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Triathletes and swimming - the "feel"?

Posted Jan 17 2011 8:46pm
Triathletes as a group seem to struggle with swimming.

Unlike the bike and run elements of triathlon where you can nip out for a quick 10km during lunch or ride on your trainer indoors after dinner while your respective partner sits on the couch and watches TV, swimming is significantly more time consuming.

You can't just "nip out" for a swim. Swimming takes planning. You must find a pool, often find a group to train with, fit that groups training hours, pack your swim bag, drive to the pool, get changed, warm up, FINALLY get into the water, do the session, get showered/dried off, drive back. Definitely not what you would consider an easy process.

When children and work are thrown into the equation swimming is often the first thing to get the axe. Swimming pools have strict lane swimming hours, offering little flexibility to a tight schedule involving a 9-5 job and school runs. But swimming, for literally all triathletes (myself included), is the most important part of training when you look at what you get out of the hours you put in.

Swimming relies on a huge number of things to be done in an effective and powerful manner. This huge number of things is often what puts people off, it can seem awesomely overwhelming. ESPECIALLY when coaches or athletes offering advice seem to refer almost mystically to this thing known as "the feel".

"You just need to get the feel of the water"
"Try and get the feel"
"You'll know when you get the feel"

Ah the glorious feel. Before I start to break it down into simpler terms I must admit my reasons for writing this post. I found the feel today. I've been back in full training mode since early November but today was the day, January 17th, when I got the feel back.

...digressing...

So the feel. What is it? Why does everyone make such a big deal about it? How can I get it?

Well the feel is a simply a word used to describe what is essentially a result. It is the result of a number of very important things all swimmers must do in order to get better. None of them more so than the triathlete swimmer. Triathlete swimmers swim less than stand alone swimmers (in general), they also have much busier training schedules given they have to compete in 3 different disciplines, it is of even more importance therefore that triathlete swimmers understand and are not afraid of the "feel" concept. They must embrace it and be willing to go after it, with the feel will come faster times, much more confidence and better races - which in the end of the day is the biggest goal of all.

Swimming is a technical sport. Pulling yourself through the water (without taking waves or fellow athletes into account) is a terribly difficult thing, therefore the more efficient you can be in doing so has a massive effect on performance. The technique of swimming I wont go into (see your coach tomorrow morning on pool deck) but I can say it comprises of a huge number of little things, little puzzle pieces that must all come together.

"Keep your hips up"
"Don't drop you elbows"
"Stretch forward when you enter"
"Don't cross over your centre line"
"High elbowed recovery"
"Don't jerk your head up when you breath"
"BREATHE!"

At least one of these things will have been shouted at you by your swim coach (they are still shouted at me on a regular basis) and they have a tendency of sticking in your head, usually knocking the old pieces of advice out of their way. When thinking about one aspect of technique you will more often than not forget about the others. Not an easy process.

This part of swimming ties directly into the next. Practice.

All those little technical aspects need one thing and one thing alone. Practice. Laps upon laps of practice, continual reminders of what you are doing wrong and embracing the process of improvement. Unfortunately what this requires is plenty of time in the pool, often a struggle. If you can get yourself into the pool regularly, 3 or 4 times a week, even if just for 45 minutes, on a week in/week out regular basis, you WILL see improvement. The things that at one point in time seemed overwhelming will suddenly start happening naturally, your hips wont be dropping as much, your breathing will feel natural, here it comes ... this is the feel.

You won't see it coming. One week you will be swimming up and down, feeling awkward, hitting slow times, over thinking every little bit of your stroke and the next week you get in and just start swimming.

Simple as that. You just jump in and the next thing you know you are 2km into the set and haven't thought about a single technical element ... more importantly your coach is saying "yeh you're looking pretty good this morning".

Your times start to come down, speed is accessed a little easier and there you have it ... the feel is yours.

It is nothing magical nor is it something just reserved for the swimming elite. Everyone can get it, its just a result of working hard, not letting yourself get demoralised and spending consistent time in the pool working hard. Not fast, just hard. Stay focussed and try and let things come to you, if you keep reminding yourself of your points of improvement they will eventually start to happen without the reminders. You will, in short, be pulling yourself through the water a little bit more effectively than before.

With the feel then comes the ability to train harder, the real gold mine. You can start to push yourself without over thinking your stroke, the focus becomes the intensity, where the real gains are made.

My advice would be to focus on getting your stroke sorted, be able to breathe comfortably (and to both sides) and get to a comfortable state where you can swim 2km without feeling awkward and unnatural. Be happy in floating up and down, doing some scull work, some kick and pull. Enjoy the water and the great feeling post swimming when you are exhausted. It's a great thing.

The feel will come to you, just don't build it up in your head or you will never find it.
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