Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: It’s Missing the Point

I recently saw a question on the 220 Triathlon twitter feed from The Swim Guru on whether anaerobic work should be included within training sessions.

In this Blog, I’ll do my best to answer the question from a personal perspective.

Working anaerobically
Working anaerobically?

Science and exercise intensity

As I’m a chartered scientist, it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that I love science. That’s because I love observing, quantifying and analysing to better understand phenomena.

In endurance sport exercise intensity is demarcated into different training zones using threshold intensities such as lactate threshold, Fatmax, Critical Power, VO2max and so on. All these threshold values are based on factors relating to aerobic or anaerobic metabolism. However, to think about exercise intensity in terms of only these metabolic factors may be missing the point. Rather, doing so may be limiting training effectiveness and I tell you why.

Like many things in my life, I have ‘light-bulb’ moments when things that were completely confusing become immediately obvious. One such moment occurred during the write-up of my Ph.D. when I read a very brief paper by Mark Hargreaves: which totally changed my view on endurance performance.

Hargreaves stated the obvious, that the body is a complex system not simply a metabolic one. Rather, the human psyche, neuromuscular activation and skeletal muscle are all implicated in fatigue processes, and thus endurance performance.

My conclusion was that fatigue (or training zones) should not be considered in metabolic terms alone. This is despite virtually every textbook and training manual making such an elementary error.  I was guilty too, focusing my complete thesis on a few tiny areas of science. Hargreaves highlighted how naive I was being. He changed my (scientific) life.

Working aerobically?
Working aerobically?

What is a threshold?

Aerobic and anaerobic metabolism occur on the same continuum with rest being at the lower end and surpra-maximal intensity being at the higher. Human beings like clear differentiation between things and threshold points are used for such demarcation.

Over many previous months in the laboratory and staring at excel spreadsheets, I’d been trying to identify the first and second ventilatory thresholds (VT1 and VT2), using the plotting method below. For all intents and purposes, this is the same as identifying aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. Occasionally, I’d see clearly distinguished thresholds in the data but more-often-than-not  it was messy.  The diagram below took many hours of ‘trawling’ my data to find the set that best represented what Wasserman et al.’s Principles of Exercise Testing and Interpretation was describing.

Data 1

Typically scientific data is presented in such a very clean way. After all messy data or stuff that is difficult to interpret rarely progresses beyond a journal editors desk. However, the more academic literature I reviewed around thresholds, the more I became confused. Researchers argued about the mechanisms and mediating factors of thresholds, using different terminology to describe similar phenomena and the same terminology to describe quite different phenomena!

My conclusion was that this lack of consensus was because the term “threshold” does not perfectly fit physiological processes. Rather, changes in physiological these processes occur on a sliding continuum, without a clear threshold but as a transitional or inflection point (supported by Meyer et al., 2004).

Furthermore, factors such as the the human psyche and neuromuscular activation processes would have to be wholly aligned for threshold intensities to adequately describe fatigue. I reached the conclusion that exercise intensity should not be described only in terms of aerobic or anaerobic metabolism.

More physiology

An area that I also studied was oxygen uptake kinetics, which took me a few years to get to grips. This is despite the subject being relatively simple. The diagram below illustrates virtually everything a coach needs to know about the subject. It shows the oxygen uptake response for a bike rider who’s initially pedaling at an easy 100W. He instantaneously increases power to Functional Threshold Power.      

Data 2

As the rider is relatively well trained, it takes around 2 minutes for him to reach the point where a steady aerobic energy turnover is achieved. The aerobic steady-rate requirement for this rider is 3500ml of oxygen per minute. However, for the initial two minutes the rider is in energy deficit, having to make up for this shortfall through anaerobic pathways. Of course, this is beautifully clean data, it was measured in a lab using £40k worth of equipment and I still had to spent an hour or so to ‘reduce the noise’ in the data by eyeballing then applying a statistical filter! In reality, data in the ‘real world’ would not look like this.

In reality we rarely maintain a constant power/speed (because of choppy water, other people, hills, wind and poor pacing) so our oxygen requirement is never truly constant. This means that our aerobic and anaerobic systems are both ‘switched on’ all of the time. This is particularly true for interval sets (including most swim sessions), fartleks and when running on hilly terrain. Any increase in power/speed, even below the ‘anaerobic threshold’, requires a contribution from anaerobic pathways. Therefore, there is no such thing as either aerobic or anaerobic exercise.  They are not mutually exclusive!!! 

Understanding this in a triathlon context

Imagine a swimmer is doing 10 x 100m in the pool at their fastest maintainable pace with minimal recovery (circa 20 sec per 100m faster than CSS pace with 15secs recovery). A swim coach may call this a ‘lactate tolerance’ set (although they would be talking nonsense…lactic acid is a fuel and tolerance infers suffering….we should love the burn!!!).

For the first 100’s in the set, this would require about a 60% aerobic contribution and a 40% anaerobic contribution to total energy turnover. Theoretically, the  ratio would change as the set continued because the swimmer would be depleting anaerobic stores and not be able to resynthesise this energy quickly enough in recovery. A further likely outcome is that technique falls to bits, pace drops rapidly, as does the anaerobic contribution. Sub-optimal training will result!

Many would describe such a session as an anaerobic workout even though aerobic metabolism dominates! However, I think having such a debate is immaterial to performance because of the demands of the sport.

The demands of endurance sport

There are three reasons why we train:

  1. To get faster (achieved by increasing the applied force and/or rate of force whilst minimising the forces acting to slow us down)
  2. To minimise/prevent injury
  3. To have fun (earning money doesn’t really count…….because the WTC etc have crap prize funds).

Now to use a Kirkland anecdote to explain more!

A few years ago I was at a testing session in a leading lab with one of the world’s best age-groupers….who I hope will read this. He’d just done an anaerobic test and we had an amusing conversation:

“Wow……..your numbers are equivalent to Chris Boardman’s on that test”

“Really” the athlete said with a grin on his face!

“Yep…….his were similar to a 12 year old girl’s too”

The bottom line is that this athlete who is good enough to finish on the age-group podium in Hawaii is unlikely to have his performance limited by the lack of ability to work anaerobically. The same can be said for any non-drafting triathlete in the world. It’s simply not a demand of the sport!

