Category Archives: Swimming

The Olympic swim coach

I have just over three weeks until my triathlon season draws to a close in Majorca. Ideally I would like to have finished the season before now, but the 149320_199150930284226_1887449749_nopportunity to race in the European Middle Distance Triathlon Championships representing Great Britain is such an honour that I am not about to pass it up.

Already I am looking back on the 2014 season with a sense of satisfaction. The thing that pleases me most isn’t any one individual achievement from the season, but just the fact that I have improved.

On the bike, although I don’t have any hard stats, on a like for like long distance course I am 10% – 15% quicker and on the run I have taken 12 minutes off my half marathon PB in a year. It now stands at 1.41hrs.

But one thing that has stayed stubbornly consistent or stubbornly unimproved, depending on how you look at it, is my swimming. I am not a bad swimmer but I am not a good swimmer either – I am a fully paid up member of the “mid-pack” club. But despite lots of training my swim times refuse to budge. My last three half iron distance (1.9k) competitive swims have been reliably 37-38 minutes. My swim training is pretty unscientific and I think all I am achieving is to make my 37 minute swim easier but not faster. So I am clearly doing something wrong.

It’s time to change that. One of my commitments to myself is that during this winter I am going to get some proper help to breakdown my swim and reconstruct it in such a way that more training will result in faster times and not just in an easier swim. If I am going to spend the winter on this mission, then I need to start that process right now.

My first decision was that I wanted a swim coach to help me and not a triathlon coach – someone who knew the minute detail of swim stroke mechanics. Secondly I wanted to find someone who has a real swim pedigree – who has been there and done it, ideally in an endurance swim event and so knows what is what. That person is not easy to find!

It took a while, but eventually my search led me to Adam Faulkner – the owner of The UK Swim Academy. Adam’s credentials? Well pretty spot on really. He swam for Great Britain in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and in an endurance event. He was one of only a few Brits to swim 1,500m in less than 15 minutes. On top of that he is instantly likeable and approachable. We had numerous phone calls trying to work out what I wanted to achieve and how, where and when he could start coaching me to make it happen.

Eventually after a few weeks he put together three of us, all triathletes who were all trying to achieve the same thing, and we met for our first session. We met at Marlborough College’s pool, an eight lane, state of the art pool, which we had pretty much to ourselves for an hour.

We had a quick chat about the process and Adam covered a bit of theory. Instantly I felt a sense of confidence. Not only was this guy a world class swimmer, he was very good at imparting that knowledge and most important he made it fun. Then as if I needed any more convincing he got in the pool and swam four lengths to show us what it should look like. It was one of those OMG moments!! Like anyone who is very good at their craft he made it look ridiculously easy, covering each 25 metre length in about 14 seconds and 10-11 strokes (me – 25 seconds and 22 strokes). You can see it in the video above. It just made want to get on with the lesson and start learning. A friend of mine who saw the video of those four lengths said it inspired him to want to train until he was even “a shit version of that”.

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Adam sharing the recipe!

Then we started the process of breaking the stroke down element by element and putting it back together properly. We only worked on one thing at a time and covered probably no more than three elements in the hour. But just in that hour I managed to cover 25 metres in 3 less strokes.

I have never been excited by swimming, until now. We have some training sets to work on for the next two weeks before we meet Adam again in a fortnight for more coaching. I did the first of those training sets yesterday and for the first time ever, I looked forward to going to the pool and really enjoyed every minute of the session. I was swimming alongside a guy in the next lane and I counted his strokes (I am now obsessed with stroke count!!!) over 25m – it was 40, to my 18 and that translated into being faster than him – less strokes equals more speed. Who’d have thought it? I felt very knowing!! I feel a bit as though I have been told the first part of recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In other news, training for Majorca is going well. I have been contending with a few late-season aches and pains which has meant that I haven’t done some of the more intense sessions that I would like to have done, but I feel that I am on course to get to the 18 October is pretty good race shape. I am really looking forward to it, almost as much as I am looking forward to my next swim coaching session!

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Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote – 5 October 2013

Lanzarote may just be the perfect place for a long distance triathlon. Year-round sunshine, warm sea and challenging terrain for cycling, the spectacular logovolcanic island off the coast of Africa has it all. No surprise then that the second running of Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote attracted a field of 650 from all over the world. For me it was the climax of the triathlon year, the race that I had geared my entire season around.

