I prefer it rough in the water.  It benefits me from a competitive standpoint but I also understand the risk to the triathlete.

The swim portion of the New Orleans 70.3 race I signed up for in 2012 had its swim cancelled.  I was personally bummed but as I ran past the lake on the pre-bike run leg I saw the conditions and thought to myself, “Man. That is some very rough water.  I would swim it and have a rough time but I can totally see why they cancelled it today.”  I hated it but it made sense.  From an Race Director’s perspective, if you have it and then have all of your kayaks assisting swimmer who can’t finish what happens if someone does have an emergency?  Who is there to help?  The RD is the least favorite person when a race is cut short, but that is the part of their job.


Athlete Preparation- 

Gerry is one of the most well regarded experts and coaches when it comes to open water.  He has his team based in San Diego, CA called Tower 26  Click on the link and the first words you see in big/bold letters “BE RACE READY.”

That is where I believe triathletes set themselves up for, not only lost time in the swim , but potentially lost years off the rest of their life.  As often as triathletes are lauded for their dedication and attention to every detail, they are also incredibly lazy when it comes to certain areas.  We look for any way to buy “free’ speed.  We will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on items just to help us “go faster.”  The only item you can purchase that covers both safety and speed are those funny looking aero helmets.  They cost around 2-300 dollars and we will maybe wear them 4-6x per year.

When it comes to swimming, triathletes have been told for year and years, “The swim doesn’t really matter.  Don’t waste your time trying to get much faster.  Just try and get through it.”  Not only from a training perspective but a preparation perspective these types of attitudes have always rubbed me the wrong way.  One of the most alarming quotes from the OTL piece to me is this one:

“A week before the race, they did a test open water swim not far from the triathlon course.  They talked with their teammates and coach about how to stay calm if they got bumped or felt panicky in the water.”

In no way am I saying this increased a possibility of death but it did not help.  The fact though is that this is much too common among triathletes.  “Race is coming up!  Let’s go try on a wetsuit and swim an easy 20mins in the lake.  That should do it.”  It is a lot like people walking into a nutrition store 2 weeks before Spring Break, purchasing a “weight loss” pill and expecting it to help the way they look at the beach.  I hate to break it to you.  It does not work.

If your race has hills on the bike.  You train for hills.  If it is going to be hot.  You train in the heat. If the race is open water and could be rough you . . . train in the pool.  Wrong.

But, that is the widely practiced and expected method of training and it should not be.  This responsibility falls on the athlete and the coach.  You can’t mentally prepare for the swim start of a triathlon.  You must live it and practice it and then . . . you learn to love it.  It is less about starting the race faster than your counterparts and more of what it does for your overall comfort in the water.  You see more fear on the faces and in the eyes of triathletes as they walk to the swim.  It is not the length of the 140.6 miles it is the 2.4 miles that await them in the water.  Bottom line- quit over-looking the swim.

Race Directors-

I have never directed a race nor do I have the desire.  Being an RD is a lot like being a long-snapper.  No one knows your name until something bad happens.  During the OTL show the subject of under-trained and prepared volunteers was brought up.  This is a dicey area where there is no real answer or solution.  Would it be ideal if every single volunteer in the water was open water rescue certified?  Yep.  Is that practical? Absolutely not.

I think most of you would agree, every time I walk into the YMCA to swim in the pool I look around and think, “If something does happen to me. I am pretty much screwed.”  So even requiring a pool certification for in water volunteers would likely be a mute point from a safety/preventative point.  In fact, a few weeks ago during a race I was actually leading in the swim and had my own personal kayak following me.  I thought “man this is nice but if do have an emergency what is that person going to do to save me?  There is no boat around.  Good luck getting me in the kayak and to shore.”

There were not enough volunteers or boat safety.  Last weekend I stood on the shore at the Goose Pond Triathlon watching some of my athletes swim the 2 loop 1.2 mile swim.  It was well supported with 15-20 kayaks and 4 support safety boats.  EMS was also parked by the swim exit.  That race had maybe 200 participants.  Did it seem safer?  Yep.  Could it have prevented a swim death?  We will never know.  What is the solution? No idea.

I do believe courses should be available to in water volunteers the day before or even 2 days.  They are not handing out water and sponges.  They should have to meet a criteria I believe.  They have a bit more responsibility to put it lightly.

