A friend who is a talented athlete but a new swimmer and triathlete asked for my thoughts on how to have a decent tri swim as a newbie. Here's what I offered...
First, take off the pressure. You are learning something new and you know how that goes: Two steps ahead, one back, etc. You plateau and even sink a little (pun intended) before the next breakthrough.
The problem with swimming as opposed to running and biking is that stress really works against you big time. When it is stressed your body requires more oxygen. Not getting the oxygen raises adrenaline levels – adding more stress – which requires even more oxygen. One can even get to the level of a panic attack because of this, which really does not happen riding or running.
So the first nugget is, back off. Take the pressure off of yourself. When you go out on the swim, go easy and stay back or wide. What you may lose at this stage of your development as a swimmer by not being immediately in the fray you will gain through reduced stress.
Your goal especially early in the swim should be just to get comfortable. Speed does not matter at this point. Get into a swim rhythm. Feel good about it.
When you are swimming OK, then you can go to the next stage. What that is is thinking about and trying to work on the things that make you faster. Higher elbows. (When I do this in the pool I always go a few seconds faster per 50 – but it takes conscious effort). A little more reach and follow through. Think “swimming downhill” to get your feet higher in the water. (That’s one of my biggest weaknesses – my feet are relative boat anchors. That’s why a wetsuit makes me a much faster swimmer – my feet are higher because of the buoyancy.) Make sure your fingers are together and your hand entry is a bit cupped and you pull through that way. Don’t reach in front of your body – no “crossover,” as they call it – keep your entry to the side. Etc.
Meantime, you may have swimmers over, under and around you. Try not to get stressed about this. If you get boxed in, just slow down slightly (don’t stop or you may get swum over!). You may have to go a bit sideways or even roll one direction or the other to escape the box when the swimmers get just a little ahead of you. If someone is pressing you on your side or is trying to come over you, get “prickly.” Use your elbows and feet to nudge or push the swimmer away. Don’t hurt the swimmer. Just let him or her know he or she is in your space and that’s just not acceptable.
You may find yourself getting tired or even cramping. Again, relax. Don’t work against yourself. If you do cramp, don’t stop unless you get off the line of swimmers. Try to relax even more, swim kicking only with one leg or whatever works to get through the cramp. Usually you can do this.
If your swim has gone well, you may be up to picking it up as you approach the end. Try it. If it feels OK, go with it. Otherwise, go back to what’s comfortable and don’t worry about. You survived the swim and saved yourself for the bike and run where you excel. Watch out age group, here you come!