Designing Swimming Sessions


This is the first Blog in ages. I’ve not been lazy. Rather, I started work on Understanding Behaviour. Unfortunately, I think this article could end up as the opening few chapters of a book, should I eventually get round to writing one.

I’ve picked up a calf injury too, probably as a result of running in the snow. Therefore, I’ve been doing a bit more swimming. It’s got me thinking, what makes a really effective swim session for triathletes? In this week’s Blog  I’ll cover what I think is important, maybe being a little bit controversial in places. It’s primarily targeted towards coaches but plenty of tips for athletes have been provided too.The Blog has been split into the following sections:

  1. Developing Technique
  2. Using other Strokes to Improve Technique?
  3. Motivating the Lane
  4. Physical Training
  5. Tactics

As ever, if you wish to lend your support, be critical or have something to add, please comment or email me directly.

How did seaweed get in my hat?
How did seaweed get in my hat?

Developing Technique

When considering training, the first question you should always ask is: how will the session improve or optimise performance? Swimming faster is simply about increasing propulsive force and minimising drag forces. Thus, the majority of sessions should focus on one, the other or both.

For the average triathlete, lack of aerobic fitness is rarely a major limiting factor of performance. That’s because the metabolic efficiency of front crawl swimming ranges from about 5-8%. Over 90% of the total energy we expend isn’t contributing to forward propulsion. A good 14 year old club swimmer is typically faster than a good senior age-group triathlete, primarily because their technique is more efficient rather than because of aerobic fitness.

Good technique means that a swimmer is minimising drag forces acting to slow them down. Technique is best developed prior to puberty because youngsters find it easier to learn complex movement patterns and develop ‘feel’ for the water. Older athletes often struggle to maintain good body position because of body morphology (i.e. muscle size, bone growth etc) and ‘sink’ more easily. Far better to learn to adapt technique bit- by-bit due to these body changes, rather than learning to swim when we are better at sinking.

For triathletes who have not been through a swimming club structure as a youngster, it is unlikely that they’ll ever be able to lead out of the swim leg. Therefore, their aims are likely to be:

  • Age-groupers- to minimise time lost to faster swimmers
  • Elites- to be able to get in the main bike pack without becoming overly fatigued.

Technique needs to be kept very simple, concentrating on the phases of front crawl (FC) swimming: hand entry, catch, pull, push and recovery. Unless hand entry is sorted, then the catch phase will never be right and so on. The recovery phase is simply a transition into hand entry.

You may have noticed if you’re into your swimming theory that the glide phase has been missed. This is because open water technique is different to that used in the pool. Having a pronounced glide-phase may be fine in a 1500m pool swim, but it will slow you down in noisy turbulent water. Thus, we should be going almost straight into the catch as the hand enters the water.

A very simple non-adorned stroke with slightly higher stroke turnover than for pool swimming is best. There is very little justification for a triathlete to try and replicate how the technique of an elite swimmer. Rather, simple drills to develop each phase of the stroke are recommended. Personally, I would not ask swimmers to do more than 25-50 m of a drill at a time without doing a similar amount of full stroke swimming. Drills can be very mentally and physically demanding for weaker swimmers, so that should be taken into account when designing a set for them.

From a coaching perspective, it’s essential to recognise that every athlete is different and they may not be able to comply with your ‘ideal model’ of technique. For example a swimmer may be unable to perfect hand entry if they have inflexible muscles in their back and shoulders. Centre of buoyancy (think of the fulcrum on a see-saw  can be quite different too; this will affect head position, whether the legs drop or float and so on. Therefore, take care when providing coaching points, keeping them specific to individuals, minimising how often you provide generic ones to the group.

It takes considerable experience to get to grips with swimming technique and there is a tendency for many coaches to focus on effect rather than causality. Sticking to the basics will help avoid this.

NY Day Triathlon Edinburgh
NY Day Triathlon Edinburgh

Using other Strokes to Improve Technique?

I’m going to admit bias here. My objectivity is affected because I hate swimming any stroke apart from FC. Whether this bias is down to me being rubbish at breast, fly and back or because I don’t believe they help me swim faster, I’m yet to decide.

