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.
Over the past 12 months we have received numerous requests from our readers for more information about our swim technique – Total Body Force (TBF). Here Head Coach, Brett Sutton explains TBF swimming in a 2 part series. Part 1 details the reasoning behind this technique and why it was developed, including the overall goals.
Part 2 will address the stroke technique specifics – not feeling the water, generating force, rhythm and balance, breathing patterns, hand placement and head position.
At Trisutto, Total Body Force Swimming techniques form the basis of our swim program. Our swim program in turn is the foundation of our overall Triathlon Program. TBF swim techniques are therefore fundamental to Trisutto coaching methodologies. All of our coaches are trained in and attuned to these techniques.
The first point to reiterate is that we DO NOT try and teach our swimmers the theory used by the best swimmers in the world. We find that most age group athletes (and coaches) have tried to follow the line of theory of modelling off what these very best swimmers do and then applying it to triathlon. We do not believe this is effective.
Trying to copy Michael Phelps will end in frustration. Photo: http://thenewdaily.com.au
Replicating the mechanics of a Michael Phelps swim stroke for example, simply will not work. Instead of trying to copy the stroke of a person who has been swimming 80km a week for 10+ years and who has a completely different physique to us (and whose event is a a completely different distance in a different sport), we instead aim to find the swim stroke that is optimal to each individual.
Triathletes come in all shapes and sizes and therefore need a swim stroke suitable to their individuality. One size DOES not fit all! Photo Credit: Ironman Cozumel
We train for Triathlon, not swimming. These are two separate sports and we therefore train the swim component as such. If our sport was speed swimming or pool swimming, we would likely practice an entirely different stroke. Our sport however involves open water swimming with a bike and run after it. We train accordingly.
Swimming in a triathlon is different to pool swimming – we need to develop a swim stroke to withstand these conditions. Photo: Pininterest
Implement a stroke that we can replicate over and over without breaking down (approx 1500 times for our Olympic Distance athletes and 3800 times for our Ironman athletes). When working on a swim stroke our priority consideration is ‘HOW DO I TIRE LEAST’
A stroke where we can attain the necessary volume in training without causing injury. Also a stroke allowing the volume without causing excessive fatigue levels. We have two other disciplines, bike and run to train for also.
Rhythm and Balance in our stroke. Our swim stroke is dictated by our breathing pattern. Whether it be one side only or bilateral breathing, the breathing pattern is critical to helping us find both balance and rhythm in the water.
Different strokes for different folks.
The above video shows 25 swimmers in the pool with at least 8 different strokes at play. Two time Olympic medalist Nicola Spirig leads Lane 2 and is a textbook example of TBF Swimming. In 2016 her swim stroke was altered specifically with the Rio Olympics Ocean swim in mind. Nicola went on to surprise everyone when she emerged with the front pack in Rio.
Total Body Force Swimming – Part 2
Letting go of the false conception that we need to be symmetrical in the water has paved the way for many swimming breakthroughs….
TBF swim techniques are taught and practised at all Trisutto Camps.
After recent articles on selecting interval distances and swim training mix, I still receive inquiries asking about the ‘real’ or the ‘extra’ training we must do and if I could share that. The original advice apparently too simple, too unsophisticated for it to really work with Olympic and World Champion athletes.
Since opening up our methodologies to the age group market this has been a recurring theme. Some age groupers even struggle when they are in camp watching the sessions with their own eyes.
‘But what do they (pros) do when we’re not here!?’ You’re watching it! ‘But… But…?’
It’s my biggest gripe. The sport is producing an army of over analytical amateurs fuelled by bogus tri mag articles telling them 20 different things, all contradictory, usually written by swim, bike or run coaches who know next to nothing about triathlon specific techniques or the application of each discipline’s training to your overall triathlon program.
If a method or piece of equipment is not sufficiently complicated or doesn’t come with a suitably exorbitant price tag then it is often judged to be of little value.
Coach Eric and the Newcastle Ocean Baths
For those coaches and athletes facing an increasingly difficult time keeping focused on what’s important, I thought I’d share a lesson I was taught 45 years ago that has served me well both in swimming and triathlon. I hope it provides some perspective to those looking for the secrets of ‘real’ training and swim improvement.
