Dr. Dan Interview 3: Swimming
Dr. Dan Plews is a world class endurance sports scientist and coach. He’s one of our founders and leading minds behind the TRIQ app and also happens to be the IRONMAN® Kona age-group course record holder. In our 6-interview series we will try to ask him as much as possible about the triathlon sports, his personal journey and the science that allows the TRIQ app to plan triathlon training in a truly dynamic way.
It seems like for you and many other triathletes swimming isn’t the favorite of the three triathlon sports. Generally and for you personally, why is that?
I personally just find it really hard to get faster. There seems to be a disconnect with swimming, in that loads of swimming hours give very small improvements. Whereas, I find a little more focus on bike and run give greater gains. That said, I swim a lot as I find it’s a great way to build weekly training volume with a small injury risk. Also my technique isn’t the best, and it’s something I’ve always worked on, but never really had a breakthrough.
We already heard that you started running and cycling at quite a young age. When did you start swimming competitively or at least with the idea to ”get it right”?
I started swimming from a very young age, swimming competitively when I was around 10. But I was only swimming 2-3 times per week, and at that age you have to swim a lot to be competitive. In 1997 when I was 14, racing as a youth, I had a year being out of the water 2-3 minutes behind some of the other youth competitors. My biking and running was really good, and sometimes I would catch up, sometimes I wouldn’t. But then in 1998, I decided enough was enough. I started swimming 5 times per week and the swimming really took a massive turn. Even to this day, that 15-22 (ish) period was my best swimming form.
What role does swimming have for you in preparing for a triathlon? How much did you swim per week in your preparation for Kona and what did the training look like?
I swim a lot, for Kona I was swimming 20 km per week. That would consist of 3 x 5 km swims, 3 km and 2 km. In IM, it’s not that important, but because it’s not that natural to me, I have to work on it. You don’t win the race in the swim, but you can certainly lose it. So I was adamant to make sure I would be at the front of the AG field.
How would you suggest to approach swimming if you’re a triathlon beginner that can swim okay but is nowhere near swimming competitively or not even front crawling yet?
Technique is so important, you have to get specific work on that. And to do that you really need 1:1 tuition. Find a good swim coach and get some proper help. Technique first, and then fitness after that.
Do you think it’s possible to really learn to swim well without outside assistance? What are the main things that you feel might be hard to get right without professional feedback?
It will only take you so far. It’s not the best approach.You simply “don’t know what you don’t know”, and half the time you think you’re doing one thing when in reality you’re doing the exact opposite.
Aside from genetics, what do you think makes someone a good swimmer? How would you describe your journey to get to the 54:47 swim split in Kona which still is unbeaten among age-groupers to this day.
Well, lots of people have beaten my swim split, it’s not that impressive. But the trick to being a good swimmer is to have good technique, and this mainly comes by having swum from a young age. If you take up swimming really late in life, it’s really hard to get it to where it needs to be to be competitive. The old saying „you can’t teach an old dog new tricks“ is very true when it comes to swimming. The good news is that swimming is easily the least important part of a long-distance event (it is more important for Sprint and Olympic distance), so if your swim is weak, you still have a lot of time to make up for it on the bike and run. As I always tell the athletes I coach: “In IRONMAN® the swim is simply compulsory transport to the start of the race”.
I know many AG athletes would kill to have a swim like mine, but in reality it’s certainly my weakest sport, and compared to the pros the side that would certainly let me down the most. That said, fortunately I also prefer the longer triathlon distances.
Many triathletes aren’t particularly fond of swimming in open water (and having a lot of other people do the same next to them). How often did you swim in open water during training and what in your experience helps people to deal with this concern and get better?
I’m fortunate I live 400 m from the sea, so I will swim in open water quite a lot. At least one real swim per week. Especially with this, experience is so important—and experience of having other people swimming around you. Experience builds confidence, and confidence is very key here.
Regarding freestyle (or front-crawl technique) what are three key things you think are helpful to point out from a coaching perspective that people should spend time working on?
- Body position—having a flat body position on the water means you don’t create as much resistance. Most people who start swimming really have syncing legs.
- Catch—work on the catch to find “still“ water. This is the front part of the stroke as the hand enters the water. The catch is designed to find still water and pressure that you can then bring to the back of the stoke.
- Breathing and timing—getting the timing of when to take a breath right is really important for rhythm in the freestyle stroke. Breathing too high (with too much of your face out of the water) or at the wrong time, makes it really hard to find a fluid rhythm.
There are more and more gadgets and wearables used in swimming from underwater headphones to motion sensors and oxygen masks. Which have you used or know athletes that have used them that seem worth considering?
