Dip under an hour: How to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim
Dip under an hour: How to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

Dip under an hour: How to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

Dip under an hour: How to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

Richard Thompson reveals what it takes to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim on this episode of The Kona Edge.

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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: Welcome back onto yet another edition of The Kona Edge. I’m Brad Brown and we head back to Australia to catch up with returning guest, Richard Thompson. Richard, welcome onto the show once again. Thanks for joining us.

RICHARD THOMPSON: Thanks for having me Brad.

BRAD BROWN: Richard, the last time we touched on your swimming prowess and how you didn’t enjoy it as a youngster. You’ve taken it up again since taking up the sport of triathlon. Has it come naturally to you? Have you had to work really hard at it?

Time is needed to train for a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

RICHARD THOMPSON: Yes, absolutely. In my first half Ironman, I swam 40-minutes. I was always an hour plus swimmer going through the age group ranks.

Then in 2008, I think I swam 62 at Ironman Kona in Hawaii. To turn professional, you obviously needed to swim a lot faster than that. So, I spent a huge amount of time dedicated to my Ironman swim.

Coming back after a few years out of the sport, it took me, I think, 12 months to get back to the ability that I was before.

At my return to Ironman, I swam 62 minute swim at Ironman Western Australia in Busselton. That was with a wet suit. Then I put together 10 months of solid Ironman swim training and managed to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim at Ironman Kona in Hawaii, in 2016.

BRAD BROWN: Those improvements are big and I think that sub 60 minute Ironman swim is the magic mark. That is where people go, you know what, I am okay as a swimmer. I’m going to be alright. Swimming a sub 60 minute Ironman swim will give me a good shot at this thing. What does it take to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim?

Quality sessions matter for a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

RICHARD THOMPSON: For me, it involved 3 quality swim sessions a week. Also one open water or some sort of recovery swim. Again, it’s being consistent and keep working on your technique, and keep working on your aerobic level of swimming.

You need to be able to stay true to that and just do everything you can each week.

In fact, fitness is a big thing as well. I think if you’re around that, anywhere from 75 or 80 minutes, then a sub 60 minute Ironman swim is not huge. It looks like it is, but it’s more of a theoretical technique level issue, rather than fitness. Everyone is fit and strong. It’s more of a technical issue that needs to be looked at.

BRAD BROWN: Over the years, if you can pin it down to one or two things, what do you think has given you the biggest gains in the pool? What are some of the things you have done that’s really moved the needle for you?

RICHARD THOMPSON: The biggest thing that’s happened in the past is, my ability to swim well as a professional, is credited to sheer volume. Particularly in my swim down, there was a condensed 6-month period where I was just swimming and doing 60km weeks.

That brought it down very quickly. But for the last 12 months I was swimming more like an age grouper. 3 Swims a week.

Correct your breathing and improve your Ironman swim times

The single biggest thing that I think helped was the ability to breathe, or exhale, underwater. This does sound like a silly basic thing, but it’s something that really helped. I was breathing, you turn your head, take your breath, put your head back under the water.

I was holding onto my breath. So, it was holding on in my lungs, not exhaling. And then just as I was turning my head to take another breath, quickly exhaled all the air, and then grabbed another breath.

Grabbed another pocket of air, put my head under and held onto it. We don’t do that in running or riding. We don’t continually hold our breath and then let go.

So, for me, it was focusing on breathing, exhaling almost from the stomach, or the belly as they say in yoga. Really long controlled exhale which is hard to do when you’re swimming really hard, It is a lesson that you can practise. Really controlled, short, inhales.

Correct breathing technique  to swim a sub 60 minute Ironman swim

The time out of the water is quite limited but you are almost completely empty of oxygen, or air in your body. As soon as you turn your head, take a small breath in and then it’s this long, controlled exhale.

By just doing that, it took 3 months to practise and nail. That was a huge exercise to learn and to be able to improve my ability to swim faster for longer, more than anything else.

BRAD BROWN: Yes, it’s amazing. A lot of people say, with doing that, what a difference it has made. So, it might sound basic, but it’s amazing how many people are still doing that.

Richard, and then finally, some of the workouts that you love doing in the pool, what are your favourite things to do that has helped you to your sub 60 minute Ironman swim?

RICHARD THOMPSON: I know a couple of your guests in the past have said short, water sets more often, which I totally agree, certainly in the off season. Especially when you are improving your technique.

But I think when you get closer to that Ironman race you can’t shirk away from big sets.

Set your level of endurance and save energy in your Ironman swim

You’re swimming 3.8km at what should be at some sort of level of endurance or tempo. You need to teach your body to swim that well over that long distance, so it’s not costing you too much energy.

My go-to set, apologies for anyone who’s not on the metric system, but 4km main set is really a good warm up so I would try to replicate what I do in a race. Which is probably all at 300m or 400m at most, because it really doesn’t make sense to warm up, a lot of dry land work, but then 300m warm up.

And then I would do sets of 800 but broken so you’d be going 1 x 100, 2 x 400, 4 x 200, 8 x 100 and 16 x 50. You do that straight through and you’re looking for the highest level, the fastest you can go on a mainly short rest, but that speed needs to be consistent.

You might be looking at 2-minute cycles and you will probably be wanting to be getting in around that 150 mark.So, only per 100, you probably only want about 10-seconds rest. Over 800 you get 80-seconds rest after the 800, and 40-seconds rest after the 400, etc.

Teach your body what it needs to feel like swimming at Ironman pace

That’s a really good set to learn. What you’re trying to teach it is, what it feels like to swim at the Ironman pace. It’s too easy to go at an Ironman pace for a few 100 or a few 200 because that feels easy. But to swim it straight for 1km with a little bit of rest in between.

Then you come back to what it feels like to swim. Ask yourself, How do my lungs feel, am I breathing properly? Then, how do my arms feel? You’d be in a far better position come race day to go, you know what, I know how it feels to swim 4km. Not only do I know how to swim 4km, but I know what it needs to feel like.

BRAD BROWN: How often would you typically do a set like that in the build up to a big race?

Is 8 weeks Ironman swim training sufficient before race day?

RICHARD THOMPSON: For Ironman Kona in Hawaii, last year, I did it about once a week for 8 weeks leading up to that race. I think the first couple you’re likely to blow out, so I wouldn’t say; this is the time I need to do. Your rest per cycle might be 2-minutes, and you might not make that time zone. You might get to the 50’s or 100’s and you sit.

Therefore, to finish off that set you put it up to 2 x 10 cycle. But next week you try the 2-minutes again and you see how far you can get with that projected time. If you nail a session on that cycle within the first 1 or 2 weeks, you know then to make it a bit harder for yourself. But that’s what I did for 2 months, every week.

BRAD BROWN: Richard, thanks for that. Much appreciated. We look forward to getting you on to talk a little bit about your bike next time out. We’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time today.


About Us

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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