Catching Up With Alcatraz Champ Sarah Haskins

Catching Up With Alcatraz Champ Sarah Haskins

Sarah Haskins is racing at the top of her profession lately. Since the first weekend in June, the professional triathlete, Olympian, wife and mother has won the Escape from Alcatraz, the Philadelphia Escape and the New York City Triathlons, the latest being her 50th career win. All this, among other great race performances, just 15 months after giving birth to her second child. 

Alcatraz is easily one of the most formidable swims in the sport. The bitter cold, the incredibly strong current, difficulty in sighting due to the chop and fog, not to mention athletes begin the race by jumping off a ferry - it adds up to one of the most challenging first legs in triathlon.  When we read Sarah’s race report our office was abuzz about how she amassed a nearly 90 second lead coming out of the water (73 seconds according to the official results).

With all the time required traveling to races (home for Sarah and her family is outside St. Louis) and the training and recovery involved, Sarah was very gracious to allow us an inside look at her 2nd Alcatraz title.

The day before the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, Sarah gets accustom to the cold water with a swim in San Francisco Bay.

Did you do any specific swim training for Alcatraz?

Yes! I knew that the water was going to be really cold so I tried to get in a few early April wetsuit swims in Missouri, where I live, before it heated up. 

I think jumping in 50-degree water is important to give the body a chance to remember what the cold water feels like. 

I also did a swim in the water the day before the race in the San Francisco Bay to get a feel for it.  I used the Thermal Helix wetsuit and Thermal Skull Cap in the race and they were key to staying warm in the cold water. 

Without being able to swim as part of your warm up for Alcatraz, how did you warm up?

After I arrived at Pier 3 and before the ferry departed I did a short 10min run and ended with some drills, activations and strides.  Once on the boat I focused on staying relaxed; about 15 min prior to swim start I did some arm swings and little jumps to get the blood pumping in my body.  The main reason for this was to get my core body temp up before I put on my wetsuit.

For extremely cold-water races if you start the swim with a lower core body temp it will be hard to elevate it.  I was not just thinking about the swim. 

I know from past experience that if I get on my bike with a low core temp it's tough for me to push hard on the bike.  Elevating my core to an optimal body temperature, I knew I would be able to get the most out of my legs on the bike.

Did you have a sighting strategy specific to Alcatraz?  You mentioned in your race report, “staying on feet.”  Was that the strategy in and of itself?  

I knew the current was moving from Alcatraz Island toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I went to the farthest left point I could on the ferry.  Andy Potts is the most experienced athlete in this race, so figured I would watch what he would do and go near him as he knows the sighting line better than most.  After the initial dive off the boat I tried to find the feet of the faster guys around me. The women and men start at the same time at Alcatraz, so there are a lot of fast feet around me to swim with. 

Swimming on feet is a big energy saving, so it can be a good race strategy to try and swim behind someone who is slightly faster than you.

It's also easier to sight off someone's feet (as long as the person in front of you is sighting correctly). It may sound simple to follow feet. However, on this course, it felt like every swim stroke you had to stay focused as the chop and current could put you off the persons feet in front of you by 5 meters.  It is different than a calm lake swim where you can easily see the bubbles in front of you. 

Sarah exits the swim during this year's Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon with an impressive one minute plus lead on the next female pro athlete.

When you swim, do you focus on your stroke?  Or have thoughts or mantras that you use to help your performance?

When I am in a race I think about having a fast tempo and grabbing all the water I can with every stroke.  Also staying present mentally with what the process is during the swim portion of the race.  I find if you drift mentally, you will slow down and possibly go off course. 

Staying mentally focused is critical to swimming faster.

Do you have a favorite swim workout?

One of my weekly mainstays is:

  • 400 choice warm up
  • 4x150 as 50kick scull/ 50 drill/ 50 build
  • Main Set (all with short rest of :5-:10 sec) 6 rounds of (200/150/100/50 ez),  200 IM pace/150 1/2 IM pace/ 100 is 1500 meter race pace.
  • Cool Down 100-200 easy

Do you have any general advice for an age group triathlete wanting to improve / get faster in the water?

The best way to become a faster swimmer is to join a masters group or try and get private swim coaching from a local swim coach.  There are many coaches out there with knowledge on swim coaching. 

Swimming is very technique oriented compared to cycling and running.  A little bit of improved efficiency in the swim can equate to huge gains.

How did it feel winning your 2nd Escape from Alcatraz title?

I was so excited to win. Escape from Alcatraz is an iconic race. People from all over the world come to race Alcatraz for the exciting challenge.

Any win in a triathlon race is very special to me and with this being one of the biggest races of the year, I was thrilled to break the tape.

What is your recovery strategy knowing you have to jump back in the next weekend?

When I race back-to-back races, it’s all about focusing on recovery the first couple of days following the race.

I focus on sleep, hydration, active recovery and nutrition immediately following the finish of the race.

Mid week, depending on how I feel, I incorporate some pickups in all the disciplines to feel sharp for the upcoming race the next weekend. I also try not to overthink or over analyze any training session and not let how I feel on workouts dictate how I will perform on race day.

Sarah on the run at this year's Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

What's next?

I am planning on my first 70.3 of the year in August.

Follow Sarah on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.