Less is More: James Fike on Lifetime Bests at 38

Courtesy of James Fike, CEO and Founder of Fike Swim

About four weeks ago, at the age of 38, I went a lifetime best in the 100 breast (54.89), my first best time since college, and then again two weeks ago at an untapered in-season meet (54.68).  Traditional swimming wisdom says I’m too old to be doing that.  But what if I’m only too old for traditional methods?  Or what if traditional methods never were best for me? If you’re willing to rethink everything you’ve ever known, make some sacrifices, and swim different, you can get faster into your late 30s, and maybe even 40s?  It took two years to experiment and get my body to adjust but I feel like for the first time in my 31-year career I have my training and my stroke figured out, and it’s an amazing feeling.

My mentality when I started on this journey of new personal bests three years ago was to try to out-train the me of 20 years ago, the 18 year old kid at Texas.  As a species, swimmers are brought up thinking more is more, that more yardage equals faster swimmer.  And up to a point that’s true.  It’s very hard to swim fast on one practice per week.  But the great debate in our sport is always when is enough enough?

On top of that add the human tendency to stick with something until it works because it once worked in the past and you can very easily end up in a rut.  I had to completely reset my mind and accept that, in fact, less is more.  And that’s probably true at a far younger age than 38.  Rest days with just 30 minutes in the water and hard practices that usually cap at 3k are now the norm.  Recovery has become as important as work.

I train about 16k yards per week over six practices that average about an hour. Almost all of my training is on my own. Occasionally I will swim with a masters team (Ridglea Masters) but even then, I’m modifying the workout to fit my training style.  Throw in four days in the weight room and a couple hours for stretching, foam rolling, and cupping or massaging and I’m doing around 13 hours of training a week, compared to 60k and 20 hours in college.  And unlike in college where my focus was mostly on swimming (about 16 hours/week) and somewhat on weights, I place equal importance on swimming, weights, nutrition, and recovery.  Below is a breakdown of those four segments.

SWIMMING

The focus is on great technique, high intensity, and finishing races strong.  There’s no yardage for the sake of yardage. Technically, I’ve overhauled my breaststroke to get my eyes and chest up more to get higher over the water. Same thing with my arms, but also trying to get them shooting more forward and less down. One big missing piece in my stroke was my upper body. These days I try to use my upper body to lunge forward and enhance the shooting motion of the arms, basically throwing my body down the pool. And after watching underwater footage I noticed my kick goes down at about a 45 degree angle, probably because I’m putting an emphasis on popping my hips at the end of each stroke.

To get the legs driving straight back I’ve been doing a lot of Brick kick, kick on my back, and piston kick (alternating legs breaststroke kick).  The Brick allows you to be more level in the water, versus a regular board that puts downward pressure on your hips. Kicking on your back is a good one because it’s impossible to kick down. And piston kick, well, I just like it.

The other change that has paid off big is speeding up my pullouts. I used to go about 12 yards off the wall with stroke counts of 5, 6, 6, and 7 in a 100. Now it’s about 10 yards off the wall and stroke counts of 5, 7, 8, and 8. This means I hit my first stroke with more speed that then carries over into the next couple strokes.

Below is a sample week of hard training, about three months out from a big meet.

MONDAY

warm up:

  • 75 free @ 1:00 70%
  • 25 back @ :25 70%
  • 2×75 75%
  • 2×25 80%
  • 3×75 80%
  • 3×25 85%
  • 4×75 85%
  • 4×25 90%

2 Rounds:

  • 4×25 breast/fly drill
  • 100 breast kick

Main set (for 2nd half speed):

3 Rounds:

  • 100 breast pull w/ paddles, no buoy @ 1:20 goal=1:00, push 2nd 50
  • 100 piston kick (breast kick alternating legs) @ 2:10
  • 50 breast swim @ :35 goal=:30
  • 50 breast swim @ :45 goal=:28
  • 100 easy kick @ 2:10-2:30

300 warm down

TUESDAY

easy swim in the diving well doing drills, vertical kicking/swimming, breath control, start/reaction work, stretching

WEDNESDAY

1,500 warm-up including lots of drills, 50s DPS, and 25s at 90%

  • 2×50 @1:15 w/ stretch cords, 6 strokes fast, easy back
  • 8×25 @ :35 sprint
  • 4×50 @ 1:15
  • 6×25 @ :30
  • 6×50 @ 1:15
  • 4×25 @ :25
  • 8×50 @ 1:15
  • 2×25 @ :20

