Where can my training take me?

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When someone asks me ‘do you think I can break x mins for y metres in the pool, in an OpenWater race or in a Triathlon’ I rarely say no. I can help provide the training and stroke improvements to get you there but you need to get to the pool, get your dryland shoulder strengthening done, stay healthy, rest well, eat well, slowly build volume and make sacrifices. By this I mean give stuff up to find time to do what you need to do.  Saying yes to you is the easy part but are you prepared to help answer your own question?

Impressions: I am writing this having just returned from Italy after another training camp. If you have not been on one it is a great mix of people from all walks of life coming together to swim. To swim further and faster then ever before perhaps, with better technique and to gain confidence in Openwater. Nervous laughter is apparent in the welcome meeting, some have not swum openwater before. This is going to take a great deal of courage and commitment for some. I observe and guess if the person is a Triathlete or OW swimmer, newcomer or experienced, masters swimmer or new to the sport. One of our swimmers, a most unassuming, down to earth, softly spoken Gentleman has just told me about his day job. Along with some other Physicists he is working in France to ‘create a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars.’ 

Limitations:I am reminded not to judge a swimmer and their abilities from initial introductions and first impressions. I am also reminded not to judge what their limitations might be when it comes to their ambitions in the field of swimming. I am always amazed at how on these camps the lengths people go to finish sets, swim faster and learn more. Pushing themselves well beyond what might seem sensible! In the normal course of swim development and swim improvements what can be achieved? I have seen some amazing feats of endurance and events completed over the years. Levels of achievement from people of apparently limited ability, from people with injuries or disabilities to unfit, overweight, recovering from Stroke, DVT etc etc They have completed Ironman/The Channel and other events of amazing endurance. Working with the London Disability Swim Club leaves me mesmerized daily as to peoples achievements and the ability to keep coming back to the pool for more training. Shoulder pain? We can adapt swim strokes around that to an extent. Missing limbs? I have seen Butterfly swum and not be an issue.  Ironically for some thinking about target times for certain distances and events and whether or not they can achieve x time for a certain distance they don’t actually need to swim any faster then they do now. What I mean by this is for example the Triathlete looking to break an hour for the 3.8km swim. Many can hit the target 100m pace needed as a one off. The hard bit is then repeating this pace for the least energy expenditure and maximum propulsion 38 times. You don’t need to swim faster just avoid slowing down as fatigue sets in and technique starts to fail. You possibly can already swim fast enough to achieve what you want in our chosen event.

Commitment. This really is a two step process. In terms of committing to an event and committing to the training to complete the event. I am always saying get an event entered and the slight pressure that  process creates will help keep getting you to the pool/gym/out the door as appropriate. The hard part is probably typing in that first address/website, getting logged in and making a contract with yourself to then get the training done. Once you have that race date set and committed to, getting to the pool gets a lot easier but that is not the full story. I conducted an experiment this year after several people explained they had issues getting to one of our full swim courses I host. I allowed them the flexibility to drop in and pay per session, not ideal in terms of getting numbers balanced, coaches and lanes booked. This would also then create disruption at start of session as we would have to catch a few people up. They assured me it would be 1-2 sessions missed at the most. All 12 people I offered this to did not make it to a single session. This might have been a coincidence/illness or change of heart but if you also make a financial commitment to attend a course it probably will help. 

Psychology– be positive and attempt to set out and achieve great personal accomplishments. But don’t over achieve to the extent each training session or small race along the way is doomed. Set expectations sensibly. To break a world record, to win an Olympic Gold is to be the best on the Planet. Not just in your County or Nation but the sole single individual on the Planet. Thats asking a lot and I think as adults looking to improve we can put that to one side but I do hear some lofty ambitions being outlined.  Be realistic with what you set out to do or at least set intermediate goals that can be reached and ticked off slowly building a sense of pride and achievement. This time of the year I work with a lot of Triathletes who have entered their first Ironman. The sense of doom where the focus is on the all day event gets a lot of people down and deterred.  So late January or February you possibly are not going to be ready for an Ironman <or long distance swim, choose your event and level of dread here!> taking place in July. Focus on the sessions this week. Get them done, tick them off and focus on resting ahead of next weeks. Don’t let your imagination run away with you to race day too soon and be overwhelmed with how futile it seems now. You are not racing today. 

