June 17, 2009
Introduction: In this podcast episode from www.bengreenfieldfitness.com: open water swim tips, tricks and tactics; Chia seeds, peanut butter, insulin spikes, fasting for weight loss and one very interesting natural remedy for fixing a knee injury.
Ben: Hey podcast listeners, this is Ben Greenfield and I’m very excited about today’s topic – special topic – especially for you triathletes out there because I managed to get one of the top open water swimmers in the United States if not the world on the show, and you’re going to learn more about this guy, what he’s done and you’ll also get a chance to get inside his mind and hear what really works in the open water from a true open water swim expert. We have some great Q and A today primarily on nutrition issues, fasting for weight loss, Chia seeds as an Omega 3 fatty acid source, some of the truth about peanut butter, what happens to your insulin after you work out and you eat and a few special announcements, one in particular about holistic fueling for Ironman triathletes. So we’re going to go ahead and move on to this week’s content from www.bengreenfieldfitness.com, but before we do let me mention also for you endurance athletes, you triathletes out there listening to the show – Ironman Coeur D’Alene is this weekend, June 21st. That’s a Saturday. If you’re a fan of the show and you’re listening in, then send me an email [email protected]. If you have any last minute questions about pacing, nutrition, hydrating, race day logistics – I’d be happy to arrange a time to actually meet with you because I now have some offices over at Coeur D’Alene and will be over at the Ironman Coeur D’Alene race expo almost every day from Thursday all the way through to the race and even if you don’t have questions and you’d just like me to come cheer you on at the finish line, I will be at that race from 7am all the way through to midnight and would love to help you get across the line. So just email me [email protected].
This week’s first question comes from Listener Scott and Listener Scott has a rather lengthy two-part question. He says…
Scott asks: Brad Pilon has a popular e-book out called Eat Stop Eat in which he presents several studies showing the benefits of short term intermittent fasting, especially for fat loss. Have you read very much on this topic, and do you have any opinions about it?
My second question involves post workout nutrition after strength training and fat loss. I have read a few blogs that discourage the use of it when attempting to lose fat due to the spike in insulin that the post-workout meal causes. They state this may lead to fat storage since any leftover calories not utilized to replenish muscle glycogen would be stored as fat.
I know you are a fan of low to moderate glycemic index foods. I’ve been incorporating a whey supplement and piece of fruit after my strength training sessions, both of which are going to cause some form of insulin spike I’m sure, but are low GI foods. I can’t see how supplying my body with a serving of protein and carbohydrates after a lifting session, especially when they are low in calories, are going to be detrimental or encourage fat storage if my muscle glycogen levels are low or even depleted.
I also realize there are different approaches to strength training when trying to lose fat versus gaining lean mass. I feel there is significant research to support the idea you can lose fat while building or maintaining lean muscle or lean body mass. So, if you are lifting to encourage increases in muscle or lean mass, incorporating cardio for fat loss, and maintaining a diet with a caloric deficit to encourage fat loss while providing your body with all the nutrients it needs, shouldn’t you be able to burn fat and gain/maintain muscle at the same time?
Ben answers: Let’s go ahead and reverse back up and go to the first part of Scott’s question about fasting for fat loss or short-term intermittent fasting. Now first of all, short term intermittent fasting means that there are certain days of the week where you literally don’t eat anything at all with the idea that the body is going to tap into its fat stores or its fat reserves if you aren’t eating anything at all. If we go back and look at most of the cultures for the past thousand years, there is some element of fasting that typically goes hand in hand with religious practices and sometimes that is a complete fast. Sometimes it’s a fast from certain types of food. Like the Mediterranean diet I believe has over 140 different days of the year where they’re not eating a lot of cholesterol laden foods because they’re not allowed to have things like meat, eggs, dairy, things of that nature. It’s my personal opinion that that is more of a factor in the reduced risk of heart disease in the Mediterranean diet and that is not just because they’re eating olives and olive oil and avocadoes and everything like that. It’s that they’re avoiding a lot of high calorie foods many days out of the year for religious or cultural fasting reasons. Now in terms of short-term intermittent fasting, I personally do not utilize it in the nutrition plan for the people that I work with, and the reason for that is this. When you are fasting and you are eating zero calories in a day and all you’re doing is drinking water, it is very difficult to commit yourself to exercise on that day. Furthermore, the following day you can feel kind of blah, kind of under the weather because your body can be very carbohydrate or glycogen depleted and again you’ll have a difficult time working out that day as well. Now my entire workout, lifestyle, nutrition philosophy for the clients with which I work is that we’re attempting to build lean toned tight athletic coordinated bodies, at the same time that we lose fat. And fasting is not conducive to the daily consistent physically active that’s necessary to achieve that. Now there are some cases where there would be an exception to that. For example if everything has just not worked for someone and we’re going to try a severe caloric restriction just as a last ditch effort – that’s where fasting might come in. However, for a physically active person, you got to be very careful with fasting just because of the huge reduction in energy that results and the potential for just suppressing immune systems, suppressing energy especially for people who are endurance athletes, who are exercising a lot. So, fasting does have its health benefits. It can help you mentally. Give you a lot of self-control. It can help you dip into your fat reserves. You just need to be aware that you’re not going to have a lot of energy when you do incorporate fasting and it’s not a real fun way to lose weight. I’m sure that you could get some results though with it. It’s just not part of the program that I use.
