This week I’m joined by Rory Buck to discuss the intricacies of swimming and coaching. Rory Buck is an ex-competitive swimmer turned coach, who went from being a collegiate swimmer to representing South Africa at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Turning to coaching to learn more about swimming, Rory now coaches from Dubai. Join us as we discuss topics such as swim culture, the right age to start swimming, a feel for the water, mentality, sighting, effort in swimming and self-perception as well as much more.
01:10 – Rory’s competitive background.
04:30 – Dubai and swim culture.
06:50 – The right age to start swimming.
11:30 – Putting effort into swimming.
20:00 – Confidence in the water.
27:30 – Developing and maintaining a feel for the water.
38:00 – Swimming in a triathlon.
42:00 – Sighting in open water.
52:50 – Watching triathletes and reflecting.
01:01:10 – The mindset and delusions.
Announcer: Welcome to the Effortless Swimming Podcast, the show that helps swimmers and triathletes love the water, become a better swimmer and live a better life. Here’s your host, Brenton Ford.
Brenton Ford: Welcome to episode number 120 of the Effortless Swimming Podcast. My guest today is Rory Buck, who is an ex-competitive swimmer turned coach, so similar to me. So, Rory, thanks for joining me on the podcast.
Rory Buck: No problem, Brenton. Thanks for having me.
Brenton Ford: Oh, yeah. You sent me an email a couple of months ago, just replying to a newsletter that I sent out through Effortless Swimming, and then we kind of just got chatting. And I thought you’d be a really good guest to have on the podcast, just to discuss some of the things that I come across with my coaching and what I’ve seen through my competitive background in swimming.
And we’re kind of very similar in that, in terms of coming from a competitive background to now coaching, working with a lot of triathletes and open water swimmers, and I think kind of having to learn the other side of swimming, which is to really fully understand it and understand the technique and how to teach it, rather than just being able to do it.
So for the listeners, can you give them a little bit of background on what you achieved with your competitive swimming background, because it’s pretty outstanding what you did achieve?
Rory Buck: Oh, I appreciate that little intro there. Yeah, I, similar to you, came from a competitive swimming background. I only learned to swim, or not learned to swim, but I only started training competitively at a very late age. I was 16 when I picked up the sport and went into a squad. I could swim prior to that, but was quite late on the scene of sort of training, and so constantly felt like I was having to catch up with the guys that I was racing against that had picked up the sport when they were four or five and kind of gone through the age group ranks.
So through starting late, I sort of had to force myself to become a student of the water and learn how to shortcut processes in order to get competitive. So I picked it up, training at 16. I managed to qualify for Malawi, which is where I was going to school, growing up in a little, small country in the middle of Africa. I managed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 for them, which opened my eyes to the big guys, the big world of competitive swimming.
I watched Ian Thorpe break the 400 freestyle record in Manchester in 2002, and it was just an incredible experience for me as a youngster, but it gave me an itch that needed to be scratched, and that was that I did actually want to get very competitive in the sport.
So I spent a number of years dedicating myself to the craft and found that coaching was a way of educating myself even more about the sport. They say, “If you want to really understand something, start teaching it.” So I started coaching very shortly after the Commonwealth Games, and learned through that process.
I got more and more competitive. I swam for South Africa, which is the country that I hold a passport for, at the World University Games in 2011, and then just missed out on the qualification for the 2012 Olympics, and then hung up my suit competitively after that and went into full-time coaching, but moved to working exclusively with adults.
And along came triathlon with that. I just enjoy working with adults a lot more. I find it a lot more stimulating working with adults than with children. And so, yeah, since 2012 have been exclusively working with adults and triathletes.
Brenton Ford: And you’re now based in Dubai, so you do a lot of sort of one-on-ones and small group sessions over there. What’s the, I guess, experience, the background of a lot of the athletes over in Dubai, in terms of their swimming ability? Because I’m thinking in Australia we’ve got a big swim culture here, so a lot of people still didn’t learn to swim as a kid. Kids these days, it’s a requirement for them to learn through school, but most people have some sort of basic swimming background. But what’s it like over there?
Rory Buck: Oh, that’s a great question. Dubai is a melting pot of nationalities and people from all different walks of life. And they’re definitely groups of people that come from more swimming backgrounds than others, as you pointed out, the Australians.
If you grew up around water on the coast, and the weather is somewhat favorable, then a lot of people at least have a level of confidence in the water, whereas I have a lot of clients from the UK, from India, those sorts of places where the weather’s not all that favorable and access to pools and access to water is difficult to reach. And so those guys tend to come to me with absolutely no experience whatsoever.
And I have kind of a mixed bag of clients that I work with. Those that grew up not going into water at all and are starting from ground zero with their swimming as adults, and then others that swam a little bit when they were kids, and then life got in the way, and now they’ve picked up triathlon meets around as adults, and they sort of have a level of comfort, but don’t understand technique at all and can’t sort of put anything together, and then guys that are on the far end of this spectrum where they are comfortable, do have a fairly good grasp on technique, but are looking to be more and more competitive at the higher end.
So sort of a mixed bag across the spectrum, but there are definitely nationalities that are more prone to being comfortable in the water than those that aren’t.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. I’m very grateful that I got to learn to swim at a younger age. It’s pretty incredible that you picked up competitive swimming at 15, 16 and were able to get to where you did.
It’s a real testament that you don’t necessarily need to learn to swim at four or five years of age to really do well. A lot of the research is saying that you’re better off doing a mix of sports or multiple sports through your sort of early teenage years and childhood and then starting to specialize after that.
And I think that’s a real testament to sort of what you’ve been able to do, just from a coordination perspective. And doing some land-based sports, and both sports, and just really mixing it up, I think it’s really important for young kids to have that experience, because it can help them later on.
