Breaking The Hour In The Ironman Swim

  • By Dan Bullock
  • Published May 2, 2012

The hour holds a fascination for many reasons in sport. The most famous probably being the hour record for track cycling. Running a half marathon in an hour puts you into an elite few. In the sport of triathlon the big hour record is for the 3.8K Ironman swim. Tales are told of just how much quieter it is in transition and how much easier it is to get out on the bike. This month Dan Bullock shows you how to reach this sacred milestone.

Even if you think the hour isn’t on your radar don’t stop reading because everything that rings true for making this will help those who are aiming to swim 70 or 80 minutes. The most important point to remember is even the tiniest of improvements to speed will yield big improvements over 3.8K.

During the past few weeks I decided to investigate the idea of the swimming 3.8K in an hour and what I discovered is that most people can swim at the necessary pace to do this. Unfortunately due to the effort required to hold this pace it was not sustainable for most for more than a few lengths.

When I use the word effort this is more a description of all the components needed to achieve the metres per second swim speed. Physical exertion should not really be one of these components if your swim stroke is to be sustainable for 60 minutes. Most swimmers that come to me can hit 24-26 seconds for 25 metres in simple timed lengths but their efficiency breaks down as the distance increases.

Swimming at one metre per second would mean 63 minutes for 3.8K which most people would be happy with. In order to do this technique and remaining streamlined are key. In pool terms this would be swimming 100m in 1:40 and repeating it 38 times. When a wetsuit is added, some drafting, swimming straight and good sighting then going under the hour would appear possible.

Swim The Distance, No More
There are certain variables that will help you achieve the hour and if not utilised will severely compromise your chances. One of the best techniques to cross from pool to open water swimming is a symmetrical and balanced stroke, and this is key for swimming in a straight line. If your stroke, poor navigation or a wayward draft causes just a five per cent difference to your race day distance this can have a huge impact. In pool terms that would be like trying to swim 90 seconds for 1 00m instead of 95 seconds. This is a big difference requiring considerable extra effort and could even shift into a new heart rate zone.

The best way to keep your stroke symmetrical and efficient is by switching from external to internal rotation, which I discussed last month. Streamline and improved technique are critical. The legs need to create as little drag as possible for the arms to pull the smallest possible vessel through the water. This concept keeps energy and oxygen requirements to a minimum helping you hit that hour target.

Fitness goes hand in hand with swim technique and I find it hard to ignore one over the over. Swim endurance is important to allow the same movements to be repeated over and over for an hour. Swim sessions covering 3-4.5K with lots of technique reminders punctuating mid to long distance repeats are the order of the day here. If there is one area that could be improved in terms of pure strength it would probably be the triceps. As the triceps fatigue it causes the stroke to shorten and movements to become more hurried, which in turn need more oxygen as streamline and technique break down.

I think it is better to look at swim training in terms of the number of sessions per month rather than a weekly amount. While four sessions per week is admirable, and might happen once in a while, I think it’s better to chase 1 5 per month. This is a tough aim but will guarantee the swim fitness and technique required. At this point technique is ingrained and now in the subconscious allowing you to focus on race tactics, pacing and positioning. It is important that your stroke becomes sustainable so the mechanics of your technique alone should not be tiring you. It will need a lot of solid work to get it to this point.

Monthly Testing
It is essential to test monthly to know that you are progressing because it helps to build confidence as you improve. If you’re not improving then something needs to be done about it. It’s better to find out four months in advance of your main race than be 1 0 minutes off come the big day. If you’re not improving you either need to add fitness training if your technique is good or improve any technical glitches you might have

A good swim test that breaks down the 3.8K distance into a tough but manageable block is as follows:

• Start an overall watch to record the set duration
• 4x400m strong steady pace, rest 30 (including after the fourth 400) Straight into:
• 4x300m strong steady pace, rest 20 (including after the fourth 300)
Straight into:
• 4x200m strong steady pace, rest 10 (including after the fourth 200) Straight into:
• 4x50m strong steady pace, rest 5
• Stop your overall time at the conclusion of the fourth 50
• Subtract 4:1 5 from this time for your broken 3.8K time

Since the rest period is kept low it is hard to recover fully but the frequent breaks do allow a possible race pace attempt if rested going into the swim. Ideally this would be swum in a 50m pool with no wetsuit for a true and fair evaluation. On various training camps we have seen accurate predictions come from this swim set for those needing to know where their current Ironman swim ability lies.

Typical Training Set
A key session to work on each cycle involves a simple ladder set where distance is escalated while rest is kept consistently short. For example start with 50m and rest for 1 0 seconds, then swim 1 00m and rest for 1 0 seconds and continue increasing by 50m until you reach 400m. Remember to keep the rest at 1 0 seconds for the full 1 800m. It’s the lack of rest that makes this set tough. To swim the set accurately set out at 60 minute 3.8K pace for the first 50m and continue to hold throughout.

You should be looking to see benchmark times of 1 :32 for 1 00m and 3:05 for 200m as you move through the set. Remember you are trying to hold these times in a relaxed manner but it will feel harder as you go through. This should be treated as breakthrough set to be repeated every six to eight weeks. When I see my swimmers hit the final 400m in six minutes I am quietly confident they’ll break the hour come race day.

Swimming in open water for an hour is a long time to not be fully comfortable and the smallest irritant is going to feel like torture half way through. One of the biggest annoyances is chafing, so make sure use Bodyglide or a similar lubricant to avoid this.

When buying a wetsuit the fastest will be the one you’re most comfortable with. Makes sure it fits snug and allows the best possible arm and shoulder movement without any rubbing around the neck. More expensive wetsuits use thinner more flexible rubber and have more panels around the shoulders for extra flexibility. This helps with a more natural stroke and reduces fatigue. The more a suit allows freedom of movement the better.

A wetsuit will make you feel fast in the water because of the extra buoyancy and hydrodynamic qualities. Don’t be tempted to swim with more effort because you suddenly feel faster than your fitness.

Don’t fight all the good that the suit will help with. Allow it to do its job and try not to hinder it helping you. Keep leg kick to a minimum and stroke rate sensible. A wetsuit wont cure a bad leg kick so remember all the good techniques learned in the pool.

Race Day
Being in the right frame of mind on race day comes from the confidence of knowing you have done it in training. Not only are you confident of the distance not tiring you, but it also means you’ll get on the bike without being overly stressed.

Use this confidence to start further up the field to give yourself the best opportunity to swim the first 400m rather then battle it out mid pack. Nothing slows a swim, leaves you fatigued and frustrated like wrestling your way through a densely packed field of swimmers.

Many swimmers find their form halfway through a swim training session after a good warm up and a chance to build into their stroke. Try to recreate this feeling earlier in the race by performing a string dry land warm up exercises ahead of a water based (if possible) warm up. Then you’ll feel ready to go from the gun.

During the swim, just like the bike and run, there will be good and bad patches. During the bad patches perform a front crawl checklist and look at the key aspects of your stroke. Try to hold it together and resist fighting your way through the swim. Speed will return with less effort as you refocus your technique.

Finding a good draft will certainly help but this a topic all of its own. When done well it will save time and energy but it can be fraught with issues, especially if you sit on someone’s feet who swims 65 minutes. Swim your race.

Take control of your own swim, be confident, relax and try to find a smooth rhythm as soon as possible. Remember all the basics, sight well and you could break the elusive hour for 3.8K.

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