From the shore at Oceanside Pier, the waves separating me from the course looked small, maybe 1-3 feet. Once in the water, though, the waves were well over my head. Once I passed the first set of breakers, I had to navigate through the second set without the advantage of touching the ocean floor, a complicated challenge. I actually thought I might drown just getting past the waves. Even the lifeguard asked, “Are you going to make it?” I replied, “I don’t know—stay close!”
It might seem foolish, but I was doggedly determined to finish this course. Two years prior, I trained for yet failed to complete the 2 1/2 mile swim for this event, the Tikiswim. I made it about 1 ½ miles, but my legs began to cramp and I just had nothing left. I took an embarrassing ride on a jet ski to the finish line.
As I maneuvered past the last set of waves, my heart pounded so hard and fast that I felt like I would never breathe normally again. I have endured Army ruck marches, triathlons, rock climbing, marathon roll sessions and even life-threatening acrobatics in an Army helicopter, but I couldn’t remember being this winded in my life. Once I was out of immediate danger and through the waves, I floated on my back, and took deep, controlled breaths to calm my heart rate. Though I had moments of uncertainty as I swam the course, and inhaled a few cups of salt water, I finished, and promised to train for the swim next year, too.
With Jiu Jitsu being a weight-bearing, full-contact sport and swimming seemingly easier on the joints, training in the two sports is actually very complementary. The most obvious similarity is, of course, the cardiovascular training. I mix up my swim training, sometimes swimming long slow distances, to build my endurance, and other times, swimming sprints and intervals for short bursts of intensity. When I am at my fittest with my swimming, I can roll forever. The intervals help me survive those opening minutes while rolling, where your heart is beating so fast that you can barely swallow.
Swimming and Jiu Jitsu also require a nuanced breath control. The two sports require moments of being able to last without oxygen. While swimming, especially in open water, you must be able to hold your breath for at least 15 seconds, if not more. Several times during my swim at Oceanside, I was pushed down underwater by waves for longer than I expected, but I had to keep my composure and have faith that I would eventually pop back up on the other side. Being able to hold one’s breath is also critical when an opponent applies a tight choke. That extra time holding my breath gives me more room to maneuver out of the situation. It is scary not being able to breathe, of course, and the hypoxia training I do in the pool gives me confidence to persevere even when I feel myself wanting to gasp for air.
You don’t have to swim in open water in order to benefit from swimming. In fact, I do most of my training in the pool. By varying my training routine, I develop overall, full body strength, boost my cardiovascular endurance, and develop confidence while feeling discomfort. Ever try to swim a pool length without take a breath? It is uncomfortable! Jiu Jitsu also helps my swimming. When I was trying to finish the 1 ½ mile course, I was definitely tired and uncomfortable. I could only see the finish line during the last 200 meters, and along the way I felt I would never get there. I reflected on the way I evaluate discomfort while rolling, though, and knew I would be okay. Was I uncomfortable? Yes. Was it going to kill or harm me? No, so carry on.
I highly recommend adding swimming to your cross-training routine. Not only can it be a lifelong sport, you will boost your overall fitness. Reaching the finish line felt as good as finally mastering that submission. Even if you don’t have the perfect swimming technique, grab a kickboard or do some water walking. Any movement in the water will build your endurance and muscle strength.
So get in that water, and keep, swimming!
About the Author:
Darisse Smith is a four stripe white belt and trains at Aloisio Silva Academy in Yucaipa, California. She is married with a 6 year old son who also trains in Jiu Jitsu. Darisse spent 7 years in the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance and attack helicopter pilot. She is a full-time student at UC-Irvine, earning her 2nd Bachelor’s Degree in Literary Journalism. Her favorite move is the kimura from closed guard.