Now the next part of Scott’s question as far as post-workout nutrition and the insulin spike – what it comes down to is that right after you workout, the levels of an enzyme called glycogen synthase are very, very high in your muscles. And what that means is the muscles are going to take the sugar that you consume – very efficiently take them up and incorporate them as energy for the muscle to recover and for the muscle to have energy for the next day’s workout, meaning that your body is very sensitive to insulin after a workout and even though an insulin spike may occur, it’s not going to have the same detrimental effect of causing glucose to be shuttled off to the liver and stored as fat. Because the glucose is going to be very efficiently taken up into the muscle and used as energy so the insulin spike that occurs after a workout is actually helping to deliver glucose into muscles and it is a good thing. So don’t fear a spike in insulin levels if that spike in insulin levels is at the same time either immediately before or after a workout. It’s only going to help you. So you don’t need to be afraid of eating after a workout. It’s not going to have a detrimental effect. You do need to try as hard as possible to hit that 20 minute post-workout window for refueling. Don’t wait an hour or two hours and feel like you’re burning extra fat by waiting a long time after working out to eating. The body doesn’t work that way. So make sure that you get that fuel in right away and then as far as the last part of your question Scott, being able to burn fat and build lean muscle at the same time, you can absolutely do it. However, if you are a very obese person, the amount of caloric restriction that’s going to be necessary for you to burn through your fat stores – or if you’re fairly overweight or you have a large amount of fat to burn through – the amount of caloric restriction that you’re going to need in order to do that is not going to be very conducive to building muscle. Because muscle needs 3500 calories to put on a pound of lean muscle. And that means that somewhere, you got to get in every week – if you add a pound of muscle a week – an extra 3500 calories in your diet. If you’re already overweight, that’s not such a great idea. At the same time, if you’re fairly trim and you’re wanting to burn through those last few pounds of fat while at the same time burning muscle, you can get away with doing it with the protocol that you talked about. The good nutrition combined with weight lifting and cardio. However, I never like to – with the more overweight people that I work with – simultaneously pursue for example getting ripped or something of that nature while at the same time burning fat. We kind of burn through the fat reserves, get as much fat off the body as possible, try and maintain lean muscle and metabolism and then worry about doing a lot of the body shaping after we’ve removed the fat. So great questions.
Pete asks: Everything you say is pretty much on the money, however everyone else on the Internet seems to rave about peanut butter. Possibly, can you write a little more on the topic and possibly uncover why everyone is on the peanut butter band wagon. I have a scraping of it with blueberry jam and a banana on toast on big training mornings.
Another wonder food which I thought you might want to look into is Chia seed. It’s touted as having the highest level of Omega 3 compared to any other grain out there. I use this in my sports drink, salads, with cereal and/or yogurt.
Ben answers: So Peter, great question. Let’s start with the peanut butter question. So the whole deal with peanut butter is that peanut butter is a good source of protein. It’s a good calorie dense fuel for a workout. There have been studies that have shown that peanuts can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and that they can do so without promoting weight gain, so that means they can lower the levels of circulating fat in your bloodstream when they’re incorporated in your diet. Peanuts do have the monounsaturated fatty acids in them, and that’s one of the good fatty acids. They also have magnesium, folate, vitamin E, copper and they’re pretty high in fiber too. So all of those things can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and also give you some added nutrients, some added punch to your workouts. And I don’t completely 100% avoid peanut butter but as a staple in my diet, I actually don’t use it. And the reason for that is that first of all, peanuts are not technically a seed or a nut. They’re a legume. And they’re actually very high in something called Omega 6 fatty acids when compared to a lot of the other seeds and nuts that you have available. The whole idea behind taking flax seed or Chia seed or fish oil or eating a Mediterranean style diet high in plant-based fats is that they’re higher in Omega 3s and a high Omega 3 to 6 ratio is important for overall health. Not just for performance but for fat loss, for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and reducing risk of a host of chronic diseases really. So the fact that peanuts are one of the highest type of “nuts” when it comes to the Omega 6 fatty acids make them not really your first choice in terms of getting healthy fat. Now, the second issue with peanuts is that as an underground grown food, they can be contaminated with a potentially carcinogenic mold or cell membrane damaging mold called afla toxin. And the idea behind afla toxin is that it’s essentially a poison. But it’s a mold that grows on peanuts. It grows on some grains as well, it can contribute to liver problems, to hepatitis and the level of afla toxin in peanut butter started getting inspected in 1972. And in 1990 when peanut butter was tested, the average level of afla toxin in 86 different samples of peanut butter from around the world was 5.7 parts per billion. The safe upper limit for afla toxin is actually 20 parts per billion. So it’s really only got 25% of the safe upper limit. But if I could choose between consuming a true nut like an almond that has basically none of that mold on it or a peanut, then I’ll take the almond every time and yeah I will pay the extra 1 or 2 dollars a pound for it. What is that? Maybe an extra four or five bucks a month to avoid the afla toxin. So the other thing is that peanuts in terms of a crop are sprayed quite a bit. They’re one of the most pesticide contaminated crops that you can get. So if you really got to have your peanut butter, one of the things you can do is you can get the stir style organic peanut butter and you can reduce the Omega 6 fatty acid content by actually pouring off the oil off the top of the peanut butter, so you get the stir stuff but you don’t actually stir it, you pour the oil off and this is going to obviously make it kind of dry. So if you don’t like your peanut butter too dry, take something that is high in Omega 3s, take some extra virgin olive oil or take something like a macadamia nut oil and both of those are really low in Omega 6s. They’ve got a lot of good healthy monounsaturated fatty acids in them