300 warm down

THURSDAY 

same as Tuesday

FRIDAY

1,200 warm up

  • 400 breast Brick kick for time @ 6:00
  • 4×50 @ 1:15 breast, no pullout, 3 strokes/25, hold :34
  • 300 breast kick for time faster @ 5:00
  • 4×50 @ 1:15 same
  • 200 breast kick for time faster @ 4:00
  • 4×50 @ 1:15
  • 100 breast kick fast @ 2:00

300 warm down

SATURDAY

1,200 warm up

3 Rounds:

  • 200 IM @ 3:00 desc 1-3, goal=1:58
  • 2×150 free pull with The Mortar @ 2:00 80% effort
  • 3×100 IM Brick kick @ 1:45 75% effort
  • 4×50 desc 1-4 @ 1:00 IM order by round
  • 50 easy @ 2:00

300 warm down

SUNDAY

off

WEIGHTS/DRYLAND

Admittedly, I was not the most committed college swimmer in the weight room.  I usually banged out the exercises in 40 minutes so I could get to the pool to play six square.  The exercises were the same throughout college and I kept doing them for 15 years after because, again, the routine used to work and it’s scary to try something different.  Those exercises were bench press, squats, lat pull downs, dips, bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions, and leg curls.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  In 2017 I decided to get serious and spend more time in the weight room, double actually.  But I kept the exercises the same.  For a brief time I got stronger, then I started getting weaker as I suffered one injury after another.  But because of the injuries, I sought help from a physical therapist who introduced me to small muscle exercises that would stave off injury by supporting and strengthening the larger muscles. They’re also intense workouts.

Below is a sample week about five weeks into a training cycle.

MONDAY

  • Shoulder warm up with resistance bands
  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Deadlift 5×5
  • Seated Rows 4×8
  • Barbell Reverse Lunge 3×16 (engages small muscles for balance and stability)
  • Lat Pulldowns 4×8
  • Bicep Curls 3×10
  • Tricep Extensions 3×10

TUESDAY

off

WEDNESDAY (small-muscle focus)

  • Eight shoulder exercises with bands, set of 20 for each arm
  • Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press (left arm holds its dumbbell up while the right lowers and presses its dumbbell, then the right waits for the left) 5×5
  • Pistol Squats (three types for each leg with 20lbs in each hand and 20 reps for each; these are my least favorite exercise, which probably means they’re the best 🙂
  • Four Yoga Ball Exercises (laying chest on the ball and 7.5lbs in each hand the arms move 20 times to form the letter T, then 20 for Y, then L, then W)
  • Inner Thigh Squeeze – 20 reps of steady squeeze together and slow release apart
  • Bicep Curls – 2×10 reps of steady curl and slow release
  • Pull Ups – 4×15

THURSDAY

  • Box Jumps
  • Push Up Jumps
  • Abs
  • Stretching

FRIDAY

  • Shoulder warm up with resistance bands
  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Leg Press 5×5
  • 2nd Type of Seated Rows 4×8
  • Leg Extensions 4×8
  • Leg Curls 4×8
  • Straight-Arm Pulldowns (mimicking the breaststroke pullout) 4×8
  • Bicep Curls with light weight, one arm, max reps in 1:03 (100BR Olympic Trials cut)
  • Tricep Extensions 3×10

College 1-rep Max Weight: Bench=245, Leg Press=1,000, Lat Pulldown=220

Current 1-rep Max Weight: Bench=295, Dumbbell Press=110lbs each hand, Deadlift=365, Leg Press 1,000, Lat Pulldown=250

Goal 1-rep Max Weight: Bench=315, Dumbbell Press=120lbs each hand, Deadlift=385, Leg Press=1,100, Lat Pulldown=260

NUTRITION

As part of my strength goals, I’m trying to add another 5 pounds of muscle to my 6’3” frame. In high school I weighed 170. In college I was 195. Currently I’m 208, trying to get to 213. Again, traditional wisdom says bigger muscles inhibit range of motion and hurt your aerobic performance, but it’s no coincidence we’re seeing more and more bulky swimmers, especially in the 50s and 100s.  So as I looked at how I could get faster, I gave up on the idea of out-training the 18 year old me and instead dedicated myself to improving my stroke and to adding muscle and getting a lot stronger. Part of that was going to happen in the gym and part in the kitchen, pushing a steady diet of protein that bordered on force feeding sometimes.

In high school I abandoned soda and fast food, but I still had the swimmer mentality that I could eat anything.  I probably set some kind of record at Texas one night in dining hall by eating seven chicken parmesan breasts and five bowls of beanie weenies on a dare.  I only stopped because I got tired of the taste.  I had chocolate cake afterwards.  On Saturdays we would go to Freebird’s for a team lunch after practice and I would have a super monster burrito (think Chipotle burrito times two), a large quesadilla, and go next door for a banana split.  Most nights I had a second dinner of pizza and a pint of ice cream. Outwardly it had no effect, but I look back now horrified. I’ve significantly changed my diet over the years, but especially over the last two years.

