Photo Credit: The Great Swim
For Olympian and two-time open water swimming world champion, Keri-anne Payne, years of 5am starts were all part and parcel of her medal-winning mission to inspire more people to take up open water swimming. After hanging up her professional swim cap earlier this year, the 30-year-old Olympic silver medallist explains how she’s achieving her goal in retirement through Triscape, the coaching business she’s launched with her husband and fellow Olympic swimmer, David Carry.
You retired from competitive swimming earlier this year – how have you found retirement?
I have loved it. It’s been amazing, and the reason I’ve enjoyed it so much is because I’ve had something to step into – I didn’t just finish swimming and go, Right. What’s the plan now? I had a plan from very early on and was very excited to step into our new business, Triscape. It’s all going incredibly well and we’re inspiring people to learn how to swim and get into swimming. It’s really rewarding, really worthwhile and I’m very happy not to have to get up at 5am anymore for a swim!
Can you tell us more about your coaching business, Triscape?
Triscape is about helping to give people the confidence to go on their next swimming challenge – whether that’s a Masters swimming competition, swimming in a triathlon, an ironman or just generally learning how to swim. We’re open to everyone. We call ourselves an international coaching business; this involves hosting [swimming] retreats around the world, and we offer individual coaching back in the UK as well, so one-to-one coaching and big masterclasses.
We’re just about to launch a brand new online service that we’re offering for swimming coaches and swimming teachers, helping them to learn how to coach people better and make swimming easy again. There’s just so many things that we read out there that make swimming a really complicated process, but it’s not. Swimming should be easy. So that’s what we’re doing; helping people understand that with a few well-guided pointers, you can swim. It’s really not difficult.
Is Triscape a mix of pool and open water swimming?
It’s both. In the winter, we’ll generally be indoors. But it’s very easy to do open water training indoors, and it’s quite nice taking the cold element of it. When it’s summer and we’re in the UK we can do both. You can still train for an open water event, indoors. Then we have our retreats around the world that give everyone an opportunity to come away to a warmer country to improve their open water swimming skills.
You’ve developed your own Straight Line Swimming method. Is this to simplify swimming?
Yes, absolutely. For us, swimming is very much about helping people understand why they’re doing certain things and how this impacts their swim. We don’t want to have to stand pool-side every day with the same swimmers for the rest of their lives – for me it’s about helping give them the skills to be able to coach themselves and then, ultimately, they can carry on and continue to improve their swimming without me having to be in front of them all the time saying, ‘Do this, do that’.
So that’s what our swimming method is about. There are three simple fundamentals: breathing, body position and propulsion. And that’s it, really.
Do you work on breathing, position and propulsion separately in training?
We work on them one at a time and we do quite a lot of talking [through technique] as well. Explaining to people why this is happening, why your brain is working in a certain way – especially if people are worried, scared or unsure about going into the water. There’s an unbelievable amount of people who are terrified of the water. We spend a lot of our time talking to people about breathing – even down to experienced swimmers who have won their age group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
It’s never too late to learn. I was just having this conversation the other day with my husband, David, saying we really wished that we’d understood as much about swimming methods when we were swimming [competitively] as we do now, as there were definitely parts of my career that it would’ve been helpful to have thought about it the way we do now.
As a pro athlete what was your training schedule like?
It was 5am starts pretty much every day. My week was 10 swimming sessions a week. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday there were two sessions each day. Wednesday we had one session, Saturday we had one session. And then we used to get the whole Sunday off.
Each pool session was anywhere from 2-2.5 hours, depending on what stage of the training we were in. We’d be there 15 minutes before and still on pool-side 15 minutes after the session doing pre-pool and post-pool, so making sure we staying injury-free by doing our pre-pool work and making sure we were as warmed-up as we needed to be. That was every single session. And then after that, pretty much, would be an hour of gym every day as well, whether that was yoga, weights or a circuit. So pretty full-on!
Photo Credit: Darren Goddard
Mentally, how did you cope with this level of training 6 days a week?
I really understood why I was doing it. I had a purpose, which made every session a lot easier. My purpose on this planet is to inspire people to take up swimming. Knowing that my aim as a competing athlete was to get to specific competitions and get to speak to the media about how amazing open water swimming is, I had to make sure that I did all the training, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to make it to the big competitions. And those are the ones where I would be speaking with people and getting the word out there. So it kind of made all those hard sessions so much more manageable and so much easier, because I knew why I was doing it.
To add on to that, I didn’t just get in the pool every session and swim up and down. I had a big training squad, we all trained together, and my coach was there all the time, so every session had a different emphasis and a different reason as to why we were doing it. For instance, [it could be] a hard session, a technique session, a kick session, a pull session, so it wasn’t as boring as getting in and swimming up and down, up and down. Being with such an amazing group of swimmers, it was really fun.