and you just add a couple of tablespoons to that to actually make the peanut butter not quite as dry. So don’t use a vegetable based oil because then you’re basically putting back in what you dumped out. But use one of those olive oils or macadamia nut oils and that’s great for adding a little bit of lube back in the peanut butter. The other thing that you can do with peanut butter to round out the protein content is there is a powder that you can get at the grocery store called Brewer’s Yeast and you can take a few tablespoons of this, mix this into the peanut butter and it actually increases the protein content of the peanut butter. Now I personally just opt for almond butter. The other thing that I’ll do sometimes is I’ll take my coffee grinder and I’ll just grab a few different types of nuts – like yesterday I used pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and ground flax seed – ground it all up in the coffee grinder and used that as a substitute for nut butter and I also added a little sea salt to that for flavoring. So that’s the skinny on peanut butter Peter, and then as far as your second question goes. Chia seed is basically something that if you saw it you would think that it was almost exactly the same as a flax seed. It looks almost identical and Chia is very high in Omega 3 fatty acids. Quite a bit higher I believe than flax seeds although I haven’t seen the actual numbers, but you get it. You really can’t get it commercially quite as much even though it’s getting more popular. You can get it at a health food store though. Both the Chia and the flax seed are going to be pretty rich in fiber. So Chia actually does contain about twice the fiber as a flax seed though. Both of them are really high in minerals. I’m not sure if Chia actually has a higher number of minerals than the flax seeds but as far as the alfa linoleaic acid, one ounce of flax seed contains about 4.7 grams of that and that’s one of the forms of the concentrated sources of Omega 3 fatty acids and then one ounce of Chia seeds contains about 5 grams. So Chia seeds, just slightly higher in fiber, slightly higher in Omega 3s. One of the really cool things that you can do with Chia seeds is there’s actually a way to make a gel based fiber out of them. The way that you do this is you take some water and you put it in a jar and then you pour seeds into the jar. So think of the jar being about 10 units high. You’d want a 9:1 ratio of seeds to water. So fill it about nine parts full of water and then about one part full of seeds and what you do is you actually stir that. You walk away, let it stand for about 5, 10 minutes. You come back, you stir it again and it eventually forms this Chia gel that you can use to add substance to different recipes. You can put it in jams, you can put it in hot or cold cereal. You could put it in yogurt, you can put it in barbecue sauce but essentially it’s this really cool high Omega 3 fatty acid gel that you can cook with, and you can use it as a topping on pancakes or toast or put it in bread or cookies or something of that nature. But essentially what it comes down to is it’s super, super high in fiber. It’s actually good for moving stuff through your digestive system too. Super high in Omega 3 fatty acids and incredibly easy. It’s literally just take a jar, put Chia seeds in there, add some water. About a 9:1 water to Chia seed ratio, stir it up, walk away, come back, stir it up again, walk away – about 10 minutes later you have this gel of Chia seeds. So there you have it. A great way to use Chia seeds and I don’t believe that they’re that much more expensive than a flax seed. Now the other thing that I wanted to mention is if you have a question that you want to ask, just email me [email protected]. You can also call toll free and record a message. That’s 18772099439. That’s the same toll free number that you can call if you have questions about me helping you out with your nutrition or your fitness. Again, toll free – it’s 8772099439. And then finally I want to read to you this account of a knee injury that one of my listeners wrote in, because we’re always looking at holistic natural remedies on the show – things you can do at home. Here’s what he says.
Gary writes: Hey Ben, here’s what I did to deal with a knee injury. Here’s my account of what happened after my knee injury which I suspect I sustained after two days of moving all my stuff from a 3rd floor apartment in one home to a second floor apartment in another home. After two days of moving, my knee was making some very strange clicking sounds. Later that day I went to the grocery store and literally collapsed in pain as I walked through the parking lot back to my car. I could barely bend my knee and managed to drag myself home with intense pain shooting through the joint. I was convinced that I had blown my knee. This was a very inconvenient injury for me to sustain for a number of reasons which I don’t need to go into. But after contemplating the hassle of hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices and so on, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and I took a half hour soak in a tub of hot water with one cup Epsom salts, one cup dead sea salts and a half cup of baking soda. While soaking I massaged my entire leg. After the soak, I dumped in a quarter cup of 140,000 BTUs of super duper hot cayenne pepper. Had I not been confident the burning sensation would do no harm I would most likely have freaked out and feared for my life because the presence of that much cayenne pepper in the tub placed me in excruciating pain creating a significant degree of bodily stress which I suspect was instrumental in the healing process. After enduring the pain for 15 or 20 minutes in the tub, without drying off, I simply fell exhausted onto my bed for five or 10 minutes while the burning sensation continued. I then decided I needed to take immediate action to deal with the unrelenting pain so I refilled the tub up with hot water and a quarter cup of hemp sea oil. As I got into the tub, the painful burning immediately subsided and I experienced an intensely cooling and comforting effect from the oil which seemed to adhere to every area of my body like a magnet. Since I’ve never taken an oil bath before I wasn’t sure if this was normal but if so I would say that oil baths can be extremely soothing and comforting regardless of prior conditions. I continued to massage my leg as I enjoyed the cooling effects of the oils over my entire body. I felt like a prepared salad. I was salted, peppered and oiled and ready for rest. Without drying off, I dropped exhausted into bed covered in oil and slept a solid and restful 12 hours. I cannot remember I slept that long. I woke up refreshed, invigorated and most amazingly my knee felt completely normal again, and my skin was soft all over. I imagine that the oil had internal benefits as well. It’s now the end of the day and my knee still feels great. Although I’m contemplating another salt soak for good measure just to be safe. There you go, Ben. Chalk one up for good old folk medicine.
