Friday, June 5, 2015

There's a reason fish swim in schools...

...because swimming alone is boring!

I've been swimming with a group since December 2013 when we formed a coached swim group at our local pool under the direction of Tom Williams.

Now I can't imagine swimming alone. By alone I mean doing my own thing - yes with people in other lanes and a lifeguard - but really you are alone. The very thought of swimming alone again makes me sad. Swimming in a group is great fun!!

I do the majority of my running and biking alone. It's my preference. I enjoy the solitude and the time that I don't have to respond to anyone. It permits me the flexibility I need to fit those workouts in wherever I can. And my sessions are very specific with paces and goals that are tailored to me by Coach Jim. With running and biking there are changing landscapes, many metrics to follow, and plenty to keep it interesting.

But swimming - well I feel very differently about that. Pool swims are inherently solitary and repetitive.

But add in a coach, a lane-mate, and a group of similarly dedicated swimmers and it's a whole different ballgame! I have learned so much about swimming in the last year and a half, and I have had so much fun with my lane-mate Janet and my swim group friends. The post-swim locker room chatter is the icing on the cake. It's just a great way to start my day on Tuesday and Thursday.

I often encourage people to try out our group and see for themselves how fun and helpful it is. Few take that step. The reasons vary but include:

  • "6:30 am is too early" - You might find yourself grateful for the excuse to become more of a morning person; it's a great way to start the day!
  • "I am too slow" - While this is not a learn-to-swim group, one needs only basic lap swim proficiency. The workouts and intervals are tailored to each person's needs. You're placed in a lane with swimmers of similar speed and even within a lane, there can be further customization of times and rest intervals.
  • "I am self-conscious about my stroke" - We are all there to do our thing. No one is judging and the coach is there to give us each a few things to work on as our stroke develops. Don't expect to be picked apart, it's a gentle transformation. 
  • "As a triathlete I only care that I can get through the swim" - A better, more efficient and confident swim translates to a better bike and run. Learning to control the swim portion and not just survive it makes racing a whole lot more fun!
  • "It sounds too hard" - You can give it the level of effort you are comfortable giving. 
  • Inertia - reluctance to just show up and try it
Over the past year and a half with the group my swim has transformed dramatically. While I may not ever swim as fast as former Princeton swimmer Rebecca in the next lane, I am swimming better, faster, smarter, and far more confidently. Here are some reasons why the swim group has been beneficial:
  • My stroke has improved a lot because I have regular and consistent feedback and reminders from Coach Tom. My swim stroke is longer, more relaxed, my body position is so much better (no more sinking back end), and I know what I need to be doing! I now know what stroke *is* fast versus what feels fast but isn't. (It took me a long time to get that). It's very hard to fix your own position because perception and reality are often two different things. You need that set of eyes, that feedback, and the accountability. Coach Tom has a set of gestures for each of us as he walks along the lane to signal mid-set corrections we need to make. And when we are nailing it and swimming strong, we get the fist-pump that lets us know we are doing well!
  • I can better maintain technique as fatigue sets in, and I understand how my stroke breaks down and how to combat that. 
  • I have a better sense of pacing, again, especially as fatigue sets in. I never really used to pay attention to this, but I've learned to use a pace clock better, and Coach Tom tracks and reports back what our various splits are for longer swim sets so I can better understand how my effort levels translate to speed at the beginning/middle/end of a set. 
  • I have better focus / mental endurance now. Being challenged on a regular basis in my swim training requires me to be mentally dialed in as there is no room for sloppiness or inefficiency to make tight times!
  • My lane-mate provides built-in motivation. Most mornings I arrive at the pool and mumble something about low motivation. But a few hundred yards into the workout, I seem to find it. When I used to swim alone, there was quite a bit of just "going through the motions" to get through a set. Janet and I push each other just enough to get the best out of ourselves, together.
  • The swim group provides great accountability. Among our core group, no one ever skips a swim without a good reason. In fact, sometimes we show up when perhaps we should have stayed in bed!
  • We discover we are capable of more than we thought. Earlier this week, Coach Tom challenged us to 100's on our shortest interval to date that I did not think would be possible. Yet he knew it was doable, and what a great surprise to discover that it was!!
  • It's social. While we do work hard, we also find time for some pre-and post-workout chit-chat. And we laugh a lot about our half-functioning morning brains that can't remember instructions and whether we are on our 3rd or 4th or 8th interval. I am so glad for the friendships that I have forged through the swim group!

So what is a coached swim session like?

We start off with a 200-300y warm up, then do a more structured warmup that might include drills, kicking, and general aerobic swimming. From there we move into the main set. Two of our groups are more triathlon-focused and we swim almost exclusively freestyle. The "fast" group does more mixed stroke and IM work. The main set can include anything from 50s up to a 1500, but it's generally a mix of distances and effort levels. We finish up with a 200y warm-down.

Our middle group will average around 3500 total yards in a workout. 

So if you live in the New River Valley area and want to be part of a great swim group at the Blacksburg Aquatic Center, let me know!