Open Water Swim with an Ironman: Tips to Swim and Conquer Panic in a Race

with Coach A!

I want to write all of this down before it slips away and then be able to read this post before race day. So we have this great informal group of triathletes in Austin, called Tri-Oomph!, many of them Asha volunteers who tasted endurance sports through running with Strides of Hope in either a marathon or half marathon or a trail race and then moved onto the world of multi-sports in the form of a triathlon. Once you’ve tasted that adrenaline rush through what you can make your body and mind accomplish there’s no looking back really.  A triathlon seems a natural progression from a marathon/half-marathon training program. For one, during HM training you have to cross-train on off-running days. In a triathlon you’re cross-training i.e. doing different things all the time. No immense pressure on one singly part of your body. I remember going to bed with aching legs but I’ve had no issues during the tri-training period.

And of course, Austin is a triathlon-crazy city. There are tons of lakes around, a gorgeous natural open water pool in Barton Springs so swimming outside is no luxury. And then there’s the Austin-native Lance Armstrong effect and coupled with at least 6-7 organic running stores and more than 20-30 formal and informal running groups, you have a veritable treasure trove of opportunities to test your endurance limits.

One such Austinite is Amit Bhutani, whose pictures will tell you that he’s an awesome athlete, and no less an Ironman.  He did his first spring tri in May 2007 and finished the AZ Ironman last year. He said, when he began, he didn’t even know how to swim! Charanya swam for him during his first relay tri. And that was 2 years before his first tri.

He’s the ‘Coach’ for the group Tri-Oomph! I recently joined the mailing list of Tri-Oomph! which has been great. Although I’ve been training with Ironchicks, Rogue’s beginner Tri program, this informal group has been great for bouncing off ideas about what races to do, which ones to avoid. More importantly, I’ve reached out to them for open water swim assistance when I can’t get enough at Ichix. I went out to BS with Sangeetha, our ace Tri-Oomph! swimmer on Tuesday night and was able to do some swimming there without overly panicking. Amit responded to the same email with a bunch of drills and so I pounced on the opportunity to get out there and train with him.

He is a fantastic coach. I was afraid he’d be tough and I’d get more terrified in the water. But no such issues at all. We began with the basics. How to get on a wetsuit. I wish I’d taken pics of the wetsuit putting on part, but that would have slowed us down even further, because, I kid you not, it took me more than 15 minutes to get it on! A cool trick Amit taught me was to put on a plastic bag onto your foot and that way the wetsuit slides on faster. I also used some anti-chafing wet-suit lubricant which made the ends easier. But it was one-step-at-time. Unhurriedly, Amit coached on small tips on how to get the suit on efficiently. Then he recommended I put on the goggles before getting the cap on for fear of it getting knocked off during the race. And the best anti-fog for the goggles? Your saliva!

Ok, so here we are in our wetsuits (me for the first time in a wetsuit I borrowed from my friend Karen). It was incredibly tight around the chest and the neck but I felt so buoyant in the water (a bit breathless too as the lungs felt flattened against the ribcage!). We stepped into BS pool but weren’t ready to swim yet. Coach A said, two things that are important for an open water swim:

  • Drafting – in a traithlon, it is completely legal to draft in the swim – during the bike it can get you disqualified if you’re less than 3 bicycle distance after someone else by USAT rules. But during the swim, drafting gives you a big boost in speed because the force of the water in a wake left by someone else can add a lot to your speed. So this is what we practiced first. Amit plunged ahead in the shallow portion and I had to keep up with him or just follow his bubbles (wake) either directly behind or to the back-left or back-right (right next to is no good). I must say, having swum mostly in the pool and feeling annoyed with others’ presence in your lane, this took some getting used to. Open water swimming is quite, quite different!
  • Sighting – since you don’t have lanes and sometimes the water will be completely opaque you have to sight to see where you’re going. Here we practiced a cadence for sighting. First, fix a non-moving target to sight off. We picked a large building to the east. Then he asked me to sight every 5-7 strokes. Why? Because it is so easy to drift off course in larger # of strokes so unless you’re really proficient in open water, it’s hard to go very far off-course in 7 strokes.

Amit said this was not the place to give me tips on swim technique. Here I was to swim as much as possible and get over the fear and feel comfortable with the fish, the plankton, the weeds, the moss and whatever else an open water body might throw at you. He emphasized, these are not your enemies. Nothing in this body of water can harm you!

After that, we got ready to swim. We did a few laps across the width of the pool, still in 5 ft deep water, went to the other side and touched the rock. This was where all the other triathletes were beginning their swim too (the 1/8 mile marker which marks the 200 meter distance till the end of the pool). He asked me to watch people around and see if they have useful things to learn! After the couple of laps across, I braced for the length. We began. The wetsuit felt great by now, I felt light and buoyant even though it still felt extremely tight. Again as usual, before the depth plunged I panicked a bit. But I didn’t stop. I reverted to breast stroke and then went back to freestyle as soon as I could. We got to the other end and I didn’t feel too bad about it at all! Breathless a bit maybe.

Amit noted I didn’t have any breathing cadence set nor did I set a sighting cadence. Also he said, you can’t let your mind tell you when to stop swimming freestyle. Need to get a finite stop to the wading/breast stroke/treading. So we agreed on 15 strokes of freestyle and 5 strokes of breast. We began swimming back to the mile marker sighting off a pole at the end. There were quite a few things to keep in mind so I actually didn’t think of panicking at all. First I had to sight every 5-7 strokes, then I had to count my freestyle strokes and switch to breast and finally I had to get the breathing cadence to 3 (which slipped to every 2 strokes because I was breathless!).

And then we went back and did about 100 meters without my wetsuit so I could get an idea of how it would feel like putting it all together without the buoyancy of the suit. It was perfectly fine, in fact I did even better because I was not as breathless!

Eventually I think I did ok, did one but not the other sometimes. Putting it all together is going to take a couple more trips to BS. But it felt like a HUGE improvement today. One-on-one, the information I got was not at all overwhelming, I had my job broken down to byte-sized chunks which felt so much more achievable. I hope I can get out to BS pool once more to put it all together on my own.

Race Day Tips for the Swim

During race day he said, try to get to there when transition opens (maybe as early as 5 am). Other than beating traffic, it helps to get to the lake and find where the swim exit is. Look carefully for sighting target and then do a 5 minute out and back to rehearse how I’m going to end my swim. He mentioned a friend who did the Rookie Tri and had a complete meltdown during this rehearsal. But he got it out of the way before the actual race began. I’m taking this tip to heart fosho!

Before the gun goes off, I should position myself to the far-end of the group to avoid being near the fastest swimmers. While there, stand and fix the sighting targets and get a mental strategy going of how I’m going to swim this race. That helps to calm the nerves and focus inwards (see previous post). Swimming from buoy to buoy may be a good rookie strategy, he agreed when I asked him if I could do that. Its not efficient because you end up swimming a longer distance. He said, definitely need to sight off the turning buoy so I know where to turn.

Here are some pics from the swim today. Wish I’d gotten one in the wetsuit!! Amit did suggest trying to put it on again as practice but I was beat!

Feeling 'buoyant' after a good swim coaching session!With Coach A!

Advice from Experts

Here’s a great article on conquering fears of Open Water Swimming. Text below, link here.

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Fear of Open Water Swimming – What is the cause?

Determine an Intervention Strategy for a Fear of Open Water Swimming

From , Guide

Apr 19 2011

What happens when you start a triathlon or open water swimming race, with an unprecedented sea swell, chop, cooler than expected water, and about 800 other swimmers trying to clamber on top of you to get to the swim finish before you? How do you deal with those open water swimming distractions?

When I was back in Perth we had access to some of the best beaches for opwn water swimming I have ever come across, which meant open water swimming was that much more inspiring (despite the shark risk). The average annual water temp. is 18 degrees C (about 65 degrees F, which to some of you guys might sound like a bath but still cool enough for wetsuits) and the water clarity is normally excellent. Despite all these positives though, a couple of the ladies I used to coach had suffered for years with an innate fear of the ocean and open water swimming.

When I first met both the girls they could just about complete a 200m freestyle swim in the pool, taking about 5-minutes. Over the course of a winter we worked to develop their technique and specific fitness to a point where one was able to swim 1000m in 18:50 and the other in 20:35. A massive step forward and both were looking forward to a good season’s racing. However, come to race day, despite doing some basic familiarity sessions for open water swimming in the lead up to the race, disaster struck.

