Swim Smooth: A Bit More than a Review

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Introduction

Over the years I’ve come across numerous methods and theories of how to optimise training in swim, bike and run. I’m often asked what’s the best type of training whether it’s Coggan’s, Friel’s or even my own methods.

“There’s not an optimal way” I say. Rather, consistent training with broad specificity does the job for 99.99% of mere mortals. Getting the simple things right, sorting out the wheat from a whole lot of chaff, is the most important thing for most people.

Any coach or expert that says “my way is the best way” is missing a multitude of tricks. However, if someone asked me for swimming advice I would point them straight to Swim Smooth, their brilliant book, online platform and videos.

Swim Smooth’s app can be found here.

Paul Newsome and Adam Young of Swim Smooth are simply the world leaders in open water and triathlon swimming coaching methods. They’ve designed one of the best coaching systems I’ve seen, both from an athlete and coach education perspective.

In my latest blog, I’ll explain why!

Aberfeldy Swim
Aberfeldy Swim

Triathlon Swimming

Around 10 years ago, I stood on a pool deck with legendary triathlon coach Darren Smith watching Cat Morrison swim up and down in the Stirling Uni’ pool. Daz, who’s always testing people, asked me to evaluate her technique and then tell him what I’d say to her if I was her coach.

I gave a swimming textbook answer but made a fatal error. I noted imperfect hand-entry and suggested where it should be going in the water. I had identified ‘effect’ without considering causality. Darren was quick to point out that my intervention wouldn’t work. He said that Cat’s brain knew where to put her hand but limited back and shoulder flexibility was preventing her from doing so.

Cat Morrison
Cat Morrison

It’s taken me many years to learn the significance of what lessons I learnt that week. A major one was not to accept anything at face value.

“The swimming textbook is wrong” Darren said in one conversation, telling me why. He taught me was that a higher stroke count without a pronounced glide was best in open-water. Also it’s not possible to develop an older triathlete in the same way as a youth swimmer, so you shouldn’t try!

The aim is to allow an athlete to get out onto the bike with the leading pack not unduly fatigued, rather than doing a 1500m in under 15 minutes. A complex catch-phase isn’t required to be a world class triathlete, let alone to be an average age-group one. The hand should enter fingers rather than thumb first, high elbow and into the catch-phase without a fancy s-sweep motion. Such technique deals with the demands of turbulent water better and is easier to learn, yet sufficient to allow most athletes to stick with the pack.

In 5 short minutes Darren changed my view of freestyle open-swimming. Speaking with a friend from Boulder, CO a few weeks ago…. he said “most coaches in the USA are still coaching traditional freestyle technique….long glide stuff, wanting everyone to be like Ian Thorpe”. Much of the world has been left behind. I’ll never forget watching David Davies in the 10km Olympic Marathon in Beijing thinking….”20 mins coached by Daz on tactics and you’d have won the Gold!”

Thumb First!!!
Thumb First!!!

However, Paul and Adam are revolutionising the coaching of triathlon and open water swimming. Their technique development seems to following a similar philosophy to Darren, raising the bar further by making it accessible to coaches and age-group athletes too. What’s really special is their innovative use of video technology to transfer exceptional understanding of the demands of the sport to others.

Yeah they evaluate the techniques of elites, my favourite being the Jodie Swallow video. However, unlike many others they understand those who do 2:00 mins per 100m equally as well as those swimming twice as fast, adapting their methods accordingly.

Why Swim Smooth?

I fell into triathlon after being encouraged by Scottish Ironman Legend Scott Balfour. He noted that I came to a weekly run session in a park in Edinburgh on a fancy road bike and invited me to a swim session. “I cannae really swim” I said. “I’m rubbish too” he replied (his daughter did go on to win a silver at the world champs mind).

Scott "Bonkers" Balfour
Scott “Bonkers” Balfour

On week 2, it was the 400m benchmark time-trial! Somehow I got roped into doing the humongous 16 lengths non-stop. It was horrible! I could hear clapping and cheering as I reached the final 50m. I was angry! Having progressed from a fat-ginger to a 73kg lean-mean racing machine (relatively speaking), it was painful to get ‘sympathy’ cheers! The clock stopped at 12 minutes 03 seconds, a fraction under 3 mins per 100m. I was exhausted.

