A trip down muscle memory lane

Yesterday morning I met up with an old friend, who I haven’t seen in far too long.

Morgan Williams is a senior triathlon coach and event organiser, who has previously served as national development manager for Triathlon England.  He’s also a Swim Smooth certified coach – coachmorg.com

I have been dissatisfied with my swimming for some time, so a couple of weeks ago made a 1-1 swim analysis appointment with Morgan, in the hope of seeing for myself, what my issues are and figuring out how to solve them.

If you have never seen yourself swimming before, prepare for a shock.  I’ve been considered by some, to be a reasonable swimmer but as the saying goes, the camera never lies.  After being videoed over six lengths of a 25m pool, Morgan walked me through almost frame by frame the horror movie of my swim stroke.

Where was my long, straight, balanced, propulsive swim stroke?

Well, it didn’t take long to see any number of reasons for the gradual decline in swim performance that I have experienced over the last few years.  The root cause (I’ll offer here) is an absence of coaching.  I haven’t been coached since I had 1-1 sessions with the late Ian Smith, former UK head coach of Total Immersion (TI).  I don’t wish to debate here the pros and cons of TI and Swim Smooth philosophies but to suggest that TI had worked for me, is reasonably accurate.  Gradually though, without critical observation, bad habits have crept into my stroke to the point where swimming is no longer an effortless display of balance and poise but a somewhat uncomfortable, strenuous effort to produce lacklustre times that for the most part, I’ve taken to not recording, preferring instead to monitor by feel.  Even my overall perception of performance had reached an intolerable low.

Going into the session I had a clear idea of what I wanted – to turn back the clock by about 6 years.  As it turns out, the swim-smooth coach certification program lacks the requisite flux capacitor for time travel, so I’d have to be open minded about the nature of my swim stroke issues, the steps to be taken for stroke correction and the amount of work its likely to require to make those changes stick.

The side-view over the water, revealed that during the breath, my head was slightly higher than I’d expected.

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Overhead view revealed a reasonably tidy kick, with a leading arm in full extension (over reaching).

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The consequences of over-reaching only became clear under the water, as the elbow of the leading arm dropped in the water.

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The under-water side view reveals dropping hips and arching back – both consequences of extending beyond my range of flexibility.

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Over extending also caused me to have a poor catch on the water and only creating propulsion relatively late in the stroke cycle and delivering power from the shoulder, rather than the larger and more powerful pectorals and lateral muscles.

Here’s a comparison shot of Beccy Adlington at the same time in the stroke cycle.  See how her elbow is high and the forearm is in the elusive ‘early vertical forearm’ position.

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The head-on shot shows how my arm is too wide and too straight – again, a weaker stroke than ideal.

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Once Morgan talked me through the flaws (there were more, I assure you), he recommended we try just one drill (rather than many) to effect a change in my stroke.  If you’re a follower of GI Tri Coached Triathlon, you’ll be very familiar with doggy paddle.  Now to let you into a secret – it’s a drill I shy away from – because I’m not very good at it.  As a rule, I recommend focusing on drills that are difficult to execute because the difficulty arises from a specific opportunity to improve technique. For me, doggy paddle, is no exception.

Spearing a little deeper (within my range of flexibility) and forming a catch a little sooner, first in the drill, then mixing drill with pull-bouy freestyle, before finally unaided freestyle swimming.

The work Morgan did, changed my stroke timing, drastically reduced the dead spot, increased my stroke-rate and caused me to use pectoral and laterals, rather than my shoulder.

For the stats athletes out there, here’s the objective data:

Beginning of session pace 1:40/100m (which would have soon become 1:45 as I tire easily these days)

End of session pace 1:28/100m (and felt like I used to feel when I was swimming 6-days a week).

So, in 90 minutes or so, I changed from not looking forward to getting into the pool, to remembering why I used to love swimming and an opportunity right now, to rediscover my love for swimming and recapture the performances of yesteryear, without access to a flux capacitor!

To book a session with Morgan go to www.coachmorg.com or download his app Evolve with Coach Morg


GI Tri Coach


When in Rome

Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) isn’t what you’d call cycle-friendly, with its cars drifting across lanes, driving with no lights, minor unmarked roadworks at intersections, with spikes of rebar exposed to impale yourself upon, you could get into trouble on a bicycle very quickly. So, until the airport ever re-opens, allowing me to bring out a smart trainer and road or TT bike to train in the apartment, it’s down to the local gym.

Last night, I visited a new gym and pool facility for my first session.  I say new, the only thing new in this place is my enthusiasm for training indoors!

The equipment is old and the bikes in the gym have saddles that are just about tolerable but at least they don’t look like they belong on a Harley Davidson (as the ones in the other gyms in Erbil do).  Old equipment isn’t really an issue,  as let’s face it, in everything I do, I’m using some pretty old equipment that’s still just about functioning, so I should be a good fit.

