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Open Water Swimming... Light At The End Of The Tunnel Part 1

Swim Club Swim Training Articles

The Endurance Store Swim Club provides you with simple swim training plans throughout the winter months. The plan runs October to October and is completely free. We only ask that you pre-register so that your training plans can be emailed directly.

Registration is free and you may unsubscribe at any time from the Swim Club and stop receiving updates. Overview of the swim plan be seen below, but before you start you need to complete a test to set your swim paces, then register and download the sessions. GO HERE to register for swim club.

During the many years I have spent training for triathlon, my experiences of swim training have been largely based upon the following:

I walk through the swimming pool changing area with only one thought "I hope that space is free by the wall so I can swim up and down without interruption". As I enter the pool area, I usually find that it's already been taken by a lady doing breast stroke who is clearly intent on standing her ground and will kick out at anyone who encroaches within 5m of her space.

Often I've arrived for an early morning opening or just prior to an adult only swim session. Presuming that my triathlon transition skills will get me through the changing area quicker than anyone else, I'm gutted to be beaten by the guy who presumably wore a velcro suit with trunks underneath and he's already half a length up the pool..

Such experiences lead me to join a local triathlon coached swim session where I was guaranteed that dodging school kids and fighting for pool space will not be required. Here the lanes are 'roped' and we swim in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction as governed by the coach, thereby guaranteeing an unimpeded swim. Coupled with that, the coach also separates us by 5 seconds to ensure we 'swim in our own clear water'. This is bliss, this is how swimming is meant to be, I focus on my stroke technique safe in the knowledge that I have my own lane and my own space. I entered by first open water mass start event and my swimming world was suddenly turned upside down..

Swimming is 80% technique and I'm consciously competent..

I started swimming at the age of 17 and learned front crawl swimming 'widths' before progressing to 'lengths'. I had no formal tuition until I read more and joined a club. It's said that there are 4 stages when learning a new skill and I recognise each of them, as follows:

1. Unconsciously incompetent - At first I was 'crap' and I didn't even realise it.

2. Consciously incompetent - Having had it pointed out by a coach and having read some books, I was still crap, but at least I knew it. That was a turning point, once I knew it, I could start to think about how to change it.

3. Consciously competent - After many years of practice I was able to swim pretty effectively,  but I have to think about it / concentrate at all times or it goes wrong.

4. Unconsciously competent - This occurs when someone is so good, they can swim with perfect technique without even thinking about it. I have no idea what this feels like.

Having swam for 26 years, I still find myself at stage 3 and don't believe I will ever reach stage 4. When I swim, I have to think about it ALL THE TIME if I want to do it right. Cycling and running are different, I can watch the scenery go by, have a chat and still manage to do it with pretty good form, but not swimming. this is one of the most frustrating things about swimming, I always have to concentrate and it's always an effort for this reason.

Only real elite swimmers reach stage 4 where they are able to swim with perfect form with no real conscious thought, if you are one of those swimmers, you need to know that not many people reading this blog like you.. So here's the point, if you want to swim well, unless you are an 'elite' swimmer, you ALWAYS have to think about your stroke technique, you have to focus on what you are doing at all times.

Tunnel Vision

You've probably heard the term 'tunnel vision' before. Sports psychologists may refer to this as 'internal focus' as opposed to 'external focus'. Internal focus is thinking about YOU and what you're doing, external focus is thinking about the things around you whether it be another competitor, the weather, the crowd or the scenery. Swimming in a pool with lane ropes and 5 second gaps between swimmers gives you the perfect opportunity to focus internally. How does your hand enter the water, reach, extend, catch.. and so on? There are no distractions, just you, the water and your own piece of unimpeded space.

Imagine what would happen if another swimmer crashed into you during that moment of internal focus. Would you continue to think about your stroke technique or would your focus change to the person responsible for this interruption? Here lies the problem with open water swimming, there are far too many external factors for you to focus on, whether that's the person crashing into you, the waves of water, the mouthful you just swallowed or simply the whole adrenaline powered excitement and surroundings stimulating all your senses. If you're thinking about the external stuff, you can't be focused internally and thinking about your stroke. Unless you've reached step 4 of the learning process, that's really going to cost you.

I meet a lot of people who consider themselves to be good pool swimmers, but they just can't replicate it when they swim open water. Being a great open water swimmer isn't about technique and fitness, it's about being able to use your technique and fitness to their full advantage in a completely different environment.

Being overly focused on the external stuff means you lose track of what you are doing and how you are feeling. At best, it results in a poor performance, at worst it results in a race ending panic attack.

In part 2 next week, we'll discuss some coping strategies which will ensure that your open water racing in 2017 is your best ever.

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The Endurance Store

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