Weekly swim session plan 27 September 2016

More technique (and a little controversy) as this week, as we look at head position and its close relationship with freestyle breathing. I’m going to be promoting an entirely neutral head / neck position (looking directly at the bottom of the pool, and directly at the side wall during the rotated breathing position).  Some coaches, for some swimmers, will point out that this practice is sub-optimal, however, some of the most common stroke faults are looking too far forward during the stroke and reaching for air during the breath.  These drills will help address those issues, promote a higher body position and more stable breathing phase of the stroke.

Warm Up:

100 – 200m (4 -8 lengths) easy freestyle

Technical set:

2 – 5 minutes practice ‘Dead man’ – float face down on the water, allow the water to support your head, with no tension in your neck.  Feel the relationship of head – neck and torso. This is your neutral head position.

100m (4 lengths of the pool) swimming with head in the neutral position.  Feel the difference in your body position

4 x 50m (4 x 2 lengths of the pool) finger trail drill, introducing the rotated neutral head position into breathing. Use visual prompts like the lane rope, or pool wall (avoid over rotation to the point of the ceiling becoming visible).

4 x 50m (4 x 2 lengths of the pool) freestyle with neutral (low) head position.  How low can you go?

Main set:

4 – 8 x 50m focusing on what was learnt in body head position drills

Warm down:

100m – 300m (4 – 12 lengths) easy cool down

Total Volume:

900m – 1400m

Coaching Points:

Maintain head and neck neutrality throughout

Trust the technique to create a trough behind the bow wave created by your low, neutral head position.

Enjoy swimming with a higher body position and lower drag!

Weekly Swim Session Plan 20 September 2016

As we continue our focus on improved technique during the early off season, today’s session addresses the most neglected aspects of the freestyle stoke – body alignment and balance.  If you compare the techniques of great swimmers, you’ll see a variety of arm and hand movements, stroke rates, stroke lengths and kick patterns.  The thing that is arguably most consistent aspect is their body alignment and balanced rotation.

Warm Up:

100 – 200m (4 -8 lengths) easy freestyle

Technical set:

YMCA Swimming posture

100m (4 lengths of the pool) fish drill (both hands in pockets with 30-45° of rotation)

200m (8 lengths of the pool) skating drill (L/R alternately leading hands) to halfway, swim to wall

100m Steady swimming with controlled core-driven rotation

200m Finger-trail drill, using the hand as a guide to assure the degree of rotation

100m Steady swimming with controlled core-driven rotation

Main set:

4 – 8 x 50m focusing on what was learnt in body position and balance drills

Warm down:

100m – 300m (4 – 12 lengths) easy cool down

Total Volume:

1100m – 1600m

Coaching Points:

The balanced ‘sweet spot’ is where the swimmer is rotated but not so much that they ‘fight’ the urge to fall backward in over rotation.

Aim for the same degree of rotation in your drills and swim stroke.

Skating – keep the leading hand in front of the shoulder, training hand in ‘pocket’ and head neutral.  The kick need not have a huge amount of propulsion but should be compact, rhythmic and within the area of the torso (not wider).

Brutally Honest

I spent last weekend in North Wales in a role not as a coach but as a member of a support team for a friend of mine, Paul ‘Bear’ Machin.

As you might expect from someone who’s adopted name is that of a large carnivoran mammal, he’s not your ‘average’ bear.  The task at hand (for him at least) was the matter of a double Iron distance extreme triathlon Double Brutal.

Brutal is so tough that unlike regular Ironman, you’re allowed outside assistance. To form his three-person crew, I had been teamed up with Bear’s former coach, Viking warrior princess, Mari and long distance swimming legend Hazel, who’s the youngest person to have swum the English Channel.  No pressure then!

Arriving on Friday evening, I was confronted by the most horrendous weather conditions I could have imagined, having left in my VW T5 day van, which was to be my home for the weekend, in just shorts and a tee shirt.



With best laid plans Bear had set up a base-camp of tents and van parking positions that should have provided us the perfect on-course set-up to support his epic undertaking.  The weather had other ideas all but destroyed the camp and its content with high winds breaking tent poles like twigs and torrential rain soaking every piece of food, clothing equipment and morale. The only thing standing was the Viking warrior’s tent, which she kindly pointed out to us more than once over the course of the weekend.

The race briefing was a tense affair, the gravity of the undertaking was as obvious as the split in the crowd between the ultra-endurance athletes and their support crew:


The Brutal (just the single event) was recently voted “The toughest triathlon event in the world”. So for his next trick, Bear was to do it at double the distance.

The 2016 event included three races in one, with a half, full and double distance races all commencing at the same time, with athletes leaving the water and out onto the mountainous bike course in a steady stream, back to the red-capped double brutal swimmers who were the last to emerge.

Having done some long distance swimming myself in the past, I’m somewhat dismissive of the double iron distance swim of 7.6KM but as a start to the day, its challenging enough.  The bike route is particularly difficult, departing Llanberis and heading out on a lap of Snowdonia, that takes in Pen-Y-Pass at 1,178 feet, just the 8-times for double participants.