Ben: So interesting anecdote. I guess what it comes down to is that probably there is a great deal of inflammation going on in this individual’s knee and they were able to actually probably draw out quite a bit of that inflammation and if it was changing the actual anatomic structure within the knee due to the degree of swelling from going up and down stair or injuring the knee, this may have helped to heal it without actually going in and getting the knee injected or drawn out or something of that nature. So interesting anecdote and I will put a link to everything that I talk about in this podcast, in the Shownotes, the link to Holistic Fueling For Ironman Triathletes, the link to some of the stuff that we talk about in the upcoming special topic on open water swimming and we’re going to go ahead and move on to that. Most importantly you will hear John Kenny mention a swim metronome or pedometer. I hunted down quite a few of them and put a link to them in the Shownotes to this podcast so go ahead and listen in if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer. You’re going to get quite a bit out of this interview. I incorporated some of these tactics in a race that I had the next day and actually had one of the better open water swims that I’ve had in a long time and felt very comfortable with it. So tune in to our interview with John Kenny, a triathlon coach from Pacific Elite Fitness.
Hey podcast listeners, this is Ben Greenfield and I have on the other line for you triathletes out there and you open water swimmers one of the most experienced open water swimmers in the United States, if not the world. So I think the other coaches in the triathlon world who claim to be open water experts don’t even come close to this guy. John Kenny is who I’m talking about and during his college days, John kind of found his niche in the sport of open water swimming. He worked for 10 years on the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, making numerous rescues, won tons of lifeguard races and had amazing success at the national and international competition level after that. He was a five time US National Champion in swim distances from 10k up to 25k. That’s a heck of a lot of distance if you’re familiar with open water swimming. He was a seven time national team member, he’s competed at a wide variety of races including nationals, Olympic trials, pan-ams, pan-am pacs, world cups, world championships. He’s been competing in open water races since 1990 and most recently represented the USA in the 25k at the World Championships in 2008. He’s an expert in open water endurance tactics, finding the fastest and most efficient way to find your way in the open water. He’s now racing professionally as a triathlete and he is also a coach over at Pacific Elite Fitness, one of our brand new coaches. This guy has a ton of experience. If you want to get to be a better swimmer, John is the guy that you want to hook up with and today he’s going to give us the open water swim secrets that we don’t get anywhere else. John, how are you doing?
John Kenny: Very good, thanks for having me on Ben.
Ben: No problem. So I got to ask you before we really get into the tips and the tricks, what is it like to swim an open water 25k race? How many miles is that for the people who are listening in who may not make that conversion?
John Kenny: 25k is about 15 and a half miles and actually 25k is the common distance for the long distance swims on the international level at the world cups and world championships. I’ve actually done longer swims than that. My longest swim was a 37k around the island at Atlantic City. Obviously not a short race, all about endurance and physically and mentally very demanding. I know a lot of triathletes and even distance swimmers consider that a long race. So I think the hardest part is once you really get into it and everything goes dead, maintaining a high intensity 3 and 4 hours into a 5 plus hour race and also it really depends on what type of race you’re going to do. I’ve done like I said around the island swim versus a world championship event where a world championship is draft legal… swim in a pack, obviously have different demands than something like something where you’re swimming individually. The way we used to do the around island swim in Atlantic City was everybody got to draft off of a lifeguard boat which was just a rowboat. So everybody would be getting your own draft but you wouldn’t be drafting off the other swimmers so that would be more like a time trial type of event instead of a pack swim. I always thought that the most challenging swims were the World Championship swims where you have a pack swim, everybody would be at the top of their game really going for the win and you’d have a whole lot of surges especially late in the race after you get 15 to 20k in, people really start to get tired and the guys who are strong really try to exploit the weaker swimmers by throwing surges at that point and that’s the type of race where we could get to that point and you could really make a break. So it’s really difficult I think to maintain that high pace after swimming for four and five hours. So I think that mental aspect of it is probably the most demanding part about swimming the 25k.
Ben: Now John, what do you eat and drink during an open water swim of that distance and that time and how do you eat and drink?
John Kenny: Well typically for any of that distance – a 25k for example – each swimmer would get their own guide boat who would basically provide all the nutrition. We had feeding sticks where they would hand you a stick with a cup on the end of it so you’d take your fluid that way. Gel packs too, a lot of times you’d be able to store gel packs down your suit so you get to a specific point in the race and the trickier thing about that as opposed to triathlon is you have to be able to feed without losing the pack. So a lot of times you’d have to sprint to the front, take the gel pack out of your suit, rip the top off, take it and get a drink to follow it up with and do all that without losing more than 3 seconds because you lose 5 seconds and you’re pretty much out of the race. Once you lose that pack.
Ben: Absolutely. Similar to a cycling event – a draft legal cycling event.
John Kenny: Exactly.
