Ironman athletes tend to spend between six and nine months preparing for their race, depending upon their experience and fitness level. Hundreds of hours are logged in the pool, on the indoor trainer and out on the road, pedalling and pounding the pavement in zone 2 and tempo, with threshold and above efforts pushing their fitness as race day approaches, getting to race weight, practicing brick sessions, planning transitions and nutrition.
Its finally here, the big day, the music is pumping (AC/DC Thunderstruck…) you filter in through the rolling start, hoping to catch the draft of someone normally a few minutes faster than you.
That’s how most of us remember it. The swim start….but what comes next can vary A LOT.
The swim is just 1.7% of the race distance. Being a strong swimmer is considered by many age group athletes as almost irrelevant, given the time that can be made up on the bike and run. Most of you are out there now, nodding at the wisdom of this suggestion.
There is of course one big supposition. That you make the swim cut-off. Two hours and twenty minutes is a long, long time to swim 3.8KM. To be on the safe side, let’s say 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s 3:33 / 100m pace. For those that have actually done their swim training sessions, the breast stroker that always got in your way – they were swimming that pace… Exactly.
So why then, do some athletes have their dreams shattered by the sight of the race clock reading 02:22 as they wade from the water, knowing that the race referee is about to tell them, in the most consoling way they can, that today just wasn’t their day?
This, or something very much like it, happened recently to someone I know and what I’d like to share now, may I hope, prevent it happening again to anyone reading this, who’s thinking of taking on an Ironman but isn’t yet confident of the swim.
Like most things in triathlon, it starts with planning. If you have a coach, you’ve already taken the first step toward planning for success. Assessing your current ability and having the knowledge of what is going to be required, is where a coach can make the greatest difference to your race day outcome. If you’re a novice swimmer, or a weak swimmer, plan to swim at least four times a week for the entire duration of your Ironman training. Many athletes can get by on fewer. While a good friend of mine swims just once a week, I wouldn’t condone that here!
The second piece of advice, is to swim the course. I don’t mean a recce of the swim route – though clearly that will always help. What I mean is – swim the actual course laid out by the race organizer. The athlete I mentioned earlier swam at a pace of 3:09 / 100m not fast by any stretch but for the 3.8km should produce a swim time of 2 hours. Indeed, his first lap split was around an hour, right on course for T2 and beyond. However, including a diversion on lap 2, the total distance swum (according to Garmin which can sometimes be inaccurate, I’ll concede) 4492M. He was still swimming strong and at the same pace as before – just in the wrong direction and for a whole lot farther than required!
In my experience as coach, those that struggle the most with the swim are a particular type of swimmer and in fact, type of personality. Their characteristics are well summarised by what Paul Newsome and Adam Young of SwimSmooth call Arnies (or Arnettes) for female athletes.
Strong and competitive, they tend to tackle the swim in much the same way as they do the bike and the run. They go hard. They go long. When it’s tough, they grit their teeth. In the pool, they push and push against breathlessness and fatigue, often relying on training aids to keep themselves afloat (enter the HUUB Big Buoy).
So, what’s the problem with that? In short, they’re picking the wrong fight!
You can pound on water all day long, it’ll just take it and as you start to tire, it’ll feel like it’s just getting stronger in its resistance of your attempts to pass through it!
Swinging the recovering arm like you’re throwing a hook, might cause a big splash and sound powerful but by the time its crossed the centreline, caused you to fall off balance, resulting in the ‘snow plough’ of scissor-kicks to splay at the back, followed by the craning neck and head to search for air, as the sunken shoulder slips toward the depths, it’s all over – literally all over the place. Add to that the ‘sinking legs’ that have resulted from the craning head, it’s like swimming uphill, or like trying to drive with the hand brake on. Choose any analogy you like, for going nowhere fast and you’re pretty close.
If that sounds like I’m describing your swimming, or if it sounds like someone you know, please, seek the advice of a swim coach.
If you don’t like the sound of that and need to DIY everything because it’s harder that way and you’re all about everything being hard, here’s the bad news – you need to take it easy.
Most people that ever trained for triathlon of any description know what catch-up drill is. The leading hand stays out front while the pulling arm completes the stroke then recovers over the water, before slapping the leading arm in a never-ending cycle of swim-tag, that lets it know, it’s now its very own time to pull. You get the idea.
What if I were to say, that even a swimmer with a relatively weak pull can swim at 3:22 / 100m while doing catch up drill? How come?
At the most basic level, catch-up causes the swimmer to elongate, to not drop the leading arm (leaving a stable platform to support the breath), in doing so, the body is straighter, the arms don’t cross the centre-line, so they stay in relatively better balance, the legs don’t sink because the head can stay lower in the water and they don’t need to splay out to regain control. The swimmer slips through the water with relative ease and economy, compared to the kung fu fighting aquatic attack with which the swimmer normally entertains the rest of the pool.
I’m not necessarily saying you should swim an Ironman by doing catch–up drill the whole way round but if you did, you’d make the cut-off and be pretty relaxed for your bike ride.
Lengthening, balance and alignment are stroke characteristics displayed by all great swimmers and increase the likelihood of swimming in a straight line, when coupled with regular sighting, should allow the swimmer to swim a true course. There are dozens of drills that promote these attributes, catch-up is just one of them. Trawl through the weekly swim session plans and you should get lots of ideas for other drill sets.
To close, let’s circle back to planning for the DIY Arnies and Arnettes out there. Break your training season into four quarters. In Q1 swim 4 drill sessions without any volume sets, in Q2 swim 3 drills, 1 volume, Q3 2 drills, 2 volume and in Q4 1 drill session, 3 volume.
By race day, you’ll not be fighting the water but slipping through it and the only cut off you’ll have in mind, is the one long after dark.
GI Tri Coach