The nature of the course dictates that ‘normal’ Iron distance cut-off times don’t apply.  Armed with energy drinks, bars, solid food, hot drinks, milk shakes, clothes changes, additional lube, bike spares, tools and a bag of Werther’s Originals to keep the crew happy, we headed out onto the bike course.  Our plan was to drive the route backward to meet Bear at pre-agreed locations around the 29-mile loop.  Almost immediately the main problem presented itself.  We couldn’t get there before he did.  While the long grinding climbs slowed cyclists, they made up much more time on the sweeping descents and once a few hold ups for trucks and busses that were navigating the winding roads were thrown into the mix, we were moving at a snail’s pace in the crew van.

A few hand gestures, gasps of exasperation and ‘informed’ exchanges of information later, we switched to Plan B – leapfrogging Bear (and all the other cyclists), by driving the route.   This gave us at least a fighting chance to reconfirm his requirements, make ad hoc additions to his support and of course cheer him on as he powered past our chosen lay by on non-feed stops.  I drove the van while Hazel and Mari worked the various support needs for each stop as swiftly as possible before Bear rode into view and with F1-like efficiency gathered whatever he needed and rode away again, leaving us to pack up and pass him, in time for the next scheduled stop.  For the whole day and through the night, we continued in this manner, feeding, hydrating, clothing, lighting, maintaining and cheering his ride until finally, he rode into Llanberis for the last time.

The end of the bike felt like a goal in itself.  Anyone who’s ridden a century knows that feeling of a job well done.  This was well over double the distance through extremely tough terrain.  Like all extreme events, the drop-out rate is high!

There was no time for celebration though.   Mari sprang into action and paced Bear on his ascent and descent of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, posting one of the fastest times of the day before rounding out her own accomplishment with a 5-mile lap of the lake, itself a challenging trail route for the most part.  I took the opportunity to grab a couple of hours of sleep and readied myself to accompany Bear on laps 3 and 4.  The two laps totaled 10.5 miles and I was pretty happy to have made it around without crying.  Hanging my drenched kit out to dry, I chilled out with a milkshake in the company of a couple of athletes I coach, who were also at the event, taking on the Brutal half, which itself includes the ascent and descent of Snowdon as part of the ‘run’ route.

Feeling pretty relaxed, I returned to the event route and our make-shift support camp, to see Bear pass at the commencement of lap 7 of 8.  He was starting to tire and asked if I could pace him around the next lap.  Confirming that he meant me to start running ‘NOW’ I overcame my natural tendency to think of ten miles of trail to already be an acceptable training day. I quickly pulled back on my only set of running kit from earlier, which by that time had the odour of something that had spent time in the enclosures of both baboons and camels and started to tap out a pace that Bear could hold with encouragement. That’s when he slipped in the suggestion that I might help him on the last lap too… In for a penny…in for a pound!


We used a variety of run / walk / hike techniques playing the ultra-runner’s favourite mind game of “run from this fence post, to that bush, then we can hike the hill…”


In what felt like no time, we were around lap 7 and heading out onto the final lap.  As we came through the timing mat we were joined by another competitor also starting his final lap.  Bear looked at me, no words were spoken.  A nod, we picked up the pace and held it.  This isn’t the kind of pace that causes you to hear the sound track from Chariots of Fire but it did say, “there’s no WAY you’re taking this place on the finisher list, buddy.”

When in pitch darkness for the second night in a row, the climbing was over and we commenced the final descent, I began to feel giddy.  Yes. I was pretty happy to have put in a 20-mile day but of course I hadn’t done the whole thing.  I shared the euphoria with Bear “you do realise that you’re heading to the finish of the Double Brutal, don’t you?”  “Yeah, I knew it was in the bag when we were still on the bike.”

“We.”  He did say “we”. We were a team.  Hazel, Mari, myself and of course Bear. For that weekend “we” were Team Bear.

After 37 hours 20 minutes and 8 seconds, Paul Bear Machin, YOU are Double Brutal!

Mirror, mirror

The end of the triathlon season is almost here, or if you’re one of the fortunate readers in Australia or South Africa, in fact it’s just starting!

Thinking about how your season has gone is possibly the most important early step toward having a better 2017.

After crossing the ‘A’ race finish line, stopping your Garmin 920XT and doing that mini-bow to allow a volunteer to place the finisher’s medal around your neck, you’re filled with emotions that can range from a terrific high to dejection.  That’s perhaps not the best time to consider your racing future, unless of course it’s to check that you have your credit card to pay for your Kona slot tomorrow morning!

For most of us, Kona is just a manufacturer of reasonably priced bikes and it’ll take some time before all of the training and the race itself can really sink in and be truly meaningful.

