Swimming….How Did This Become My 2nd Discipline?

When I first started this journey into triathlon I would have labeled myself a runner who can bike fairly well and is a horrible swimmer.  If you are a long time reader of this site then you know that I started working with Coach C because of my horrible swimming (read post here.)

In my first triathlon I walked the last 50 yards of the pool swim.  I was gassed and it did not matter how much I had swam before event I was not good, nor was I getting better.  I used to dread Sunday nights when I knew that Monday would bring a swim session, but also because that is the day that Coach updates my training for the following week.  I would look at the schedule with dread knowing that Monday and Wednesday were swim days.  Thankfully there were no other swim days involved in my training.

The dread didn’t end with seeing the swim icon in the schedule though.  It continued when I would open the schedule to see fist drill, 300 yard swim, 100 yard kick….all these sessions scared me and I hated them.  I just hated driving to the gym every morning in the dark to put myself in the water which I knew would be cold.  There was nothing fun about this sport, but thankfully I had the bike and the swim to keep me going.

I also never once skipped a swim session, no matter how much I hated them.  No matter how cold the water was, no matter how much water I swallowed, no matter how much water went up my nose I kept on going.  I kept plugging away.  Fist drills, finger-tip drills, 100y kick, catch-up drills, high elbows, swim over a barrel, scull….it was drilled into me every Monday and Wednesday.

Then it happened.  My first open water swim.  I went into it thinking I am ready.  I will be golden.  I have trained and I am prepared.  The gun went off and with reckless abandon I ran into the water with everybody else only to be kicked and punched and white washed to the point that my heart rate was close to 1,000,000bpm.  I quickly flipped on my back and backstroked approximately 400 out of 500 meters.  There were times I wanted to grab that kayak and pull myself into it.  I chose not to and chose to finish what I started.  I got out of the water 2nd to last in my age group but went on to a decent finish in the top half of the pack.

Then the competitor in me came out.  I started analyzing my performance and how I could improve my overall time if I were to knock 5 minutes off of my 14+ minute time at the 500 meter swim I just did.  Well the focus also changed and instead of dreading and fearing the Mon/Wed schedule I was excited about it and couldn’t wait to do fist drills and 100s on the :10 and feel the burn in my shoulders grow.  I didn’t have a choice as my first Olympic distance Triathlon was just around the corner.  I wanted to go into the Toyota US Open Championships primed and not scared of the swim.  I began loving everything about the swim.  When I finished the 1500 meters in 37 minutes I felt on top of the world and knew that my next race in the open water at 70.3 IMCA would be easier to do because it is not far from 1500 meters to 1.2 miles.

I went to California fully prepared to swim those 1.2 miles and be ready to ride the bike and kill it on the run.  I was so sure of my ability to swim the distance that I positioned myself right in the middle of the pack.  I was doing this and I was not going to back down from my fears.  I swam and I swam and I finished the distance in 40 minutes.  I felt awesome exiting the water and I knew that every drill I did was what led me to that point.

Then it really happened.  My confidence soared and I couldn’t get enough swimming.  I not only wanted to swim the sessions that Coach set for me but without me telling her I went and started doing a weekly open water swim of 1.2 miles.  I wanted to know that I was getting better and that all the hard work was paying off.  I was swimming 3-4 times per week now and loving every moment of it all.  The results of this hard work showed up at the CapTexTri Olympic Distance when I covered the 1500 meters in 31 minutes.  A 6 minute improvement over Toyota and the one thing that lingers in my head is that I could have gone sub-:30 in that race as I felt great and never really pushed myself.

I now consider swimming to be my 2nd best discipline.  I work hard at it because it is the one piece of triathlon that you cannot muscle through.  Your form has to be spot on otherwise it will be harder than it should be.  I work on my form when I warm-up and followed by yard after yard after yard of drills.  I work on my form when I am doing interval work, when I am going at threshold pace, when I am doing negative splits.  My form has been improved because of all these drills and I can’t get enough of them because I know they work.

I read an article by Marty Gael for US Triathlon on Active.com (read entire article here) but what stood out to me were the three main points.

Swimming Technique

Without at least decent swimming technique, you will always be limited in your ability to go fast for longer distances. This is an absolute. By decent technique, I mean that more of your energy is directed to moving you forward rather then pushing you backward, to the side, underwater, etc.


Don’t be scared, I am not going to suggest you start swimming twice a day, five days a week. Not unless you’re planning to swim in college, that is. For triathlons, and to see improvement in most working adult age-group triathletes, three times a week is what it really takes. Four or five swim sessions per week are even better if you are serious about becoming a faster swimmer.


Jumping into the pool and swimming laps until you’re tired or bored just became how you used to swim. You’re now going to graduate to structured workouts, like real swimmers use. Almost every swim workout you do should be structured, and each week should include workouts that target various systems like an aerobic workout (longer), a muscular endurance workout (mid-distance and moderate hard).

The exceptions to pure structured workouts are steady open water endurance swims or non-stop simulation swims in the pool, and those are structured in the sense that they’re included in the top-level organization of your training.

A typical swim workout should include the following components (example provided)

  • 10-15 percent easy warming up (4×100 easy on 20 seconds rest)
  • 10-20 percent drills and kicking (8x50s as alternating 1 drill, 1 kick on 15 seconds rest)
  • 40-70 percent main set (6×200 on 30 seconds rest or 12×100 on 15 seconds rest)
  • Optional additional drills
  • 5-10 percent cool down (100 easy)

Everything I had been doing with Coach’s instruction is exactly what you see here and the proof is in the pudding.  I swam 1.2 miles at IMCA in 40 minutes, but since I have picked up my volume I can now do an open water swim of 1.2 miles in 34 minutes, and I recently swam just over 2 miles in 1 hour and 10 minutes.  My improvement is not just in the numbers but also in my psyche as I know I can go faster which means dropped times and the confidence that I can do anything.  My goal of hitting sub-5:30 at 70.3 Austin is in the works.  By saving a minimum of 6 minutes in the swim alone I am halfway to where I need to be.  3 minutes on the bike and 3 minutes on the run and I am going sub-5:30.

I will now be transferring my learned lessons from the water to the bike as I now have a personal competition going on in my life.  I am allowing my swim and bike to battle it out for 2nd place, but my run had better be careful and keep working because that can easily be replaced by one or both of the other disciplines.


What Part Of Your Endurance Lifestyle Did You Despise But Learn to Love?

Are You Doing Everything You Can To Improve?




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  1. jennifer says:

    awesome!! And sounds VERY familiar. I have followed the exact same trajectory over the past 2 years. Feels amazing to master something… to expand one’s ability and comfort zone to encompass an activity we once thought impossible. LOVE IT. Great post, thanks!

  2. I can SOOOO relate to you on swimming! It was something to “get through” so that I could prove myself on the bike and run… And then I participated in a swim clinic that was instrumental in changing my swimming life.

    Once I knew what I was doing wrong, it was even more difficult to get in the pool (if you can imagine that), but I knew it was critical to work through the dissonance and keep pushing. I truly believe that my ability to work through all of that has been instrumental in my “reckoning” with swimming. :-) I’m actually kind of good at it now and have missed it tremendously as I’ve worked through a shoulder injury.

    My take on getting comfortable is here:http://molly-sweeney.com/?p=85

    I agree that “going through the motions” of the warm-up, drills, work, and cool down are critical. I come back ot this training even in the middle of a race when I need to recall that the point of the exercise is DISPLACING WATER rather than just going through the motions. Don’t discount the drill work!

    As always, a great post with a lot of talking points. Thanks!

  3. I’m at the early stages of this progression. A weekly private lesson with a really good coach has helped me pinpoint the areas to focus on. Now, it’s a matter of putting in the time. I still dread it a little because it’s very frustrating to me how quickly I tire out and my form breaks down. If I did a tri today I’d be walking that last 50m just like you did.

  4. Angela says:

    The beauty of triathlon is we all have that one sport that we have to contiuously work on and improve while maintaining and improving our “preferred” sports. I am way better at biking and swimming than running., which seems to be opposite of most triathletes. I learned to swim in the lake and only started going to the pool this past year, and I think that probably has helped with tri swimming confidence, except in water that is 53 degrees, as it was in a recent race!

    I love that you embraced your most difficult disclipline and turned it into a strong one. It’s a great example and exactly what I am working to do with running!

  5. Jeff Irvin says:

    Good post Jason. Your work ethic is inspiring!

    Right now my favorite part of Triathlon is the Bike followed by the swim and a distant 3rd is the run. The funny thing is that running is what comes naturally to me and is my best of the 3 sports?

    I could ride my bike everyday and because that is where the most time can be gained in Tri’s it is what I will continue to do!

    • Jason says:

      I have decided to create a competition within myself to get all three to be better. I haven’t figured out exactly how I want to do it but I am thinking best % improvement and then everything will be on the same ground.

      When I get back from this conference you and the rest of the guys will get an email about improving my bike.

  6. Mandy says:

    Running is my least favorite, but what I have the most experience in…figure that out. Biking is my favorite. Swimming?? I actually love it, but I SO need technique work! Like Jeff said, your work ethic is so inspiring!! I totally bagged out on a swim today (DOH!) because it was 50 degrees and raining and the pond looked….COLD. I will make it up tomorrow.

  7. Jamie says:

    I have just started my tri training and the swim scares me to death. I am not a strong swimmer, but can definitely bike and run well. I hope one day I can like the swim as much as you do!

  8. Chuck says:

    Awesome post Jason! Thanks for the inspiration.

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