Training.More does not equal getting faster without appropriate breaks in training to absorb and improve. More does not necessarily mean better due to the technical nature of swimming. A 5mile run for the most part will be of more benefit then a 4mile run but a 2hour swim can easily be made to be less productive then a 1hour swim. Train appropriately, within a schedule that gradually takes you further, challenges you more but allows you to rest and absorb the training load. I can provide this in your quest to get you to your finish line but you will need to uphold the previous points to help me get you there. As a responsible coach I am not going to tell you something is not possible but it would be unfair if I did not point out the possible ramifications of proceeding against medical advice and what that might hold for a future sporting life ie might your career be cut short? Be responsible and sensible, help me to say yes to your objectives and we can work together to achieve them.

Race Start.

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What can go wrong…or right with a little preparation.

A common question as the open water season starts goes along the lines of “where at the start is safe? No where here it would seem! How do I know where to go? Will I get swum over?” It is not easy to answer all of these questions, as the start of a race is an unpredictable chaotic event with 00s or 000s all looking to swim in the same direction to the first buoy but rarely doing so. The more you race, the more will get an idea of how a race start unfolds and where best suits your ability. Even this can go wrong, as a certain race you entered might be a higher standard than previous, and a third of the way up the field this time might have you getting swum over whereas previously you did the swimming over.  A race might be advertised as novice friendly attracting you to enter. If you have a situation where there are a lot of novice Triathletes who were former swimmers trying a Triathlon for the first time, then the swim start can be fast and furious leaving the general pecking order in a mess. If this does not upset you and you do successfully get onto the bike, no doubt you will make back lots of time over those lucky enough having swum lots as a youngster, as you pass them on the bike. 

Navigating through slower swimmers with big kicks is not easy.

A common response is to wait at the back until all the swimmers have gone to ensure the least amount of stress and aggravation. If you are better than you imagined, this can cause issues since, if you as a front crawl swimmer then have to navigate through a wave of swimmers doing Breaststroke, this will be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes changes are made by the race course officials, that do not help. I watched a Standard distance race last year, male and female were going to start together for the 1500m swim. This made sense as faster swimmers (male and female) could assemble at the front. Slower swimmers, regardless of gender could assemble towards the rear of the pack. With 2mins to go, the men were called forwards to start the race, the women would start 2mins behind, the organisers assuming it would be safer to have two smaller groups. For the fast women this made the start very uncomfortable as they swam through the slow men, many who were doing Breaststroke and for the slow men, it could not have been much fun either getting swum over.

Position yourself wide to stay out of the scrum.

I think it is safe to say that no one wants to deliberately hurt anyone during a race but given the tight proximity to each other that shapes the start line, it is inevitable that swimmers will bump and nudge each other. At the start of a Marathon with 000s packed together, the gun goes and for most the first few minutes are spent walking until some space clears before attempting to run. Unfortunately in the water, most relax waiting for the start in a vertical position, treading water until the start of the race sounds and then everyone takes up 5x the room by switching to a horizontal position and boom, it’s chaos in neoprene. You can create room for yourself at the start by holding position horizontally during the countdown and so encourage some space. With limited swim skills and an ability to change pace comfortably, many people usually start too fast in a frantic, losing-control fashion that leads to blows to other swimmers and is misinterpreted as aggression. I hope.

With a clockwise course, staying left might help.

Start line positioning – If you are reasonably confident in the water as a strong pool swimmer, then don’t be surprised if you spend the first 20mins of a Triathlon swim overtaking slower swimmers who have possibly mis-seeded themselves due to inexperience or just not being sure how fast they are. Many people report back frustrated that the middle of the pack was quite slow and it took ages to meander through before clearer water was available. It is hard to give full advice on this area as races and the quality of the depth of field changes, but experience will eventually help you choose an ideal location on the race line. Make your first few races smaller, low key affairs where you can experiment, make adjustments and not be too distressed if things don’t go well. I know of only one person who made an Ironman their very first race and enjoyed it and continues to race. This would seem to be quite the exception.