It terms of (1) to go faster no triathlete needs to undertake training to specifically improve anaerobic capacity. Never! However, this is semantics as ‘smashing it’ has its place. Here are my reasons:

  • Training hard and training fast hurts and if done right, it helps reduce the rating of perceived exertion at sub-maximal intensities…… i.e. training hard makes racing seem easier….thus it takes into account psyche!
  • Training above FTP/CSS taxes the aerobic systems more than training below it. Therefore, with adequate recovery, it promotes aerobic adaptations such as improved VO2max.
  • Maximal type training can up-regulate aerobic enzymes such as phosphofructokinase which enhances oxygen delivery and hence performance
  • It can be used to develop strength and speed
  • It makes us feel good, satisfies the ego and it can hit #3……to have fun!

I’m gonna stick to the 80% train low, 20% train high ratio as a rough rule of thumb. That’s because:

  • Training close to and above FTP/CSS relies heavily on carbohydrate metabolism (aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis) which reduces exercise efficiency when compared to fat oxidation. Doing too much high-intensity work compromises endurance
  • High-intensity training often compromises subsequent training sessions
  • Training should primarily be specific to the demands of the event that you’re racing in
  • Most triathletes are unable to maintain good technique when going fast!


So there we go! I believe there is a time and a place for triathletes to work above an FTP/CSS intensity but there’s very few circumstances where training should target improving anaerobic capacity. If however you’re racing ITU, gimme a shout and I’ll revise what I say to you!

All the energy is depleted!
All the energy is depleted!

Standing Out from the Crowd: In Pursuit of Excellence

In my last blog of the year, I’m going to talk about standing out from the crowd. I’ll reflect on some of my own experiences of ‘standing out’ and relate that to the pursuit of excellence, whether as an athlete or coach.



Rob the running coach had just outlined the session for the evening “800m x 8 at 5km pace with 1 min 15sec recovery”. Simple enough! I set off with a large group but was soon on my own. “Wow……some people have improved vastly” I thought. They’re running fast.

My 1st lap done in 1:42, ventilation under control. It was absolutely tipping it down, water was dripping in my eyes and a squelching noise accompanied every foot strike. Lap 2 @ 1:42. Spot on. “What? Where is everyone going? The fools! They’ve skipped 30 seconds worth of the recovery”.

It was a lonely night of running despite it being a club session. I had done every repeat, bar one on my own. Despite this I was happy. Every 400m had been ± 2sec from target and the final one hadn’t been too stressful. Session aim achieved. I recalled an article I had read on the Runners World website on people running too fast or too slow and felt smug!

A few weeks previous, I presented at a careers day at my old university. Prior to my talk, there had been an MBE, a top sports-woman, a league football manager and a CEO all giving inspirational presentations. The key theme was how important it was to stand out from the crowd to have a successful career in sport.

It was my turn. 150 students and esteemed guests waited for Dr Kirkland’s inspirational vignettes. Striding onto the stage in a Billy Connollyesque fashion, ready to perform. I was introduced by a small group of students as “an elite sports consultant” or something similar. Not quite as bad as the story in the Glasgow Herald in which I was Chris Hoy’s sports scientist but sloppy all the same.

The lecture theatre was silent ! Blank faces staring down at the bald wonder.  “I want a volunteer…..any volunteers?” I asked. Silence! Heads dipped to avoid eye contact.

“That’s good……I didn’t really want a volunteer” I said in riposte.

Turning to the fellow presenters I called out “good job people”, albeit in jest. After an hour of pontification from inspirational speakers specifically on standing out from the crowd, not one person was willing to stand out! I was saddened but not surprised. I then recalled how I often take inspiration from the Royal Institution’s Christmas lecture for children. It’s always presented wonderfully by an eminent scientist who engages with the young audience. When a volunteer is asked for, a sea of eager little hands appears. Every snotty nosed geek wants to be picked. But what was the difference between my audience and the Royal Institution one?

Sir Ken Robinson talks about kids losing their natural creativity through rote type education. Could it be similar that as people mature, they simply learn not to stand out from the crowd. Speaking with a friend on the subject, she suggested a relationship between levels of engagement and UCAS points i.e. students on better courses and who have achieved better exam results are more willing to engage. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, but I’m yet to convince myself to the contrary.

But this is a sport and coaching blog, so what’s my point? Well…I believe to be a good athlete or coach means putting your head above the parapet and being brave enough not to worry about having it shot off. That doesn’t necessarily mean being gregarious or extrovert. Being quiet and introvert is fine too. Rather, it’s a prerequisite to be disciplined, to stand out and aspire to excellence.

Excellence for Athletes

Excellence is simply about doing the best job possible and never resting on laurels. In sport, I personally don’t prescribe to ‘it’s the taking part that’s important’ even though I’m not particularly well endowed in athletic terms. Rather, I want to say to myself that I couldn’t have done any better. For example, I cried after the Sandman Triathlon and disengaged with the world until I had no choice to do otherwise. I had worked hard to the point of collapse and had lost around 8mins on the run! Why? I hadn’t thought of the implication of the bike being 60km rather than 40km on my feeding strategy and had hit the wall. Totally avoidable, inexcusable and far from excellence.

Kenta G certainly stands out!
Kenta G certainly stands out!

Having an excellence mindset means mastering the basics first and then focussing on the small details to fine tune performance. If a dead end is reached, it may mean ‘letting go’ and starting all over again. It also involves developing the skill and discipline to perform in the right place at the right time.

The next time you’re at a race, take a moment and observe what everyone else is doing. Most people will be mulling around chatting or looking terrified. But how many are going through their pre-competition routine? Who is physically warming up or going through mental preparation? Who is doing their own thing? Who stands out?

Following the crowd may be easier, but this path of least resistance is hardly ever the most satisfactory or effective one. To perform optimally requires hard work, discipline and above all the bravery to try new things. Don’t be a sheep but rather follow your own path when it’s the right thing to do. That means sticking to a session goal, even when the ‘red mist’ has descended for the rest of the training group.  If the aim is to go slow, go slow, if it’s to go fast, go fast and if recovery is 30 seconds why on earth take 20 seconds….apart from because you’re a proverbial sheep or undisciplined?

