Train Like A Swimmer

Grant Hackett

The best distance swimmer ever takes me through training and technique for Alpha magazine, just before the Beijing Olympics. If I ever find the layout, I’ll put it up.

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Grant Hackett, 27, is one of history’s greatest endurance athletes. He has won 1500m swimming gold medals at the Sydney and Athens Olympics – the latter while suffering a partially deflated lung – and many World Championships titles. He’s going for the hat-trick at Beijing, and after winning a local event recently, is gunning for the 10km open-water title too. He has dominated distance swimming for nearly a decade, building on natural advantages with a terrifying training regimen.

“[The 10km open-water is] not so tough cardio-wise. You reach a much higher level for the 1500 and you’ve got to that for 15 minutes. The 10k is more strategy: you’re not necessarily pushing it for the whole time. Sometimes the race backs off, you’re in a pack, you can drag off other guys, you can choose to lead… But there needs to be a focus for two hours, like a marathon.”

“Swimming is a very specific sport so you have to really do the kilometres in the water. You can be as fit as you want but cross-training doesn’t really work too much. So I do a bit on the static bike and I do weights as well for strength. I alternate between those on each of the weekdays. I’m probably spending eight hours a week in the gym now, but normally about six. But I swim 7.5km every morning and the same at night.”

“God gave me enormous lungs. I’ve got a lung capacity nearing 13 litres, which is 160-170 per cent above what’s predicted for somebody of my age and my height. It’s a bit freakish and off the chart. My wingspan is long – it’s about 4-5 inches longer than my height. Fingertip to fingertip it’s supposed to be the same as your height, while being six foot six is in itself an advantage.”

“I got sick (before the Athens Olympics), continued to train while I was sick and made myself really sick. I got mild pneumonia and being a low-grade asthmatic I’m susceptible to mucus-plugging where your bronchioles get plugged up with mucus and the lower left lobe of my lung was blocked with mucus was blocked for so long it had deflated. Of the three events I was in I lost two of them by 0.1 of a second and fortunately won gold in the 1500m. I could barely walk after the race and no one had ever seen me like that before. Instead of dealing with fatigue for 30 per cent of the event I’d deal with it for 50 per cent of the event. Everyone thought I was crying at the end of that race, but I wasn’t, I was just in absolute agony.”

“A normal person burns about 9000kj per day; I burn 15-16,000kj. It means I don’t stop eating and my food bill’s very expensive! I’m always hungry: I’ll eat a massive meal and 20 minutes later I’m hungry. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night just starving and I’ll have a bowl of cereal. You’ve got to make sure you put the correct fuel in; if you’re eating that much but it’s the wrong sort of food it’s no good for your recovery or your physique. I like cereal and fruit. A lot of protein: chickens, red meat, vegetables and a lot of rice cakes. But it’s cooked really lean without heaps of cheese.”

Physically, you can push yourself a lot further than you give credit for; the mental side of it is the difference – whether you want to make your body go that far and see if it breaks or just happy to go to 95 per cent. [Once, in training] I did 7.5km in the morning; 7.5km at midday; I did a gym session; went back home for a rest; came back and did a 6.5km. I’m in a race we’re you get to the last third and it’s like, ‘OK – have you guys trained? Because I’m going to go.’ You’ll part the men from the boys then.”

“You may get sick, break down, injure yourself, but you just climb back up and say, ‘Well, I’ll get there next time, but prepare better. Training and improvement are gradual things. I don’t think there’s such a thing as pushing it too far. Unless you’re dead. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been sick in a race and nearly passed out, but I didn’t die. I like it.”

Grant Hackett’s guide to the tumble turn

  • “Everyone comes into the wall, puts their head up and has a look at the wall – ‘Oh, yeah, it’s there, I’ll flip now.’ That’s why they put the black line and the “T” there, so you don’t have to do that.”
  • “Look at the bottom of the pool, look at the T to make sure your proximity to the wall is correct so you can land a proper turn. You know your body size, so you know how far past the T you need to be.”
  • “Take one full stroke, get your head tucked right in, pull your legs in, pull into the turn, flip over and off you go; your arms are back against your body. The most important thing is getting that head-tuck and that position so it’s absolutely efficient. You don’t want to stop the rhythm of the whole thing and slow your speed down by putting your head up, seeing the wall and then doing it.”
  • “As your feet land against the wall, your arms are going into a streamlined position above your head, then you push off. Because you’ve flipped you leave your arms there and they’re then out in front of you. Push off, use the acceleration off the wall, then kick once the acceleration comes off a bit.”
  • “Someone like Michael Phelps stays [under water after the turn] for a long time – he’s really taken that to a new level for the shorter events. For mine, I just do two butterfly kicks, which probably take me 5-6m, then I come back up. [With my event] you don’t want to go into too much oxygen debt because it fatigues you too quick.”
  • “Common mistakes include putting the head up, not staying relaxed and letting your nose fill up with water – exhale when you flip. A lot of people try to turn onto their front too quick. You want to make sure you stay on your back or on your side a little bit. Then you slowly rotate as you’re pushing off the wall. Panicking and looking at the wall is the most common thing. You can learn this technique in one training session.”

Grant Hackett’s top 10 tips for a better swimming stroke

    1. When you put your hand in, don’t bring it back to the body: your body comes to the hand, using your hand as an anchor.
    2. Make sure your elbow stays out and your hand stays down and doesn’t come in close to your body.
    3. When you breathe don’t over-rotate your body to one side – a balanced rotation – most people panic when they breathe.
    4. Breathe bi-lateral when you’re swimming easy,
    5. When you’re swimming hard, breathe to the side that’s most comfortable and with the best rhythm.
    6. Always keep your head and neck relaxed, instead of looking up the whole time. You’ve got to keep the head forward.
    7. Keep your hips anchored and have a small rotation and have a greater rotation as you come up through the body to the top of the shoulders.
    8. At the back end of the stroke make sure you push right out the back. Don’t just give up once you’ve done the front bit.
    9. Make sure you keep your elbows high when you’re in the recovery position. Most people swing their arms around.
    10. Don’t enter your hands too early: make sure you use your full reach – without overreaching, though. A lot of people enter their hand straight over their head, but it should be extended – use the length you have, but don’t extend so your elbow actually drops below your hand. Always keep the hand slightly below the elbow.