The 400m obstacle

Back in the day when my routine was nice and simple and I didn’t spend most of my life in Dublin stuck in and adding to the traffic chaos, I used to go swimming three times a week, sometimes four. But generally, on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I used to leave work and drive to the pool at DCU – still my favourite pool to swim in – and swim. When I got there first I was recovering from a recurrent back problem which was caused by something stupid stupid playing badminton around 17 years ago. It hurt. A lot. My physio and I agreed that my back muscles would have to be toughened up and I started swimming *again*.

I don’t think I really had a target other than not to be completely rubbish at swimming. I was completely rubbish at swimming at that stage. Anyway, on account of the back problems, and linked with breathing issues, after about two days, I decided to backstroke instead of freestyle/frontcrawl/your term of choice, and that blossomed for me over the space of around 5 months. By the time I sort of lost the habit by disappearing off to Australia (where I swam daily) for 2 weeks, I was backstroking 1600m in around 55 minutes.

One of the things I remember rather clearly about that time was how, every time I went swimming, getting fro 0 to 400m was hard. It was really, really hard and it never got easy. Once I got to 400m, it seemed to become plain sailing and the other 1200m were generally a lot easier.

I don’t like to talk about the wall – I know the marathon runners talk about hitting the wall – and I’m reluctant to call it a mountain to climb; after all I am swimming. But it’s there, this…barrier, somewhere around 400m…which is hard, and then the rest is easier.

I have been back in the pool twice in the last 7 days (let’s just say this does great things for my average) and I’m now freestyling. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • I feel inadequate that I take the easy way out and backstroke despite the fact that most people tell me they find backstroking hard and therefore I must be a good swimmer
  • I know there is a speed target of 400m in 8 minutes for lifeguarding. I cannot do it, not on my back, and definitely not going forward.
  • I know that with a bit of work I can do this and it’s a question of putting in the time and especially, identifying and eliminating the inefficiencies that make this hard for me.

To target this, in the past I have taken private swimming lessons and this is why I own a pullbuoy, amongst other things. I know I have lots of faults. I know, for example that my body could be longer in the water. I know that my catch is a bit awry. I know that my head up to breathe might destabilise my body in the water. I’m overweight.

But.

And there is always a but.

Today I swam 625m.

625m is more than I have previous managed on a second swim session back stroking. The previous swimming session, 6 days ago, was 250m, and at least 50 of that was backstroke, possibly 75. I can’t remember.

Generally my target from swim to swim is “do at least as well as the last time, and try and beat it” which means today’s target was 275m. In swimming contexts this is pretty much nothing but in my context, it’s a start, and it demonstrated that I could a) still swim and b) still at least complete individual lengths. But 250m had been hard last week, very hard, and it was significantly shy of the point which I know is an obstacle for me when I am swimming. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it today. The pool was busy and to be honest, I went out rather against myself. I wasn’t in good form.

Most people reading that would suggest they were excuses. I operate on the basis of “well even if I don’t make 250m, at least I went out and lapped the version of me that stayed at home feeling guilty about not going”. It’s a bit convoluted as motivation goes.

I had two collisions, neither of which were really my fault. Both times a swimmer started swimming straight at me after I was 2/3s of the way along the pool. One of them disrupted me enough that I wound up dropping the length midway and got myself back to the end. It’s why I wound up with an uneven number of lengths. But the pool kind of cleared out after that and the collision risks dropped away to nothing. The rest times between lengths stopped. And I had some wonderful lengths. I reached 200, and then 250 and 275. There were moments where I hit an extraordinary rhythm and position in in the water, and just felt wonderful. And I hit 375m and so 400 became a single length away.

And after that, another 225 lengths followed easily. I stopped because I had budgeted one hour in the pool and that had arrived. But I could have gone on. I might have gone on for another two or three hundred metres. ┬áIt seems this 400m obstacle exists in freestyle as well – the first 400m are hard, the follow ups seem very easy.

I have a couple of goals – loose goals – in place. I expect them to take 3 to 4 months to reach but…

  • 1000m forward, 1000m backwards
  • Learn to do a flip turn.

625m is awfully close to that first goal. Of course, there are things like rest times which need to be cut, and the chaining needs to be a lot better. But neither of those things come if you cannot do 1000m in the first place.

It is very hard for me to explain just how easy some of today’s lengths were. I suspect most swimmers have days/moments where it feels better, perfect, more aligned than others. I struggle to describe the feeling but it’s as though the world is balanced.

I’ve tried to reach 1000m freestyle before. This is the closest I have ever got and for the first time, I actually can reach out and touch it happening.

Resources I use are:

Effortless swimming

Reddit Swimming