On this edition of The Kona Edge we touch base with Owain Matthews and chat about the challenges he’s faced in his Ironman swim. Owain reveals how correcting his body position in the water improved his swim and how he started doing the things swimmers don’t like to do before he started seeing improvements in his efficiency in the water.
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BRAD BROWN: You’re listening to The Kona Edge. It’s awesome to have you with us and it’s time to chat some swimming today. We head back to Sydney, Australia to catch up with Owain Matthews. Owain, welcome back, nice to touch base once again.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Thank you for having me again.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, interestingly enough, obviously you came from a running background, the run is your strong discipline out of the three. From a swimming perspective, how comfortable were you in the water from when you started in the sport of triathlon, was it something you picked up quite easily?
Work on body position when you’re not a natural swimmer
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Not really, I wasn’t really physically designed for it. I may have mentioned previously that I’m 6.1 and I was 64kg when I came into it, so I’m a tall thin guy. I’m not really, didn’t have the strength or the body position or surface area to really be a good swimmer. I grew up being in the pool, like a lot of kids in the UK, but we don’t really have a lot of swim lessons or anything like that. I could go in the water and not drown. I could tread water, but I’d never ever had a swim lesson in my life or done any swimming before I started. I was kind of thrown in at the deep end when I started triathlon and it definitely had its challenges.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, so many people get into this sport who, like you say, they’ve pottered around in the water a bit, they can tread water, they’re not going to drown and they almost feel like they don’t need help because they can ‘swim.’ How soon after you started did you get help with technique because I think that’s one of the big things that holds people back. It’s all good and well you’re doing tons of volume, but if you’re not doing the correct stuff in that volume, you’re really not getting any better and you’re not getting the benefit that you should be.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Straight away, as soon as I joined the tri club and I started to set myself goals of a triathlon, I was like, I can’t just go to the pool and swim. I need somebody to tell me or give me some idea of what I need to do. I can’t just go there and do it because I’m just wasting my time. I started working with a triathlon coach who gave me pointers first of all and then the best thing I ever did was join a swim squad and that slowly helped me build some aerobic base and strength as well as getting frequent swim technique tips. So that was the best move that I made.
BRAD BROWN: How quickly did you see your swim times improve, from doing that? Is it a case of it was almost week on week?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Initially, I think you go through periods, so initially I improved quite quickly. So I was obviously a very poor swimmer and then initially maybe for two or three months I saw a huge improvement where I could start to move through water a bit more efficiently, but didn’t really figure out the feel of the water or what I should really be doing with my body position and my arms and stuff.
Then you get this period where things stall a little bit and I find that then you’ve really got to look at different approaches as to how am I going to improve from here, if things have kind of stalled a bit and that’s where I really started to focus on delving into technique, working with coaches. But also in my mind, coming up with visualization and ideas so that I knew when I was swimming, what am I trying to achieve? What am I supposed to look like here so that I could go for a swim and it not just be an aimless potter up and down the lane for a few lengths and not actually have any outcome at the end.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a bit more about this visualization. I find that fascinating, it’s something I do quite a bit and I’d like to get your take on what sort of stuff would you do and what’s the reason behind it, why would you do it?
Vizualize your body position in the water
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I find that I’m quite a visual learner and most triathletes that I work with seem to understand more the faults they’re making and how to improve if they can see something. Video analysis is a great thing, so I could see what I was doing on the video and then my coach would come up with a couple of pointers on things I could improve or things that would really make the biggest difference to me so that next time I jumped in the water, in my mind I had a picture of what I look like and what I should be doing. And that’s what I was focusing on and it’s still quite easy when you’re in a pool to be able to look at your hand position, your arm position, feel where your body is and they’re the things I focused on more than how fast I was going, on how many kilometers I was swimming.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, looking at people trying to change, particularly technique and that sort of thing, do you think people try and focus on too much and change too much at the same time? I don’t know if you’ve ever played golf, but if you’re trying to work on your swing and you go and change everything in your swing, it’s just almost impossible to hit the golf ball.
Do you find that people do the same in the swim, that they’re trying to improve their catch and their pull and it’s just, if you don’t focus on one thing and do it properly before moving onto the next, that you’re really struggling to get the most out of your swim?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Yeah, definitely and I come from a teaching background as well. I’m big on the learning focus of it, so when I’m trying to get someone to improve an aspect of their swimming, too much information is not good. And also you’ve got to realise as a coach, as well as the athlete, that if I’m trying to get them to improve a certain aspect of the swim, just because I say it in one way or get them to visualize one thing, doesn’t mean that that’s going to resonate with them. You have to let them take a bit of ownership and figure out if they’re trying to improve an aspect of it. What type of analogy or what thing works for them, so they can do that and focus on that for a while before you move onto the next thing.
BRAD BROWN: As far as gains that you’ve got in the swim, could you pinpoint one thing that you’ve done over your triathlon career that you feel has given you the most benefit?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I think focusing on a process of how I was going to improve was the biggest thing. And it’s the process that I use with a lot of the triathletes now who are poor swimmers, where I went through stages of what I found was, I guess, the most important thing to improve to get efficiency out of the water and stuff like that. I spent the initial part of my swimming improvement focusing on my body position. That was the biggest hindrance to me and I could tell that because I swam all right in a wetsuit, but I was poor in the pool.
I worked on my position initially and then I focused more on the symmetry of my stroke and did all the things that a lot of swimmers or triathlete swimmers don’t like to do. Breathe bilaterally and all the things that can limit my movement across the pool, so I’m going in a straight line. And then I started to focus on the propulsion and I think the biggest mistake that a lot of people make is they throw on the paddles, get the pool buoy and they’re just focused on strength and things like that and it’s not necessarily the thing that’s the biggest problem for them.
BRAD BROWN: That obviously is very individual. That process wouldn’t necessarily work for me. We need to figure out where I need work to on and then figure out the process for me individually, is that correct?
Poor body position can hold you back in your swim
OWAIN MATTHEWS: For sure, but it’s a physics thing, I look at it from a physics perspective. Body position is the biggest hindrance to anybody’s swim and if somebody has got a poor body position, you can’t work on their catch and their pull first because that’s not the thing that’s affecting them, it’s how they position themselves in the water.
A lot of the coaching courses that we’ve done, again, kind of coming from a sports science background, I like to look at it from a physics perspective and it’s not always a position. You definitely see females naturally have better body position and you don’t normally need to focus on that as a big focus for them, you can look at other areas. They definitely struggle a lot more with, the females, with the catch and the pull and the propulsion side of it. So yeah, it definitely is individual, but there is a process also that you need to work on, for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant. As far as workouts, what do you love doing in the pool?
OWAIN MATTHEWS: I guess my favourite workout is a varied pace, probably because it’s the weakest thing that I have. I find that when I race, obviously if you come from a non-swimming background, you probably are not good at things like kicking and stuff like that and changes of pace in race always are the biggest hindrances to non-swimmers because swimmers find it easy to change pace, to increase the stroke rate and kick and drop you from packs which is hard. I like to do a lot of workouts with varied pace where I might be swimming a different part of the interval hard or I might be doing sets of longer intervals followed by shorter individuals, at different paces. So I’m very much not a fan of swimming lots of intervals at the same pace, just rolling round on a cycle. I like to change things up for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Owain, thank you so much for joining us on this edition of The Kona Edge, much appreciated. We look forward to catching up again soon.
OWAIN MATTHEWS: Thank you very much.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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