Hector Pardoe goes the distance

The GB marathon swimmer on nutrition, training and why you can never have too much Vaseline

Hector Pardoe has quickly risen to the top of British men’s marathon swimming. OSS Club Secretary Simon Kerslake chatted to the 22-year-old Olympian prior to his competing in the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan (where he placed 10th), to learn all about his world of cyber implants, AI feeding plans, broken noses, lubed feet and ‘Voulez Vous’ by Abba. 

You have made a speedy ascent up the ranks of marathon swimming, how did you get here?

I was a really good swimmer when I was younger, winning British Nationals in men’s 400m, 800m and 1500m and I was really fortunate that one of my old coaches, Alan Bircher, had been involved in OW swimming for 15 years, his wife was competitive in world events. He got me into it and we’d go down to Ellesmere Mere twice a week and train there – but only the people who were into it, who weren’t scared of algae! I really enjoyed it. From there I was fortunate to go to Best Fest in Majorca with Swim England alongside other swimmers who’d been identified as 800m and 1500m talent. Racing in the Mediterranean with amazing weather, the training camp, meeting other people I was exposed to a competitive environment in open water and I just loved it. I thought I was pretty good at it, at the technical aspects and I was beating guys who were 20 and 21 when I was just 14. It wasn’t just ‘swim 50m, push off a wall and swim back’, there’s so many different elements to it; you’ve got the different sea life, the scenery, the different climate. I like the fact that it’s ‘how far and how fast can you swim from point A to point B?’. I also like the physicality of it all to be honest – there’s not much of that in recreational swims, but on the professional scene it’s very violent. You probably heard I got my eye elbowed in Toyko?

[The ‘eye elbowing’ incident occurred in his inaugural Olympic 10km race in 2021 where, on the final lap, he received a purposeful blow to his eye from a competitor that was so hard it snapped his goggles in two and left him thinking he’d lost an eye.]  

How do you deal with that kind of physicality in professional open water swims?

You’ve just got to not overthink it and brave it, to be honest. I mean if I’m in the middle of a race and I’ve taken a hit, you can’t think ‘is my nose broken?’, you’ve just got to get on with it. I’ve got banged up quite a few times in races and it sounds crazy, but it gives me a kind of adrenaline rush. It actually makes me think ‘I’m quite hard, I’ve just got my nose broken and I’m going to carry on through it’. I imagine myself getting out in the sun, after swimming 10km looking like a warrior. My partner (a French Olympic triathlete) struggles with the physicality of the swim even though she’s probably the quickest. She doesn’t like people pulling on her feet, sitting on her hip, elbowing her. You’ve got to get your mind in the zone that you don’t mind being hit. It’s a mindset. You’ve got to be courageous and brave. 

I’ve got banged up quite a few times in races and it sounds crazy, but it gives me a kind of adrenaline rush. It actually makes me think ‘I’m quite hard, I’ve just got my nose broken and I’m going to carry on through it’.

OSS members always want to know about nutrition during longer swims. What’s your regime? 

When I was a junior the director of British Swimming would feed us from a six metre pole from the pontoon, and that would be electrolytes or whatever he put in it.  In the last two years I’ve been really trying to take my own individual approach, so I’m wearing a Super Sapiens patch right now. It monitors your glucose levels in real time so you can mix your gels when you go below optimal range. I’ve also started using a product called Maurten – it’s like this revolutionary energy gels and carbs product. All of these races are in different locations so the food varies massively but if a race is in the afternoon I’ll usually have a light breakfast, some croissants or bread and the night before I’ll carb load and have four bowls of pasta. I’ll also keep sipping on carb sachets a few days before a race just to make sure I’ve got a huge store of glucose.  

Cassandre Beaugrand

What’s your mindset going into a swim?

I get my mental preparation from the work I do in training, so I’m doing 8 or 9k every single training session. Today I’ll have done 18k plus the gym. So when I do a 10k, that’s easy. But for the majority of people, with work, or their professional life, they can’t do that. Control your speed. Swimming is an overtrained sport – we do too much training for a 10k. It’s not impossible to swim a 10k if you’ve only done three or four swims a week. You go more for the target of finishing a race, than trying to race your pal next to you.

So you’re saying it’s not just the physical side of it – it’s the thinking too?

It’s completely mental. I genuinely believe that sports performance is 90% mental and 10% physical. You could say that ‘if you’ve got the strongest mind why aren’t you winning races?’, so that 10% is still really important and I guess you derive confidence from the training you’re doing as well. It’s all in the mind, but it’s difficult to say to someone ‘this is how you get your mindset right’. That’s why only so few people make it in the top set of professional open water swimming. You see so many world class 1500 swimmers try to do the 10k, the 5k, the 25k, and they just fail – mainly because of the technical side, but also because of the mental side of it. Not being brave, not being courageous when they’re scared about the physical side of it – the waves, the conditions, the sheer distance of it. You’ve got to forget that, enjoy it, dive in and swim. But don’t swim like you’re racing someone next to you. Find a steady pace and aim to just finish the race. Last year when I went to the Windermere swim and I looked end to end I thought ‘Jeez! That’s massive!’, but when I’m racing professional races on a circuit, they’re laps and you take it as it comes. Point by point, buoy by buoy.

You see so many world class 1500 swimmers try to do the 10k, the 5k, the 25k, and they just fail – mainly because of the technical side, but also because of the mental side of it. Not being brave, not being courageous when they’re scared about the physical side of it – the waves, the conditions, the sheer distance of it.

The OSS has  a training plan for the Dart 10k. Are there any drills you recommend?

