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Written By Patrick Cogan

I am 34 years old and over the last eight years I have done almost a dozen triathlons. These include a half iron-man and numerous Olympic and sprint distances. I learned to swim eight and a half years ago. I did all of this while suffering from Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), a degenerative neuomuscular disease that makes even doing two simple tasks together extremely difficult. Imagine how much harder learning to swim was because you have to do a few dozen things together just to swim. Friedreich’s affects the way my brain communicates with every muscle in my body. This is everything from my heart and lungs to eyes, throat and stabilizer muscles just to name a few.

My start in triathlon was confusing and a little frustrating to say the least. It is not easy navigating the murky waters of USAT being a Physically Challenged athlete. Over the years I have come up with a few pieces of advice that I wish I knew when I got started which would have made my life boat loads easier. Hopefully the knowledge I am about to drop on you will convince you to either sign up for your first race or improve your experience.

1. Contact the race directors of races you are interested in!

Being a physically challenged (PC) triathlete is difficult, shoot, being a triathlete is difficult on its own! There are significantly more logistics that PC athletes need to plan for in order to have a successful race. In my case, I’m slow. Don’t get me wrong, given my challenges with FA I hold my own, but in comparison to non-PC athletes I take longer in each event. In my experience, many races are not USAT PC sanctioned triathlons. Due to this, I have learned that it is important to contact race directors to explain your situation to make sure they can handle your needs so you can register for the race. Every PC athlete is different but I explain that I need a handler with me for all 3 disciplines and I require a much larger space in transition areas for adaptive bike and run equipment. I also have many challenges with swimming so I need a significant head start in the water. Most race directors want physically challenged athletes at their races, they just may need some guidance from you. If there is a race you are interested, don’t be scared! Just reach out to the race director and so you can achieve your triathlon goals.

2. Follow the Race Director!

As I explained before, it is important to work with race directors to determine what will help you have a great race but not inhibit any other athlete. Most RDs are awesome and will really do everything they can to make sure you can do their race. If you have a good experience with a particular race director or triathlon company, then follow that person or group to their other races. If they run other races, then you know you should be able to do those races without an issues.  You have already built a relationship with that RD. You have helped them to expand their race offerings and they know exactly what you need. So the challenges you went through with the RD on your first race with that them will be greatly reduced. This means you will have much less stress going into race day so you should do even better at your next race. Being a PC athlete in triathlon is no different than other aspects of life. They become much easier when you realize that personal connections are key.

3. Plan ahead and remember that race day is the entire day not just the race!

It is important to remember that the race is not just swimming, biking and running.  Race day includes how you will get to the race, set up your transitions, get your number, put your gear on, use the bathroom, get to the race start and pack up and go home when it is all over. Even simple things like driving to a race can determine if you do a race or not depending on your physical challenge. I personally have my wheelchair, my recumbent trike which I use to bike and my hand cycle for the run. I am in a wheel chair so getting all my equipment to one location is difficult and requires help from others. Plan ahead and make sure you have someone who can help get you to the race or help you with your equipment and set up once you are there. If you tell the RD well ahead of time, he or she may be able to get you a dedicated volunteer for the day to help you with these types of logistics. People in the triathlon community are always happy to help but sometimes you just need to ask.

4. Make sure you practice with your guide, if you need one for your race!

Depending on your physical limitations, you may need a guide or handler. I personally can’t swim alone given my limitations. It is 100% not safe! In order for me to have a successful day on the race course, I need to find a swimmer strong enough to swim next to me and guide me through the swim and also protect me from getting pushed under by other swimmers. I can only safely swim on my back, and I pull to the right, so my handler needs to constantly keep me straight all the while protecting me from other swimmers. It is important for my swim handler to know how I swim before race day so he or she can determine the best and safest way to fulfill his or her responsibilities as my guide.  Finding a person who is able and willing to do this is NOT an easy task. People have their own lives to live but if they can help they will. Make sure to ask them well in advance of the race and have a backup plan in case life happens and the guide falls through. If you incorporate your guide in your training often, then he or she will be more committed to helping you with your goal. At this point your journey has also become their journey and they want to see it through. This will also allow you both to figure out what works, certain signals to give so you can adjust on the fly and it creates accountability to each other when either of you doesn’t feel like training. They are not just a guide, those people are now your training buddies. Triathlons are usually an individual sport but not for most PC athletes and certainly not for me!