I flew out to Lanzarote on the Tuesday before the race. Although the event is run by Club La Santa – basically a holiday resort for fit people – I chose to stay about half an hour away in a much quieter part of the island where I could retreat and relax. I was nervous enough as it was and I don’t think it would have helped to be surrounded 24/7 by over-excited triathletes!!

There was plenty to do to keep me busy in the three days leading up to the race. I spent time doing a recce of the swim course in Le Santa’s Lagoon and I drove round the bike course as well as doing a few light training sessions to stop my body from going to sleep. I was joined on Wednesday by my friends Keith and Laine who were also competing.

Saturday morning came round very quickly. I had tried to get an early night on Friday, but not before  I had swapped texts with Cate to tell her that she could track my progress via the live coverage on the Ironman website. She texted back: “Then we’ll be with you”. I banked that lovely thought – I knew I would need it before Saturday was over.

swim pre start

Nervous before the swim start

As is normal for me on race day I was awake before my alarm went off. I forced down a pre-race breakfast of oats and bananas before gathering my belongings and driving to Club La Santa in the dark. Ninety minutes later I was standing on the beach of the Lagoon with over 600 other nervous competitors watching the sun rise over the horizon, minutes away from the start.

The swim

The swim was a beach start – a nice term for a mad dash to the water followed by a free for all of whirling arms. Kenneth Gasque the flamboyant Race Director was on hand to sound the hooter and Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote 2013 was under way.

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The crowded swim!

The 1.9km (1.2 mile) swim was a single lap of the Lagoon and was very crowded from start to finish, which meant there was lots of physical contact. My priority for most of the swim was keeping an eye on what was immediately in front of me to avoid getting a stray foot in the head. The best tactic was to try to stay out of trouble but be ready to defend your space if necessary. I wasn’t completely successful at either and at least once had to barge my way through a gap that wasn’t really there.

Despite the crowd and the constant bumping and bashing I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point on the swim and was pleased with how I handled it. I got out of the water after about 37 minutes, glad it was behind me but feeling OK.

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Swim exit

After a quick dash through the resort to transition I was in the changing tent with all thoughts on the bike leg. By now it was about 8.45am and already the temperature was in the high 70s. I spent a few minutes slapping on the free factor 50 sun cream before heading off on the bike. In my haste to get the lotion on I managed to get it all over my cycling sun glasses – a mistake that was to plague me for the most of the bike leg.

The Bike

The 90km (56 mile) cycle was a big loop around the north of the island. In only a few minutes the built up area of La Santa was replaced by barren countryside and as a taster of what was to come, we were straight into a long hill which took us to the village of Soo. Here we turned north to Caleta de Famara and then across the island via the small towns of Teguise and Tahiche.

Once on the south coast of the island we ground our way through a ten-mile drag from Tahiche on a busy coastal road, cycling into a building 17mph headwind. This was the low-point of the race for me. Progress was slow and my mind wandered. Eventually I had to give myself a bit of a pep talk. I didn’t need reminding that things were just about to get an awful lot harder.

By now the small problem of sun tan lotion on my sunglasses had become a big problem. The addition of a bit of sweat meant I could barely see through them. At the next aid station I stopped to mix an energy drink and ask if they had a cloth. They didn’t but a quick thinking lady volunteer offered me the front of her shirt. I have to confess that I may have spent slightly longer than was strictly necessary cleaning my glasses as we both laughed at the situation!

Glasses clean and drinks replenished I steeled myself for what was likely to be the toughest part of the day and the part which, for many, would define success or failure.

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Halfway up the Tabayesco climb

The signature feature of Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote is the Tabayesco Climb – a 6-mile unbroken ascent which took us from sea level to a little under 2,000 feet at the Mirador del Haria. From the bottom it is a daunting sight. You can see the road wind its way up the mountain and somewhere in the distance you can just make out the tourist restaurant which sits at the top. My strategy was simple – no heroics, arse on saddle, low gear, high cadence and take it easy. That approach served me well and I passed lots of people on the way up, pausing to exchange words of encouragement each time. The ascent up Tabayesco, which had worried me more than anything, turned out to be one of the highlights of my race.

The view from the top was breathtaking and gave way to a well earned descent. In contrast to the overcrowded swim, I found myself cycling with just one other person – Piggy (her name was on her race number). I kept about 20 yards behind Piggy and followed her line all the way down. It was an exhilarating 15 minutes as we flew down the mountain at speeds between 30-40 mph back into Teguise.