The story begins with my dad, a prominent swim coach, sending me to watch another top coach’s squad with the instructions: “This is the top group not only in our area, but one of the best in the country. Every year he develops new batches of sprinters, but also some really solid long distance guys. Go find his secret.”
At first I was excited to sit on the pool deck and watch every session, but after 2 weeks I was going out of my mind. Every afternoon was the same workout. I mean the exact same. What was worse he didn’t do drills, his only stroke correction was at the rest interval and the youngest swimmers did exactly the same as the seniors. Everyone swam the same distance, same time intervals and same stroke.
The only discernible difference was the rest interval, where the slower individuals got less rest than the faster kids (leaving on the same time). That was it. They did the same set every single day.
Now even 45 years ago that was hugely backwards. There was no excuse for it. How could he be producing these swimmers? Was it a freak thing? Didn’t seem so as his group was large (over 30) and by those days standards all were on fire. It was not a part of periodisation as he did the same session for every day of the season.
Here was the only rule I could find:
To be in his team you had to come to 5 workouts a week. On Saturday you had to go to the Club morning and race. That was it, but it was totally enforced. You complied or you were out of the squad!
If you were a distance swimmer above 200m you had the option to attend a Tuesday / Thursday morning workout before school.
The Yearly Program
I’ll list you the program for the entire year. It takes one line of paper:
120 x 50m on 1 minute.
Swimmers had the choice to leave the water at 1hr 30 into the set (minimum). No warm up. No warm down. Every day. 5 days a week.
The distance program on Tuesday / Thursday was equally as sophisticated:
1 hour non stop swim.
So How Did They Produce Their Success?
The success came in the breakdown of the 50s.
Within the 50s was a system and they were done like this:
- 10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m butterfly
- 10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m backstroke
- 10 x 50m freestyle, 10 x 50m breaststroke (all repeated 2 times)
If you didn’t like breaststroke you did your best form stroke. Thus we can start to see why the group was fast in most strokes.
But then the smartest bit of his program was this:
He had cones or witches hats laid out in three positions approximately 12.5m apart.
Within the 10 x 50m the reps were performed this way:
- 4 x 50m – sprint from last cone.
- 3 x 50m – sprint from second cone.
- 2 x 50m – sprint from first cone.
- 1 x 50m – dive as in race.
That was it. On asking his reasons for training this way, it was obvious he had stumbled on to a winning formula by accident. The different sprint / acceleration distances matched with fanatical consistency.
Pearls of Wisdom from Coach Eric
Q: You don’t time any of the work. Any reason?
A: They come to the pool some days just beat after school. Why make a bad day worse by showing them if they’re going slow?
Q: How do you judge improvement then?
A: They race every Saturday.
Q: How do you know if they aren’t coasting or trying hard enough at practice?
A: Anyone that turns up 5 days a week for 2 hours is already trying.
We are of course not trying to scare our age groupers into thinking they’ve got to swim the same, long sets day after day monotonously (you definitely don’t). But to provide some insight for those who inquire about distances and multiple short reps we do. The Newcastle Ocean Baths squad wouldn’t have had one swimmer who couldn’t hold the first pack in an Ironman.
So I would just reflect on that every time I’m told by a poor age-group swimmer the importance of swimming ‘non-stop’ instead of intervals, or every time I see someone timing every lap on what looks like a television screen strapped to their wrist, or I see a tri camp spend 60% of their water time on drills that won’t help you survive an open water washing machine triathlon swim.
Swimming faster is about consistency and the repetition of good strokes. It’s not rocket science and never will be.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Interval training at Jeju camp earlier this year.
One of the many questions coaches and athletes ask when using Moderate, Medium, Mad as a perception of effort level, is why we also advise that at top speeds to hold no higher than 95% effort. Is this not contradictory?
I want to clarify that I believe this is an essential ingredient of building performance but also maintaining it over long periods of time.
Here are three reasons to explain my thinking:
1) Holding manageable technique:
Speed as well as endurance comes from holding a manageable technique under pressure of effort.
