If you want to run with the big dogs, you’ve got to learn to pee in the tall grass

As four of us drove back from our first open water swim of the year at Reading Lake in time for a late Sunday breakfast, the driver spoke with the voice of authority.

“People think that by swimming round and round the lake you get faster. You don’t, you get slower”

The voice was that of Dan Mason, a Team GB triathlete in his age group last year – also a member of our triathlon club and a friend. He has just been selected for Team GB again this year, so when he talks I listen. I also listen because Dan is a qualified BTF coach and is helping me with my training this year.

It is a theme I have heard Dan expand before. You don’t get better at something by just going and doing lots of it. You get better in training by pushing yourself. Sometimes that means doing something outside your comfort zone that you don’t really like. Sometimes it means training with people better than you so you have to work harder than is comfortable to keep up. Neither is enjoyable which is why we rarely do it. The sad truth is that getting better involves some suffering!

This discussion is very timely for me as I have now started training for my triathlon season. My first race, an open-water sprint tri, is in June. I am reluctant to admit it because usually when I declare training has started I get injured. So I am writing this with everything crossed.

I have tried to put Dan’s theory into practice by getting out of my comfort zone in training. This week I had two opportunities to show myself that I was pushing it.

The first was last Saturday when our tri club group bike ride didn’t happen. I decided to go out on my own instead and cycled about ten miles to some local hills. If suffering is on the menu then hills are a safe bet! I found a loop that, in a strange optical illusion, seems to be constantly uphill yet still ends where it started – go figure! It was an 8-mile loop which I did twice. Add on the journey to and from home and I got a solid 37 hilly miles under my belt – 1,797 feet of ascent at an average speed of almost exactly 15 mph. It was exhausting and by the time I arrived home my legs were a bit like jelly from the climbing. Not your average fun ride!

The next day I was at the tri club weekly swimming session. On the agenda this week, in the middle of a 2k workout, was a 400 metre time trial – 16 lengths of the pool against the clock. I occasionally do a 400 metre time trial alone to try and gauge progress, but with no-one watching or timing me, it is often hard to distinguish my 400m time trial from an easy 400 metre warm up. When the rest of your training lane sits on the end of the pool and watches and one of them has a stop watch in his hand, it’s an entirely different proposition – the pressure is on.

My lane partner this week was Chris Oliver. He is a stronger swimmer than me. He has a fluid and deceptively powerful stroke. He gave me lots of excuses about taking it easy and not being too bothered about his time. He then promptly nailed a 6.30 mins 400m. Turns out he did care about the time after all!!

Then it was my turn. I set off and straight away felt out of breath. Must be in the head – even I can swim two lengths without falling apart. I tried to keep it easy while I got a few lengths under my belt. At halfway I heard Chris shout 3.40 – I tried furiously to do the maths in my tired head underwater! Was twice 3.40 under 7 minutes or not? No it was 6.80 – what does 6.80 mean? I gave up and focused on swimming.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Helen Hunter in the next lane. Helen is tall with long levers which she uses to great effect in the pool. I tried to keep up with her – no chance – but it made me push myself.

By the last 50 metres things were hurting but I knew that in about one minute Chris was going to read out my time for all to hear and that kept me working hard. I put in as big a finish as I could without blowing up. Eventually I made it – 7.30 mins exactly. Not Michael Phelps but a full 16 seconds inside my PB.

I still have work to do if I am to get under 7 mins by October, but it looks like Dan was right. You get better by training with better people than you and by pushing yourself.

If I want to get really good perhaps I should go and swim in the fast lane at training where our winner on the night did 400m in 5.02 mins. Well done Sam Wilson who beat all the men!

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