(Wet)Suiting Up! (Guest Post)

On Sunday, I’ll be racing in my very first sprint triathlon! My first two guest blogs here touched on cycling and running (though the running post isn’t specifically about triathlon training), so now I think it’s time to talk about swimming.

The swimming is definitely the part that I am most nervous about. I don’t have a very strong swimming background. When I was a kid, I took swimming lessons – this was back when the levels (by Red Cross, I believe) were colours instead of numbers. First was yellow, then orange, then red. I failed red because I didn’t like swimming with my face in the water. Even at a young age, I didn’t like failing things, so I quit after that. 

Those first few lessons were enough, though, to make me comfortable in water. I was never afraid of swimming. In fact, you’d have been hard pressed to drag me out of a body of water (pool, lake, or ocean) whenever we were on vacation. But splashing around and doing underwater somersaults doesn’t exactly translate into being able to swim for an extended period of time.

So, when the idea of doing a triathlon floated into my head, I signed up for swimming lessons at the athletic centre on my campus. After completing two courses, I’m now much more confident in my swimming. I’m still not fast by any stretch of the imagination (my typical swim workout is 1500-1600m in 50-60 minutes), but I’m quite happy with my progress.

The next step was wetsuit swimming. Besides keeping you warm, wetsuits have the added benefit of buoyancy. Weaker swimmers, I’ve been told, often have issues keeping their legs high in the water, which means they have more drag, which slows them down. Get a wetsuit and my swim will be easier, faster, I was told.

Several weeks ago, I ordered a wetsuit, making sure I would have some time to practice with it before the race. I have heard putting the wetsuit on being referred to as the “first event” in a triathlon. I can’t say I disagree – I definitely broke a sweat putting mine on for the first time! 

The first “swim” in it was very strange. I say “swim” because I couldn’t really call it an actual swim. I would do a few strokes of front crawl, then get completely weirded out by the way I was swimming. I think part of the problem was that the wetsuit wasn’t on quite right, and my arms were being pulled towards my back. I tried to do breast stroke – which was going to be my backup if I found myself getting panicked in the race – but quickly discovered I would need a new backup plan: my legs are so buoyant in the suit that it’s difficult to get them far enough down to do a proper whip kick! All in all, my first experience with the wetsuit largely consisted of me reveling in the fact that I could float vertically in the water with exactly zero effort. I happily realized that I probably couldn’t drown if I wanted to (and I don’t!). 

Admittedly, I was maybe a bit more nervous after that first wetsuit experience than I was before it. Friends assured me that wetsuit swimming would get better. Hoping they were right, I took the suit out again for another try. This time I went with my friend Megan, who  did the triathlon last year and will be racing it this year as well! She’s also a seasoned swimmer and all around awesome person. She showed me some tricks for getting the wetsuit arms up properly, which meant that I no longer felt like they were being pulled towards my back on every stroke. The second swim went much better than the first. It was still definitely very different from pool swimming. One major difference is that there are no walls to push off of every 25 or 50m. I found myself stopping in the water to catch my breath. I should probably note that part of the problem was that we went out on a fairly windy day, and I would get smacked in the face with a wave on every other breath! Megan reassured me that it would not be so choppy on race day, because we’ll be in a protected harbour – phew!

By my third wetsuit swim, I felt like I was actually getting the hang of things. Again, the water was very choppy and very, very cold. I’m hoping that practicing in those conditions will make the race seem “easier”, but I know that might not be the case. Instead of waves, I’ll have to contend with other swimmers – almost everyone I’ve talked to has had an experience getting kicked, elbowed, or otherwise smacked in the face during the swim. My goal is to stay calm during the swim, even if I get kicked in the face, so that I can set myself up for a good bike and run to follow, and hopefully finish my first tri with a smile on my face.

Stephanie left, friend Megan on the right:

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.

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