Of course, it’s human nature to attempt to fit in, to become attached to people or things, even when they are negative or wrong.  Even when things are going well, to make them go even better often requires a substantial change. A brave athlete will know when to let go, to leave the past behind and to embrace the future, whatever that may bring. I particularly like this video of an interview with Lisa Norden and her coach Craig Alexander in this regard. It says more than I ever can!

Excellence for Coaches

My current favourite coach is currently Jo Calado. She’s different; one who stands out from the crowd and is willing to try new things. Her sessions are innovative, fun and very well thought out. At Halloween, Jo delivered a ‘zombies’, killer swim set that involved kicking and deep core work. It hurt like hell, was technically challenging and I learnt something new. I swallowed half the pool every time I didn’t kick hard enough. But there was Jo, waiting at the end of the lane with a huge smile and a technically correct coaching point for every single swimmer. At 21 years old, understanding and being able to communicate ’cause and effect’ in swimming is an exceptional talent and Jo has it. Not only that, sessions are great fun too!

Coach Jo!
Coach Jo!

I’ve observed very many coaches, some of them in world class performance environments but the most impressive seem to be swimming ones, or so I thought. “How the hell can they use 3 complex stopwatches simultaneously and get the timing right to within a few 10th’s?” I think. Skilled man! Oh wait… is almost impossible to evaluate complex techniques when performing such a complex motor task yourself! Maybe they’re missing a trick.

The easy option for coaches is to deliver 10 x 100m set at race pace or whatever. It’s what most people expect. I’m one of these people. I love a savage physical workout even if it means crawling once I’m finished. For many endurance athletes, hard physical sessions are in their comfort zone though. It’s what they enjoy and a primary reason why they do sport. These sessions are easy to coach, and as we already know, most people follow the path of least resistance…… Athletes and coaches are satisfied but training is usually sub-optimal because technique is rarely the focus. The fact is that this is an area where many performance gains can be achieved.

It’s worth remembering that many coaches have to work with large groups, accommodating broad rather than the individual needs of athletes. Compromise is required as sessions can’t be all things for all people. However, even in high-performance environments, some coaches get lazy, falling into the trap of doing what they always do. Short cuts have no place on the path to excellence though, regardless of whether at grass-roots or Olympic level.

Are Some Coaches Missing the Point?

Training and racing is not meant to be easy. As fatigue begins to bite, all the body’s systems are pre-programmed to tell us to stop. To overcome this unwanted voice requires absolute focus and discipline.  Athletes need to love what they do to drown out this voice…..ok, being driven by ego, inner-pain or fear of failure may work too…..everyone is different.  But I believe people work at their best when they’re happy and enjoy what they do. Forgetting about fun or taking life too seriously may limit performance.

Smiling relaxes the body and a relaxed body goes fast!  Being in a happy training group is pleasant and people seek out pleasant feelings. Happy people tend to perform better than sad ones. So why do many coaches take themselves and their sessions so seriously? Maybe it’s because they think is expected of them and or they are resistive to change. But fun, games, mock races and creativity works just as well for adults as for children.

Ok, there are times for seriousness too but not all the time. A coach who can laugh, can admit when they are wrong and who continues to seek new and innovative solutions will stand out from the crowd. My guess is that the athletes that they coach will respect them more for it and prosper as a result. Being happy is an important goal!



Standing out isn’t something we should do for the sake of it, but it’s sometimes essential on the path to excellence. Sitting back and letting things happen or not embracing change will never lead to excellence though. Doing ‘stuff’ differently from the crowd can lead to a bumpy ride and will not always go to plan. However, being a sheep will inevitably lead to you being herded up and put in a pen without truly exploring what is possible. Ok…if everyone thought like this, the world would be carnage……but do you want to be the norm or the positive outlier?


Coaching for Women and Girls

I was lucky enough to present this webinar with GB Cycling Team Rider Helen Scott and Melissa Schwartz from TrainingPeaks. Although the content is cycling based, there’s something for all coaches regardless of sport and for female athletes too!

If you’ve got any specific questions relating to it, fire me an email.

What is Power All About?

Knowledge is Power

Most of us love gadgets, especially when we believe they will make us faster. In cycling, the ultimate gadget is the power meter.This measurement tool doesn’t look bling and isn’t the lightest or most aerodynamic piece of kit out there. What it gives you is information about how hard you are working. It’s like having a mini sports science laboratory attached to your handlebars! I must admit that I’ve become more of a purist as I’ve got older. My perspective has changed and I’ve learnt just as much about sporting performance through yoga and Vipassana mediation as in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. However, understanding cycling power has helped me link the feeling and the physiology to performance optimisation.

In this blog I talk about how the information from a power meter can be used to help you achieve your personal best.

Chris Hoy


So you’ve been training for your big race all year, your motivation is high and the adrenaline is pumping. Your start time comes and you fly out of the starting blocks, getting up to your target heart-rate quickly. Your breathing becomes deeper and more rapid. The effort starts to hurt. That’s ok, though. Simply backing off a little gets you back into your rhythm and you feel you have performed well. But have you performed to the best of your ability? Read on and find out.

One of the reasons the British Cycling World Class performance programme is so successful is it is set up to allow riders to perform optimally; that is to produce the best performance possible under specific conditions. Simply focussing on winning isn’t enough because the performance of the opposition cannot be controlled. The use of power meters is fundamental to the step-by-step approach used to achieve the marginal gains required to optimise rider performance at the very highest level. Of course, not all of us can justify the cost of a power meter. However, by understanding cycling power could help you on the way to achieving a personal best.

A screen dump of TrainingPeaks WKO
A screen dump of TrainingPeaks WKO

What is a Power meter

A power meter typically consists of strain-gauges contained within the cranks, rear-wheel hub or in the pedal axle, a ‘switch’ to measure cadence and a small computer unit to collect and display the data. As the rider applies force at the pedals, the electrical resistance in the strain gauges change. This measurement of change, which is proportional to the force applied, is ‘sent’ to the computer unit and in conjunction with the cadence measurement, power is calculated. Therefore, in simple terms power, measured in watts (W), provides a very accurate measurement of how hard a rider is working. Most computers also record speed, heart-rate and GPS data. In short, a power meter is the bike’s equivalent of a black box on an aircraft, providing information on every turn of the pedal.

