Bart Forsyth of Arlington was a runner first. He took up the sport in law school, running several road races before taking up marathons. Then, while recovering from a running injury, he became an avid cyclist. And before long, he was thinking about triathlons. The catch? He had no swimming experience at all.
Bart’s experience is fairly typical. Among the growing numbers of new triathletes, many come to the sport as runners or cyclists first. For many amateur triathletes, the swim is the most daunting leg of the race, and the most challenging part of training. Which isn’t to say that triathletes can’t overcome their relative lack of experience in the water — many do, and learn to love swimming.
Bart is now his fourth year as the director of the Snapple Tri Team He’s also in his first year as a coach, working with the Try-the-Tri beginner training program sponsored by the Snapple team and the Georgetown Running Company. Here are Bart’s swimming tips for the new triathlete:
If a runner or a cyclist comes to you with an interest in competing in triathlons — and no swimming experience. How should he or she get started?
My advice is to just get in the pool! There are tons of public pools in the area–the DC pools are even free for DC residents. The first step is really just overcoming the intimidation and insecurity and getting in the water. Do some research to figure out the best time and place to swim and then commit to going at least 2 or 3 times per week.
At first, just focus on swimming. A lot of the non-swimmers we’ve worked with have had trouble swimming 100 yards without rest the first time they swam, but they have all improved very quickly. Once you can comfortably swim 400-800 yards without rest or exhaustion, you can start to focus on actual workouts and on getting faster, but first, just get comfortable swimming.
How does swim training compare to training for running or cycling?
Every sport has it’s own challenges, but I think what sets swimming apart is the penalty for inefficiency. In running and cycling you get used to being rewarded for building up your engine–you get stronger, you get faster. In swimming, if your inefficient, the vast majority of your extra strength is just wasted. For beginners the primary focus should be on form. This is a hard thing for runners in particular to get used to because they have the mentality of “more miles and more effort means more speed.” This really isn’t the fastest way to improve in the pool.
In your experience as a coach, what’s the most challenging aspect of swimming for beginners? The most rewarding?
I think the most challenging aspect is just overcoming the intimidation factor. Pools around here are usually crowded and it takes courage to get in a lane with 2 or 3 other people when you’re not even sure what it means to “circle swim.”
The most rewarding aspect is how quickly you’ll improve at first. It’s amazing to watch. Athletes will go from not being able to swim 100 yards to cutting their 100 yard splits in half in just a few months. After a few years of swimming, you have to fight for improvements, but when you first start out the progress is visible and it’s very exciting.
Any suggested resources for athletes who are new to the water?
I think the single most important resource is other swimmers. You’ll learn so much more and improve so much faster from a local coach and swimming group than you will from any book or online resource. We encourage everyone to join a masters class or join a swimming or triathlon club and start swimming with other people. This is true with biking and running as well. With other athletes you pick up the vocabulary of the sport, you get feedback on your form, you see what’s possible, and you get encouragement and support.
The infamous swimming class for triathletes is at [Hains] Point weekday mornings in the summer, but almost every pool has a masters class, so people should ask for information where they swim. The DC Tri Club is also an invaluable resource for both information and training partners.