Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Swimming to Peak Performance

Swimming out of Necessity

I first jumped in the pool at my local gym because it was all I was allowed to do as I tried to heal from a herniated disc without the benefits of health insurance. I could barely swim two lengths before having to stop. My recovery time was embarrassing. I stood against the side of the pool trying to catch my breath for longer than it took me to swim the two lengths! Once I regained control of my breathing, I was only able to swim one length of the pool a few times before I could attempt a two-length swim. If I tried to swim too far too quickly I often had to do the unthinkable - stop in the middle of the pool. Thank goodness the pool in Chicago where I first started swimming was only chest deep!

What added to the difficulty of swimming was my lack of confidence in the water. As a bad surfer I spent most of my time in the ocean getting tossed about by waves of minimal height. Getting caught inside when the surf was about waist high and feeling the panic pulse through my body like an injection of hemlock was no bueno. Panicking under water is the fastest way to make an enjoyable day turn sour. I couldn't help it. Losing control of myself while underwater was scary! Even the deep end of the Easton YMCA gave me pause when I tried to push my swim workouts beyond my comfort zone. Until recently a few 100s (4 lengths in most local pools) during any planned workout, made for an incredibly tough session.

I don't now where all this went wrong with me? My family tree is full of accomplished swimmers. My aunt was one of the most respected swim coaches in the Baltimore area and my cousins were quite proficient at swimming and diving. Their house was full of trophies. Somehow I must have missed out on those chromosomes…

Discovering the Benefits of Swimming

The beautiful thing about making swimming part of one's regimen is the wide-reaching lateral affects upon one's overall health and well being. A proper stroke will engage the whole body. I feel the muscles working from my fingertips to my toes. When you leave the pool, no matter how short or how long your session is, you will feel like you have accomplished something. You engage your upper body, your lower body, and your core so you make incredible gains without over-stressing your musculoskeletal system. You can even cheat on form and technique and still improve your overall health and well-being! (I must add that once I started working on bettering my stroke technique the gains I've made are well above and beyond any of those I made while thrashing around for a few hundred yards per day.)

Now I'm no scientist but swimming seems to be incredible for lung capacity. I know it has helped me but I think a better example would prove more credible evidence.
Example One: Jamie Mitchell, winner of the Molokai to Oahu Race 10 years in a row.
Just watch "Decade of Dominance" to see how integral a part of training swimming was for Jamie.  He started swimming as a child to help deal with asthma. Breathing in an upright position for 32 miles is hard enough; I can't imagine trying it hunched over on a traditional paddleboard, or at least I couldn't imagine it last year when I started entering the prone zone. Recently, with swimming as my number-one-go-to workout I feel as if longer races could very well be a part of my future. If one of the greatest paddlers in the history of the sport is a swimmer then I think it a grand idea to make swimming a major block of my training schedule.

Another inspiring example of how swimming can benefit the paddler became very apparent at last year's Mt. Pisgah Duathlon held by the Outpost of Holland when young Cassie M. put on a prone paddling clinic when she blew by the rest of us and kept up with the elite men on 14' SUPs. I remember being next to her for a few seconds at the start while she was laughing and chatting about how cold the water was while I was huffing and puffing trying to find oxygen for my lungs without passing out. Her performance was incredible. That girl made that stock paddleboard move like a rocket ship! She's not a paddler; she's a swimmer, a Division I swimmer currently in her freshmen year. If you had seen her paddle you would incorporate swimming into your training program too!

The Benefits Far Outweigh the Sacrifices.

Getting to a pool isn't always easy. Often, the times available for lap swimming mean setting the alarm quite a bit earlier each and every day or staying out later and missing all those wonderful reality tv shows in the late evenings. Time management around a pool schedule may seem difficult but if you know why you are doing it you will not hesitate to get out of bed at 4:05 am for a session or get home well after dark just in time for the ten-o'clock news.

Misery loves company. There will be others at the pool who are going after their own whys that will make you feel comfortable and welcome. A bond forms quickly when you walk into the locker room and find others who are willing to do what it takes. I guarantee, that if you have the right attitude, being around the athletes you meet at the pool will make it easier for you to want to improve. I'm a paddler. The people I meet at the pool are mostly accomplished triathletes. Most of the people my age swim in the fast lanes while I am pacing myself with my new friend Steve who is nearing 70. I want to keep working until I can move over to the fast lanes.

Being in the water in some capacity, meaning the pool, will loosen winter's stronghold upon your psyche. When there is free water I paddle and swim, but when all the nearby waters are frozen I rely on the pool to help keep me striving toward my 2015 goals. Although I am inside I am in the water and that makes seeing the icy river, lake, and bay a tad less heartbreaking. Sometimes just getting wet makes for a good day!

There are tools of the trade to make your swimming life easier. I wish I had been swimming with fins over the last few years. I got some TYR fins for Christmas and they have changed my world! Even the most lackluster session can turn into something with the addition of fins. I used to think that I would be cheating if I wore fins but that has not been the case. In the short time that I have been using them, fins have made my legs stronger. I am well aware of the need to kick wearing fins and that has transferred to my normal freestyle stroke. The gains I have made are, to me, incredible. I went from not being able to swim more than two lengths, when I first started, to now swimming at a good pace for 30 straight minutes as soon as I hit the pool. Having stronger kicks has a lot to do with my improving speed and endurance. Just like in SUP when I  started I was strictly an arm paddler . The same was true for swimming as I don't even know if I ever used my legs to kick. Thanks to implementing fins into my training sessions I now am well aware of my kicks.  Improving stroke technique is improving my swimming and, therefore, improving my overall athleticism.

Water, Even Chlorinated Water, is Fun

What makes pool swimming so great for me is being able to target a major weakness I had been dealing with any time I went out in surf. When I am done with my workload I do some fun drills that involve getting to the bottom of the deep end and either trying to run as many steps as possible or just to move through the water and surface then go back under and move some more trying to simulate being out in the ocean. This past summer I had a breakthrough. Panicking under waves was no longer as issue. I had never felt more comfortable being under the waves as I did this summer. I even tested myself to see how many waves I could stay under before needing a breath! If I knew I was going surfing I made sure to get to the pool to swim laps and do some underwater-breathing drills. The confidence I have gained from the pool makes dealing with all the logistics worthwhile.

Thanks to my new-found love for swimming, in 2015 I am planning on doing the two pier-to-pier races in Wrightsville Beach. One is in May and the other is in September. Swimming has done so much for my paddling and my overall health that I want to make it a major part of my recreational schedule. I am only waiting for the warm weather and that salt-water buoyancy to take the training out to the open water. I can only hope that, like my friend Steve, I'll be hitting the pool as I near 70 too!

Sure swimming is hard at first but isn't everything when we first start? Swimming will become FUN! I used to sink. I was asked to not be on the swim team when I was younger. It was hard and I wasn't very good at it. I'm still no Michael Phelps in the pool but I don't need to be. I am making gains every time I hit the pool for a session, even if I am in the geriatric lane. Not swimming in winter is almost like not paddling in spring summer, and fall. Once you reap the benefits I bet you will feel the same way. No matter what your main discipline is, swimming will help you rise toward your goals. I suggest you go get wet!


  1. Good post...thank you for sharing your swimming experiences. I have been thinking about swimming as an alternate exercise to replace/complement pick-up basketball. I'm now going to call two local swimming spots and inquire about lane times. The prospect of early morning or late evening sessions does not scare me off!

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