Triathlon training: my pedalling is better than my paddling, but I’ll get there

Breathing woes, floating and gulping water may all prove to be a stroke too far

Paul Cullen goes uphill in the alps. Photograph: Paul Synnott

Paul Cullen goes uphill in the alps. Photograph: Paul Synnott

 

Completing a triathlon has been on my bucket list for some years. Having ticked the boxes marked “marathon” and “long-distance cycling event”, it seemed like the logical next challenge to undertake.

There was – is – only one problem: I can’t swim. Or, more precisely, I can’t move forward in water at any speed. Yes, I can do the breast stroke, ploddingly, but the front crawl, which involves putting your head in the water for much of the time, was always a stroke too far. One length of a pool and I was wrecked. Worse, I’d drunk the equivalent of a year’s allowance for the water charge and spent most of the time feeling as if I was going to drown.

You see people like me in swimming pools all the time, men and women whirling their arms and legs and going nowhere. Some of us float on the surface, which helps with the breathing; others, like me, sink like a stone, so we’re constantly fighting for air. (Women float better than men: that’s unfair.)

We can speed up slightly by moving our limbs faster, but at a price: getting exhausted faster. If I had more sense, I’d leave the water to the fish. But I don’t, so here I am flailing about in the local swimming pool three times a week, hoping for a miracle. I’m making progress, but painfully slowly.

Since Christmas, I’ve gone from not being able to swim a single 25m length to being just about to complete four such lengths, as long as this is followed by a good rest. In deference to my enormous need for oxygen, I’ve given up on bilateral breathing for now, and take in air on every second stroke. That just about gets me by for 100m, but I’m still gulping water.

Triathlon club

By joining a triathlon club, I’ve forced myself to keep training long after I would have given up if I were swimming on my own. The embarrassment factor in leaving early is too great. Ours is a permissive group, and those of us in the slow lane make great use of various aids: floats, fins, hand paddles and snorkels.

For sinky old me, the float has been a godsend. A breakthrough moment came one midweek afternoon when I noticed, almost by accident, that I’d been swimming up and down the pool without becoming exhausted, thanks to the pull-buoy between my legs. Now that I was floating more evenly in the water, reducing my resistance, I could focus more on my stroke.

Some people advise slowing everything down, dissecting the stroke and reassembling it once all the various faults and bad habits have been ironed out.

A lot of fairly recent beginners who have made improvements recommend bashing your way up and down the pool to improve your swim conditioning. Probably, a mix of the two approaches is needed; testing your stamina with longer than usual training sessions but reserving one pool visit a week for experimentation and drills. (Have I mentioned how tedious drills are?)

Things went backwards when I removed the float, but for that one day at least there was an undeniable sense of progress. I’m told the wetsuit you wear during a triathlon acts like a float by making you more buoyant, but that seems like cheating.

Now the buds are on the trees, the birds are singing and the evenings are getting longer. Winter is over and I haven’t learned to swim, or not as much as I wanted to. A holiday and pressure of work have caused me to miss a number of pool sessions. A friend of a friend offered some one-on-one tuition but we haven’t managed to link up yet. Panic is setting in.

In any case, I am doubtful about my ability to make further progress. My kick is, in the argot, nonpropulsive, and my arms are unsure of their trajectory through the water. I don’t feel comfortable in the water and doubt I ever will. My other dream, of being able to swim comfortably in open seawater, seems a distant one.

But everyone I talk to tells me to persevere. One day, I’m told, I’ll make a real breakthrough and never look back. Here’s hoping it happens fairly soon.

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