Ironman Swim

Posted: September 27, 2013 in Training

With the exception of the professionals and some top age groupers, just about every triathlete has a discipline that scares them a little bit come race day.  It is the rare athlete who can swim, bike and run fearlessly.  Where in each of the three events that make up the triathlon, they feel like everything is a strength.  All they have to do is hammer away.

Some of us are lucky if we feel that way about 2 of the 3 disciplines.

Most have really one area where they “know” they are a top performer, or are just about bumping up against their potential.

I jokingly borrow a line from a friend when people ask me if I am a Triathlete – I usually respond, “No, I’m a runner who does triathlons”.  But after coming dangerously close to breaking 5 hours in the Half-Ironman down in Kerrville a year ago, I really need to redefine myself just a bit.

My bike has come a long way and right now it is honestly the case that I am a good to strong cyclist, a strong runner and as swimmer that needs a lot of work.  With a long stretch of training leading up to Ironman Texas the swim is the one area where I feel like I can make the most progress.  Part of that of course is I have a long way to travel from “lousy” to “average”.

On the bike it is a matter of simply refining my form, working hard to stay aero is much as possible for the 112 mile ride and dial in my nutrition.

For the run, it is as simple as getting ready to run another marathon.  Something we know quite a lot about.

But the swim is really a different animal.  It is much more technical than either the bike or run.  Yes there are mechanics to refine in the saddle or on the road – but in the water, it really is all about technique.

The other piece when it comes to the swim cannot be overstated.  I have to slay some inner demons.

When I get ready to get in the water for a triathlon open water swim – I’m afraid.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it and call it “anxiety” or “being uncomfortable”.  It’s fear.  Plain and simple.Ironman Texas Swim - Staging

In the back of my mind I can see the worst case scenario.  I get kicked in the head, elbowed in the face, swam on top of, pushed under – I start to panic and can’t get my breathing back under control.  I have to ask for help.  My race is over.

On the bike I worry about things like getting a flat tire.  Might cost me 5 minutes.

On the run I worry about blisters or overheating – but never do I think about not being able to finish the run.

But the swim carries with it some real worries and the only thing I can do is try to become as strong a swimmer as I can.  The best swimmer I can be and try to get to the point where I can swim quickly enough to stay on the feet and draft off of a slightly better swimmer to help pull me along on race day.

But after doing swim workouts over and over and not seeing any significant improvements, my confidence level in being able to get my 100 yard time at/under 2:00 min/100 for 2.4 miles or 4,200 yards, was really waning.

Then rather unexpectedly I received a gift from a friend of mine.  Two small tips or tweaks that may have unlocked something for me that 2 years of swimming had not been able to do.

I was walking across S. 1st Street on Sunday afternoon heading to my car after the race downtown and saw my friend and Ironman Triathlete Gary Metcalf who owns a local timing company talking to a couple of police officers who were handling course control.  We chatted for a few minutes and he asked what race I had circled on the calendar.  For the first time I said out loud – well, my “A” race for 2014 is Ironman Texas.

A smile crept across Gary’s face and he simply said.  “Awesome.”

The conversation quickly turned to training and I mentioned that if I could just get my swim in order before Race Day I’d be feeling pretty good about my chances at Ironman, but I had a long way to go.

Gary then shared two tips with me, he said, “You know Joe, most runners who struggle with their swim don’t kick correctly.  They don’t kick from their hip and engage their larger muscle groups.  They just kind of flip their feet with their calf muscles.”

That is exactly what I do.

He added, “The other mistake most new swimmers make is that they rush their turnover in the water.  They don’t pause between strokes as they are in their glide for just a brief moment to get full extension and rotation.  You should focus on making 13 or 14 strokes per length of the pool.”

That describes me again.

So I took those two tips to the pool on Tuesday and Wednesday and swam a workout that I have been doing for quite some time.

5 X 100

1000 Free

5 X 50

It is a 1,750 yard workout that doubles as my “easy” swim day.  Just enough time in the water to go hard a bit and work on form and fitness setting the stage for longer swim workouts later in the training cycle.

In this workout previously I would typically swim the 100’s between 1:55 and 2:02.  The 1,000 in 22:00 and my 50’s around :54.

On Tuesday my times were:

1:44-1:46 per 100

19:36 for the 1000

:44-:47 per 50

After two years of slugging it out in the water – making two small adjustments to my form I dropped 2 minutes and 24 seconds per 1000.  Which is an improvement of approximately 10 minutes over the course of the Ironman Swim.

The amazing thing is that I was working no harder than I was previously, and in fact to some degree I was working easier.  On a length where I really held form perfectly with no hiccups I was hitting 13 strokes, 13.5 strokes per length easily.  On my fast 50’s I was down in the 12.5 range.  Amazing.

When I was tiring at the end of the 1000 I was right at 14 to 14.5 strokes per length when I would perhaps cut something short or not pull perfectly.

For the first time, maybe ever, I’m excited about what the swim may hold for us on race day.  There is a very famous saying in triathlon that “You can’t win the race in the water, but you can lose it.”

We’re not going for the podium or a Kona slot down in the Woodlands in May – so winning and losing really isn’t an issue.  But if we are able to get out of the water in 80 minutes instead of the 90 that we were expecting – perhaps even faster if we can make some further improvements, we set ourselves up for a great day with a strong bike and solid ironman marathon.

Sometimes you have to think there are powerful forces out there giving us help and guidance when we need it the most.

Dom, thanks for putting Gary on that street corner for me on Sunday.  This is shaping up to be quite a journey.

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Comments
  1. Tom M says:

    Joe, thanks for putting this out there! I noticed my kick was from the knee the other day, and today this really brought it home. So to add data to your friend’s guidance, I did 4×500 last Saturday, this Monday, and today. My paces were as follows
    1:41, 1:46, 1:48, 1:59, avg strokes 11 on Saturday
    1:43, 1:46, 1:48, 2:00, avg strokes 11 on Monday
    1:41, 1:43, 1:44, 1:49, avg strokes 10 today
    So I saved :03, :04, and :10 per 100 just by paying attention to my kicking from the hip, and knocked off one stroke per 50 yards.
    Another data point about how horrible my kick was is this: I swim faster with a pull buoy, not kicking at all, than I do just regular swimming. So I knew something was horribly broken. Thanks so much, again, for sharing this.

  2. mfish37 says:

    Great advice you received Joe. My kids all swim and I’m coaching this year as well. I’m amazed at how effortless the good swimmers (my two older boys included) make it look. They look like they are just gliding effortlessly through the water.

    As hard as you work Joe, I know you’ll get there. You’ll continue to refine your stroke and it will get easier. Then the fast will come.

    I can’t wait to continue to follow your journey!

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