Open water swimming? Being consciously competent can wear you down…

When I learned to swim, I’d be first to the local pool in the morning and as I walked through the changing area, I’d have only one thought in my mind “I hope that space is free by the wall so I can swim up and down without interruption”.

As I entered the pool area, I generally found that it had already been taken by a guy doing breast stroke who is clearly intent on standing his ground and will kick out at anyone who encroaches within 5m of his space. How the hell did he get changed so quickly? Presumably he wore a velcro suit with trunks underneath as he’s already half a length up the pool…

Now the wall space has gone, I’m now destined to spend the next hour dodging people, when all I want to do is swim in my own space uninterrupted. Such experiences lead me to join a local triathlon coached swim session where I was guaranteed that dodging school kids and fighting for pool space will not be required. Here the lanes are ‘roped’ and we swim in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction as governed by the coach.

The coach also separates us by 5 seconds to ensure we ‘swim in our own clear water’. This is bliss, this is how swimming is meant to be, I focus on my stroke technique safe in the knowledge that I have my own lane, my own space and nobody will bump into me.

Then I entered by first competitive open water mass start event and my swimming world was suddenly turned upside down..

Swimming is 80% technique and I’m consciously competent..

I started swimming at the age of 17 and learned front crawl swimming ‘widths’ before progressing to ‘lengths’. I had no formal tuition until I read more and joined a club. From my teaching background, I’m aware that there are 4 stages when learning a new skill and I recognise each of them, as follows:

1. Unconsciously incompetent – At first I was ‘crap’ at swimming but I wasn’t even aware that I was crap. 

2. Consciously incompetent – Having had it pointed out by a coach and having read some books, I was still crap, but at least I knew it. That was a turning point, once I knew it, I could start to think about how to change it.

3. Consciously competent – After many years of practice I am able to swim pretty effectively,  but I still have to think about it and concentrate at all times or it goes wrong. I’m always processing where my hands, arms and head should be, always thinking about some aspect of technique and I never really switch off. 

4. Unconsciously competent – This occurs when someone is so good, they can swim with perfect technique without even thinking about it. I have no idea what this feels like and most people to come to swimming a bit later in life, never will.

Having now swam for 32 years, I still find myself at stage 3 and don’t believe I will ever reach stage 4. When I swim, I have to think about it ALL THE TIME if I want to do it right. Cycling and running are different, I can watch the scenery go by, have a chat with my buddies and still manage to do it with pretty good form, but not swimming. this is one of the most frustrating things about swimming, I always have to concentrate and it’s always an effort for this reason.

Only real elite swimmers reach stage 4 where they are able to swim with perfect form with no real conscious thought, if you are one of those swimmers, you need to know that not many people reading this blog like you. So here’s the point, if you want to swim with good technique, unless you are an ‘elite’ swimmer, you ALWAYS have to think about your stroke technique, you have to focus on what you are doing at all times.

If you’re always thinking about it, you’ll probably hate it… 

Lots of ‘triathletes’ hate swimming. I find it odd that so many people say that of their hobby. It’s worth considering how the above paragraphs perhaps contribute to that hatred. 

“Cycling and running are different, I can watch the scenery go by, have a chat and still manage to do it with pretty good form, but not swimming. this is one of the most frustrating things about swimming, I always have to concentrate and it’s always an effort for this reason”

Unlike cycling and running, there is a tendency to spend most of your swim time having to really focus on what you’re doing. You can never switch off and this constant focus is a reminder of the fact that you’re actually not that good at it. You will never master it. This constant stress and frustration can understandably manifest as a hatred for swimming. It doesn’t help that people will constantly tell you “swimming is all about technique… nothing else matters”. Whilst this is utter rubbish, it’s generally said convincingly enough that people believe it, thereby adding to their stress and inability to switch off and relax. 

Not everyone who swim open water is a competitive triathlete. For comparison, let’s look at the ‘wild swimming’ community. They swim open water because they love the environment, the scenery and the exhilaration of the cold water. From experience, they’re not stressing about their stroke technicalities, they generally don’t care about such things. Which of the 2 groups, competitive triathletes or wild swimmers, do you think ‘enjoys’ open water swimming the most? There’s probably something we can learn there. 

If you’re always thinking about it, you’ll struggle in mass events…

You’ve probably heard the term ‘tunnel vision’ before. Sports psychologists may refer to this as ‘internal focus’ as opposed to ‘external focus’. Internal focus is thinking about YOU and what you’re doing, external focus is thinking about the things around you whether it be another competitor, the weather, the crowd or the scenery.

As we’ve said above, swimming in a pool with lane ropes and 5 second gaps between swimmers gives you the perfect opportunity to focus internally. How does your hand enter the water, reach, extend, catch.. and so on? There are no distractions, just you, the water and your own piece of unimpeded space. You can overly-focus on every tiny aspect of your technique as you swim up and down. 

Imagine what would happen if another swimmer in the lane suddenly smashed into you during that moment of internal focus. Would you completely ignore them and continue to think about your stroke technique or would your focus change to the person responsible for this interruption? It may even be you that’s to blame, that’s one of the problems with internal focus, you’re not aware of what’s going on around you. 

Here lies the problem with mass open water swimming events, there are far too many external factors for you to focus on, whether that’s the person crashing into you, the rough waves, the mouthful of water you just swallowed or simply the whole adrenaline powered excitement of race day, which over-stimulates all of your senses. If you’re thinking about the external stuff, you can’t be focused internally and thinking about your stroke. And if you’re still at stage 3 and  ‘consciously competent’ then not thinking about your stroke, means it all goes wrong. 

Successful open water swimming starts with enjoyment of the water, coupled with familiarity and experience of the environment. It doesn’t start with the correct angle of your elbow, to achieve the perfect catch and pull. Perhaps this winter you could adopt a different approach? Switch off, zoom out, relax and try to enjoy. 

The Endurance Store is an independent running, triathlon and open water swimming store in Wrightington, West Lancashire. We’re just off junction 27M6 and stock a wide range of swimming wetsuits and swimming accessories. We also run weekly, coached open water swim sessions from April to September, you can see our coaching services at The Endurance Coach.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Andrew Cunnell says:

    This is the most inciteful analysis of the training and racing journey and process that triathletes experience. This understanding of the difference between controlled pool training and confused open water racing enables athletes to be relaxed with both situations. Superb.

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