A number of years ago I read about an idea that the Sky Pro Cycling team working under Dave Brailsford used as part of their strategy to become the best cycling team in the world. They called it marginal gains.
I started to ask myself “what if” questions like; If training 10 hours a week for 6 months would allow me do a good Ironman time? What if I could fit in 15 hours? What if I got a coach? What if I applied all the “what if’s” I could think of to every aspect of my training and preparation. How much could I improve?
After my first time racing Kona (finishing might be a better description of my first attempt) I started to wonder; What if I got as fast as I could, could I improve enough to win my age group in my next Ironman?” I had heard of the idea of marginal gains and thought I could apply it. So I made lists of all the things I could do to improve each area. To start I listed every single thing I could think of no matter how small, hard to do or regardless of the expense. At this stage I’m not worrying about whether any of these are possible or not, only if they might benefit me. For the swim the list looked something like this.
- Swim with a masters group or with a club that was faster than me every week.
- Work with a one on one technique coach every week.
- Increase my swim frequency.
- Increase my overall volume. I talk more about the incredible effect volume had on me here
- Improve my flexibility and range of motion, particularly my shoulders were very tight and inflexible so restricted my range of motion and my ability to improve my stroke.
- Swim with paddles & pull buoy to improve strength.
- Get weekly massage to help with flexibility
- Work with a strength and conditioning coach to improve swim specific strength.
- Do drills at the start and end of each session to reinforce good technique
- Test wetsuits to find the best one for me.
- Include regular open water swims.
- Practice open water drafting, swimming on feet and hips of better swimmers
- Include more over-distance swims
- Don’t get into the water without a plan
- Include fast (a very relative term when relating to my swimming) intervals
- Get video analysis done. This is beneficial so I could see what the coach saw os opposed to just having my own mental picture that had developed in which I thought when I swam I looked like Michael Phelps. I couldn’t quite figure out why if I swam so much like him in my imagination I was so much slower in reality. The video soon answered that question.
- Include regular “test” sets to measure progress.
- Learn to breath bi-laterally
- Practice sighting every week. Swimming straight is probably the quickest way to a faster swim split, adding just 200mt over an Ironman swim would add almost 3 1/2 minutes to my time which was over 50% of the gain I needed.
- Get comfortable swimming in a crowd. A critical skill for Ironman but so often overlooked by us age groupers and even by Professional triathletes. Luke Mc Kenzie who finished 2nd in Kona in 2013 and has raced almost 40 Ironmans tells the story of neglecting this skill and of being scared of the swim in an interview on the FatBlack podcast (an excellent training and information resource) This despite the fact that he grew up a swimmer and would consider it a strength.
I obviously couldn’t implement all of these all of the time but I started with the “low hanging fruit” First I picked the easiest ones to implement, then I started on the ones I thought would be more difficult but would provide the biggest gains. I knew some of these would provide big improvements, particularly swimming more often and for longer. The others all incrementally helped too. Also it’s worth reiterating that just because it’s on the list doesn’t mean did it. I started with a list of all of the things I thought would help and first picked the ones that were easiest to implement then moved onto the more difficult ones but that offered the biggest gains. Then I started working my way through as many of the others as possible, discarding the ones I thought would take too much time for the return they offered.
Depending on your budget and available time I think even just picking the “low hanging fruit” can give big gains and it’s always a very useful exercise to look at not only your overall weaknesses or limiter but where are you weak in each sport. For too many of us the temptation is to focus on our strongest sport as we enjoy and are good at it. It’s more difficult to address our weakness and do more of what we might not enjoy.
I have written a report on what six of the most successful Irish Ironman athletes do that differentiates them from most other athletes. With 29 Kona slots and over 80 Ironman finishes, Irish records and national titles you will love what they have to say. You can download it free here or at the box on the right hand side of the blog.
If you made it this far thanks for reading. Feel free to check out more posts like this one with 10 Qualities Needed To Qualify for Kona and follow my blog by clicking on the “follow” tab for updates whenever I post a new training article.
This is a little bit about me and how I got into triathlon and you can check out the TriCoach.ie FB page here