I think definitely sighting drills. Try to sight every 10 to 15 strokes as sighting is crucial. You don’t want to be swimming more than 10k – you want to swim in as straight a line as possible, from point to point. In the acclimatisation session before a race I’m always looking for a tall landmark, a visible landmark I can see and pinpoint that as the direction the buoy’s in. You may not think it, but when swimming 10k, you have to have incredible endurance in your neck and if you don’t your hips tighten up and your whole body drops during the race and then your technique completely goes. I do ‘water polo drill’ a lot. Keeping it slow and steady, don’t overdo it and enjoy it and build aerobic capacity. I do a lot of pull. I tie my feet up with a band, put a pull buoy in between my legs, put paddles on and swim. That’s what builds up those muscles in your arms. At the end of the day, even at the pro level, you’re not going to be able to kick for a whole 10k – it’s not feasible. Your quads are the biggest muscle in your body and using them will raise your heart rate, so try not to use your legs too much – use them for a balancing aspect – you can get that from the pull buoy. There are also drills you can do on your front where if you’ve got a (centre) snorkel, whack the snorkel on, do some kicking with your arms by your side holding one hand on each hip and then rotate your head like your breathing on your stroke, but trying to keep your hips as straight as possible – so when you are swimming, even if you’re not going to be using your legs, you still need that to have that rotation and strength in your core to rotate. 

What goes through your head on long swims?

When I do 8 or 9km in training, I zone out on all sorts of things – What am I doing when I get home? What am I doing at the weekend? I find something to pin a point on and then let my mind just wander off. I close my eyes as well. When you’re doing as many lengths as I can, you can close your eyes and swim in a straight line. In training, I’m also visualising myself winning a medal too. And that gets me through it. It’s amazing, the power of the mind – as soon as you start thinking like that it’s amazing – you can pick your rhythm up, your rate, your speed, and you’re not getting that tired as your mind is so set on it. There’s something about visualising that success. If I get a tune in my head, quite often I’ll play that through over and over again, and quite often it can be one song – maybe it might be a bit of ‘Voulez Vous?’ By Abba that will just last me the whole training session. And I don’t get bored of it either.

In a competitive race for me my mind is worrying straight away: is there going to be a break away at the front pack? How well am I conserving my energy? What is my heart rate at? Am I getting really good draft from the feet that I’m sat on? Where I need to position myself going into the end lap for the feed? And I’m trying not to get into any physical altercations. I’m also visualising my post race interview, and what I’m saying, what celebration I’m going to do on the podium, whatever it is. And even if I fall short and don’t go on the podium I think that competitive nature in me, you’ve always got to be visualising it. And when you do that, the time flies. 

What are your tips for wetsuit rub/chafing? 

Don’t be shy with how much Vaseline you use. The physios are responsible for health and safety and accident prevention, so they’re the ones putting on the Vaseline. I’ll really go for it – my neck, my armpits, my feet – I always put it on my feet for when they are grabbed. It happens – people will try and get away with grabbing your foot – even your quad, and they’ll put their whole body on your legs, and you can’t start kicking harder because that just drains you. So when someone grabs your foot and you’ve got a load of Vaseline on it, they lose sensation on their hands in their catch. The physios always go light on how much Vaseline they put on, and I say ‘More, more more more!’ 

Do you swim outdoors recreationally while at university in Loughborough? 

Funnily enough I was talking to my mate this morning and I was saying to him – ‘let’s find a waterfall to chill in, to jump in. Let’s not swim, let’s just relax in it.’ He’s Greek, and he was saying ‘I don’t think you’re gonna find any waterfalls in Loughborough!’ But yes, I enjoy swimming outdoors recreationally outside of the pool. But I know a lot of people who outside of training are just done with it – it’s so physically draining and they’re just sick of it and fallen out of love with it and can’t even fathom the thought of going to swim.

There’s been a massive explosion in open water swimming and triathlon. Does that change your relationship with the sport? Have you seen a change in it?

I think it’s great that more people are getting involved in it and enjoying it. I think it’s great there are Facebook groups with over 100,000 members all chatting about different venues and locations in the UK and around the world. Unfortunately it hasn’t really taken off like that in the professional realm. There’s a lot of people enjoying open water swimming, but not enough people know that it’s done on a professional level – how to watch it, and when they watch it it can be a bit boring. Having money pumped into the sport hasn’t really changed it at the top level. But I mean there’s more venues – more lakes allowing swimming. But now when I say I’m a marathon open water swimmer more people appreciate it. Back in 2014 when I’d say I’m an open water swimmer people would say ‘What does that involve?’ or ‘how much do you swim?’ But now that people say ‘Oh 10k?’ and the conversation goes from there. It’s nice to have a bit more appreciation and enjoy it with more people. 

Does being outside change your relationship with swimming?

Yeah, I probably would have quit swimming when I was 16 or 17 years old had I not come to open water. Now I enjoy swimming much more – even after my rigorous training and the motivation but  I take a step back I can still get really excited about the open water three or four times a week and meeting people, the social element of it all. 

Is that important for you as well, the social element?

Definitely. When I go down to Spring Lakes in Loughborough, when it gets hot enough on a Saturday morning and I go with my training partner, we love chatting to all the people about how much they’re swimming and they’re always amazed about how much we’ve swam and having something in common with them, giving them advice, enjoying the water and the facilities. Enjoying it all. I see running groups and cycling groups, but I think swimming is so much less demanding as the water’s supporting you. It’s less physically demanding but it burns more calories than running or cycling. It’s social, it’s therapeutic, it’s relaxing – we get to see loads of different locations and venues – it’s also the traditional way of washing your body. It just releases all of the stress and anxiety in you and you have others there to enjoy it with.

Simon Kerslake