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
A few weeks ago, one of my athletes came to town so that we could work on her swim and run technique. For her, the common thread to improvement in both disciplines lay in making adjustments to the balance of her distance per stroke (or stride length) and her strokes (or strides) per minute. Balancing these two elements across the disciplines is essential to optimizing performance in triathlon.
In The Boys in the Boat, about the University of Washington eight-man crew team and their journey to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Daniel James Brown illustrates the same concept as it applies to rowing.
There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. So if two boats carrying the same weight have the exact same stroke rate, the one producing more power per stroke will pull ahead. If those two boats have the exact same power per stroke but one has a higher stroke rate, the one with the higher rate will pull ahead… Every race is a balancing act, a series of delicate and deliberate adjustments of power on the one hand and stroke rate on the other.
This is an instructive passage from a rich and inspiring book. It helps to illustrate an important fundamental concept: speed is a function of distance per stroke and strokes per minute. This applies on the swim, the bike, and the run. What we’re after is striking that balance to optimize power, turnover, and efficiency.
In the interest of clarity, it is worth mentioning that in cycling the distance your foot travels around the bottom bracket is fixed, however, depending on your gear selection, the distance per pedal stroke, or gear inches, will vary. In cycling, gear selection and the corresponding gear inches determine your effective distance per stroke.
In all three disciplines, efficiency also has a direct impact on your effective distance per stroke. The better you can direct your energy in a straight line, the farther and faster you will go for every stroke and stride. Efficiency is both mechanical and metabolic. Mechanical efficiency has to do with technique, streamlining, aerodynamics, stability, the condition of your drivetrain, etc. Metabolic efficiency is a function of fitness. The fitter you are, the longer you can tolerate and sustain higher cardiovascular and muscular loads.
On the swim, bike, and run, accelerations and pace progressions are some of the best ways to improve power, distance per stroke, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions improve turnover and also help to develop the body awareness necessary to manage and regulate physical and mental focus, relaxation, and technique under fatigue.
Hill training on the bike and the run, as well as low cadence, heavy gear work on the bike, are indispensable for developing the power and core strength necessary to increase distance per stroke and to hold that stroke/stride length over time.
In the water, my athletes use pull buoy, paddles, and ankle straps daily to build swim specific strength that will improve their distance per stroke, stability, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions are standard-issue for the development of turnover, economy, body awareness, and power.
In swimming as well as the other disciplines, I have my athletes focus on three intensity levels: strong, very strong, and fast that correlate with Brett Sutton’s moderate, medium, and mad. Tuning into these three intensities help to work the balance between stroke length and stroke rate. It is easiest to conceptualise it for the swim. I explain that strong should feel long, strong, and balanced. There should be good purchase and hold of the water as well as strength and muscular engagement through the body. Very strong should have the same length of stroke, purchase, balance, and engagement as strong, with an increase in turnover. With fast the focus is on high-intensity, turnover, and just cracking it out.
Getting back to the athlete who was visiting to work on her swim and run technique. As we were wrapping up she expressed a concern that is shared by many athletes who attend training camps or don’t have regular contact with their coaches. She said that she felt more confident doing the new techniques while I was watching and was concerned that when training on her own she would just practice and reinforce poor technique. The key to improvement, I told her, is in two things: awareness and discipline. I know that she has both. It is her awareness that allowed her to make the adjustments while I was watching. Her discipline is what has her consistently nail her sessions, to the letter, regardless of circumstance. Tapping into those two resources – awareness and discipline – is what makes the difference for her. Likewise, awareness and discipline will make the difference for you of as you continue to work the balance between power and turnover, as well as so many other things in triathlon and beyond.
Mateo Mercur has been a professional triathlon coach for nearly 15 years. He has trained three Age Group World Champions, an Age Group WC Silver Medalist, and the Ironman Maryland Women’s Champion. Based in Bend, Oregon.
Triathlon is a draining sport and too often I see professional and age group athletes racing and training at a high level year-round, day in and day out, year after year. This is not healthy or sustainable.
Humans have since the dawn of time advocated a Sabbath or time of rest. Religion has always seen a benefit in integrating mindful rest into our lives. In addition, our earliest industry, agriculture, saw the benefit of taking a break to allow for rebalancing and rejuvenation. Allowing the land to go fallow lowered yield in the short term in exchange for keeping the land vital for years to come.
In today’s fast paced world, whether in triathlon or in our outside life, we are unwilling to rest and only do so as a last resort once we are sick, injured, or burnt-out. Instead of preserving our long-term health, we chase the short-term performance.
