After a long career in banking, Rhian decided to get back into sport and found a love of swimrun with her husband. She talks to Sundried about her favourite races and the world of swimrun.
Have you always been into sport?
Yes, since a really early age. When I was younger, I represented Great Britain in triathlon and Wales for triathlon, duathlon, swimming and cross country at junior and U23 level. I then left top level sport and started an investment banking career in London.
Fast forward 12 years, following the birth of our 2nd child I wanted a career that could fit around the children, so I retrained as a personal trainer and started a fitness business. Whilst I stayed fit in banking, post-children I increased my fitness and qualified and competed in the British marathon championships.
What made you decide to enter the world of swimrun?
One day a client came to me saying he was competing in Otillo swimrun, I googled it and marvelled at the sheer spectacle and endurance of the event. The seed was sown!
Then in 2015, the inaugural UK swimrun sprint series was held at Eton Dorney Lake, just down the road from us. I persuaded my husband to enter with me. We won the series and won entry to the Otillo World Series event in Switzerland. We haven’t looked back since!
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
All our swimrun races are memorable as each race is so different – Otillo, who run the World Series and championships, provide “unique races in unique places” and this is certainly the case! The Breca races are also in stunning locations.
My favourite location for the swimrun is the Isle of Scilly – beautiful Caribbean-like beaches and unspoilt islands, plus very friendly locals. We have podiumed twice there!
And your proudest achievement?
Becoming World Number 1 in the Mixed swimrun team rankings in 2017. I get to do a sport I love with my husband and we managed to become world number 1 even though we were age 39 & 43 (there are no age categories in swimrun so we compete against all ages).
Have you ever had any racing disasters/your toughest race yet?
The toughest race was the 2017 world championship in Sweden – aside from being 65km of extreme trail running and 10km of sea swimming it was the weather that made it even harder. Forty knot winds, huge waves, heavy rain, rip tides, slippery rocks and cold seas! I am pretty sure if that had been in the UK the race would have been cancelled.
How do you overcome setbacks?
In the 2018 World Swimrun Championships we came 15th mixed team and top UK Team. Whilst initially a little disappointed with this as we felt this did not reflect our true potential – when you put it into perspective we have to be proud of what we have achieved. We’ve had many sets backs to overcome this season: I suffered a career-threatening injury in late 2017 and then this year my husband Ben got pneumonia. It got worse before it got better as I then twisted my other ankle on a training run in France in July with only 6 weeks to go before the race. But we know these races are about mental strength as well as physical fitness so we drew on previous experience.
What is the best bit of advice you wish someone had told you before you started competing?
Don’t stop believing. I thought I was too old to become an elite athlete all over again, but finding the right sport, training hard, looking after my body, fuelling and hydrating properly, we achieved something that I did not think was possible.
What are your goals for 2019?
To inspire more people to do swimrun. We will continue to compete internationally with our focus being Otillo and Breca races.
Who do you take your inspiration from?
Other strong, older women who continue to compete at the top level post-children like Nicola Spirig, Annika Ericsson, and Jo Pavey.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
I like the Sundried ethical ethos, how they care for the environment and also work closely with a number of charities to give something back.
I spend most of my life in sports kit so it is important to have something that is comfortable, looks good and aids performance. The Ruinette cropped leggings are good for running and also for the school run!
Sharron Davies is a British athlete who started her swimming career at the record-breaking young age of 11 years-old. She has represented Great Britain at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games as well as enjoying a media career working for the BBC and appearing on shows such as Dancing On Ice and The Island With Bear Grylls. Sundried had the honour of chatting with Sharron and finding out more about her fascinating life.
You started your competitive swimming career very young. How did it feel being an athlete and competing at such huge events as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games at such a young age?
Swimming used to be a very young sport. It is less so these days at elite level due to lottery funding but in some ways it still is. Swimmers learn early to get into the club system early, like gymnastics. However, swimmers' careers tend to be longer.
