My swim training has often been sporadic, with motivation occasionally dwindling as I've searched for excuses to either miss swim sessions completely or cut them short. However, in the last two years of racing as a professional I've learned one thing – the swim matters. For myself as a second pack swimmer, it's not necessarily the time I lose to the leaders that's the biggest factor, but the impact that it has on the dynamic of the remainder of the race. I wanted – and still want – to be a better swimmer, but I knew that something had to change. My coach Brian recognised this also and we planned to spend the winter focussing on swimming. Addressing my weakness seemed logical, but in reality I knew it would be difficult to shift focus towards my least favourite of the three disciplines.
We briefly looked into some options, which included Europe, the US and Australia. There was one option that I kept coming back to – going to Australia to train with renowned triathlon and open water swim coach Paul Newsome (Swim Smooth). Having worked with countless triathletes who have come away with big improvements, I had no doubt that his expertise would have a positive impact on my swim. After chatting with Paul he convinced me that if I was committed I would come away a better swimmer. Just how much better would depend on me. Having friends in Perth made the decision an easy one - I booked the trip and two months of swim training awaited. I immediately recognised what a fantastic opportunity this was and was determined to make the most of it. I focussed on doing just two things: turning up and working hard. If I could do that then I trusted the improvement would take care of itself.
After arriving the first task was to establish my CSS (Critical Swim Speed), which was done by completing a 400m and 200m time trial. That gave us a benchmark to use in training, with most of the sessions using the beeper (Finis Tempo Trainer), giving you instant feedback of how fast you're swimming. Throughout the week the emphasis was on specific sets rather than drills and technique, although Monday's session was always an easier one, incorporating a number of drills. One session which never changed was Tuesday's 10x 400m, which gave me a good indication of how my swim was progressing as the weeks went by. Wednesday and Friday varied each week - one session had a threshold pace main set and the other a longer endurance main set. We also did one open water session every week, swimming in the Swan River from Claremont jetty.
Initially it was hard, really hard. I was struggling towards the end of sessions and it took almost two weeks until I was able to complete a main set at my target pace. After that initial period, the improvements started coming. Using the 10x 400m set as a benchmark was fantastic and seeing the times come down week on week was really motivating. Paul analysed my stroke and talked me through it, clearly explaining the elements to address as well as pointing out the positives. My stroke didn't need completely tearing apart, but there was definitely room for refinement.
The work continued as the weeks ticked by. I turned up and worked hard, just as I promised myself. For the first time ever I actually enjoyed swimming. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, we were swimming in some fantastic pools. Whether it was the outdoor pool at Claremont or one of the three 50m pools at Challenge Stadium, the swim facilities were excellent. Secondly, there was a really great group of people swimming together and we had fun outside of swimming. Finally, Paul was always so positive and enthusiastic, it was difficult not to get excited about swimming!
Before arriving in Perth, Brian and I agreed that my bike and run training would take a back seat, allowing me to focus on executing the swim sessions to the best of my ability. Monday to Friday's bike training consisted of commuting to/from the pool (a 50km round trip), with one longer ride on Saturday. Similarly, run training dropped off slightly, getting in some aerobic runs during the week and a longer trail run on Sunday. We of course knew that my bike and run fitness would regress with this schedule, but we were confident that it would soon return with regular training. The important thing was that my swim was improving in training, and an opportunity to test it in a race environment was just around the corner. With Busselton being just a 2.5 hour drive away, I entered Ironman Western Australia with no expectations. Four Ironman/Challenge races between April and September this year was tough and I was unsure how my body would handle the prospect of another. Given the low volume of bike and run training – and absence of any specific training sessions – I couldn't expect to compete for the top spots against the strong pro field that lined up for the race. I put my pride aside and accepted that for the first time in my triathlon career my day would likely end before reaching the finish line.
The gun fired and the pace was on right from the get-go. I'm fairly certain I set a new 100m PB from the start, with the subsequent few hundred metres not getting any easier. As we approached 1km things seemed to spread out a little and there were some gaps starting to form up ahead. I'd been red-lining since the start and was giving it absolutely everything, but the front group of guys were pulling away. Just before halfway I moved to the front of our group and got a small gap, although the leaders ahead continued to swim into the distance. The last 2km was a solo effort as I found myself stranded between groups, eventually coming out the water in 49:52. The rest of the race went mostly as expected – I biked a 4:34 which lost time to the lead group and ran a gratuitous 3km before pulling to the side of the road and taking off my timing chip. There wasn't a moment of hesitation in stopping – I'd made peace with the decision around 120km into the bike. I've raced enough of these to know that you have to be mentally prepared and willing to push your body to the limit, but on that day, I wasn't prepared – or able – to do that. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the sidelines cheering on the other athletes which was great fun! The post-race analysis of the swim was really positive. Sneaking under 50 minutes for the first time and losing just 3.5 minutes to the lead swimmer was definitely a step in the right direction (for comparison, this season I've consistently lost 5-7 minutes to the lead swimmer). The main front pack still eluded me by 2.5 minutes, but that's a time gap that I hope will continue to come down.
Was I satisfied with the improvements during the two months? Absolutely. In the 10x 400m sessions my times improved by 7s/100m over 8 weeks, I progressed up to 8km in the open water averaging 1:19/100m (courtesy of drafting Mr Newsome!) and I had my best ever swim in a race. I got everything I hoped out of the experience and more. There's certainly a lot of work ahead to get closer to the front pack, but my time in Perth proved that with the right focus, I have the aptitude to commit to swimming – something I wasn't sure about previously.
As I write this at 40,000 feet on my final flight of 2015, I leave Perth grateful for an amazing couple of months. Just like their coffee, the Australian lifestyle is tough to beat and is something I'll really miss. That being said, it's the people around you that turn good experiences into great ones, and I'm lucky to have an amazing group of friends who made this trip a great end to the year.