I recently got asked for an interview for a US tri mag on how I improve my athletes in the OW, and after spending a decent amount of time answering and submitting the information I was told it was not longer needed. Rather than file it away, or keep it all to myself, I figured someone out there might get something out of it. I am an Ozzie, and all the those athletes highlighted in the article are or have trained in Oz also. Best regards from the Swiss Mtns, Darren Smith
How long have you been a tri coach? I coached my first international athlete in 1993, but got really serious since about 1999
What is your background (athlete, other sport, etc)? half decent triathlete (few top 10s world AG) after starting very late and not particularly from any background
How would you like to be referred to in article? Most people know me as coachdaz (twitter)…my name is Darren Smith (rarely I will use the Dr, but I do have PhD)
Do you have a team name or title? Again, most know us as ‘Dsquad’..we have a small team of 9 athletes, with six of our ODTri members out of 6 going to London for the Olympics, plus I coach a junior and two long course athletes who are also pretty decent.
Any other pertinent personal info?..just a private coach, with a fairly low profile, good thinker with commonsense. Happily married to Liz, a great sport dietitian and I’m a very satisfied customer of life.
Specific swim questions:
Can you give an example of an age group (non-pro) that has come to you as a slow swimmer and you worked with them to make significant gains in their swim times? Name, age, time spent coaching, original swim time/distance, current swim time/distance.
What are the main aspects that resulted in this improvement? Technique? More yardage? Open water training? Strength? A combination?
Its’s been a long long time since I worked with any age grouper, but I do help out some juniors at times.
Case study one is a junior male, Declan Wilson, whom we’ve improved by just over a 1.5 min over 1km in the past few months. He only learnt to swim in the past two years as a 17-18 yr old and was swimming only about 13.45-14 min for a 1km TT in late January earlier this year. By June we have him down around 12.27 min for the 1km TT (as you know 1.5 min off a 14 min/km is a bit harder than 1.5 off someone really slow)…
The change was a combination of everything:
Technically we changed most things..At the start, he wiggled his torso (no lateral stability to speak of), crossed over centreline on entry, kicked from the knee on one leg and didn’t kick at all with the other, pulled the water with dropped elbows, breathed late and out of alignment, and had terrible body position in the water and a really low stroke rate of 32/min. We have sorted out all of those things so now everything looks pretty neat and alignment is now good.
Improvements (up to 60%) were also made in range of motion of the shoulder, especially internal rotation and abduction; and we specifically strengthened the scapular and rotator cuff muscles.
Training included more mileage, initially as many shorter sessions while we adjusted the stroke, and then longer sessions to build fitness..always going back to shorter, more frequent sessions if the stroke broke down. Loading up on strength was also important and faster sprint efforts, but we always kept the mechanics good throughout.
We haven’t had the chance to do too many open water sessions yet, but we did drafting practice in the pool with better athletes, having him need to deal with people in close proximity, and he has become more of a student of the sport by watching how others deal with the swim in races.
Same two questions as above, regarding a pro athlete that you have coached. (any pro, doesn't have to be Barbara if you don't want to talk about her)..
I am fortunate enough to have contributed positively to a number of well known pro athletes. They all had their own quirky bits that needed negotiating.
Case studies will include Barbara Riveros from Chile who went from 3rd pack swimmer to back of first packer over two years which allowed her to capitalise on her biking and running ability and become a sprint world champ in 2011; and Lisa Norden, who also went from an average swimmer to now firmly entrenched in the first pack and an absolute legend of the sport in short distance drafting and non draft formats.
The girls are of very different body size, with their respective body lengths being in the order of 5,10’’ and 5 foot respectively for lisa and barb…but there were similarities with their initial swimming ability and skills. Both crossed over the centreline on entry, attempted to find a catch mainly using their hand, knew little about how to really apply force to water and had no coordination of the arms with the remaining parts of their body. They were fit and well conditioned coming off programs that did good swim volume and hard training sets, but they did not swim up to the required standard to become internationally competitive. Their strokes were also far from ideal for an open water environment and I will talk about this first.
Lisa, kicked from the knee well out of time with the hips, entered early and across the centreline but then pulled the water with much force at the catch (using just the hand) which was also very wide and deep. She breathed very late with an exaggerated head movement and the stroke was very short in length. Improvement in all these aspects helped tremendously, especially when we got her to think about using her whole ‘paddle’ (fingers to elbow) and to apply force in a coordinated manner involving the opposite hip, and kick in the correct timing. Because she is a very strong woman,’ pulling’ the water with so much force and using a small paddle (her hand only) was getting her nowhere especially in the open water. She ‘held’ very little water to move her forward.
Barb, had been well coached to find a catch (a vertical forearm), but unfortunately the arm stopped there momentarily before applying force in concert with a violent kick on the same side (the kick being from the knee and not the hip) and the arm force applied so fast that none of the paddle (being, hand to elbow) held any water at all! The stationary vertical forearm, was a big brake to forward motion; the energy of the pull too much for her strength to hold any water, and kicking from the knee created lots of drag and turbulence and she had a hip injury from it! It was worse when she breathed, because the head would lift from the water and the breathing was very late, affecting body position and instantaneous velocity (ie. short people, not propelling themselves sink and really don’t glide well). To sort it out, we reduced her intent to find a catch and removed the pause, taught her to kick from the hip and to coordinate it with the hips and press. Finally to relearn how to apply force to the water, with much less outright ‘pull’ of the water, rather a setting the ‘paddle’ and coordinating the body to move past this paddle.