Watch, observe, listen to others mistakes to help you map the best route.

So much can hinder your swim on race day that it is surprising if it ever goes fully to plan.  Arriving early and allocating time to relax, prepare fully, watch earlier ‘waves’ of competitors, if a multi wave event, will help you be at your best when the race commences. Specific swimming dry land warm up exercises are key to bring the body up to racing temperatures and to get the swimming muscles ready to perform. This will allow you to swim a little faster a lot more comfortably when the gun goes, rather than overload a cold body and feel very uncomfortable when you get to the first buoy. A short swim warm-up if it is not too cold and wetsuit flushing (allow the suit to flood once immersed, exit and squeeze water from it then pull it back up into position) will squeeze air and excess water, vacuum sealing your suit, making it the most invisible to you yet the most helpful in terms of flexibility in the shoulder and assisting body position.

It never fails to amaze me the difference in approach to the start of the masses at a Running Marathon event compared to the frenzy of the start of most large Open Water swims. When starting the Marathon, the masses mostly walk until eventually space develops and then a shuffle/jog can start. Compare to a swim start, and while similarly cramped when the gun goes, what happens? Arms and legs start moving frantically as the smallest gaps are fought over.

Confidence at the start of a race comes from controlling as many areas of the race as possible knowing many will be out of your control. Swimming your best will come from a combination of a well sized and well fitted wetsuit, arms and shoulders mobilised and warm ahead of time, knowing the course, the number of laps, the direction and look out for anyone you recognise from previous races that are fast you can follow or avoid!

Swim of the Week

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Here at SFT we do love 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.

Simon at the Putney sessions just swam 6mins quicker at Mallorca last weekend compared to his best last year so that is not a bad starting point for July. Leslie H just added 45m to her T10 best at London Bridge. 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

current thoughts on swimming, training, technique and racing.

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Now and again I put some thoughts out there on the sport of Swimming, mostly related to Openwater and Triathlon Training. I observe, get involved, read about and chart all aspects of training and racing with great interest. Swimming and especially Triathlon/Openwater has many, many experts, fast swimmers wanting you to mimic them and swim fast like them. Sadly within such a new sport it does not take much to seem worldly when the general knowledge base is still building. What I find interesting is when swimmers who come in for lessons tell me what they were advised when they travelled and participated in a training camp or had prior lessons. Of late, someone has even claimed to have invented a new style of FC <Front Crawl but also known as freestyle.> Think about that for a moment. Your left arm alternates with your right arm to rotate from the shoulder while horizontal in the water with your legs travelling up and down almost vertically behind the body. Millions have done it, been taught it and travelled millions of metres with it. In 2019 you are unlikely to have invented anything new. Within this loose outline of the mechanics is a unique movement to you in terms of your strength, flexibility, fitness and proprioception skills. Don’t mould yourself to a style. Work on improving propulsion, lowering drag and then you can fine tune and decide the stroke rate, the kick to arm ratio, the breathing pattern and head position that suits you.
If a swim guru recommends ‘catch up’ as a stroke to you then keep in mind that is alternating single arm FC. Not fast. If this is your full stroke you will not swim fast. There will be no flow, no coupling of the body from the legs, your kick, through your rotation to your arm pull. It looks pretty and bubble free. But it cannot be fast. There is no anchoring of the lead arm as it moves to a vertical forearm position with fingertips pointing down enabling you to launch the recovering arm forwards as the hip rotates.
If, while on training camp your coach did not tell you about swimming with 3mm of daylight between your fingers, they should have. This has been well documented, scientifically proven and if your tri coach is not up to date then your swimming is suffering.