Within a few weeks I was doing 6am swim sessions with Heart of Midlothian SC. There’s no mega-happy ending where I progressed to doing repeat 100’s off 1:10 min. It did however expose me to the discipline of swim club training where I learnt loads, as did the coach. Ally, a great swim coach, learnt that triathletes are not simply swimmers and should be coached accordingly.

We're all individuals! The Swim Smooth types!
We’re all individuals! The Swim Smooth types!

Understanding the race and training demands of triathlon is fundamental to good coaching. Sessions, sets, and drills must be tailored to the needs of athletes but many miss this point. However, in my huble opinion this seems to be inherent within Swim Smooth’s philosophy and they understand that:

  • Triathletes are not just swimmers
  • Pool swimming is not the same as open-water swimming
  • Drills should be specific in developing good technique for triathletes not Olympic swimmers
  • Great feedback helps develop good technique
  • Age-group triathletes typically train in the pool 2-4 times a week. Therefore, multiple-stroke sessions (breast-stroke, fly, back and kick) are usually surplus to requirements
  • Consistent swimming requires a combination between physical and technical components without undue bias to one or another.

To get this understanding across, the Swim Smooth system includes:

  • HD videos with wonderful physical, technical and tactical information
  • Awesome content designed for the needs of both age-group and elite athletes
  • Easy to follow training sessions
  • A really good book.

If your training on your own, it’s a great place to access stuff that will help you be more effective. If you’re a coach, it offers excellent coach education, gives you ready made videos and actual session plans: it’ll help cut back on your session planning but allow you to invest more time in actual coaching (rather than writing a set up on the white board). In the next section, I’ll talk about Critical Swim Speed a concept Swim Smooth use  and that every triathlete would benefit from understanding.

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Pacing, Critical Swim Speed and More!  

In a recent talk, I kept on bleating like a sheep! This was to demonstrate that 90% of triathletes are weak because they ‘follow the crowd’. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to training/race intensity. If you’ve been through the swim club system you’ll probably be able to hit your target times ± 2 seconds. This pacing video is good to get the point across of how crap most of us are at pacing though. The performance gains of getting your pacing right in the swim are probably more than spending £10000 on the best aero equipment. The new Swim Smooth platform has an even better pacing video which is available if you sign up.

To understand pacing, it’s good to also understand exercise intensity. Swimming 1500m or 3800m should never involve ‘going into the red’ anaerobic zone as doing so will result in sub-optimal performance. Swim Smooth use a concept called Critical Swim Speed (CSS) to prescribe training intensity. Although with my scientific hat on, the method (based on Wakayoshi et al., 1992) has short-comings, I think it’s a great tool for all triathletes and coaches to use. Simply, CSS represents a threshold intensity above which metabolites associated with the fatigue process are produced (for the physiologists amongst you, this is a simplification). Above CSS is the ‘red zone’.

Using 200m and 400m TT’s will allow you to identify CSS, a pace which is not too far off a steady 1500m pace. Training at this intensity is useful because:

  • It is possible to maintain good technique throughout
  • It is very specific to the aerobic demands of triathlon swimming (only sprint and triathletes who do draft legal events should ever race faster than CSS -10 seconds per hundred).

Whilst there are great arguments for swimming faster than CSS pace regularly, many will do so all the time even for repeat 800’s and technique will fall to pieces as a result. The great news is that Swim Smooth offer a range of progressive sessions based around both CSS and technique development.

Pacing Set for Coaches

Sometimes we forget that training should be fun…..and this set is great fun to coach but horrible for the swimmers. That’s because you’re deceiving them.

The Unknown Distance Session

After a thorough warm-up , simply instruct the swimmers to do 1 x 200m at 1500m race pace.

Simply instruct swimmers to go again as soon as they stop and repeat until 5 x 200m has been completed.

It’s guaranteed that by the end of the session, everyone will be completely smashed and those who can comfortably hit 1:30 per 100m with be struggling with 2:10’s!

Summary

I’ve not been paid by Swim Smooth to write this. Rather, I’ve had a few email conversations with Adam and a great chat with him too! I simply buy into their products, wishing many more coaches and athletes understand what Swim Smooth is about. That’s because I think their knowledge and the way of getting it across is world leading and I think they deserve every success that they have worked hard to achieve. Have a look and you may be converted!

Too hard a swim may mean 2nd best on the run!
Too hard a swim may mean 2nd best on the run!
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