One girl ended up doing head-up breaststroke and unable to put her face back in the water after being bashed at the start and swallowing loads of water and came out of the 1000m swim in just under 30 minutes, hysterical in the process, unable to go onto the bike leg. The other only made it to the first 150m marker before feeling she was totally out of her depth (her thoughts) and couldn’t go any further. She returned in a rescue canoe.

Very disappointing for all concerned. As their coach, it was up to me to develop an intervention strategy to help. It was my first ever experience with how working on your technique for 6 months in the pool is all well and good, but if things fall apart psychologically, then all the pool time could be viewed as wasted, at least in this open water swimming race situation. Of course by intervening, we were able to then go on and eventually utilise this fitness and technique at a later date.

What happens when you start a triathlon or open water swimming race, with an unprecedented sea swell, chop, cooler than expected water, and about 800 other swimmers trying to clamber on top of you to get to the swim finish before you? How do you deal with those distractions?

Let’s look at the psychology behind what people experience when presented with something that is new and uncomfortable for them. If we look at how people focus and concentrate when it comes to any aspect of sport, we can break this down into Internal Focus and External Focus. Sounds simple! Some people prefer to concentrate on how they’re feeling physically, what their heart rate is, how their breathing is going, etc. (INTERNAL), whereas others will prefer to observe what’s going on around them, looking at the others swimming around them and what the environmental factors (like water temperature, swell, sunlight, visibility, etc.) are doing (EXTERNAL).

If you think about it, when you’re training in the pool, the majority of the time you will be internally focused. You will be thinking about your form and technique, and how your breathing is going, etc.

Why are you able to do this? Because you’re in a very stable, unchanging environment. You can see where you’re going, there’s always a black line underneath you, and there’s always a relatively stable flow of other people swimming past and around you. There are very few distractions.

I know this is very basic advice, but by choosing one of the aspects that you have been working on in the pool (it might to blowing out in the water or counting the rhythm of your stroke) and concentrate solely on this to the point of consciously shutting out the other distractions around you as best you can, you should feel a little more comfortable. Here’s an example:

With one of the ladies above, her biggest fear and concern was that every time she went to take a breath she would cop a mouth full of water from one of the other swimmers inadvertently splashing her. This forced her to ‘skip’ a breath, leading to huge panic. What did we do to prepare for this? In our practice sessions we would go down to the beach and I would jump in the water with her and ‘be the bad guy’ by splashing her directly in the face every time she took a breath to her right side. As she knew I wasn’t going to hurt her (and believe it or not very few people in triathlon intentionally make your life uncomfortable in the OW anyway), she began to see it as more of a funny experience and one that wasn’t quite as daunting. When it came to her next race (a Half Ironman as it happened!), she actually consciously associated our training sessions with the splashes she received in the 1.9km swim and found them to be amusing and actually ‘enjoyable’ knowing that she had received far worse from me knocking her around, pulling on her legs, rolling over her back (whilst swimming) etc. She came out of the water in 45 mins with a big smile on her face, much to my relief!

So get someone who you feel comfortable with to practice these things with you in open water. If you feel that murkiness or poor visibility is a factor (I also suffer from this and still have panic attacks myself every now and again ), why not try swimming in your pool with your eyes shut (watch out for others in the pool and the ends of the lane though!). Give it a go, I do it quite often with my squads as an exercise in how stable and balanced you are in the water and how straight you are able to swim without your usual peripheral awareness about you. It’s quite good fun, trust me, just don’t hit anything!!!

I personally used to be freaked out by open water swimming, and despite swimming competitively since I was 7 years old, I never once ventured into the open water until a family trip to France when I was 16 and built up the courage to put my head under the water in a river where we were white water rafting. I felt very uncomfortable at first but it was the one significant thing that I’ve ever done which prompted me to have the courage to take up triathlon a year later. I’ve never looked back and still have some funny phobias every now and again (Lake Windermere and Llyn Padarn still freak me out!) but then they do tend to make me swim faster as a result!



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Gearing up for the Race

I remember shopping for the half-marathon. I was excited and buying gear ALL the time during those 3-4 months. Not so much during this tri training season. I did go and get myself a good tri swimsuit as I thought I’d just swim in that and jump into bike/run shorts during transitions. But one of the Ironchicks with me, Jade, mentioned the swimsuit chafes under the running shorts. Also Marion went and got herself a very cool looking 1 piece trisuit, and she couldn’t stop talking about how amazing it was! So that’s got me thinking.

