elite triathlete harry wiltshire shares his thoughts on his career, trying to qualify for the Olympics and developing that unique swim style!
Interview by Swim Smooth's Paul Newsome, 5th July 2012 Also see our analysis of Harry's swim stroke: here
Paul: Hi Harry, welcome to the Swim Smooth website! Firstly, congratulations on winning your first Ironman distance event this last weekend at The Outlaw triathlon - how are the legs and body feeling today?
Harry: I was a bit stiff getting up this morning, in fact it felt like I had rusted into position! A forty minute walk and a kilometre kicking in the pool and I'm a lot better than I expected I would be.
Paul: You had some disappointment earlier this month finding out that you hadn't been selected as a domestique to the Brownlee brothers for the London Olympics, despite all your efforts over the last few years and in particular an excellent swim / bike combo at the Sydney ITU event in April, demonstrating your domestique skills. How are you feeling now?
Harry leading out another ITU race.
Harry: The Olympics has been my dream since you were coaching me 15 years ago, for the last three years making the team has governed absolutely everything I have done. The selection of the domestique was a discretionary decision and for whatever reason the selectors decided not to pick me. I thought I was the best guy for the job but then anyone going for the spot had to believe they were the best candidate.
It's not something I'm going to get over but now the decision has been made I back the team 100%. Seeing as I have a free summer now I've been trying some different stuff. There is no pressure and I love racing, so I'm having fun. In a strange way The Outlaw was fun.
Paul: Had you done any specific training for the ironman distance event? Running a marathon off a 180km bike ride is surely a very different experience to what you're used to with a 10km run at break-neck pace in a draft legal race?
Harry: I had been focusing on the domestique role so I stopped running in March. I started jogging again once the team was announced but I was getting 20 minutes done then walking home. I raced Half Ironman UK 2 weeks ago and that was my longest run. I did 30 minutes everyday for two weeks between the races. Saying that, a few years ago I was running regular 90 mile weeks so I do have some history.
Paul: Where you expecting to be able to complete the Outlaw event, and when did you realise during the event that you might actually win it?
Harry: Originally I was going to do the swim as part of the HUUB relay team. When we couldn't find a biker I said I was happy to give that a go but I had no plan to run. Come the day before the race we still didn't have a runner, so I put my trainers in T2 but only really so I could jog back to the car.
There was a TV camera in my face as I got off the bike and so I felt like I had to head out on the run. The lead bike knew I wasn't planning to run but encouraged me to keep jogging until I got passed. At 20 miles it was starting to hurt and I was wishing I had been passed. I realised then that if I kept moving I would win. I wasn't sure until I hit the finish carpet that I would be able to keep moving. Having trained as a domestique and raced internationally for points it's a bloody long time since I won anything. It's nice to win.
Paul: So you led the race from start to finish and posted a super-impressive 48 minute 3.8km swim split in your new HUUB Archimedes wetsuit - how did the suit feel and were you pleased with how the swim went?
Harry: The new HUUB wetsuits have been so popular they sold out in the UK so I could only get hold of an Aerious (Ed: HUUB's mid-level model) which I used at Ironman UK. The new batch came in last week and I got the full Archimedes suit on Friday.
I used in the rowing lake for the Speedo 5km swim the day before the Ironman. I didn't do it up properly and was a bit worried about all the water coming in. I remedied that for race day and the suit was fantastic. The fit was perfect which is the most important thing but also the balance of the suit with the 4:4 neoprene worked well for my stroke and I was genuinely impressed with the difference the bicep release panels made. The swim went well!
Paul: Are there any swim tips you'd be keen to share with our readers to perhaps help them through their first triathlon swim and anything for the more advanced swimmers seeking to make the jump up to a higher level of performance?
Harry: Sure, for anyone who's new to open water (and in fact for any open water swimmer) it's all about staying relaxed. Particularly in a longer event there is no rush, take your time to find a rhythm and imagine you are swimming up and down a black line. None of the rules change just because it's open water and there are a lot of people around you.
For the more advanced swimmer it's all about positioning. Drafting in the swim is allowed in a triathlon. You can use other athletes to make your life easier. In a pool it's just you in your lane the fundamental difference between a good pool swimmer and a good open water racer is how you use other athletes to your advantage.
Paul: What would you say is your favourite swim set and why?
Harry: Nice and simple with a pattern, something that lets you know where you are.
There's a little test pyramid that we used to use that I really like:
100m off 2 mins
200m off 3 mins
300m off 4 mins
400m off 5 mins
500m off 6 mins
400m off 5 mins
300m off 4 mins
200m off 3 mins
100m off 2 mins
There is a rumour that Craig Walton got up to 900m off 10 minutes and got back down but I don't know if that's true. The set teaches pace judgment, control and how to hurt. It's a classic.