If you read that Bilateral breathing was best, then yes it is something to aim for in training but not always the case on race day. As you demand more air as your pace increases or the stress of an openwater start kicks in you will probably feel better breathing to one side every 2nd stroke. Wonderful if you can dictate which side that is and that will be made easier if you breathe to both sides in training.

do you have size 14 shoes?

If a swim guru suggests you mimic their technique, check that you are also similar height, have a similar range of motion, as long arm span, similar flexibility, strength & fitness etc better still ask them to improve ‘your’ current technique. What suited them, what they managed to get away with or make use of due to factors particular to them are unlikely to work for you.

Bubble free swimming is pretty and looks great as I demonstrate it during lessons. It is also slow, not practical and hard to sustain. Keep separate the notion of perfect FC and an optimum, useful speed to move at. While excessive bubbles, from technical inaccuracies and splashing create the illusion of speed but rarely deliver. Fast swimming is never bubble free. Keep in mind you are not aiming to swim bubble free.

I once read that an unbalanced FC lacking symmetry is to be strived for in Openwater due to the chaos that OW comprises. Yes there are subtle changes to your technique as conditions outside change. (Stroke tempo, the side you breath to, rate of leg kick, straighter arm recovery might be advisable.) But if one arm pulls wide, pushes down or moves across the centre line while the other performs a nice ‘catch position’ you are unlikely to swim straight. The less you swim straight the more often you need to sight which has drag and energy cost.

SFT does not have a style or method we teach, or even a steps 1-10 we recommend our coaches follow. We work to improve what suits you best and ideally make what you have better. This can, but rarely happens in a one day workshop, it needs time and patience. At best in a lesson we can identify what is holding you back, film the faults and introduce some drills to help you breakthrough. It will take months for this to bed in, feel natural, to have new muscle groups recruited and start to work efficiently. Think of this process more akin to learning a musical instrument or language. I will never forget when a swimmer yelled at me ‘ I learned to swim quicker than this!!’

A Swim for Tri Session Breakdown

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This is a lighthearted look at a coach/swimmer dialogue during one of our fitness sessions. Most days we add a mainset to social media that we may have swum at one of our fitness sessions. You can find these at #weswam on FBInstaor twitter. The following should help you read the swim sets.

Listen carefully! I will say this only once!

 Coach Dan– ‘Ok swimmers your warm up is 200m swim, 150m pull, 100m drill, 50m kick, that’s 8 lengths, 6, 4 and then finish with 2 if you prefer to work the old fashioned way as we are in a 25m pool. The pattern is SPDK, swim, pull, drill, and kick if you need help remembering. SPDK. I am here on poolside if your stroke feels a little out of sorts, let me know before the drill option and I will cast a quick glance and offer a relevant drill. Once you make it through this 500m we follow a similar pattern but lose a little distance. Lets go 150m Swim, 100m Pull, 50m Drill so that’s Swim, Pull, Drill you know the pattern by now, SPD, but a new drill please. Can’t think of two drills then ask me? Finish that and its 100m, 50m Swim; Pull finishing with another 50 Swim. I want you fully warmed up before today’s main set.’

But that’s a 1000m warm-up coach, 40lengths if you still like to swim the old fashioned way. If I make that including that huge 50m of kick what chance of coping with the main set do I have? Where do you want the pull buoy when it comes to the pulling? Normal position or down between the ankles like I remember you mentioned recently? Engage the core more was it? Sounds tough. Can I suggest a 3rdchoice as to where I would like you to stick it. He won’t notice if I sneak those fins on for the kick will he?


Coach Dan– ‘Next up we are going to swim 12x25m on the black line down the centre of each lane. I would like to see 10m of great speed as you depart each wall and then 15m of great FC tech as you reduce speed and swim to the wall. First swimmer pushes off when the last swimmer in the lane arrives. LIFO. We will get the HR up and get you ready for the main set. Can I see evidence of a leg kick please soon after a great streamline off each wall? Squeeze those ears with the upper arms, squeeze the legs together, point the toes. Push off looking like a starfish and you will swim like one. Take advantage of the option to swim down the middle. Watch where the hands are sending you when you set up your pull, sweep too wide in either direction and the hands will not be helping you travel forwards. Pull the hand backwards in a relatively straight line and you will go forwards.’