Ben: Well later on I really want to hear about some of your big tips about drafting, but before we get into some of the fine points about racing in packs which obviously is what we do in triathlon, just from a general perspective, how would you say that the open water is different from a pool in terms of the way that a swimmer’s stroke changes? Because that’s one of the things that you hear. For example, there was a big discussion on slow twitch recently how about total immersion isn’t really designed for open water swimmers because it teaches you how to swim efficiently in a pool. Are you on board with that kind of stuff? Do you think that the open water swim stroke needs to change?
John Kenny: Well first of all open water and pool swimming are very different. You know, obviously no turns I think is the key and it really makes a lot of aspects about the stroke very different. As far as the total immersion aspect, because I’ve always thought total immersion was very good at teaching swimmers to swim efficiently, to swim a moderate pace without extending any energy but not extremely good at teaching people how to swim fast. In order to swim well, I think in open water swimming, you really need to have a strong stroke. I think in the pool, you can have a finesse type of stroke and you can really tend to do well. You can get through the water well and you’re able to get rest every time you hit the wall. You’re able to bounce the wall a little bit and gain momentum back whereas in the open water you really have to have a lot of endurance and tactics and navigation and just stroke rate and all those things play a really big role. I just think more raw power and specific pulling power under water play a much bigger role, especially in chops. If you’re swimming in anything with big waves, rough conditions, your finesse stroke is not going to work. You’re going to have to get through the water effectively and when your sighting, your hips are going to drop. You need to constantly correct that body position. You know, you need to recover and bring the hips back up in order to gain strength there.
Ben: Yeah, you talked about the actual stroke rate. Obviously a lot of people are practicing for the open water by swimming in a pool. Some people don’t have the novelty to go train in a lake or river or the ocean constantly. Should they be focusing on – you broke up for just a second there. Are you still there?
John Kenny: Yeah, I can still hear you.
Ben: Ok, am I clear?
John Kenny: Yeah, can hear you.
Ben: I’m getting a little bit of an echo. Ok, it’s gone now. Now should those people be working on a higher stroke turnover, a higher stroke rate?
John Kenny: Now I lost you.
Ben: Let me quickly interject for you listeners out there that John and I had technical difficulty, so at this point we switched to a cell phone and you may notice a slight difference in the audio quality.
Sorry I lost you there for just a second, I was actually asking if the person in the pool who’s training in the open water actually needs to swim with a higher turnover or higher stroke rate? If that’s one of the stroke changes that need to be made.
John Kenny: Well I think that definitely depends from swimmer to swimmer. Personally, I always had much better success with a higher stroke rate and that’s something you should really closely monitor when you’re doing open water swimming. Basically your overall speed, logical use just your stroke count times, your distance per stroke and the one thing that you can monitor is your stroke count in open water. Distance per stroke. You should have a feel of whether or not you’re slipping through the water but assuming you’re pulling good water, there are different things that affect your stroke or your stroke count or your kick. So I would say for a lot of swimmers, I would say increasing your stroke count is a great way to generate more speed.
Ben: Which kind of contradicts what you hear a lot of swim coaches say, right?
John Kenny: Yeah, well a lot of swimming coaches coach swimmers who are in the pool. Really in short course and long course swimming, it’s very important to maintain a high kick and high distance per stroke and I think the big thing that you have to consider there is that they’re turning and pushing off the wall. Whereas in the open water, you don’t have that opportunity to regain that momentum. So, one of the ways that I’ve always found it easy to increase your speed is just by increasing the turnover. The other way to increase speed is by kick, but if you really increase and drive your legs with a kick, it’s really taking a lot out of you as opposed to increasing the stroke rate which is a more efficient way, I think, to gain speed in open water.
Ben: So for me personally I’ve used something like the ketchup drill to actually increase turnover or make the turnover a little more efficient. Do you have any little tips or tricks or mental counting drills that you do or even swim – not pedometers – I forget the word.
John Kenny: Metronome. There’s a product there that you can actually put on your goggle strap that you can set it for a strokes per minute and it will just give you a little beep every time your arm should be going. I’ve used them before and I like to maintain a high stroke count. Anything up in the 82 to 86 range I find is pretty good, for me personally.
Ben: 82 to 86. So if you have one of those little swim metronomes and training for the open water, that’s something you could try to do.
John Kenny: Yeah, absolutely. Some people are going to have more success at a lower stroke rate. I would imagine some people have a higher stroke rate. My stroke rate always tends to be a little bit high. But different people have success in different things, but definitely something that people should monitor and work on – being able to increase your stroke rate as needed.
Ben: Do you think that in the open water there is a magic breathing and sighting pattern or breathing and sighting frequency? Is there something that people like yourself do that just turns out to be the best way to breathe in open water endurance swimming? Or the best way in terms of how often you sight?
John Kenny: Well yeah I’m glad you brought that up. Navigation is such a huge part of open water swimming. If you’re swimming an Ironman in Lake Placid, maybe not so much because your (unintelligible) looking down at the line and you can kind of just follow the line, but if you’re swimming a course that’s more technical that you need to sight – or if it’s choppy and you can’t see the buoys, you need to sight frequently – you could be the fastest swimmer in the world, if you’re going the wrong direction, you’re not going to win the race. Sighting is so important and I think that there’s definitely good ways to practice that, I think. One of them is the head high drill where you basically swim the Tarzan stroke, really drive the legs and the hips high.
Ben: With your head completely out of the water? Like a water polo player?
John Kenny: Yeah exactly. Something that’s very difficult for people and some people will tire very quickly but practicing that, being able to do that and switch that on so that if you can’t see the buoy or if you’re in a crowd of people and you just can’t get around them, you can’t see around them, lifting the head high and keeping it there so you can see where the course is. Another thing is frequency of sighting and again that’s going to depend on the specific course. And the level of the swimmer. I know when I swam at World Championships last year in Spain, it was all in a rolling course and same as Ironman Lake Placid, it had the buoys lining it and you could not even look up the whole thousand meter stretch. You could look to the stretch, look where the people are, look where the buoys are, you didn’t have to sight. Other courses I’ve done – for me – a lot of times I can get away with sighting every 20 strokes. If someone has the tendency to zigzag a lot more, you know then they need to sight every 6 or 8 strokes.
Ben: Every 6 or 8?
John Kenny: Yeah, I would say 6 to 8 is probably a good range to get started for somebody who really doesn’t have a feel for how good of a navigator they are. Somebody who may tend to zigzag a lot more is going to need to correct their stroke a lot more often, so I’d say 6 strokes. If you sight every 4 strokes, your stroke really breaks down a lot. So you’re going to be constantly correcting and then the hips sink and you lose a lot of speed that way. I think 6 would probably be a minimum.
Ben: Now what about how often you actually breathe? Do you breathe every one stroke? Every 2 strokes? Every 3 strokes? Does it vary?
John Kenny: Yeah, I always bilateral breathe but I don’t breathe every 3 strokes, mostly because you’re not getting quite enough oxygen. So I’ll breathe every 2 strokes but then I’ll breathe 2-2-3-2-2-2-3 and that way you’re breathing to the right, to the right and then you’re switching sides to the left and then that way you have the symmetry of the bilateral breathing.
Ben: So basically what you do is if I could clarify – for example, you breathe to the right, you take one stroke – or I’m sorry, you breathe to the right, yeah, then you take one stroke, breathe to the right again, then you take two strokes then you breathe to the left and breathe to the left again?
John Kenny: Yeah exactly. It’s essentially breathing every two strokes but every third breath cycle or so, you’re taking 3 strokes and switching sides.
Ben: I see, ok. That makes sense actually. So, when you’re doing that you’re actually also sighting – when do you typically sight? After the one stroke to the one side, and then do you sight as you breathe or do you sight right before you take those two strokes to switch sides? Or does it vary?
John Kenny: Actually I typically sight right before a breath and this is something that I think people need to perfect. This is something that I think is a weakness for a lot of swimmers and triathletes. Being able to breathe and stick to a rhythm, being able to lift your head up as you turn – what I do is I lift just the eyes out of the water and as I’m doing that, I’m sighting and then I’m turning my head to the side to take a breath and doing that – yeah, a lot of people really… they’ll have a break or a pause in their stroke and they don’t get into that rhythm. I’m basically just lifting the head so the eyes are above the water and that point is when I turn the head to the side to take a breath. A lot of people really have a hitch in the stroke where they don’t have a good rhythm doing that and it’s something you can really develop just by practicing.
Ben: Now what about breathing and then sighting after you breathe? Like as your head kind of goes back into the water after kind of looking behind you to take your breath?
John Kenny: I typically do it the other way around. I typically sight right before the breath. I’ve seen people do it that way. I find it a whole lot easier to sight before a breath. I’d have to look at an individual’s stroke to see what it looks like when they do that because a lot of times people do. And they have a hitch in the stroke and they’re sighting after a breath and they’re kind of like swinging their head around in order to do that. So I think a lot of times some people do it that way, they’re losing speed.
Ben: Right. And just to switch gears here a little bit, when you’re actually starting the race – you’re standing on the beach or you’re kind of in the water, you’re getting ready to start and you want to get into a pack – a pack of people who you know are a little bit faster than you and you want to draft off their feet, you want to stay with the lead pack – whatever the case may be… what are some of the ways that people can figure out how to draft a little bit easier in the open water, what are some things that they can do to ensure that they stay with the pack they want to stay with?
John Kenny: Well from the beach, it’s pretty tough. Unless you specifically know certain people and their styles and have raced against them before. I think you’re not really going to figure that out until you get into the water. But once you get into the water and you have a feel for who’s there and who’s swimming what speed, you really want to draft off a person who swims a steady speed and maintains a straight line. Those two things are everything. If you get somebody who’s dragging or somebody who sprints and then fades off and you’re drafting off somebody who’s fading and they’re too slow, it’s not going to do anything for you. So, I think steady speed and a straight line are the things you really want to look for.
Ben: When you’re in those first 400 meters or 500 meters, do you have to actually go outside your comfort zone to stay with the pack that you want to stay with? Do you change your stroke frequency or your breathing rate to actually stay with the group that you want to be with?
John Kenny: You know what, I’m glad you mentioned that because this is something that I’m going to disagree with most coaches on. I hear people say all the time, oh the gun goes off you got to sprint that first 200 yards, you got to get out there and I think what that does is it sends people into a panic state, an anaerobic state too soon. And therefore kind of makes the drop-off a lot more severe. I don’t think this is the same as a surge. If you’re in a surge in the middle of the race, this is I think poor pacing when people do this and I see it all the time even in the professional level. You see guys really sprint that first 200 or 300 yards and then really fade after that, so I think that’s something that people want to avoid. Generally speaking, an evenly paced race is the most effective way to race.
Ben: So if the guys that you want to draft off are going out and sprinting 200 meters – the guys or the girls you’re going to draft off – you actually would be better off not even trying to stay on their feet and going at your pace and then passing them later on? Isn’t that kind of dangerous? What if you just never catch that group?