With the worst of bike leg done, we retraced out steps back to Le Santa finishing off with a couple of miles of downhill where it seemed that for the first time all day, the wind was behind us. I rode back into Club Le Santa and transition after 56 miles of cycling and over 5,000 feet of climbing with 3.56hrs on my bike computer.

It was now about midday and the sun was high in the sky and the temperature into the mid-80s. Not the conditions the average Englishman would choose in which to run a half marathon. Once again I invested a few minutes in transition covering myself in high factor sun cream.

The Run

The 20.1km (13.1 mile) run course was a 4.4 mile lap from the stadium at Club Santa to the nearby village of La Santa and back which we ran three times. It was not an imaginative course, but because everyone was somewhere on a 2.2 mile stretch of road, it made it easy for spectators and so there was lots of fantastic support. Another plus of the layout was that by placing just three aid stations on the run we were able to pass an aid station 18 times in 13 miles, or as my one-track mind saw it, we were able to drink and douse ourselves in cold water about once every three-quarters of a mile.

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Starting my final lap on the run

The first lap was fine. I was pleased to be off the bike and into the final stage and my running legs felt good. My strategy was to set a steady pace of about 9-minutes a mile and walk through the aid stations – not to rest but to be certain that I got as much water down me as I could. I had already drunk about 5 litres of fluid on the bike without a single pee stop, so I knew that dehydrating was a real threat.

By the time I started the second lap I had seen Keith and Laine, both still smiling. The first lap through La Santa village had been a bit of a blur, but the second time round I noticed that all the restaurants and bars were full and people were barbecuing at the side of the road – everyone cheering. The atmosphere was fantastic.

The brilliantly organised aid stations became my focal point. The marshals, mainly Spanish, were very animated leaving you in no doubt what they were offering you. I now know the Spanish for water, energy drink, fruit, Red Bull, flat coke and banana!

As I left the stadium in Club La Santa to start my final 4-mile lap I had been on the go for over 6 hours and I was starting to suffer. I knew the next 40 minutes were going to be tough. My hamstrings were getting tighter, my feet hurt and in my haste to cover my head in water over the previous 90-minutes I had ended up with wet feet – running with wet feet is one of my pet hates.

The race course now resembled a battle ground as the day’s efforts and the baking sun took their toll. Only age-groupers were left on the course and everyone was stuck in their own world trying to get through it. Many were walking, some were sitting on the kerb trying to regroup and sadly some were being taken off the course by the medical team.

So here it was – my Ironman 70.3 had boiled down to a few very tough miles of running. I tried to think positive thoughts to help me through it. I started by unbanking Cate’s lovely text message. I thought about Matilda – my beautiful 11-year old daughter who had spent one too many Sunday breakfasts without her Dad there because he was out on his bike training for this. If there was no other reason to finish I owed it to her.  Between the three of us, slowly but surely, we covered the ground.

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The finish line!!!

And suddenly I was running back into the stadium at Club La Santa – just 200 metres between me and a hard earned Ironman 70.3 medal. As I ran round the stadium I tried to enjoy the moment but all I really wanted to do was finish and get off my feet! The finishing chute was a welcome sight. I crossed the line, my arms in the air, with the clock at 6.59 hrs – job done!

I was immediately scooped up by the post race system. First a medal, then a handshake and photo with Race Director Kenneth Gasque who stayed on the finish line for four and a half hours and shook every finisher’s hand. Then I was free. I grabbed a drink, sat down by the side of the race track and took my running shoes and socks off – bliss!

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Race Director Kenneth Gasgue…and my medal!!

If you ever want a dose of inspiration, spend an hour or so on the finish line of an Ironman event. I did exactly that and watched a procession of people achieve their ambition. Most impressively I watched Hilary Walker from Serpentine Tri in the 60-64 age group finish (she had kicked my arse on the bike!) and I had the privilege of seeing Peter Norman from the 75-79 age group finish. Both were inspirational.

And finally, in what I discovered is an Ironman event tradition, everyone gathered at the finish to welcome in the final competitor. A minute before the cut off time of 8.30 hours, Joanne Dodd appeared in the stadium to a rapturous reception. As she crossed the line bang on 8.30hrs the noise was deafening – looking around, there were definitely a few wobbly bottom lips going on. I can’t imagine the guts it must take to stick at it in these conditions for eight and a half hours. Take a bow Joanne. Whilst some of the elite performances were impressive, these guys are naturally gifted athletes who are paid to train full time, people like Joanne are the real heroes of this race.

Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote was a great way to end to my season – a real high point. Right now I don’t want to think beyond a few weeks of rest. There is plenty of time to plan what happens next season. For now I am going to afford myself a little time to enjoy what I have done!

Running, swimming, beach & beer. It’s Camp Corfu!

As hard as I looked at the schedule for week 7 of my training for the Blenheim Triathlon, I couldn’t see any mention of drinking cold beer, lying by a swimming pool and over eating. But that seemed to be what was heading my way.

This week was the half-term break in English schools and we had arranged to go away with our great friends Miles and Nikki to the Greek island of Corfu. With three kids between us ranging in age from 5-11, a week in the sun next to a swimming pool was just what the doctor ordered….if you were ten. But it wasn’t quite what I had in mind two weeks out from my first triathlon of the season. By the time we departed from Gatwick Airport I had reconciled myself to just the odd run with a hangover. Things couldn’t have been more different and our Greek odyssey turned out to be a mini triathlon camp without any coercion from me. 

Miles had been my running partner 20 years ago when both lived in London. We were part of a loose collective of running enthusiasts that went by the grand and slightly misleading name of “The Fulham Flyers” (the Fulham part was true!). Unfortunately a gruesome knee injury had brought Miles to a halt. Since then he has tried other ways of keeping fit, but like me his first love is running. Little did I know that he had been trying out his leg on a running machine recently and so the chance to get the running shoes on in the sun was exactly what he wanted.

Miles’s wife Nikki is a lifelong swimmer. When I first suggested an open water swim in the sea, I could tell by the look on her face that it wasn’t on her bucket list. The word that she had intended to come out of her mouth was “no”, but in a curious vocal mix up, the word that actually came out was “yes”! So with my exercise partners roped in, it was game on.

Miles & me and that hill

Our first outing was on the very first day and was a road run. Miles and I had no idea where we were going when we set off – we were just going for a run. We were working our way through a warm up routine, part of which is 30 seconds of skipping, when we passed an old matriarch, dressed all in black, sitting in front of her house watching the world go by. The look on her face was priceless as we skipped past. We laughed imagining her telling her family about these two mad Englishman who wait until the hottest part of the day and then go out for a skip!

We eventually found a loop that brought us back to our villa – almost exactly 5 miles from start to finish. However we discovered the only drawback of having a villa high on a hillside with great views – the hill. Our run had taken us right down to sea level which was fine but it meant the run finished with a solid 1-mile climb up a 10% incline. Pace went out of the window – the challenge became doing it without stopping.

The open water swimming team

Striking while the iron was hot, we all went to the beach later in the day to a quiet little bay where the sea was flat and calm. Cate can’t run on her knee after an operation last year, the result of a horse riding accident, but even she got the bug and decided to walk to the beach rather than come in the car.  While the kids splashed about Nikki and I designed a swim course. It wasn’t complicated – it was to the far jetty and back! Before I had a chance to say ready, steady….Nikki was off. Swimming with a partner is fantastic. No room for being complacent. Afterwards we both claimed that we weren’t racing – both our noses grew longer.

According to my watch our swim course was about 600 metres. Before we had a chance to say we couldn’t possibly do that again, we were off for another lap. By the time we had finished our second lap the kids wanted to be part of it too – so we spent some time all swimming out to a nearby buoy.

1.2km of sea-swim on top of a 5-mile run and everybody bitten by the exercise bug – not a bad first day. If Carlsberg did holidays….!

Cooling down

Miles and I ran the same route together three more times during the week, getting a little faster each time and Miles confirmed his comeback by venturing out once alone. The hardest of our runs was the last one which we did on Saturday in the full glare of the midday sun – probably not our smartest decision. We had to stop half way round and beg a local shopkeeper to give us two bottles of water if we promised to come back later and pay him.

Open water swim recovery – the ice cream method!

Nikki and I swam every day except the last day averaging about 1.25km a day. The highlight of our swimming was on the last Friday when we rented a small speed boat and all went bay-hopping down the Corfu coast. We ended up swimming between two bays round the rocky headland that separated them. The water was crystal-clear and we were treated to spectacular underwater rock formations and schools of fish darting around beneath us as we swam. A serious swim called for a serious recovery which we did by all having an ice-cream sitting on the wall of the beachside taverna!