And a friend of mine, who’s a coach, Wayne Goldsmith, he says that there’s no champion 10-year-olds. There’s no elite 10-year-olds. And it doesn’t matter how someone swims at that very early age. To me, success in sport, in any sport, is, “Do you want to continue doing that later on in life?” I think so many kids just get worn out from training too hard too early.
Yeah, what was it like for you getting into it at such a late age?
Rory Buck: I think it was a huge advantage, to be honest with you. And, to be quite frank, it’s one of the reasons why I made a switch in 2012 to working with adults exclusively. It wasn’t the kids that I had a hard time working with. It was parents that I had a hard time working with, because there was so much emphasis on trying to push times at such a young age.
And I agree 100% with what Wayne Goldsmith said about it. Phelps is probably the only phenomenon that has gone from being a 10-year-old to going all the way through, but there’s very few others. Everybody else gets burned out.
And I think one of the benefits that I had starting so late is it was almost a case of attrition that I kept going and everybody that I was swimming against started retiring. I started at 15, 16, and there was a drop off at 18 of a whole bunch of guys that stopped, that I was swimming against. And then there was another drop off at 20, 21. And so if you just keep going long enough, yes, you get faster, but everybody else starts to fall away.
I think that there’s so much pressure put on kids, and especially in a sport like swimming, where if you aren’t competitive … Guys are starting to do daily doubles from the age of 13, 12. It’s just such a big time investment that, as a teenager, you lose out on so many other opportunities, and the resentment starts to build up if there isn’t major return on investment.
And I think that return on investment for girls tends to come a little bit earlier, because girls sort of peak in the water a little bit earlier. But that investment for guys, it only sort of comes as you reach your physical maturity, and that doesn’t happen until you get to 18, 19, 20. And so if you burn out in a sport at 16, you’ve lost the opportunity to see actually how good you can be.
So I think I had a major advantage starting at 16. Like you said, I was fortunate enough that I had played rugby, I’d played cricket, I’d played soccer, and I’d done a little bit of running, so I had a general physical preparedness. And then, because I’d grown up around the ocean, I had a level of comfort with the water. And those two things combined with a load of hours spent training and studying the sport set me up for success as I got older.
And I started at 15 and finished when I was 25, which is still a ten year block of work, but done at a later stage than sort of 10 to 20. 15 to 25 is a very different time frame, from a physical maturity perspective, and I think that did me a huge favor.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? You can look at it from someone who starts at, say, six, goes straight till 16, then 15 to 25. And the person who’s going to have the most success, defined as what your results are, what you achieve in the sport, is nearly always going to go to the person who’s gone from 15 to 25, which is quite interesting.
And one of the things that we sort of were just chatting with over email and we were wanting to discuss was the amount of effort that goes into swimming effortlessly. And when I first started coaching, fuck, I think I was 19 at the time. 18 or 19. I started coaching at Melbourne University. I was there for about a year, just coaching twice a week. There was an adult squad.
So I was just fresh into it, had really not much idea with what I was doing, in terms of coaching, but I just couldn’t get why the swimmers there couldn’t just change their technique straightaway and why they were having to work so hard to hit the times that they were doing. I didn’t understand the amount of effort, and concentration, and hard work that goes into swimming fast, and efficiently, and effortlessly. Yeah, being so fresh into coaching, it took me a while to learn it.
And now, what am I, about 11, 12 years into coaching, that I feel like I’ve got a much better understanding of the progress or the learning curve that people need to go through to be able to really change their swimming. And with that understanding, it’s so much easier to work with people.
Is there any clients, any swimmers or triathletes that you’ve worked with over a period of time where you’ve really sort of seen that happen, that come to fruition, where they’ve been maybe a little bit awkward, uncomfortable in the water, and they’ve been able to turn that around?
Rory Buck: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got a few clients. And I think it’s interesting, because with the rise in popularity of triathlon and triathloners, and IRONMAN specifically, it’s sort of become a bucket list item for a lot of people. So I see a lot of people come through who just want to complete the bucket list item of getting through an IRONMAN or a 70.3, and so they don’t always stick it out that long. It’s a year process or a nine-month process to kind of get them ready, and then they move on.
But I have had the privilege of working with a couple of athletes who have higher aspirations of wanting to qualify for Kona or wanting to qualify for 70.3 World Champs who have understood that there is a longer process involved. And I’ve had the opportunity to work with them for three, four, five years, and to watch them come through that sort of circle, that being very awkward, being very uncomfortable in the water, and starting to work through the phases of technique, the phases of training, and really start to get a grasp and understanding of what’s involved in moving themselves forward through the water faster.
And it’s a fun journey to watch, because it’s not similar to pretty much anything else that I’ve seen. It’s not the same way that somebody would move through a progression of running, and certainly not the way that I moved through a progression of running, coming from a swimming background, not the same way that you move through the progression of cycling. It’s a different process.
So I have one lady in particular who came from an ultra running background. She’d done Marathon des Sables, which is one of the hardest off-road running races in the world. I think it’s a six or seven day multi-stage race. It might be five, six, seven days, something like that, through the Sahara Desert. Incredibly difficult race. And she’s podiumed at that, and sort of got bored of the running stuff and wanted to come across to triathlon. And I’ve been working with her for four years.
She started as a … Gosh, we were doing maybe 400 meters in an hour total. And if I had her doing a 200 meter swim, she would be 230, 240. And she’s 54 now, and she’s just broken the two minute per 100 meter mark on her CSS test. So it’s sort of taken her for years.
And she’s not built like a swimmer. She’s probably 5’1″ or 5’2″, so very short, in her mid-50s, as a female. So the raw strength is not there. So it’s been a process of sort of refining. And then she comes from this ultra background where it’s just sort of long and slow as the primary training stimulus that she’s used to.