The gym is men-only (the women-only gym is upstairs).  Consider a region that has suffered decades of oppressive dictatorship, wars with its neighbors, routine bombing of its northern reaches by Turkey, refugees from Syria, displaced by IS, who themselves got within 25km (16 miles) of Erbil as they advanced across Iraq.  These guys take fitness seriously. It’s a real possibility that some day, in who knows what circumstances, they may find themselves fighting for their lives and I have to say, they look ready! The gym is full of men that in most gyms back home would stand out from the crowd.  The work they’re putting in fills the air – quite literally.  Once you’ve been in there for a while, you don’t notice it anymore…. I tell myself.

What the Kurds boast in the gym, they lack in the pool.  As I jumped in for my swim session, I was faced with groups of men standing in the middle of the pool chatting, a few marching across the shallows with their hands over their heads that reminded me of scenes from Vietnam war movies.  Those that were swimming, swam widths, not lengths of the pool, in a style that most closely resembled the kids of my youth, swimming across the canal, heads high and gasping for air.  The balance of them were in the deep end, repeatedly diving off the side, displaying the antics of middle-aged teen agers.

I knew it would be challenging but determined to get by session done, I set about it.  Almost immediately, I realised that I’d have to modify the session.  There seemed to be no awareness of space or pace through the water.  After three collisions and several near misses, I resolved that they were so unused to someone swimming both up and back down the pool in one go, only to immediately repeat it, that they couldn’t help but step right into my path.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t deliberate either.

After half of my session (30 minutes) I got out of the pool and headed for the showers, feeling fairly dejected. I need to find ways of doing the training, not 101 legitimate reasons not to.

Reflecting on the experience last night, it came to me that in all my reading on the nature of culture and cultural differences, it suggests that to be truly culturally aware, we should strive to view any situation as a local person and within the bounds of ethical practice, respond to it as if you were yourself, a local.

It’s clear that the members of my gym see nothing wrong with standing around, walking the shallows, or swimming widths.  They aren’t about to change just because some expat has shown up, who expects to swim the length of the pool unhindered.  I’d switched to this gym because my last gym had no usable bikes and only an 18m pool.  Here, the pool is also non-standard in it proportions, being about 30m long but is at least 20m wide. If swimming lengths isn’t feasible, then perhaps I should just pick a spot, join in with the locals and swim widths?

Of course, it’s less than ideal but in this environment, compromising on expectations, so that I can settle into a session with a mindset that I can fully execute it, seems worth the trade-off.

I don’t think I’ve swum the width of a pool for forty years but maybe it’s time for an old dog to re-learn old tricks?

Ultimately, we have to train the best we can, with what we’ve got and for the time being, that appears to be all I have!


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Swim Session Plan 13 February 2018

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 157

This week, we are back to volume.  The standardized distance of each repetition may be adjusted according to fitness, experience, or target race distance.  A fast swim (generally) is a consistent swim, with minor exception, a continuous high but sustainable pace throughout.  Here we aim for consistent times across all repetitions.

Warm Up:

2 x 100m, the first easy, the second, steady.

Technical set:

100m as doggy paddle up, swim back

200m as kick with board (alternate with skating drill if preferred)

Main set:

Follow whichever main set suits you best.  Try to time each rep and aim for consistent times.

Novice / returning to fitness / super sprint and sprint distance athletes Standard distance up to 70.3 athletes Advanced swimmers / Ironman athletes
5 – 8 x 200m at threshold with 30 sec rest 5 – 7 x 300m at threshold with 1 min rest 5 – 7 x 400m at threshold with 1 minute rest

Warm down:

100m – 200m     Easy to very easy

Total Volume:

1600m – 3500m

Coaching Points:

Try to be disciplined in the rest periods.  Remember to exhale! These sessions will tend to creep up on you. They look easier on paper than they feel in the pool.

Don’t go out too hard. As a rule of thumb, if your effort is 5/10 at the beginning, 6/10 in the middle and 7/10 at the end, you’ll produce consistent threshold times through your session.

All Change – Mind the Gap

I haven’t blogged in a while, well, save for the weekly session plans, as I only tend to write when I feel I have something to share, so after a hiatus of many weeks, here it is:

Last Tuesday was a sad day for me. I delivered my last session at New Chiswick Pool in West London.  It was a good session with attentive and committed swimmers as always.  Actually, they were extra attentive on that particular week, as we’d been told the pool would close early, allowing us just a half hour.  Deciding to make the best of it, they really put in the effort, red-faced and gasping after the intense sets and only just recovering after the easy ones.  It wasn’t until 35 minutes after the session start, that the pool advised us that it would stay open after all, leaving them to swim on a further 25 minutes, wringing out the last juice from whatever my presence meant for them.