I have just started using the Form Swim goggles. They’re amazing, they give you real time metrics in terms of pace and even distance per stroke. Before that I always used a Finis Tempo Trainer to face myself. This is really simple and beeps in your swimming cap as a set time.
What are some wisdoms when it comes to wetsuits you would like to pass on to triathletes out there? What kind of wetsuits do you own and what do you think is important to look out for?
The most expensive wetsuit is not always the most suitable. The best ones are normally more designed for better swimmers. For non-swimmers, I always suggest the 2nd tier wetsuit of a given brand, these are generally more buoyant. I wear a De Boer Wetsuit, and I love it. Recently I have just started using the 1.0 Ocean, which is designed for colder water. This means I can swim all winter here in NZ. Before that I used a Roka, which was also a good wetsuit.
Wearing swim goggles for a long time isn’t always the most pleasing experience. What goggles do you wear? What are some general pointers you can give to triathletes out there regarding goggles?
I wear the Magic 5 goggles when not using the Form goggles. Magic 5 are custom built to your face. They’re great and very comfortable. That said, I always get new goggles just before an important race, as the anti-fog is always really good when you first buy them. This is really important for open water. Of course I test them just once before race day. The most important thing when it comes to goggles is fit, and comfort. Everyone is different when it comes to this.
Transitioning from water to bike is something triathletes need to practice. Can you take us through your routine, what your clothing set up is and how you get fast at this?
I personally never practice it, but it is hard, and always a point when I see a very high HR. Some tips:
- Set up your bike before, with your helmet and glasses resting on your bars.
- Use baby oil around your wrists and ankles to get the wetsuit of fast
- Wear your tri suit under your wetsuit.
- When getting out the water, take down the top part of your wetsuit, so the top is dangling down
- Once you get your bike, stamp off the legs whilst putting your helmet/glasses on.
- Voila! Wetsuit is off!
- If the run from swim to bike is really long some people like to take their wetsuit off early and run with it in their arms. If your wetsuit dries too much it can be hard to get off.
In the TRIQ app there are different swim workouts and some use extra aids and tools to stress certain training aspects. Can you name the most common swim training equipment you use for swim training that you think every triathlete should get?
The most common are swim buoys and swimming paddles. These help focus on the arms and specific strength.
As swim training is prescribed by pace, Critical Swim Speed (which is actually measured in pace as well as you’ve pointed out before) seems like an important metric. Could you quickly take us through how this pace relates to different triathlon distances? What are some expected CSS values and how fast do people improve their CSS in your experience? Do you know yours currently?
CSS is close to 1500 m race pace. There is a massive range, so you can’t really say „expected“ it depends on your own ambition. It takes time to improve your CSS, but how fast is dependent on how much time you put into swimming and improving it. I do ALL my swimming based on CSS and if you’re not, you’re not swimming properly. It‘s just like FTP in cycling. It’s hard to prescribe training without it. My CSS at the moment is 1:20 min per 100 meters.
Much like cycling, swimming comes with its own set of necessary safety precautions. Is there any advice you would like to share in regards to swim safety?
Don’t drown! But really the main thing is, if you’re not confident, don’t swim in the open water on your own, take some company. If you do swim open water you can also purchase a floaty buoy that goes around your waste and follows you whilst you swim. This makes you more visible to boats and others. I have never used one myself, but I often see less confident swimmers using them in the open water.
We know you coach Swiss triathlete Jan Van Berkel who recently finished IRONMAN® Tulsa in 7:50:58 (49:47/4:18:20/2:39:05). For one we noticed he swam exactly 5 minutes faster than you did in Kona. We also recently spotted some friendly ”freight train“ and ”pull buoy“ trash talk between you guys on Instagram. Can you explain what that was about and why Jan is 5 minutes faster?
First off: Jan is fast, but he still gets beaten by his sister (who swam in the Olympics for Switzerland). AND, in my defense, you’re comparing a wetsuit swim (Tulsa) to a non-wetsuit swim (Kona). Wetsuits allow you to swim much faster, my best IM wetsuit swim is 50 min 21 sec at Ironman NZ.
The “freight train” reference is a personal joke from when Jan was training in NZ. We were doing MAX 100 m reps, and I would set off 4 seconds in front of Jan. He would catch me in the last 25 m, and he would say „haha, you can’t stop the freight train!“ Fun times! But yes, to my point at the start, Jan is a much faster swimmer than me! (and cyclist, and runner). Although, you’re only as good as your last performance, and the last time we raced over the same course together, I beat him (Kona 2018), which is why I will stay in retirement, haha.