getting your face wet

Swimming has to be the most solitary form of exercise.

This was especially true when I dropped in for a quick half-mile on Saturday afternoon and was greeted by no one.  Running is so much fun because you can chat all the way through. Not so with swimming. It’s not like you can gab or sympathize while you come up for a two-second breath every three strokes. Swimming also seems to be the most universally scary part of attempting to race a triathlon. On the surface, the fear seems to be about meeting your demise via drowning.  But really the fear is much more simple, and we must approach it from square one. It’s about being out of breath.

You can’t do anything if you can’t breathe. Swimming is hard enough. It’s physically challenging and requires a good deal of practiced coordination for a successful freestyle stroke. Then throw a few thousand gallons of chemical saturated water in your nose and mouth. This was my brain while learning to swim: arm, arm, arm, oh god I have to kick too, ah arm, breath, sputter, cough, burp, armarmarmohgod, breath, KICK, sputter, don’tthinkaboutthatbandaidonthebottom, arm, arm, kick, hairballgross!, arm/kick, arm/kick, choke, dissolve into dog paddle before making it 25 yards to the other end of the pool, gasp for breath, relieved that face is out of water. I struggled lap for lap with those same thoughts, fighting to get my body right, always literally gasping for air whenever I could.

At some point it got better. Each time I got in the pool, another little thing would click. Now, several months later, swimming is still a difficult physical exertion. But it’s more meditative than it is confusing and chaotic. I really hated it at first and all because I couldn’t breathe. Now I kind of love it–tough as it is–and I know I’m breathing better than at any other time in my day.

Become a swimmer (and a triathlete!). Here’s what you need:

1. a lap pool

Duh, you say. Duh. But let me tell you, I have lazily tried to swim laps in a backyard pool. That does not work. You need some distance to fight for. There are lots of options, and some gyms will even let you get a discounted pool-only membership.

Also nice to have: open water options for practice. Don’t start in open water, but you’ll want to have that experience at some point before your first tri. I really wish I had.

2. a patient friend and/or youtube videos

I was lucky enough to have my “aquajock” friend as support for my initial attempts at true, freestyle lap swimming. I noticed, too, that other random people at the pool would sometimes offer tips and answer questions. Watching videos of other people swim is extremely helpful as well!

Also nice to have: a couple lessons. I took some group classes, but probably my best helper was Keith, the assistant coach to my tri-training team. He simply watched me swim a couple times and gave some invaluable feedback to perfect my stroke. Sometimes the smallest thing can make a huge difference in your stroke. For instance, I wasn’t getting my arm all the way out of the water, actually creating more resistance. Keith was able to coach me out of that with just a couple quick exercises. I still do it when I’m tired, but I know how to fix it now. All that to say, even one lesson could make a big difference in your form.


You can totally learn to lap swim without a cap or a fancy compression racing suit, but you can’t do it without a good pair of goggles. You must be able to see in the water, and it’s bad for your eyes (and can even lead to temporary blindness!) to do it without some protection. I happen to have a rather insane pair that I love.

They’re not very subtle, but they do the trick. Goggles are pretty inexpensive; always try them on before you buy, though. Press the goggles to your face without using the straps. Any pair that stays on for a few seconds is a good fit.

That’s really it! As you get into it, you can add more/more expensive equipment.

Also on the nice to have list:

My pool has kick boards and pull buoys available for all users. I would buy them for my personal use if they weren’t already available to me. Both items are really nice for doing drills, practicing breathing, and strengthening your kick. Kind of like training wheels for the water! Swim Outlet sells them pretty cheap. I like this basic kick board, and this pull buoy.

A nice, tight swimsuit, made for exercise or competition. Gals, any tight basic one-piece will do, but obviously the best ones are made by Speedo, TYR, Nike, etc. I’ve gotten them both at Costco and TJ Maxx, so you don’t have to lay down $100 if you look in the right places. Guys, sorry, but loose trunks aren’t going to hack it. My dad used to train in his bike shorts, so any kind of tight-fitting swim or tri short will work. You can certainly swim laps in leisure swimwear, but you’ll be more comfortable and efficient in a swimmer’s swimsuit.

A swim cap keeps your hair out of your face and mouth, and as you might expect, streamlines the swimming process a little bit more. I’ve found that I actually prefer latex to silicone. The silicone ones feel too tight and pull my hair. The latex ones are cheaper–they’re the ones you get numbered with your triathlon entry–but they feel more comfortable to me. Silicone caps are available for around $10 and you can get a latex cap for as little as $2.

Nose clips and earplugs are a matter of personal preference. I became too dependent on my nose clip, which was why I was eventually glad to be rid of it. Ear plugs made me feel boxed in and too disconnected without one of my senses, but some people love them.

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