Now that you’ve retired what is your approach to training and exercise?
It’s just about keeping fit at the moment. I’ve actually just done a swimming session in the pool, which is very rare. I’ve probably done less than 10 pool swimming sessions since January. I guess now my routine is based around doing stuff in the morning – so doing an hour of hard work in the morning, getting it out of the day so I can carry on with the rest of my day! Gym would be a HIIT class or a yoga session; something along those lines. Or as I say, a swimming session.
Do you still enjoy swimming?
The pool sessions are probably the hardest part for me to get back into, but anything in open water I absolutely love. Over the summer I was swimming pretty much any time I got near open water. We’ve just come back from St Lucia at a Triscape retreat out there and I was swimming all the time in the open water, so if the UK was a little warmer I’d be outdoors swimming all the time. I just don’t do that many pool sessions.
Rewind a lot. You started open water swimming when you were 8 years-old?
Yes. It was never really something I knew I was doing; I was born in South Africa and it was just a case of one competition one weekend was in the pool, the next weekend would be an open water swim. It wasn’t ever really classed as an ‘open water swim’, it was just part of swimming. Everyone who did the pool swimming did the open water swimming as well. It was a mile or half a mile, so never any crazy distances like 5k/10ks, but it wasn’t something that was weird or different or odd; everyone did open water swims.
It was a fun and interesting upbringing. It was seen as something different [in the UK], but I was like ‘Oh, it’s not really different, I’ve been doing it all my life’. I think it was one of the reasons I was able to adapt so easily between doing 800m freestyle races to doing 10km races, which is a fairly big change in terms of time [in the water].
When you moved to the UK was the attitude to open water swimming different?
It was just something that wasn’t really done. I remember talking to the taxi driver on the way to the airport for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where Keri-anne won a silver medal) and he asked me what event I was doing, and me and my friend, Cassie Patten, who was my training partner said, ‘We’re doing the open water event’ and he was like, ‘The what?’
At the time there were only a few people who were doing open water things, like swimming the English Channel, which is a crazy thing for people to even think about doing. But I think the Beijing Olympics and a few other events such as The Great Swim Series really helped people to see how much of an amazing challenge it is to go into the open water, and how much freedom there is out there. In a swimming pool there’s lane lines, you’re restricted to a fast lane, a slow and medium lane, whereas in open water there’s so many different places to swim; every day is a different venue, different conditions, it just seems like there’s so much more fun for a lot of people.
Open water swimming really took the UK by storm. If you fast-forward from Beijing when I had to explain to people what I did, to the London Olympics, walking out to 30,000 people standing around Hyde Park watching. It’s incredible to think in four years it has grown that much. And they were the people who could get there, never mind watching at home. So it’s been an incredible change.
You’ve been stung by jellyfish in two of your races, is that right?
I was stung by jellyfish for the whole of one race and it was unpleasant – I’m not going to lie. They’re a bit like nettle stings so obviously they weren’t horrendous but because it was my second ever swim [race] it helped me, in a way, in that things never got that bad [laughs]. Then another race I did two years ago in Perth there seemed to be a fluke influx of jellyfish that were a bit toxic, so I got stung on my arm. I’ve got two areas that look a bit like welts.
But out of all 120 races I’ve done in the last 10 years I’ve only ever had one other unpleasant occasion, swimming in a river in China with a couple of dead animals in it. Otherwise, there’s so many incredible places to swim in open water. Like Loch Lomond. It’s an outstanding place to go and swim – the water is so clean and so clear it’s literally like swimming through bottled water. The scenery is fantastic as well. One of my favourite things to do is to take my goggles off in the middle of the lake when I’ve swam out from the shore and look back from where you are. You can only get that perspective from that situation. You can’t get it from a boat. You just swim in nature – it’s just amazing.
Where are your favourite places in the world to swim?
St. Lucia is absolutely amazing, the water is so clear and it’s lovely and warm which is nice!
There’s a place at the foot of the Pitons, in St. Lucia, which is like two massive big mountains and they’re really deep – they’re as deep as they are tall. There isn’t much sand there, just rocks, and the water is a colour I’ve never seen before. One of my bucket list things was to jump off a boat into the water, and this was just the most outstanding experience jumping off a boat into the bluest water you have ever seen. Fish everywhere, all different types, swimming around, loving life. It was just amazing.
When you were competing did you do the majority of your open water training in the pool?
I’d say 95% of my training was done in the pool and that’s because we had to do so much of it. It’s quite hard to regulate swimming 70,000 metres every single week in open water so we had to do in the pool. We’d go to training camps throughout the year and they would be warmer places and every time we travelled to an event or a race, we could get the experience out in the open water, learning all the skill sets and putting all we’d learned into practise in open water.