My good friend Sharanya actually geared me up pretty well for the training. She gave me a pair of tri-shorts, a bike jersey and a tri top (which you can swim in). She also gave me bike gloves and a helmet and the bike is of course, dear Scarlett I, belonging to Charanya. Scarlett has taken many a triathlete in the Austin area of Indian origin through their virgin triscapades. Sharanya, Varsha, Charanya being a few and I am standing in queue now to break my tri virginity on Scarlett. I also did buy a good pair of bike shorts but those are good for long rides not so much triathlons since I can only wear them on my bike (can’t imagine running with those huge posterior pads but they might be helpful in keeping me afloat in the open water..hmm…).

Rogue of course has this huge list of gear that they handed out on Day 1 of Ironchicks. This is keeping in mind that most of us who were signing up only knew what a triathlon meant. Here it is below. I had some of the stuff already, the others I deemed to be expendable. The one thing I do think is important are the CO2 cartridges and mini bike pump. I don’t really know how to use the CO2 cartridge (for that matter I’m really worried about changing a flat on race day) so I think I might get the mini pump for immediate needs.

Everyone emphasizes the race belt. I still don’t know if I’ll need one. Probably will try using the SPI belt that I got in the Austin Half race packet with safety pins. We’re going to have so many race numbers. First on the body, on your legs etc. because you can’t wear a race number while in the water. Then a bike race number for the bike and yourself. And then a running race number. I’m sure I’m going to mess something up here. Really need to be organized at transition.

Anyway, here’s the stuff I’ve ordered from Amazon.

1) A single piece tri-suit (after Marion highly endorsed it)

2) Ear plugs for swimming (to avoid bugs, weeds and water from entering my brain)

3) Lace locks (should have got these a long time ago, especially during HM training!)

4) Water bottles!!! (we’ve got the cheap plastic stuff all the gear shops give out for free – try drinking from them after they’ve been sitting in the heat and you’re probably getting cancer in the near future).

So you see, I haven’t gone overboard yet. I think I have enough Gu gel to last me this race. I will take along some bars & bread for nutrition during. Still have to figure out what I can take to calm my nerves before the swim. All the gear in the world won’t help with it.

Triathlon Equipment Needs


  • Swimsuit or tri shorts/top
  • Goggles
  • Pull buoys
  • Fins
  • Swim cap (optional, but you must wear one in races)
  • Pull paddles (optional)
  • Kick board (optional)


  • Bike
  • Helmet
  • Bike shoes or running shoes
  • Tri or bike shorts, tri top
  • Spare tube and tire levers
  • CO2 cartridge and/or mini pump
  • Bike-mounted water bottle
  • Cell phone with coach’s number & emergency contacts
  • Sunglasses (optional, but very valuable for protecting eyes from bugs, dust, etc.)
  • Identification, such as old drivers license or Road-ID (optional, but smart to have)
  • Cycling gloves (optional)
  • Bento box (optional)


  • Running shoes and socks
  • Tri shorts/top
  • Sports watch
  • Hat (optional)
  • Sunglasses (optional)
  • EZ laces/Yankz (optional)

Race Day Add-ons

  • Transition towel
  • Extra water bottles
  • Nutrition
  • Timing chip
  • Race belt/race number
  • Bike race number
  • Backpack or transition bag
  • Flip flops, sandals or other shoes for before/after race (optional)
  • Sunscreen (optional)
  • Flashlight (optional)
  • Post-race change of clothes (optional)

Practice ride on the Danskin bike course

This post is more than 10 days old! I wanted to document the toughest bike ride I’ve done so far and it was tough due to numerous factors. One, because the terrain was hilly and crowded in parts, also long by usual standards at 11.1 miles. Second, I had the good fortune of riding with Marilyn, the bike/run coach who didn’t let me coast at all and made me bike hard. And three, because the course was actually harder than I expected. Karen, my workmate who has done the Danskin Tri in Austin before said, ‘Oh, there’s only 1 large hill’. I found to the contrary several large hills.

