Overcoming A Swim Weakness And Qualifying For Kona

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The World Ironman Championships take place in Hawaii next weekend on the island of Kona. Swim Smooth have a host of athletes taking on the big race and we'll be bringing you many of the stories and insights from their performances after the race.

But how do you go about qualifying in the first place? Many athletes overlook the swim component of Ironman because it is relatively short compared to the bike and run, but such is the intense competition for places at Kona that a weak swim can leave you so far behind you can never catch up.

If you are such a triathlete with a swim weakness, how would a top level coach work with you to develop your swimming and have you further up the field at the start of the bike? This week on the blog we feature a couple of case studies from Swim Smooth Coach Fiona Ford, who is based in Richmond, London.

Firstly Fiona looks at how she worked with Steve to improve his swim and allow him to qualify for the Ironman World Championships. Secondly, as a great triathlete and swimmer herself, Fiona examines her own return from an extensive lay off from injury and how she made such a phenomenal comeback to racing and qualifying for Kona herself.

Over to Fi:

You can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you sure can throw or give away any expectations of racing to your potential. Many triathletes believe they can offset a poor swim with a strong bike and run, effectively training the one or two disciplines they most enjoy or is logistically less challenging for them. As a coach I find this a common profile for triathletes chasing a Kona qualification slot or aiming to race in the competitive end of their age group at ITU / Standard distance triathlon.

Case Study 1 – Athlete Stephen Drew

Targeting a Kona qualification slot is a worthy challenge and drives the triathlon ambitions of many age group athletes. Improving triathlon swim performance can make this aspiration become a reality. After 8 Ironman finishes, one of my coached athletes Steve Drew needed to up his swimming game to secure a top 5 age group finish at Ironman UK with the hope of qualifying for the World Championships in Hawaii. As his coach, conducting performance analysis and athlete profiling highlighted a key requirement for Steve to reduce his Critical Swim Speed (CSS) to a competitive level by improving his speed efficiency, stroke technique, pace judgement and navigation skills in open water.

Over 12 months, we implemented a multilevel approach in 3 stages:

Improving Stroke Mechanics

Using video analysis to identify Steve's main swim technique inefficiencies, we observed how the knock-on effects of unilateral breathing in his stroke was seriously holding him back. Currently swimming at 1:50/100m we targeted dropping his CSS pace much closer to 1:30 per 100m.

Throughout the Autumn and Winter of 2015 and early 2016, every weekly technique session Steve focused on his 'top 3' elements we identified from his video analysis. We continued to use video analysis to review his progress which allowed me as his coach to fine tune his swim progression with drills and functional strength training - both improving his range of movement with further modifications to his stroke mechanics.

One of the main elements holding Steve back was significant drag caused by his low leg position in the water, encouraging him to become dependent on the pull buoy to feel efficient when swimming. Achieving improved hip flexor range, functional strength and reducing dependency on the pull buoy with use of long, flexible, floating fins for focused technical work helped move the efficiency process along swiftly:

Before (L) and after (R): Improving Steve's body position. Click to enlarge.

We addressed Steve's lack of symmetry in his stroke by training him to become versatile in his breathing patterns - i.e. regularly breathing to both sides. This required a lot of persistence (both for the athlete and coach!) but the end result of being able to rotate evenly to both sides greatly helped Steve's ability to swim straight in open water.

To drive this home, on a training camp in the French Alps we utilised a group exercise swimming lengths of the 1km lake in a straight line. With myself providing the navigational draft or swimming alongside, it was a unique opportunity to provide accuracy feedback in real time. This fast tracked his awareness of how much extra distance he was having to swim in open water by swimming off course and overcorrecting - effectively zig zagging his way around a race swim course.

Lastly, we worked on Steve's catch and pull mechanics by having him extend forwards and catch the water a little deeper. We used technique paddles (such as the Finis Freestyler and Agility paddles) to help him develop a feel for this rather than traditional large 'strength' paddles. The depth of the catch is dictated by the flexibility of the swimmer, the less flexible the deeper it needs to be to maintain good technique.

Bringing Steve's hand lower in the water during the catch reduced the tendency to press down on the water (left) instead of pressing it backwards (right). Click to enlarge.

Pacing and CSS

A key strategy for Steve was to implement a consistent focus on pacing throughout CSS and endurance sessions to avoid the tendency to start too fast and fade through the session. This brought significant gains initially in pace awareness, soon bringing CSS down from 1:50 to sub 1:45 per 100m within a few training cycles. As Steve's pacing confidence and competence improved on regular pink and red mist sessions, we saw CSS come down quite rapidly to 1:35/100m in the training cycle leading into his IMUK taper. A great reward for consistently nailing at least 3 sessions a week in the pool.