5. Ask for help and be your own advocate!

I hate asking for help! Hate it! But sometimes doing the things you hate and are uncomfortable with are exactly what you need to do.  That is exactly the case with triathlon for some PC athletes. In order to race I am constantly humbling myself and asking for all kinds of help. Triathlon may be an individual sport, however, when you look deeper it is just a huge support group trying to help you succeed. Most volunteers want to help but they just don’t know how and don’t want to get in your way on an already stressful day. If you ask them for help and tell them exactly what to do, then they are happy to spring into action and your day just got easier! If you look around transition before a race, you will see many non-PC athletes asking volunteers and other athletes for help. Triathlon is a community and we are all there to help each other. We all put in the time, made sacrifices and suffer and because of this we want to see one another succeed. Asking for help is not a pain in the butt for those helping nor is it a sign of weakness. It shows that you are comfortable with the triathlon family that you are member of.

Finally the biggest piece of advice I have for PC athletes is just like in life, you need to be your own biggest advocate! Most RDs want you to do their race, so they will be happy to work with you. Don’t assume the RD knows what you need on race day. It is up to you to communicate with them. If you don’t communicate with them, then they won’t know the best way to help you.  Talk to your friends and family and let them know how they can help and support you. Tell them exactly what you need. Under my circumstances there is absolutely no way I could do a triathlon of any distance without help from the outside! At the end of the day it is on me to drum up the support crew so I can achieve my goal. When I see a race I want to do, then I do what is necessary to make it a reality and you should do the same!

Final Thoughts

These are some of the main tips that I have learned along the way on my journey from a new PC athlete navigating the complicated waters of triathlon to an experienced triathlete. All PC athletes are different and have different needs or challenges on race day. These are just some pieces of information to consider to give you some guidance whether you are a PC athlete thinking about getting into triathlon but have no idea where to start or have done a few races but want to make it better experience. I am always looking for more information to tell PC athletes who have come to me for advice so please leave your most helpful tips in the comments!

About Patrick Cogan

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Patrick Cogan is a PC athlete who has been involved with Triathlon for almost 9 years. His challenge is Friedrich’s Ataxia and throughout his journey he has started a foundation to help others living with FA called Project Wheels. When Pat isn’t swimming, biking or running then you can probably find him nerding out over the latest technology or superhero comic.

A few weeks ago I asked my athletes to send some testimonials for the new Endurance Swimming  website,  if they felt like doing so.  Shauna Barry went above and beyond and documented her journey from the time she signed up for her goal race through the successful completion of the event. As much as I love reading such a glowing review, I am posting this because it is a great insider look at how we can help people achieve goals when they ready to work fo them! I also love reading about why people get involved in the sport and why they take on challenges way outside their comfort zone because I find it motivating as I am sure you all do as well.  Thanks Shauna for such a thorough documentation of your journey. I am so happy that I could be a part of it and hope to be a part of many more!

How Craig Lewin (who just swam across the Catalina Channel) helped me to learn to love ocean swimming and why having a performance coach mattered to me:

It is February and I am up skiing with my family in New Hampshire.  I feel the lag in momentum that sometimes you get if you are an outdoor athlete who loves the feeling of working towards a goal and new challenge and doesn’t have one.  The Peaks2Portland 2.4 swim race popped up in my email and I thought….ummmm I could do this. One small glitch, I am not an ocean swimmer.  I enjoy swimming in the pool and swam in high school but when I get into the ocean, I feel like I am floundering and drowning (legitimately, I imagine the lifeguards must view me as a swimming risk!) I am also slightly scared of the waves and their ability to pummel me at any given period of time.  I LOVE running-and consider myself a runner, first and for-most and have discussion fatigue about my chronic ankle injury (save yourself- don’t ask me how my ankle is doing). Swimming is a good-for-my-ankle-sport so training for a swim felt like a win in the ankle-recovery-department.  Swim more + don’t beat up my ankle + take a new challenge = I’m in.  I quickly adopted this positive goal that I clearly needed in mid-February and then did what most performance athletes do, began to let every friend on the planet know about my goal.

First, in order to sign up for the race, I needed a kayaker.  I called my sister, whose only real experience kayaking involves capsizing on a family outing with a former boyfriend (which while possibly comical at the time has unfairly become my mom’s only memory of her kayaking experience). Like me, she was up for a challenge!  She was also up for a chance to redeem her kayaking reputation and game to support any wacky goal I had in mind.  She had gotten married out on Little Diamond Island (one of the Casco Bay Islands the year prior) and the race would swim/kayak past the dock, so we figured he would join us for the day and be considered an, “anniversary visit.”  I signed up for Peaks2Portland, paid the money and my training goal began.