Ah yes my most favourite aspect of Tri swim training, the opportunity to swim continually at one speed and get yelled at for not changing pace. How about if I just kick my legs harder, make some splash yet not necessarily go any faster but just look it. I wonder if that will fool him? If I streamline long enough hopefully I will get halfway down the pool and then won’t have to swim that hard, he won’t have thought of that will he! What does it even matter if I am on the black line or not, there won’t be one on the bottom of the Serpentine.

Coach Dan– ‘Close those eyes for a few strokes, then reopen are you still over that black line? Is your stroke keeping you straight? When it comes to racing all you have to keep you straight is your stroke or excessive sighting. Your stroke should keep you straight; sighting should keep you on course. What happens when we lift the head too often? The hips sink and you will slow down. Yes even in a wetsuit this happens I am sorry to say. Two swimmers racing at similar paces? The one that sights more often will be slower.’

Its like he can read my mind, I guess he will see though the splashy leg idea as well so I perhaps had better try to up the tempo a little. You know just to keep him quiet a bit. Now was it more strokes for more speed? Spin them a little faster? That seems to be helping, its certainly tiring but I am not getting any quicker down this length, those other two guys either side of me are pulling away. How about accelerating the hand under the water after a good strong anchoring in position, hold the water then pull the body over it. If that works then I guess the over the water bit kind of happens regardless. How do I hold it? Ah yes that’s better, fingertips down, palm facing the wall I’m swimming away from. Now I can feel the back and shoulders getting involved.

As hard or as easy as you like

Coach Dan– ‘Our main set is going to be one of those nice long FC swims that you can make as easy or as hard as you like. I am not going to suggest a pace or a target all I am looking for is even swimming throughout. Let me suggest you do in fact start out nice and easy. The increase in swim volume and limited rest will feel quite testing in the latter stages of this swim. In the opposite fashion to the warm-up we are going to add 50m with each swim to a starting point of 50m. The rest period is only 15secs rest and as you increase each distance the aim is to remain at the same pace. Swim 50secs for the first 50m and you then rest 15 and depart on 1:05. The next distance is 100m with an aim of 1:40 and an interval of 1:55. 150m of FC then follows with a target of 2:30, interval of 2:55. This pattern repeats to a final swim of 500m for a total main set of 2750m. Note at what point you start to slip from the 50sec per 50m and keep that in mind or note it down post session so we aim to go beyond that next time.’

This sounds like a trick, start out nice and easy, who is he kidding. How will he let me off with that? I wonder just how slow I could go. OK it seems that first 50 was not as slow as I would like. Been holding 55secs throughout so far, and am now at 3:40 for the 200m. Oh I just wish there was more rest. How can I keep on this pace yet make it easier? What was some of that crap he’s been lecturing me about? Ok well I am pushing off each wall gasping so perhaps I could streamline that a little more? Stop breathing upward to the ceiling, as I know that left arm is pushing straight down to the bottom. Come on, get those fingertips down and push backwards. Oh yes that’s it, pivot at the elbow and suddenly that’s easier. Great, hit 4:30 for the 250 that’s a little bit quicker then that 55 pace and my HR dropped a fraction.

Coach Dan– ‘Well done that one was quicker, don’t let it slide now, you still have quite a few swims left and they are getting longer, make each turn count, make each pull count, every breath, get that air out underwater, get that head turn into the breath a little more quickly and get the head back to neutral as soon as you can. If your head is moving unnecessarily then the body is following. Keep the shoulders submerged waiting in the shallow end as soon as you finish the next swim, keep drinking, get your rest, I know it is not much but conserve. It’s the 300 next, we are hoping for 5:30 next swim or better. This is sub 70min IM pace if you do want to start thinking about how this might relate to OW next year.’

