We are joined on The Kona Edge by Bob McRae to talk about Ironman swim sessions. Bob shares the challenges he has faced during his illness and improving his Ironman swim performance. He also reveals his favourite Ironman swim sets.
Swim faster without spending more time in the water
Discover the 4 most common swim killers and how to fix them so that you can shave minutes off your swim time.
BRAD BROWN: Time to chat some Ironman swimming now. We head back to Colorado to catch up with Bob McRae. Bob welcome back onto the podcast. Thanks for joining us today.
BOB MCRAE: Thank you.
BRAD BROWN: Bob, Let’s talk about your swim and you mentioned it as a bit of a throw away comment, in the build up to your first triathlon that you literally took up swimming. And then you later eluded to it not being the strongest of the 3 disciplines. Would you agree that you’ve got some work to do in the water?
It’s not natural and I still don’t like it
BOB MCRAE: Yes. I’ve been working with a relatively new triathlete and I basically told them I’m one of a kind, it will take decades. When I first started swimming I think I was maybe the 40th person out the water. These days, on a good race I’ll be in the top 10% but when you’re aiming for those top slots there’s a lot of ground to be made up there. It’s not natural and I still don’t like it but I’m keeping at it.
BRAD BROWN: What are some of the things you’ve done over time that you think has really helped improve your swim performance?
BOB MCRAE: Just keeping at it and trying to do different things. I’ve done a number of things that I think have been helpful and having a number of different people watch my swim stroke.
Ironman swim – is it a skill based activity?
I’ve really focused a lot on technique and I think that’s probably where, not only just not swimming out and swimming, but out of all 3 disciplines, it’s really a highly skill based activity. And if you don’t have good form you can work really hard and not get much faster. So that’s where I’ve spent a good amount of time and that’s probably where I’ve made up the most amount of time and gotten faster.
Just as an example last year, there’s an incredible coach at the local Ywam which is where I swim, he’s 86 years old and as youthful as anybody. Running up and down the pool deck yelling at kids and coaching them. He told me one day, I wasn’t finishing my left arm, and literally after focusing on that in the next set, I took 20 seconds off that 500 yards time which is really substantial. And again, it was just technique.
A lot of drills and just underwater photography. Last year I started working with a swim coach who gave me workouts and would analyse my swim technique using a go-pro that I bought so that I could work with him remotely.
Small changes take time off your Ironman swim
Then last year I decided I’m going to throw some volume at it so I swam 100 000 yards in January including 10 000 on January 1st solo. I don’t know whether it helped me or not, but it certainly gave me that early season confidence going into the early part of last year.
Then I didn’t need to work on the swim. I was always feeling like that was something I had neglected but I felt pretty confident and I think last year was certainly a good year for the swim. I had a number of races where I was in the top 10 or 15% and even at Kona that was a 1:02 swim time which is pretty darn solid I think.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, particularly not a wetsuit swim, that’s fantastic. As far as the technique stuff goes, you mentioned that coach talking about you not finishing your stroke with your left arm. Is that the way you’ve approached it? You almost zone in on one thing and try and correct that one thing? As opposed to going maybe; my catch isn’t good, and my kick’s not right and trying to fix it all in one go. Would you advise people to just hone in on one thing. Work on that in the session and then move onto the next thing.
Place the focus on one thing to improve your Ironman swim
BOB MCRAE: Yes, one at a time I think. I was one of those kids that couldn’t do jumping jacks in high school. So I need special attention. I can really only focus on one thing at a time. Also I’m a man.
BRAD BROWN: I can’t chew gum and walk at the same time Bob.
BOB MCRAE: Yes, so I like to, where there are drills, physical queues are helpful. Just work on one thing at a time really. These days I’m trying to just keep my head down because I have a tendency of looking up too much.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the help is concerned, by the sounds of it you’ve got a couple of different people over time to have a look at your stroke. Would you suggest that’s the way to go or are you opening yourself up to where you are just focusing on the next thing? As opposed to having one person over time trying to sort out your swim technique.
Different perspectives are helpful in your Ironman swim
BOB MCRAE: I think it’s such a complicated thing and it’s really difficult. And everyone’s got their own bias. Different theories of how to swim properly. I think it’s helpful to get different perspectives.
Try those things out for a while, see if you’re progressing, see if it makes sense to you. And then eventually you’ll find those theories with people that will be consistent. Those are the things that you can focus on, I think. So I think a variety of perspectives is helpful.
BRAD BROWN: As much as I know you’re not the biggest fan of swimming, what are some of your favourite workouts? What do you love doing in the water?
BOB MCRAE: Well actually, you’ll be surprised to hear I picked up swimming at a Master’s group this year. This is the first year I’ve been able to do that somewhat consistently and that’s been fun.
Long tempo sessions are best for me
But you know, my favourite workouts swim wise and I think you’ll hear this pretty consistently in the different disciplines, I benefit mostly from long tempo sessions and the build into those.
So what I enjoyed yesterday for example, I teach a spin class a few times a week. Before the spin class I will jump in the water and do 1000 standard free style then I just build into that. I go from a relatively slow control to a threshold level probably at the end. Then I put on my paddles and did another 1000. Most of my sessions have been relatively short so I’ll do anywhere between 1500 and 3000 typically a few times a week, 3 or 4 times a week. But I like to include a few of those a week and that just lets me get into that rhythm.
You’ll hear this with the run, and on the bike as well. Just that long high level, you get where you’re reaching against or pushing up against your threshold and holding it there for a while.
But I also like to do some variation on that which is 1000 builds to tempo and then do another 10 x 100 on a fixture in the wall and I got to close to 130 interval this year in yards, and those are probably my favourite. Kind of boring for most folks but that’s what I do.
BRAD BROWN: No worries, it sounds brilliant.
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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