John Kenny: That’s a tricky question, and I think that’s a risk that you have to take. Most races I think have a variety of different ability levels and it’s not typical, I’d say, that there’s 5 guys that are really fast and then after that you have nobody. I think there’s usually a range of people and you’re going to be able to find somebody to draft off no matter where you are. Something that I’ve found whenever I race in a triathlon – I see it every time. I see guys that really just blow it out on the first 200 meters and then they fade. They swim so much faster in the first 200, if you only watched that part of the race, you would think what’s he doing? Falling asleep over there. In reality I think the people who are sprinting at the beginning are out of their comfort zone and they will fall off. I think especially for the average athlete, I don’t think you’re getting substantial draft typically to make up for that. The other thing that’s important to realize is that if you do sprint that beginning part, you’re going to fall off and you’re not going to have necessarily the energy to continue to draft at that point. I think it’s really important to pace evenly. There’s exceptions to that. There’s always exceptions to the rule but I think generally speaking that that’s the way to go.
Ben: I suppose if you were trying to go out hard with some of those people or really going hard for 200 meters and you if you were drafting then it might possibly be that by drafting off of their overspeed, you’re kind of staying right in your zone. So if you’re not the person in the front then I guess you might be able to still benefit from that first 200 meter sprint.
John Kenny: That’s how it works for me every time. Every race I ever do, every triathlon race I ever do, there’s guys who take it out and really in order to get out of the draft zone I think you need about two full body lengths and over 200 yards – that’s a pretty substantial margin to open up especially on an elite field. There’s not too many people that can completely break away in that amount of time. I find actually in a lot of races that particular moment in time when everybody’s starting to fade is the perfect time to throw a surge and then at that point, it’s easier to get that two body lengths that you need to break away.
Ben: Interesting. And that’s what it is, about two body lengths to break away from a draft, huh?
John Kenny: Yeah, give or take. It’s a little bit of an arbitrary thing. The draft is a continuous curve but yeah I think that’s where it’s really substantial.
Ben: So, John, what is the difference in terms of strategy – when you’re looking at the different types of swimming that’s out there in a triathlon? Do you change up your strategy if there’s a choppy lake versus swimming into an ocean breaker versus something else you see in triathlons quite a bit – swimming downriver? Are there subtle changes that you make when you encounter each of those types of environments in the open water?
John Kenny: There are changes. I wouldn’t call them subtle at all. I think there’s huge changes every time you encounter a different type of open water. You know a choppy lake is going to be a different type of swim. The more choppy the water is, the more wind there is, the bigger the waves are, the less substantial drafting is going to be. Same thing as a bike race where there’s you know, 12 and 15% grades. You’re not going to have the same draft as you are on a flat course. The same thing goes with open water swimming. If you’re swimming in 8 foot chop, the drafting means very little because every time you go over a wave, the wave is pushing people back and it’s really breaking things up. Ocean swims are completely different than pool swims. You have surf to contend with. You have waves, current, chop. Potentially body surfing and things like that. A lot of times you can find currents and ride currents. For example in a downriver swim or an upriver swim, if you’re swimming with a current or in a tidal water like the back bays here in New Jersey, you want to be in the deepest part of the river where the channel is where the water is moving fastest. That’s where the most speed is. Same thing if you’re going against the current. You want to get out of that channel because that’s water that’s moving fast against you so you want to go and hug the shoreline and possibly even catch some back eddies and move with it. So, there’s so many different scenarios and I think there’s huge changes and depending on who’s on the race too. If you have a race that has a lot of great swimmers who maybe aren’t so strong on the bike as opposed to if you have great bikers and runners – for me, coming from a strong swim background, I’ll try and get a gap on people and get the biggest lead I can. Race your strength really. So I think that each individual race has its own set of tactics and there’s an infinite number of possibilities.
Ben: When you’re swimming straight into say an ocean break or something like the Clearwater Triathlon, what type of strategy do you utilize?
John Kenny: Well number one, like I said before I think that not going into an all out sprint in the beginning – because a lot of people will actually make that argument a little stronger – they’ll say that they can get a bigger lead on a surf dash because they’re running and not swimming. So you can gain more distance on someone if you’re running. And I say even more so that a sprint into a surf dash can really throw you into that anaerobic zone.
Ben: You mean like a running sprint?
John Kenny: Yeah, running sprint. Like an Ironman Florida or any time you’re running into the waves. Surf dash is crucial but I think that you also want to – when you do a surf dash it’s not like a surf dash rescue at the beach where somebody’s life is depending on you getting there one second faster. It’s more of a 90% effort where you’re going in, basically running, hurdling the waves and then you get to the point where you’re maybe 2 to 4 feet deep depending on how tall and how long your legs are and then you go into the porpoise technique and pretty much after that, you reach a certain point where it’s too deep to porpoise and you begin swimming at that point.
Ben: Oh sorry, go ahead and… sorry. Explain that porpoise technique to me.
John Kenny: Ok, it’s actually something I teach in my phase one ocean clinics. And it’s actually very effective when you’re going out through the surf. I don’t like to do it on the way in because the slope of the ground is typically counterproductive, but on the way out – if you’re in knee deep to waist deep water roughly and there’s breaking waves coming to you, what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to let those waves hit you straight on because the force and the energy of that wave is all in the white water. So in other words, you might dive over the white water or you want to dive under the white water depending on what depth you’re at. You begin in the shallow water and you dive over. Basically over the wave and dive down to the bottom, grab the sand with your hands. Literally pull yourself with your arms on the sand and basically bring the feet around and then push off with the legs and back in again. You know, to dive under the next wave so I mean the key there is you want to avoid allowing the wave to hit you head on because then all your momentum is going backwards.