But it was all good because I learned a ton riding with Marilyn. The Wednesday workout before the Saturday long ride was hill training too. We went to Circle C, suburbia dreamland in South Austin (or is it North San Marcos?) and did 8 loops of a hilly section of the road. Public were driving back home from work and staring at us, crazy women of various ages, sizes and biking abilities going up and down a suburban road. The practice was meant to teach us how to use our gears on the varied terrain. For me, the uphill was hard but not as hard as downhill. I could gear up in the uphill and make it as easy as possible and somehow get up. But downhill, I didn’t really know what to do. So I coasted. It felt relaxing after the uphill but I figured that’s not the point of the training.

So when I asked Marilyn to ride with me, I didn’t know I was going to be in for a good lesson in gear changing and equal cadence. Biking, unlike spin class, is where you’re riding with almost equal effort (or cadence) along varied topography. That’s why one gears up/down based on how the terrain changes. My chain had come off and by the time I fixed it the group had left but luckily for me, I found Marilyn. She rode the entire time with me. She rode behind me and watched every move I made. So when I was spinning too fast, she made me gear down. I did, and she approved of the effort I was using in pedaling. Then a hill came up and of course I forgot to change back. So here I am huffing and puffing when I hear her from behind, asking me to gear up. So I did and that was pretty much the ride when she’d ask me to gear up or down based on how I was dealing with the topography. There were quite a few hills. This ride was around the perimeter of Decker Lake, East Austin which is home to the Danskin Tri so we were doing the race bike course. Which was awesome because I was not prepared for it at all. The only time I had to get off the bike was a steep, rapid incline just after a stop sign. So having stopped at the stop sign, I didn’t have enough momentum for the hill right after. I got off, drank some water and got on again and labored my way up. On several rolling hills, Marilyn urged me to pick up speed. This was really scary. I geared down to the hardest gears possible on both the left and right side, making it as hard. Yet I felt my legs were spinning too fast. Anyway, that gave me a lot of momentum to get over some of the really big hills following a downslope. I think the worst was on the access road to a County Hwy where we went up this very gradually sloping steep hill on the ramp. Ugh, I was sweating like a pig!

I was beat after that ride. It was so different from the fun rides out with Bharath where we’d stop many times and pick the bike routes which were relatively flat. Now I feel I can handle crazy old Exposition Blvd. even!

Choking in open water

I completely choked today at the mini tri clinic put together by Rogue for both the Ironchicks & CapTex Tri group. The CapTex tri group is fairly advanced and they got to go into swim earlier. We had a short talk by a professional triathlete, Tenille (don’t know last name) about pre-race day and race day to-dos etc. And then we went out to the lake (this was at Lake Pflugerville).

It was the foggiest morning I’ve seen in Austin. As the CapTex group jumped into the water and swam out, Tenille continued to talk to us about our fears of the swim etc. Slowly we saw the fog settle in on top of the lake and I could barely see the swimmers out in the distance. That fog already put a chill into my heart.

I’d hardly slept well in the stress of the swim today. When I woke up at 5.30 am, all I could think about was I really do not want to do this. I’m not talking about butterflies in my stomach. I’m talking morbid fear. I kicked myself for jumping the gun and signing up for the race this week. Earlier I’d thought, let me survive the triathlon clinic and then I’ll sign up based on how I did on it. I probably would have never signed up after today. So now that I am, I have to give it a good faith attempt if not everything I got.

The fear of open water is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’ve never swum out in open water but I’ve always had nightmares about being out near open water or trying to run away from a large ocean or just being in the water and nothing else but water around. I’ve woken up gasping and I just can’t seem to get over that morbid fear. These aren’t just niggling doubts or performance anxiety – I really feel worried for my life. And really why? There are tons of lifeguards, kayaks and swimmers out on wake boards with noodles you can hold onto. And besides that I can really swim. I swim fairly well in my opinion – I don’t have tremendous endurance to swim continuously but I am pretty fast getting across the pool.

I still don’t know why I choked today. And why today was different from that first day out at Decker Lake. That day too I was a nervous wreck as soon as I stepped into the water. I couldn’t put my head in and breathe out, which meant that I was trying to breathe out and in when I had my head out. I would stop swimming and just fiercely tread water, getting tired, out of breath and even more panicked. I don’t know whether it was my talking to myself or Stacey who made it happen but Stacey wasn’t there today. Holly, the swim coach swam alongside me and I even grabbed a noodle. Then she said ok, let’s the a # of strokes at a time. So I did 3 strokes and then a bit of breast stroke. Then I did 5 strokes and then a bit of breast stroke again. A lot of people try back stroke or side swimming. I feel like all those drills I learned just evaporate when the panic sets in. I’ve got to stop fighting the water. I cannot possibly be in it and fight it.