The holiday was a real success in every respect. Miles is back into running, Nikki rekindled her love of swimming, Cate gave her leg some serious rehab, the kids all got loads of exercise and for me it was a great week of training; nine sessions in six days. The only confession is that the nutrition program may have deviated slightly from the coaching manual. But a holiday in Corfu isn’t the same without that delicious thirst-quenching cold beer at 6 o’clock and the yummy freshly caught seafood wouldn’t taste the same without a glass of chilled local wine to help it down. We could have done without the free liqueur shot that seemed to appear at the end of each meal in a restaurant – but we didn’t.

Our week away was one of the most unconventional but enjoyable weeks of training I have done. Sadly it is followed by a very conventional light-training week back at home before the Blenheim Tri on Sunday. Is it too much to expect beautiful rock formations and schools of fish in the lake at Blenheim Palace?

If you want to run with the big dogs, you’ve got to learn to pee in the tall grass

As four of us drove back from our first open water swim of the year at Reading Lake in time for a late Sunday breakfast, the driver spoke with the voice of authority.

“People think that by swimming round and round the lake you get faster. You don’t, you get slower”

The voice was that of Dan Mason, a Team GB triathlete in his age group last year – also a member of our triathlon club and a friend. He has just been selected for Team GB again this year, so when he talks I listen. I also listen because Dan is a qualified BTF coach and is helping me with my training this year.

It is a theme I have heard Dan expand before. You don’t get better at something by just going and doing lots of it. You get better in training by pushing yourself. Sometimes that means doing something outside your comfort zone that you don’t really like. Sometimes it means training with people better than you so you have to work harder than is comfortable to keep up. Neither is enjoyable which is why we rarely do it. The sad truth is that getting better involves some suffering!

This discussion is very timely for me as I have now started training for my triathlon season. My first race, an open-water sprint tri, is in June. I am reluctant to admit it because usually when I declare training has started I get injured. So I am writing this with everything crossed.

I have tried to put Dan’s theory into practice by getting out of my comfort zone in training. This week I had two opportunities to show myself that I was pushing it.

The first was last Saturday when our tri club group bike ride didn’t happen. I decided to go out on my own instead and cycled about ten miles to some local hills. If suffering is on the menu then hills are a safe bet! I found a loop that, in a strange optical illusion, seems to be constantly uphill yet still ends where it started – go figure! It was an 8-mile loop which I did twice. Add on the journey to and from home and I got a solid 37 hilly miles under my belt – 1,797 feet of ascent at an average speed of almost exactly 15 mph. It was exhausting and by the time I arrived home my legs were a bit like jelly from the climbing. Not your average fun ride!

The next day I was at the tri club weekly swimming session. On the agenda this week, in the middle of a 2k workout, was a 400 metre time trial – 16 lengths of the pool against the clock. I occasionally do a 400 metre time trial alone to try and gauge progress, but with no-one watching or timing me, it is often hard to distinguish my 400m time trial from an easy 400 metre warm up. When the rest of your training lane sits on the end of the pool and watches and one of them has a stop watch in his hand, it’s an entirely different proposition – the pressure is on.

My lane partner this week was Chris Oliver. He is a stronger swimmer than me. He has a fluid and deceptively powerful stroke. He gave me lots of excuses about taking it easy and not being too bothered about his time. He then promptly nailed a 6.30 mins 400m. Turns out he did care about the time after all!!

Then it was my turn. I set off and straight away felt out of breath. Must be in the head – even I can swim two lengths without falling apart. I tried to keep it easy while I got a few lengths under my belt. At halfway I heard Chris shout 3.40 – I tried furiously to do the maths in my tired head underwater! Was twice 3.40 under 7 minutes or not? No it was 6.80 – what does 6.80 mean? I gave up and focused on swimming.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Helen Hunter in the next lane. Helen is tall with long levers which she uses to great effect in the pool. I tried to keep up with her – no chance – but it made me push myself.

By the last 50 metres things were hurting but I knew that in about one minute Chris was going to read out my time for all to hear and that kept me working hard. I put in as big a finish as I could without blowing up. Eventually I made it – 7.30 mins exactly. Not Michael Phelps but a full 16 seconds inside my PB.

I still have work to do if I am to get under 7 mins by October, but it looks like Dan was right. You get better by training with better people than you and by pushing yourself.

If I want to get really good perhaps I should go and swim in the fast lane at training where our winner on the night did 400m in 5.02 mins. Well done Sam Wilson who beat all the men!