So there’s been so many things sort of against her, that it’s been fun to watch her go through that process of being very uncomfortable in the water and swimming quite slowly to now being very comfortable in the water, but having to try and find speed, and get uncomfortable, and push the boundaries of what she’s mentally and physically willing to do and used to, to see the progress that she’s seen.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, it’s really about knowing the right thing to work on at the right time. And I think that’s something I’ve gotten a lot better with over the last couple of years. When working with so many different swimmers through the clinics and the camps that we run, and the online membership as well, I think what I’ve sort of seen is that if you just keep it very simple, in terms of what you’re facing in that point in time, it might be one, or two, or three things, getting them to become comfortable with it and competent at it. And that might take a number of weeks or months to really sort of dial that in. And then moving onto the next thing and going from there.
Let’s say, okay, she swims 400 meters in an hour, there’s no point worrying about trying to vary her pace, get her to be able to sprint and swim at an aerobic pace. They’re not the right things to be working on at that point in time. It’s going to be just some very basic technical stuff about balance, and body position, and maybe breathing, just getting her comfortable. And if you can kind of find the right thing to work on at that point in time, then you can really make those improvements like you have.
So what was it, in the very beginning, with her that you worked on, to go with someone who’s probably really struggling in the water and not comfortable in the slightest?
Rory Buck Right. So there’s a framework that I’ll work through with my athletes. And depending on what sort of timeframe we’re working with, we’ll speed up or work through the process at different rates. But the way I see it is, in triathletes, and Leslie in particular who came from the ultra distance running background, they’re aerobically fit. So they come with massive capacity. So why do they struggle with swimming? Well, that obviously comes down to technique. The reason that they can’t translate their aerobic capacity from the running or the riding into the water comes down to missing technique.
So what are the three influences, for me, that sort of dictate your ability to swim with good technique? Well, the first is understanding what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. So that’s where we take video. And you do video analysis. I do video analysis.
So you work with a coach to understand, to just kind of grasp, “What is it that I’m doing with my body in the water,” because our ability to process what we’re doing in the water is absolutely shocking. Our [inaudible 00:19:36] perception is poor. And, until you see it on video, most people have no idea. “So I thought my legs were there. I thought my head was here. And I thought my arms were there. And now I see it on video, and it’s completely different.” So having an understanding of what you’re actually doing in the water, and then some sort of idea of what you should be doing.
So that’s where we started with Leslie, is just giving her an idea of, “Look, this is what you look like in the water. You’re short and scrunchy. Your hips are dropped down. Your head is lifted high.” So just the very basic fundamentals of body position was where we started with.
Then the second piece that goes into it is body awareness or body control. And there’s two parts to that. One is your ability to put your body in the right positions. So do you have the flexibility? And I know this is something that you’ve spoken about from time to time. I think it may even be in the course that you have. If I’m not mistaken, you have a section on flexibility in there.
Because you can know what you’re supposed to do, but if you can’t physically put your body into that position, it’s pointless. So if you lack the flexibility through your shoulders, through your chest, you can know that you’re supposed to keep your elbow at this angle, and know that you’re supposed to extend it in this way, but if you can’t physically put yourself into that position, then you’re knocking your head against a brick wall.
I think that this is where the sort of variations in freestyle come from. So there is no one perfect stroke for everybody, because everybody’s body is different. So depending on your height, your size, your background, your flexibility, those sorts of things, we’re going to [inaudible 00:21:30] vary how we put you into certain positions, but the fact remains that there are fundamental positions that you have to hit in order to move through the water with limited resistance and be able to maximize propulsion.
So whether you are five foot tall or seven foot tall, it doesn’t necessarily matter what type of body you have, there are fundamental principles to minimizing resistance and maximizing propulsion. And we tweak those based on the individual differences.
So for Leslie, who’s a little bit shorter and not as strong, we made adjustments to her stroke rate, to how she kicks, little details that sort of tailor the stroke, if you will, to how she’s swimming. So that’s the second point.
And then the third point is the idea of trust and confidence. And sometimes we have to start with this one, because, again, you can know that when you take a breath, and that’s normally the point in the stroke that everything falls apart at … You can know that when you take a breath, because you’ve seen it on video, your head comes way up out of the water, and you push down with one arm to help support the breath, but if you don’t have the confidence in yourself and the trust to get a breath low to the water, and keep your head down, you can know you’re doing it wrong, but you’re never going to be able to correct the problem. So you have to build the trust or build the confidence in your ability to take a breath low to the water in order to make that adjustment.
And this is where the training piece starts to come in. Our brains have evolved for an environment very different to the water. We are land-based animals. Especially when we learn to swim as adults, we’ve spent decades interacting with a constant supply of air. And now, as a 50-year-old, I put you in the water and go, “You’ve got to utilize your aerobic capacity that you’ve done a fantastic of working with as an ultra runner. You’ve got to somehow utilize that aerobic capacity in an environment with limited oxygen. Off you go.” And it doesn’t exactly just kick in a day.
So building that trust and building that confidence in your body going, “I don’t want to die. I’ve done way too much with my life, at 50, to die swimming now. So I’m not going to allow you to breathe half an inch away from the surface of the water. I need your mouth at least six inches away from the surface of the water. So we’re going to lift up way above. I don’t care what coach is telling you, and I don’t care what you think you should be doing. It’s not safe to breathe here.”
And so we need to develop that confidence in that trust that even if we get a little bit of water in our mouth, even if we are risky with the breath, that things are not going to end here. We can spit the water out. We can cough, and we can choke, and we can keep moving forward.
