How Swimming in the Fastlane Taught Me About Aerobic Conditioning

One of the hardest things about swimming for many people is breathing. There can be a sense of panic just because you are constantly wondering when and if you will be getting your next breath. Can you turn your head far enough? Will you accidentally gasp for breath while under water? Will you reach the end of the swimming pool lane before you end up thrashing for survival. Can you swim fast enough to make it to the other end before you pass out?! It may be advertised as the exercise that is easiest on the joints, but what does that matter if you drown?

Even after I had been swimming successfully (no drowning, no buoys thrown, decent times) for several years, I could sense this underlying panic. When I took lessons from Flow Aquatics, it helped a lot, but I would still fight the feeling that I needed to go faster. Maybe a frog or a duck likes to glide around indefinitely, but a person needs to get where they are going. Or so I thought.

When we bought the Endless Pool Fastlane current generator to fit inside a Tuff Pool, I was thinking of it as a more convenient way to swim, as well as nice to have outdoors in the summer time. I did not understand how the current would force pacing. I say force, but it ended up being a good thing. It helped me relax while I swam. While learning to feel the current, I learned how to time, and even delay, my strokes. I also learned how to float around a little in the current, seconds here and there without swimming, in a way that kept the timing of my breathing even when I interrupted the rhythm of my stroke. I learned to play with the water in a whole new way, once almost forgetting I wasn’t a fish and needed to go up for air. That was a strange moment, being that comfortable in the water!

The rate of my swimming was also affected by my overwhelming tendency to motion sickness. I couldn’t turn up the current rate very much for quite a few weeks, and I could only swim for limited amounts of time (though that did gradually get better with tricks which you can read about here). This meant I couldn’t do the common speed drills that supposedly build stamina. I was having fun, but I was a little worried that my swim leg of the sprint triathlon (story of this particular sprint triathlon can be found here) would suffer. Last year, I had been spending easily 3 times as long swimming. I had tried to regularly stretch the limits of my ability for being speedy. I tried to swim “hard” in order to get stronger in the water.

Imagine my surprise when my swim time for the triathlon was actually a few seconds faster AND felt more relaxed. Apparently all those speed drills hadn’t had as much effect as I had hoped. It couldn’t have just been that my form got worse with speed. I had been told by swim instructors that I have pretty good form. Sure, there is room for improvement and I can make progress on details like pulling underwater better. I am not an Olympic swimmer, but there still had to be other reasons why I could do just as well with so much less effort!

I began researching what is called aerobic base building, starting with reading The Maffetone Method: The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way to Exceptional Fitness in regards to my running. I had read on my Barefoot Runners Society forum about this concept and had slowly developed a deeper interest in it. I was intrigued to find that this is what I had accidentally done with my swimming. I had built a strong base, easily making my heart and lungs adapted to the comfortable rhythms of swimming without any stress. I hadn’t been able to stress the system (my body) and it had rewarded me! I didn’t have to know anything about the “method” in order for it to work.

It had taken some effort to “make” myself swim for longer periods of time than I was used to with the lap lanes. The few seconds to relax at the end of a lane are addictive. But once I found a pace where I could breath comfortably, relaxed, and made sure I was blowing out enough while my face was in the water, it seemed like I could swim indefinitely. It also helped a lot to have my underwater timer (which you too could make, like I tell about here), so I wasn’t always wondering how long I had been “down there.” Bascially, all I had had to do was swim semi-slowly, working on feeling good in the water.

There are other things in my ancient running experiences that made sense according to this aerobic conditioning approach. I’ll write more later on how I’m incorporating it into my running and biking. And I understand that there are more rigorous training things I may want to try after I have built up my body this way. Maybe less for swimming than the other legs of the triathlon, though. For now, for swimming, I have a flexible goal of being able to swim 60 minutes without stopping at least once a week. I think it is possible because I was up to 25 minutes without stopping before the triathlon. If I can swim for 45 or 60 minutes, I shouldn’t feel panicked about reaching the side of any pool or lake ever again! Who knows, I might get mistaken for a mermaid.  😉

To read why and how I decided to apply this to my running read here.

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