Sub 70min eh? That wouldn’t be too bad I could live with that, maybe even sneak a 65 with a wetsuit, that would get me out in the top…. whoa what the what’s up with my legs, oh stretch, stretch, stretch please cramp go away not now I am on pace for something special. Please calf, please release and let me go. I promise I won’t run before swim practice next time.

Coach Dan– ‘What’s up? Twinges in the leg? Calf or arch of foot? Wriggle it, stretch it out continually in these rest periods, and try to stop it from getting any worse. Be gentle with those push offs from the wall, you are streamlining nicely but it is putting that region of the leg under some stress. If it goes again then pick up the pull buoy and try to continue. Keep up with the fluids, you are unlikely to be dehydrated but remember you will be sweating in the water during this type of set. Did you run to the pool today?’

Ok that calf is under control and I am back on it, just the 450 and 500 to go, good grief it’s getting harder. How much further? Come on now, keep that breathing under control, I’m trying to breathe to both sides but the air just isn’t coming quickly enough. If I stick to one side though that bloody arm collapses and pushes down. How about if I breathe to one side for one length then swap? Surely that will keep him happy? The arm feels better at least. Oh that’s slower, stop daydreaming and focus, I need to get back on track. If that arm pushes down then that leg kicks out. Keep the kick small, how many times does he have to say that for it to stick? Ok I can get back on track with the second half of this swim; there we go that was a 55, can I hit 8:15 for the 450?

add paddles

Coach Dan– ‘Great main set ladies and gentlemen, nicely worked, please can we start a cool down as 300 FC swim nice and easy. I would like to see the first 100 with paddles, fins and snorkel into 100 with fins and snorkel finishing with a final 100 with snorkel. Rebuild the FC tech if it is has deteriorated during that tremendous main set. Chances are it will, that is the idea, put the stroke under some pressure and see how long it holds together. It will not remain perfect at some of those intensity levels you will have been striving for.’

So tell me how do I rebuild my stroke? It feels like it has been dragged through a hedge backwards. Ok the fins are helping, the paddle is making it easier to hold onto the water and I can feel the body travelling forwards and over. Thank goodness for that central snorkel, I need that air. So I let these toys do some of the work and artificially prop me up. Ok that makes sense. I guess it make sense to get back to where it was so that I carry it into the next session. I can feel that paddle helping the hand anchor into the water, the fins helping drive the body over the hand. The snorkel allows me to keep the head still, that’s useful I can actually watch the hands, feel the rotation all without that constant interruption.

well done…

Coach Dan– ‘Well done squad that was just got over the 4km done, see you next time. Get your rest, get your recovery and look forward to the next session. Don’t leave it too long before I see you again.’

Drill of the Week, the MFC

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Making the water feel more solid.

A wonderful, but not easy skill to help you work on your underwater pull phase is called the MFC. The momentary fist clenched as that is exactly what it is. A variation one the classic fist drill but the timing shift makes this so much more effective. Swimming with fists makes pulling harder, hoping we offset by using more of the forearm. In this version the effect of opening the hand mid pull suddenly makes the back of the stroke feel more more exaggerated and complete. The water gets heavier, you know it’s right.

When it comes to swimming, I feel the body is a remarkably adaptable piece of ‘machinery.’ If we encourage it into a position of reduced ability where it needs to compensate we then work harder to achieve previously similar levels of ability. The hand slips in its reduced state then slows as it retains it full size. The larger the object the slower it moves in water, the hand shape will suddenly feel very large and slow as the pressure builds from the increased drag around it.

By improving a specific movement having removed or reduced another area that previously was adding propulsion we have seen tremendous improvements achieved.

Here we are reducing the hand from being a paddle to something less than half the size in order to deliberately force the body to adapt your stroke and become more efficient. The shift from small to large helps activate the back of the stroke, reminds you to finish the stroke and helps you feel the water get heavier at the back of the stroke.

Two videos showing slightly different perspective

More details here and some different footage –TRI247

Head Position when Swimming. Further thoughts.