So those are sort of the processes that we move through. One, identifying what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong, and what we should be doing. Two, making sure that our bodies are capable of doing it, hitting the positions, working through the flexibility, the range of motion. And then, three, making sure that we have the confidence and the trust that we’re not going to kill ourself in hitting those positions and doing the things that we need to do right to move more efficiently through the water.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, you’ve really got to be in the water on a regular basis to be able to do that too. I have a lot of people who sort of apply for our membership, and one of the questions I ask them is, “How many times a week can you get in the water?” And for the swimmers who can only get in once a week, I say to them, “Look, it’s not going to be enough to really get the most out of the coaching.”
So really a minimum, it’s got to be two times a week. Three or more is ideal. And I know people are time pressed. And if you’re in triathlon, you’re going to be training quite a few hours a week, so it is difficult to get to the pool enough to be able to do that. But to become more familiar in that sort of environment, yeah, my rule of thumb is generally three times a week is ideal, but two, you can sort of maintain, depending on what level you’re at, but it’s got to be a regular thing.
And I’ve swum twice now in the past … I think it’s about eight weeks now, because I’ve got an eight-week-old baby. And so it’s just been pretty flat-out in the household at the moment. But I got in yesterday for, well, the second time in, whatever it is, six or seven weeks, and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good at all. And that’s with thousands and thousands and thousands of laps behind me, but as soon as I take much time off, I really, really feel it. And I’ve still been running. I’m still fit, but just that swim fitness is very specific. And, yeah, you can’t get away without really getting in the water. There’s not much that can compensate for it.
Rory Buck: Right. I think there’s two pieces to this, or two parts to this, and it depends on what level you’re at. So for somebody like you, or somebody like me who come from a swimming background, the feel for the water is a very legitimate thing. It’s very hard to sort of define, and it’s very hard to explain.
But the easiest way I think I can explain feel for the water is, we understand very well, as humans, how to interact with gravity and how to interact spatially with objects around us when we are standing up vertically. We’ve had a lot of practice with that. So we understand that very well.
Feel for the water is that same concept, but when you are horizontal and interacting with the aquatic environment. So it’s the ability to understand how your body balances. It’s the ability to find pressure and to feel connection with the water that is going to allow you to increase propulsion. Yeah, your ability to sort of interact with the aquatic environment.
And I think for somebody who comes from a swimming background, or for somebody who is at a level where their technique has got to a point where it’s fairly well-locked-in, and even taking time away from the water is not going to cause their technique as a whole to massively regress, getting back in after you’ve spent time outside of the water is just a matter of reestablishing that feel for the water. And that can come back, if you touch the water again, fairly easily and fairly quickly.
I think a good way to explain it is, if you, or I, or anybody had to get into bed and not get out for a week or two weeks, the first couple of steps we’d take after standing up, when we did get out of bed again, would feel very weird. I don’t know if you’ve ever been sick or had a surgery where you’ve been bed-bound for a period of time, but the first couple of steps that you take after that period feels very strange. It feels very weird. And I think that’s exactly the same experience that you have after not swimming for eight weeks, is going back to that feel thing.
On the other side-
Brenton Ford: Yeah, that’s a good comparison.
Rory Buck: Yeah. I went through surgery in 2006, and I’m actually going to go through exactly the same surgery again next month unfortunately, where that happened where I couldn’t walk. And I was in bed for about 10 days. And the first steps are just very weird.
Then the other side of that is for swimmers, or for people who are new to swimming and new to the water, especially when we’re talking about adults, and I think this directly relates to the confidence and the trust issue, because our brains have evolved for something so different to the water, we have to constantly and consistently expose ourselves to the water in order to gain a new level of confidence and a new level of trust.
And the best analogy I can kind of think of to explain this well is, when you’re learning a new skill, or if I gave you the task of learning a presentation or learning a talk, the best situation or the best setup that you can put yourself into is place yourself physically in a place where there’s no distractions. Kind of cut out all noise, cut out all distractions completely, so that you can focus exclusively on the thing that you need to learn.
And I guess that’s why libraries are created as quiet zones, because they’re supposed to be conducive to studying. That’s why when I sit down to work, I’ll put in headphones with noise cancellation so nothing else is distracting me.
I think when you get into the water, you have the same task of learning something, but your mind is distracted by a thousand different things, most of which threaten your survival. So your brain’s primary responsibility is to look after your well-being and your survival.
If you put yourself in an environment where you can’t breathe as a beginner, and you say, “Hey, you need to concentrate on your kick, or you need to concentrate on your catch, or you need to concentrate on this position or that position,” your brain goes, “Bro, I don’t care. I need air. I really don’t care about how I’m supposed to be kicking right now. Get me to the other side. You won’t get me to the next breath.” And when it’s preoccupied by those thoughts, it becomes very difficult to focus on the technical aspects of what we’re supposed to be learning to improve our technique.
And when we don’t hit the water consistently and we’re not touching the water, like you said, two, three times a week or every 36, 48 hours, our brains forget that it’s okay to be in that environment. They don’t get comfortable with being in the aquatic environment. They forget about what it’s like. And so each time you go back in again after a week out of the water, you have to go through this re-acclimatizing to the water. You have to go through the process of your brain not seeing it as so much of a threat anymore. You have to re-normalize it in order to then be able to focus on the technique.
So it’s like you sort of forget what you’re supposed to be doing technique-wise, but you’re also more preoccupied with your own survival and just getting in that next breath that it becomes very difficult to build on what you learned last time. Whereas, if you are in the water consistently every 48 hours or so, the level of normal kind of gets set, and so your brain spends less time preoccupied by survival and can allocate more resources to learning the technical aspects of the stroke that you’re supposed to be focusing on.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, it’s like public speaking, where the first time that you do it or the first couple of times that you do it, it almost feels like a matter of survival. It’s just like the nerves hit. “Everyone’s looking at me. I’m trying to think about what I’m saying. How do I look? Am I stumbling over my words?”
