Getting in the Swim

An expert tells how to rule at the pool



Photo by Shawn Heifert

Community pools abound in Montgomery County, providing lots of opportunities for kids. Clay Britt was among those to jump right in and swim with it.

During Britt’s first lesson at age 6, he sped across the pool at Montgomery Square Copenhaver Swim Club in Potomac and was the first in his class to touch the wall. “I thought that was pretty cool,” says Britt, now 52 and living in Bethesda. 

He joined the club’s swim team and broke the Montgomery County Swim League freestyle record at age 8. Two years later he broke county records in freestyle and every other swimming event offered for his age group, including backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke. Britt continued to excel as he grew older, breaking American and world records in the backstroke and helping the University of Texas in Austin win the NCAA championship during his sophomore year.

He continues to compete these days, winning medals in two to eight swimming events annually. At the 2012 U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championships, he won five events and broke national records for men aged 50 to 54 in the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke and the individual medley.

A financial adviser at Morgan Stanley in Bethesda, Britt says the keys to his lasting success in the pool are diligent training, an obsession with technique and mental preparation. “When the gun goes off, I’m ready to throw everything I got at it,” he says.

Britt helps others reach their potential in the pool by coaching swimmers in the Montgomery Ancient Mariners program at North Bethesda’s Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center and teaching swimming clinics at The Lab School in Washington, D.C.

46 million Americans participated in swimming at least six times in 2011, and about 12.7 million were age 45 or older. Source: National Sporting Goods Association

What He Does:

Jumps In

Britt swims for about 45 minutes three to five days a week from January into July and one or two times weekly during the offseason. He alternates distances during practices. One day he’ll swim 200 yards to build endurance; another, he’ll sprint 25 to 50 yards for speed training.

The Payoff

Swimming a 200-yard race is like “climbing Mount Everest versus Sugarloaf Mountain,” Britt says. That’s when endurance really counts. And sprint training primes the muscles that aid rapid movement, he says, so they’re ready to react during a competition.

Hits The Gym

Britt cross-trains for 45 minutes one to three times weekly. He’ll cycle or exercise on the StairMaster for cardio and also work on his strength, favoring rotator cuff exercises, such as rows, and core-building exercises, including lateral pulls.

The Payoff

The cardio boosts his endurance, and the weight training builds strength faster than swimming alone, Britt says. A strong core provides power in the water, he says, and strengthening the rotator cuffs helps to prevent injuries in the shoulders, “a weak point for swimmers.”

Targest Technique

Britt thinks about technique with every stroke, often reviewing Olympic winners’ form. For example, he keeps in mind that he should rotate his core during the backstroke instead of relying on arm strength.

The Payoff

Good technique provides an edge, which has helped Britt win races. Proper stroke mechanics also prevent injuries and pain, he says.

Preps His Mind

Two weeks before a competition, Britt spends part of his practice swims visualizing all aspects of an upcoming race, and how he’ll react when he’s uncomfortable or tired, or if something goes wrong.

The Payoff

Achieving success often comes down to mental preparation, Britt says, which keeps him from overthinking during a race. His brain is also prepared to override the body’s natural reaction to slow down due to discomfort and stress.

Readies to Race

Before a competition, Britt shaves his legs, arms and chest, eats something light, such as a bowl of cereal, and dons a compression, bike-shorts-style swimsuit and cap. He warms up in the pool with light swimming and sprints for about 25 minutes.

The Payoff

The food provides fuel. Shaving and the tight apparel reduce drag, or friction, increasing speed in a sport where every fraction of a second counts, Britt says. And the warm-up “gets the body ready to go.”

Leah Ariniello lives in Bethesda and frequently writes about health.

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