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Head position is key to either helping or hindering your full stroke FC. Too high and like a ‘see saw’ the legs will suffer leaving you swimming uphill as they sink. Imagine sticking your head out of a sunroof in a car, you will ruin the aerodynamics of the car shape. Too low and and it is a long way up to get to the air!

Some coaches associate head position with low legs solely, but poor kicking technique will also sink them. It is not a miracle fix. Legs need to be addressed as well.

Looking at and facing the bottom of the pool is probably the most hydrodamic position for fast racing you can achieve but rarely practical for public lane swimming with peoples feet flailing in front. Openwater also has its own compromises where you need to sight forwards. I would suggest look forwards but not to the extent you are facing forwards which can strain the neck, make turning to breathe trickier and keep the body slightly uphill.

Key points
Keep the head still unless turning to breathe. A central snorkel can help practice this by eliminating the need to turn for air.
Breathe slightly backwards. The assumption will be to lift forwards and up for air but in fact a turn sideways/slightly backwards will create a shallow trough in the water bringing the air nearer. The two swimmers in the pic demo this nicely. Closest swimmer lower head but higher mouth. Furthest swimmer higher head, lower mouth.
Lift the head forwards for air and you meet the waviest water (don’t lift up out of the sunroof!)
Eventually aim to submerge the lower goggle, not easy until the body in general sits higher in the water. Note the pic again.
After inhaling try to get the head back into its neutral position before the recovering arm returns to the water.

Timing the breath – Follow the hand under the body as it pulls you forward, turn sideways into the breath as the hand passes under the body.
Aim for a slow trickle exhale under the water and a fast inhalation when you have access to the air.

Some of the following might be of interest. I wrote for Speedo on the topic of head position in openwater.


The student who made me want to coach

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At the age of 10 I was taken to my first early morning swim training session (a whole 3 minutes away!) by my parents.

I was woken with a cup of tea and I remember moaning about how early it was. Dad was great, and reminded me this is what champions needed to do. He was going to drop me off on the way to work and then Mum would pick me up afterwards with a mad dash to get ready for school. It was no real hardship and having learned to swim many years earlier it was a natural progression.

Fast forward many years and many medals later – coaching did not immediately appeal. As I retired and thought about what was next, after a wonderful 4 years of swimming in a US college, a scholarship to a private sports school and the opportunity to race around the world, poolside with kids at swim club did not appeal. Via the sport of Triathlon and the opportunity to help adults learn to swim faster a new challenge was presenting itself. Kids were a different entity and did not appeal, as was adults learn to swim. Adults learning to swim faster was not really an easy option and not many had explored this area.  Keeley and I started SFT for exactly this.

February 2018 and a young adult by the name of Eid approached me to help him learn to swim faster. Without knowing his full story I was intrigued that already he was pretty quick having only learned to swim a few months earlier. In fact so intrigued I double checked with some local swim teachers to see if I was being told the full story. A rate of progress from 0 – 3km in 4 months seemed fanciful. Apparently it was true – and then Eid’s full story unfolded. Not only had he only just learned to swim, he had to overcome the harrowing journey of fleeing his home country on a flimsy boat knowing that he could not swim if something went wrong.

Most mornings Eid gets to swim practice on a bus in the depths of winter. My swim upbringing could not have been more different, and my journey made easy by supportive parents. We have been happy to support Eid as best we can writing letters to the Team GB and the IOC, asking for sponsors, swimming and racing with other groups to give him the best chance. Last year the IOC announced there would be an IOC refugee status team in Tokyo.
For more information on Eid’s story you can watch more here:

United Nations website
Ch4 reported on his progress last month
ITV London last Friday

We hope Team GB supports Eid, since no British-based refugees were put forward for Rio 2016 and the IOC refugee status team. It is not a simple process, and despite the United Nations UK division getting involved we are not sure what might happen. There are no strict qualifying times. At the moment all we have to go on is what we have learned from a few websites and the results in Rio. From Wikipedia we learn that a number of universality places are awarded to what appears to be nations not strong in swimming (–_Qualification)

‘NOCs may also permit swimmers regardless of time (1 per gender) under a Universality place, as long as they have no swimmers reaching either the standard entry time.[1] 

From some of the early preliminary rounds Eid will get close to what some of these other people were swimming in Rio. It is unclear if the IOC ROT status team falls under this guideline?

