With thousands of athletes gathered in St. Petersburg this weekend for the St. Anthony's Triathlon, you might be wondering what it would take to compete in next year's event.
With enough time, most people in reasonable physical shape can build up the stamina to complete the bike ride and the run. However, the nearly 1-mile open-water swim is a different story.
"That is the one leg of the triathlon that most people have trouble with," said Patty Nardozzi, assistant coach for the St. Petersburg Masters Swimming program. "You can't fake it."
But every year, come late April, Nardozzi meets novice swimmers with their sights set on Tampa Bay's largest triathlon.
"It can be done," Nardozzi said. "All it takes is time."
The United States has nearly 500 masters swimming programs that serve more than 48,000 athletes ages 18 to 100.
These programs are open to all adult swimmers. Some join to improve their overall level of fitness, others to fine-tune their skills for the swimming leg of the triathlon.
"Some are former college, even Olympic swimmers who want to still compete," Nardozzi explained. "Others have no intention of ever swimming in a meet. All they want to do is stay in shape."
About 30 percent of all masters swimmers actually compete in organized swim meets. The rest just want to swim.
"It is supposed to be fun," Nardozzi said. "If you are serious and you want to compete, fine. If not, that is fine too. But you don't have to be an ex-Olympic swimmer to join a masters team. We have plenty of novices."
Many people find swimming intimidating. Pool water can be cool, and at times even cold. When swimming, you can't see anything, except the black line on the bottom of the pool. You can't smell. You can't hear. You can't talk to your friend in the lane beside you.
"It takes a little getting used to," Nardozzi said. "But once people swim laps two or three times, they start to get into a rhythm."
Progress can be slow, so don't expect to join a masters team and six weeks later ace the swim portion of a triathlon.
"You have to have realistic expectations," Nardozzi said. "I can't make you a great swimmer. But I can make you comfortable in the water."
An organized swimming program will only work for you if it is convenient. Find a program that is close to your work, home or even along your commute.
"To get any real benefit, you are going to have to swim at least three times a week," Nardozzi added. "You want to be consistent."
Once you have found a team, you'll need the right equipment.
"For a lot of people, just choosing a swimsuit can be a source of stress," Nardozzi said. "But don't let it be. Wear whatever you are comfortable in."
But leave the cutoff blue jeans at home.
Your next purchase is goggles. Most sporting goods stores have them for around $10, but you may need to buy a few to find a style that fits your face.
An added benefit of most masters programs is the daily written workout provided by a professional coach. These workouts range in length from 2,000 to 5,000 yards and take from 30 to 90 minutes to complete.
"You will improve much faster if you do an interval workout," Nardozzi said. "Instead of just getting in there and swimming long and slow, you swim against the clock."
Interval workouts will not only improve your endurance, they will also make you faster. But swimmers always are in control of their own training.
"We are dealing with adults," Nardozzi said. "We want it to be fun, not painful. We are not accomplishing our goal if people don't want to come back."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]