Being an objective and open minded individual, I like to explore alternatives and actually don’t mind when my theories are proved wrong. There are four reasons that I identified for doing a variety of strokes, which include:

  • Variety- is one of the principles of training. Simply, some people would get bored doing FC all the time.
  • Injury prevention- by preventing muscle imbalances or overuse injuries by doing FC all the time.
  • Technique development- for example through skill transfer. Some argue that practising breast or fly catch will transfer to FC.
  • Recovery- simply swimming at low intensity using other strokes to recover.

Where have these arguments come from? Do they hold up to scrutiny? Hmmm, whilst on face value, they seem logical, I’m not sure they do fully hold up.

Firstly, in sport there is often a ‘top-down’ approach with sub-elite coaches trying to replicate elite methods with age-group and novice athletes. I suspect the arguments presented come from directly from elite swimming where even youth swimmers do in excess of 25km a week. Top swimmers will do 50-100km in the extreme. These swimmers learn good technique in all strokes at a young age as this is an important demand of training within a swimming club environment. However, triathlon is a different sport with many athletes coming to swimming late. Capacity to learn new skills are diminished and substantial time also needs to be allocated to biking, running and transition.

I’ve presented what I think in the table below.

What Kirkland Thinks
Variety I can’t argue against this one. Enjoyment is important and some people simply enjoy doing other strokes, especially those who can actually do so.However, rather than ‘imposing’ a stroke on all in the group, I would give a choice to do any other stroke apart from FC when wishing to incorporate variety into a set.
Injury prevention I’m not so sure. Technique is generally poor in triathletes unless they have a swimming background. Therefore, they will be practising dodgy movement patterns which are more likely to result in injury rather than preventing them.Additionally, training volume will be so much lower than for swimmers so overuse injuries are less likely. There may be an argument to use alternative strokes to promote better overall muscle balance but this could equally be achieved out of the water.
Technique development Really? I asked top coach Darren Smith of Dsquad what his elite squad did and he said:“we don’t do much breaststroke as we don’t want to reinforce the s-shape pull”.Furthermore, triathlete’s need to master basic hand entry, catch phase and so on before attempting to optimise performance through more complex movement patterns i.e. through swimming fly, doing sculling drills and so on. I don’t think the argument stands up.
Recovery Merited, using a variety of different strokes in recovery is fine for some athletes if they have reasonable technique in that stroke. Me? I’d feel more recovered doing a turbo session on top of Everest than doing 100m breast. Horses for courses here.


Rather, I would argue that focussing almost predominantly on FC is what most triathlete’s should be doing. I contacted Swim Smooth on the subject and Adam there tended to agree. He pointed me in the direction of a blog posting on the subject, which you can read for yourself. To quote from the posting:

“If you’re in the water up to three times per week, then we think it’s best to focus exclusively on freestyle to give you as much specific stroke and fitness work as possible. However, if you are swimming four or more times a week then a little variety is stimulating and the other three strokes are great for developing your feel for the water and your all round conditioning”.

Darren Smith’s athletes are in the pool more often than this as they’re elites. Darren says:

“We do a fair bit of medley, a minimum of 3 per week of 600m or more… although we often replace the first 25 fly with freestyle calling it ‘fredley’! Lots of backstroke in warm-down”.

Based on those recommendations, I’d suggest that it’s important to understand your training group. If the majority are only swimming 2-3 times per week, then it would seem sensible to follow Adam’s recommendations. If they’re doing more, then including a range of strokes seems appropriate. However, if swimmers are slow, have poor technique and are swimming more than 3 times a week….. then, maybe you would want to highlight that practice makes permanent, but practice does not make perfect!!

Finally, if you are the coach, do you understand the other techniques and how to coach them? What is good technique, what is bad technique….how do you improve the stroke? I’ve got an ok understanding of the strokes as I’ve taught swimming biomechanics at undergraduate level, got an ASA Assistant Teacher’s Award (not a coaching award) and have spent a substantial amount of time on pool-decks. However, I certainly wouldn’t be wholly confident in coaching anything but FC to good swimmers. My understanding is that British Triathlon only include FC in their coaching courses too.

Courtesy of By Michael Lokner
Courtesy of By Michael Lokner

Motivating the Lane

Does the coach always know best? An understanding of training theory, technique and nutrition is certainly helpful. However, how do you account for the different motivations of the swimmers in your lanes?