Sub 30secs is our objective and with a solid winter of training I see that happening Spring 2019. Sub 28secs is possible in 12months if Eids current rate of progress is maintained. Just to confirm 12 months ago he could barely manage a length of FC. It is a remarkable rate of progress. Currently, Eid is swimming approximately 34secs for 50m.

Good luck Eid!

Swimming frustrated?

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Had a client get a little upset during his lesson as we revisited an earlier part of the FC swim stroke. ‘But we did the catch a few months ago.’ Don’t be frustrated by the seemingly endless circle of swim drills! It might well seem they are never ending but that is how it should be. Your drills will not end. They are the tools you use to restore your swim to best form. You don’t stop cleaning your bike after the first really good wash you give it? or you should really continue to wash it! sorry if that was a bad example 🙂
In more detail here is an article we prepared for our friends at TRI247 If we can get away from the idea that swim technique breaking down if a bad thing it might help you stay positive about getting back to the pool. Think of it as a reward for training hard. You get tired, the technique starts to fail. The next time you work hard it should ‘fail’ later into the set or at a faster pace. The important thing is that you restore it to its best potential with some technique work and not let it fester too long. I demo’d a paddle balance drill on a recent swim camp at CLS and noticed my legs were kicking out too big. I was sure my nice narrow streamlined kick was hidden behind my trunk. But no, due to some hard work of late, a lack of drills and filming/coaching my tech had not been restored.
Here is a link to some Olympians working their Extension drill Why would Olympians do drills?
They are polishing and restoring their full stroke technique post heavy training blocks.
A nice slow weekly drills session will keep your HR in the lower zones which your tri coach might well be asking you to do. At the least you should be adding drills into your warmups/subsets or swim down.
We never leave drills behind, just modify how many and how often and utilise with a different focus. Initially they will break the stroke into its component parts so there is not an overwhelming amount to focus on. Ideal for those new to the FC technique. Then they might be used to restrict a bad habit or encourage good habits to add some subtle improvements. Eventually as shown by the Auburn Olympians they can repair a broken technique after a period of heavy training.
These images were from a recent swim camp and all were accomplished swimmers needing a little polish after some hard work over winter. Since most of the FC stroke happens behind you it is easy to see how things can go unnoticed.
This is my favourite block of work to swim down with post a heavy training block to help restore the full stroke.
100m FC with fins, paddles and snorkel. Use the swim aids to help body position, to anchor the hands and keep the head still.
100 FC with fins and snorkel. Think about the hand shape, pulling with the forearm & not just the hand
100FC with snorkel. Feel the big toes lightly brushing and a tiny movement at the hip to keep the kick small
100 FC no swim aids, finish with your best possible technique ahead of exiting the pool.

Keeping the head still, help from the central snorkel

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If you have not yet got the hang of swimming with a central snorkel yet then please give it a go. It is one of the most effective swim aids you can invest in <Available here>. Unless very confident in the water or a former scuba diver these seem to work best with a nose clip. Inhaling with the face in the water can really confuse the brain and water can be inhaled through the nose which is horrible!
Before launching into a length of full stroke just get aquainted with the snorkel by putting your face in the water in the shallows and work on easy breathing in and out while static. Then perhaps some legs only with your face immersed. Then work up towards some full stroke. Drills will become more accurate as you focus on your body position and not on when to time the head movement for the breath.
Keeping the head still is a great way to watch what your arms are doing under the body as they pull you forwards. You will spot wide sweeping hand pathways that will drive you from side to side. You will see the palm face down driving you up rather than the palm pushing water backwards to send you forwards. Not turning the head to breathe will also give you a chance to break the dreaded straight arm pushdown issue affecting many.

Have a great week of swimming