Thursday, February 20, 2014

Swim Series continued . . . Tim Ferguson weighs in

I asked ICE teammate, Tim Ferguson, to take a moment to jot down his thoughts about swimming. He has come a long way with the sport since he first started 3 short years ago but he recently has really come a long way in the pool.
The man, the legend, Tim Ferguson

There was a long, narrow hallway – the “Athlete Hall” as it came to be called – that joined the gymnasium and the competition pool. Various athletes of differing size and shape came and went through the “Hall” looking for competition, looking for rest, or looking for a purpose. Within this corridor, from time to time, I would intersect with swimmers – they in their banana-hammocks, me in my baggy shorts and Jordans. There couldn't be a more strict dichotomy between the two groups, and believe me, I thought it was straight up weird. Little Speedos? Dudes jumping around cold and awkward as they ran from the locker room to the pool? Put. On. Some. Clothes. Man. It didn't matter that Mark Spitz was a household name or that Ian Thorpe had a sweet nickname, swimming was for awkward losers who couldn't play “real” sports.

That was (almost) 15 years ago to the day. I thought about this recently as I stood on the deck, laughing about my obnoxiously bodacious swim briefs, before I dove smoothly belly-flopped into the pool at 6am. Now, go back and read the first paragraph and then the previous sentence. Time breeds maturity, maturity allows for wisdom, and wisdom gave me the ability to tell my former self, “Self, you truly were an idiot.” I’ve come a long way since those days in Michigan. 

Clearly . . .
But even in the initial training days towards my first triathlon, even after getting utterly smoked in my first swim workout, I didn't quite understand how to partake in this whole swim training stuff. I thought a couple of times a week of continuous freestyle (and some doggy paddle) would get the job done. Certainly I “improved” because my benchmark was zero, but I wanted more. Too many times I was huffing and puffing into T1 with a huge deficit. Something had to change.  I realized after Ironman Florida I was not going to be able to compete in the upper tier of my age group if I didn't make a concerted effort to improve. The 2013 IMFL was the first time in 6+ years that the average swim time of the top 5 finishers broke 58 minutes. That’s fast. Not only have swim splits themselves become faster, but there is simply more talent lining up at the start line. You cannot afford to dig a huge deficit and expect to bike or run your competition down. 

But before I continue I am going to bust a couple of big myths that continue to be thrown around blogs, forums, and presentations: 

Myth #1: The swim doesn't matter.
Is this a touchdown?  No. Not it is not. If you can’t complete the swim portion of a triathlon, you’re not going to finish the race. It definitely matters. Triathlons may not be won on the swim leg alone but they certainly can be lost there. 

Myth #2: The swim is all about technique, not fitness. 
Riddle me this: If you have the best technique of all competitors, but miss the requisite swim time cut-off in an Ironman, will you be allowed to continue? Besides, if you don’t have the fitness, you’re not going to be able to do the drills properly anyway.

I bust these myths for a couple of reasons: 1) there is no shortcut for working hard, and 2) to get better, you have to invest the time (meaning volume). I've been spending more time in the pool this winter than I ever have. I said something needed to change so I made a drastic change and went from a 3-swim-days-a-week athlete to a “Wait, I swim twice in one day now?” athlete. I joined a masters swim group that has monster main sets as well as begged and pleaded with Jenny to make me swim workouts. I worked hard on my conditioning and continued to test myself with demanding intervals. In 2.5 short months, with some consistent yet focused swim training, I have been to decrease my 100 pace by 2 seconds over 2k. This is a fairly large jump for someone who, six months ago, had trouble reading swim workouts without a Rosetta Stone. 

I honestly didn't do that many drills or spend time trying to perfect my technique. I just continued to swim long sets and over time I started to build the strength and endurance to hold my stroke together. That, and I spent enough time in the pool to make my skin burn like I’d been dumped in battery acid. Recently I swam 36,900 yards over 6 days – a far cry from the days where “swimming was for losers”. Now my baggy shorts are known as something more appropriate: drag suit.

Tim has an amazing work ethic and I have really enjoying working with him over the last few months. I watch him dive for the first time and even take his first strokes of butterfly. I am excited to see his progress in action this triathlon season. I am guessing his competition won't be nearly excited as I am.