SWOLF – Your Ultimate Guide to Improve your Swimming with Swim Golf

SWOLF is a contraction of the words  Swim Golf or Swimming Golf.   This article will help you understand what it is, how it  is measured and how you can experiment with different ways to “play” swim golf in order to improve your swimming.  When you understand the different ways to use SWOLF, you can create a variety of interesting and engaging swim workouts that will help you become faster.

What is swim golf (or swimming golf)?

Swim golf is a fun way you can add some gamification to your swimming workouts in order to see if you are making improvements. Just like in regular golf, a lower score in swim golf is usually better.

How is SWOLF measured?

Your swim golf score is the total of the number of strokes you took, plus the time in seconds.   It doesn’t matter if you are swimming in yards or meters, and it doesn’t matter what length the interval is, as long as you are being consistent with your own measurements.

For example:  If you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, your swim golf or SWOLF is 50 + 45 , or 95.

If you swim a 100 meter interval with a total of 40 strokes and swam it in 65 seconds, your SWOLF would be 105.

How do swim watches measure SWOLF?

Many swim watches such as the  Garmin Forerunner models, Garmin Swim 2, Moov Now, the Apple watch, Swimovate Poolmate, and many more will automatically calculate a SWOLF score for you.

These swim watches calculate the swim golf score by counting your strokes and time per length of the pool.  So whether you swim in a 25 yard pool, 25 meter pool or 50 meter pool, the calculation is based on 1 length of that pool.

For example:  with a 200meter swim interval in a 50 meter pool, the software will show 4 SWOLF scores for that interval, one for each length.

On the other hand, a 500 yard swim in a 25 yard pool will show a graph of 20 SWOLF scores for the entire interval.

Here is an example of multiple swim golf scores shown in a graph after downloading the data to the watch’s software.   The red filled portion with the heavier red outline is the SWOLF score for each length.

 

Swolf Score Graph

This graph represents a swim set of ten 100 yard repeats with a very short rest between them

If you are interested in a detailed discussion of how to interpret entire sets of swim golf scores for a workout, I’ve written about that in an article called What can SWOLF tell us? Interpreting data from your GPS watch – Part 1 and Part 2: Swim watch analysis- A case study in a mid-pack triathlete
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How do you “Play” Swim Golf?

In order to “play” swim golf,  you would want to lower your SWOLF score over time. These could be short term goals within the same workout, or longer term goals over time.

If your score is the sum of your strokes and your time, then there are two ways to decrease your score. You can either lower your strokes (ie take fewer strokes to complete your interval), or swim in a faster time.   The tricky part is that in order to actually get a lower sun, you need to prevent the other score from increasing.

For example, these two swims would result in the same score for a 50 yard swim: A) 43 seconds in 52 strokes or B) 45 seconds in 50 strokes.  Both of them result in a score if 95 for a 50 yard interval.

Two ways to lower your SWOLF score

Take fewer strokes in the same amount of time

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim in 22 seconds while still taking fewer than 18 strokes, for a score less than 40

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 22 seconds + 17 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 22 seconds + 16 strokes = 38

Swim faster while taking the same number of strokes

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim faster than 22 seconds while still taking 18 strokes for a score less than 40.

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 21 seconds + 18 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 20 seconds + 18 strokes = 38

What’s a Good SWOLF Score?

Since stroke count is half of your swim golf score, and stroke count can change based on a persons height or wing span, it’s hard to compare your score against anyone else’s score.  Everyone has different physical features that can influence their strokes per length.   The best way to use SWOLF is as a personal measure of change or improvement.

How can I Incorporate SWOLF into my swim workouts?

You can create sets like the examples above to add some focus to your swims that are centered around using SWOLF to improve your swimming.

For beginning and early intermediate swimmers, usually the best bang for the buck is to try to lower stroke count first in order to lower your score.  This is because most of these swimmers have several technique areas that when improved, can reduce drag and lower the number of strokes needed to get across the pool.

Intermediate swimmers may enjoy trying to hold their SPL the same, while trying to swim faster.   This means that they are traveling the same distance with each arm stroke ,but because their time is faster, they are taking each stroke at a slightly faster tempo.

Alternatively, intermediate swimmers can experiment with different ways to prevent SWOLF from climbing, but trading a stroke for a second.  That means that by allowing an extra stroke during the length, you can often gain a second…so it’s an even tradeoff.   When there are multiple ways to achieve the same SWOLF score, it’s worth spending time evaluating the effort required at different stroke counts.   Your goal would be to use the score combination that results in the least effort as a target for practice and improvement.

More advanced swimmers will enjoy trying to lower both scores…swim faster AND take fewer strokes  This requires precision technique as well as properly applied power in your stroke.

Can I track SWOLF without a swim watch?
Of course you can!  What do you think coaches and swimmers did before swim watches were available?  Many swimmers ask if you should count one arm only or both arms.   I teach my swimmers to count each arm entry as a stroke. This is because you will get a more precise number instead of estimating 1/2 cycles.

But you’ll have to remember that your swim watch usually counts cycles…one arm through the whole stroke cycle. So when YOU count two strokes (right arm entry, left arm entry), your swim watch is counting 1 cycle (right arm entry to next right arm entry).

Counting strokes is a great skill to learn to make improvements to your swim, so it’s time well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing in Swimming – Instinct, Reflex or Choice?

When I am totally race fit, I don’t worry about breathing or technique – they take care of themselves. -Frank Shorter

Breathing isn’t optional, but it IS a choice.

It is one of those body functions that your brain maintains whether you’re aware of it or not…like your heartbeat.   However there are many circumstances in which you can choose to breath in a different pattern…faster, shallower or just differently.

Imagine how hard it would be to sing or even have a conversation if we had no willful control of when we breathe in and when we exhale? When speaking or singing, we’re able to use breath control to create phrases, delaying an inhalation until the end of a musical phrase or sentence in speech. Yet, as soon as we’re done with that activity, the brain immediately takes over again and continues respiration, in and out, indefinitely as long as we’re alive.

It’s one part autonomous, one part reflex and one part choice.   When we swim we get to choose how and when we breath…and also why.  My goal with swimming is to make my breathing seem so seamless that I get a sensation I’m breathing under the water.  My breathing no longer becomes a conscious choice, nor an instinct of survival, but an automatic part of my stroke matched with my effort at that time.

Rocky Mountain Swimming High

I recall the first time I experienced this sensation and it was a direct result of TWO things combined that might have otherwise derailed me for that summer.   The first was dislocating my thumb on my first day of work in Colorado.  The second was the fact that I was working and living at 7500 feet of altitude…thin air for sure!

With the thumb injury, I was unable to ride a bike or go fly fishing for several weeks while my hand was splinted.   The occupational therapist I saw made me a waterproof splint I could wear for working and swimming, so off to the pool I went for my daily exercise.  Two new problems cropped up once I was int he pool.   However I was so in love with swimming that I couldn’t imagine these stopping me. Instead i found a way to make these into assets for improving my breathing.

The first problem was the altitude.  At 7500 feet, most folks who do not live there and are acclimated will experience an increased breathing rate both at rest and while exercising.  That’s no consequence when you’re riding a bike or fly fishing. It happens and you don’t have to think about it.  However in the pool, where I chose to get my main exercise those first few weeks of injury, having to breath more often was almost enough to make me question if I should even bother.

My breathing wasn’t bad by any measure, but it wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t realize how many flows there were until I was forced to breath every stroke even when swimming easily.    Essentially I had created an environment not dissimilar to a beginner in which they feel the need to breath every stroke not because of a lack of oxygen, but because they are swimming inefficiently and using up a lot of oxygen…basically the same situation I was in.

While i hadn’t noticed any major flaws in my breathing before arriving at altitude, once I was there, the errors were many!

 

Breathing Skills Practice – Intermediate to Advanced Skill Level

Here are some of the skills I practiced during those weeks of recovering from my hand injury and adjusting to the altitude.  There was no other time in my swimming career where my breathing improved so much, because I was forced to work on it under those circumstances.

Breathing Skills Practice: (total ~ 2000 – 3200) 

Dry land:

Practice tall posture, pulling up through the crown of the head, draw chin back just a bit since most of us tend to slouch a little bit.  Check your posture from the side with a selfie, in the mirror or with your back against the wall.

Look for these checkpoints:

  • Are your ears over your shoulders? (if not where are they?)
  • Are your eyes looking directly forward? (if not where are they looking?)
  • Can you inhale fully drawing air downward through your diaphragm?
  • Are your glutes engaged with your hips over your heels?
  • Bonus points:  Can you stand on your tip toes without losing balance and posture?
  • Finally… are you relaxed and comfortable?

If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, don’t worry, nothing is wrong, you’ve just highlighted some elements of your posture, flexibility and build that may need to be addressed through some daily exercises (or physical therapy).  But now that you’ve practiced that in the locker room head to the pool

Tune up: (150) 

  • 4 x 5 yards – head lead tall posture, gentle kick. I call this “toy soldier” because it reminds me of a wooden nutcracker toy, tall and toned.
  • 4 x 10 yds – start with arms extended, tall posture, gentle kick for a 5-10 seconds then add a few strokes
  • 4 x 25 yds – Start as above with soldier drill, arms extended, then swim to the end, gently focusing on posture

4 x 50  “Catch & Push” Drill, alternating right arm and left arm focus.  (200)

  • 1st 25 down:   With each push extend the lead arm and let your chin rotate towards the air along with your hips and shoulder on that same side.  When you need to breath, take a full stroke with each arm and breath to the same side.
  • 2nd 25 back:   Swim full stroke freestyle breathing to the same side as the first 25. Try to stay relaxed in the recovery arm while extending the lead arm as you breathe.