Stuck in a vicious cycle, the modern athlete refuses to take the time to recover that both our body and mind require. Constantly in a state of exhaustion, it is not possible to rebuild without taking time away. The toughest challenge in the world may be to take the step back and rest taking a Sabbatical from the constant stress of the chase.
I would advocate every seventh year a break from high-level long course triathlon racing or at the very least an offseason every year. The professional athletes with highest career longevity take the time each year to rest their mind and body. Likewise, as you see the current crop of women triathletes taking a sabbatical to expand or start a family, I would venture to guess you will see many of these top performers come back stronger in the next five years as the time of unstructured training has allowed both their mind and body to rebalance.
Trying something different over the off-season, means you stay fit and continue to have fun.
We can all learn from our ancestors that rest is a vital part of long term development. Rest doesn’t need to mean sitting on the couch, it can mean enjoying some shorter races or doing an xterra or trying a new sport rather than chasing a Kona qualifier that year. But do give your mind and body a break from the constant struggle of long course racing. Taking a step away to restore your body and your passion for the sport whether for a month or a year will allow you to return in a healthier happier state ready to attack the next season.
Mary Beth Ellis is one of the USA’s most decorated long distance triathletes. A member of the US National Team for 4 years, during her career she was an elite ITU racer as well as Top 5 Ironman World Championship finisher. Mary Beth Ellis runs her Trisutto.com coaching program in Andover Massachusetts in the USA and speaks English.
Join Mary-Beth at her triathlon training camps on the Ironman Mont Tremblant course in July http://trisutto.com/camps/#tremblant
Ironman distance racing is ultimately about energy management. How you control and distribute your effort throughout the day is essential to a good finish. The ironman bike leg plays a crucial component to this end, as it normally represents the bulk of one’s total race time. Regrettably many still race the bike leg as if nothing were to follow, either caught up in the excitement of the day or on the quest for that new bike split PB. Yet the success of the subsequent run (assuming adequate training preparation) is very much predicated on what you do on the bike, from energy expenditure (pacing) to energy intake (feeding).
Here are three simple suggestions to help prepare your bike leg to have a positive impact on your run.
Technique – Practice Feeding
I will take a road less travelled. No talk about goal TSS, IF, cadence, peddling foot motion or about ideal head, back, hand position etc. Instead, a crucial fundamental – practicing the mechanics of getting nutrition from its storage place on the bike, or on your person, into you while staying comfortably in control of your bike.
This may sound presumptuous to many but forgive me. There is reason. I have personally encountered/witnessed individuals who were committed to an IM, kitted with slick race bikes, yet (in training) refused – literally – to reach for a water bottle (from a seated position let alone from the aero position) unless at a full stop, one leg on terra firma. All will agree that feeding is imperative in ironman racing. It is the 4th discipline. However, all the best nutritional advice and formulations are for naught if it remains affixed to the bike frame by T2.
It all starts with the set up – using kit or makeshift solutions that suit your comfort and ability/experience level. It is all fine and dandy that the latest trendy slick water bottle mount between the aerobars will save you 45s to 1min over 40k (in a wind tunnel). It is of little value to you aerodynamically in an ironman if every time you have to drink you need to break position by sitting up or you lose directional control of the bike, because holding course with one forearm is precarious for you. In this instance, perhaps using a refillable aero bottle may be more suitable. Yes the wind tunnel numbers may show +0.0001g more aero drag on that straw than the former set up. But if it helps you minimize movement on the bike while drinking then you will feel more comfortable to sip regularly whilst holding a better aero position for longer (win-win). And don’t feel belittled…. remember our World Champ…
Chrissie in Kona
Therefore comfort of access is crucial. If you are apprehensive to reach for items the more likely you will not eat or drink sufficiently. If you have a seat mounted cage, practice reaching back extracting and returning while keeping your eyes on the road. If you have a refillable bottle between the bars, practice refilling from another bottle on the fly. Likewise, practice ripping off gels taped to the top tube, reaching into your top tube food box or your jersey back pocket using either hand. Being ambidextrous is also advantageous. Should you race in a country where they drive on the opposite side of what you are accustomed to back home, the aid stations will likely be on that “new’ side. [Tip – practice your feeding mechanics while riding the turbo as well instead of having a buffet table alongside.]
So, whatever set up you chose for hydration and nutrition, you must practice using it as you would on race day. Learn to reach for things, and place them back on the move. If you are reluctant to do so, you may very well miss crucial feeding and begin accumulating a potentially unrecoverable energy debt before starting the run.
Training – Holding Race Pace Under Fatigue
Everybody is a hero coming out of T1. Some even act like it’s a BMX race start Don’t believe me? Go to Kona and observe the sprinting and jostling of some age groupers not even 50m up the hill from the King K hotel – utter lunacy! What matters is how you can sustain your race effort on the back half, to one-third of the course. This is where the real (smart) heroes shine.