Understanding the Data

You don’t need to be a physicist or sports scientist to interpret the data collected from a power meter. Following a few basic steps will help you do so:

  • Use a good computer software package to upload your data to. Many coaches and riders at use TrainingPeaks because it is so user friendly. This powerful online programme is suitable for experts and beginners alike because it can be configured to suit the analysis needs of the individual.
  • Learn to ‘crawl before you run’. To develop an understanding of power requires is similar to designing a training programme. You must build strong foundations, understanding the basics of power measurement and link that to the basics of human energy production. If you attempt to do the complex analysis without strong foundations, you are unlikely to get the most from your investment.
  • Enrol on a course. I developed one in my day job with British Cycling, details of which are found here.

The next course we’re delivering is Saturday 22nd February 2014 – 11:00 – 18:00 – Stirling, Scotland. 

Using the Data

Top coaches and scientists working in cycling probably understand the demands of their event more than in most other sports. That is because they can analyse and optimise performance effectively using power data. For example, it’s possible to quantify the demands of a BMX event in minute detail, through every turn of the pedal. Power data will tell me that a female rider needs to deliver around 2000W out of the start-gates to gain the best racing line. Then she will deliver 5-10 efforts exceeding 1500W in a race lasting under 50 seconds, double what a typical male club-level athlete can produce in a one-off effort.

Tony in the SRM Workshop
Tony in the SRM Workshop

By understanding the power demands in a race provides valuable information on what training sessions are required to prepare for and improve performance for future races. For example, on-bike training is probably not sufficient to be able to produce 2000W. Rather, a supplementary and highly specialised lifting programme in the gym is required. The rider also needs to be able to do repeated hard sprints at power greater than Cav produces in his race to the line. A power meter gives the coach almost instantaneous and accurate feedback on whether the aims of the session are being achieved or not. Additionally, with more complex analyses in separating power into its component parts, force and angular velocity(cadence), it is possible to identify what the most effective gearing on the bike is likely to be for optimal performance.

Power output also allows us to accurately monitor training volume and intensity in the short-, medium and long-term. Looking at a few easy to understand graphs will tell us if we are improving or not. Coaches will know exactly what power output a rider is likely to achieve in specific sessions, even if they are on the other side of the world. If the riders are unable to hit these numbers, it may suggest that the rider is not sufficiently recovered from their previous sessions and the coach will adapt subsequent sessions to aid recovery.

In individual races such as time trials, all but the most experienced riders set off too hard. This is because the rider’s perceived effort in the first few minutes of exercise does not reflect the intensity they are riding at. By the time it does, fatigue will begin to set in and the rider will slow down. It is very common for a 20-30% power-overshoot at the start of a time trial, resulting in a loss of several minutes from what could be optimally achieved. A power meter will help a rider get closer to what is considered to be optimal.

Top Tips

  • Power meters are great tools, but it’s important that you don’t get too caught up in the numbers. There’s no point in getting a personal best maximum power number if it’s not reflecting in your race results because you can’t go round a corner.
  • Power meters are precision instruments and should be treated as such. Therefore, you should get your power meter calibrated at least once per year, ensuring this cost is factored in to your purchase decision.
  • Don’t become over reliant on a power meter as doing so can limit your performance. Using one during group rides could mean you being dropped on climbs or you trying to ride at 100km.h on descents just to stay in your power zone. Don’t do it or bananas may fly at your head.
  • Consider hiring a power meter before buying one.
  • Invest in a specialist software package such as TrainingPeaks. It tends to be far more user friendly that the ones that are supplied by the power meter manufacturers.
Hunter Allen a power guru!
Hunter Allen a power guru!

Weight Management for Endurance Performance

runner b


I always try to start my blogs with a wee story and this one is no different. You see, this topic is very personal. One that has affected my life as long as I can remember. That is weight, or body mass to be more accurate.

As a kid I was obese. Not only that, I was born ginger, had a squint eye and I had the motor ability of a starfish too. At primary school I was always getting into fights as I was an obvious target for bullies. The loser of a fight was the first one to cry. I learnt never to cry regardless of the beatings I took. Others learnt that no matter how strong or fast they were, they would never win against me.

In my late teenage years, I discovered the joys of cycling. It helped me escape home life and gave a great feeling of freedom. I’ll never forget Jed Holmyard of the Edinburgh Bike Co-op who sold me my 1st bike. The ride home from Bruntsfield to Musselburgh, a journey of about 12km, was a major achievement. On arriving home, I slept the rest of the day.

Riding the bike had an immediate effect! Weight started to drop off. I cycled further. I got thinner still and people would comment how good I looked. I lost more weight. I got faster on the bike. I got a new lighter bike. I went faster. I lost more weight. One day when out riding with my mate Davie, a girl in a group shouted “hey you… you don’t fall down a drain ya skinny git”. I immediately assumed they were shouting at Davie. After all he was one of the best young climbers in the country. But she was shouting at me. It was the happiest day of my life. After a while, the improvements stopped and I started to get ill loads. This was a warning sign and luckily I heeded it and didn’t push into oblivion.

The environment people are in, either past or present has a huge influence on how they behave, and that relates to weight management too. Many athletes have the capacity to push their physical boundaries beyond what is considered to be normal. That’s what makes them stand out from the crowd but that capacity can have very serious consequences if it’s applied in the wrong direction.

In this Blog, I’ll discuss why weight management is so important within a sporting context, highlighting some of the issues that coaches and athletes should be aware of specifically related to eating disorders. Images are simply to look pretty rather than to relate to the text for obvious reasons. I used the words weight and mass interchangeably for ease of understanding.

bike 2

Weight and Endurance Performance

In cycling and running there are two ways to go faster:

  • To become fitter and more efficient
  • To be lighter.

The former comes down to training effectively and consistently. Of course individual genetics play a major role in how people respond or not to training. However, sooner or later the physiological ‘limit’ of human adaptation will be reached and improving performance becomes more challenging.