Open Water Strategies and Skills

We introducing focused open water skills progression on the training camp in July leading up to Ironman UK. As well as tuning up Steve's sighting technique to improve navigation we also tested the HUUB Kickpant and found these to be much faster than a wetsuit, due to the freedom of the upper body and shoulders for arm recovery. This led to testing a sleeveless wetsuit in the lead up to IMUK with great success to modify arm recovery and reduce fatigue of the upper body and shoulders, allowing Steve to sustain a higher stroke rate throughout long swims over the Ironman distance.

On race day Steve delivered with a really well executed race plan, using process driven strategies for swim, bike and run using his individual power and pacing data from training. His swim of 1:12 was a massive PB of 19 minutes from IMUK 2015, putting him a long way up the road to engage his natural bike strength. He capped off an excellent performance with the second fastest marathon in his age group to secure 4th and a Kona slot:

See Steve's here: eu.ironman.com/triathlon/events/emea/ironman/uk/results.aspx?rd=20160717&race=uk&bidid=143&detail=1#axzz4Lew0UgBb

What can we learn here? By training your weakness as a triathlete, you really can race your strengths effectively. You might not win the race with a great swim but you can engage with a totally different race by being further up the road with the strongest athletes in your age group, moving your performances into a different bracket entirely.

L-R: Steve, Graham (also coached by Fiona), Doug and Fiona training in Kona yesterday

Case Study 2 - Coach Fiona Ford

Making a return to racing after a long layoff due to injury can be extremely daunting. An extended period of time away from the sport almost always sees growth in the numbers of competitors and quality of races. Focusing on what you can do, rather than what you cannot physically manage while in a rehabilitation phase or pre-training is one effective strategy to ensure you find momentum and motivation to continue making progress, however fast or slow that might be. The recovery process is rarely linear.

Consistency yields rewards and focusing on this each week will bring you back through a pre-training phase to transition into a full training scenario. As a coach and athlete, I've engaged this cycle first hand over the past 4 years to successfully make a return endurance triathlon racing in May 2016.

The process I implemented was:

1) Swim little, light and often when injured or recovering from surgery, particularly if unable to bike and/or run at your previous level. Design a training progression from injury recovery tolerance with regular short sessions. Gradually build this up to a structured plan including pace, endurance and technique sessions. This addresses all aspects of your swim performance and provides great variety if you are training a single discipline.

2) Identify issues from injuries using video analysis and modify your stroke technique if bio-mechanical or physiological adaptation is required. This is particularly significant for any athlete having had surgery to re-pattern neural pathways as the stroke may initially feel disconnected and uncoordinated at first.

3) Adapt your pool training stroke technique for open water in the lead up to first race if you have been a few years out of competition. Work on stroke rate rhythm in the wetsuit, optimising arm recovery, sighting and drafting strategies. It's essential to do this in a group training scenario.

Nerves, what nerves? Time for a quick pre-race photo.

An excellent swim at Challenge Half Salou, Barcelona had me out of the water a clear 1st in the female age group wave. The prevailing crosswind in the sea swim meant sighting regularly and being super-versatile with my breathing pattern around the rectangular course. Forget navigating off the turn buoys, we had large inflatable balloons tethered 10m above them to use for spotting the direction due to the rough conditions. These were not easy to find either until you were approaching them!

Exiting the water 6th female overall put me significantly up the road on the bike ahead of half the women’s Pro field who had the benefit of a 5 minute head start. It set up my race to finish a clear 10 minutes ahead of the rest of the women's age group field and 9th overall among the Pros.

An effective swim will set you up for a super race and sometimes, a surprising win. No better way to return to racing after many years sidelined due to injury. Having a vastly improved swim set up an unexpected race situation of racing among the Pro field on the bike and run.

The exact same scenario repeated at Ironman Maastricht-Limberg, Netherlands 31st July where I qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona with a clear winning margin in age group 45-49F set up by a 54 minute swim.

As a coach I’m really looking forward to seeing how BOTH my qualified athletes race in Kona, fulfilling lifetime goals, and surpassing all expectations personally as an athlete to be on the start line too. Working strategically and smartly on your swim, certainly pays huge dividends!

Fiona Ford
Swim Smooth Coach
Find out more about Fiona, her video analysis, training camps and squads at: www.triathloneurope.com

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