Ironman Triathlon Swim Training: How a busy Doctor gets it done. Part 1.
Ironman competitor Ian Kurth, MD did nearly all his triathlon swim training at home with his Vasa SwimErg indoor swim trainer. His excellent race results and his personal story are informative and very inspirational. In 2016, Ian received remote swim coaching for using the Vasa SwimErg from Coach Eric Neilsen. Their approach to triathlon swim training was so effective that we just had to find out more about their success formula for working together.
What led you into Triathlon, how long have you been racing, and why do you participate in this sport?
Ian Kurth, MD: My first triathlon was an Ironman…
Year 2000: I was a young, dumb, and poor 26-year-old med student. I wanted to do something interesting for the Y2K hoopla. An Ironman sounded appropriate… As background, I was a pretty good overall athlete (college soccer), had run a few marathons, grew up on a lake (counts as swim experience), biked to class etc.
I signed up for IM Florida…
I scoured Ebay over the winter and bought a used road bike with clip on aero bars. I modified a water bottle and fed some rubber tubing up to my handlebars in a hack job attempt at a rudimentary hydration system.
I used my brother’s Waverunner wetsuit. Now I realize it was totally illegal (way too thick), and “totally get” all the strange looks I received at the start line. I had no formal swim training and did the breaststroke for the entire race.
My goal was to just finish.
My training was pathetic. I was really busy and blissfully ignorant of the demands of the distance. I figured I was pretty tough. I ran some and biked some. That was my plan. Seemed ok at the time… My longest bike in my life before the event was 60 miles, and my longest training run in the months prior was about 15. I swam probably 2 x a month.
I printed some forum threads from the IM Florida website to read while traveling to the event. I pieced together a transition and nutrition plan in the days before the race. I was ready.
I made it through the swim and was very glad it was a 2 loop that took us out of the water.
The bike seemed really long. The “run” seemed even longer. There was lots of walking, and frankly, I don’t even remember so much of the “run”. I was pretty wobbly on the back half of the course…
I do have one vivid memory of being close enough to the finish line to see the lights and hear the music. I was bent over the side of the road puking, and this older lady competitor (60+) jogs up to me, gave me a gentle pat on the back mid-vomit, and says “Good job! You’re about to finish! You can do it!”, and then trots off out of sight towards the finish line. I had just been served some straight up humble pie.
Finish time was 13:48 ish. After the race, I was definitely in Rhabdomyolysis, and in pretty rough shape as I couldn’t eat or drink for about 24 hours. I was too stubborn to go to the med tent. I passed out in the hotel shower. Combos pretzels saved my life and eventually nursed me back to life.
I took 10 years off triathlon to erase the memory (Got married, had a few kids, made a couple moves, and a few other life changes along the way), then returned to triathlon in 2012 with a couple of half-IM’s, and Ironman Wisconsin. I love it now. I love the training, and putting all the puzzle pieces together. I do enjoy telling the story of my triathlon entrance, though.
What is your background as an athlete?
Ian: I have always been a pretty good overall athlete. I played many sports growing up – golf, tennis, skiing, basketball, but primarily soccer, which I continued playing through college. After college, I continued playing soccer but began running marathons to keep in shape. No formal swimming or biking experience. I didn’t really get serious about racing until recently.
What are your goals in triathlon for the future?
Ian: I enjoy the process of training, and experimenting with various training methods and prescriptions. Visualizing a stretch goal, and then breaking it down into small segments, designing a training plan, committing to the work needed, and then laying it out there on race day and executing to a successful result is a powerful experience that draws me to this sport. Ironman-distance triathlon remains a complex puzzle with many moving parts. Attempting to solve that puzzle within the time constraints of daily life is a magnetic hobby and one that I hope to continue to craft into the future.
What have been some significant challenges for you in triathlon and specifically for swimming?
Ian: I am a busy practicing physician with many clinical and administrative responsibilities. Balancing these duties with an active, and many times hectic home life is a priority. Time management and prioritization is an ongoing challenge.
One of my major frustrations with swimming are the large administrative costs for me to get to a pool. I generally have to get my workouts in before 7am, so maximizing this time is essential. I don’t mind swimming laps, I just have trouble justifying all of the lost time commuting to and from, pool hours limitations etc. On top of these time limitations, while being a reasonable athlete in many sports, swimming does not come naturally to me. I find it frustrating that my improvement trajectory does not correlate with my time investment and does not parallel my gains seen in other sports with similar efforts. Enter Vasa.
You have a Vasa SwimErg and we understand that you engaged Coach Eric Neilsen in early 2016 to help you use it properly and for swimming in general. Would you tell us more about the experience and the primary benefits of that coaching?
