How Ironman champion Ruth Astle transformed her swim

Since this article was published, Ruth Astle went on to win her second Ironman in South Africa, just FIVE weeks after her maiden victory in Mallorca!
After a rocky start to her pro-career thanks to COVID-19 and injury Ruth Astle celebrated her fist Ironman win as a professional triathlete at Mallorca Ironman 2021. We take a look at how the INCUS | NOVA has helped her on her journey.

Mallorca may well go down as a breakthrough race in Astle’s career, not just as her first pro win, but the race where her swim propelled her into the front group, “I was an absolutely terrible swimmer! INCUS has helped me get to a point where I can swim with the main group, being able to do that helped me win in Mallorca.”

Astle has been using the INCUS | NOVA since early 2020, her first year as a pro-athlete. In that time she has had races cancelled because of COVID-19, missed pool time because of lockdowns and suffered an Achilles injury that hampered her run preparation, but despite this less than perfect introduction to the pro-scene she has finished 2021 with an Ironman race win under her belt and (at time of writing) South Africa Ironman 2021 still to do.

“Mallorca has given me a bit more confidence but I  knew I could be competitive at that world level, as otherwise I would not have turned pro,” but Astle was expecting the results to take longer to arrive, “in my head I thought I had another couple of years building and improving, to keep working on my swim so I was consistently in the lead pack.” So, how has she made her swimming breakthrough?

How to swim like a pro

“I was a really average swimmer before, good for an age-grouper but really terrible for a professional athlete. INCUS has helped me keep an eye on my technique, when I change things I can see how it translates into my stroke and into my performance” Astle explains, since having the INCUS | NOVA she has worked on two key areas in the pool, rotation and efficiency. 

Body roll and rotation

“I was really wonky in the pool, at one point I was 70/30. I was barely rotating on one side. My goal was to bring that into a more normal range.” The recommended Body Roll angle is between 40°-70° so keeping an eye on whether you stay within these parameters in every session can help you better understand your form and technique. “My left side has been weaker since my crash when my collar bone needed fixing. I’ve done a lot of work on it, I’m still a bit wonky but a lot better.”  Astle isn’t alone, 39% of INCUS Swim users were not within the recommended swim rotation range for Front Crawl when they first started using the INCUS | NOVA.

How much you rotate in the water is related to stroke efficiency, your frontal area and drag. It is also a way of assessing your body position and your stroke biomechanics. Roll is the maximum rotation of your shoulders left to right throughout your stroke cycle, relative to the surface of the water. The INCUS | NOVA is the only swim tracker to measure Body Roll and it does this by monitoring the movement and rotation of your body from its central position on your upper spine. To start measuring your Body Roll head to the Swim Store

Swim Economy

Swim training used to rely almost exclusively on timed lengths as a measure of how well you are swimming but Swim Economy can be used to track the effectiveness of your technique training. “As soon as I am a bit tired from other training my swimming really suffers and that really comes through in the Vo2 and threshold sessions I do. Using Incus, I can see that even though I can’t hit the intensity my technique is good and I’m swimming efficiently.” This isn’t just good for seeing your technique progress, it is important for morale as well, “if I can see that my rotation and efficiency is improving it gives me a positive to take away instead of thinking, that’s another crap swim.”

In swimming, forces act to push you forward (your strokes) and slow you down (drag). Swim Economy is a measure of efficiency that shows the ratio of these propulsive to resistive accelerations. The fastest swimmers combine a high stroke rate with high Swim Economy per stroke. The closer you are to 100% Swim Economy for a certain pace the more efficient your stroke is. Sometimes when you are trying to go faster your technique falls apart and you need to go back to the foundations, “ I use the INCUS |NOVA as sense check. When I’m trying to go faster but not seeing it in the times, I can go back to my data and check what I was doing.” 

Benefits of data

“There are so many variables to measure in swimming – time doesn’t capture it all,” Astle explains, “ now I can understand what I’m doing when I’m having a better swim. I can go back and look at what contributed to a best performance, it is really helpful.” Changing technique is difficult, you cannot rely on time to show if you are making the right changes and no one can have a coach on poolside every swim, not even a pro. “When I do specific drills, I can look at the data to see the validation afterwards that the drills work, or don’t work and then adapt them as necessary. I may not be going faster on those drills but I can see changes have been made to technique so I know the drill was effective.”

When Astle does have a coach poolside the INCUS|NOVA supports real life coaching advice to the benefit of both coach and athlete, “I have been able to swim with a coach who has observed me and given me feedback. Interestingly her observations supported the data from NOVA and the NOVA validated her advice.”

Data is only useful if you act on it, “it’s hard for multisport athletes, there are so many different training tools. I only monitor a limited amount of training metrics that I find useful. There is endless data you can look at but a lot of people don’t act on the data they discover. You need to do the drills to match the weaknesses INCUS discovers in the data.”

Life as a pro-triathlete

Turning professional has obviously made a huge difference to Astle’s training and performance but it might not be in the areas you would imagine. “The biggest difference is in time and sleep, there is more recovery time. When I think back to what I was doing before I almost can’t believe it. I’m only training a little bit more but I have more time for recovery and sleeping and that has made a huge difference.”

Amateur athletes often think that pros have the luxury of being able to train more, in reality it is the rest that makes the difference. “I was definitely sacrificing sleep before! When you are doing that it feels like the right thing to do and it doesn’t feel that bad but now I don’t know how I used to get up at 4.30am to train and then do a full day at work. I can’t even make a masters swim session at 6am now as it feels too early”

In reality it isn’t just sleep, it’s time. No more skipping core sessions or foregoing stretching, eating proper meals instead of grabbing something on the run will all make a difference, “I can now fit in a gym session twice a week and I’m probably managing to get in a couple of extra run and bike sessions” Astle explains. 

Consistency is key

We asked Astle what she has learnt on her triathlon journey that she wished she had known at the start, “it is a bit boring but consistency is the main thing” she explains, “ People like the hero sessions but that is not what makes the difference. Swimming, if you have not grown up doing it, is really hard. You have to spend 2-3 years of consistent swimming, going two or three times a week. You just have to accept that it is boring and frustrating but it's time in the pool.” 

Don’t be afraid of big goals
 “I wish I could go back and tell myself that you can have big goals and you can go after them. It’s not ridiculous to have really big crazy goals.” Whilst winning Ironman Mallorca is one big goal realized Astle has far more to come and is looking ahead to the World Championship qualifiers at St. Georges and of course Kona, where she is still reigning age-group champion thanks to the cancellations of events due to COVID-19, “I don’t believe in focusing on positions or outcomes, I’m aiming for my best race. Positions are so dependent on other people. At the world champ races, you get 20% of people who over perform 40-50% who underperform and the rest as expected. If I had the type of race I am capable of I would hope to be at least top ten at St George which will give me a good experience of a professional World Champs race and a good position for Kona.”