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Training for a triathlon: Sink or swim
June 3rd 2015
Susannah Taylor is training for a triathlon, and has found learning to swim properly the most rewarding part of it all
This last week has been tough - I wasn’t able to go training as usual because one day all trains were cancelled into London (I sat in traffic on the M40 for 5 hours instead - joy), and I also felt like I was coming down with a lurgy most of the week, which to be honest is maybe just sheer exhaustion. I almost felt like cancelling the whole week and going to bed. Triathlon training does take it out of you (how can it not?), and I’m probably not getting enough sleep or not quite eating enough food in line with the increase in exercise. In a way I feel like I’ve been forced to rest a bit, which is no bad thing, especially with Blenheim Triathlon just 2 weeks away. Gulp.
One productive thing I have done this week though, is swim. On triathlon day we will have to swim 750 metres, which may not seem that far, but when you’re out in the middle of a lake with a wetsuit on, no nice floor to put your feet down on and nothing but a bit of algae to hold onto, it can be bone-shakingly terrifying. Last year I had swimming lessons in Oxfordshire with an amazing woman called Sibylle who got me doing front crawl properly. It was incredibly liberating going from being fatigued after one length to being able to do about 40 lengths without stopping, but it’s something I feel I still need to improve upon.
My first splash of the week was plunging into the icy Dorchester Lakes in Oxfordshire on Saturday at 8am (I know, this is how I roll these days). When it comes to triathlon training you have to adopt a no-fuss attitude. Gone are any thoughts of looking stylish - sign up for a tri and before you know it you’ll be wearing head-to-toe Lycra (with extra padding that mishapes your bottom), swimming hats that make you look like a boiled egg, and really unnattractive goggles.
With a water temperature of 14 degrees on this Saturday (my friend Viv’s lips were blue), British lake swimming is honestly more about survival than how you look. One thing I was a bit squeamish about however was that I’d forgotten to bring flip-flops, and to be honest, geese poo squidging in between my toes at dawn on a cold and grey English river bank isn’t really my idea of fun. Although, I was more concerned about how I was going to survive the murky green lake stretching out in front of me to care.
Turns out the swim was OK, reassuringly OK in fact. Organised by the Oxford Tri club, we had an amazing teacher who took my friends and I through lots of handy tips to help us through the open water swim; after the initial breath-zapping shock of getting in, she told us to bob right under the water to see how bouyant a wetsuit is. ‘You won’t drown in a wetsuit’ she laughed. ‘Thank God,’ I murmured - it sounds ridiculous but it was reassuring for me to know that if I stopped in the middle of the lake I wouldn’t sink to the bottom; she taught us to scoop water into our wetsuit to create a layer of water between it and our skin to keep us warm (it worked), and she taught us a technique called ‘crocodile eyes’ where you swim every so often with your eyes just above water level. This enables you to see where you’re going because without those markings on the bottom of a pool it’s incredibly easy to swim round in a circle if you don’t look up. One other thing I learnt is not to panic at the initial shock of not being able to catch my breath and not to allow it to put me off breathing though the next few stroke of front crawl, because as I warm up, my breathing would instinctively calm down.
Then, in stark contrast, on Tuesday I visited the Workshop Gymnasium at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge - all lacquered wood and shiny state of the art equipment - a far cry from the hut and communcal showers at Dorchester lakes. First I had a fascinating Framework assessment in the gym with an awesome Irish trainer called Brian Walpole. This was a series of in-depth tests that assess your weaknesses and strengths, and highlights what needs work. I was taken through rigorous balance, stability and strength tests and found out my legs are strong but I’m bad at controlled rotating. I then had a metabolic test which involved lying still with a strange looking mask over my face for 15 minutes before getting a readout. It said I have a high metabolism and burn 1800 calories a day without trying - no wonder I’m HUNGRY ALL THE TIME right now. I then had a fat test with callipers where they pinch the fat on different parts of your body, before a blood test that’s tested against 92 foods to see if I am intolerant to any (awaiting results, will keep you posted, quite excited).
I’m scared of freaking out on the day. Do I over-rotate? Do I kick too much/ too little? Am I breathing right? Where do my hands go? Will I drown?
Anyway, back to the swimming. Next to The Workshop gymnasium is the Bulgari pool, which is quite possibly the most beautiful pool in London, and if I could skive work and lie by it all day I would. Instead of geese poo underfoot I was presented with downy white non-slip slippers for the swimming area where lies a shimmering underground pool of 28 degrees (hallelujah!) flanked by white linen and mahogany day beds, and a gold tiled plunge pool (err sorry did I say I didn’t mind the lake? I changed my mind). Here I met with Tom Puntis, an incredibly nice personal trainer from The Workshop and their swim specialist. He seemed so nice in fact that I blurted out my deepest swimming fears, “I’m scared of freaking out on the day. Do I over-rotate? Do I kick too much/ too little? Am I breathing right? Where do my hands go? Will I drown?” Everything, basically.
Thankfully Tom didn’t think I was a total bafoon and, getting in the pool with me, helped put my fears to rest with a series of (quite tough) drills. In the first I had to glide through the water (core engaged) holding my breath. This may sound very simple but it was incredibly useful - in a triathlon you get kicked, the surface can be choppy, people might be in the way, and Tom explained that I might not be able to breathe every three breaths as I always do. Holding my breath in the water would get me used to feeling a bit uncomfortable and help me realise I’m not about to drown. Secondly I learnt to rotate with my core (and glide), and thirdly I learnt to breathe when rotating (and not to over rotate). Fourthly I learnt to efficiently use my hands and arms as paddles (who knew one hand should almost be beside the other before pulling the other back?). This was all brilliant but when Tom left, I struggled through a few lengths trying to process and put into action all the information he’d given me. Should I be learning new things so close to D Day, I asked myself? Probably not.
On Friday morning though, my mind was put to rest. I visited Banbury outdoor swimming pool - a 50 metre pool near where I live in Oxfordshire (twice the length of the one I usually swim in), where you can swim with a wetsuit on. Under grey skies and over its murky mud and plaster-strewn bottom, I put into practise some of the tips Tom had taught me. And you know what? It was quite frankly the best swim I ever had. 2200 metres later (a record for me), I felt positively elated.
We are taught swimming (like many things in life) when we are little, then never again, so how are we meant to be good at it as adults? I have so many friends who tell me they can’t swim well or can’t do front crawl. Learning to swim properly and efficiently has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done on my fitness journey - especially when I go on holiday and can swim out to sea and feel strong and unfrightened. For anyone that wishes they could swim better, my advice is to get in there and find a good teacher - remember you’re never too old to learn.
Follow Susannah at @STaylorGTG