Everyone has different goals and motivations. Do they race for fun, to get fit, to be le Champignon du Monde (as Spencer Smith once said) or because they’re an endorphin junkie? Although it’s impossible to account for everyone’s motivations, making your sessions engaging and fun is half the battle. Most triathletes enjoy physical training over technique work. Therefore, sessions should focus on their likes, whilst integrating a wee bit of what they don’t like. Re-enforcing good technique is important all the time but explicitly focussing on it too often will affect motivation.

Although you may feel the way you coach or design sessions is best, unless athletes engage with and enjoy your sessions, then they will get bored and not come back. Even for elite athletes, when training becomes a chore is the time they either need a different focus, a new coach or it may signify the time to retire. In a club environment, people come back when they enjoy what they’re doing, even when sessions are very physically demanding.

Therefore, it’s important to understand what your athletes enjoy and design sets that are fun for them. Be creative. If you’re focussing on speed, introduce an element of competition such as having shuttle swims, team relays or mock race starts can work. Don’t be constrained by lane ropes. Most lifeguards will remove them if they ask you nicely. After all, most people focus on open-water races that don’t use the things.

Of course, it’s important to consider what athletes don’t like doing too….after all, that’s what they’re probably not so good at. But, just include a short blocks of 10-15 minutes each when doing challenging drills, technique work and so on. Integrating a drill or technical focus into a main set focusing on a physical component is equally acceptable.

Remember, exercise is addictive and you’ll always get these endorphin junkies that need their ‘fix’. Endorphins are hormones that ‘reward’ the brain and make us feel good. I for one wouldn’t be upset if I turned up at a session and was asked to do 20 x 100m hard because I love the burn and the endorphin buzz from such a session. However, too much of a good thing always results in a bad thing. Athletes may suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety when they can’t train or become over-trained or injured when they train too much. Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour, be aware of how athletes are engaging in the session and ask questions on what they liked or didn’t like. You’ll be a better coach as a result.

Rosemary on Her Way to a fine Swim

Physical Training

Over the last 15 years or so, there has been much interest physiological training theory, using different training zones to promote adaptations which are specific to the demands of the sport. However, the more I understand about the physiology of exercise intensity, the less I am concerned about being too rigid in applying zone training.

Far better to keep it simple, concentrating on the performance of an athlete, rather than the underpinning physiology. I’m almost evangelical in avoiding terms such as lactate threshold, VO2max and so on because I don’t think they are overly helpful for the average coach or athlete.

I like Allen and Coggan’s term Functional Threshold or Critical Swim Speed (CSS) used by as starting points to prescribe exercise intensity. Both these terms are physiologically similar, describing a threshold above which there is a pronounced increase in anaerobic energy turnover…. a fatigue threshold if you will. Eek… I’ve broken my own evangelical rule.

The Theory of CSS

For the physiologists out there, CSS is very similar to Critical Power (CP), a theoretical model that describes the relationship (either hyperbolic or linear) between power and fatigue. The model predicts that below CP exercise can continue for a long time without fatigue because energy turnover is primarily aerobic; above CP fatigue occurs at a predictable rate, when anaerobic work capacity has been fully utilised.Without getting too physiological, CSS is comparable with other thresholds including maximal lactate steady state, ‘lactate threshold’ and the 2nd ventilatory threshold.On a slightly critical note, the concept of CSS is based on the 2-component model of Wakayoshi et al. (1992). Using 2 components to predict anything is mathematically problematic and I’d go as far as to say invalid from a scientific perspective. However, CSS tests are far more practical to perform than most other methods and they provide a ‘good enough’ measure of performance. I’ll accept CSS but only with my coaching hat on.

Swim Smooth suggests that by training slightly below CSS, and taking short recoveries, performance will improve more than swimming above it. This is logical because:

  • The intensity is specific to the physiological demands of most triathlon races i.e. energy turnover is primarily aerobic.
  • Swimming below CSS results in less during and post-exercise fatigue. Thus, recovery will be more rapid.
  • Technique is less likely to break down at this intensity.