We did a fair amount of travelling around the world – in the last four or five years, I probably did about 10 races a year in open water and training camps. It was fun. We did get a lot of open water in, but a lot of it had to be in the pool.
Is there anything that you do miss about competing?
For me, competing wasn’t the reason why I swam. The reason I swam was because I wanted to train myself to be the best athlete that I could be. And competition was a way of seeing how well I was training and how hard I was training. But what I really is miss my friends and the people I saw every day. I saw my swimming coach every day for about four years, apart from Sundays, and when we went away on training camp it was every day for 3 or 4 weeks at a time. So as soon as I retired, I went from seeing someone all the time to literally not seeing them. I moved from Edinburgh down to London and the Whatsapp group (of athletes) has all gone quiet now.
You’d see someone every day, you know, you have the banter and the talk, and when you have some time apart… that’s the bit I miss the most, all the friendships. It’s up to me as well though to make sure I send a Whatsapp message into the group every once in a while!
If you’re a pool swimmer and come to open water, do you need to change your technique?
It’s very transferrable. The only things that are slightly different in open water are that you can’t see the bottom and there’s no lane lines, so you have to sight, which is what we call it when you have to look up and see where you’re going – that’s something that you need to adapt your stroke to be able to do if you’re swimming front crawl. If you’re going to do an event, a triathlon or something where lots of people start together, and you’ve never swam with people like that, you’ll have to adapt. In a swimming pool, it’s generally a push-off one at a time. Whereas open water swimming is a little bit different to that, so I would always suggest people find a group of swimmers to try it out with, so that you get used to it and it’s not such as big shock when you go to an event.
They are very transferrable skills, it’s just about the time out there and getting out and realising how much fun it is outside swimming outdoors compared with indoors!
At your camps, what are the common swimming issues people have trouble with?
We have a range of people, but a lot of the clients we have are really scared of swimming. We’re finding that a lot of people as kids were either pushed into the pool or had a bad experience and have become terrified of it. And they’ve just never had a chance to learn how to swim properly. What we do is align ourselves with resorts around the world to enhance what the resort is offering. So we’re helping people go holiday but to come home having learned a new skill like swimming.
We have a lot of incredible stories, such as a lady recently who was 65-years-old, terrified of the water, tried to learn to swim before but couldn’t do it. Never put her face in the water, never put her head in the water, and never lifted her feet off the floor. And she came to us and said: Can you help me? I forced myself to book sessions because I heard you guys can do really good things. And we did. By the third session it was amazing, she had her feet off the floor, floating on her back. She was comfortable walking along the pool, hands on hips – on the first day she had to hold on to the side of the pool. Stories like that, where she did what she’d hoped to do and was going to go home and show her husband, are just amazing. Really, really special.
It must be massively rewarding to help people build their confidence with swimming?
Yes. We’ve just been working with a guy called Mark who’s entering the Barcelona Ironman competition next year. He was absolutely terrified of it [swimming], but he was doing it for Cancer Research which was something very close to him and he entered the challenge to show he could do this big challenge for his family. He was terrified, but we showed him the skills he could use and the right technique, and talked to him around the nutrition about the race days and the planning. And for him, again, a big thing was the skills in open water – when you do an ironman, you’re potentially going to be in the water for two hours, so if you’re not very efficient, it’s going to be very, very hard when you get out – to sit on the bike and then run a marathon. So we wanted to make swimming easier for him and that’s something we’ve done right now. I’ve just got this lovely email from him about the confidence he has now and how he’s nowhere near as scared as he was before.
Is swimming efficiently a big focus for Triscape?
Efficiency is the number one thing we find people are looking to improve on.
You’ve also mentioned breathing. This is something a lot of people struggle with when swimming
Yeah, when it comes to breathing while swimming, it should be the same as any other sport. But what we see constantly when we walk down the poolside is people taking these huge, massive deep breaths. Ultimately what they’re doing to themselves is hyperventilating themselves by breathing in too much and breathing out too much. You would never see someone on the street or someone running a marathon breathing like that. I hear ‘I can run 10km but I can’t swim 10 lengths,’ which is ridiculous; if you’re fit enough to run 10km you can swim 10 lengths without stopping.
What are the biggest breathing problems?
A lot of the issue is that people are breathing in too much. And again, that’s not necessarily something people think about when they swim, but what we can help them to do is understand that they can get access to oxygen. The brain often kicks in and starts saying – “I need to breathe! I need to breathe! I might not get another one in!’ What we do is help people retrain their brains and understand that you can breathe in gently and calmly and that is way more sustainable than taking a huge breath for a few lengths.
