Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Swimathon

Swimming has always been a bit of a sore point for us. Mainly because we’ve always been pretty awful at it. It’s not for want or trying though, we’ve spent hours in the pool trying to get better at it; desperately trying to understand how everyone else in the pool seems to glide through the water effortlessly as we splash about like some sort of goggle-wearing daddy long-legs.

We refuse to give up though. So when we were invited over to the Ironmonger Row Baths for a special training session to launch this year’s Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Swimathon, we jumped at the chance. Well you would, if you were about to receive a swimming lesson from Olympic medal winner, Duncan Goodhew MBE. If anyone was going to be able to help us it would probably be him.

But before we explain how the session went, we should probably give you some background on what exactly the Swimathon is and, more importantly, why you should get involved.

Set up back in 1986, the initiative was originally devised as a swimmer recruitment and retention programme for local authority facilities, now thirty years later it’s become a nationwide swimming challenge encouraging swimmers to take on various distance challenges. More than half a million swimmers have taken part in Swimathon over that time and the event has raised more than £40 million for a number of charitable causes. So yeah, as sporting events go it’s pretty damn impressive.

From Friday 18th to Sunday 20th March 2016, thousands of people will take part at over 600 hosting pools around the UK. You can do it as an individual or as part of a team, with distances covering 1.5k, 2.5k (only for individuals) or 5k. But don’t worry, if there isn’t a pool nearby that’s taking part you can still get involved by registering to take part in SimplySwim.

The event is designed to be accessible for all levels. Whether you’re looking to try to break records or, like us, if you’re likely to take a little bit longer to finish the distance. All you need to do is set yourself the challenge and start putting some time into the pool.

So, with our usual sense of swimming lesson dread, a red rubber cap and a pair of slightly too tight swimming shorts, we, along with a group of other journalists and bloggers, made our way into the pool for an intensive session with one of Britain’s most prized athletes.

Now, we’ve done a fair few swimming lessons in our time, however for the most part these were in preparation for triathlon events. The result of which meant the focus was largely on front crawl technique and speed. When you’re not really a fan of front crawl – i.e. you’re very bad at it – performing drills with a group of people who are significantly faster is a daunting experience. The weighting of the session then tends to end up being tailored to the more advanced members of the group.

Luckily for us this session wasn’t your normal swimming lesson. Instead of running through a set format of drills, Duncan took an approach of explaining how to enjoy the experience of swimming. Things like taking a few moments to look at the water itself to see how it moves, or trying to feel for the catch of the water whilst standing still to understand how to feel for it in a stroke. Not the kind of training we’d ever been asked to do in the past.

From there we went on to making slight changes to our stroke to ensure we weren’t wasting energy. Simple little tips that seem ridiculously logical and obvious as soon as you do them. Like straightening your arms out further or finding the optimum time to finish the stroke before you start to lose the benefit from the catch. The kind of things we overlook when we’re frantically trying to get faster.

There were many other drills and techniques we tried out, even finishing with a crash course in tumble turns – something we’ve never even thought about practising. But even though we’d covered a lot of ground by the end, it all seemed very relaxed. Which, when you dread the thought of taking part in a swimming event, is an amazing achievement.

We left the pool, not only with a feeling that we’d finally managed to make some progress in our swimming career, but with a sense of enjoyment we seldom get from swimming. A testament to Duncan and his approach to swimming, and something that’s mirrored in Swimathon ethos.

However before we left we managed to grab Duncan to ask a few questions about the event and to gain some last-minute tips before we attempt the challenge ourselves.

You’ve done a lot of things in your career, what is it about Swimathon that made you want to get involved?

Well it was back in 1987 that I got involved. The whole idea was to try to take the success of the London marathon, which was relatively new at the time, and try to replicate some of that in the water. But really you can’t have 35,000 people swimming in one pool. As we started engaging in that whole conversation I realised that by bringing the team in and having the relay as well as the individual challenge we had something that was really special. It was engaging people on a whole number of different levels. As you see, I really relate to the water. I think it’s a very special place. It really helps people. I’ve certainly benefited so much myself from swimming in terms of my own development, and when I see people who become engaged in that journey, that whole learning piece, it make a huge difference. Swimathon has played a huge part in my life and giving back to my sport, and seeing other people progress, improve and enjoy the challenge. It’s kind of a red-letter day in people’s lives. You see them get to the end and achieve something, just normal people who have got something massive out of my sport. To me they’re all gold medalists.

And why is swimming such an important part of Sport Relief?

We are a nation of swimmers. 2.5 million people swim every week in this country. To give you some context of that, 2.3 million people run and 2 million people cycle. It is the most popular sport in this country. So it would be rather odd not to have some sort of swimming event in Sport Relief, because that’s what British people do.

There may be a lot of people who are looking at Swimathon, worried that they haven’t swam anywhere near the distances before. Maybe they’re a bit nervous, maybe a bit scared about whether they can do it. Have you got any advice for those people?

Well, we have several different challenges to make sure that it suits everyone that wants to take part. There’s SimplySwim, where you enter and swim any place, any time that you like. So it’s not a competition with anyone else, it’s you deciding what your challenge is, on your terms. So, yes it can be anybody. I would urge people to take part in the event. It’s amazing, because you get sweaty palms in the morning, but when you turn up to the pool it’s just normal people doing something very special. By the end of the day, when you touch the end, you’ll get such a high, which is amplified by everybody else’s. You’re joining in with it. So I’d say, it’s one of those moments in your life where you’re going to feel a million dollars because you’re doing something so special.

What are the best ways for people to prepare in the run up to the event?

One of the great things about when you enter an event, any event that’s going to be quite demanding, is that it demands of you to go down to the pool, or to go down and train. So in preparation, make sure you’re going down to the pool to train regularly. If you go to the website there are several different swimming programs that you can log into and chart your progress. Pick the level that’s right for you and have a go at it.

Any tips for the bulkier man. The guy that likes to do weights more than he the pool. Is there any hope?

I did a lot of weightlifting when I trained. I used to squat 850 lbs plus bodyweight, I say squat, it was a quarter squat to toe. I went up to 950 lbs on a 6 degree rack, so I’ve slung some weights around in my time. The key thing is flexibility. What swimming needs is a longer, supple muscle. So if you’re trying to adapt you’re weight training programme into swimming, you should couple it with more flexibility work to try to lengthen and soften the muscle a bit, to make them more elastic.

Any last-minute tips for people coming up to the event?

I think there’s several things. Engage in what you’re doing, and that is not just a personal challenge, but helping the community. And if you’re getting very nervous about yourself, focus on more what you’re doing for the greater good, and that will edge down your nerves, because you’re doing it for the right reasons. In preparation for it is make sure you don’t overtrain into the event and allow yourself to rest a little bit so you’re not over-stretching yourself in your last few hours – and again that’s covered in the online material. I would also suggest planning what you’re going to do to celebrate afterwards.

Duncan Goodhew is encouraging everyone to get behind Sport Relief by signing up to swim themselves proud at the Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Swimathon on 18th-20th March. To find out more visit www.sportrelief.com