The process of reflection is useful in all aspects of our lives but as an athlete or triathlon coach, its invaluable.  All too often, decisions are made in a moment that set the course of the following season, or even end an entire triathlon career.  The “never again” feeling happens to everyone at some point but in most cases, it’ll pass.

Before I discovered triathlon, I had convinced myself that I was ‘a runner’, evidenced by several painfully slow marathon finishes.  Sunday night would be “never again” but by Tuesday, I’d be scouring the back pages of Runner’s World looking for another race to enter.

For the athletes I coach, we’ll close out the season with a process of reflection that considers not just their race day performance but the entire training process, including each aspect of our athlete – coach ‘contract’.  For some athletes their own reflection (or perhaps even my own) will conclude that as they pursue their 2017 goals, a different coach, or no coach at all, is their best way forward.  Like high school sweethearts, coaching relationships don’t last forever and understanding what’s best for the athlete has been something I have come to learn and accept.

As a coach, I reflect on the relationship itself, often focussing on my own communication methods and style, as well as the feedback I get from the athletes themselves.  I’ve had athletes who want to provide detailed feedback and discussion for every single session, to those who hide the ‘bad news’ of skipped sessions until the end of the week and in the extreme, those who consider a couple of lines in a text message sufficient to structure their near term training.

I need to decide who I want to work with and how I want to work with them and to ensure that they’re a good match for the athlete’s own expectations and practices.  Ironically, while these sometime sound like a perfect match in the beginning, they turn out to be a mismatch.  After all, if everything went to Plan A, we coaches would be redundant!

My season’s reflections as an athlete and coach are of course entirely separate processes, though one may inform the other.

Some of the things I’m looking at with athletes are:

How was training for their main event over the duration they spent training?

Did their weekly training schedule fit with their lifestyle and commitments?

How satisfied are they with the outcome?

What are their strengths and weaknesses (compared to what they had considered at the start?)

What surprised them?

Do they feel that they’d like to set a goal for next season?

How well did we work together?

Would they like my help toward their next goal?

There are of course many tributaries to these questions, depending on the athlete and what we already know.   The main thing is that once the season is done, the door is open for the athlete and coach to freely walk in, or out of, without pre-determined obligation or expectation.

From here, 2017 looks exciting already!

Weekly Swim Session Plan 13 September 2016

Session Introduction

With almost all athletes in the post-race phase of our training macro-cycles,  now is the time to focus on technique gains PRIOR to putting in high volume sessions to bring our endurance back up ready for the 2017 race season.  This week, we’re looking at body position and the all-important propulsive aspects of the stroke – the catch and pull.

Warm Up:

100 – 200m (4 -8 lengths) easy freestyle

Technical set:

YMCA Swimming posture

Push and glide x 5 (work with other swimmers or self-assess the effectiveness of your push and streamlining)

100m (4 lengths of the pool) Finger trail combined with wide-arm catch-up

100m Steady swimming with ‘straight’ had placement

100m Long doggy paddle to half way, swim to wall

100m Steady swim with pull buoy

100m 1 Finger drill with pull buoy

100m Steady swim with pull buoy

Main set:

4 – 8 x 50m focusing on what was learnt in the drills

Warm down:

100m – 300m (4 – 12 lengths) easy cool down

Total Volume:

1000m – 1700m

Coaching Points:

Be posture-aware                                                       Maintain a stable core (not flat, not over-rotated)

Effective catch in front of shoulder                       Use a pull-buoy to isolate the catch and pull

Weekly Swim Session Plan 6 September 2016

For most, race season is almost over.  Learnings from races indicate that suggest that wetsuit swimming provides for most, a significant advantage over non-wetsuit.  The main reason for that is better alignment due to suit buoyancy.  We can narrow the gap by improving our body position and alignment.  This week’s session aims to improve posture, core and glute engagement and to promote an effective kick, all contributing to a better non-wetsuit swim.


Poolside 1-leg kick practice. (dropping one foot off the pool deck, rotate the knee and foot inward, toes pointed, draw the foot backward, with a straight leg by engaging the glutes.  Allow the foot to move forward maintaining a relaxed knee, to just forward of neutral). Repeat with both legs for 1 minute each leg.

2 – 5 minutes sink-down drill (if required)

Otherwise, progress into a technical warm-up

 Technical Set

100m Push, guide and kick (without board) to half way swim very easy to wall

300m as 50m kick with board, 50m swim with compact rhythmic kick

100m 6-3-6 going up, swim with compact rhythmic kick on the way back

100m skating drill to halfway, left side going up, right side coming back, swim to wall with compact rhythmic kick

Main set:

4 – 6 x 200m @CSS pace + 4 seconds taking 20S rest

Warm down:

200m – 400m Easy, down to very easy focussing on relaxed exhalation.

Total distance (average) 1600-2200m

Coaching Points:

Kick from the hip, not the knee

Keep knees and feet rotated pointed rotated inward, toes pointed

Remember that the kick during freestyle isn’t directly up and down but 5 o’clock, 7 o’clock!