Swim theories – can you improve? are there any shortcuts?

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“Float like a canoe, Breathe like a dolphin,…Swim better in 10steps. What your swim coach, who means well, is not telling you or can’t tell you.”

Is your  FB timeline getting clogged with the likes of these gems? mine is and some are quite enticing. My favourite comes not from a swim coach, not a former swimmer but someone who knows what his triathletes need and told me that while I mean well my elite swim background means I can’t understand Tri and Openwater. Sadly though people do want the shortcuts, the quick fix and after 25 years of doing this I still can’t offer the holy grail other than practice, repeat, be scientific in your approach but not always in the pool and swim often. Unfortunately time pressured swimmers do not want to hear that but when I raced as a strong AG athlete in the early 2000s you could get by as a strong ex biker/swimmer or runner and ‘cope’ on the other disciplines. Times are changing and athletes are better, well rounded individuals good at all 3 disciplines. Being weak in the swim means less enjoyment in openwater, less competitive and getting to the bike more tired. Not a Triathlete? then long swims are getting longer and longer and you will want to conserve your energy not waste it through drag and resistance.

Keep in mind….
Swimming is more like a language or musical instrument in terms of patience and practice. It is highly technical.
Learning to fly, probably is easier <this I had shouted at me once>
One swim per week is  6 days of unlearning
Missing the Autumn to have a rest after a tough season is just not helpful. Swim easy, swim the other strokes, swim drills, swim water polo but please stay in the water. The regular testing we conduct shows this year after year. Any delay in getting back into the water ie leaving it to xmas or the new year makes it very difficult to progress. Many will eventually get back to where they were in the previous Spring.
Swimming alone probably will not fix it all, ankle mobility, range of movement through the shoulders, S&C, confidence, yoga, pilates etc No one wants to hear all that though!

Reading the latest material I could get my hands on regarding swimming development I was left feeling a little uneasy recently. As a Coach with the American Swim Coaches Association, the Amateur Swimming Association and many swim groups on LinkedIn etc I get memos, newsletters, research and findings from around the world. Some great stuff comes from the Australian Institute of Sport, from the NCAA where I raced in the 90’s and from a worldwide network of colleagues who are coaching and racing.  It was not so much the conflict but more the complete polarisation between some who felt it was impossible to become a really good swimmer and those who felt it was entirely possible to become really good. Is it possible to improve significantly? Why can’t we be more sure of what is possible and how to go about it? Why do some make great progress and others seem limited? I have my own theories but first the two extremes.

You Can’t….

A coach put forward a theory that made for fairly depressing reading for any adult learning to swim. He proposed that since as cavemen we spent most of our days running and either chasing or being chased we had great Aerobic capacity in our muscles in our legs. Our arms were mostly Anaerobic as we survived throwing spears and stones, hurling items to catch our dinner. With this in mind most swim club youngsters spent their teenage years developing more efficient aerobic movements in their arms so they could spend four or more hours per day pulling their way through the water. If you can swim a fast 50m but suffer at over 200m this might sound familiar and be quite worrying that it is a hopeless mission this late in life.

You Can…

Soon after this bombshell came along which left me thinking I had been wasting my time this past 25 years coaching, some good news. From the complete other end of the scale in terms of swim progress possibilities this came along. Another coach felt tremendous levels of expertise could be achieved through the application of learning, swim aids and swim imagery. The theory runs along the lines of how the Brain has a plastic capacity in terms of how we learn, it is no longer the static organ once thought of but can change throughout life. From years of research into Neuroplasticity, neurological training, motor coordination and applied teaching through the removal of filters to learning it was felt possible to focus the brain on learning new physical movements. He felt that rather then swimming remaining an aerobic model; his new ideas in teaching will help it become a neurological one. Well that sounded better then the first message of doom and gloom but how could two ideas be so far apart.

I have seen enough people improve their swimming significantly over the past 25 years of coaching to know change is possible. A great deal of change  if instruction is good and the student diligent and enthusiastic. Perhaps not as much as the swimmer hoped for but then expectation is quite individual and perhaps coach and athlete will have to agree to differ on what was or is possible. A sporting background, even in a non-related sport to swimming is of use. The rate of ability to change movements and make them permanent seems easier if the swimmer in front of me has come from a sporting background. Possibly to do with hand & eye coordination, control of breathing, timing and proprioception skills. I think the fashion for instant results in a digital age and a lack of patience, are not helping and people become too disillusioned too quickly leading to disappointment. I have said it before but learning to swim is more akin to learning a language or a musical instrument with the added complication of doing a lot of it with the face under the water where the air is not readily available. A great deal of time needs to be put into it for it to be done well and to feel natural. Depending on your definition of becoming a good swimmer you could say both ‘models’ are accurate. A sub 21min 1500m is a good swim if you came from a non swimming background but it is not going to make a county final at a young Swim Club level.