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As I casually dropped my goal into almost every conversation with friends from all backgrounds…the neighborhood, work, parents from my kid’s playdates (it was hard for me to hold back- I started to get excited). I faced a lot of questioning remarks and skepticism, “Cold water, very cold! Why would you want to do that?!”  I would glibly answer all while semi considering the obstacles they were mentioning (“I actually do NOT like cold water,” “yes, there might be sharks but as far as I knew, most sharks were in warmer water,” “I’d have to look up some statistics on shark attacks in the northeast,” “No, no I have not done an ocean swim before…” Then the conversation would circle back to the water temp (again, and again).  Occasionally, I’d become engaged in a discussion with a friend who I could tell wanted to have a realism-discussion with me where they sort of weighed my odds of really doing this race at all “Have you swam that far before?” (answer= no). Truth be told, this all egged me on more (nothing more fun than a challenge that people aren’t really sure you can do OR one where they can’t figure out why you would even want to try!)

How to train for something when you have no experience and no real baseline of what to do: 

I went to my parent’s house in Ogunquit Maine and had my dad and husband walked the beach while I got pummeled by waves.  After witnessing me stumble around in a state of vertigo and the disorientation for about 30 minutes in 50-degree water with hands that were feeling numb, my dad offered who never really gives advice, casually mentioned, “Shauna, someone must have done this before, you should learn from someone who has experience with this.” Point taken.

I noticed a number of my friends from Breakaway had discovered Endurance Swimming. This felt like a party that had been going on that I had been missing out on …clearly, I needed to get myself invited to this party to help me with my race!  I reached out to Craig via email and he gave me a brief orientation on where to be and form-filling out (safety first) and attended his pool training in Peabody.

Here is what I learned from signing up with Endurance Swimming:

  • There is NO BETTER way to learn how to improve your swim technique than from an incredibly accomplished athlete (have I mentioned Craig’s recent 21 miles swim?!) I thought maybe his swim skill could rub off on me just by signing up for the class.
  • Craig has a direct-style, fun personality and he can see things I cannot. (All very important in a swim coach!)
  • Craig has a variety of genius insights that if you are a hungry- for-answers-type of athlete, he will share on a whim or if you pepper him with questions (which I do, repeatedly, Sorry, Craig) he will respond in a thoughtful way no matter how granular the question (“So, when I turn my head, approximately how much of my air should I breath out?”- response, “Not all of it or you will start to sink a little)
  • EVERY SINGLE TRAINING CLASS I ATTENDED I LEARNED SOMETHING NEW- OFTEN MORE LIKE 5-10 NEW THINGS. After class #1 brain and body were tired from trying hard to change old habits some which I had been taught (note, the swimming community no longer does the “S” movement during the underwater portion of the swim) and some which I made up over time from reading or watching videos!
  • “Swim in the conditions you are going to race in. If you are doing an ocean swim- swim in the ocean, feel the buoyancy, experience the conditions, see if you get sea-sick.” (I cannot underestimate the value of this very important lesson. As I write it, it sounds like common sense but, guess what? I DO get sea sick while swimming in waves and turning my head side to side for an extended period of time. Duly noted!)
  • Technique: Craig teaches technique in the pool using a variety of drills to break down your stroke and then a few to simulate group swims (ie 3 of us all swimming in one lane to practice swimming together.) He also video tapes you throughout, so if you are a visual learning (yes, I am) you can SEE what he is saying.
  • Sometimes what you THINK you are doing- you are really NOT doing. I listened attentively and wanted to be an A+ swim student (maybe I could master is all in the first one or two classes). Craig noticed my arms were not entering the water properly, I focused so hard on changing that and then, he showed me the video of my efforts. Yea, I wasn’t fixing it, maybe just thinking really hard about it, though!  Seeing this helped me to make the brain/body connection.
  • If you have bad posture out of the water, chances are, you still need to work on it IN the water. (Put my head down/align with my spine, pull my shoulder’s back and suck in my stomach ….or I will dissolve into a rounded shoulder swimmer who could be mistaken for a floating rock.)
  • Cadence: ”Pick up the pace or it is not really swimming,” Craig Lewin, June 2018.  Over my swimming history, my freestyle seemed to have morphed into a leisure-swim-stroke Moving my arms at a faster clip was an important piece of getting across the Portland waters in my race successfully.
  • Ocean Group Training: I cannot underemphasize the importance of going with an experienced coach to an ocean swim training class. First, the group of people that will drive 1 hour to attend an ocean swim class in Swampscott are people who truly want to get better at swimming. They are also, even if apprehensive or going through their own emotions about ocean swims, very positive people. Wet-suit clad, with our brightly colored safety inflatables strapped around our waists, we attacked Saturday mornings!
  • Ocean Drills: Craig has you swim into the waves, out of the waves, over to the buoys, you name it, he mixes it up.  Ocean exposure with the Craig-safety net, was invaluable.
  • “Feel the pull of the wave and if you are getting pulled into it, don’t take a breath on that side or you will take a big drink” (Paraphrased quote, but you get the gist.)
  • Sighting Efficiency: Previously, I had been taking the “scenic route” in the lake (ie zigzagging.) “Don’t follow the swimmers around you. I once was leading a race and had sun in my eyes and took a whole bunch of swimmers off-course with me,” That was a mindset shift for me and debunked my theory that all the swimmers in the triathlons (in fact everyone one of them except for me) knew exactly where they were going on the course!  Practice sighting every 6-10 strokes. Keep your head up for 2 strokes- one to see, one to adjust.  Craig answered specific questions I had about every little details about how to sight ie: when to breath, how high to lift my head….and having an experienced coach to work through the details with you was critical.

