Swimming is very much like the old saying about planting trees: The very best time to start was ten years ago. The second best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is today. But tomorrow is too late.
I myself did not start ten years ago but I did incrementally improve my skills and technique and open water experience and achievements.
For the beginner triathletes and open water swimmers who start asking me these swimming questions in May to July, it’s usually too late, but here are my answers to the twenty-ish most common questions I get.
I’m answering these questions at the end of the summer in preparation for next year, hopefully giving you lots of time, avoiding last-minute useless panic…
Yes, I know I’m not a triathlete but many have asked me about swimming, and open water swimming is what I know. I was once a beginner open water swimmer also, but I get an annual surge in questions about open water swimming questions especially from beginner triathletes at this time. Occasionally I get asked in November or December and tell the person to start in January. But then I don’t hear from them again until? You guessed it… May or June.
Q 1. I have a triathlon is two weeks, do you think I can do enough swim training for it?
A. 1. No, you are not ready.
Q. 2. Surely you can help me get through the swim leg?
A. 2. No, not in two weeks and asking me doesn’t mean you have “permission” to swim. Really I will help, but short cuts are just impossible, and more importantly, unsafe.
Q. 3. I’m really afraid of open water/depth/cold/creatures/other swimmers. I don’t think I can overcome it. Can I?
A. 3. You are not a special case. Many world-class open water swimmers deal with some or all of these issues, such as English channel record holder and former World # 1 FINA Grand Prix swimmer Trent Grimsey, who is afraid of underwater creatures. Fears can be dealt with or overcome through both physical and mental training. Again, this takes time and training.
Q. 4. Isn’t swimming continuously for 30 minutes the best preparation for a continuous triathlon swim?
A. 4. No, you need to do interval swimming. Long distance and marathon swimmers mostly train by doing intervals (aka threshold training), not swimming 10 to 20k continuously all the time. You can start introducing interval training by thinking about Zone or Heart Rate Training.
Q. 5. Is twice a week enough to swim in training?
A. 5. No, you need to swim more often. At least three sessions of at least 2000 metres per session is the very minimum I advise (Most open water swimmers will train five to even seven days a week). That minimum I recommend for you is based on doing the shortest triathlons or open water swims of only about one kilometre. Maybe you should have a look at “How much do I need to swim for -x- open water distance?”
Q. 6. Won’t the wetsuit help?
A. 6. Only in the wrong way. The biggest mistake triathletes make is assuming their wetsuit is a safety device and a substitute for training. Relying on it to get you through is looking for trouble and is substituting neoprene for training. When you are crossing a road do you do so without looking and rely entirely on the traffic to react to you?
Q. 7. A lot of the open water swimmers look, well, less fit than me. Aren’t they just using natural fat instead a wetsuit and all quite slow?
A. 7. That includes me. But no, those open water swimmers are just better prepared. Don’t be fooled by our weight, that’s a choice and sacrifice that most of us make. I’ve never trained in any sport as long or hard as I have for marathon swimming.
Q. 8. I couldn’t ever be as good as you if I have no talent for swimming, right?
A. 8. No, it’s not natural talent, it’s hard consistent work for all swimmers over years. Swimming is one of the toughest and most demanding sports there is. And I speak as a former competitive cyclist and runner also.
Q. 9. I can swim 2000 or 2250 metres per hour. Is that fast?
A. 9. No, it’s slow but others are afraid to tell you. I personally define fast as 4000 metres per hour or over. I swim 3500 to 3800 metres per hour. I am not fast. Can you swim 3600 metres per hour? So now train to get faster and learn to work with your current speed. Start with understanding how to structure a basic swimming training session and start doing interval work.
Q. 10. Can I do an Sprint or Olympic triathlon in two weeks time if I swim a lot before then?
A. 10. No, it’s too late to be ready in two weeks. Or three, or four weeks.
Q. 11. Is it too late to be ready in two weeks time?
A. 11. You should have started earlier. But swimming is like planting a tree: The best time was before today. The next best time is today. It’s not too late to be start to start preparing for some more realistic target.
Q. 12. I feel like I’m pretty good at stroke. Do I need to do regular technique training?
A. 12. Yes, your technique still needs improvement. But so does everyone else’s, including mine. Here’s some triathlete specific advice I’ve written from what I’ve seen over the years.
Q. 13. I have limited or no access to open water. Do I really have to practice in it?
A. 13. Yes, you need to swim in open water regularly. The only way to practice open water is in open water and all those articles telling you otherwise are lying. If it’s fresh water, train in fresh water, if it’s sea water, train in the sea.
Q. 14. Do I need to practice in open water if I’m training in a pool all the time?
A. 14. Yes, you need to swim in rough open water also and learn open water techniques, as well as such skills and sighting and navigation and learning responsibility for your own safety.
Q. 15. Can I learn better technique, or speed or open water skills?
A. 15. Yes, you can learn all the appropriate skills but you can’t do it in two weeks. I know I’m repeating myself. that’s because a lot of you reading this won’t listen anyway. For running, just running more frequently will make you a better runner and the same with cycling. Swimming and open water swimming are far more complex, and require constant correct technique training, open water skills, and experience. Have a look at the How To articles section for some of that.
Q. 16. I think I started swimming when I was too old. Do you think I can get any better?
A. 16. Yes, you can get better. Swimming technique can always be improved regardless of age. It’s just far more technical than running or cycling (as a former runner and cyclist also). I can point out multiple stories of English Channel swimmers who only started swimming when they were 40 or even older and in 2014 alone the oldest male Channel solo swimmer record was broken. Twice!
Q. 17. So do you think I can do a sprint or Olympic or even Ironman triathlon next year?
A. 17. Yes, you can be ready for next year. Probably even for an Ironman if you train correctly, and get the right advice. And start right now!
Q. 18. What should I do next so?
A. 18. Don’t waste the autumn, winter and spring. Technique training in the pool and interval training and do some open water swimming at the weekend, especially now while the water is still warm. Hell, go swimming after you read this article. Stop thinking that just reading what any of us Internet gurus will make you better. Get swimming first.
Q. 19. You’re sure I shouldn’t do it (that triathlon/swim I asked you about)?
A. 19. No, if you cannot breathe easily while swimming, you really are not ready regardless what others tell you. Your goal shouldn’t be “just get through the swim” like so many triathletes. Your goal should be to swim it easily and comfortably so that you enjoy the sport and you can improve and progress.
Q. 20. Doing it your way means everything is too far away and I won’t get started.
A. 20. Races aren’t the start of a process, they are the goal and the result of practice and training and experience. Open water swimmers learn to study the constraints and to plan ahead. As open water specialists, they (we) can aid you in your triathlon swimming leg. If you start correctly now, and spent the time learning and training for next, you will be better, more efficient and comfortable and perform better next year. This will result in greater enjoyment and longer term engagement in the sport.
The common traits shared by so many of the questions and answers is to assume that swimming is too difficult, and then instead of treating the difficulty as a challenge, postponing actually working on the skills, from technique, to pool training, to open water training. And the next year the situation hasn’t changed and it’s all too late again.
In short, sometimes it really is too late to start if the immediate or looming deadline is wrong, but it’s not too late to start for the right deadline.