Swimming Update

I started trying to swim fast in early 2010. At that time I didn’t really have any concept of what FAST actually was. My first exposure to swim speeds came when I downloaded the Ironman World Championship results from 2009. There I saw that the winner of the race- Craig Alexander- had swam 50:57 for the 3800m swim. With a quick calculation I found that that was about 1:20/100m. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time though as I was swimming at a Goodlife Fitness pool, which was about 18 meters long, and lacked a pace clock.

A few months passed and eventually I started swimming at a 25 meter pool with a pace clock. In one of my first swims there I swam 100 meters, all out, as fast as I could go- my fingertips were pulsating, my head felt like it was going to explode off of my shoulders. I swam about 1:40 for the hundred. For hard, continuous intervals, I would swim about 2:00/100m. I couldn’t believe or fathom that anyone could swim 1:20 for even a single hundred meters, let alone continuously for 3800m. Not long after this, I watched a Youtube video that showed (I can’t quite remember who exactly) Chris Lieto and Craig Alexander swimming 20x100m on 1:20. I found this to be absolutely mind boggling. From that day onwards, the Holy Grail of swimming became the 1:20 hundred.

Not too long after all of this I started to get acquainted with actual swim distances. I found that the longest contested distance in the pool was the 1500m. This is where I got the idea that the ultimate swimming feat would be to hold 1:20/100m for an entire 1500m swim. At that time, this seemed like it would NEVER be something I could achieve. I tucked that dream into the back of my head, and put my nose to the grindstone for several years.

In 2013 achieving this goal started to become a bit more believable. At this time I was starting to be able to hold 1:30/100m continuously, and if I swam hard, I was able to swim right around the 1:20 mark, for a single hundred. I would attribute a great deal of this improvement to “time in the water.” Holding 1:20s for 1500m though still seemed like a pretty lofty goal. I was swimming SO hard to swim a 1:20, I just couldn’t imagine doing it 15 times in a row, without a break.

At the end of 2014 I felt as if I had reached the ceiling of my “old stroke.” Two weeks prior to 70.3 Worlds I did a 1500m time trial. I put on my Nineteen Swim Skin and swam as hard as I possibly could. I swam 20:36. So close, but so far from the Holy Grail. That was all of the effort I had. There was no way I could squeeze out another 36 seconds, at least not by exerting more effort. This left me very disenchanted with swimming. Something needed to change.

I moved back to my hometown of Windsor at the end of November 2014 and started swimming with the Windsor Aquatic Club. In early 2015 I started swimming with Mike Mcwha. I wrote about that experience in a previous blog post. The gist of what he said to me is that I was taking too many strokes to get across the pool. At that time I was taking an average of 22-25 strokes to get across the 25 meter pool. 22 when fresh and swimming easy. 25 when tired or swimming hard. He said that this was unacceptable. He told me I was allowed to take 18 strokes max, from now on. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Long story short, I had to reinvent my stroke in order to be able to come close to 18 strokes per 25 meters.

After several weeks of practice I began grooving the new stroke. I found myself starting to get close to the 1:20 mark for one hundred meters, and it was taking noticeably less effort than it had in the past. The dream of achieving the Holy Grail was reignited. The biggest difference this time round, was that I somewhat started to believe that I could do it. A few more weeks went by, and I started to groove the stroke even more. When swimming hard, I was able to go 1:15 for one hundred meters on a 1:35/100m pace time. I decided that the time had come to swim a time trial and see if the Holy Grail could now be achieved.

Today, I put on my Nineteen Swim Skin a second time and started the time trial from a push off- just as I had done in my time trial two weeks prior to 70.3 Worlds. I went through the first 400m in 5:15…I was on pace. The next marker would be the 800m. I went through in 10:34. Still on pace. I didn’t let myself think about achieving the goal. I focused on staying relaxed and taking as few strokes as possible. The next check point was 1200m. I went through in 15:52. I started to smile inside a bit at this point. I knew that the Holy Grail would be achieved this day. I touched the wall at the end and the clock read 19:50. What was once unfathomable, had just been accomplished. It was an amazing experience. I looked over at my mom swimming backstroke in the lane next to me and thought “hurry up!” I wanted to tell her so bad that the dream had been achieved.

