Addressing My Weakness with Swim Smooth

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.  

Attempting "2 in 2"

Training over the last month has been really consistent, getting in some solid miles across the board. Whilst there have been a number of memorable sessions, the highlight from recent weeks has been the weekly long run, which has peaked at 2h20m. Each week the structure of the run differs depending on the goal for the session – it's not simply a case of going out and running a constant pace. The average pace of these sessions has gradually improved, with this morning's run covering 23.5 miles at an average pace of 5:58/mile (3:42/km), which equates to 2:36 marathon pace. In short, I feel ready to race...

...which is just as well, because in just three and a half weeks the 2014 season will finally get underway at Challenge Taiwan! Many of you know that the first race of the season was scheduled to be Ironman Australia on 4th May, and that's still on the calendar. So for the first time I'll be attempting two long distance events in just two weeks. The closest I've previously raced two Ironman distance events was in 2011, racing Western Australia 8 weeks after Hawaii. Last season I did two middle distance events (Ironman 70.3 UK and the Boskman triathlon) one week apart - which worked well – but racing over double the distance will be a different task entirely.

There's a multitude of things that can go wrong in long distance triathlon racing, such as pre-race sickness, injuries on the swim, mechanical issues on the bike, GI issues... the list goes on. Traveling 7,500 miles to Australia for one race really would be putting all my eggs in one basket. A quick detour via Taiwan gives me another opportunity to race. The question is whether a good race in Taiwan will inhibit my chances of a good race in Australia. Logic would suggest so, but in the same breath, there's a number of athletes who have successfully backed up races. I really don't know what to expect when it comes to recovering from one race and preparing for another just 15 days later, but there's only one way to find out.   

Arizona!

With what seems like my first free afternoon in the past 3 weeks, now is as good a time as any for a quick update on training since arriving in Arizona. After spending a couple of days in north Phoenix with my friend Stu, I moved into a condo near Old Town Scottsdale, which has turned out to be a pretty good location. There's a running/cycling path minutes from the door and a fantastic local pool 2 miles down the road. The only drawback is that I have to make my way through some busy roads to get some quality riding done on the bike. I'm here until the end of February, at which point I'll move a couple of miles down the road, even closer to the pool. It goes without saying that I haven't been walking 2 miles to the pool – luckily for me, Stu hooked me up with his single speed to get around on!

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The week I arrived was Superbowl week – which seems like such a long time ago now. It was the first time I've been in the US at this time of year, so it was cool to see the hype that surrounds the game in the build up. More than anything it was a great excuse to relax for the afternoon and enjoy lots of good food! We watched the game with some friends from Seattle, so we were of course all very pleased with the result (sorry to my Colorado based buddies)!

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I'm well and truly in a routine, which is always when I get some of my best training done. The amount of training hours has been consistent and far exceeds anything I've previously done at this time of year. Although its been fairly balanced between the three sports, there's been a slight bias towards riding. The 1 hour swim race in California – whilst fun, in a strange twisted way – was the only good swim workout I had in weeks. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, last week I pulled off what was probably the best swim workout of my life – training can be strange sometimes! Numbers on the bike are coming along nicely. The last few weeks have had an emphasis on VO2 intervals, where my numbers are 5% higher than during the peak of last season. For this time of year, that's a good omen. Likewise with the run I'm hitting some decent splits, sneaking under 5:00/mile for some of the faster intervals. The weekly long run has been 2 hours, done mainly along the canal path which is a pretty nice place to run. The further along the path you go, the more rural it becomes. There was a scary moment this week where all that separated me from four angry rottweilers was 10 feet of water, so I'd hate to imagine what would have happened if I was running on the other side of the canal.  

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There are a few nice rides around here, one of which is the popular Bartlett Lake ride. I've done this a couple of times with my friend Paul who lives a little further north. It's mostly along quiet roads with little traffic, incorporating some good rolling hills. The view as you approach the lake is pretty nice, too.

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A couple of weeks ago I headed down to Tucson with Randy Arriola (who's also coached by Brian), for a day of training. It's always good to get the chance to meet with your coach and discuss how things are going. You know when you've been riding in Tucson, because you get back feeling like you've been in a boxing match. There are very few places with worse quality roads – sorry Tucson residents, but it's true.

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After a good day of training we hit In-N-Out Burger (for anyone unfamiliar with it, imagine the best fast food burger place on earth) on the way home. The order: 4x4, animal style. That's 4 patties and 4 slices of cheese in one bun. Magic.

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The roads here in Scottsdale and the surrounding areas are pretty good, with bike lanes or a hard shoulder on the majority of roads. Not being familiar with the area, I've had to do a bit of exploring, which at times has left me going down some roads I wish I avoided – Shea Blvd being one of them. Before leaving for yesterday's ride I checked the map and thought I found a good shortcut. In my defence it was a good shortcut, but the map neglected to hint that the road wouldn't be paved. It turned out to be a very bumpy 4 mile stretch, but “he who dares...”!

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Next weekend will be the opening race of the season at the Desert Classic Duathlon. Yes, a duathlon. Gulp. I've done exactly one duathlon before and it was back in 2007, before I'd even competed in a triathlon. I'm under no illusions that this will be a very painful and unpleasant experience. Having seen my schedule for next week, I'll be going into the race pretty fatigued, with the aim of getting a good training day out of it. Of course I'll be going all out and giving it everything, but the bigger picture is all about Ironman Australia on 4th May.