Governing Bodies-

As I stated before I believe a temperature “collar” should be implemented but it doesn’t need to stop there.  World Triathlon Corporation has the “SwimSmart”  initiative  that includes a minimum of 52 degrees and a maximum of 88.  I think the 52 is a bit low, and let’s be honest, they will drop that thermometer 50 times in order to find a 53 so they won’t cancel the swim.

Cancelled swim means lost revenue.

I think access to a pre-race warm up should be available at EVERY event.  Especially when the temps are cooler.  Stretch cords aren’t going to do it folks and don’t prevent anything.  Make it happen.  As great and safe as the new “rolling start” sounds there is no correlation to increased deaths because of mass starts.

I actually think the mass start, second only to the time trial start is the safest.  You have 1-3 rows in the front going out hard.  Most of these are experienced open water swimmers.  As the rows go back you have the slower, less experienced swimmers. With multiple “waves” now you have actually increased the number of front row swimmers likely to go out fast or hard.  It might reduce the “bumping” and “chaos” but I doubt the anxiety and lowering of your heart rate.  Above everything else, just add a pre-race warm up.

What can you do? 

–  Prepare for the swim like you do the bike and run.  It’s simple.

–  Go in for routine check-ups with your doctor.  We may think we are invincible and our kids may think we are the comic version of Ironman so do yourself and your kids a favor and get your engine checked.

–  Bump and Grind.  Find as many ways to simulate the roughest start possible. Do that and race day will feel calm.

–  Make yourself swim hard and do it often.  Most triathletes swim the same speed…all….the….time.  Know how that feels.  You will be a better swimmer and the first 100-200 meters of the race won’t be a surprise to your aerobic system.

–  Choose venues that suit your abilities, experience and confidence.

–  Swim in the open water as much as possible.  You won’t only learn to hate the pool, you’ll increase you fitness.  Ever notice how much harder long course practices are from short course?  Go get in the open water.  Increased comfort, fitness, and ability will follow.

–  Learn to love swimming.  If you can do that you will find more ways to prepare appropriately.

–  Look at race history and the percentage of cancelled swims.  Don’t like it rough.  Don’t sign up.

Prepare to swim smart, safe and fast.


Mass Swim Start vs. Rolling Start

Recently, ESPN “Outside the Lines” spearheaded this piece on the dangers of open water swim in triathlon.  It is a gloomy account that’s steeped in murky water — and I’ll likely be reminded about it for years to come by friends who prefer the safety of a couch.

Of course I feel bad for anyone who has lost a loved one to inopportune death.  Two close friends of mine have died (outside of triathlon) when I least expected it, but no amount of advice or controls would have changed those endings.  People go their own way, and people pursue Ironman because they have a desire to push themselves to the limit.  They understand what they’re signed up for — and making them wear seat belts doesn’t mean they won’t be texting and driving. 1262448_10101494401544250_1855321082_oI could be the poster child for anxiety in the water, but the “danger” of open water swims is half (or more) of the reason I am so drawn to them.  I have done every kind of swim start and have turned into a basket case in multiple races.  I’ve clutched kayaks, buoys, and pool edges trying catch my breath, calm down and get a grip on reality.  I understand how it feels to be in a major state of panic which can trigger something we are now referring to as “worrisome” situations.

9256_10101494399777790_778338974_nWorld Triathlon Corporation has responded to increasing criticism with “rolling swim starts” as part of their Swim Smart initiative.*  Swim Smart is a solid and progressive idea, but rolling starts are are not a panacea.

The ESPN article says, “There are no simple answers,” yet, I think this line, buried deep in the piece, is the key to everything:

“There is a growing consensus that a warm-up or pre-race water acclimation area can help relieve athlete anxiety, but races are not required to provide one.”

Most outsiders would probably look at rolling starts and say, “Oh, yes, that is much safer because of fewer people and less body contact,” but as a relative beginner and someone who has been there, I don’t believe those are the main issues.

I consider myself a “decent” swimmer and felt comfortable enough to start in the front row of a 2.4 mile swim with 2,800 people, but just six weeks later I nearly freaked out 500 yards into a wave start with 60 swimmers at the Goosepond 1/2 triathlon.  Why?