To be fair, I got the distance in that everyone did and back. But really, it felt like not having done anything. I could barely do freestyle for a few strokes every time before I panicked again. Head in water, breathing out, I couldn’t get out all the air because with the panic I felt like my chest cavity was closing in. All I could think of at that time was that I cannot do this.

My mother almost drowned in open water when she was a kid. Which is why she didn’t ever let me swim or enroll in swimming classes as a child (counter-intuitive, but that is my mom for you). So I learned how to swim when I was about 23 in grad school at Purdue. I learned quickly but my repertoire stopped at breast stroke. And some really bad freestyle. The swim clinic at UT really helped to improve the freestyle and I was good about getting practice on it. Ironchicks sealed those improvements and now I’m quite proud of my freestyle (there are still many chinks) but it feels easy and natural now. What doesn’t feel natural is that damn open water. I feel like its going to swallow me whole and I keep fighting that fear and forgetting to swim.

Writing it all down probably helps. But this is something I need to figure out and do it fast. After, on the bike ride and the run I just wasn’t in it anymore. I felt so let down about the swim that none of it mattered anymore. So we’ll see – if I don’t get out and get enough swimming in open water in the next 2 weeks I probably will have to forfeit this race. So much for wanting to be a triathlete!

Super useful Drills for Freestyle Swimming

Thought I’d post about the swim drills I’ve been taught at the UT class and Ironchicks training – I know I’ve talked about these but thought it might be useful to post the descriptions so if readers are interested they can try them out. These drills are really good and help with perfecting and fine tuning your freestyle stroke, assuming you can swim.

Both the UT indoor lap pool that is open to the public and the YMCA East pool where the Ichix train is 25 yards long. Oh how I miss Purdue’s Oly size pool of 50m where I learned to swim! I can’t believe I used to think naively that it was the standard size and no less than 40 laps was a good workout. Needless to say the # of those workouts I ever did I can count on my fingertips. Still, it was fun and my roomie, Subhangi & I used to swim a lot back in grad school.

Back to the drills. Since the pool length I swim now is 25 yards, the swim distance I mention will be in multiples of 25, indicating the # of laps.

1) Fingertips: Push off the wall kicking with arms stretched out straight, each arm right next to the ears, head pushed down (this helps to bring your hips/butt up if it tends to sag, which will weaken your kick). Take a breath in and begin your stroke – pushing the water down with your palm, going down in a straight line towards the bottom of the pool. This will give your stroke power and propel you forward. After your hand is about 45 degrees to your body, bring it underneath your ribs (your hand will cut an ‘S’ shape under the water), bring elbow up. Now here’s the drill. You DO NOT take your hand completely out of the water as you would in the regular freestyle, but let your fingertips slide upon the edge of the water. What does this do? In order for your fingertips to be touching the surface of the water and no deeper, your elbows will have to be  completely above shoulder-level. It’s almost like a brake dance move!  This drill feels easy but you’ll feel it in your biceps and shoulder blades. Distance: 200.

2) Side swimming: This drill is to help your kick and to get used to rotating the body, because you’re swimming sideways but have to bring your head out of the water to breathe. It was hard for me at the beginning. Now I find it almost relaxing. It was hard because my hips would sag in the water and I wasn’t able to move without the arms but the form has gotten a lot better with practice. In this drill you extend your one arm straight ahead, the other resting upon your thigh. Your body faces the wall, your face looks down at the bottom of the pool. Kick off against the wall and swim sideways kicking only, with one arm extended, the other resting on the side. Repeat on the other side on the way back. Distance: 100.

3) Catch-up: this drill is to improve the stroke again like the fingertips. Push off the wall kicking with arms stretched out straight, each arm right next to the ears, head pushed down, palms almost on top of each other. Begin the stroke, breathing in but do not move the extended arm until the arm with which you begin the stroke comes back and clasps the other hand. Repeat. Typically in freestyle, you do not wait until the other arm is back out extended ahead to begin the next stroke but this one helps to improve your stroke while propelling you forward while you kick. Distance: 200

4) Swimming with pull-buoys between your legs – do not kick! It’s ‘cheating’ per the Ironchicks swim coach Holly. I don’t quite fancy her coaching style (not much positive reinforcement or a personal touch, just a bunch of do’s and don’ts but her drills are great). So with the pull-buoys just propel forward using your stroke. The funny thing about it is you feel like you’re going to flip over, which is when you need to use your hands powerfully to stay in position. Helps to do the ‘S’ for sure! Distance: 200.