The next time you’re at a triathlon or a mass participation race, have a look at how everyone looks. If you grouped people based on body mass, the fast group would look extremely lean and light, the middle-groupers would look average and the slow group may be carrying a wee bit too much weight (whether due to height, muscle,excess body fat or a combination of each) . Of course there are outliers and exceptions to the rule but I think these generalisations are fair.

Athletes and coaches clearly understand the relationship between performance and weight. As a rule-of-thumb in running, a drop of 1kg of body mass will typically translate into a time saving of 6 seconds per kilometre. Extending that further, a drop of 3kg over a 10km run could translate to a 3 minute time saving. At elite level, that is massive!

I’ll be honest and say I don’t fully understand the relationship between body mass and swimming performance. What I do know though is that a bit of body fat is desirable to provide adequate insulation and help with buoyancy. Performance suffers if an athlete is ultra-lean.

Cycling is far more complex in terms of body mass. On relatively flat courses the absolute power of a cyclist, regardless of body mass, is a major predictor of performance. That’s why Fabian Cancellara is so fast. His large muscle mass and long levers help him deliver exceptional power, enabling him to go so fast. However, it’s very unlikely that he’ll win an alpine stage of the Tour de France. That’s because as gradient increases, power relative to body mass i.e. power to weight ratio becomes more important. Lighter riders have a definite advantage when it comes to hill climbing. One reason Bradley Wiggins sites for not wanting to focus on the Tour de France again is the hard work and extreme discipline to maintain the physique that will get him over the high mountains with the leaders.

At the Celtman

The Tipping Point

Of course it’s not simply a case of losing weight to go faster. For all athletes, maintaining an energy balance is vital during training and for normal life. That means putting in the same amount of calories as expended. The body can cope with a slight negative energy balance but drastic calorie reduction can have serious consequences.

Trying to lose weight too quickly is never good as the body may go into starvation mode, performance will suffer and in fact weight may not drop. Of course, there are examples of athletes dropping weight very quickly but they are typically supported by expert nutritionists. Such weight reduction programmes must not be used for prolonged periods of time.

There also comes a tipping point where an athlete will not be able to maintain healthy bodily function. Muscle proteins break down, infections become more common and performance suffers. In more serious cases, bone structure may weaken and osteoporosis results. For female athletes, there can be further complications relating to the Female Athlete Triad.

From a performance perspective, finding that red line of optimal body mass is the goal. That is the point where mass as low as it can be without there being any health, performance or psychological implications. For top athletes, they may push the boundary for a one-off race but they will up their weight immediately afterwards so immune function does not suffer. There is absolutely no reason for an amateur athlete to go to such extremes though.

Fraser Cartmell

The Psychological Side

Losing weight feels good much in the same way as getting faster feels good. Winning feels even better, not that I’ve got much personal experience of that. The triple pleasure whammy of losing weight, being faster and winning can be more addictive than crack cocaine.

“I’m getting faster as I get lighter, so if I get lighter still, I will be even faster”.

In many sports, the media and society in general sees being thin, especially for females, as positive too. It’s not just about performance. Exercise releases feel good hormones too and we all tend to continue to do things that feel good. Added to that, good athletes have the ability to be very disciplined, to push personal boundaries and have an excellent work ethic, and that includes managing their diet. That all sounds positive, but losing weight and training can become addictive, sometimes getting to the stage where people are unable to take rationale decisions or keep control their own weight.


Eating Disorders

The sad reality is that there are too many instances, especially with female athletes, where weight becomes the be-all-and-end-all, with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia being the result. Chrissie Wellington is a very high profile example of an athlete who has had an eating disorder. I personally know a number of women who have been successful at world level that have developed very serious eating disorders too. The fact is that most endurance athletes (see DiaGioacchino et al. 2002 as an example) want to be thinner. With an ‘elite’ mind-set the likelihood of that developing into something more serious is very high, especially for females. It’s worth having a read of my wee friend Nina McArthur’s blog on her eating disorder. One quote stands out for me here:

“they emphasised how important it was to be ‘optimum race weight’ and always to maintain a low fat diet”.

Many athletes with eating disorders are very articulate, intelligent and high achievers. Some scientists argue that there are predisposing factors that make eating orders more likely. For example, neurologists have identified that there is a correlation between these types of eating disorders and the way the brain is wired, specifically in the insula. I wouldn’t be too surprised if there was a correlation between neurology and the likelihood of elite success in sport too.

When I’m on a long bike ride, I’m rubbish at eating and the result is that for the final few hours I’m thinking about food…. milkshakes, cheese and onion pies, crisps and cake; images follow me in a giant hunger-pang thought bubble. In short, I feel ravenous! One suggestion is that people with a predisposition for anorexia feel much less hungry than this and are able to easily restrict calorie intake as a result.

Similarly, geneticists have identified an association between the risk of developing certain eating disorders and specific genes. Such neurological and genetic evidence is useful as it helps illustrate that athletes with eating disorders may not be to blame. One downside of this is that it could be interpreted as “if it’s genetic, then there’s nothing I can do about it”.

I think this is a defeatist perspective though. Whilst there are likely to be biological mechanisms that help explain the susceptibility towards developing eating disorders (and other behavioural disorders) they are often triggered by the environment of the individual.

What’s more the science of genetics and neuroscience is very much in its infancy, with studies showing associations rather than identifying causality. That is they can tell us a wee bit about a person at one point in their life, a bit like a photograph, but it cannot explain their whole life. Rather, a holistic approach looking at how a person’s environment has changed over time is required to infer causality. This includes trying to identify specific triggers that could explain changes in an athlete’s behaviour.

As a coach, I certainly can’t change an athlete’s genes; however, I can influence how they are expressed. This is achieved through fostering an appropriate performance environment, helping athletes develop a healthy performance mind-set that considers that some people are more susceptible to eating disorders than others.


Deceptive Behaviour?

In my previous Blog, I talked (at great length) about behaviour. You may wish to have a read of that. One thing I talked about was how every single one of us has a concept of ‘self’ that we attempt to portray to others. For example, when I go to arty-fart events, I wear different clothes and act more ‘intellectually’ than I would at a triathlon. In fact, I hide the sporty persona as I perceive that arty farts think competitive activity is abnormal. There’s no real harm in doing so. It’s what humans do to ‘fit in’ or to please others.