And actually a good comparison is the first couple of podcasts that I did. This was, oh, look, I think it was probably 2012, 2013. And you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back and listen to those initial podcasts that I recorded, because I would just … Yeah, I have to listen to them again, but I know that they were just so bad that there’s just no … Yeah, I was just nervous about everything. But now it’s just easy. It just happens.
Rory Buck: It’s a conversation.
Brenton Ford: It’s a conversation. Yeah, but before, I was interviewing people. There was no sort of conversation at all. I wouldn’t chip in with anything. It was almost like I could’ve been a journalist and writing an article for a newspaper. I was just putting questions to people and they answered, but there was no back-and-forth.
Yeah, it’s like any skill where the first time that you do it or first couple of times, you’re not going to be able to get into any sort of flow. You’re not going to be able to relax with it at all. Yeah, it really takes a while to get to the sort of competence to be able to relax while you’re doing it.
But particularly for swimming, if you’re in that sort of flight mode and you’re not able to just relax, it makes anything else almost impossible to do, if you’re in panic mode. And that-
Rory Buck: To learn, yeah. Yeah. And I think that the breathing thing in particular is the biggest hurdle. And one of the tools that I utilized quite a lot early-on is a snorkel, just because it takes that need to breathe out of the equation. If we can learn to breathe through the snorkel, because we’ve got continuous access to the air, it quietens down that flight mode, as you called it. I like that. It sort of shuts that voice down and allows us to focus on elements of the stroke that we need to be working on.
But, yeah, you’re spot-on, on relating it to public speaking. It’s exactly the same. I think it’s my number one message that I pushed through to people, both on my sites and my writing, and with the clients that I work with one-on-one, is that this is just a skill. It’s a difficult skill to learn, but it’s just a skill, in the same way that public speaking is a skill, in the same way that anything is a skill. It can be mastered. And there are certain genetic predispositions that you can have that can make you better at it.
But to be completely brute and honest, the level of swimming in triathlon is not particularly high, if you compare it to actual specialist swimmers. And I see no reason why any triathlete cannot swim at sort of 50% of the pack or upper half of the pack in any race, because if they focus their attention and focus their efforts on the right things at the right time, it’s not a mythical thing that’s only bestowed upon certain people. It’s a skill. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get at it. And particularly in triathlon, you don’t have to get to an elite level to be competitive. So anyone can master it.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, I’d agree with that too, and particularly if you can also have good open water swimming skills alongside that, that can also overcome shortcomings in your stroke too. So even just being half decent at drafting, swimming straight, boy, you can save some time with that.
I did a race. When was it? I think it was April. As a team, it was a half IRONMAN event here in Melbourne. So it was a 1.9 kilometer swim. I think I swam about an extra 90 or so meters. And I kind of had to go around people, because we were the last pack. So there was probably a couple of hundred swimmers in before me. So I kept a pretty good line, except for having to go around some people.
And I had a look, just on STRIVR, some of the different files of the people that I follow there, and there was people who were doing 2100, 2200 meters. And if you’re swimming two minutes per 100, that’s four, five, six minutes that you’ve added on top-
Rory Buck: Six minutes, yeah.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. For no extra effort whatsoever, you could be swimming six minutes quicker, just by being able to sight well, and swim straight, and follow the right line. And that’s just one of the skills that you’ve got in open water. So there’s a lot of opportunities available there for swimmers, where they can swim faster without just working on their technique.
And that’s what I love about open water swimming too. I hated it. I think I was 15 or 16 when I first did it. I got beaten by a friend of mine who I’d always beat in the pool, but he beat me in the open water because I didn’t pace it right. I went out too hard. I didn’t know how to sight, draft, anything like that. And he beat me. And I think I did that swim one more time. And then I didn’t swim again in open water until I was 19 or 20, I think it was.
And now I really love it because of the strategy involved. And it’s not just you in the lane swimming up and down. There are so many different factors that are involved. And it’s a lot of fun, especially if you love a little bit of sort of crash and bash and being able to sort of strategizing in the race. I really enjoy it.
Rory Buck: Yeah. I agree with you. My personal feelings on it is slightly different. I don’t particularly enjoy open water. It’s part of the deal of triathlon. It’s one of the skills that I’ve had to learn to master and learn to get better at, but it’s not a controlled environment, and as an A type personality, I much prefer the controlled environments. But it’s something that you accept as part of the sport.
But I think, yeah, the confidence piece comes in again here, like you said, if you enjoy the sort of crash and bash, the washing machine affect. If your brain is preoccupied by survival, you cannot execute a race strategy, no matter how good that strategy might be.
You may have the perfect take up speed, you may have your ability to dial it in to your actual race pace after a good short sort of burst, you may have the ability to take the gap, you may have all the skills and fitness that you need, but if you’re not confident in the open water, and you’re not confident in having people all around you, those skills, that strategy all goes out the window and your brain goes, “Just get me through this. Just get me through this.” So, yeah, I’m 100% with that.
And I think sighting in particular, as you pointed out, it may not sound like a lot of extra distance to go either an extra 100 meters or an extra 200 meters, but like you say, if you’re swimming at two minutes per 100, that’s a four-minute difference. And if you’re a good runner, that’s like running 22 Ks at the end, which no one’s going to want to do an extra K at the end of the race. So it does make a massive difference in that, with just learning to sight sufficiently.
And that’s something I work on with my guys in the pool ad nauseam is just learning how to sight without having a major impact to body position, to body line, without increasing efforts, and seeing how close we can get doing 100s.
If we’re doing 100s, for example, let’s do 100s without sighting, and then let’s throw in a sighting stroke on the odd lengths, sighting four, five, six times. And what’s the difference in our pace between the two? How much slower are we with the sighting strokes? Can we get them to a point where we’re just as efficient at sighting as we are not sighting, so that when we get out into the open water, if we need to sight every four strokes, every six strokes, it’s not having a major impact on how fast we’re swimming? Because I’d rather have you sight every four and swim 1900 meters, than sight every 12 or 13, swim faster, but have to go 2100 or 2200 because you’re not holding a good line.