Ian: Before this, I had a Vasa SwimErg for about 2 years, and used it with good success coming into the 2016 season. However, when setting up my 2016 season, I committed to leveraging the time savings the SwimErg offers by training with it almost exclusively in my “swimming without getting wet” training experiment. I set goals of improving swim times. Just as important, I also wanted to take some of my time savings from not commuting to the pool and apply that time towards more Vasa, as well as more run and bike training.
Unfortunately, I realized that there is a paucity of swim & triathlon coaches who would embrace and help guide my “swimming without getting wet” approach. Swim coaches’ general knee-jerk response to the question – “how do I swim better” is… “swim more”. I found Coach Eric Neilsen at Train Smart Race Fast on a referral from Vasa. I reached out to him asking him to provide guidance on how to best utilize my time on the Vasa. He is not only a gifted swim coach, he is also a Vasa advocate and experienced user.
Eric was very accommodating and supportive of my situation, and I feel the workouts that he provided and the training build he designed were really productive. Because there are metrics associated with a Vasa SwimErg (from the power meter), I could see my power and pace improving. The majority of his prescribed workouts were time and power based – metrics I was comfortable with from bike training.
Over the course of several weeks of following his guidance, I felt stronger on the Vasa SwimErg, and I also could see improvement through supporting objective metrics. I proved that on several Vasa power tests as well as in a few of my rare pool workouts. More importantly, I set swim leg PRs in several triathlons leading up to Ironman Wisconsin 2016. While I didn’t specifically improve in the IMWI swim time this season, I favor this being a one-off with the mass start etc. I certainly was in strong swim shape, and my swim fitness translated into no significant downstream fatigue on the bike or run. Overall, I am very pleased with my swim times in races relative to my build and plan to continue to primarily use the SwimErg until I eventually face the music and do a required serious, intensive dedicated swim block. However, I am not ready for that yet…
What specific breakthroughs, insights, and successes did you experience as a result of working with Eric?
Ian: The confident delivery of the prescribed workouts instilled in me the confidence that I could “swim without getting wet” in training and still be very productive during race season. The type and variety of workouts were challenging. When it comes down to it, if you put in the time and establish consistent training habits, results can be achieved with the Vasa SwimErg (and Vasa primarily). Moving forward, I can approach my Vasa-only swim builds with much more confidence that it simply works.
I suspected this was the case even before I began working with Eric, as I stumbled upon a few threads on Slowtwitch describing user experience with the Vasa. Virtually NOBODY said it didn’t work. In fact, most described the Vasa SwimErg as their most important piece of triathlon training equipment. However, they were almost reluctant to say so as they seemed to feel it was their secret weapon, and didn’t’ want to divulge their advantage to the competition.
In what ways has the Vasa SwimErg been a valuable investment?
Ian: The Vasa SwimErg is a huge time saver. For those with busy lifestyles who are interested in maximizing efficiencies, the Vasa SwimErg deserves strong consideration.
It is a reliable, reproducible, metrics based swim-specific training tool. It is well built and requires virtually no maintenance.
I feel the Vasa SwimErg is extremely underrated for form improvement – I use several mirrors for real-time feedback on form, and it is easy to use video for more advanced analysis. It also allows a functional way to experiment with different pull patterns, cadences, and rhythms to pattern a more efficient stroke. This feature was a pleasant surprise – particularly to an adult onset swimmer still trying to figure out all of the vectors swimming requires…
What are 3 benefits you realized from using the Vasa SwimErg?
- Effective, convenient, swim-specific training
- Massive time savings
- Real-time feedback
Prior to doing the 2016 IRONMAN Wisconsin, Ian and Jen Kurth were interviewed for this very inspirational video, which provides a glimpse of what led Ian into triathlon, his Ironman journey, and the challenges he and Jen have faced along the way:
Over the years, we’ve received many similar stories from athletes and coaches who train with a Vasa SwimErg. While all report impressive improvements in their swimming, those who get coaching on how to properly use this powerful training tool are the ones who make the greatest gains. An effective coach uses his or her experience with the SwimErg to teach efficient stroke technique, swim-specific & functional conditioning, how to use the Power Meter data, and how to integrate all that to swimming stronger, better, and faster in the water.
Go to PART 2: Our interview with Coach Eric Neilsen to learn how he leveraged technology, use of the Vasa SwimErg and his vast experience as a swim coach to guide Ian Kurth to personal bests in some half-Ironman and IM swims.
Read more stories of athletes and coaches who are time-crunched and rely on the Vasa SwimErg for efficient swim training:
Vasa blog post – Dan Bullock Q & A:
Vasa blog post – Swimmergy:
Vasa blog post – Ben Greenfield Q & A:
TriSwimCoach / Kevin Koskella & Chris Hague – blog posts about Vasa SwimErg:
The Great Vasa Experiment Part 2
Shannon Coates shares her experience working with Coach Eric Neilson on the SwimErg:
Steve Mallard – shares how went from dead last to on the podium:
Ian Kurth’s full post on the Endurance Nation blog: