After our blog on the humble turbo trainer, we received requests for my thoughts on swim benches, and other swim tools used out of the water. As we have quite a few online athletes who work not only shift work but in remote places, I thought we could pass on a little history with swim benches.
Let’s first answer the burning question, do you believe they are beneficial? The answer is an unequivocal yes. However, it depends what kind and if you use it to:
- replace a swim workout
- incorporate it with your training session
- because you don’t have a pool alternative .
Then there are the many different swim benches available. Before I discuss some of them in detail, let me list them in my order of merit:
- isokinetic swim bench
- pulley system swim bench
- weighted pulley system swim bench
- own body weight resistance swim bench
- stretch chords. Or a bench set up with chords
Each of these apparatus can be improved further with a small tool, called the swim halo. With this device on your machine it can promote an arm position that mimics the correct position of the arms in the water.
Halo Swim Bench
Done properly swimmers who drop their elbows can be taken through the correct movement on the swim bench out of the water, so instruction can be very effective indeed.
As far back as 1978 I was using isokinetic boxes to develop my own swim benches. As I became a little more sophisticated around 1986 I was making them on the walls of our gym to be specific for breaststroke as well as butterfly. My squad would do a swim workout from 9am – 11am but I would still add between 2 and 4 workouts a week on these machines. These swim bench workouts being a minimum of 45 minutes of work.
It is fair to say that in triathlon I have not used them, as time becomes critical training for swim, bike and run inside the one Triathlon program. However as a teaching aid, or a replacement for lack of pool time availability, they are excellent.
Why do I prefer the isokinetic over the other 4 types of benches? With this devise the power output lifts with the effort and acceleration of the stroke. This is crucial. Benches that do not do this are counter productive as the weight or resistance is static along the full movement, and hence is dictated by the weakest point of your stroke. The power phase of the stroke does not then have the necessary resistance to be developed as it could be. This is a massive problem. I have experimented with just strait isometric exercise on some of my lesser loved machines and I have found that I get a better result doing that in 3 or 4 static positions rather then doing the full swim stroke.
The second reason I ‘love the isokinetic movement’ is that once accustomed to it there is zero muscle pain the day afterwards – none. This is so important when doing multiple sports. We can do very very hard workouts for 1 hour 30 minutes on isokinetic machines and the next day zero soreness. I have done only 25% of the work on other benches and athletes can’t lift their knives and forks at meal times for 3 days, they are that sore, and impedes training in the other disciplines.
One last point I’ll make on the execution of technique, is when using a swim bench, and trying to include the proper swim arm recovery. After the initial first ever session I personally abandoned that procedure. We recover the arm just by letting it swing back normally. I’m positive not doing a full swim recovery is not impeding improvement.
In summary, if an athlete has pool access and only swims 3 times a week would I replace one of these swim workouts with a swim bench workout? Just the same answer when I’m asked should I replace one of these workouts with a gym session that will make me stronger. The answer from me is no. And just if you miss-understood: No. No. No !
However, it is a legitimate tool to improve swimming if used correctly, and a great piece of kit for any level of swimmer
‘Coach, what about racing in other sports?’
The Northern Hemisphere season has kicked off and one of the most asked questions is ‘Coach, I’ve got time before I do my main race. Can I do a race in another sport?’
My answer changes depending on the sport, the amount of time before the main race, and the possibility that doing that race could cause injury that will impact on the main goal of the season.
Let’s start with an open water swim race. The answer is nearly always a yes, great idea. Any time we get to practice open water in a real race scenerio is a big positive for me. If it is not the day before the race I’m more than happy to give it the big thumbs up.
Let’s move to the run race scenario. Again, I like this as a training aid to a better triathlon run. In saying that, we break it up into two categories:-
- To help improve speed, choose a race that is much shorter than race distance. If one is racing Sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, then a 3 to 5 km road race is a great stimulus for future.