Brenton Ford: That’s good. I’m going to have to borrow that one from you. I like that as a way to just sort of compare if you can sight without changing your rhythm, and your timing, and your body position. It’s a good way to track it. And I would say that I think probably 80% of the people that I come across aren’t sighting correctly. And just from my own experience, I know that, yeah, you mention sighting to people and they go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Like, “Yeah, I sight.” And it’s like, “Yeah, I pull through the water. Yeah, I do that.”
But most people I don’t think are doing it in the most effective way possible. Because you might see the same thing where they’ll breathe and then sight, so turn their head to the side and then lift their head up, and look forwards, and then sight that way.
And it can work for some people. I’ve seen some very good swimmers who do use it, but nearly everyone else it’s sight and breathe. It’s just to be able to kind of look up, crocodile eyes, turn their head to the side on the next stroke. And that’s a way where your body position’s not impacted. It’s very sort of fluent in terms of your normal rhythm of the stroke. And you can sight even every two or four strokes if you need to that way without really affecting your speed.
And I’ve found that, if you’re specializing in that, if you’re really focused on it, all it takes is a good sort of half hour spent on it to really get that dialed-in and working well, but it can save you so much time in the open water, if you’re not already doing it.
Rory Buck: Right, 100%. Yeah, I appreciate what you say there. “Yeah, sighting. Yeah, I can do that.” And they sort of just go tick the box, “Yep, I can do that.” And then you get down into the details and take a look at it and realize how inefficient oftentimes it is. And the reason for that, for the most part, is because they watched a YouTube video once and go, “Yep, okay, I can copy that.” And they’ve gone off and just copied it, not actually going through a process of learning how to do it efficiently.
So, yeah, I work between the sight and breathe method, like you’ve just talked about, and I also work a lot with my guys on just sighting. So straight up, straight down, and then sight, and then breathing on the next stroke cycle. It takes a little bit more oxygen, but the body line tends to stay a lot better. I also find that with a lot of my guys changing to that just straight up, straight down method, that they’re able to lock into the point that they’re aiming for a lot more effectively.
So what I found personally with the sight and breathe method is that I would lift up once, and then when I turned my head, in my mind’s eye, the target would shift slightly because of the immediate movements of my head, if that makes sense. So I’m lifting up, and then I’m breathing to the left. So I’d lift up and turn to the left. And as my head turns, the exact point that I’m shooting for has now shifted slightly to the left as I go for my breath. And so I’d have to repeat that two or three times to get a good idea of where exactly I’m locked into.
Whereas, if I go sight and sight, so I’ll just lift up, crocodile eyes, and then straight back down, and then turn the head. Because I’m going straight up and straight down, in my mind’s eye, I have a much better idea of the direction that I’m going into. It doesn’t get distorted or distracted. I’m not distracted by the turn of the head.
So I’ll work with the sight and breathe or with that straight up, straight down method. And for some people, the straight up, straight down tends to be more effective and efficient. And, for some, the sight and breathe. It just depends on a number of variables: whether you wear glasses, how good your eyes are, all of those sort of factors come into play on which one will work most effectively for you.
In the same way that we have a variation of stroke rates, some people have much higher stroke rates, some people a much lower stroke rate, depends on your body, I find that sighting is very similar. And as long as we, like I said earlier, sort of test swimming 100s where we don’t sight, and 100s where we do sights, as long as we’re managing that drop-off or that margin, the actual method that we use can vary as long as we’re adhering to the fundamental principles of resistance and getting the sights in, which is the most important. When you lift your eyes, if you don’t spot your target, it’s an absolute waste.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, that’s it. And just sighting and then going back down, like you said, you might need to do that two or three times to actually see where the next buoy is, because there can be sun in the way, there can be swimmers, there can be chopping waves. So if you can just do it fast, go straight back down, that’s a really good way to make sure that you are swimming straight.
And it’s very hard to really get good at those open water skills without going in open water. You can certainly improve them and get them to a point, but just to be able to race well in open water, at least from my experience, it’s really just been a matter of doing more and more open water swims, and races, and training sessions with people to get good at them. And it can be hard for swimmers, depending on where they’re based, but like any skill, the more you practice it in the actual situation and scenario-
Rory Buck:Environments, yeah.
Brenton Ford: yeah, in the environment, it makes a big, big difference, too, to how well you can do it.
Rory Buck: Right. I think that’s spot-on. I often encourage my guys to do what you did, where you’d joined up in a relay team, if it doesn’t fit your training program to do a full race, whether it’s a sprints Olympic or a 70.3. But if you have the opportunity to go and join, as a relay team, and you just do the swim portion and work on that skill without impacting your training for your A race, or whatever you have coming up later in the season, it gives you the opportunity to get the experience or the exposure in, by still getting the swim done, and then if there are any swim-specific open water races, to go and do them.
I’m not sure how they work in Australia, but we often have sort of the festivals, where you’ll have a 400, an 800, a 1500. We don’t have any 5Ks yet, but those are all three different events, and they don’t run them at the same time. So you could go and do a 400 meter open water swim race, and then an hour later do the 800, and then an hour later do the 1500, and just give yourself exposure to racing in the open water.
So by doing relays as part of a triathlon team, or getting involved in actual open water races, just giving yourself that experience of having people all around you, a mass start, learning how to turn, learning how to sight, in the pressure situation, is invaluable.
Brenton Ford: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve got someone who’s just become a member. He’s a triathlete, very, very solid black guy, very solid runner. And his swim is getting now … I think he’s down to about, I think, just under the hour for an IRONMAN swim, maybe just above it. But he’s been putting in big, big Ks over the last couple of months. And I think he’s up around 40Ks for a few weeks, plus all the other legs as well.