How does it get better?

Slowly; after some early rapid breakthroughs, which can excite this will then frustrate as the rapid trajectory plateaus and improvements seem to reduce for a while. Aligning correctly more propulsive pathways of the limbs will make for instant improvements to speed, as they can be completely wrong early on. Less drag will reduce fatigue so early on progress can seem quite easy. Practicing these to the degree they are then on autopilot and into the subconscious takes a lot of time. Most people that come to me for an initial consultation can swim 25m in 25secs. Some can swim 1:40 for 100m. Few can swim 25mins for 1500m. It is all the ‘same speed,’ I don’t need you to get faster, just keep doing what you did for 25m. If breathing is relaxed and under control this should be a lot easier effort wise compared to average efforts biking or running.  To make the stroke repeatable, accurate and sustainable with low levels of effort takes a lot of time, a lot of relearning after erasing bad habits. More swimming, more often is key at this stage as long as it is done with some instruction and with the correct movements.

How I can tell it is getting better.

When each movement that comprises the stroke no longer needs a conscious effort the stroke appears to stop being a sequence of separate movements stitched together. The mechanical edge to it reduces and the movements take on a fluid appearance. It might not appear graceful or without faults but you can see now that some of the movements are happening with less conscious effort. The breathing sequence becomes as relaxed and seemingly under your control as if you were on dry land. Swimming is one of the few activities, which restrict your breathing in such a way. The rate at which breathing happens, the timing of it and the lack of options when it is not possible, create some major challenges. The other triathlon disciplines, obviously allow for a smooth exchange at your leisure. Swimming, on the other hand, can be tough, especially in the early stages before you fully master stoke mechanics, as the stroke dictates when you get to breathe. The better swimmer you become, the more control and relaxed you can be in all aspects of your stroke.

When it gets better, what happens?

If you are swimming on your own without a coach the lack of instant feedback is a major issue to swim progress. Activities on dryland are easier to record and measure. Water complicates our ability to measure things and it makes exact and 100% repeatable movements unlikely. Try the following ‘senses’ of swimming to help gauge if it is getting better. As you improve I would hope you feel some of the following being experienced. Purely measuring time and heart rates may not always be conclusive. I am sure you have experienced those sprints where more effort went in but no reduction in time was found. This is swimming notoriously being unfair in how it not always rewards effort.

1)         A surge forwards over the locked in ‘anchor hand’ when the catch works well in conjunction with a well streamlined body position. But do not pull too hard to make this happen, it won’t.

2)         At a more advanced level the ability to swim slow, medium and fast, yet still take a similar number of strokes per length.

3)         Hand starting to exit close to where it entered in relation to your position against a lane rope as the body travels efficiently forwards and over your locked in hand.

4)         The stroke never feeling so rushed that you are uncomfortable when trying to get a breath.

5)         Legs only kicking with a board and not going backwards. Not moving is ok, going forwards is tough and may be a longer term project but work on avoiding going the wrong way. Poor mechanics will have you do this.

6)         A general relaxed state and a feeling of being very comfortable in the water. Being able to exhale under the water and inhale above the water and feel very much in control of this action.

7)         The ability to start ‘even splitting’ or at some point ‘negative splitting’ your longer swims. I.e. the second half of a 400m swim being faster then the first

8)         Open water swims being looked forward to rather then dreaded and thinking of your wetsuit as an aid to speed rather then a life preserver!

I don’t think swim improvements for adults are futile. Equally I don’t think it will be as easy as some make out promising rapid improvements. The body just does not work that way. I do think you can accelerate the rate of learning utilising a well rounded approach. It does not all have to be done in the pool but you won’t progress not being in the pool enough. I think people need to appreciate the point at which they are starting, what they may have missed out on as a Teenager and be realistic as to how you define what becoming a good swimmer may specifically mean. I think a sub 75min 3.8km swim is within most peoples grasp if they are physically fit, healthy and prepared to put some time into making this happen. I would have thought many would be happy with this level of becoming a better swimmer if you were new to the sport late in life. Maybe?