Breakfast starts with three eggs mixed with spinach and avocado and one piece of whole wheat toast, or a big bowl of oatmeal with almonds, dried cranberries, and honey. I never eat white bread or white pasta, which are highly processed. Breakfast used to include two or three pieces of toast but I’ve tried shifting some of my carbohydrate intake towards leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. I almost always include a banana and/or an apple. Two hours later, and about one hour before workout, I’ll have a bowl of Icelandic yogurt (higher protein, lower sugar than Greek) mixed with almonds and honey.

Training ends around 1:15 and afterwards I have a protein shake and for lunch it’s a turkey, avocado, spinach, and cheese sandwich with some carrots, cucumber, and/or bell peppers with hummus. Between lunch and dinner I snack on nuts and protein bars.

If I’m doing dinner right, it looks something like sweet potatoes, wild rice, kale, beets, goat cheese, and pistachios. I usually drink milk with dinner and, besides the protein shake, that’s pretty much the only time I drink something other than water. Still no soda and rarely any alcohol or sports drinks. In the past I would have more than half a loaf of bread with this dinner, but just as I do with breakfast, I’m trying to eat more veggies instead.  I try to get a mini second dinner about two hours before bed.

I’m not gonna lie, the first 60 days of this were rough. I was used to eating sweets every day. It was nothing for me to eat half of a cookie cake in one day. I had potato chips with almost every lunch. But after 60 days the cravings went away and after about 90 a lot of what I used to eat didn’t even sound good anymore. Again, there was nothing really wrong with my diet before. Despite the occasional cookie cake and the chips, I mostly ate pretty healthy. But I had to do everything I could to go faster, and if that meant sacrificing some foods, so be it. You can eat crap any time in your life. You only have so many years to go best times. Decide which is more important.

RECOVERY

I’m a workhorse. I love training even more than racing. And if times weren’t important, I would choose the 2 hour, 8k practice over the one hour, 3k practice any day. But up until this time last year I was constantly digging myself into a hole so deep that it was taking three tapers to get my times even close to best. My thinking was that 3k was so much less than I was doing in college that surely I could do that 6-7 times/week and recover easily. But most of those 3k yards were at a race pace intensity and your body can only handle that for so long. I was getting injured in the weight room because I was driving my body so hard and not letting it recover. The same physical therapist who introduced me to small muscle exercises also introduced me to the idea of rest days. That’s why on Tuesdays and Thursdays my workouts are easy, focusing on feel, playing around with strokes, having fun.

The other facet to my recovery is nightly foam rolling and stretching, which sounds easy, but at the end of a long day getting off the coach sounds like climbing a mountain, right? Plus, once a week I’m either cupping or getting massaged. Not the fluffy buff and wax kind of massage. I’m talking elbow rubbed deep along your thigh as you grip the table and try not to yell kind of massage. Lastly, sleep. I try to get to bed by 10:00pm and get nine hours of sleep every night.  I want my body ready to perform at its peak for every hard practice and it simply needs more help recovering at 38 than it did at 18.  Recovery was probably the hardest change to make, because of that swimmer drive to always work harder.

My training will have to continue to evolve, everyone’s does, but I feel like for the first time ever I know what needs to be done and how to do it.  If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to SWIM DIFFERENT!

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About Fike Swim

“We design products exclusively for the toughest sport in the world.  We unapologetically place swimmers on a pedestal.  The rigors they embrace on a daily basis can only be understood by another swimmer and they deserve a company focused 100% on helping them succeed.  Whether you’re just starting out or training for Tokyo, we stand behind you.”

James Fike, Founder

Fike Swim Products was born when founder James Fike put a brick on top of a kickboard and transformed just another legs-only kick set into a total body workout felt into the next day.  Since then it’s been our mission to create unique swim equipment with the single-minded goal of making you faster.  We don’t sell toys.  We create tools to help you reach your potential.

Fike Swim is a SwimSwam partner.

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Chas

Excellent. Thanks for posting this!

Ol' Longhorn

Masters wisdom: “He who slows slowest, wins.”

Fluidg

I loath that saying. Accepting decline sounds like surrender.
If James adopted that mindset and accepted conventional wisdom, he wouldn’t be achieving lifetime PRs at 38.

“He who continually strives to improve, wins.”

My mantra: Someday, I’ll slow down. Not today.

Ol' Longhorn

Wait til you hit the cliff at 60. Or the even worse one at 70.

Wethorn

This is awesome James. Thanks for thinking differently, innovating, and sharing. And good luck!

Fike Swim

Thank you!

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