And he’s really improved his swimming, but now I think it’s just the technical stuff and the open water skills that are just slowing him down now. So he’s sort of done the work that he needs in terms of getting in the pool regularly, but now he’s missing those two things.
And one of the things I’m going to suggest to him over the sort of warmer months as there starts to be more open water swims is just go down and enter a few of those swims that you’ve got up around you, because there’s a ton up where he is, and you’ll learn a lot more about swimming open water when you’re amongst, I guess, better quality swimmers in just that leg than you will in just doing it, yeah, in a triathlon. So it’s a really good way to do it.
And in New Zealand there’s the Epic Swim, which is in Lake Taupo. So there’s a 2.5, a 5K, and a 10K swim. And the same thing there, not held all at the same time. So there’s people who, they call it the epic Epic, which is they do all of those swims-
Rory Buck: All of them.
Brenton Ford: yeah, within the day. So it’s 17.5K. Not a whole lot of people do it, but there are people who are training for the Cook Strait Crossing, Lake Taupo Crossing, and a number of things like that. So, yeah, they just make the most of the event being put on. So they just do a lazy 17.5K in the day.
Rory Buck: Right. Yeah, it’s good exposure. I think, to sort of hop onto the client that’s joined your membership program, and something that’s a pet peeve of mine, and I see it happen so often with guys at that level and guys at all levels, is watching triathletes or working with triathletes for a period of six months, nine months, a year, and seeing the effort that goes into progressing, and getting faster, and shaving off the minutes from their swim time, and then watching them get to their A race. Because my focus is swimming for triathlon, I pay attention to not just what happens in the swim.
Here’s an example. I had a lady who raced a 70.3 South Africa in January. And this lady grinded hard. She came from no swimming background whatsoever. This was her first 70.3. And she really worked hard to get down to the time that she did for about eight months, and then she took four and a half minutes in transition. And I said to Amy, “What the heck were you doing? Were you blow drying your hair before you got on the bike?” And she said, “No, it was just something that I didn’t think about, that I didn’t practice.”
And it’s a pet peeve of mine to watch guys really grind hard for a long time, because progress in the swim doesn’t always come easy. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of intensity. And then to throw those four minutes, that you’ve spent the last six, seven months working for, away in a slow transition is just a painful thing to have to sit and watch. You’d have saved yourself a hell of a lot of time, and effort, and energy by just swimming four and a half minutes slower and going through transition faster.
So it’s the little details of how we put a full race together. But, yeah, when you said the skills that your new guy that’s joined your membership program is coming to work on is open water, it’s definitely something to work on. It’s also those little details that come after that, that make a big difference, and how you attack transition is a factor.
Brenton Ford: Yeah, absolutely. I had a very similar story actually. I was running some clinics up in North Queensland, and one of the ladies who came along, she had just IRONMAN Cannes, the full-distance IRONMAN event. She missed out on a [kiner 00:55:28] spot by one placing, and it was 20 seconds. Well, she obviously was there to get faster in her swim, but she was looking at her transition times. And I think it was T1 where she took something similar. She took, yeah, four or five minutes. Everyone else was at least sort of a minute or two quicker. And she looks back at that and goes, “What was I thinking?” And she really wanted this kiner spot.
So, yeah, hindsight’s a wonderful thing. And in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to be thinking of everything, but when you look back at it and you analyze, you go, “All right, next time that’s not happening. I’m getting out of that transition quickly.” And even in a race that might take you nine or 10 hours, those seconds can matter. And you want to look at everything that you’re doing and analyzing and seeing where you can get better.
Rory Buck: Right. Absolutely. And it’s all relative to the goals. But there are easier ways to cut four minutes from your swim time in a 70.3 than grinding out hard for nine months, if you can get those transition times down. Yeah, again, we’re looking at the whole big picture.
And I think this is something, coming back to training and effort like we were talking about earlier, how you go onto the bike, how you come out of the water and go onto the bike dictates a lot about how your whole race sort of plays out and it goes. If you come out of the water in a place where you feel, “That is where I should’ve come out,” or sort of, “My swim was a good swim,” the mindset that you carry onto the bike is very different to when you come out of the water behind where you thought you should have been.
And there’s a lot of psychology, that I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about and talking with my athletes on, about kind of how you manage yourself coming out of the water and getting onto the bike. Because in the controlled environment of the pool, it’s always 25 meters are always 50 meters that you’re swimming, the water temperature’s always the same, we’ve got the lane lines in, so the environment is very controlled, and the time that you swim generally tends to reflect the efforts that you’ve put in, the fitness level that you’re at, and the technique that you’re holding.
That isn’t always true in the open water. And you can have races in the open water where everybody is slower, for whatever reason. Currents, conditions, temperature, whatever. But you aren’t always aware of that in the moment. And you only learn that after the fact, when you get out and can analyze it later.
I raced 70.3 Colombo in February this year. It was an out and back course, and I was holding 107 per 100s, according to my Garmin, looking after the fact. So I was holding 107s per 100 on the way out, and 133s on the way back. But you don’t know that. I could feel that there was a current on the way back, but you don’t know exactly what the effect is.
And you come out of the water and you look at your watch, and if it’s not in the range of what you sort of had in mind, part of your plan, the way you get onto your bike and sort of the way you hit that first 30K on the bike, or that first piece of the bike can be heavily influenced by the time that you came out of the water.
There’s a fun psychology piece that I really enjoy working with my athletes on. You can have a great plan, but that plan may change, depending on what happens on race day. And you won’t actually know until after the fact. So how do you deal with that mentally?