Swim of the week…

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Congrats to Valerie who we awarded Swim/Run of the week last week, making a bit of an exception to the usual but it was a great write up. Just because the season is winding down we still want to hear all about your improvements and how your races went. If you could share a race experience with us, a result or an improvement we will be offering a prize for Swim of the Week.

Did you swim the Dart10k at the weekend? Ironman Wales?

Were you with us at Stubbers raising money for Melanoma Fund?

Please add your results to the comments below and one will be selected for a prize. Goodluck!

T10, time trials, races all count. Will need some verification though if done outside of an SFT session. Goodluck

Swim and Run of the week – congrats Valerie.

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If you are interested in Otilo, the run/swim event growing ever popular then how about some insights from Valerie who swims with us at London Fields who raced at the World Champs.

We are going to create a new category for this report – swimRun of the week 🙂

Race report ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championship 2019, Monday 2nd September 

Taking care of the unfinished business was our target (see link for what happened). My sister and I had attempted the ÖTILLÖ SwimRun World Championship back in 2017, when the weather was at its worst in the history of the race; storms, hails, 50 mph wind, you name it, we got it. Eight hours of battling and 45km into the race, we made the difficult decision to pull out at the island Getskär. It was not an easy decision but we were risking hypothermia. Two years on we are better trained and prepared, and so we think…

The pre-race preparation (not to be confused with training!) started on the Wednesday prior when Natalie –my twin sister and teammate – and I flew out to Stockholm to acclimatize, to ready our bodies and minds, and to prepare our gears. Seasoned swimrunners are familiar with the feeling of running around town (especially if you live in a big city like London) as if attending a costume party.  Though our ‘costumes’ are fitted like armours to our weather-beaten frames, everyone agrees that this is most importantly a mental game – It is enough that we go through all sorts of feelings, ups and downs throughout a normal day, swimrunning means alertness is elevated and emotions run high …and in our case, for almost 13 hours.

Thursday and Friday were occupied by a mini-SwimRun session of 1.5 hours, just enough to get used to our new wetsuit (rookie mistake, it is too tight!), studying the race course, laminating it onto our paddles (See picture) and early nights. By Saturday the carb-loading and tapering meant that we could no longer sit tight, I felt especially jittery. To ease tensions, we took a day trip to the beautiful Djurgården (the Royal Game Park). What was initially a plan to visit the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) culminated in a rollercoaster ‘Twister’ ride at the amusement park Gröna Lund, thinking it might expense some of that excitement (or better known as nerves). I am convinced now that I pulled my neck – or at least that’s what I am telling myself seeing as I struggled so much in the swims at the race.

To avoid the queue, we got to the pre-race hotel early. That was proven a good strategy as we had an early lunch, prepared our gears in a timely fashion leaving room for a couple of episodes of Friends to de-stress. At the race briefing, we were told the weather should be relatively pleasant though thunderstorms overnight meant wet, slippery rocks on some of the technical runs – never mind, we always walk those sections anyway… Finally, we were shown the unforgiving schedule – breakfast at 3:45am, ferry ride at 4:45am, race start at 6am on Monday morning. Thankfully dinner was promptly served at 6pm which meant we were all tucked in by 8pm (yup we are grannies).

And so it began – a loud gun shot at 6am on the dot and off we went. Experience showed us that our first hurdle was the cut off at 11:15am (5 hours 15 minutes into the race), which by the time we would have run 24km and swam 5km. It sounds easily achievable, if you are running on road and swimming at the pool; not here, at the Stockholm Archipelagos – we only made the cut-off with a mere minute to spare in 2017, so we were not about to underestimate how slow we would be navigating through the costal rocks – the 2nd and 8th island, Vinadalsö and Käckskar (it is pronounced Shack-shar) had proven exceptionally tricky.  The first run and swim (longest of 1.75km) went relatively smoothly, when we were still in the pack and were able to run without looking for signposts and draft behind other swimrunners. Without any surprise though the second run on Vindalsö was technical enough to separate us from most teams; but that’s ok, after all we only had one goal, to finish the unfinished business.

If there is one thing we have learnt since picking up endurance sports in 2017, it is to eat early and frequently, as such our strategy was to eat two to three clip bloks gummies every 30 minutes. So far so good, we reached the first cut-off point without too much drama, and with about 30 minutes to spare, similar to our pace in 2017. We bumped into fellow 2017 non-finishers Kai and Klaus. This time round they had to pull out due to Klaus’ cold. Though they were in high spirits and encouraged us to carry on. No time to relax as all focus went onto the technical runs and long swims between us and the second cut-off point. We picked up pace when the trail flattened and slowed down when it got rocky. Then the 1km swim was when I first felt the lack of energy on my upper body.