For both athletes we worked hard on range, scapular control, staying healthy and swimming consistently with shorter double swims per day every second day, until they were technically good enough to handle longer and tougher fitness sets. Kinesthetic and visual feedback worked well. We coupled this with specific open water sessions, with me, the coach on a canoe next to them, giving feedback on their ability to swim straight, follow feet etc, concentrate when the going got tougher etc…in all sorts of conditions. We deemphasised what they did at the front end of the stroke, removed any gliding or dead spots and strengthened them to have an ability to use water at any point where they found it within the stroke. As most will know, swimming on feet, and in a stream of bubbles affects your ability to ‘hold’ water at the front part of the stroke, because of such low density of the water…this is in general contrast to swimming in a pool where some athletes (but not that many) will be able to feel good pressure from the water especially at the start, but potentially right through the stroke also.
They went faster initially, by swimming less intensely, but with more understanding of the fluid medium and better open water ability. Then we layered fitness, and race specific skills resulting in further improvement, but there was never a point when technical ability was left to the waste heap.
Strength endurance and the ability to swim quickly with band only and paddles/band pull bouy were also critical abilities we wanted to develop.
In general, what do you feel most triathletes are lacking in their training that is holding them back from making huge gains in the water?
Most triathletes, age group and elite have the same issues. Firstly forget fitness, it can be overrated until there is a certain amount of skill developed. Technically, triathletes create too much drag and not enough force…we have all seen the ex swimmer who is unfit but gets in the pool and swims rings around very fit ‘unskilled or non swimmers’! I will illustrate the issues and then apply some logic to help sort it out:
The increased drag of non swimmers is generally from having both poor kick mechanics and not knowing how to adjust body position using the upper part of their body.
It is not that difficult to kick from the hip, nor to improve plantarflexion, but most triathletes kick from the knee and have ankles locked almost at 90 degrees! The kick is not really that relevant for direct forward progress per se in most parts of the race, but I believe it critical to help the body move past the ‘paddle’ in a coordinated manner (more on this later). Once the kick is sorted the body position normally improves, but additional work (assuming the swimmer has enough thoracic/shoulder range) around the head and torso can improve the body position and reduce the drag further. Simplistically, push the torso and head (together) into the water a bit more and hey presto, better body position irrespective of everything else. Of course if you mostly race in a wetsuit, then some of these things are solved, so less emphasis can certainly be placed on the body position requirements.
Out of date style coaching instruction probably is the other big issue. The open water medium is a bit special, what I find is athletes across the board enter the water too early, often crossing the centreline, glide for way too long, press wide thereafter in a ‘key hole shape’ and pull with their little shoulder muscles (akin to a lat pulldown in the gym or rowing stroke) using only their hand as a paddle. Unfortunately the swimming world was side tracked for the best part of 30 yrs after a biomechanist and swim coach named Doc Counsilmen observed that good freestyle swimmers appeared to scull their hand in a key hole shape. Every coach who read this work then went and taught swimmers to do a sculling action like this, but did not understand that most of the key hole shape is a result of normal body roll, rather than any requirement to scull laterally. The result is that everything is overdone!
What is wrong will all this…in turbulent environments such as the open water, short non streamlined people really don’t glide well and both velocity and body position deteriorate very rapidly, the arm is a third order lever, so any catch less than ideal causes much duress to the muscles trying to move the arm.
Now once something decent is in place, then conditioning becomes important, but this bit is certainly not rocket science. There will be a minimum level of endurance training required to become a proficient swimmer, but many will overdo the intensity of training that is required, and probably not complete enough swimming with good technique at moderate to medium paces. Strength endurance is important because the back end of the stroke is critical when following feet I believe.
Then, navigating in the open water and within a high energy race environment is another stage that needs some work for many, but not all. Many people can swim straight, but most cannot, and same with being able to concentrate or sight properly to ensure they are indeed heading in the right direction.
What significance (if any) do you think training in open water has for improving as a triathlete?
We as triathlon coaches have our athletes training 95% or more in the pool, which to some extent rewards gliding, and is more pristine than in the open water. I work very hard not to let me athletes forget that we are not trying to optimise their pool swimming ability, but we are specifically trying to get the best out of themselves when it counts…which is during an open water race.
The time we spend in the open water is precious, in the off season in Australia we are out there every single week for sessions between 1 hr and 2 hrs with up to two coaches on canoes doing specific workouts and providing feedback directly related to the demands found in racing. There are no lane ropes or black lines in a race, athletes need to get used to being hit and having to deal with it, negotiating turns and not loosing forward momentum etc and we practice it all. Once we improved her in the pool Barb Riveros used to be swimming fine at the back of a group in such OW sessions, and all of a sudden was heading left or right at almost 45 degrees for apparently no reason…there was simply a lack of concentration and if she tried too hard she either slipped her hold on the water or just went off line. Her sighting was also in pretty poor shape and this affected her body position, drag and hence speed in the open water. Everything has a knock on effect. In swimming within a race, once the gap opens up for any of the above reasons then it was likely the end of a good result in the race, so it mattered a lot to us.
In your opinion, how important is swim specific strength training?
Swimming, like biking is really a strength endurance sport, and therefore lots of specific strength is very important. However general strengthening or making the wrong muscles more powerful is not the answer. First, what are the weak muscles, and what are their actions in the swim stroke. I just don’t believe the ‘pulling’ muscles of the arm are the prime movers for technically good swimming…so for me, strengthening these are totally unproductive. Forget biceps curls, chest press, lat pull downs and all that sort of thing. Strengthening the muscles of the shoulder and the scapular so you can ‘hold’ the ‘paddle’ in place as the body moves past it, and strengthening the core so you can hold a streamlined torso really is useful however. You can get these adaptations by swimming and adding resistance, by gym or stretch chord work, or a combination. The bottomline however is that you are trying to apply force to a very slippery medium with not a particularly well designed ‘paddle’ (have a look at your forearm to hand) so any power gains must be matched by skills to use this extra ability.