by CBCG Head Coach Chris Bagg
Whenever we have an athlete perform at a new level, we hear from that person’s friends: We’re so amazed by _________’s swim/bike/run! What did you do differently for that person?" Today we’re going to use one of our proudest examples, a recent breakthrough swim for CBCGer Scott G., who swam 1:25 at Ironman Arizona in November 2018. 1:25 not seem super fast to you? Well, let’s consider where Scott came from, which was a total alien in the water, only three years ago. As you can see in the video above, Scott was what we would call (using Swim Smooth’s terminology) a “Bambino.” These swimmers have a bunch of issues, many of which are apparent above. They are:
Poor water feel: Bambinos usually haven’t spent much time in the water and they just don’t “get it.”
Sinky, jittery legs: Bambinos often have their legs sink behind them, and display a leg kick that jitters—usually they kick from the knee instead of from the hip
Holding their breath: one of the reasons Bambinos struggle so much is that they tend to hold their breath underwater. This fault causes their chests float and exacerbates the sinking leg issue. Breath holding also makes the swimmer feel very anxious as carbon dioxide builds up in his or her blood.
Poor rhythm and inefficient catch-and-pull: Bambinos tend to display little rhythm and “oomph” in the water, usually due to a catch-and-pull that mostly pushes down on the water, instead of back on the water.
Now, let’s look at Scott when we did his yearly swim analysis (something all CBCG athletes get) in December of 2018:
Quite different, yes? When Scott joined us, it would take him more than 45 minutes to swim 1500m (an Olympic-distance triathlon). At Arizona, he swam two-and-a-half times that distance (3800m), in 57 degree water, in less than twice that amount of time (1:25). Here’s how he did it:
Consistency of approach. Yep, you knew this was going to be here. Scott has been uniquely focused on getting better at triathlon since he joined us in 2015, coming over from a mostly-cycling background. He has lost weight, dropped his open half-marathon time to 1:29, and committed to improving all aspects of his game. He has been in the pool 2-3 times a week, every week, for close to 150 weeks straight, now. That is the kind of commitment that improving at swimming requires. We’ve said it a bunch of times: swimming is more like golf than cycling or running, and it rewards patient skill acquisition.
A focus on fitness. Even though skill acquisition is important, it is far from the whole enchilada. If you can’t swim 200 meters without getting gassed, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got good form for that amount of time/distance: you simply won’t be able to maintain it even in your workouts, let alone your races! We focused on Scott’s swim fitness, giving him lots of sets with long intervals, forcing him to build his aerobic capacity in the water.
Addressing his limiters. For Scott, our hierarchy was:
get rid of the breath-holding!
improve the kick: use the glutes not the quadriceps to straighten his leg, so he’s actually getting some body lift from his kick
improve the catch-and-pull to generate more force, which will both make him faster AND reduce drag (with more propulsion, his body sinks less)
Practicing pacing. As with many cyclists, Scott likes to go fast. He often started too hard and blew up early, reverting to bad form and slowing down drastically in the second half of the swim. He now approaches swims at the pace he knows he can hold, aiming to swim harder in the second half of the leg rather than the first half.
Growth mindset versus fixed mindset. We hear, so often, triathletes say things like “I’m a 1:15 swimmer,” and abandon any plan of improvement, forgetting (or not realizing) that even if you swim the same speed, you can do so and expend less energy. These swimmers tend to struggle over the whole race, even though they focus on the biking and running. They simply give up too much during the swim, due to their lack of training. Scott has consistently focused on the fact that he can improve, and been patient with that process. Scott’s goal is to qualify for Kona, and that’s going to require slicing another 15-20 minutes off his Ironman swim, and getting their will require belief, confidence, and patience, but most of all the mindset that change IS possible.
And that’s kinda it. No silver bullets, magic drills, or mystery pull sets that will transform your swimming. Unsurprisingly, it takes understanding what you’re doing wrong (analysis), a plan to move those faults up the competence ladder (from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence), and commitment to that plan. That’s what we do every day at CBCG, for every athlete. If you’d like to talk to one of our coaches as to how you’d be able to pull off this kind of improvement in your own swimming, you can inquire here.