However, I know that most triathletes regularly swim above their CSS most of the time. Is this the wrong way to train? Well, I don’t think it’s clear cut because:

  • Greater adaptations to the aerobic system are likely to occur by training above CSS (i.e.. it results in a higher VO2 therefore; the stress on the aerobic system is greater). Longer recovery periods are, however, required between each effort.
  • By swimming faster in training, it is likely that you will swim faster during a race. For example, if your training goal is to be able to swim at 1min 25sec 100m pace for a 1500m swim leg, but your current CSS pace is 1min 45sec, then consistently swimming 1:45-1:50’s is unlikely confer the required adaptations.
  • When swimming at intensity approximately 50% between CSS and VO2max (Δ50)the contribution to total energy turnover from anaerobic pathways for most endurance athletes is not very high. Metabolite accumulation (i.e. lactate) tends to be relatively low as long as intensity does not exceed Δ50. (I’ve measured blood lactate of a very good swimmer who’s lactate was < 5mmol after breaking a European record).
  • The “splitting effect” between aerobic and anaerobic systems when training above CSS is unlikely to affect overall race performance. This is because anaerobic capacity is difficult to ‘shift’ through training, especially for endurance athletes.
  • The physical demands placed on the muscles whilst swimming are less than during cycling or running at the same relative intensity. Therefore, the catabolic effect is likely to be lower.

So what do I recommend? Whilst I believe that swimming slightly below CSS is important for the reasons provided, faster swimming should be given equal prominence in set design. I certainly wouldn’t discount Swim Smooth’s suggestion of shifting big training sets away from ‘anaerobic’ swimming to CSS swimming. Rather, there should be a balance between big sets below and above CSS.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t recommend swimming too often at pace well below CSS, as body position will be lower in the water, resulting in technique changes. Analysing torque data for bike riders, I noticed that at lower intensity, the torque application pattern and symmetry between legs was far from optimal but as intensity increased towards functional threshold, technique improved too. I suspect something similar may happen when swimming. I.e. at lower intensity, the swimmer probably doesn’t ‘catch’ as much water. So, is it appropriate to practice technique at relatively low intensity? I’ll leave you to mull that one over.

Rosemary playing in waves!

Training for Tactics

This is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. For most age-group triathletes, pacing is the only tactic triathletes need concern themselves with. My old masters coach used to do loads of pacing work and eventually most swimmers could hit target time by ± 1sec per 100m. Pacing is essential skill to learn as getting it wrong can cost minutes during the swim leg.

Physiologically, an even pace is best in all distances apart from maybe a 50m sprint. Although I disagree with a “stop-watch” coaching method being used all the time, coaches should learn to develop an awareness of what pace swimmers in their lanes can maintain. Regular pacing sets should be included in training, with the coach ensuring that recovery periods are adhered to.

An important race demand is to be to be able to avoid setting off too fast in the racing melee when adrenaline levels are high. Doing so will result in a performance decrement sooner or later. Staying relaxed and being able to keep a clear mind when surrounded by flailing arms, feet and white water is challenging and requires practice. Therefore, the odd mass start and plenty head-up drills in ‘noisy’ water should be included in training.

In elite drafting races, tactics often require a faster start than is physiologically optimal. An athlete may wish to get into a specific position in the water, swim on the feet of a slightly faster swimmer, select a good line or simply because they prefer swimming in clean water. This may require a very hard effort for a minute or more, followed by a brief period of ‘recovery’ in which they get into their normal stroke. Simply including sets to replicate these demands is all that needs to be prescribed.

General Recommendations

Goodness, I thought this would be a filler article but it grew into a bigger one than expected. I’ve summarised the key points below. Any comments are welcome and I’ll only delete the ones with extreme profanity, not the ones I disagree with.

  • Technique should be kept simple, with sets focussing on a the phases of FC swimming: hand entry, catch, pull, push and recovery. Progression to more complex technique development such as sculling is not required until the basics have been mastered.
  • Every athlete is different, so the same technique will not suit everyone.
Other Strokes
  • Should be kept to a minimum unless athletes are swim training more than 3 times per week.
  • Include ‘choice’ in sets to keep all swimmers engaged and motivated.
  • Avoid coaching other strokes unless you understand the technique sufficiently to do so.
Motivating the Lane
  • Remember that everyone is motivated by different things and set design needs to recognise this. Avoid designing sets around what you like doing or your personal biases.
  • Be creative and don’t be constrained by the lane ropes.
  • Regularly include fun activities, games and races.
  • Keep blocks of technique work short.
Physical Training
  • Include a range of swimming intensities in a programme.
  • Use specific training methodologies to guide you, but not to constrain you.
  • Use pacing sets in training.
  • Practice race starts.


Courtesy of Bob Marshall
Courtesy of Bob Marshall

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