- To help improve race pace for long course / Ironman athletes, then races from 10 to 21 km are ideal. My favorite is around 15 km, as I have found it gives a great stimulus of both above race pace and endurance, but without flattening the athlete, or interrupting too much their training due to needing a longer time to recover. When attempting this style of race we insist it must be done negative split, or as a build run. This ensures we don’t build up a lot of unnecessary lactate during what is a glorified training session.
Running Races can compliment our triathlon training well.
I left the bike to last, as when an athlete tells me they would like to join a cycle race, I ask if they would like a broken collarbone before their main event of the year?
In a perfect world I’d love to say yes, but rarely does this occur. Safety must be the ultimate decider of bike racing, and I just don’t see pack riding being beneficial to an Ironman racer. If they ask can I do a time trial race, I’m the first to say ‘what a great idea’.
Let me be clear, if someone asked me to pick between a 1 hour criterium or a 1 hour time trial on a turbo, I would say there is no comparison. (I have only seen one, no two athletes fall off a turbo – but that is for another story!)
Racing other sports I find to be a great benefit if you put them in context with your long term goals, and can help you enjoy your fitness without breaking the bank – financially, or physically.
Get out there and give them a go!
Total Body Force techniques are taught at Trisutto Camps worldwide.
During our age group training camps we have seen athletes make incredible improvements in their triathlon swim using our TBF (Total Body Force) techniques. We have also found many athletes returned to their training environment, and individuals in their club or in the swim lane next to them have ridiculed their new stroke – despite the fact they move down the pool somewhat faster than they used to do!
It’s a tough gig going against the peer group in anything – both for athletes, and for coaches. As a coach, you often doubt and ask yourself is there a better way. For coaches, I say the hardest thing in coaching is to find a method that is not recognized by the hordes and stick with it. If I fall prey to the pressure when I invented our TBF methods and I am an Olympic level swim coach having coached 24 swimmers to the Australian Olympic team, I acknowledge how tough it is for almost all others.
However, the strength of our swim program can be illustrated with some of the successes of our athletes. When our now Trisutto coach Bella Bayliss was racing professionally there was a period when she and husband Stephen could only swim for 1 hour every second day due to a lack of pool facilities. The answer was to maximise the use of the time available – paddles and buoy, 10 x 400, 40 x 100, or one hour non-stop.
A familiar sight – Steve Bayliss leading out of the water. Photo Credit: James Mitchell Photography
Stephen Bayliss was considered not a good enough swimmer, with too poor technique for the British program. As a 3rd pack short course athlete, and 2nd pack long course he was high elbows, breathing both sides, stretching out, counting strokes, wiggling like a worm on a fishing rod as he tried to do perfect technique. After watching him run and his natural gait I thought this man got a bit of skill – these swim coaches have just killed it in the swim.
We adopted the straight arm (English cricket fast bowler) swim stroke, with breathing on one side with the instructions:-
- Stop trying to feel the water,
- stop stretching out,
- stop counting your strokes.
- Use your natural turn over – the same as you have in the run.
Stephen did, and he got better and better. Soon he was in the first pack in Ironman, then soon he was leading the swims and every body could see who it was because of his straight bowling arm! Stephen was now swimming 47 minutes not 55 minutes, and was no longer in the 3rd pack of ITU races, but in the lead pack. He beat all the young ITU Brits out of the water.
The irony being when the federation coaches who got rid of him, suggested that if he worked on his technique, (which in their eyes currently looked awful) he could be the best swimmer in Britain. They still didn’t get it.
With swimming we must not lose sight of the fact that we are training for triathlon – and that we race in a wetsuit most of the time. Get the paddles on, pull buoy between your legs and get after it. To quote Bella:
‘I used to spend an hour and a half fussing about, trying to do all the perfect technique things in the water, gliding and stretching. It was paralysis by analysis! But once I just got in, got on with it, and just thought about nothing more than putting on the gear and giving it to myself, I improved by 15 minutes over 3.8K’.
For our athletes, and for those who have applied our techniques and improved their swim – Hold the Line!
For the coaches out there, if your athletes are improving, then it is working. If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it!
Bella Bayliss is a former World Long Course Champion and 16 time Ironman distance Champion. She now runs a successful coaching business from Sands Beach Resort in Lanzarote.
Bella will be teaming up with Head Coach Brett Sutton in early Sept in Lanzarote, running a high performance advance level camp, specifically for those preparing for Kona. Stay tuned for details!
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Over the years I have frequently heard people insist that because the IM swim accounts for ~10% of total race time, it only deserves a commensurate amount of training attention. While the swim indeed represents a small fraction of your overall finish time, it still matters – a lot. You cannot (or most likely will not) win the IM on the swim but you sure can lose your day if it detrimentally impacts your bike performance and subsequent run. Here are three simple suggestions to help prepare your swim to have a positive impact on the rest of your race day.
Technique – The Recovery
Ultimately your swim preparation should aim to improve your ability to cover the race distance at (your) speed comfortably so you have energy in the tank to bike and run effectively. It all starts with a sustainable technique. This means one that you can replicate sustainably for~4000 strokes over 3.8k (factoring some navigational deviations along the way). The Recovery phase is key to this end.
The recovery is undervalued. People often pay lip service to it as simply that phase that somehow links the “Push” with the “Place”. When it is a point of attention discussion revolves around “proper” – dare I say aesthetic – form. I would argue that aside from being an inevitable biomechanical link in the stroke cycle it has a functional purpose.
Recovery means exactly that – recovery! Yet so many AG from a non-swim background (lacking the flexibility and coordination of fellow early-start pure bred swimmers) still work the recovery, contriving that high “chicken-wingie” finger-drag type procedure from the shoulder complex – because that is considered proper swim form. I see the energy tax in their body language.
Indeed the recovery phase is short lived. Passes in the blink of an eye at race effort. But it is still an opportunity to recuperate. Think of the upstroke phase when pedaling. How exhausting will it be to actively “pull up” every stroke over the course of 180k? So relax the elbow angle. Open it up. Is there an optimal angle? No. It can be completely straight. Whatever feels comfortable and provides your arm and shoulder with a momentary sense of respite (without of course compromising the placement of the hand on entry). The tension, pressure and power come under water where it matters. Over top – chill. Multiply that 4000x and there is some energy savings to be had. Remember – recovery means exactly that. Make it so.
Training – Race Pace Grooving (RPG)
In my fundamentals article I stressed the importance of rehearsing race pace (RP). An effective trial set to groove your swim RP, while developing and gauging progress in your stamina is to complete 4000m of 100m pull holding RP on a RP +7-10 sec send-off time – i.e 40 x 100p (1.50) @ 2.00. Of course one needs to work up to this possibly starting with 10 x 100, 20 x or 30 x, depending on experience. The goal is to hold RP from start to finish and see if and at one point in the set you start to fall off the pace. The seasonal objective is to make each trial feel better than the last (which means your efficiency and stamina are improving).
Naturally we want to see pace times come down as part of anticipated progression. What is most important is that you are able to sustain the effort 40x, consistently. If after 2-3 consecutive trials you are now coming in consistently with 12-15 sec rest, then you are likely ready to re-set your RP (in this example to 1.45 leaving on 1.55).
This trial set also helps potentially identify aspects that need further training attention. For example, if after 28-30 reps your pace tends to fall off to 1.58-2.02 and becomes a struggle to hold, then addressing stamina and holding TUF (Technique Under Fatigue) at the back end of training sets might be a point of attention. If the pace falls off mid-way and then consistently comes back on track or better for the back end, this may be indicative of distraction that may require more mental focus and cue development.
Try this trial set every 6-8 weeks to measure your progress from both a pace and energetic standpoint while concurrently grooving your RP effort. And remember to do this with NO WATER BOTTLE stops!
Race Preparation – Simulation Prep Sets
While it is never really possible to recon an actual IM swim course (as the full course is never set up until race morning – Kona being perhaps the closest exception) you can still get a sense of the course rhythm at home. By studying the actual course map found in the Athletes Guide you can design sets that follow the course pattern and allow you to develop your personal race approach/strategy with more specificity.
Using a fictitious IM race that has a 2-loop triangular course: 800m x 300m x 800m with an exit run around a buoy on the beach. You will quickly deduce that this course has 3x turns >90 degrees / points of convergence, and a tight inter-section between turn 1 and 2. This means there will be at least 3 points along the course, excluding the mayhem of the start, where some intensity will be inevitably injected into the mix causing HR to jack up momentarily requiring you to control it and settle back into your game quickly.
**[p = pull buoy, pp = pull + paddles, sri = sec rest interval, mri = min rest interval]
One specific prep session might be:
5 min warm up choice / 1-2mri full rest (waiting for the gun)
4 x 50p desc 1-4/5sri (start)
Then 2 times through:
7-8 x 100 (RP)/10sri (leg 1)
4 x 25 fast/5sri (turn 1, simulate convergence melee and its short and choppy nature, get HR up)
3 x (75 fast+25 mod-med) continuous (simulate the “bumper car” effect as people come out of the turn trying to re-sight and catching up/passing waves ahead)
4 x 25 fast/5sri (simulate turn 2 as above)
4 x 200 (RP)/15sri (leg 2)
4 x 25 sprint/5sri (turn 3, simulate HR rise from standing up and running. Round 2, do as 100 build by 25 to finish).
(Set 1- p, Set 2 – pp)
Incorporate these three tips into your IM swim preparation. They will help you conserve energy, develop your capacity to cover the distance at speed and build your confidence to tackle the nuances of the given course. Exiting the swim with resilience can only help your day on the bike and run.
Ed Rechnitzer has over 28 years experience in triathlon and has completed multiple Ironman events, including Kona. He is a Trisutto Coach based in Calgary.
Join Ed at one of his three Mont Tremblant Camps in July.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Our recent blogs and discussions about Total Body Force (TBF) swim techniques have highlighted the need to find a stroke that we can replicate over and over, that withstands fatigue so we don’t ‘fade’ in the second half of the race day swim; a stroke that enables rhythm and balance and which is determined on an individual basis.
Whilst we do take a very individual approach to defining a swim stroke, those who have attended our Trisutto Camps would be aware that generally we tend to encourage a different level of cadence between women and men. We have added a Part 3 to our TBF Swim Series to specifically highlight the need for a fast cadence for our female swimmers. We also introduce an alternative TBF swim stroke exclusively for women.
Most men tend to already have sufficient power, however my most common observation is that they are applying it in the wrong places. We see so many guys thrashing through the ‘Place’ and ‘Press’ phases of their swim stroke that by the time they reach the ‘Push’ there is no acceleration at all. For many it is often just an adjustment in timing that can lead to very quick improvements. We use our TBF swim methodology to adjust the swim stroke, and more often than not, the timing of the stroke falls into place.
When discussing female swimming we differentiate into three categories:
- Those that have come from a swim background; we try to change as little as possible. Most trained swimmers will have executed their technique over many years. The motor patterns are well and truely laid and digging them up to follow the Trisutto TBF technique is not advised.
- Those that have come from a swim background but use an extensive six beat or leg dominated kick. Again we don’t change without a thorough studying time to try to assert a) if the stroke they have is natural to them, or b) if their stroke is causing them problems over longer distance swimming (i.e. those coming from a short swim background can really struggle over longer distances, not because of cardio capacity or lack of it but because their stroke is far too energy sapping to replicate over the longer distances).
- Non swimmers. By this we mean athletes who have started to swim seriously since taking up triathlon. Our next chapter is devoted to these athletes who struggle to attain the desired biomechanics of conventional swim dogma.
Non swimming background
Our approach for women coming from a non-swim background is a little different to the men, in that we generally encourage a high frequency of stroke. Whilst the majority of women have less muscle mass then men, more significant is that they have a huge deficit in testosterone. Therefore a lesser likelihood that they will be able to hold the power required for a longer stroke when compared to their male counterparts. However women can compensate for this with a faster cadence. Just like pushing gears in cycling, if we use a smaller gear with a higher cadence and less amount of power, we can still maintain a fast overall pace.
Paddle Boarders competing in Surf Life Saving Events; my inspiration for developing a suitable stroke for female athletes in Triathlon. Whilst in a flat position lying on the board on their bellies, the athletes are able to maintain a terrific arm turnover with a flatter stroke, without an over emphasis on power. I want to emphasize how short the strokes are but because of the fluid dynamics of the board, how fast these athletes are traveling. Also look at how wide their arms are during the stroke, supporting our TBF methodology that getting your arms under your body or down the centre line is not a fundamental to swimming fast. Video Footage: Round 1 NutriGrain IronWoman Series
Using TBF technique with butterfly hip motion
After observing the positions, cadence and fantastic speeds of Surf Lifesaving paddle boarders through the water, it seemed plausible to me that these techniques could be transferred to freestyle swimming also. A very fast arm turnover that can be repeated continuously over distance.
Combining the paddle boarders arm motion with a a butterfly hip movement, is a combination I have experimented with extensively and have found these two together can in fact provide a more natural and effective freestyle stroke for many women. We still apply TBF, generating force from the hips, but instead of turning the hips sideways, we encourage an ‘up and down’ dolphin’ing / movement, vertical to the bottom of the pool. Thus is very similar to the movement of the hips seen in the butterfly swim stroke.
This stroke also allows us to focus on the finish and the explosive acceleration at the end of the stroke, rather than the extension at the front. The stroke is thus short at the front and long at the back, using the vertical motion of the hips and a higher stroke rate to create the power.
To be able to accomplish this we advocate less body roll for the women than men. To maintain a higher cadence a flatter body position is required with less overall roll. The amount of roll naturally occurring when turning to breath is sufficient with this stroke technique.
The male paddle boarders demonstrating the same concept; fantastic speed generated by fast arm turnover and a wide stoke. Video Footage: 2003 Australia Ironman Final
Distance per stroke
Focusing on a maximum distance per stroke is a notion held by many age group athletes which is a great inhibitor to their progress. The general impression that less strokes is better is a complete misnomer when training for triathlon swimming. Remember the swim leg of a triathlon takes place in open, moving water with currents and swells, while also fighting for space with other competitors. A long slow stroke is counterproductive to swimming in these conditions. The stroke needs to be suited to the environment you will compete in.
Gender, physique, natural body position, swim background, race distance and even mentality of the athlete are all important considerations when advising on best stroke for each individual athlete. With so many of us from a non-swimming background there is also one other important consideration – to enjoy, or learn to enjoy swimming! Technique, workout structure and correct use of ‘toys’ all contribute to improving, as well as to enjoyment – and if you enjoy your training, then you will enjoy the results too!
If you would like to experience TBF swim training and advice on the best stroke for you, we offer this at our Trisutto camps, including with Brett Sutton 1-6 May in Mallorca, and 8-13 May in Cyprus.
In the second of our 2 part series Brett address’ the specifics of the TBF stroke and the principles behind developing a stroke for the Individual. (Part 1 can be found here.)
We DO NOT feel the water
We do not focus on trying to ‘feel’ the water, Sorry folks, but finding a feel for the water is not going to happen…., in 30 years of coaching I have yet to see one triathlete who can feel the water. Of the 24 Olympic Swimmers I have trained, 4 were able to ‘feel’ the water. Very, very few of the top swimmers in the world will ever feel the water.
We teach our athletes to use their whole body to create force. The power comes from the body – not the arms. The force we generate initiates from the hips, transfers through our body with our arms simply being the levers. Just like throwing or hitting a ball, or throwing a punch in boxing; in TBF swimming, the force also starts from the rotation of the hips.
