Tag 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”.

photo 1

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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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!