Top tier athletes are experienced and in good enough shape to “get by” without a good warm up, or acclimation to the water, but marginal swimmers or older age groupers (like me) are not as equipped physically or mentally.  And I’ve learned, that it’s not the anxiety of body contact as much as the rush of the race that throws me off.  When the cannon fires, people lose their minds and for some reason think they can sprint an entire Ironman.  At the very least, most forget their plan and go out way faster than they should.

It’s not like rolling starts prevent contact.  You’re still talking several hundred people starting at once and there will be flogging.  Two athletes I trained with this summer just did the rolling start at Ironman Florida and one got a fat lip . . . the other a black eye.

If you want to talk about tough ways to start a race, look at Ironman Louisville (which I will be doing next year). 3,000 racers stand around in the dark, then shuffle down a pier and jump into the water with tight feet.  As far as I know they don’t even let you warm up in the water (unless you’re a pro) at Louisville — and I think going in cold is by far the biggest concern.

Getting into the water 20 minutes early at Ironman Wisconsin saved my swim.  I was in tune with my surroundings, acclimated to the water, and treading that long was a good warm up. It was an mass start and by far my longest open water swim, but I had no abnormal anxiety.

If we want safer races, which we do, triathlons and coaches should put more energy into educating people about the importance of a warm up, or be clear that they start comfortably at their own pace.  Rolling starts may spread out the humanity, but they do nothing to slow a person down, in fact, they may speed them up in the worst way possible.

Ultimately, this comes back to the athlete.  Nobody knows your body better than you and ignorance of the law is no excuse.  I have “failed” in multiple swims, but I cannot blame that on the race or race director.  It was me that didn’t warm up.  It was me that didn’t put enough time in the pool or open water.  It was me that didn’t listen to the coach or doctor.  It was me who didn’t meditate, hydrate, or get enough rest.

I got into that mass swim start at Wisconsin fully aware of the risk, and that’s what I loved about it.  I am here to live, not sit around and hope life shows up in a child proof package.  But it seems we are on an impossible mission to take all risk out life, and our obsessions usually tend to make things more dangerous.

Deaths in triathlon are a sad, but inevitable fact that has more to do with individual preparation and precaution than simply changing the rules of the race.  I realize the short term focus is aimed at pleasing lawyers, but triathletes I know prefer to deal with the real problems rather than mask the symptoms.


*  IRONMAN defines a rolling swim start as: Athletes will enter the water in a continuous stream through a controlled access point, similar to how running road races are started. An athlete’s times will start when they cross timing mats under the swim arch.

A Painful Cramp

More than ever, my body has been looking me deep in the eyes and asking, “WTF?”

Here I am approaching 50, putting on mileage I’ve never dreamed possible, and clearly that doesn’t come without complications.  Last night’s 3,000 meter swim was a great example.journeyThe workout included a warm up, followed by 40 x 50 meter combined set and a cool down.  I felt fairly strong as I cooled down for 400 meters, but when I got to the end and jumped out of the pool, I was nearly brought to tears by a piercing cramp in my left calf.

As I was leaning against the wall screaming bloody murder in front of the lifeguard and festive aqua-bikers, the guy in my lane asked if I was ok.  I said, “Yeah, I’m just cramping.”  He calmly replied, “I used to get them all the time when I swam with the pull buoy.”


Yes, I remember Robbie telling me that when I was dealing with MUCH smaller cramps in the pool.  The logic is that when you immobilize your legs with the buoy, the blood circulation to your lower body slows and quick movements can launch a cramp attack.  I did know and understand this, but how quickly we forget.

I’m not gonna lie, my night was filled with a bit of panic.  I was having a hard time walking and the calf was very sore.  I tried to imagine running and it did not go well.  Could all of this training be derailed by a freak incident?

I vowed to get back in the water as quickly to start the mental healing process, and though I was 45 minutes late, I showed up at Open Water Swim to knock out 30 minutes in the lake.  I took the usual ridicule about being late, then swam up and down the orange boom for 32 minutes without stopping.  No pull buoy, no cramps, but tired arms.

