Let’s face it swimming makes triathlon sexy. No one has ever looked at some stringy runner plodding along a pavement, or an aero-helmeted MAMIL with a bin lid instead of a back wheel and thought, ‘Wow, there goes a sporting god.’ But dress someone in a wetsuit and stand them waist deep in a lake and they’re instantly transformed into a superhero. Want proof? How many times have you told a non-triathlete about what you do and they’ve replied: ‘Oh I could do the cycle and the run, but it’s the swim I’d struggle with.’
And when it comes to tri there’s only one thing better than swimming, and that’s being GOOD at swimming. How often have you watched some neoprene-clad mer-person cruise effortlessly past you, taking one lazy stroke to your four arm-thrashes and thought ‘B*****d’? Well, despite the summertime joys of weaving through the weeds of your local lake, I’m afraid the answer lies in the hard yards they’ve put in during the wee small hours of the morning at their local pool, churning out length after length of freestyle all through the winter, emerging after X,000m into the still grey dawn sneezing and reeking of chlorine. And now it’s your turn.
Yes, now that winter is upon us and we can feel the iron grip of the turbo trainer on our back wheels, it’s time that we too must say farewell to the open waves and contemplate that thing that is oblong, cold and slightly worse for wear. I am of course talking about your local gym pool or municipal baths, where you must now do your off-season swimming if you’re going to keep up with the Jess Learmonths and Henri Schoemans next year. But how to survive in that aquatic jungle of head-up breaststrokers and pensioners hanging in the middle of the lane? Well dear reader, for the answer look no further than the helpful tips contained in this feature, lovingly assembled over 20 years of indifferent athletic performances, all of which should make you faster and more efficient in the water or, just as importantly, make you LOOK faster and more efficient.
01 Choose your lane
On arriving at the pool, your first objective is to select which lane to swim in. You’re looking not only for the one with the fewest people in, but also where the people in it are least likely to hold you up AND who look like they’ve been in for a while so will be getting out soon. Sometimes pools designate lanes as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ but these are subjective measures depending who’s in there. Avoid lanes with breaststrokers and anyone doing crabby-armed freestyle who suddenly flip over on to their back to do a length of backstroke to mask the fact that they’re knackered.
02 Claim your lane
Once you’re in, lay out your various toys – fins, pull-buoy, kick board, bottles – expansively across the end of your lane. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use them all, they’re there to mark the lane out as your territory to dissuade others from getting in with you. This also sends a strong signal that you’re here to train, not spend half your time hanging on to the end wall discussing Love Island.
03 As-salt your tastebuds
If, like me, you’re prone to cramp while swimming, add a teaspoon of salt to your drinks bottle. It will make it absolutely undrinkable, but add a splash of blackcurrant or orange to take the edge off and you should just about be able to swallow it without looking like you’ve entered the national gurning competition.
04 De-mist your goggles
If your goggles fog up, be sensible and stop and clear them. Do not, as I may have done in the past, barrel into a turn at full speed and swim head first into the wall, otherwise like white light through a prism, you too may be divided into your constituent parts and splayed across the pool floor.
05 Cruise and crush
See that person in the next lane who looks like they’re trying to race you? Well they are. Obviously what you need to do to defend the honour of triathlon is to beat them without looking like you’re trying, and the best way to achieve this is to lengthen your stroke, slowing it down but increasing your reach, really focussing on gliding through the water. As well as being more efficient and less tiring, it will help you keep pace with them while looking like you’re just cruising. As soon as you sense them starting to flag, slowly increase the pace and crush them!
06 Fly ’til you die
An excellent way to spice up your training session is to do a set of 100m freestyle reps with the third 25m of each 100m as butterfly. There’s no better way of increasing your stamina and strength than by adding a length of the most furious and inefficient stroke ever invented. As well as getting you fitter it also breaks up the monotony of reps, and there’s nothing like fly to discourage other swimmers from getting in your lane.
07 Hold your breath
Do you want to get a whole minute faster over 1,500m without putting in any extra effort? Of course you do. Well you can achieve this simply by the cunning use of the lane wall. All you have to do is make sure that each time you push off the wall when you turn, streamline your body into a torpedo shape and glide underwater for a few metres, and upon surfacing DON’T BREATHE for the first stroke. If you break the surface and take a great gulp of air like a humpback whale, then you’re slowing yourself down by at least a second every length. Instead, glide shark-like beneath the surface for a few metres and claim your new PB!
08 Tape your toes
In open water you can do all sorts of crafty and unhygienic things to get rid of swimmers on your feet, but chemical indicators in the pool water tend to limit your options. Instead, wrap some surgical tape around a couple of your toes. That way people will assume you have some sort of foot infection and will give your plates a wide berth.
09 Try a bleep test
This involves simply swimming 100m freestyle off your chosen starting time, say 2mins, and then swim the next 100m off 1:59, then 1:58, 1:57 and so on until you can’t make the turnaround time anymore and are clinging to the side of the pool firing out great racking coughs like you’re on 50 Rothmans a day. When you regain consciousness, count the number of 100m reps you managed, and then a month later try the set again, and see if you can do 1 or even 2 more.
10 Do a diamond
Another set to try is the old diamond formation, much favoured by ineffective football managers in the 1990s. But here, your formation is swimming reps rather than ponderous midfielders. Let’s make these 200m reps, so the session is 1 x 200m off 3:30 (or your chosen start time which feels testing but achievable), 2 x 200m off 3:20, 3 x 200m off 3:15, 2 x 200m off 3:20 and 1 x 200m off 3:30 again. Adjust the times and distances to suit you but the main purpose is to make sure you’re doing a set with a steady start and then building up to the three fastest reps in the middle, followed by a gradual but active descent back down the times.
11 If you want to get ahead, get a hat
Swim hats are the watery equivalents of race T-shirts, and naturally you want the people you’re sharing a pool with to know you’re a double-hard athlete, without making it too obvious. A triathlon race hat is always a good choice because it marks you out as a racer, although if you’ve done a distance swimming event that can often trump a tri hat. A few years ago I swam in the FINA Masters World Championships in Hungary, and do I ever wear the hat from that event in my local pool? You bet your a**e I do.
12 Keep your valuables in your socks
Remember, no thief who has ever broken into a locker has ever thought to look for your valuables wrapped up in your socks and stuffed inside your shoes! It’s the last place they’d think to look.
13 Join a club
With any luck your local tri club has regular pool sessions throughout the winter, as they’re a great way to get a good training session in with other people, and at the same time meet a very friendly bunch of absolute nutters who will talk you into doing Ironmans and other barking challenges. If you don’t have a local tri club fear not, simply pop along to your local Masters swimming club where it will be exactly the same as the tri club except they’ll talk you into doing the Channel.
14 Never stop learning
Recently I took part in the 14km Thames Marathon swim from Henley to Marlow and came 10th out of 1,000 swimmers. The final hundred metres involved swimming round a buoy in the middle of the river and across to
the opposite bank. Knowing that I’d done well, I decided to show off to the watching crowds by doing a ‘barrel-roll’ turn around the buoy. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that we were all wearing mandatory tow-floats, so when I rolled over all that happened was it wrapped itself around my waist and popped up like a Polaris missile between my legs, leaving me to swim the final few metres in front of everyone looking I had the world’s largest and angriest hernia. I’ve learned my lesson.
15 Take it seriously
Remember, triathlon is swim, bike and run, so it needs to be taken just as seriously as the other disciplines if you want to do well. Also remember – the biggest, most excitable crowd in any race is the one waiting for the swimmers as they emerge from the lake. If you want to look like the real deal to the crowds, get good at swimming.