Five years ago today was the first day I ever swam laps with an eye toward swim training. Aside from an ill-fated single day on a summer swim team, I had only ever tried to not drown before.
I had run the Philly Marathon the weekend prior and went home for the Thanksgiving holiday knowing that I needed to find some active recovery activity that wasn't running. In the snow biking was out. Swimming on the other hand...I had to borrow my mother's suit.
The YMCA in Madison charges outrageous day-pass fees, but over Thanksgiving they waive the charge if you donate to their food drive. I went to the grocery store and bought four cans of the cheapest canned vegetable I could find: corn, at 25 cents per can. A weekend of swimming that would have cost me $80 cost me $1 - and helped America's farmers.
I decided to swim for an hour straight. I promised myself that if I could raise my arms above my head the next day, I would go back and do it again. I ended up "spending" all four cans.
Fiver years later things have really progressed - I have my own suit and don't pay for lane time with cheap canned vegetables.
What have I learned in the past five years?
It is still all about not drowning.
Oh, you mean seriously? Will you settle for useful?
** Get into a masters group or workout as soon as you feel comfortable swimming for 2000 yards or so (not straight). I ignorantly did exactly the right thing: I spent a winter building up distance (at the time I had no concept of bases and place clocks so if I was getting faster I had no idea) and then the following summer jumped into a masters group that I had no business swimming with. But this masters group - and consistent attendance - took me from swimming 2000 yards a workout slow, to swimming 5000 meters a workout fast, in far less time than I would have been able to alone.
** Don't let "I don't know enough" or having poor form or doing open turns keep you from swimming with a masters group. My first day ever of masters I didn't know the order of strokes in the individual medley (IM; it's fly, back, breast, free). I got a guffaw and a serious eye-roll, but hey, they let me come back the next day. If you have concerns, talk to the coach beforehand; they can put you in the correct lane or suggest an alternate group. If you have unassailable concerns, swim with friends and form your own masters-esque group.
** Never lead a lane unless you can use the pace clocks and correctly identify when to leave on the next interval. Or else you will face the modern-day equivalent of a mutiny and marooning.
** Whether you swim with a masters group, with friends, or alone, don't always swim intervals of the same distance. Occasionally get in and swim lap-after-lap-after-lap until you are thoroughly bored (or if you're me, lose count) then swim ten more laps. Try to get up to 1500 to 2000 yds/m, during which a consistent pace is more important than a fast one. Then try to swim that far with changes in pace - ex. a fast(er) 100 every 500 - so that you learn to recover while still swimming.
** The "public lanes" at a pool sound all kumbaya and Kindergarten-y, I know. But the public in the public lanes is best avoided. Unless you bring with you a group of your own public and can #OccupyPublicLane.
** Urban legend, pursuant to the previous point: The nicest pool in DC has lanes divided by speed - slow, medium, fast. Inevitably slow people self-select themselves into the fast lane. One day a fast swimmer told a slow swimmer that they were in the fast lane and should move to the slow lane. The slow swimmer's reply? "But I'm going as fast as I can."
** Swim all the strokes, occasionally, even if you feel awkward, tired, and/or slow. The important part of the fly pull is the same as the free-style pull, except you do it with both arms at the same time. Double the workout! If fly really isn't your thing, try it with fins to get the rhythm down.
** Early on in your swimming, or heck, even late on in your swimming, write a technique-only workout and do it once a week, alone. I found Sunday was a good lazy day to focus on form and not worry about speed. The goal is not to go fast or far, the goal is to swim with correct technique as much as possible. Once your form gets sloppy, stop, even if you are in the middle of an interval. Rest, regain your focus, and start again from where you stopped. 2000 yards with good form is more valuable than 4000 yards with poor form.
** Swimming with a band can fix in 10 strokes what fixing with a stroke coach can take 10 hours.
** Never become too reliant on any one toy. Pulling with a buoy but no paddles works on core stability, rotation in the water, and increasing awareness of the catch. Pulling with paddles and no buoy works on synching your kick with your stroke and lifting your back-half while moving fast(er) through the water. Pulling with paddles and buoy (and band) works on pure strength, but can encourage cheating at various parts of the stroke: dropping the elbow, ending the pull too early, not cocking the wrist for the catch. Swimming fast with fins quickly highlights any point of the body or stroke that deviates from streamline, and naturally increase stroke rate.
** Give swim cords (Therabands also work) a try. Separating the catch and pull, and repeating them over and over without the pesky concern of drowning - not to mention the ability to actually see a dropped elbow and feel what it takes to keep an elbow high - will cement in your mind and kinesthetic sense what swimming should feel like.
** Don't be the person at the pool with the see-through suit.
** Buy polyester suits. Figure out your size in a store, and then buy on-line from a reputable dealer (Speedo, TYR, etc) or buy a reputable brand from discount clearinghouse (swimoutlet.com). Last season's prints get down to $20 and one poly suit lasts me 18 months, even when worn every time I swim.
** Swim more. Swim that more with people.
** Don't drown.