A simple guide to swim improvement
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
After recent articles on selecting interval distances and swim training mix, I still receive inquiries asking about the 'real' or the 'extra' training we must do and if I could share that. The original advice was apparently too simple, too unsophisticated for it to really work with Olympic and World Champion athletes.
Since opening up our methodologies to the age group market this has been a recurring theme. Some age groupers even struggle when they are in camp watching the sessions with their own eyes.
'But what do they (pros) do when we're not here!?' You're watching it! 'But... But...?'
It's my biggest gripe. The sport is producing an army of over-analytical amateurs fuelled by bogus tri mag articles telling them 20 different things, all contradictory, usually written by swim, bike or run coaches who know next to nothing about triathlon-specific techniques or the application of each discipline's training to your overall triathlon program.
If a method or piece of equipment is not sufficiently complicated or doesn't come with a suitably exorbitant price tag then it is often judged to be of little value.
Coach Eric and the Newcastle Ocean Baths
For those coaches and athletes facing an increasingly difficult time keeping focused on what's important, I thought I'd share a lesson I was taught 45 years ago that has served me well both in swimming and triathlon. I hope it provides some perspective to those looking for the secrets of 'real' training and swim improvement.
The story begins with my dad, a prominent swim coach, sending me to watch another top coach's squad with the instructions:
"This is the top group not only in our area but one of the best in the country. Every year he develops new batches of sprinters, but also some really solid long-distance guys. Go find his secret.”
At first, I was excited to sit on the pool deck and watch every session, but after 2 weeks I was going out of my mind. Every afternoon was the same workout. I mean the exact same. What was worse he didn't do drills, his only stroke correction was at the rest interval and the youngest swimmers did exactly the same as the seniors. Everyone swam the same distance, same time intervals and same stroke.
The only discernible difference was the rest interval, where the slower individuals got less rest than the faster kids (leaving on the same time). That was it. They did the same set every single day.
Now even 45 years ago that was hugely backwards. There was no excuse for it. How could he be producing these swimmers? Was it a freak thing? Didn't seem so as his group was large (over 30) and by those days standards, all were on fire. It was not a part of periodisation as he did the same session for every day of the season.
Here was the only rule I could find:
To be in his team you had to come to 5 workouts a week. On Saturday you had to go to the Club morning and race. That was it, but it was totally enforced. You complied or you were out of the squad!
If you were a distance swimmer above 200m you had the option to attend a Tuesday / Thursday morning workout before school.
The Yearly Program
I'll list you the program for the entire year. It takes one line of paper:
120 x 50m on 1 minute.
Swimmers had the choice to leave the water at 1hr 30 into the set (minimum). No warm-up. No warm down. Every day. 5 days a week.
The distance program on Tuesday / Thursday was equally as sophisticated:
1 hour non-stop swim.
So How Did They Produce Their Success?
The success came in the breakdown of the 50s.
Within the 50s was a system and they were done like this:
10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m butterfly
10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m backstroke
10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m breaststroke (all repeated 2 times)
If you didn't like breaststroke you did your best form stroke. Thus we can start to see why the group was fast in most strokes.
But then the smartest bit of his program was this:
He had cones or witches hats laid out in three positions approximately 12.5m apart.
Within the 10 x 50m the reps were performed this way:
4 x 50m - sprint from last cone.
3 x 50m - sprint from second cone.
2 x 50m - sprint from first cone.
1 x 50m - dive as in race.
That was it. On asking his reasons for training this way, it was obvious he had stumbled on to a winning formula by accident. The different sprint/acceleration distances matched with fanatical consistency.
Pearls of Wisdom from Coach Eric
Q: You don't time any of the work. Any reason?
A: They come to the pool some days just beat after school. Why make a bad day worse by showing them if they're going slow?
Q: How do you judge the improvement then?
A: They race every Saturday.
Q: How do you know if they aren't coasting or trying hard enough at practice?
A: Anyone that turns up 5 days a week for 2 hours is already trying.
We are of course not trying to scare our age groupers into thinking they've got to swim the same, long sets day after day monotonously (you definitely don't). But to provide some insight for those who inquire about distances and multiple short reps we do. The Newcastle Ocean Baths squad wouldn't have had one swimmer who couldn't hold the first pack in an Ironman.
So I would just reflect on that every time I'm told by a poor age-group swimmer the importance of swimming 'non-stop' instead of intervals, or every time I see someone timing every lap on what looks like a television screen strapped to their wrist, or I see a tri camp spend 60% of their water time on drills that won't help you survive an open water washing machine triathlon swim.
Swimming faster is about consistency and the repetition of good strokes. It's not rocket science and never will be.
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