Athletes demonstrate similar behaviours when they wish to portray an image to their coach, i.e. to demonstrate that they will do what it takes to be the best they can be. That could be as simple as saying they feel motivated to do a session, to demonstrate commitment, even though they’re knackered and would prefer to be doing something else. Those with eating disorders may try to demonstrate “I’ve got a healthy relationship with food and I’m eating normally” and so on. Outward signs will be sending different messages though. Despite what we’d like to believe, humans aren’t really rationale creatures.

My mum died of a combination of emphysema and alcohol related diseases. Signs of her imminent demise were clear to everyone, but her condition was ‘medically’ reversible right up to the time she collapsed in a coma. Whilst my relationship with her wasn’t great, I did everything I could to get her to stop smoking and drinking. I failed. Imagine a scene from Casualty. The consultant asked to see me for ‘the’ conversation. He was more uncomfortable than I was. Whilst my dad disagreed, I was all for switching off life-support as she had suffered significant brain damage.

Many years of alcohol abuse had damaged the way my mum thought and behaved. In life, she had become unable to make rational decisions. She hid bottles of gin behind the sofa thinking I didn’t notice. Trying to mention things sensitively didn’t work. Getting angry didn’t work. Shouting didn’t work. At the time, I was incredibly angry at her utterly selfish behaviour. The fact is that her excessive drinking had resulted in faulty thinking. What seemed rational to the rest of the world did not resonate with her.

It’s much the same with eating disorders, for both the sufferers and those close to them. Those with an eating disorder may demonstrate a fixation with food, subconsciously attempting to show to others that everything is fine. For example, bulimia sufferers may eat ‘normally’ but then make themselves sick when alone. Others see the obvious signs of excessive weight loss and changes in behaviour, but the sufferer continues with a veil of deception and lies.

Or do they? I think not. Whilst not negating the importance of taking responsibility for ones actions, being in continual energy deficit affects all systems of the body including brain function. Behaviour is unlikely to be rational as a result. Sufferers subconsciously deceive themselves, using a form of cognitive dissonance. But they are not fooling anyone but themselves.

For others trying to help through reasoning and rationale argument, it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting. With my Mum, the doctors gave her drugs for her emphysema and asthma and treated her broken leg when she fell. The thing is, none of this would ‘rebalance’ brain chemistry and solve the underlying issues that affected her behaviour. Similarly, an eating disorder won’t simply be resolved through the promotion of healthy eating. It’s likely to require a very long-haul fix including extensive psychological/psychiatric support such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s a job for the professionals.

bike 1

A Coaching Perspective

Being a coach is in an incredibly influential and privileged position as athletes often put their complete trust in you. The satisfaction of helping someone achieve their potential is amazing, but to achieve such success involves making many mistakes too. A top coach once confided in me about an athlete:

“I pushed her really hard and she lapped it up. She was so tough and she seemed to be getting better all the time. Then she cracked. Her body had simply broken down and I didn’t see the signs, despite them seeming obvious now. I fucked up”.

To achieve sporting success involves coaches and athletes continually pushing the boundaries in search of the ‘red line’. Occasional going over this line is inevitable when highly motivated individuals are involved. In most cases, performance may suffer in the short-term but there will be no long-term consequences if the coach and the athlete are able to identify and reflect on mistakes made.

Weight management is very difficult for coaches to broach, regardless of their experience though. It becomes even more challenging on some elite programmes when athletes are seen as a means to achieve ‘Key Performance Indicators’ rather than as individuals.

The best athletes are very good at reflecting as this allows them to explore options on how they can improve. They will often think more about what others say after the event. Whilst being a reflector is usually positive, it can also negatively influence self-perception and confidence levels. For example, highlighting the importance of achieving ‘optimum race weight’ could be interpreted by some as:

  • ‘I need to be as thin as possible’ or
  • ‘they’re hinting that I need to lose weight’.

Misinterpretation of such well meaning comments could trigger an eating disorder in an athlete, especially if they are genetically/neurologically predisposed towards getting one. Coaches are not the cause but they certainly can be the trigger.

Many coaches I know focus on the training prescription, such as training zones, periodisation and power meters. However, for me the role of a coach is also about delivering meaningful changes in the performance of their athletes through influencing their knowledge, beliefs, expectations and perceptions. That includes getting to know them as individuals, what their self-esteem is like and what motivates them. Any clown can prescribe 2 x 20 mins at Functional Threshold Power or write a swim-set on a white board!

Focussing on the individual is key as it opens up good two-way communication. One athlete I coached worked in a male-dominated macho environment where body image was important. He was a rapid cyclist but his upper-body was too muscular! I had the data from body composition measurement to back my statements up and it was relatively easy for me to suggest that he needed to get lighter! The process was slow though, backed up by expert advice, specific goals and further body composition measurements. It worked too! However, my approach would be quite different with other athletes.

Nina’s quote re-enforced to me the importance of getting communication right and not making generalisations on weight management, especially when working with young motivated athletes, most specifically girls. Performance sports coaching is very male dominated, so many coaches do not fully understand the social pressures regarding body image that young female athletes face. In that context, it is very easy for a well meaning coach to make a comment that may seem the most logical one in the world without considering fully how it could be perceived.

It’s unreasonable to expect coaches never to approach the issue of weight management though. That’s because it is such an important subject within the context of endurance sport. However, it must be considered in the context of the long-term development of the athlete. If a youngster is a few kg over-weight at 16 years old, then is this something to worry about? If an athlete is not the ’optimal body-composition’ and has not got a realistic prospect at performing at world-level, then does it matter?

In researching this Blog, I came across another one, so eloquently written by Jodie Swallow. Rather than me going on infinitum, I suggest you read it as it’s more impactful than my blathering. I’ve picked out three quotes that I certainly can’t improve upon,

“Thin can be fast, but so can strong, so can lean, so can healthy. Thin is not fit – strong is fit, lean is fit and healthy is fit”.

“The difference between controlled nutritional strategy and a problem is small”.

“‘Confidence is the key’. I would urge coaches, managers and federations to acknowledge this phrase and understand that it is an athlete’s attitude to herself that will result in longevity of high performance”.