Brenton Ford: Yeah. That’s something that Grant Giles, who’s a triathlon coach I’ve had on the podcast a few times … He was talking about something similar, just about being able to adapt in the moment and on race days. And one of the things he said was, “If you find your nutrition plan, but your guts isn’t agreeing with you and you’re on the edge of needing to throw up because the gels aren’t sitting well, there’s no point downing another gel if it’s just going to make that feeling even worse. It’s okay to adjust what you’re doing. And you want to be able to prepare for that in training.”
So let’s say in a few runs you might not take any fuel with you, and you might get to the point where you bonk, where you hit food flat. Just kind of going through all those situations in training so that you know that you’ve been through them, once you’re in race day.
And kind of on the sort of mindset mentality, too, people will come to clinics sometimes and they’ll say, “Look, I’m not a good swimmer,” or just, “I suck at swimming.” And one of the first things that I sort of want to say to that is, “Stop telling yourself that. That’s a very hard hurdle to get over without having to go through a long period of time of just seeing that gradual improvement. So the best thing you can do initially is just to change your mindset. It might be, ‘I’m getting faster in my swimming.’ Just something along those lines, but what you tell yourself in your own head can really impact your progression and how you think about the sport.”
Rory Buck: You got a chill up my spine, because what you just said hits the nail on the head so hard. I think anyone that’s had a level of success in any area, whether it’s sports, or their profession, or whatever, if you’ve reached a pinnacle, or kind of broken through to a top-tier, a majority of those people will tell you that there was a level of delusion involved, that their ability to believe that they were better than they were or could be better than they are existed.
And I think that that’s something that I identify with. So I got the chill up my spine, because I identify with it so much. As a 16-year-old, to have the balls and the audacity to say, “I want to be world-class,” or “I want to make an Olympic team,” when I started that late, there would be no way that I would’ve gone on to reach the level that I had reached had I not had that delusional belief that it was possible.
And if you approach your swimming in a way that, “I suck at swimming,” or “I am a terrible swimmer,” you will never reach the level that you aspire to reach, until you change that mindset. So that thinking process now doesn’t have to be a process of, “I will be the best triathlon swimmer or the best swimmer that ever walked this planet,” but changing that mindset of, “I can do this. It is just a skill,” is definitely the first step that you have to take to improving it. Without that mindset change, you will just bang your head against the wall over and over and over again, and you’ll reinforce the belief that you are not a good swimmer or that you suck at swimming.
And I’ve changed it now, but that was actually the message that I sent to anybody that had signed up for my newsletter. The first one that went out for my website was, “Change the way you think, because until that happens, I can’t help you. I can Band-Aid things and kind of give you all the tips and tricks in the book that you want to hear, but if you continue to reinforce the message that you suck, that this is too difficult and that you’ll never get good at it, it doesn’t matter. You could have the best program in the world, you could have the best coach telling you what you’re doing, but if you don’t believe it, we’re going nowhere.”
So I think, yeah, you nailed that one on the head right there.
Brenton Ford: I just had Angela Naeth on the podcast, who’s a professional triathlete, and that was episode 118. And she kind of said a very similar thing. At the pointy end, at that very elite level, most of those guys are doing very similar types of training, and they’re all very similar in terms of their fitness and ability.
But especially when it comes to Kona, the World Champs and that sort of thing, a lot of the time the guys who are hitting the podium, they’re the ones who are the strongest mentally and have got the best … I sort of call it the tape that your mind plays on a 15 minute loop. They’ve got that really working for themselves, because when it comes to the crunch, the last 10, 15Ks of the run at Kona, where you’ve probably got nothing left, the difference is physically probably very little between you and the person next to you, but it’s how you think about it that will get you through to the end.
And there’s a lot more that we can talk about, and I’d like to get you back on the podcast in the future, because we’ve sort of got a few things that we’ve wrote down that we want to talk about, and we’ve only just touched the surface, so I’ll definitely get you back on the podcast.
So I appreciate you being a guest. And for the people listening, where can they find you? And what are your sort of social media handles and so on?
Rory Buck: Yeah, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you, Brenton. I appreciate you having me on. Thank you.
You can find me at ICanSwimFast.com. That is my website. ICanSwimFast.com.
Brenton Ford: Talk about positive thoughts, eh?
Rory Buck: Nailed it on the head. Yeah, that’s exactly where that title came from.
So I’ve got a Fundamentals of Triathlon Swimming Guide that’s up there for free, and that kind of touches base on all the fundamental principles of triathlon swimming. So that’s ICanSwimFast.com/Fundamentals. And I’ve actually been in hibernation and writing mode for the last two and a half months.
And I’ve got a couple of other things that I’m about to release out on there. So ICanSwimFast.com is where you can find all of that.
And then I am most active on Instagram, which is ICSwimFast@ICSwimFast. And I’ll post up stuff on there on a weekly basis. So those are the two places that you can find me.
And then if you’re in Dubai, send me an email. And it’s [email protected]. And I’d be more than happy to find a spot for you in a squad or in a small group.
Brenton Ford: Awesome. And maybe the next podcast, although it’ll have to be next time you’re in South Africa because they don’t allow Skype unfortunately. So we might need to find a workaround or just do the long-distance call thing and just save up for a month and do that.
Brenton Ford: But it was great to have you on the podcast. And, yeah, I’ve enjoyed talking about these topics. And I think we’ve got very similar backgrounds, and we’re sort of going through a very similar time in the moment with coaching, but I think there’s still some things that each coach is sort of nuanced at and they have different approaches. And I really enjoyed seeing what other coaches’ approaches are. And there’s always things to learn, and I certainly took away a lot from today.
So, Rory, I appreciate it, and I’ll talk you soon.
Rory Buck: Thanks very much, Brenton. Shout to you soon.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Effortless Swimming Podcast. If you’d like us to help you become a faster, more efficient swimmer, go to effortlessswimming.com.