We were accompanied that week by Louise, who’d watched from the viewing area for around four months, before finally deciding to make contact and come along.  I worked with Louise on her stroke and as easy as she was to coach, she made great strides in the time we had.  Oh, how I wished she had taken advantage of all four months of attendance since she first noticed our sessions as she waited for her kids to prepare for the squad session that followed us.

I had some of the regulars there, including Vicki, who’d returned having taken the Summer off, so it was good to see her before I left. Missing that week, was Sarah, who had attended almost all of the 136 session I delivered at the venue.  Lane one stalwart and the most determined swimmer I know, Gabi and her competitive buddy Monika were also there.  Noteworthy by his absence, Dan, working away in German, or Russia, or wherever last week had taken him.  Having just knocked out his first Ironman in well under 11 hours, the one thing I was certain of, is that wherever he was, he’d be doing the session in a hotel pool, or venturing out into the local community to find a public pool that was open and accessible.

After the session, we said our goodbyes. It’ true to say, that I’ll be back, at some point, perhaps for work, or just for a social visit, so I may get change to see some of them again, perhaps at Chiswick, Richmond Pools on the Park, or the lake at Shepperton?  It was with a heavy heart though when I drove away – the end of an era.

The reason for my departure isn’t anything to do with coaching but for the day job. My last working day was Friday, which was a final handover and demobilizing from my London flat.  With no time to spare, I had a presentation to give and a viva to sit, for my Level 3 British Triathlon coaching accreditation, back home to pack and now, Sunday afternoon, I’m beginning my mobilization.  No rest for the wicked!

I’m starting an international assignment of an indeterminate period, where I’ll be working for a buddy of mine out in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. As I write, I’m on the train, heading for Manchester airport, then overnighting in Istanbul, before travelling  on to Erbil tomorrow.

It’s never certain how things will turn out but I’m told there are training facilities and a pool nearby.  I’m hoping to have more time to train while I’m away, to focus on a strict diet and take advantage of longer session when I’m home on leave.  Well, that’s the plan.

I intend to complete and publish the weekly training plans for those that follow them, including the Chiswick cohort and for my 1-1 athletes, Sunday morning should still see your training plans dropping into your inbox.

Once I’m there and have the lie of the land, I’ll post again and let you know what Ironman Erbil might look like!

Mind the gap.


GI Tri Coach


Weekly swim session plan 22 August 2017

Download and print the session plan here: session plan 133

This week, we use threshold swim effort, combined with diminishing rest periods to simulate increased stress during racing. The rest interval has become particularly important for training session success.

Warm Up:

3 x 100m easy pace, 10 sec rest after each

Technical set:

4 x 50m as head-up life saver going up the pool, swim back with early vertical forearm focus.

Main set:

300m threshold (zone 4) 40 seconds rest

300m threshold (zone 4) 30 seconds rest

300m threshold (zone 4) 25 seconds rest

300m threshold (zone 4) 20 seconds rest

300m threshold (zone 4) 15 seconds rest

300m threshold (zone 4) 10 seconds rest – Novice swimmers may wish to skip the last two reps

300m threshold (zone 4) 5 seconds rest

Warm down:

200m     Very easy

Total Volume:

2200m – 2800m

Coaching Points:

Keep a high stroke cadence during head-up life saver. Carry that stroke rate into your swim.

Don’t go out too hard in the main set, or you’ll suffer later in the reps.

Weekly swim session plan 15 August 2017

Download and print this session plan here: session plan 132

This week, we are back at threshold to maintain the fitness gained over the last two weeks working above threshold.

Warm Up:

3 x 100m easy pace, 10 sec rest after each

Technical set:

4 x 50m as kick (without board) or skating up the pool, swim back.

Main set:

200m threshold (zone 4) 30 seconds rest

400-800m continuous (zone 4) 60 seconds rest

2 x 100m threshold (zone 4) 20 seconds rest

Warm down:

200m     Very easy

Total Volume:

1500m – 1900m

Coaching Points:

This short session should be swum at the appropriate intensity – Zone 4 threshold.  Be disciplined with rest period in order to prevent heart rate dropping too far between reps.

Weekly Swim Session Plan 20 June 2017

Download and print the session plan here: session plan 124

With temperatures soaring and the race season in full-swing, most triathletes are swimming some open water sessions each week.  Anecdotally, not everyone has transitioned from pool to lake as well as we might hope. This week, let’s use a pool session to really nail some key attributes of open water technique.

Warm Up:

200m easy pace

Technical set:

4 x 50m sighting skills – crocodile eyes

4 x 50m high swingers

Main set:

12 – 18 x 100m with 10 seconds rest, incorporating the sighting skills from the drill, 2 per length of the pool

Warm down:

300m     Very easy

Total Volume:

2100m – 2700m

Coaching Points:

Sight straight forward on the non-breathing stroke and follow up immediately with a breath under the opposite arm. Don’t try to sight off the end of the breath as this won’t allow you time to properly view the course.  Only lift your googles out of the water – don’t sit up too high, or your hips will drop, causing drag.