In practical training terms this means first ingraining the necessary restraint at the outset of your long rides that will target race pace. No sense in beaming about your watts for the first 50k only to fizzle and falter by 80 km. Second, include progressively, longer continuous segments at target race pace effort at the back end of long rides when you are fatigued. These could start at 30 minutes and progress to 2 hours at the tail end of a 3 – 4.5hour ride. Don’t be afraid to try. Remember this is ironman race pace, not 40km time-trial pace.
Daniela has perfected the art of race pacing
The second component to these race-pace segments is cerebral – applying a race mindset, making tactical decisions as you would on race day. This will further amplify the value of such race-pace segments especially when facing undulating terrain with a tailwind. It will likely be difficult to hold a target power number. But you can still put out a “race effort” by doing the right things – i.e. holding tight aero and speed on descents, pushing a touch harder up a grade or into a momentary head/cross wind, deciding when to fuel based on terrain ahead and time etc. That is still relevant race-pace specific training.
Intervals are great for developing your race-pace. Long continuous segments will really train your physical and mental stamina and confidence to perform when tired, including making the right tactical decisions. The more you practice this in different conditions, the better positioned you will be come the run.
Race Preparation – Building Race Specific Stamina
Every ironman course is 180km (+/-), yet each one has its challenges – a climbing course is daunting for many, while holding aero position for hours on a flat course is unbearable for some. Barring an opportunity to ride the course in vivo, see it on a map and study the profile provided by the race or using Google Earth, Map My Ride or such. Appreciate, understand and then train to task…for the benefit of the subsequent run as well.
To highlight, consider Ironman Whistler. The course features approximately 2000m of cumulative climbing. There are about 20km’s of leg sapping, undulating terrain before the first major climb ~12km with 8-10% pitches thrown in. The last ~35km back to T2 is pretty much a sustained climb. In between there are lots of high-speed descents.
Obviously, climbing strength and descending skills should be incorporated into one’s bike training regime. With respect to race specific preparation within the last ~12 weeks, it would be beneficial to choreograph rides that accumulate a similar total elevation gain (or more) and periodically include a long sustained climbing effort on the back end, and then doing so before a transition run. This will achieve at least two things.
- You will need to diligently work your effort and fuel management to best position yourself energetically for the run. This may not be as straightforward as when riding a flat course.
- It will accustom your body to run with substantial climbing fatigue in it, which for some may be quite difficult as compared to a flatter course.
Likewise, if a course happens to have a lot of corners, you would want to plan rides that regularly disrupt your rhythm with frequent direction changes. Cumulatively this will have another unique effect on your disposition before the run.
Whatever the course you chose, study it, know it, train for it.
Incorporate these three tips into your ironman bike preparation to ensure you keep the “fuel flow” going, to remain on task as fatigue sets in and to bolster your confidence in handling the challenges of your chosen course. Doing so will increase the chances of a successful 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.
Have a bad race? Jump straight back in the saddle and carry on.
From time to time athletes will have what they perceive as a bad performance. This can lead to a grasping at thin air, trying to decipher, or come up with a reason for what is or was a possible cause.
As an example, I have seen athletes swimming the best they have ever swum prior to a race, but then have a poor swim on race day. Whether through self doubt, or discussions in a group environment, this can lead to doubt in their training program, and a desire (by the athlete) to throw everything out and make random changes based on their insecurities following this one poor result.
As a coach talking with athletes I often heard ‘X told me this is what they do’, or ‘Y says B also had this problem and how they worked on it’. In the above example of a poor swim, common suggestions include
- Bad wet suit – lets get another one
- Swim training not right – lets change the swim program
- Swim technique not right – lets change swim technique.
Any, or all three have the potential to wreck a whole race season!
In the sport of horse racing there is a very specific thought, before any changes are made –
‘Forgive a horse a bad run’.
There are so many reasons for a single poor performance, and a knee jerk reaction, after what could well have been an anomaly can have dire long term effects.
There’s always the next race to line up for!
Even in sports where one would think are played under controlled circumstances, we can observe anomalies. In Snooker, played on a perfectly flat table, small imperfections or dirt on the ball, or in the playing surface can affect the direction of the ball and the outcome of the game. Similarly in Golf, even with a perfect putting stroke, slight anomalies in a green can change the game, and if allowed to affect the players confidence then also the match, or even the players whole season.
The lesson is this –
Stop trying to take away good form because of an occasional performance that you are not happy with. If there is something wrong, you will be the first to have your coach questioning it. If he / she doesn’t, then show courage and stop doubting.
As doubt may indeed be the biggest problem for you.
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.