Very early on in my swim career I heard from a wise old coach that tough is not how much you can hurt or be hurt, but is Technique Under Fatigue – TUF. This has been pivotal in my success.
You may notice I say ‘manageable technique’, rather than good technique. If you can’t handle the technique and be able to replicate it over the duration of the race distance then it’s not manageable. When technique is not manageable, the performance breaks down with the degrading of the technique as you fatigue.
Many a world champion has had questionable techniques in regards mechanics, but have been able to control their particular technique for long periods under fatigue – as well as pressure of competition.
This is manageable technique.
When going all out, and giving it every physical exertion, one tends to tighten up and lose the fluidity and thus control of their natural technique. This applies to each discipline – swim, bike and run. I have found over years of trial and error just taking that perceived 5% off from giving everything allows the athlete to hold their stroke or stride while under high exertion. This impacts performance in a most positive way.
Speed and all out effort, and not distance is the main instigator of over training.
One can with proper training travel prodigious distance with little or no negative impact on performance, however, short efforts done too frequently bring on massive fatigue very quickly. Placing the 95% target in the minds of athletes alleviates that possibility somewhat. Thus, I see it as an important part of the overall picture of controlling the efforts to allow longer seasons of high performances.
Being at the very best speed one can achieve heightens the risk of injury by a huge amount. The 95% mantra again puts a small insurance policy of control within the “mad ” part of the preparation.
I hear some ask what about the absolute speed training?
Here is something to think about for you coaches. We have seen in all disciplines that I emphasise shorter distances, with many repetitions to develop speed. I do this using the principle that it’s the acceleration to top speed that is the primary source of improvement in speed. I am absolutely certain of this.
Science may not have yet caught up with it, but like most other innovations we have followed before they were accepted, this too will be agreed to in the future by the sports scientists.
Our results are proving it yearly. However, for now I can only add that the firing of the muscle cells to accelerate, is the most important recruitment for improvement. Not the amount of time spent at that maximum speed.
Max speed or all out effort, can be self defeating. Mad is about controlled top effort. To go 95% is certainly very uncomfortable – but it is controlled. It is TUF (Technique under fatigue).
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Before going into detail on the getting the ‘swim’ mix right, let me say that we at Trisutto view the whole mix of swim, bike and run disciplines as one. As such our coaches are taught to understand the impact of sessions and how they fit within a holistic program as opposed to isolating each discipline on an individual basis.
For example, if we had a hard interval run workout before the swim session we would not back it up with a speed or heart rate set in the pool, but an aerobic or recovery set. That acknowledged, let’s look at the swim specific mix that we believe allows swim improvement while also enhancing triathlon performances.
For age groupers who can find the time for three to four swim sets a week here is a basic breakdown:
We would look at a speed set of short but longer rest swims.
This set is characterised as 1 part work and 2 or 3 parts rest over distances no greater than 25m.
One endurance day trying to cover at least the time of race distance.
We would look at this as 4 parts work, 1 part rest or 3 parts work and 1 part rest.
3) Heart Rate
A heart rate set or an anaerobic threshold set. Distance no higher than 100m per rep. My preference is for shorter 50ms or even on occasions 25s. 3 parts work 2 parts rest or even 1 part work 1 part rest.
4) Long Set
If we have the luxury of a 4th session within the week we would use it as an aerobic set or long slow recovery set with low heart rate but still minimum 45 minutes of work.
While I know many of our European age groupers may say ‘4 sessions, that’s a lot!’ I can assure those same athletes their triathlon performance is being hindered with any less. Swimming can have a double effect of not just helping your swim but can really help develop your cardiovascular fitness for the run.
It’s no coincidence in a half Iron distance that the people who swim over three times a week are also the ones motoring home the last 5km of the run.
I will answer the question / criticism that I’m going to be emailed by many:
Yes, I know I have included only one heart rate or threshold set. But before you shake your head in despair, remember we have to bike and run and during these sessions we will also be looking for a similar set.
The absolute biggest mistake in triathlon is not modifying the specific training routine of the swim, bike or run to adapt to a three discipline sport.
Triathlon is triathlon and our secret sauce is in getting the mix right.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.