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On July 28, I successfully swam Peaks2Portland with a time of 1:11.  My first ocean water crossing. I am still riding high from the accomplishment (yes, it is several weeks later). I could not have done it without Endurance Swimming or if I had tried, I am not sure I would have enjoyed the race as much as I did.  My sister did not capsize and now is officially, our family’s “best kayaker.”  I saw a number of friends I knew during the race and met a few more new ones!

Craig’s coaching ability is a true gift.  That coupled, with his amazing skill as an endurance swimmer, makes him one of the most highly regarded swim coaches in the northeast.  If you want to improve your swim performance, I strongly recommend giving his class a try!”

 

 

One Of My Favorites!

If you are looking for a drill that helps you with your balance, body position, rotation, kick efficiency and breathing then look no further. This is the drill for you.  The 6 Kicks and Roll drill is probably my favorite drill to do when warming up and recovering between hard sets. It is great for warming up because it activates up all the small muscles that you need for rotation when swimming. It prepares your body for the pre and main sets to come and sets you up to have a more efficient kick and body position throughout your workout.

This drill can be complicated so don’t get frustrated. Just remember why you are doing the drill and focus on that one piece of the stroke throughout the drill.  If you get too frustrated, then move on to a different drill and come back to this.  This drill really works the foundations of freestyle swimming so it is great to start to incorporate it into your workouts. If you are struggling, then you can try throwing on a pair of fins to help give you the lift from your kick that you may be missing.  You can also build off this drill by adding in a stroke during the rolling phase of the drill.

There are a few key points to remember when doing this drill.  You want to make sure you keep your eyes looking down and your neck relaxed.  You also want to start your rotation from you hips and core instead of from your shoulders.  This will make turning your head to the side easier especially when you are breathing.  The roll from one side to the other should be smooth and relaxed.  It shouldn’t be rushed. It is better to only do 2 good rotations during a length of swimming instead of doing 20 bad ones.  Go slow, be patient and most importantly try to have some fun learning a new and complicated drill!

Let us know how you do with this drill and please let us know some of your favorites. I am always looking for new drills to incorporate in my workouts.

Good luck and have fun.  Remember, Successful swims are build with Endurance!

Although high elbows during the recovery phase of the stroke are not totally necessary, it is an important element when learning to swim better freestyle.  This allows you to learn the proper entry spot of the hand in the water.  Below is a progression of drills that you can do to improve your high elbow recovery, setting you up for an efficient entry and pull:

1. Shark Fin Drill

In this drill, start on your side with one arm out front 8-10 inches deep, palm down, arm inline with the shoulder.  Lift the elbow of the top arm to the ceiling keeping the forearm and hand relaxed.  Keep lifting the elbow up until the hand is relaxed right next to your shoulder/chest area with your knuckles pointing forward.  Hold it here for a couple of kicks and then relax the arm and bring it back to the side.  Do this a couple of times on one side and then switch arms.

 

2.  Shark Fin Touch

This drill allows you to work on balance, high elbows, and point of entry.  Start on one side with the arm out front 8-10 inches deep in line with the shoulder.  Lift the top arm up at the elbow keeping the forearm and hand relaxed.  This will make the shark fin.  Pause here for a couple of kicks, then swing the forearm forward and touch the water with your finger tips only where you would enter.  Then go back to shark fin and then back down by your side and breathe.

 

3. Stop Stop Switch Drill

Stop 1: Kicking on the side with one arm out front, 8-10inches deep, palm down, in-line with the shoulder and breathe.

Stop 2: Lift top arm’s elbow up to the ceiling so the hand is parallel to the chest/shoulder and make a shark fin and pause.

Switch: Swing the forearm forward and enter the water finger tips first take the stroke and repeat on the opposite side.

 

4. Catch Up With Finger Tip Drag

Start on your stomach with your arms shoulder with a part.  Start your pull with one arm while leaving the other arm in front of you.  As your elbow leaves the water to start the recovery, drag your fingers tips in the water next to your body.  Once your recovery arm enters the water pause for a brief second and then repeat with the other arm. This will help you get your elbows nice and high. 

 

Next time you are at the pool give these drills a try and see what you think.  All of these drills will not only help you with your recovery but they will work your balance and body rotation as well!

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See you at the pool!