Tips for Swimming In A Crowded Pool

There are many mornings where I arrive at the gym hoping to the stars above that the pool is absolutely empty. The water will be crystal clear and still. No pointless chatter. No gawkers. Just me and the lane and no one to bother me.

Well, that’s absolute BS. It rarely happens, and it doesn’t actually serve me. Today, I finally got my very own version of swimmer’s Murphy’s law. I arrived about 20 minutes later than I usually do and there were about 9 people in the pool already. (It’s only 4 lanes, 25 yards long, and pretty narrow.) There were about five or six people who were lounging around, waiting for a lane to open up…and there was lots of chatting.

I camped out on the side of one lane where an older woman was speeding up and down the lanes with flippers on. You generally try to pick a lane where you can maintain the same speed as the swimmer that’s currently in, but I had no such luck. It would seem like everyone here, including this probable grandmother, was probably faster than me. I asked her if I could share the lane and she said okay…so I hopped in. I completed my warm up lap — which is not much of a warmup, really, since it’s 50 yards. Per usual I hung on the side for a bit to catch my breath and she looked puzzled. She kept going and we split the lane evenly. (I generally like to circle around.)

Sometime during the swim, I was pretty winded. It really doesn’t take much to wind me, but of course I’m new to swimming. She pokes her head out of the water and says to me, “You haven’t even gotten started yet!” She was mostly right.

With all of the people in the pool, as well as the people waiting to swim, I felt some sort of social pressure to hurry up. I shortened my rests and tried to be as efficient with my stroke as possible. People were watching…but mostly waiting. I didn’t want to disappoint nor did I want to waste the use of a perfectly good half-lane so I did the best I could. Proudly enough I did the entire 500 yards freestyle — finally, my first swim without any backstroke. (I kind of consider backstroke cheating, at least for the purposes of triathlon training.) I was so jazzed that I survived and when I looked up at the clock, I was also surprised. I had finished much sooner than I usually do, which gave me plenty of time to bike and then run errands before work.

As I was getting out, an older gentleman was getting in. He was probably in his sixties and we chatted a bit about swim training. I had mentioned that I was trying to work on endurance, and he had mentioned that he was doing the same. He asked which event I was working towards — the Olympic distance triathlon — and explained that the swim was quite short, only 0.9 miles (or 1500 yards, 3 times what I’m currently training at now). He empathized and then said that he was trying to get some endurance and distance in as well. When I asked him what distance he was training at, I was flabbergasted…he said he was doing something like a 3 mile swim. Insane! A full-length triathlon is 2.4 miles. Well, I guess it’s not all that uncommon since I saw an open water swim email newsletter yesterday with a 6.1 mile swim. Okay, maybe not insane, but definitely intense.

Regardless, swimming in that controlled-intense environment is really good for triathletes. If you’ve never been to an open water start, it’s quite the experience — there are bodies, arms, feet, and water flying EVERYWHERE. It’s not uncommon to get kicked in the face. (I think it happened to me in my first tri.) Getting used to lots of bodies flailing around you is important — you have to learn to keep your cool and swim in incredibly choppy water. By letting go of control in your environment, you get to reign in some sort of internal control — the most important kind, in my opinion — that will let you be successful in any endeavor.

Some tips for dealing with crowded swimming environments:

1) Don’t let anyone else dictate your speed except for you. Sure, there may be a ton of people in the pool but if you can’t go any faster without compromising your form, stick to your own speed. I personally feed off of pressure and stress so it helps me perform better and therefore, swim faster.

2) Focus on form. With arms and hands and feet all around you it’s really easy to get overwhelmed and claustrophobic. Return to your zen state and focus on one thing — breathing, form, the lane markers, the color of the water, or your hand/arm positioning. Don’t think about anything outside of your experience at that very moment. It’s just you and the water.

3) Establish a pattern so you know what to expect. Swim in circles in the lane, or split the lane in half. Don’t switch it up halfway. Stay consistent with your pattern. Knowing what to expect is usually half the battle in managing fear or doubt.

4) Realize that it’s just temporary. Chaos is temporary and things will eventually return to normal — either internally or externally. Get your swim in and do the best job you can. You won’t be swimming all day long!

5) Take some time to observe others. Can you learn something about their form? Can you learn how to manage your body and breath better in choppy water? See how others do it and try something new.

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