Triathlon training: learning to swim in open water

In this blog series Diana writes about her quest to become a triathlete. Since August 2012, she trains with her partner Steven for triathlon events while traveling Central America. Select the posts tagged with ‘traveling triathletes; to read about her adventures to learn how to swim and run, about learning to eat differently, about choosing the right gear and their great variety of training locations picked in Central America.

Sometimes I meet people who are running marathons or half-distance marathons who are dreaming of doing their first triathlon but really have a fear for the swimming part. I can imagine why. Swimming is the most technical part of a triathlon and you have to do lots of things simultaneously to swim distance. My first time swimming in open water, in the summer of 2012 in the beautiful freshwater lagoon of Coyuca in Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico, I think I made it 10 strokes. I had to stop and go further in breast stroke across the lake for a bit and repeat the freestyle stroke part again after catching my breath.. I would turn around halfway the lake crossing. About 250 meters out and start wondering why swimming is hard…

I learnt how to swim when I was young in school, but those sessions in the local pool never included freestyle stroke. Where do you start when you never learned to swim this style? You think you know how it is done, more or less… You look at other swimmers and simply start doing what they do. And wow, that is hard! But fun. I really like to swim and decided to go on a quest to learn how to swim better, more efficient and faster.

I have to see things so I can repeat after the example. Every time before going out for a swim, I look at an instruction video on the Internet that explains a different part of the freestyle stroke that I can focus on during my session. I started at the very beginning. That is the VERY beginning: by simply floating in the water like a tree log, head down, get my arms to splash on the water a bit before stretching out. Using the downward force of my arm falling into the water is really useful, but difficult. I had (and still have) the tendency to rotate my hand and gently touch the water before entering my hand. I did not really get much distance covered in that first period of swimming. After a week or three of daily swims I got to feel comfortable in the water, trusting my body to be able to keep going, without panicking or getting out of breath or stopping all the time. Our last training week in the Coyuca lagoon in Pie de la Cuesta in August 2012, I swam 2 kilometers in about an hour and 20 minutes.

Ever since I started practising in that Coyuca lagoon, I love swimming. Almost more than I love biking. I could not imagine saying that, but it is quite true. To all those dreamers who love to do a triathlon at some point in their life, I would like to say: start small and make baby steps. Don’t watch Ironman videos in the beginning for those can be very intimidating for beginner triathletes. Remember: you don’t have to do a complete triathlon to begin with. Just start small with a sprint distance. With a little practice and determination you CAN swim 500 meters. Just get yourself started. Get off the couch (or bike 😉 and just start.

I want to leave you with a very useful teaching video I love to watch. The swimmer, our Mexican friend and winner of the sprint distance Ironman Cozumel 2012, Sergio Sarmiento. A must-see if you want to have an example of a really relaxed and effective swim style. In later posts, I will upload some video of me swimming and analyse those. If any of my readers has interesting links or knowledge on any of these topics, don’t hesitate to use the comment section!

Sergio Sarmiento (MEX)

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