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Lessons learned at Masters swimming session

Written by Fiona

March 15 2016

I didn’t swim in a club as a child. Instead, I had to learn to swim freestyle (crawl) as an adult. It has taken me about 10 years to feel as though I am an okay-ish swimmer. I can now swim non-stop freestyle for 100 lengths of a 25m pool if I push myself. Generally I do about 60 lengths and get bored.

I also attend weekly Glasgow Triathlon Club coached sessions. These are good for continued technique coaching and improvement and also for swimming fitness as I look towards doing a few triathlons this year.

So, while I am not a beautiful swimmer I would say I am competent. Yet, when my friend – and super swimmer – Ali suggested I go to a Masters swimming session I laughed. Loudly!

Ali coaches at our tri club and reckoned my swimming was good enough to join her Masters session with the Milngavie & Bearsden Amateur Swimming Club. I took a lot of persuading but last night I took the plunge at Allander Leisure Centre, Milngavie.

What is masters swimming?

Masters swimmers are usually people who have swum at club level as youngsters. They might well be returners to the pool as adults but they have learned the basic techniques of good, fast swimming as children and when they become masters they are usually good swimmers.

Not everyone is a super fast Masters swimmer but they are usually faster than the average swimmer (certainly faster than me) and can do all four strokes, butterfly, freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke.

My first Masters swim session

I was very nervous about joining the Masters. It’s not my fitness that bothered me but my swimming technique and speed. I thought I would embarrass myself and in my late 40s I see no need to put myself in a place that is embarrassing. Yet Ali assured me that no one would laugh and that I would be fine.

The first problem came after the 200m warm up. (It was obvious even in the warm up that I would be the slowest in the slowest lane.) The coach told us our first swim sets. He had written on the board “IM”. This, it turns out, is not Ironman but Individual Medley. Eh?

He instructed us swimmers to do 75m mixed IM x 4. I had to confess that I could do only two strokes with any semblance of ability, freestyle and breaststroke. The idea of doing even one length of ‘fly made me feel quite weak. I can do about half a length of backstroke without feeling as though I am drowning.

So the coach kindly agreed to let me do the IMs as a mix of freestyle and breaststroke. Even then I struggled to keep up!

It’s all about speed

And so it went on. Monday’s session with the Masters is all about speed work. After the IMs came 50m “fast as you can” sets with 25m easy in between. There were six of these and on number three I thought I was going to puke. I made it to the last one but by then my time for a 50m was laughable. The coach tells you the times out loud and I cringed each time he said mine. I tried to ignore what other people would be thinking.

Then there was a 100m easy swim while the coach wrote down more sets. I hadn’t a clue what it all meant! There were tons of 25m hard efforts and some easy swims in between.

The session started to blur and I simply tried not to collapse in the middle of a length. By now my arms and legs were becoming very tired and for the first time in a long time I felt exhausted in the pool. (I am normally exhausted by hard running but not swimming.)

Thankfully, being so tired and with hardly any time to catch my breath, meant I was barely able to take in all the other swimmers around me. I could sense they were very fast but it took all my concentration just to do my own sets.

I had to grit my teeth and find an inner reserve of energy and strength to make it to the end of the hour session. I was afraid I’d made a fool of myself. What had I been thinking of turning up at a Masters swim session? I am definitely not a master of swimming!

However, no one was laughing. Most people I chatted to were encouraging. I hadn’t held anyone up (thank goodness) and although I can manage only two strokes I wasn’t totally ashamed of my ability.

The coached asked for my email address after the session so the club could be in touch about costs and membership. I didn’t feel as foolish as I thought I might and I know that the speed work will really help my general swimming.

I plan to go again next Monday (if my arms have recovered by then!). The Masters also meet at the Allander on Fridays for longer endurance sets but I think I would end up being lapped too many times. For now I’ll stick to the speed work sessions.


As Ali said: “Swimming fast will make you faster in the long-term. You’ll learn what it feels like. It’s the same as doing fast running reps.”

I will also continue to attend the tri club for the coached sessions that are very valuable to my own sport. The tri club offers much more emphasis on technique coaching, which I still need, and longer sets. Plus, I like being in the middle lane, rather than at the back of the slow lane! It’s a pride thing!

It was a revelation joining the swimming fasties and I was grateful for their kind words and encouragement. It reminded me of when I first tried to swim a length of freestyle at my triathlon club. And look where I am now! Sometimes you have to suck up the embarrassment for the good for your sport long-term!


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