What’s My Potential?
When I came into triathlon I had never swum a lap. Not one! I knew how to play in the water from when I was a kid, but I never actually knew how to do a stroke of freestyle. My background was riding a horse. That said, I did run around from competition ring to competition ring and I rode a bike everyday to get to the farm. But I lived inland in Alberta and hated getting wet, so there was no swimming for me as a kid. There were no swim lessons in country southern Alberta (why would you need to… you ride horses and if you’re a boy you play hockey).
Where am I going with this? One big part of understanding your potential in triathlon is looking back at what you did all through your childhood. I can talk a lot about this subject but I’d type forever — for this article I’m just going to stick with my hardest challenge: swimming.
In my very first ironman in 2003 I swam a 1:01. Leading into the race I swam two to three times per week at masters, with each session about 2000 to 2500 meters. I didn’t have technique sessions. I just hopped in the slowest lane the first day at masters and started swimming one lap at a time, gradually working my way up the lanes by the time my race came around. I usually got out after 45 minutes because I was pooped.
After 2003 I decided I’d start to learn about swimming. In the next four years I did gym work, practiced swim technique, got video-taped, put in consistent 20-30km swim weeks, used swim cords, swam with ITU squads… you name, it I did it!
In that time I swam each of my IM races between 1:02 and 1:15. Yikes! So why swim so much for four years and be slower? To be fair, I was fit in the water to set me up for the rest of the day’s racing, but there was still a reason why I wasn’t getting any faster.
I recently took two years off from triathlon to cycle exclusively. I didn’t bother swimming at all during this time. At the end of 2009 I decided I would start swimming again, but it had to be different this time.
What does all this have to do with my potential? I joked to myself about how “I’m so talented in the water I can do the same swim times with no training or mega training.” Ha! Seriously, after thousands of laps I wasn’t any faster, so that must mean I had reached my potential in my first race, right? Obviously, the answer is no.
When I decided to start triathlon training again I took a good look at my body shape, size, background and history. I’m 5’5″ and I have short arms with little hands. I’m strong as an ox for my size and I never get sore in my upper body (I’ve never had an upper body massage and don’t need them). I float okay, but I have zero balance or feel for the water.
I broke it down to those basics. My plan was to keep my arms as straight as I can from fingertip to shoulder, pull down with my strong back and just swing my arm over and down. As I got fitter, I increased the tempo. I didn’t put in any more thought than that. Basically I start swinging my arms like two oars on the side of a boat and stop and rest when I can’t do it anymore.
I started by going to the pool for 20 minute stints. Sometimes I’d go two times per day for 20 minutes until I worked my way up to a full swim. No pace times, no distances — I’d just keep going until I couldn’t keep my arms straight and strong in the water.
Over the last nine months I continue to swim faster in the pool than in the past and with much less stress. The test will be to see if I’m actually faster on race day. The lesson I’ve learned is that reaching your potential in something is looking at what you have to work with as an individual and setting that as your foundation. Your history, your body shape, your strengths and what you mentally understand are all factors. How a 6’2″ male swims is going to be different than a 5’5″ female. You then work up from that foundation with a plan that will bring you to your best.