Ben: Is there a way to practice in the pool or do you usually just take people in the open water to do that?
John Kenny: The open water is better. I think anytime you practice an open water drill, you want to do it in the open water. If you want to do it in the pool, number one you’re going to have to find a pool that’s shallow enough. Most pools start around 4 feet deep so it’s going to be difficult to stimulate that. By the time you’re in chest deep water, I don’t know how much benefit you really get out of doing a porpoise technique anyway. But in the 3 foot range, especially if a pool has a slope and a bottom that you can push off, that’s definitely something you can practice in the pool.
Ben: Or if you have a really long bathtub. Anyways, a lot of people listening in, they may not even really be comfortable in the open water at all. A lot of people get nervous, a lot of people get panic attacks. What’s the number one way that someone can get comfortable swimming in the open water?
John Kenny: Pretty simple. There’s no secret to it. Train in the open water. Really no substitute.
Ben: Just get in.
John Kenny: Yeah. You got to get in. If you live near open water, you got to get in frequently. You got to put yourself out of your comfort zone. You have to swim on cold days with no wetsuit. You have to swim on hot days with a wetsuit. Swim on days when the seas are choppy, if you live near an ocean or a lake. Of course never swim alone in the open water. That’s something that’s really important, because things do happen out there. But it’s really important for people to actually get in the open water as much as possible because you’re in a pool and people are in their comfort zone. It’s more mental than anything. I think that if people are able to push their fears aside, get into the ocean on a big day, maybe even with a group of people and overcome that fear I think that you’ll find that it really is just a mental block and people can handle it a lot easier than they think. But really the key is just to practice it because you don’t want your race day to be the first day that you’re ever swimming in an ocean.
Ben: Right. Now for the people who’re already comfortable in the open water but who just want to get faster, do you have a top workout or a number one way that people can get faster in the open water? I know we talked about stroke turnover a little bit and some techniques but anything that you want to throw out there.
John Kenny: Yeah, actually I do have one thing. I think generally speaking you just need to push the envelope. If you swim everyday and you swim 1000 meters and you swim at an anaerobic pace, you’re going to retain speed every day. You’re going to get the same results if you do today what was acceptable yesterday then you’re not going to be any faster tomorrow. So, I think I also – I think that you need to work a little bit longer intervals. One workout that I really like to do is basically if I have about 5 or 6 swimmers that are all comparative speed, I’ll have them each take a number. I’ll get everybody nice and warmed up and then I’ll ask everybody to take a number 1 through 6 and ok, so number 1 gets up there and he’s going to swim about a 600 meter straightaway. Everybody’s going to swim a relatively comfortable pace the first 600 meters straightaway and then when the person who gets number 1 – his goal is he’s got to drop everybody so he can pick anytime. It’s a little bit of strategy. He can pick anytime he wants, sprint from the start. Wait until the very end. But he’s got to get open water on them, he’s got to get a two body length lead on everybody else and then you finish that one. You take about a one to two minute break and then you do it again. And number two’s got to do the same thing. So everybody’s getting an opportunity to really throw a good surge. I think that that’s something that really makes a stronger open water swimmer – is swimming a pace that’s fast to begin with and then being able to just push the envelope a little bit harder. Kind of like a Farlick run workout.
Ben: Sorry, what were you saying?
John Kenny: I was just going to say that’s one of my favorite things to do in my open water class. I think people really have fun with that.
Ben: For the people who are coached by you on a more individual basis, like not in a camp or a clinic – do you actually send them swim workouts to do? Like individualized open water or pool swim workouts and tell them what they need to be doing?
John Kenny: Absolutely. That would be something that would come with the coaching service.
Ben: That was something that I actually wanted to kind of finish up with, was that you’re not just an open water swim expert but in addition to a lot of the awesome experience and advice that you gave today, you’re a pro triathlete and you know a lot about triathlon. Obviously we didn’t get into cycling and running today, but you have quite a bit of experience. You’re certified as a trainer, as a coach and people have access to actually hook up with you for coaching. Where are you located?
John Kenny: Right now I live in Atlantic City, New Jersey and I do a lot of work in the Philadelphia area so I cover a lot of ground between the two.
Ben: And now you’re actually available online to anyone anywhere at the world over at www.pacificfit.net or Pacific Elite Fitness, right?
John Kenny: That’s right.
Ben: Ok, I’ll put a link to that in the Shownotes. I’m going to put a link to the swim metronome that John talked about if you want to check that out and try an 82 to 86 turnover cadence. If you’re in that area and you’re interested in having John work with you and give you some online coaching, some face to face coaching, you’re interested in getting involved with one of his clinics, just look him up. You’ll be able to read his extensive biography and all his contact information over there at the link that I’ll put on www.bengreenfieldfitness.com but also at www.pacificfit.net. John, thanks for coming on the show today.
John Kenny: Alright, thanks for having me Ben.
For personal nutrition, fitness or triathlon consulting, supplements, books or DVD’s from Ben Greenfield, please visit Pacific Elite Fitness at http://www.pacificfit.net