One of the benefits of training for a triathlon with a club is the motivation of shared experiences. Whether you’re an expert able to give advice to a beginning athlete, or someone starting out who is eager to learn, training with a team or group or club can make the experience that much better.
I’ve been associated with a team called Experience Triathlon for several years now. And when I say “associated,” I mean that in the most casual way. For the last year, I’m not even sure my membership has been paid up, and I intend to fix that. But I did go west with the club to train in Arizona this April. It was a grand way to kick off a year of new
experiences in which I’m going diving into triathlon more fully.
Joe LoPresto is Coach and Founder of Experience Triathlon. The club boasts dozens of athletes completing Ironman and triathlon races in races across the country and even overseas each year. It also directs races in Batavia, Lake Zurich and Naperville every summer.
Joe and his staff have taken people from zero experience to completing Ironman distances. Some of his star athletes compete in USA triathlon and Duathlon nationals as well. But the heart and soul of the club are the many athletes who accomplish their goals at whatever distances they choose.
Open water season
Last night was the first session of open water swimming at Centennial Beach in Naperville, IL. The facility offers a wide expanse of chlorinated water in which to practice open water swimming. Forty or so Experience Triathlon athletes showed up to get in the pool for the first open water session of the season.
The better swimmers all got going on their warmup laps. That was my first instinct as well. My swimming has come a long way, albeit with a break or two. So I swam 200 meters but found myself breathing with difficulty. That first time in the pool in a wetsuit is a different experience than doing laps in an indoor pool. Sure, the buoyancy of the wetsuit is great, but the constriction of the suit around my chest was an odd sensation. I’ve only swum in the thing a couple times.
So I drifted over to the newbie side of the open water swim session for some instruction in a more controlled environment. I was not alone. There were 20 of us bobbing in the water together. Many are shooting for their first Sprint or Olympic events this summer. This weekend is the Batavia Triathlon and Duathlon in my hometown. I’m doing the Duathlon to defend my age group title from last year. But then comes the Pleasant Prairie Sprint Triathlon and later the Lake Zurich race, where I may enter the Olympic if the Sprint goes well enough.
We’ll see. There’s still quite a bit of practice in the pool needed to be comfortable in open water. Yet there could not be a better facility in which to test your guns than the Naperville pool. By way of instruction, Coach Suzy Cerra was floating around giving us all guidance on the skills of open water swimming. We sighted for a few laps. Then we swam around her like a buoy. With each new drill my confidence in the pool grew.
Always the fundamentals
It’s so easy to abandon your fundamentals when you start any activity in a new environment. You can ride hills in your hometown with aplomb, yet when you face a long climb in the mountains of Arizona you start mashing and kill your quads in half a mile.
Or you can run on the track at 8:30 pace all day, yet when you come out of transition with a line of other athletes that simple pace seems impossible.
The swim segment can be even more manic given the potential to get kicked, dunked or driven off course in the frenzied start. Learning to maintain or regain your rhythm when you get knocked around in the water also takes practice. No one wants to panic, yet anxiety is a common challenge for many open water swimmers.
Of all the sports in triathlon, relaxation is most key in swimming. You simply can’t breathe well if you’re taking quick or shallow inhalations or forgetting to exhale fully as well. Many of my fellow newbies were talking about that very sensation. You could see it in them during our practice session too.
But Suzy Cerra (who is a wonderful, patient and experienced coach) reminded us that flipping over on your back when tired or anxious is a great way to recover your confidence. It’s not hard to do in a wet suit with all that buoyancy. Frankly it feels a little like the hand of God has got your back, keeping you afloat. Jesus may have walked on the water, but most of us would happily settle for the ability to float in a wetsuit when needed.
So we practiced that too. One by one smiles emerged as we doubled our laps and got better at our open water skills. Humility is a wonderful partner on the path of progress.
When the session was over, an accomplished duathlete friend of mine named Bob Jones came over to talk. He’s coached by my fiance Sue Astra and he has made significant progress in improving his swimming as a result. Bob is a fast athlete, and tends to like to do everything fast. So the incremental fundamentals of swimming have in some ways been hard for him to incorporate. We both laughed about our athletic impatience and he confessed, “The first 50 meters today I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m out of breath.’ But then I got back to fundamentals and remembered to rotate my body and it came together again. I’ve just got to remember what I’ve learned.”
That’s the secret to open water confessions. Let it all out when you get in the water. Remember not to force the issue. Don’t go too hard at the start. And focus on the fundamentals.
Race day advice
That’s what my fiance Sue Astra was advising another of her swimming students to do. The gal had recently trouble in the opening yards of the swim segment in her first triathlon of the season. “Next time, go out slower than you normally would to start,” she told her. “And find some space to the side if you can. Get some rhythm going and your breathing will come along better.”
It really is about fundamentals. All of this. That takes practice, and a few open water confessions as well. If all else fails, you’ve always got your wetsuit along with the Hand of God and even the Virgin Mary to help you through. That last one might only work if if you’re Catholic. But open water swimming has been known to drive some strange confessions.
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL. GIVE FULLY.