I was never daunted, I just enjoyed the experience which was so valuable when in my second Olympics I was aiming for medals. There were less multi-sport events when I was young and they are a unique environment. I’ve since done 11 Olympics: three competing and the rest working for the BBC and they are all different and amazing.
What has been your favourite race/event to date and why?
I always loved the Commonwealth Games. My Olympic career was blighted by East Germans who we now know conclusively were drug-aided. All my silver and bronze medals at world level are behind East Germans who today would be stripped of their medals. At the Commonwealth Games, I felt it was a level playing field and I could win gold. Which I did.
How did it feel being awarded an MBE for your services to swimming?
My MBE was a long time coming due to Mrs Thatcher not awarding any after the 1980 summer Moscow Olympics. However, it was a great honour and I loved taking my parents to Buckingham Palace; they were a huge support for me.
What was it like being a contestant on Dancing On Ice? Was it easier for you to pick up ice skating as someone who is already athletic or was it still tough?
Dancing On Ice was both great and horrid. Judge Jason Gardener was a nasty piece of work and his criticism was way past acceptable. It became very personal and it was hard for my kids going to school the next day. That's what I hate about reality television; others getting famous for being rude or outrageous. But learning to skate and working with my partner Pavel Aubrecht was wonderful. Since then I’ve done The Island with Bear Grylls and that was seriously hardcore!
Please tell us about the charities for whom you are a patron.
I work with many charities that are related to either sport, children, para-sport or nature. My soapbox issue is fitter children and marine conservation, looking after our seas, and reducing waste. We need to look after our world better. It’s shameful what we as humans are doing to it.
How do you maintain your fitness and health now that you are retired from professional swimming?
I’ve actually retired twice. Once at 19 because I needed a break to be normal, but to maintain my American University scholarship I had to swim. I just needed 6 months off from training 6 hours a day, but no one did that in the 1980s so I retired and worked in television instead.
Unfortunately, I was banned from competing as a professional swimmer for receiving £40 for appearing on a television quiz show and so I missed the 1984 LA Olympics. I came back after 8 years out once trust funds were introduced to swimming and competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Competing at three Olympics across three decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s) is probably quite unusual.
When you retire, you have to completely retrain your eating habits as you can eat a lot of calories during a 6-hour training day! That’s not easy. These days I train about 4 times a week in the gym, but I also like to cycle. A typical training routine for me includes thirty minutes of cardio, 15 minutes of core work, and 15 minutes of weights. I’ve added in heavy weights once a week to reduce muscle wastage which increases once over the age of 50.
Do you follow a specific nutrition regime? If so, what/when do you eat?
I’m pretty good with food and I eat reasonably healthy. I put nothing on the banned list and eat everything in moderation. I don’t drink much alcohol, I have never smoked, and I try to look after my skin. Dieting is not great for the body; eating sensible, balanced food with regular exercise is always best. There is no magic formula and no shortcut sadly. A very good tip is not to eat late at night and use a smaller plate to achieve portion control.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Inspirational people for me are all those that apply themselves, stay grounded, honest and fair. I admire great musicians, artist, architects, writers, sportsmen and women but behind every successful person there is usually a great support team who don’t get so much attention. My dad was my coach, my mum and brothers gave up a lot for me to swim and my swimming colleagues were all part of my team.
What advice do you wish you were given when you first started out?
When you start out you need to think of the long game and the fact there will be real highs and lows. Everything is a lesson and sport reflects life. It’s not about talent - though that certainly helps - it’s about perseverance, planning and application. Remember: if it was easy to be a great athlete, everyone would do it!
What advice would you give other young athletes embarking upon the world of competitive swimming?
Swimming has come a long way. The training and hours are no different to my time, but the support our British athletes get these days is second to none in the whole world. We as a nation should be so proud of our achievements. Per capita, we have been the world's most successful Olympic nation for the last ten years.
Swimming gave me a great pair of shoulders and a great work ethic, you just have to remember your hair conditioner and body lotion!
If you've followed any type of marathon or half marathon training plan, you will no doubt have seen that you should be doing 'cross training' throughout the week as well as running. But what exactly is it? Which type is best? And how is it beneficial for runners? We answer all these questions and more.
