James Burke is a phenomenal swimmer. Today on The Kona Edge he shares some tips and tricks with us and tells of things he’s done over time that has helped him improve in his Ironman swim.
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BRAD BROWN: Time to chat some Ironman swimming. We head back to Wisconsin where James Burke joins us.
James, welcome back onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
JAMES BURKE: Thanks for having me.
BRAD BROWN: James, you’re a blimmin’ good swimmer. Your swim splits are ridiculous. It must be nice coming out of a swim in Ironman and you’re right up there with the best in the world.
A swimming history keeps you up front
JAMES BURKE: Yes, I have a long history of swimming. I started swimming I think when I was about 6 years old, or 5 years old. Locally and then swam all the way up through a couple of years in university, and I was always a distance swimmer so I think that’s helping me as well.
BRAD BROWN: It makes such a difference. I ask people all the time what’s the one tip you can give people to improve their Ironman swim. And at least half of them say start when you’re 6 which doesn’t help when you’re an adult. But it definitely does help if you started when you were 6. How did you get into swimming? Was it just a family thing and it progressed from there?
JAMES BURKE: Yes. We lived close to a pool that had a summer program. Every summer my parents would make it mandatory that we would at least be on the swim team throughout the summer, to keep us out of trouble. From there it went to swimming in the winter and swimming all year round; and then swimming in high school. It was very much a fabric of growing up in our family.
BRAD BROWN: I find when I chat to swimmers or triathletes who come from a very strong background. Particularly if they swam at top level in high school or top level in college. They almost get to a point where they felt a little but burnt out because of the volumes they were doing in the water. Did you ever get to that point where you actually hated it? Yes, the groundwork had been laid and the technique was there. But did you get to a stage where you thought this is for the birds, I don’t want to do this anymore?
When triathlon gets you back in the pool
JAMES BURKE: I never got to the point where I hated it but I had a very clear understanding of when I was going to be done. I walked down to the university of medicine, swim team and I told myself when I started swimming; I was going to give it 2 years. If I wasn’t lighting the pool on fire then I was going to be done. So it was a very clean break for me.
I loved the swim team, I loved the coaches. I stayed close to them throughout the rest of my college career. But I knew when I was ready to be done and it was definitely the time.
After university I didn’t get back in the pool for about 7 or 8 years so I definitely had the cores of standing on the pool deck, looking at the water and saying it’s going to be freezing and I really don’t want to get in. It took triathlon to get me back into a pool swimming laps.
BRAD BROWN: But having that background is a huge benefit because it’s almost like riding a bicycle. You never really forget the technique. There might be 1 or 2 little tweaks you need to make but the basic technique is there and it definitely makes life a lot easier.
JAMES BURKE: Yes, for sure. That’s one of the things I’m definitely fortunate from a triathlon perspective is that I have that swimming background. When I did get into triathlon and I started swimming again it was really just building endurance and building the muscle memory and getting that back. But it didn’t take very long to get back into the swing of things.
Pool tools can enhance your Ironman swim
BRAD BROWN: I ask triathletes every time I do the swim podcast, is there one thing you’ve done, or two things you’ve done that you can pinpoint over time that has really moved the needle on your swim performance? It’s probably difficult having swum for as long as you have. If you think about it what would you say has given you the big gains in the water?
JAMES BURKE: I don’t know if I can pinpoint any one thing because as you say the background that I have. But I will tell you there are tools and things that I use today that I never had in the past. For instance very early in the season when I haven’t been swimming a lot because usually over winter I stop swimming altogether.
Little things like utilising core shorts to improve your buoyancy so that you’re not worried about staying upright and you can have more focus on your technique. It’s things like that, that I think contribute and when people ask me what they can do, I tell them utilise some of the tools that are out there because there are really some nice enhancements that can help.
BRAD BROWN: Ok so let’s list them off. I want all the secrets. What are those tools? All of them.
JAMES BURKE: I can’t give them all away because then everyone would catch up.
BRAD BROWN: I doubt it. At a 50 minute Ironman swim there’s still going to be lots of people behind you James, don’t worry about that.
How to save your legs in your Ironman swim
JAMES BURKE: I’m a huge fan of the Blueseventy Core Shorts. Like I said, early in the season when maybe my upper body isn’t as strong as it needs to be I don’t have to worry about thrashing to stay upright in the water. I can really focus on more technique and building some strength. I’m also a big proponent of paddles and doing a lot of pulling.
I think one of the things I try not to focus on is I try not to kick more than I need to. There’s going to be plenty of fatigue on your legs when you get to the bike and the run so try to save your legs as much as you can during the swim. But you’ve got to balance that with the technique of trying to keep them upright, keeping your hips up in the water and all those other things that come with it.
BRAD BROWN: I’m so glad you didn’t say start swimming when you were 6. As far as workouts in the water, what do you love doing?
Simple Ironman swim workouts are good for the mind
JAMES BURKE: I’m pretty boring from a workout perspective. I swim 2 to 3 times a week for about an hour. Because I don’t focus on technique as much, I try and focus on getting in yards as much as possible. I have a standard warm up kick set, main set and then I finish with about 1000 yards of pull. I wish I could tell you that I have something exciting but I think the numbness of swimming in general it allows me to free my mind by keeping my workouts simple.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome stuff. James, thank you so much for your time once again on The Kona Edge. Much appreciated. We look forward to chatting about your bike next time out.
JAMES BURKE: Yes, thank you.
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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