Some might read this and chuckle a little. I am very aware- almost hyper aware- that 19:50 for 1500m is still a very pedestrian time- even by triathlon standards. That is fine. You must swim 19:50 before you swim 18:50. The point of this post is that what once seemed UNFATHOMABLE can be made a reality- through HARD WORK, DETERMINATION, and PERSEVERANCE. This accomplishment goes out to all the people who are frustrated by swimming. Hopefully this can be some motivation for you.

Huge thanks to all the coaches who’ve offered insight over the last four years. As well, huge thanks to Nineteen wetsuits for supporting me with top of the line equipment, despite being a weaker swimmer. Your support is much appreciated.

Nineteen Swim Skin

11 thoughts on “Swimming Update

  1. You are an inspiration to much more people than you can imagine.
    Thank you for sharing this. Indeed anything can be achieve if you have the burning desire of doing it. I am very happy for you and very proud. See, as your technique improves, the effort you put into the distance will be less and less. It won’t be long when you will be able to hold the 1:20 for as long as you want including the 3800 and when that happens… God knows how far ahead you will be from your competitors.

  2. Thanks so much for the inspiration Lionel. I’ll be reading this on those days when I just don’t want to get changed to go in the pool, especially on these -20 degree days. I’m very happy for you. You rock!!


  3. Keep your eye on the ball. You don’t need to swim with the leaders. But if you can be anywhere close, you can CONTROL the race. That’s what champions do, they take control and win it. Good luck! Swim improvements are very, very hard.

  4. Congrats – so inspiring to see such a goal being met!
    But what was it about your stroke that you changed to be able to get the count per length down to 18?

    • The biggest thing I did was slow the stroke rate down. This allowed me to catch the water further out and then finish the stroke off at the back. My natural tendency was to spin my arms as fast as I can, and in order to do this I would tense up every muscle in my body, and shorten the stroke at both the front and back end. Over time I have been working on increasing the stroke rate with the now longer stroke. If you hold the stroke count constant at say 18 strokes, but then increase the turnover, the end result is a faster swim time. The trick is to continue to decrease the stroke count, while increasing the turnover. A lot easier said than done.

  5. You are awesome man.
    I have been infected with the triathlon bug recently (about a little over a year ago now) and have been training since. I didn’t even know how to swim when I started last year, and it was a frustrating experience learning. My recent time trial after swimming a 100m after busting my butt in a hard interval workout at about 1:48, (which still is bad by a good swimmers standard, but from where I started, its gold to me).

    Hitting a 1min 40 100m and then reading an article by a world class athlete writing his struggle with 1min 40 per 100m is inspiring to say the least. I can appreciate how much hard work you must of put into it to get where you are now, good on you man.

    And thanks for dedicating it out to us, appreciated ;).

  6. Awesome progress Lionel! Just wondering what advice/instructions your swim coach has been giving you on your kick. There seems to be a lot of debate whether a good strong kick is important for triathletes. Do you work on the kick for propulsion or simply to maintain good body position in the water?

    • I’m no expert, but I’d say to develop a strong kick, there is no sense in not doing so. I think any top tier Triathlete (natural swimmer or not) will be performing lots of hard kick sets.

    • This is a question I’m definitely curious to answer. In order to take less strokes I’ve definitely began to kick more. Not massively harder, just more consistently and fluidly. I’m finding this really helps to put the whole stroke together, to function as a single unit. I would say the kick mostly helps with my body position, though it would be interesting to see if a stronger kick could help your propulsion significantly, without taking away from your biking or running. Definitely something to think about and tinker with. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer at this moment.

  7. Dude, our swimming trajectories sound oddly similar. This gives me faith.

    Keep up the stellar work. I’m excited to see what 2015 has in store for you

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