Oh. My. Goshngolly.
I have been fretting about open water swimming since well before my first triathlon, which was a pool swim. Since I had already signed up for two open water swim triathlons after it, I was feeling the urge to get in a lake and get used to it. But the problem is that we have had a relatively mild spring thus far and the temps have remained too cool for anything but the pool.
But the promise of warmer temps got me to asking lots of questions about wetsuits and open water swims. Finally I talked with one of our more experienced triathletes who said that he basically swims with a wetsuit any time he gets the chance. He said it just makes sense. It makes you faster, saves your legs for the bike/run, makes you feel safer, etc. At his urging, I finally went in and started talking with the local shops about them.
I took the opportunity to try on several and I’m so glad I did. See, my engine runs hot. If it gets much over 70 degrees, I’m sweating. I can wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I knew from back in the day when I had a wetsuit for surfing, that fit is critical and they are, for me, HOT. But thinking that perhaps the tech had changed a bit, I first grabbed a long sleeved or “full” suit. After doing the “I’m putting my wetsuit on” dance, I finally got it on (a little baby power or bacon grease might have made the process easier) and as I was tugging and poking it to get it set right I realized something. I was baking in my own juices. I literally felt like I was melting. A quick mental assessment of my situation made me question how the hell people can actually put one of these on and then exercise in it?! It also felt very restrictive in the shoulders.
I peeled myself out of it as gracefully as I could (think: banana peels itself) and stood there in my tri-shorts for a few minutes to get my body temp down and stop sweating. My generally hot feeling jeans felt light and breezy when I put them back on. I immediately trudged over to the racks, plopped the vetoed full suit back in it’s spot and began discussing other options. Amy (my coach and the business owner) suggested I try out a sleeveless. She checked her size charts and discovered she had one my size in the back. She came out, handed me the box, smiled and said, “you tear it, you bought it” and shooed me out the door and on to the lake.
I had swam 2100 yards that morning so I had a good swim, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually considering doing two swims in the same day (the addiction has, indeed overcome me). After a few hours back at work I scurried out the door and headed to a local lake at a big park in town that has swim lanes marked off. A quick check of the air temperature showed about 80 and I estimate the water temperature was between 65-70. There were two other triathletes there testing their gear out for a big triathlon this weekend so I even had people to swim with.
I gingerly stepped into my wetsuit, remembering to turn it inside out all the way down to the calves to make it easier to start and then pulled and tugged for a few minutes until I got it into position. Zipping it was a bit of a challenge as it was cut a bit tight for me right about the bottom of the rib cage so I carefully tugged until it got past that point and then it zipped up the rest of the way so fast I thought I broke the zipper. I bagged up the rest of my stuff and headed for the water. I have to say I LOVE the sleeveless design. No binding or rubbing. I had full range of motion. Love it! And since I am going to be doing nothing but midwest triathlons for the first year or two, the extra protection of the full sleeves is kind of lost on me. If I branch out and start doing colder water stuff later then I will look at a full suit. But even then I will probably just rent one until it becomes routine to do open ocean or mountain triathlons.
I dipped a toe in the water and it was, indeed, cool, but I was already sweating from wearing so much black neoprene so I was happy to get in. This lake slopes gradually out to the swim lanes which range from 6-10 feet deep. It’s actually just an area of the lake that is roped off with a couple of buoys to practice tracking on. It’s about 40-50 yards long and has enough room to practice open water turns too.
My impressions of everything related to open water, triathlon swimming, wetsuits… everything… changed instantly the first time I took off on an open water lap in a wetsuit. It was fun… REALLY fun… I actually felt like I was swimming, not beating the water to death or dragging my lead butt through it. What a huge difference.
First, let’s talk wetsuit. Or, more accurately, buoyancy. Swimming open water with a wetsuit is, to me, exactly like swimming with a pull buoy (the little foam buoy you put between your legs for swim drills). I barely had to kick at all. I felt like I was on plane and swimming through the water instead of dragging myself through it. The suit provided no restriction and kept me perfectly warm without being hot. All of the effort of my arm stroke was actually being transferred to the water to pull me through. So that’s what it feels like… The suit also provided enough flotation so that when I stopped to adjust things or talk, I felt like I could relax and not worry about sinking. I didn’t have to tread water. All in all, the wetsuit was fantastic. Even if I did look like a baby orca… I don’t care. See, I am COMFORTABLE enough to be confident on a bicycle or the run. But I still haven’t felt COMFORTABLE in the water… until yesterday.
Now, about open water. Yes, you can’t see. Yes, there are floaty bits and the occasional inadvertant sip is nasty tasting. But I. Loved. It.
It was awesome to be able to get into a rhythm. The wetsuit let me breathe every 4-6 strokes so I could concentrate on even, balanced strokes. Sighting is easier than I thought it would be. I just tried to relax and focus on a balanced stroke. Every 8 strokes I popped my head up just above water, eyes forward, and checked my line. If I was on, I tried to push the next sight out to 12 strokes. If I was off, I adjusted and checked on the 4th stroke. If I was back on, I went back to 8. I swam several laps where I only had to check twice in 50 yards. I also liked being outside and in the water. The sun felt good on my back. With a wetsuit and proper training, I am definitely certain that I could swim much greater distances, and with less effort. I WANT to swim now. How sick is that…
I tried, albeit carefully and slowly, to simulate exiting the wetsuit as I came out of the water and Amy was right. It was much easier to get out of once it got wet. I dropped the zipper and peeled it down to my waist as I came out of the water. Then when I got to a safer spot I peeled it down to just below the biggest part of my calves. Then I stepped on one leg as close to my foot as I could and then pulled quickly with the other leg. My foot popped out easily. I repeated on the other side and I was out. Cool! It will definitely slow down my transitions a bit, but I think the time I make up in the water with the suit on will balance that out.
After all of that, this morning’s run seemed a bit of an anticlimax. A flat, out and back, interval workout on the trail.
It was 7.8 miles (long for me) and I managed to hang with the lead pack to the halfway point. I felt strong and didn’t tire out the entire way. And I averaged a 7:46 mile pace. If you take out the 8:33 warmup mile we ran, the average drops to 7:34! I’m loving my legs right now. Over the last month I have dropped a full 30 seconds per mile off my average. And I have as yet to really push myself in a race… Now I just gotta get better on the bike.