5) Regular Freestyle swimming: Form is important here to swim easily, for a reasonable distance without gasping for breath but powerfully enough to cover good distance. I consider getting the form right and breathing right akin to easing up on the run after the warm-up when it begins to feel easy and confident. Kick off the wall, head down, hips up, arms extended touching the ears, index fingers touching each other, toes pointing. Kick from the hips. Rotate your body when you bring your head up the breathe. Your head should pivot to the side and ear resting upon the water as it would upon a pillow, take a breath and push your head back down again. With the arms, you stretch them out straight every time you splice the water before bringing it under you. Without the extension you’re crawling more than free-style. And your palms should splice the water, i.e. come down from above and cut through and not hit the water with full surface area of the palm. That will draw down the power of the stroke. Trust me, I started from the latter and feel significant improvement in my power with the right hand movement. This is what Stuart, the UT swim coach taught me and it took me several weeks of trying to do exactly as he said to feel the difference.

Note Ironchicks or any tri-training does not teach you to swim well – just to swim well enough to do the triathlon – e.g. Rogue has a Swim 101 class which helps with stroke (for a princely sum of $150 for 5 classes while my UT class was $48 for 6 classes). Also, swimming in a tri has nothing to do with a beautiful stroke, no judge is watching you to see how your palms splice the water, or whether your hips are sagging. But swimming right will get you to swim faster, no doubt about it. These swim drills are usually practiced by seasoned, competitive swimmers just like running drills help with running form and avoid injury.

Things that give us joy

There is something to multi-tasking for me these days. For one, I find I am incapable of doing a single thing at a point in time. Like for instance, right now, I’m working on some client deliverable, blogging, facebooking and planning the training schedule for the week, all simultaneously. And then I wonder why I’m exhausted all the time! But frankly, my mind bores easily and I really need to be doing a million things at a time to be completely engaged. Does it impact the quality of my work? I think it’s a positive impact, because the few seconds I work on something I give it everything before moving onto the next.

I like doing this because I can do multiple things, all of which give me a lot of joy, some more than others and I save myself from dying of boredom, which I believe I’ve been trying to escape all my life. ‘Bore laagche (feeling) was a common bilingual refrain my mom had to contend with and often would lead her to erupt in annoyance at having to keep me occupied all the time. I wonder then, why she didn’t encourage me to do more. But mother-daughter gripes are feed for another post.

Anyway, I digress. This post doesn’t have to do as much with a training update than it does to with my mental state of being. I feel I am constantly discovering myself through these million things I am doing all the time. Everytime I do something at work – engage with a client or work closely with my team, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about my people skills and how I like my work to be accomplished. When I’m out training at swimming, biking or running I watch others who do it better than me with awe, wanting to do it better each time. Each time is a challenge scaled, a victory over some hurdle, or a new stumbling block that I discovered which I need to either work on or figure out how to circumvent. Everytime I’m at music class, or find myself at a music concert like last night, I find myself transported to a different world, a world very different from the other things I do, yet very similar. Last night I had the fantastic fortune of listening to two very similar forms of music I love – Hindustani classical and Jazz. They are similar because they are both free-form, improvisation-within-structure kind of music. Within both, the musicians have either a Raaga (a structure of notes) or a mathematical logical structure in Jazz, within which they can do whatever they want. And when they reach some height of complexity within that structure, while feeding off the other musicians/instruments accompanying them, it’s nothing short of a transcendental experience.

And it’s that transcendental experience I think I seek in everything I do. It’s about reaching beyond what you’ve experienced today. It’s about the next high, that takes you a little beyond your self. Because each experience sets a boundary – a limit you’ve reached and being human beings, we don’t like limits, do we? So the next experience has to transcend the existing. This is why I push myself at the endurance training – to see what my body can do and even more, what victories I can conquer over the self-imposed limit I’d set before. This is why I listen to music, to listen for the next beautiful complex variation that a musician can achieve within the confined structure of a Raaga or Jazz musical structure.