This article had quite an effect on me. Many years ago I remember almost falling off the chair with laughter when watching Question of Sport. The question related to Swallow being disqualified from a race for the letters on her race top being larger than regulation. Allegedly, this had occurred because her boobs had stretched her lycra top. It’s not so funny to me after reading her blog. Of course she’s been incredibly successful this year in long-distance events, attributed by some as her having a more optimal body composition. But I suspect it’s as much to do with having a healthy mind and body too.

Watts and Dixie

Kirkland’s Tips

To summarise, I’ve included a table with my Top Tips in.

Periodise Nutrition
Achieving an ‘optimal’ race weight is both physically and mentally challenging. Therefore:

  • Any weight reduction programme must be planned so that losses are slow and safe.
  • Professional guidance from a registered nutritionist/dietician should be sought when possible.
  • As a rule of thumb, an athlete should hit race weight at least 3 weeks out from a targeted race. Power/fitness gains may be lost otherwise.
  • Rest periods when athlete shifts away from a ‘performance’ diet are desirable.
  • Binge and purge regimes should be avoided.
Coaches and other support professionals often forget about the psychological wellbeing of athletes and focus on what is best for ‘performance’. However, such a frugal existence is to psychologically challenging for some. The Brownlee’s love cakes and scones after all and I think they would be weaker athletes if they restricted such treats. Therefore:

  • The odd treat is fine. My finer half has a few squares of chocolate each evening.
  • Rewards and treats can become excessive and habitual though, so they care is required with them.
  • Fat per-se is not bad as long as it’s not highly processed or ingested in large amounts.
Weight Management Measurements
Body CompositionMost athletes and coaches like goals and targets and weight management is an area where specific goals can be appropriate. Many nutritionists and sports scientists are trained to measure body composition, in simple terms that is how to measure fat mass and fat free mass. The measurement is commonly expressed as % body fat. In cycling and triathlon, typical percentages for elite athletes are as follows:
Male Female
5-11% 10-15%Anything below the lower end of the range is considered to be unhealthy. It is also important to consider that some athletes need or are predisposed to have a higher % body fat than others. That means not everyone will be able to get to the lower end of the range and still maintain good performance and health. Regardless of the measurement techniques used, % body fat will always be an estimate based on prediction equations so many people prefer the sum of skinfolds method.Pinch a bit of fat on your bicep and you’ll get an idea of how skinfolds are measured. There are very specific anatomical landmarks where measurements are taken, using highly accurate callipers, and then added together to give a sum of the measurements.

Measurement accuracy is key. Those who take anthropometric measurements should be trained to do so (by ISAK). A professional will always be able to tell you how accurate their measurements are, expressed as a % and they should be better than 5% accurate. I won’t talk about ideal ranges for the sum of skinfolds but I think that all serious athletes should be measured around 3-4 times per year. Too low a measurement will be a warning of potential very serious health issues.

Body Mass Index

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a way that many health professionals measure if people are a healthy weight for their height or not. It’s calculated as follows:

BMI = mass(kg)/heigh (m))2

I am 1.86m tall and have body mass of 83.5kg; therefore, my body mass is 24.14. Using the table below tells me that I’m a healthy weight for my height,


Category BMI Range
Very severely underweight <15
Severely underweight 15.0-16.0
Underweight 16.0-18.5
Healthy weight 18.5-25.0
Overweight 25-30
Moderately obese 30-35
Severely obese 35-40
Very severely obese >40

With such a simple method of calculation, which was developed over 150 years ago, there are bound to many limitations to its use. Ranges refer to a white non-athletic population and do not consider relative muscle/fat mass, so they shouldn’t be used carte-blanch to make inferences on athletes.

I suppose they are an OK guide for coaches that provide them with practical and relatively objective method to check if an athlete is a healthy weight or not. Some coaches set an arbitrary BMI target of healthy weight minus 1 but I’m not so sure if this is wholly appropriate.


In a coaching context, ensuring an athlete has a healthy mind and body always comes before targeting body weight. I believe that for the majority of successful athletes, they need to display behaviours which enable them to push beyond the boundaries expected within population norms. That includes maintaining a healthy athlete’s diet and a relatively low body mass.

Of course, motivated people often push beyond safe boundaries so coaches must take care and be aware of how such behaviour in the context of weight management can have very serious health implications. The well-being of athletes as people comes first and performance is secondary, with absolutely no exceptions to this rule.

I come into contact with quite a few coaches in my daily life and see some amazing ones. But I also see more than my fair share of ones who are less good. The greatest differentiating factor from my perspective is than the best ones are wonderful listeners. They hear without thinking about what they are going to say next, they get inside the heads of their athletes without making hasty judgements and demonstrate they put value on what others say. Weight management and weight issues are not subjects that coaches should be scared of or avoid. Rather, listening and having a good understanding of different perspectives on the subject will help foster an environment in which they can support the weight management of their athletes in a positive way.

A professional nutritionist like Nigel always comes in handy
A professional nutritionist like Nigel always comes in handy

Recovery: It’s Not Just About Putting Your Feet Up


It’s been a while since I did a proper Blog.  Spare time is at a premium as I’m back in training…all I do when I have spare time is rest. Now that the season is getting going, I think now is a good time to talk about recovery, one of the most important and neglected aspects of training.


Imagine him, Ally T Gear, the obsessive triathlete with the biggest kit bag ever. He’s just done a 2 hour brick session and wants to recover as quickly as possible so he can race the following day.  Having read every magazine article ever on recovery, he decides to get in his specially plumbed ice bath wearing his compression tights, whilst drinking a protein shake and calling his massage therapist to arrange an evening appointment. We all know that man! Do Ally’s recovery strategies have some merit and do we need to go to the same length as him to recover or has he no idea? (Geddit…. Ally T Gear… no idea?). In this week’s blog, I look into why we need to recover and then I provide a number of strategies to help you do so.

Rosemary in Need of Recovery
Rosemary in Need of Recovery

What is Recovery?

During training and competition, the body is stressed, resulting in increased energy consumption (with resultant decreased carbohydrate stores), damage to the cells including muscle fibres and suppression of the endocrine and immune system. The harder or longer you train, the greater the stress will be. Recovery is the process the body follows to repair itself. With specific training and adequate recovery, the body will not only recover to pre-training levels, it will grow stronger. This process is called adaptation.  Without adequate recovery this adaptation will not occur. Rather, with over-training, the body is excessively stressed and maladaptation occurs i.e. the body gets weaker.