What is cross training?
When most people hear the phrase 'cross training', they immediately think of the cross trainer (or elliptical) at the gym, but this isn't quite the case. Cross training for runners is simply any other type of training that can supplement and benefit your running training. A triathlete naturally does cross training by swimming, cycling, and running all together as part of their training, but runners can get stuck in a rut of just running. It's hugely important to do cross-training, read on to find out why.
Read more: 10 Tips To Survive Your First Marathon
Cross training benefits
So why should runners be doing cross training? Research has found that runners who do cross training such as strength training at a gym are less likely to get running injuries, are more likely to have a higher VO2 max, and are able to perform better. Of course it's perfectly logical that having stronger muscles would mean you are stronger in your running and will be able to get more power out of your training session.
Depending on the training plan you are following, you may find that cross training replaces some rest days. An intermediate marathon or half marathon training plan will often have you training 6 days a week, with 5 of those for running, 2 or 3 for cross training, and one for rest.
Read more: Cross Training Workout For Runners
Is yoga cross training?
Yoga is certainly a type of cross training, although it may not hold all of the benefits of other sports such as swimming, cycling, and strength training. Yoga has many benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, increasing flexibility, and improving posture and balance. All of these are things that would be beneficial to runners, and therefore doing yoga once a week as part of your training should help you to improve your running performance.
Read more: Yoga For Runners
Is cycling good cross training for running?
Cycling is possibly one of the best types of cross-training for running as it targets the legs and core and therefore will strengthen the key muscle groups used when running. Not only this, as it is an aerobic exercise, you will be improving your fitness but it is a low impact activity so will give your joints a chance to rest.
A great way to train for the last part of a half marathon or marathon when you are running on empty and struggling to keep going is to do a brick workout. This is a type of workout employed by triathletes and duathletes whereby you go for a run straight after a bike ride. It gets your legs used to running when tired and is a great way for runners to practice keeping going when fatigued and running low on energy.
What is the best type of cross training?
Swimming is a great way to cross-train as it is zero impact and so will give your joints a chance to recover from pounding the pavements while working your muscles hard. Not only this, it works your muscles in a completely different way to activities like gym workouts and cycling and so will give you a great full-body workout. On top of this, the breath control needed for swimming could help to put you in good habits with your running.
This is usually the most popular choice for runners as it is proven to be hugely beneficial to performance, physiology, and fitness. Lifting weights and working on your main muscle groups like core, back, and legs will have a significant impact on your running and will also help to improve the way you look.
Skipping is an activity you may not have thought about for cross-training, but it can be hugely beneficial. Skipping works your calf muscles as well as testing the flexibility in your ankle joint, and this translates well to running as they can be areas that are neglected in other parts of training.
Getting in cold, open water can hold fear or confusion for many athletes, or others just simply don’t enjoy it. Whatever happens, it’s good to be prepared; follow these tips for preparing for the open water.
When you get in open water, take time to familiarise yourself and if you can't get comfortable, at least get acclimatised. The number one issue for panic is people setting off too quickly, either just to get on or to get warm. This spikes your heart rate and your breathing and will likely set off any anxiety that will become more difficult to control. Let your wetsuit float you up in the water and try to relax back so you can float on your back – and then on your front too.
Identify the struggles of swimming in open water
Going off course. Panicking. Swimming into people. Letting your form collapse. Maybe you’re not being used to swimming in a wetsuit. Unforeseen conditions like strong currents and surf/chop.
The number one remedy to the majority if not all of the above is practice, practice, practice.
It's true that it is hard to get a lot of practice in open water because of schedules, weather conditions, and other commitments. So continue to swim your regular sessions every week. But as the race approaches take one or two of those swims into open water, whether it be a lake, estuary, or ocean. Make it as high a priority as possible.
Swimming in the pool is not completely different from swimming in the open water – but it does have its own vagaries. So to get faster at the latter, you need to do it more. And not just on race day.