By the second cut-off, we had managed to catch up with some teams including 3 women’s teams and with 10 minutes to spare – a massive improvement from our previous time. So we took some time to ensure that we recharged our batteries, hydrated and consumed salt tablets for the next sections. The infamous and dreaded ‘Pig Swim’ was ahead of us. I thought to myself ‘it will be ok as the weather is much nicer this year’; Mother Nature has quickly proven me wrong – we got to the shore and kind volunteer Johanna reminded us the origin of the name ‘Pig Swim’ – the combination of strong current and head wind often results in losing coordination of the body while swimming. This is coupled with another strong westerly wind pushing us to the left. At this point it was as if I lost control of my arms… no matter how hard I pulled it felt like I was going nowhere. Meanwhile Natalie soldiered on steadily ahead of me but this is why I love swimrun, being a team race means sticking together throughout the entire race, so I drafted behind her and enjoyed not having to sight, something I really need to work on!

From the third cut-off at 41km, three more runs and three more swims later, we reached Kymmendö, officially passing the point where we blew our whistle and abandoned the race two years ago. Forty-seven kilometres in – at the fourth cut-off point – we were cheered on by staff, volunteers, spectators and one of the race directors Mats who congratulated us for coming this far. We swam 300m to the largest island of the course, Örnö, to start the long-awaited half marathon run. Running a half marathon is normally a relatively casual affair, but not this time – we had been battling the elements for 9 hours by this point. Natalie, who also had a cold, was not feeling great and said ‘I can’t lift my legs’, so we adopted a 3-minute run, 2-minute walk strategy, which we were able to maintain quite consistently throughout. It took us almost 2.5 hours, but hey, we are in no rush.

Emerging from the forest the shore is ahead of us again. 7.5km, 6 more islands to go. We have reached all the cut-offs within the time limits, only now we were able to enjoy the rest of the course. I was getting excited but reminded myself not to be too jolly, after all our bodies are probably reaching their limits and we must not lose focus. A few transitions later we got onto Utö – the much-lauded island of love – 3.65km to go. Suddenly our legs, especially Natalie’s felt almost fresh again and we started running, slowly but continuously… wow how resilient are our bodies! The last 500 metres is a small climb to the Utö Värdhus, unsure whether we could run up the whole thing – mind over matter! – we walked the first half, and as spectators, fellow racers, staffs emerged, we started running again – one must keep up appearances!

As always we held our hands and crossed the finish line, and were immediately greeted by race director Michael who congratulated us on the ‘cold revenge’, and we responded ‘no, it was a warm revenge’.

We set out to complete an unfinished business, but the truth is SwimRun is never finished – it is all about an enduring team spirit, an occasion for which to rise and a challenge to overcome. We are still riding the highs from the World Championship, and have yet to make future plans, but we are already looking forward to the next adventure SwimRun may bring!”

Isle of Man – Swim of the Week

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There is only one consideration for swim of the week this week and it goes to Mike who has been working on his tech and fitness with us for quite some time now. His aim was to swim the 100miles around the Isle of Man. His full blog is fascinating and please take a moment to head over to –

Mike’s Blog and ITV coverage

Where you will learn of his swimming with seal efforts, the history and nature of the Isle and some fascinating insights. Enjoy.

“Yesterday I finished my swim around the Isle of Man. It ticked most of the boxes for me in terms of slightly hackneyed dramatic twists.

For a start, it was much harder than it was supposed to be, mostly because I got stuck in an eddy about half way along the 10km stretch up to the Point of Ayre. This was the same place where Mercedes Gleitze, the first person to swim round the Island, back in 1930, got into trouble. She drew strength to get out of it thanks to supporters singing to her from the shore. I got something better: the reappearance of my seal friends from day 1

After that I got to the Point of Ayre around the three and half hour mark and then had a frantic battle to get round the corner in face of a tidal stream ripping up the east coast. Was met not only by the seals, but also my mum, my amazing kayaker companions and mentors Steve and Lee and my friends from the Manx Wildlife Trust.
Which reminds me to make one last request that you share this link with anyone you think might be minded to make a donation to support MWT’s work and also that of Blue Marine Foundation: