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How Sucking at a Sport Made Me a Better Athlete

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I've always been pretty good at athletics—probably because, like most people, I play to my strengths. After 15 years of an anything-goes gymnastics career, I felt just as comfortable in an aerial yoga class as I did in an uber competitive spin class. But when I signed up for a Half Ironman (a 70.3 mile commitment!) three months ago on a "why not?" whim, I quickly realized I'd have to step out of my comfort zone. Instead of studio hopping, I'd need to start logging hours at a real gym—one where I could swim, bike, and run (activities I typically avoided at all costs). (Thinking about signing up? Try our 3-Month Triathlon Training Plan.)

When I started casually training three months ago, biking came naturally; I've ridden for countless hours in Flywheel studios. I had dreaded running, but steady training led me to finish my first half-marathon in October. 

And then there was swimming. It's not like I don't know how to swim. If you pushed me into a body of water, I'd be fine. But the last time I'd done any kind of organized swimming was in eighth grade at summer camp, and fine wasn't going to get me across 1.2 miles of Lake Walter E. Long in Austin, TX on November 10.

It took approximately six weeks of procrastination, but I finally forced myself into a pool. Cocky from my success with biking and running, I assumed I'd pick swimming up quickly. Not so much. Instead, I floundered. Lap after lap, I flailed, coming up with excuses to pause after each length, like adjusting my goggles to hide my winded breathing. A half hour in the pool felt harder than a half-marathon. There was no way around it: I sucked. (See how you fare with this 60-Minute Interval Swimming Workout.)

I'd never sucked at a sport before. And it was kind of embarrassing. I liked being good at fitness. I like being at the top of the spin class leaderboard, I like being one of the few people to nail a tough arm balance in yoga, and I like meeting people who feel that way about working out. So when my friends asked how my swimming was going, I felt like I couldn't fess up to my failure. Do you know how many 25-yard laps it takes to complete a mile? Over 70. I could barely do six. 

Two weeks before my Half Ironman (nothing like waiting until the last minute!), I realized my motto of "just keep swimming" wasn't going to cut it. I needed to change something. 

So I swallowed my pride and signed up for one-on-one swimming lessons at Equinox. Just forcing myself to show up was a struggle—subjecting myself to an hour of guaranteed criticism (as contructive as it may be intended) is not how I typically like to spend my time. 

And criticized I was: My stroke was wrong, I didn't kick enough, and my hips were dragging me down. And it was definitely a little humiliating as my trainer called out my mistakes in front of the rest of the swimmers. But as I tried to correct my form and fix my technique, I realized the criticism wasn't stinging quite as much as I thought it would—I was actually getting (a little bit) better. When I finally nailed the stroke, I realized how much faster I was propelling myself through the water. As I worked to improve my kick, I realized I wasn't so tired now that my arms weren't doing all the work. Turns out, all that criticism really was constructive. (Check out these 25 Tips from Top Swim Coaches.)

Am I going to podium at the Half Ironman thanks to my improved swimming skills? Ha! But at least now I'm positive I'll make it across the lake.

The payoff, by the way, wasn't limited to the pool. Admitting I sucked at something forced me to ask for help, something I rarely do. And getting actual feedback from a certified pro helped me get more in tune with my body—while swimming, biking, and running. Instead of letting myself get overwhelmed by the big picture (70.3 miles!), I started taking my training one swim stroke, one pedal stroke, and one running stride at a time. And once I started doing that, the Half Ironman felt a little less daunting.

My motto now? It's still "just keep swimming"—but it's amazing how much easier that is to live it up to when you've finally learned how.

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