Use these swims to test your wetsuit, practice sighting, get used to not seeing the bottom, and practice with others. Also, work on longer intervals at race pace. Some people will benefit from maintaining a more constant rhythm – others will need to readjust from having a rest and a push off at the end of every length!
Prepare as much as you can in the pool
Swimming in the pool still has its place. Even though you race in the open water, you should still keep up your regular weekly pool sessions, especially if your form is still weak. Of course, you can work on technique in the lake or sea, but it becomes more challenging. Pool swims are important to develop speed and improve technique without the distractions that open water provides. Use the pool to focus on your form and drill work as well as a few race pace speed sets for time so that you can monitor your splits.
If open water is simply out of the question, simulate the chop, surf, and congestion by trying to swim in a lane with three to four other people at the same time. It is tough but it will mimic that race start well. Also, close your eyes while swimming to mimic losing your ability to guide yourself with the black line (obviously only do this if you have an empty lane!) Turning before the wall is also a great way to simulate the stop-go of open water swimming, and not resting between lengths.
Swimming in open water – at least with a wetsuit – should be quicker than swimming in the pool. So make sure that you are prepared for swimming in open water. Practise putting your wetsuit on so that it fits properly over your shoulders. Get yourself comfortable entering the water so that your heart rate doesn’t take such a shock to the system come race day.
Read more: Tips For Swimming In Open Water
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.
Once you’re comfortable in the water and swimming further and easier than before, the next challenge is to get quicker! Either because you want to beat your friends, set personal bests, finish further up the results, or potentially even qualify for age group teams.
There are three keys to getting faster at swimming:
- Reducing frontal resistance to the water
- Pulling/kicking with purpose
- Not rushing your stroke
Reducing your resistance to the water
This will mean that you can move faster and further with the same level of effort and this is a real foundation to strong and fast swimming. If you are able to focus on good posture in the water – i.e. looking down, lengthening your spine and engaging your core, then you’ll be in a really good place.
A simple trick to focus this is to streamline when you push off the wall every time. This is not cheating – a comment that I get from many athletes! This is a skill that will help you travel faster and with better form, improving the quality of your swims. Imagine it like a squat jump. When you push off the wall, if possible, squeeze your ears between your biceps with your hands together above your head. If shoulder mobility doesn’t allow this, just keep your arms in front of you but still aiming to tuck your chin down toward your chest.
All this will help lengthen your spine and keep your head in the right position – it’s your reset point every length. Finally, when you push off, you will automatically engage your core – meaning that your first few strokes will be among your best ever. Your challenge is then to try and maintain that as far down each length as you can!
Pulling and kicking with purpose
With resistance reduced, you can look to engage with the water more rather than moving your arms and legs just for the sake of moving them. Kick drills can teach you to kick smoothly rather than panic splashing your legs around. You can kick streamlined (see above), on your front or on your back, or do side kick to work on body roll – in any case, make sure that your legs are pushing against the water.
With your arms, you can do sculling drills to get used to feeling pressure of the water against your hands and forearms – and transferring this into doing your full stroke. Swimming with fists can have the same effect. Whatever drills you end up doing, mix them into doing full stroke so that you can feel where the drill is trying to work on in your stroke. Focus on each kick or pull having some purpose rather than trying to just do things for the sake of doing them!
Not rushing your stroke
Finally, with regards to swimming faster I like to think of the phrase "less haste, more speed". If you look at the top athletes in most sports – Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter in rugby, Messi or Ronaldo in football, rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, swimmer Katie Ledecky etc – they never look like they are rushing, even though they are doing things at incredibly high speed.
Some of this comes down to the fact that they are very well practised. On top of this though, they know that they have all the time that they need to undertake the skills that they are doing. There is no rush. In the case of Glover & Stanning, or Katie Ledecky, their stroke rates are incredibly high – but they don’t look like they are rushing things. Again, think about connecting with the water and pushing – rather than just trying to throw your arms and legs around aimlessly to go quicker. Effort does not necessarily equal speed!
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.