And it’s this thirst to do more, feel more, scale more that I think drives every one of us to do what we do. These are all the things that give us joy.

Open Water

This week has been crazy busy at work. Didn’t manage to get even a run in. But what I had my focus on was the open water swim at Decker Lake this Saturday. Last Saturday in the pool we did a mock open water swim where we swam about 75 yards in a group in a zigzag fashion along the lanes. I was gasping for breath everytime we reached the end of the pool. I was not prepared for the open water at all.

I got a swim in on Thursday at the UT pool which actually felt like a huge improvement already. I focused on my stroke and I think I’ve gotten much faster. I thought I finally figured out what the swim coach at the UT swim class was telling me to do all along. I stretched my arms out long, rotated my body, kept my legs straight and kicked from the hips. Underwater, my arms went down in a straight line and folded under my chest. I tried keeping my elbows up straight out, as high as possible but that’s what slacks off when I get tired.

So when I got to Decker Lake, I was pretty nervous but excited at the same time. Since I was a child, I’ve had a morbid fear of open water. Well, today was the day to overcome it. It’s not like I haven’t been in open water. But that’s been on vacation where I can stray as far as I feel comfortable and not any more. Today I had to at least attempt to follow the training instructions. It was fairly cool and the water was cold. The ladies of Ironchicks were giggling and fake-shrieking in the cold water. It almost felt like it was a vacation and not training. I tepidly moved in the water on the slippery rocks. I tried to swim but I couldn’t. I took a deep breath, put my face in the water and saw nothing but a green opaque wall that felt like it was closing in on me. I tried breathing out but I was swallowing water. I kept jerking my head out and gasping. I started to swim but I couldn’t breathe out in the water. This was so different from the pool where you can see the concrete below. By the time I had about 10 strokes in the others had finished their 20 strokes and were swimming back right into me. A fellow Ichix lady, Stacey offered to stay with me. She said she would swim with me if I wanted and I was glad for that. So we tried the 20 strokes out and back again. Again I couldn’t breathe in for more than 2-3 strokes at a time. But Stacey kept with me and continued to egg me on. Every now and then I could increment the number of strokes and breathe in. Slowly, the green opaque wall became not so terrifying. But unfortunately I’d made a bad breakfast choice! I ate in the car while driving to Decker (because I couldn’t wake up early enough) and while swimming I’d get these incredible urges to belch which made breathing in and out very difficult. I told Stacey that and apologized that I’d have to be rude and belch in order to be able to swim on.

There were 3 buoys and we had to swim around that length and back to the shore. I made it to the first buoy while stopping in between to get breath, treading on the water (and belching). Got to the first and Stacey asked if I wanted to swim back to the shore. While swimming to the first buoy, I saw some of the Ironchicks folks swimming back. But by the time I reached the first buoy I felt good and wanted to go on. Stacey looked surprised. We swam on and I stopped a couple of times to, of course, belch! Kept apologizing to Stacey about being rude but I needed to get the air out of my stomach to be able to breathe. She said better to learn that today than on race day.

That wasn’t the only lesson I learned today. Like any other endurance sport, it is all a mind game. I know how to swim. I can swim for a reasonably long distance too (with breaks of course). But even in the open water, you can take a break and tread water, swim backstroke, breaststroke or whatever it is you need to do to keep moving. Every now and then, you have the fear creep into your mind and sometimes it takes over. That’s when I stopped, treaded water and calmed down and went on. It’s a mind game you play with yourself. At one point I even invoked the little Vedanta I remembered, thinking there is no difference between the water and myself. I became the water and suddenly there wasn’t the fear. It still niggled every now and then. The trick is to figure out what keeps your mind from going down that path and stopping it. And of course, 100 hours of training :).

Finally made it back to the shore, after swimming the whole length, approximately 300-400 meters. That felt great. When I got to the shore, Stacey said I swam strong. While she said she usually blunt so she meant the compliment, I thought about how much her positive reinforcement helped me to make that effort today. She’s a quiet, unassuming lady and Marion’s friend. I really appreciated her today for sticking with me, through the water, stopping when I stopped and swimming along with me, almost touching me so I could get a feel of what race day would feel like. I really felt grateful.