Some individuals naturally recover quicker than others so a recovery strategy that works for Al and Jonny may not be the best for you. Furthermore, if you are new to training or getting a bit long in the tooth, it will generally take longer for you to recover.

An Active Cool-Down can Aid Recovery
An Active Cool-Down can Aid Recovery

Monitoring Recovery

To understand how well you recover, it is important to monitor what training you are doing and how you recover from it. Keeping a training diary or using online software such as TrainingPeaks will help you monitor how well you do so. You may wish to record:

  • Sleep: This is one of the best forms of recovery. However, after hard training it is sometimes difficult to sleep well. You may have twitchy legs or simply feel restless. This is ok once in a while, but if it becomes regular, then you need to back off until your normal sleeping patterns return. Make sure your room is dark and quiet as this will improve your quality of sleep. A milky drink and a light carbohydrate snack shortly before bed may help you sleep better.
  • Feel good factor: which may include your motivation to train or how irritable you are. If you feel low, sadder or grumpier than normal, then this may be a sign that you need to recover more.
  • Resting heart-rate: is worth recording first thing in the morning. If is around 5 beats higher or lower than normal, this may be a sign that you’re not recovering or you have a bug on the way. I fell into the trap of continuing to train when my resting HR went down to 29rpm.
  • Performance: If you’re not able to achieve the performance you were expecting, this may signal that you are fatigued and require more recovery. The British Cycling Team monitor power output closely and if riders are not able to put down what is expected for a particular session, then it may mean that riders need to rest. The same type of monitoring can be done with swimming pace or run speed.
  • Testosterone: Cortisol Ratio: With hard training, there can be increases in hormone cortisol. This can lead to a poor mood state, fatigue and a loss of muscle mass. Testosterone, a muscle growth hormone, levels can also drop. Therefore, a decreased testosterone: cortisol ratio is an indicator of over-training. For most of us, monitoring sleep, feel-good factor etc is good enough. However, for elite athletes with access to sports medicine support, measuring this ratio could be worthwhile.

Developing a Recovery Regime

So you’ve just done a 5 hour Sunday run with your mates and are exhausted. You get home and there is nothing in the fridge, your compression tights are in the wash, you’re late for the family trip to the DIY megastore and you’re having dinner at the in-laws in the evening. Having a recovery regime will help you plan to avoid such scenarios.


A  structured cool-down in particularly important after intense activity such as an interval session or a race as it will aid the recovery process. A suggested bike cool-down is provided below.

Time Effort Notes
5 mins Easy Relaxed pedalling. Keep your cadence at 90rpm or more.
5 mins Moderate Moderate intensity, keeping your breathing even and relaxed
5 mins Easy-very hard 5 seconds maximal effort above 100rpm in a medium gear, followed by 55 seconds easy spinning.
5 mins Zone 1-2 Spinning at 90rpm. Keep drinking

If you’ve done a longer less intense session, simply finishing off with some light exercise is generally sufficient. Make sure you have warm clothing and a hat available if you are unable to get showered immediately. You may also wish to develop a stretching regime, especially to mobilise tight areas of the body.

NY Day Tri40


Nutrition is essential for training adaptation as it helps the body to regenerate and repair itself. Ensuring that you eat and drink during longer sessions is essential for that process as it will help your body’s carbohydrate stores from being overly depleted. This will help prevent you from being ravenously hungry, meaning you don’t feel like eating the contents of the fridge immediately after the ride. You don’t have to use sport specific products. I like flapjacks and dried apricots but have to admit that rhubarb and custard torq gels is a favourite!

My Favourite

A small carbohydrate rich snack is recommended immediately after the ride. This should be followed by a more substantial meal within 2 hours. A valuable inclusion to recovery meals is protein, as it is essential for muscle repair and enzyme synthesis. A good quality chocolate milkshake is great for recovery as it has an ideal balance between carbohydrates and protein, it contains calcium a small amount of sodium and is good as a fluid replacement. What’s more, it tastes good and is comforting to the stomach.

Baths, Tights and Massage

Recovery strategies such as having an ice bath, wearing compression tights or having a post-exercise massage are relatively common within many sports, but do they work? Well, if you’re going to the lengths of filling your bath with ice, then you’ll be good enough to have a professional support team to advise you. Otherwise, save the ice for a well deserved gin and tonic.

Compression tights are now a common sight at races, they certainly have individual perception of value and they are unlikely to do any harm. One suggested mechanism for their benefit is that they promote venous return through increased pressure on the limbs. This requires that the garment fits well and is sufficiently tight.

Most pro-cycling teams include massage therapists with good reason. There is certainly a feel good factor associated with massage, it may influence oxygen supply/waste removal in the recovering muscles and it may help with efficient muscle action to name a few benefits. A good therapist may also be able to spot potential injuries so regular massage can be very beneficial.

Weeks of Recovery Required from the Terrex
Weeks of Recovery Required from the Terrex


Young riders on British Cycling performance programmes have it drilled into them how important rest is. Often pro-riders don’t train more or harder than good amateurs, they just have more time to focus on recovering.

Immediately after a hard ride, the immune system is suppressed so it’s easier to pick up bugs. If possible, try and stay away from large groups in the first few hours after your session. Put your feet up, have a snooze or rest passively by reading a book or listening to music. This relaxation time will benefit you both physically and psychologically.

A Few Well Dones!

My finer half Rosemary deserves a big well done for winning her first triathlon, the Kendal Sprint. Great performance from her and Lucy to win the Female Pairs in the Open 5  series too. Great work.

Well done to my mate Monica Eden who has recently been appointed as an Olympic Talent Coach. The girl works tirelessly in cycling and deserves her success. Very proud of you lassie.

To Roddie Riddle, who I’ve not seen for years. who recently ran the Marathon des Sables to show that an athlete with type 1 diabetes can compete in one of the toughest foot races on earth. Great effort loon.

Lauryn Therin who’s recently left the office to join the GB para-cycling programme. What a multi-talented girl.

Track Nationals 054

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