We do find that breathing is one of the biggest things that makes an impact on swimming.
Do you cover nutrition as part of your Triscape camps?
Yeah, I talk through my experience of open water swimming and a bit about nutrition pre- and post-training, as well as pre- and post-event. Nutrition is something, again, that stops a lot of people again from reaching their full potential – either they’re not eating the right things or not eating at the right time to ensure they’re training well enough and recovering fast enough.
I’m not a nutritionist and I don’t for a second begin to tell you what to eat throughout the rest of your day – if you want to have a glass of wine at the end of the night, have a glass of wine. But it’s just around the timing and what to eat pre- and post-training.
What was your nutrition like as a pro athlete?
It was a general ‘eating healthy’ kind of thing. We weren’t strict in the sense of how much we could eat – we were eating a lot of food because we were doing so much training. I mean, I could have had chocolate every single day and got away with it and not put any weight on, but I wouldn’t have performed well if I’d had a chocolate bar every day. My nutrition was generally very good because we were buying local vegetables, food from the butcher, that kind of stuff to make sure we knew what was going into everything. So it was never shop-bought sauces, it was making it from scratch – again so we knew everything that was going into it.
What are your essential pieces of kit for coaching or training?
Goggles. Goggles are massive. One of the things I’ve noticed with a lot of the people who’ve come to us scared of swimming, is that none of them use goggles. I had to coach a couple of them to put them on because they’d never used them before. But when you realise that you can open your eyes [whilst wearing goggles] and see under the water, it’s not quite so scary and this makes a massive difference for so many people. So yeah, goggles are a number one. But goggles that are comfortable, not those big massive goggles that leak or get foggy – the dive goggles are the worst kind of goggles to go swimming in because they’re so big, they fog up, you can’t see anything.
I use a pair of goggles by Zone3 called Voltare and they’re perfect for outdoor events; they’re polarised so you don’t get the glare from the sun and you can see everything in the water, they’re comfy and fit most people’s faces as well. They have an adjustable nose piece and you can adjust the straps so that they fit you. Swimming or coaching you’ve got to make sure you have a good set of goggles!
You designed your own wetsuit with Zone3 – that must have been exciting?
Designing my own wetsuit was a real dream come true for me, because it’s something that stops a lot of people from swimming in the UK – the thought of being in the cold water and the thought of being in a black wetsuit which makes you look ridiculous! So one of the biggest drivers for me was to design a wetsuit that women would be really comfortable wearing and that was a nice colour. A lot of people assume that because we’re women we like pink, when that’s not the case!
I made sure it was a really nice design, and there’s a bit of bodyshaping in there as well. The grey ‘K’s along the side of the suit bring your eyes in a bit and make you feel really confident and comfortable wearing it. We input some of our Straight Line Swimming methodology into the wetsuit as well, so it’s not just a nice-looking wetsuit, it’s the functionality as well.
Do you use any other pieces of kit for training?
A watch, actually, is pretty fun for open water swimming, to map what you’re doing. I was trying out the Suunto Spartan watch recently which maps your swim so that when you get out of the pool or open water, it shows you the map of where you swam and a little video of it as well so you can follow the line. While we were in St. Lucia it was really fun to see that, really cool. So I think something like that because it gives you the time, shows you how fast you’re swimming per 100, roughly, based on what you’re doing in a pool, so you’ve got an idea of what you’re doing.
What have you got on the horizon for Triscape in 2018?
We’re just about to launch an online service for coaches and swimming teachers to learn how to coach our swimming method, which is really exciting. [That’s] with the STA, swimming teachers association. They’re launching an open water swimming coaching qualification as well which is wonderful. We’re going to get more open water swimming coaches out there, which means we’re going to get more open water swimmers out there.
So yeah, next year is a bit more focused around coaching.
Will you be running more Triscape swimming camps next year?
Yes! Next year in March we have a retreat in the Caribbean at Nisbet Plantation Beach and we’re just about to launch a mini retreat in Mallorca and we have one in Italy (both weekends in May) which is very cool, and then the Body Holiday in St. Lucia again in November.
Are you sponsored by anyone?
Zone3 – I’m one of their ambassadors, and also I’m ambassador for the Great Swim series, which is one of the biggest mass participation open water swimming events in Europe. They are such incredible events, in Loch Lomond, Windermere, and Ipswich. Another company I’m an ambassador for is Better Leisure Centres, they have about 150 swimming pools across the country that they run. I’ve got my last swimming masterclass of the year coming up with them, and we’re just about to get booked up for next year masterclasses for their Swim Doctor campaign, which is basically adult swimming classes for people to improve their technique and get any advice they need on training.