Paul: You very kindly attended our 3-day Coaches Education Course at the prestigious Loughborough University back in March as an example for the coaches of a superbly effective open water 'Swinger' style. To the untrained eye this style appears to be less efficient than the much lauded 'Smooth' type but you crushed our Smooth swimmer in a head-to-head race on the day! You made mention on the course that whenever you demonstrate your stroke for a group of coaches they are always quick to try and pull it apart without respecting the fact that you have consistently been one of the fastest triathlon swimmers in the world for the past decade. How do you personally view your stroke and what do you think makes you so fast?
Harry: First off, as a fellow Bath University graduate I don't think we are allowed to refer to Loughborough as prestigious!
My stroke isn't pretty, also compared to national level swimmers it's not that fast. I do a lot of things wrong and if I had swum at a top club as a kid I have no doubt that I would have more power in my catch and would be able to sprint faster. I can't get out in a 54 second first 100m like some of the ITU guys can and this is my weakness. The strengths of my stroke are that I get a good turnover efficiently and I do the basic things well under the water. Being able to turn my arms quickly and get a relatively good catch works in the open water.
When I was a kid I was too stubborn to listen to swim club parents helping out on poolside who wanted to get me swimming 12 stokes per 25m because a book said that Michael Klim could do that. It was luck that the stroke I naturally wanted to swim with works well in open water race conditions.
I think there is always a danger that new coaches have to find something to fix straight away. The best coaches might watch for a month and then have a single comment. Sometimes less is more.
Paul: I had the privilege of first meeting you back in 1999 when I was a BTA Development Officer, talent scouting for up and coming triathletes. At 15 years of age, you were the first athlete I had ever coached directly and I would see you on a weekly basis for development sessions to help you with your swim, cycle and run disciplines. As a young coach myself (then 21 years old) I also made the mistake of trying to make your stroke conform to that long smooth model of stroke efficiency I had been trained to believe in. However, it wasn't long before we realised that trying to make you longer and smoother with a high-elbow recovery was actually slowing you down, ruining your natural rhythm and not at all specific for open water swimming. For me this was the first time that I started to fully appreciate the need to work with an individual's strengths as opposed to always white-washing a swimmer's stroke and making them conform to some idealised model of perfection. When looking back, this insight has since formed the basis of our whole Swim Types model "coaching the swimmer, not the stroke" and has also impacted on the design of the HUUB wetsuits that we helped design with Huub Toussaint and Dean Jackson. When I look at your stroke now I simply see a classy stroke which is totally geared around swimming well in the environment in which you race. If you had to work on just one aspect of your stroke now though, what would that be?
Harry: That's very kind. Of course to swim faster you either need to get more distance per stroke or take more strokes. I already take a lot of strokes, so I would go faster if I could get more distance with each stroke. That's about hold on the water and getting a high elbow early for a strong catch.
Paul: You are also a coach yourself now Harry - can you tell us three faults that you often see in swimmers that you work with and how you go about tweaking their strokes?
Harry: A lot of my thinking on swimming comes from Brett Sutton, here are three things he's talked to me about:
Impatience: Sutto used to say "Hurry Slowly". The runners coming over to triathlon from other sports as part of a talent transfer program swum twice a day for a year and didn't get it. It's year three now and they are starting to come through. You have to want it straight away but be prepared to stick at it for as long as it takes.
Too Much Thinking: You can't improve everything at once, pick one or possibly two things to concentrate on. If you try and think too much about too many things you end up looking like a sea snake on acid. (They go up down and sideways like crazy, but that's not what you want)
Swimming Hurts: Technique is important but hard work is also key. I've heard coaches say "If it hurts your not doing it right". That's rubbish, if you want to get fast you have to get in the pool as often as possible and every time you get in it needs to hurt a bit.
Paul: So, following your Outlaw win, what does the future hold for Harry Wiltshire?
Harry: I don't know to be honest, the last 4 years I've been totally focused on the Olympics. That was my only plan. It's cost me a lot of money, financially it was a stupid idea but it was my dream and I don't regret it at all. If I go-long it has to make financial sense now. I'll take the rest of the season to see if i can find a way for racing to make financial sense. The last 4 years has been full on, so I'm not in a rush to make any decisions. I'd like to say a big thank you to all the guys who've helped me out over the Olympic cycle: Swim Smooth, HUUB, Planet X, Brooks and Driven To Tri.