Robbie and I talked for a bit after the swim (as we watched the next Pele run line drills in the sand) and he suggested the other reason for cramps in the pool can be from pushing off the wall.  This makes a ton of sense, especially when blood flow to your legs is low, and you’re exploding off the balls of your feet which targets the calf muscles.

Aside from the pull buoy, I suspected there was another major reason for the cramping: dehydration.

I am just shocked by how much I am sweating these days, and I’m assured that’s a good thing, but I have certainly not been compensating like I should with hydration.  I used to drink a lot of Coke (thankfully that habit has gone away) and my rule was always one glass of water immediately following a soda.  Now I drink coffee, and on some days too much.  It is painstakingly clear that, as mileage rises, I have to be careful and add more liquids.

I guess a third culprit could be sodium loss and last night, along with drinking a ton of water, I pulled out my homemade Gatorade recipe of 1/2 water, 1/2 orange juice, and a little bit of sea salt.  It tasted like ass, but I’m doing what I can.

So, I sit here less than a month away with a very sore calf and hope I can get this under control. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

My YMCA Confession

Three or four times a week I slither into the downtown YMCA for a swim.  And every time I get anxious about crossing paths with my nemesis.

After scanning my card, I take a deep breath and turn the corner to the mens’ locker room.  Without fail, I hear the chilling words . . .

“Hey man, let me get them shoes.”

I mean, he’s a nice guy, but I feel a tremendous burden to let him drop polish on my dogs.  The problem is, I’m not really into getting my shoes shined in the first place, and frankly, I feel like I need to give him at least 5 bucks.  And 5 bucks a day on top of my Y membership dues is no way to go through life!

So, for a while I resorted to saying things like, “I’ll get you next time,” or simply, “I’m good, man.”  But my words were always greeted with a sad-shoe-shiner-face that I couldn’t get out of my head.  Then one day I had an idea.

I gave him my sweetest black dress shoes, 5 bucks, and said, “Make these babies sparkle!”

He gave me a big toothy grin and said, “Aww, man… you know I’m gonna hook you up.”

And he did.  Those shoes were almost too bright to put on.  People were putting on shades when I walked by.  That shine was wicked and the minute I got to my car I put them in my trunk.

Now, when I park in the garage, I change out of the shoes I’m wearing and put the shiny shoes on before I walk into the Y.  Half the time they don’t even match my outfit, but I give him a big ass smile before he says, “Hey man, let me get those . . . ”  His words trail off into the ether like he knows he can’t eclipse his best.

I’m sure he will eventually catch on, but for now I’m not dropping an extra fin every time I hit the pool.  But, if he starts offering to clean dog hair off my socks, I would be forking it over like an addict at a black jack table.

Trying To Understand Swimming

You just stroke, then breathe and it never leaves a bad taste like masturbation.

Swimming is the perfect escape and reconnection.  A body made of water flowing through itself.  I have yet to find an exercise more invigorating.

Tonight I knocked out a mile in 35 minutes or so and that is not gonna cut it.  I suppose it would help if I actually knew how to swim, but I can’t seem to figure it out on my own.

Making matters worse was the woman in the next lane teaching her little girl how to swim. The woman didn’t really look like a swimmer, but she was throwing around a lot of “thumbs first” and “keep hands away from face” kinda stuff, and my end-of-lane-breaks were couched with that “acting like I wasn’t listening look” but I was definitely listening.

I’ve watched a bunch of videos and read books, newsletters, encyclopedias, Twitter posts, and DVR’d the Olympics, but I can’t quite tell which of my growing array of styles is faster.  It doesn’t help that I can’t see the second hand on the clock because I’m getting old and blind (maybe I need to cut back on the masturbation).

Anyway, if anyone has swimming advice, I’m all ears.

Today’s Diet
Breakfast:  Protein Shake, Two cups of coffee
Snack: Fiber bar
Lunch: Two pieces of fried cod, french fries, unsweet tea
Snack: Chips, green tea
Pre-swim: Orange juice, blueberry, strawberry, banana smoothie (blender)
Dinner: Kale, broccoli, carrot, apple, ginger (in juicer)
* I’m sure I’ll ad something else solid to this day.  Likely a can of tuna and a few pickles.

Summary:  This is not the most impressive diet-day, but I’m not avoiding my cravings and they are naturally fading away.  It’s pretty sweet to see the change and not have to depend on willpower.