Wet hair, cold water, it’s easy to think of the negatives, but Duncan Goodhew MBE has made me fall in love with swimming again. And if his tips can help a miserable git like me, then they’ll work for you too. Swimming rocks!
When I was a kid I used to swim for my local club. This meant swim training every night after school and some mornings before. While I was an ok swimmer, I was never going to be amazing and the older I got the more I resented it. I wanted to be hanging out on street corners with my mates drinking 20/20, you know, worthwhile teenage activities. So I gave it up.
Worst decision ever. When you’ve been ok at something and you try it again and you’re suddenly, stunningly shit, well it really puts you off. I tried to swim again at university but hated it. The thought of getting in a cold pool, knocking out 60 boring lengths, lugging wet kit around all day and being generally slow and rubbish was horrid. The only thing that got me there was a crush on the University swim team captain.
Maybe if I’d swum with the team I would have had more fun but I thought I wasn’t good enough, was doing it on my own and I despised it. After university I just never bothered. The next time I got in a pool without the accompaniment of a lilo and a margarita was in 2010, when I agreed to undertake the London triathlon as a columnist for Zest magazine. While I loved the event, I hated the swim training. I’ve done the London tri four times now but each time I’ve skived on the swimming, getting away with less than eight training sessions each time (one year I did four, pretty shameful). But that was the sprint distance triathlon, only a 750m swim. This year, on some ridiculous whim, I’ve signed up to a half Ironman (1.2mile swim, 56mile bike and a half marathon. Idiot.) No getting away with it, this year I’m going to have to get in that pool.
So when I was offered the chance to take part in the Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Swimathon as part of their blog squad, a 1.5k, 2.5k, 5k or individual distance fundraising swim in March, I thought why not? It’s for a good cause and there’s no way I can manage that distance without training (I’m opting for the 2.5k), it will MAKE me get in the pool and get me ready for the 70.3.
That said, a bout of flu meant, until a couple of weeks ago, I still hadn’t got my arse down the pool. So my first foray into the water in about six months happened to be a 1:1 training session organised by Swimathon. And it was with none other than Duncan Goodhew MBE! The Olympic 100m breaststroke gold medalist in1980 and my all-time childhood hero. If anyone could make me love swimming again it was Dunc. And boy did he. I came out singing ‘Best. Swim. Ever’ to the tune of that One Direction classic ‘Best Song Ever‘. Yeah I’m down with the kidzzzzz. Plus I got to hold his GOLD MEDAL! And if Mr G can make me love swimming again he can make you too, here are some of his top tips. Yeah man, swimming rocks!
Realise just how bloody lucky you are
Before I got in the water, I mentioned to Duncan how much I never wanted to. He talked me through a little visualisation chat he does before his sessions. Look at the water, watch it lapping against the side, see where the light catches it. People pay good money to sit by a pool on holiday and you have the luxury of swimming in it now. See it as ‘me’ time, you get away from everything, you have time to think, you’re weightless. Lovely.
Act like a kid
Remember when you were a kid and you couldn’t wait to dive in and mess about in a pool. Fun wasn’t it? Try and recapture that excitement. Swimming doesn’t have to be all about ploughing up and down. I’ve started adding a few ‘mess about’ lengths to my swims. Backstroke is probably my favourite stroke but you can’t swim it in triathlon – lying on your back with your arm in the air means rescue me – so I enjoy a couple of lazy backstroke lengths, try a bit of butterfly, practice diving… fuck it sometimes I even do the odd roly poly.
Find a favourite pool
Duncan swims in an outdoor heated pool near his home. He described swimming through the fog on a misty morning and appreciating just how beautiful it was. Swimming in my local pool with its depressing concrete changing rooms, floating plasters and bits of hair weave isn’t quite so nice. But in the summer, during tri training, I swam in Brockwell lido. Watching the sun come up after a morning swim or doing lengths in the rain, yeah actually that was cool. And in the late summer I swam across Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, I’d kind of forgotten how amazing that was. Turns out I do like swimming after all, just not in my scuzzy local pool so I’m going to try some others, find one I love. London Fields lido and Oasis Sports Centre near Covent Garden both have heated outdoor pools and Oasis is open till 9pm, so you can swim outdoors in the dark. Aces.
Don’t worry about speed or distance, think about technique
When I swim I find it hard to think freely. I count in my head or recite the digestive system. I once had a session before a biology exam and chanted mouth, oesophagus, stomach, duodenum, ilium, colon, rectum, anus over and over again as I swam. Now, whenever I enter the pool this stupid chant pops into my head. One of the things Duncan said is to concentrate on your technique and these irritating little mind clutters will go. Swimming is a sport where once you improve your technique the speed and endurance will follow. Most of us have bad habits and poor technique. I mainly swim freestyle and Duncan noted that, like many people who run or cycle, I rely on my legs and give my weak arms an easy ride. He suggested drills such as catch up, concentrating on flicking at the end of my arm pulls, swimming with a pull buoy and swimming on my side with one arm outstretched to lengthen and strengthen my stroke. If you have problems with your kick you can try a float so you concentrate on your legs. It’s definitely worth having an improver’s swimming lesson to get an assessment and some drills to work on your weak spots. Plus, mixing things up with drills is much more interesting than just swimming up and down, up and down.
Do it with others
Swimming can be a lonely sport. Sometimes this is nice, sometimes you want a bit of a laugh too. Duncan recommended trying to fit in about three sessions a week and I don’t necessarily want to do all of these on my own. The thing that made swimming more interesting for me last year was joining in with Streamline Swims’ group swim fitness and technique sessions at Brockwell Lido. At around £60 for eight weeks, including pool entry, it was a massive bargain and added a social aspect to the swim. Like all these type of things it can be daunting, you worry you’re going to be the slowest and make a fool of yourself but there are a wide range of abilities and you’re put in lanes according to your speed. And if you are last, no one really cares. Having someone to chase motivates you to swim faster, you get a bit of coaching, meet new people, learn new drills and there are usually quite a few hot triathletes at these things. Just saying.
Fancy joining me in the Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Swimathon challenge? Taking place on the 21-23 March at hundreds of pools across the UK, you can choose from 1.5k, 2.5k and 5k distances, enter as a relay team or pick a distance that’s individual for you, if you’re just learning to swim you could go for 100m for example. Adult entry is just £11. www.swimathon.org