Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Monday, July 13, 2015

Adult Onset Swimming

By Missy Ruthven

Missy's early days (at center with 90 degree bend in elbow)
Ever since high school I knew I wanted to do a triathlon. I also knew, being a runner and cyclist, that the swim portion would be a challenge. I had been around water all of my life but had never become proficient in freestyle. This became obvious when my (awesome!) high school track/cross country coach had us swim and run in the pool a few days a week to avoid run injuries. I could barely make one lap (25 yards) of freestyle swimming. I couldn’t get enough air!

Fast forward to after college when I am ready to do my first triathlon and have still done almost no prep for the swim. I figured I could resort to sidestroke and/or dog paddle if needed. Of course, my dog paddling skills were, in fact, needed a minute into the swim. I had the “can’t-get-enough-air” panic attack. I stopped swimming, treaded water, let everybody get away from me, took a lot of calming breaths, and examined the distances to the shore and turnaround buoy. I seemed to be in the middle of the two so I dog paddled, side stroked, and eventually “swam” my way around the buoy and back to dry land.

(As an important side note, I was comfortable being in open water—I’d been in too many lakes and oceans in my youth to have a fear of drowning. I knew I could be safe. I always ask newbies, when they express apprehension for the swim, if they can “save themselves” in the water: can they tread water, dog paddle, sidestroke, or otherwise do something that allows them to calm down if they have a panic attack or feel overwhelmed? If they don’t answer with a strong “Yes,” then I ask more questions; they may not be ready for an open water swim.)

My first triathlon race experience taught me two things. Or more, really, but for today’s article I will go with these:
1. I needed help learning how to really swim (freestyle swim), as I didn’t ever want to experience that again.
2. I loved triathlon so much that I was willing to work on my swim.

After that first race (New Braunfels, June 1990!), I met with some friends and training partners to get help on the swim. I did a few more triathlons the following years, and even just having minimal help on swim technique I was more comfortable, though still slow in the water. (Let’s just say it was pretty easy to find my bike in the transition area, as it was usually one of the last ones to leave.) I began to focus more on duathlons over the next five years.

I’d been successful competing in duathlons, but I wanted to start doing triathlons again and really needed to bring my swimming level up (I was competitive in the run/bike portion, but I would give up 10+ minutes in the swim for an Olympic distance). My husband, Don, who I was dating at the time, suggested joining a masters swim team. I had not heard of that and assumed from the name it was for “older” people, but I soon found out it was just coached swimming for adults. I was working at the University of Texas at the time as a nurse in the Exercise Physiology department, so I joined a masters team there—not Longhorn Aquatics with the big-time swimmers, but a group that was geared toward beginners.

Missy circa 1990

The group’s coach (thank you, Riggs!) was very patient with my stubbornness. I didn’t like to kick, was resistant to flip turns (after all, there are no flip turns in open water swimming), and didn’t see why I had to learn other strokes (since triathlon was freestyle). Of course, I understand the importance of these tasks now. It's true that during open water swimming the kick isn't used much for propulsion, but an effective small kick helps maintain good body position in the water. Becoming familiar with all of the strokes helped me to learn how my body moves through the water. And even flip turns are worth the time and trouble. In lap swimming, especially when sharing a lane with others that flip turn, it's more efficient, but the process of learning flip turns also taught me to be calm when my body (or mind) tells me to BREATHE NOW. In doing flip turns and also swim drills, I couldn't just breathe when I wanted; I had to time my breathing. Practicing this day after day, I found I could "roll with the punches" in any open water swim or race situation. If I couldn't get a good breath on one stroke, I could just wait until the next stroke.

I learned the basics of freestyle swimming with that first masters swim group, and continued learning even more with my next (and current) swim coach, Jimmy Bynum. I found that I became the most proficient in swimming when I had frequent (at least three times per week) coached swim workouts. The focus during these workouts is technique, not distance: the idea is to concentrate on your best technique as long as you can in a workout, really paying attention to and remembering how that technique feels.

Missy circa 2014

Even if you don’t have the time or money for masters swimming year-round, I would highly suggest one month of dedicated, coached swimming in a group if you really want to improve your swim. Also, the more open water (mass) starts you have, the easier it gets!! In my early triathlon years the swim was very stressful. Now I can handle anything that is thrown my way, even an elbow.

One great open water race opportunity coming up is tomorrow, Tuesday, July 14, at Pure Austin's Quarry location (Pure Austin Open Water Race Series). Pure Austin also holds a “Splash-n-Dash” the third Tuesday of each month, which is a swim/run. And the Marble Falls Triathlon, currently in its 15th year, will be held July 19 (online registration closes this Wednesday, July 15).

Coached swimming opportunities in Austin: 

Western Hills Athletic Club
Location: Rollingwood pool
Coaches: many

Pure Austin
Location: 4210 W Braker Ln.
Coaches: Peri Kowal, Julie Stupp

Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy (new)
Location: 5513 Southwest Parkway
Coach: Brendan Hansen

Texas Iron
Location: JCC Austin
Coach: Andrea Fisher

Location: Lost Creek Country Club & Circle C Swim Center
Coach: Maurice Culley

Longhorn Masters
Location: UT
Coach: Whitney Hedgepeth

Missy and Don Ruthven have owned Austin Tri-Cyclist for 14 years. An elite-level triathlete and former pro duathlete, Missy is currently in her 26th year of competing in multisport events and is also a member of ATC Racing’s road cycling team. She’s the mother of two teenage girls, Emily and Taylor.  

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