Like so many sports – the power starts with the movement of the hips
To generate the force, the hips roll to the breathing side and then back to the centre. We think of it as pole through the top of the head (or like a chicken on a skewer at a rotisserie!) – we turn on the pole to breathe…, and then bring it back to the centre.
Many age group athletes attending our training camps have the pre-set notion they MUST bilateral breathe. Whilst we have some great swimmers who do bilateral breathe, NOT EVERYONE NEEDS TO DO THIS. Bilateral breathing suits the needs of some individuals, however the majority of age group athletes tend to be more suited to a one side breathing pattern.
Once a breathing pattern has been established, always keep it the same. We use the term, ‘pick and stick’. Whether it be fast, easy, short speed, long endurance, training, or races…, athletes should concentrate on always maintaining the same breathing pattern!
Rhythm and Balance
TBF swimming gives both rhythm and balance. This is the ‘X’ factor to improving the overall speed through the water. How we do this is specific to the individual.
As mentioned above, our swim stroke is dictated by our breathing pattern. Whether it be one side only or bilateral breathing, or a 2/2/4 pattern…., the breathing pattern is critical to helping us find both balance and rhythm in the water.
To find balance in the water we DO NOT need to be doing the identical action on both sides of the body! Letting go of the false conception that we need to be symmetrical in the water, has paved the way for many swimming breakthroughs. Both of our arms DO NOT have to go under our body – we often have one arm tracking a lot wider than the other and that is OK.
We DO NOT have to swim with 2 bent elbows above the water. For many age group athletes we find the best fluid dynamics come when breathing every second stroke with one straight arm recovery. The straight arm can be either the breathing arm or the non-breathing arm dependant on the athletes natural side. How the arm moves through the recovery (e.g: a high bowling action or a low grass-cutting or helicopter action) is determined by both the breathing pattern, the natural efficiency of the movement, and the flexibility of the athlete.
- To be crystal clear – flexibility is not important in TBF swimming. We advise a stroke technique to suit the flexibility of the individual athlete. We do not try to make the athlete more flexible to try to swim a pre-determined text book stroke!
The 2 straight arms recovery stroke is also effective and can often work especially well in combination with a butterfly kick instead of a freestyle kick, for certain athletes.
Breathing one side, two straight recovery arms, fast arm turnover and butterfly kick = Rhythm, Balance and Increased speed for Sarah Crowley (Ironman 70.3 Middle East Champion).
We enter our hand into the water in line with our shoulder (not our nose). This way we avoid the fishtail we see in so many age group athletes. If we enter our hand in line with our nose, given the momentum of the entry, the hand will cross the midline. There is no way around it; it will not stop at the nose.
If we make an action at the front of the stoke (ie: cross the midline), it will have a reaction at the back of the stoke (fishtail).
The superman image has helped many people when it comes to hand entry position!
Last but not least, we do not point our nose down at the bottom of the pool. We break the water in line with our forehead and look forward to watch our hand enter the water before turning to breathe.
We are all different and our goal is to find the stroke that best suits the individual to obtain rhythm and balance in the water.
Determining the stroke and breathing pattern that is most efficient for an individual is not commonly achieved in one single swim workout. It is a process of experimentation and trial and error. Timing a single 100 interval is not a method we would recommend to decide upon a stroke. A stroke an athlete can maintain for 1500 – 3800m is preferable to one that is great for 100m but then falls apart – especially under pressure of race day. For us, Technique Under Fatigue (TUF) is the key.
A coach on deck with an eye for fluid dynamics is ideally the best way forward here. Once the stroke is decided upon, the athlete can then go away and confidently swim, ideally without the need to over-think. Incorporating tools such as pull buoys and paddles will further assist us in developing the stroke.
These tools can be used to develop swim specific strength, but the choice of shape and size for each individual swimmer is critical to TBF swimming. The correct choice of paddles can help correct swim technique without the athlete thinking, and hence avoiding analysis paralysis – one of the main killers of age group swim performance.
TBF swim techniques are taught and practised at all Trisutto Camps where we endeavour to find the individual stroke dynamics best suited to each individual.