Stepping Up The Swim

5 minutes 7 seconds – the time difference between my 54:24 swim at Ironman South Africa and the fastest swimmer.  1 minute 37 seconds – the time gap to the second pack coming out of the swim.  This race proved to me just how important the swim leg is.  Within a few hundred metres I’d lost contact with the faster swimmers and proceeded to swim the majority of the swim solo.  Not only does swimming solo require more effort (as you don’t have the benefit of drafting), but if you roll into T1 on your own you’ll be either riding solo or busting your guts to bridge up to riders ahead, neither of which are ideal scenarios.  The result of the post-race analysis with Brian was pretty simple – I have to improve my swimming.

Since arriving at Les Stables I’ve been lucky to have one-to-one swim coaching with Sibs, who does swim coaching and analysis at the training camp.  With coached swims sessions every day, everyone who comes to Les Stables receives comprehensive feedback on their swimming during their stay, with many athletes making drastic improvements over the course of a week.  I’ve been very lucky to take advantage of this since being here, and for that I owe a big thank you to Sibs for her hard work and patience!

In the first few weeks we went right back to basics, focussing on improving the fundamental elements of the stroke.  There were a few serious flaws with my technique which were addressed with some basic drills, no more than 25m at a time.  A lot of the early work was done with fins and snorkel, allowing me to focus on one thing at a time.

After 3 weeks of focussing on technique more so than fitness, it was time to add some intervals, initially up to 100m.  Whilst 100m may seem very short, the difference between maintaining a newfound technique for 50m vs. 100m is huge.  At this stage the intention wasn’t to go all out, but rather to maintain good technique throughout.  There was a lot of rest between the intervals, again, to ensure that I would be able to maintain form.  4x 100m led to 6x, which led to 8x… you get the idea.  With Sibs poolside I always had instant feedback if my technique started to revert to my old ways.  After a week of 100m intervals I was up to 12x 100m, holding good form throughout. 

4 weeks in and it was time to add some longer intervals.  A set of 5x 400m with just 30 seconds rest would be far more challenging than anything I’d done up to this point.  As we’d been having some colder weather, it gave me the chance to put the ZEROD VFLEX wetsuit through its paces.  5:20, 5:10, 5:16, 5:11 and a hard final interval for 4:59.  Most pleasingly, I’d maintained decent technique for the majority of the intervals.  The big difference I’ve found is that now, when my elbows slip or my fingers collapse inwards, I’m more aware of it and I can hopefully rectify it.  Beforehand, I wasn’t even aware of these errors that were part of my stroke.

Last Sunday called for a session that would be a good benchmark – a 3km time trial.  Sibs was poolside taking splits every 100m, ensuring that I’d stay on target pace.  What was target pace… well, given that I was in the VFLEX wetsuit, which gives me a big advantage compared to being without it, we were aiming for an average of 1:20/100m.  This made me more than slightly nervous.  That pace is equivalent to a 50:40 Ironman swim, nearly 4 minutes faster than I’ve done before.  I walked to the pool 20 minutes before the start, trying to psych myself up for what was sure to be 40 minutes of pain.  To mimic the start of a race, I did a similar warm-up as I’d do on race morning, including a couple of 50m efforts at starting pace.  The goal was to start out with a fast first 100m at around 1:15 (replicating the fast race start), then to settle into 1:20/100m for the remainder of the TT.  I took a few deep breaths.  3, 2, 1, GO!

I opened up faster than planned with a 1:10 for the first 100m, then reverted to the 1:20/100m target pace.  Every 100m Sibs would give me the thumbs up or thumbs down depending on whether I was ahead or behind target pace.  Obviously thumbs up were good, but I had no idea whether that meant I was hitting 1:17, 1:18, 1:19 or 1:20.  The one thing I didn’t want to do was go out too hard and blow up.  The first 1000m was very tough, physically and mentally.  Seeing thumbs down after 900m was demoralising.  I was struggling to hold the pace and hurting, but the prospect of ‘failing’ the workout was a big motivator.  I responded with a 1:17 100m to end the first 1000m in 13:04, 11 seconds ahead of schedule.

I finally settled into a rhythm that felt comfortable, holding mid-1:19’s for the next 1000m.  With less than 1000m to go I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  At this point the effort was feeling comfortably hard, consistently hitting 1:18’s.  Sibs was waving frantically to indicate 100m to go and with a little left in the tank I kicked and came home with a 1:14 final 100m.  3000m done in 39:19, 36 seconds ahead of the 39:55 target.

It was a huge effort, but a very satisfying one.  When I found out the finish time and saw the splits I was stoked, but completely broken.  I’ve always believed that I can be a front pack swimmer one day.  With more hard work in the pool, maybe that day won’t be as far away as I once thought.