4 x 150 (600)

  • Within each 150, swim as follows:
    1st 50 breath every 4 to the right on the way down, and every 4 on the left on the way back. Easy effort
    2nd 50 breath every 3rd stroke for the entire 50.  note that you can increase your speed a little since you’re exchanging air more often
    3rd 50 breath every 2nd stroke to the right on the way down and to the left on the way back.  You can increase your effort even more since you’re exchanging air every time you stroke.

2-4 Rounds of (200 + 2 x 100 + 4 x 50) (1200-2400)

  • 200s Swim very easy breathing every 4 strokes to the same side. Alternate right and left every length.  Compare your posture in breathing strokes with your posture in non breathing strokes. Do you still feel tall and aligned like in the dry land activity?
  • 100s Swim moderately breathing every 3rd stroke (alternating breathing sides regularly).  Note that with a slight speed increase your body must rotate around a skewer in order to maintain access to air on each side.
  • 50s Swim faster, breathing every 2nd stroke, switching for the 2nd half.  Again note that your posture remains tall and with even more speed, you’ll have a better pocket to breath into making it seem as if you’re almost breathing under the surface of the water.

Swimming Through Change

What do you love about swimming?

For me, I’ve just always loved being in the water and playing games with my friends. Starting from when I was 7 or 8 years old, I walked to our neighborhood pool, met my friends, and we played cards during adult swim, and sharks & minnows when there were enough of us there, and I swam on the swim team until I was 15 years old.  The swimming pool was the fabric of my summer existence.

During & after high school, other priorities came up, other sports, other interests, academics and eventually a job.  My first job out of college was with Voyageur Outward Bound School where we took groups of teenagers on backcountry wilderness canoe trips.  We taught them life skills and expedition skills. But my favorite days were teaching the kids whitewater kayaking skills. It seemed that again, water became the fabric of my existence.  It’s a miracle I never developed trench foot during a 3 week expedition in which it rained every day but one.

Dusting Off the Clubs

By the time I was 26 I longed for work that was more meaningful and impactful and in a roundabout way I decided to try to get into medical school.   The day I took my MCATs (Medical College Admission Test), I thought to myself, “If I’m going to become a doctor, I need to learn how to golf.”   So I dug around in the garage, found some dusty old clubs that my parents had owned and enjoyed when they were 20 years younger, and took myself and a few balls up to the ballfield that I had played in as a kid…the same ballfield that was on the way to the pool from my youth.

Let’s just say that it didn’t go well. I decided I would be a non-golfing doctor.

Diving Back in…

Fast forward five years, I had matched into residency, and somehow made the bizarre decision that training for a triathlon, rather than pure running for exercise, would give me more free time.  What was I thinking??  I started riding my bicycle to the rec center and took up swimming again after about 10 years away from the water sports I’d loved during my childhood and those first years after college.

It was…just as I had remembered it.  Smooth. Silent. Silky. Weightless. Magical. Mystical. Mysterious. Consistent. It was an activity where I could both disappear from the demands of Emergency Medicine training, and immerse myself into something familiar and comforting.  “You have a nice stroke,” was something I heard often.

Let’s fast forward again.   Since then…Back Surgery. Total Immersion. Pain free Swimming. Triathlon Coach. Youtube Host, interviewing legends like Mark Allen, Terry Laughlin, Gwen Jorgensen, Leanda Cave. Did I mention Mark Allen? Kirsten Sass. Volker Winkler.  (Look them all up)

My pursuit of triathlon became it’s own career path, and throughout it all the water was my place that was both familiar and challenging. Endless improvement and ingrained patterns from my youth. New friendships and YouTube “fame” had people introducing themselves to me at the World Championships…”You’re Suzanne Atkinson, I love your podcasts and interviews.”

Holding Things Together

The water was the glue. It always brought things back together. Even things that had fallen apart, like my body from a bucket tear disc injury, back surgery, car accident, physical therapy, ankle arthritis (those soccer moves!), and most recently being a temporary caregiver for my partner who had a cardiac arrest (he’s fine now, 1 in 10,000 survivor of 3 cardiac arrests…now we train together), and navigating my mothers progression with dementia, aricept overdoses, and the relentless march of time.  I submerged myself in the water and the water made me whole again.

At 50, I suddenly feel fit and fresh. I’m not in the same physical shape or the same weight I was at 47, or even 48…but 50 feels different. It feels fresh.  It feels ready. It feels forward. I’m optimistic.   The water is still there as it has been the past 45 years of my life.

What do I love about swimming? Everything.

 

What do YOU love about swimming? Post in the comments…

Ironman Racing – Three Most Important Components on Race Day

Every once in awhile we get to talk with some fantastic racers and amazing athletes who seem to be able to train and race consistently year after year, race after race, in multiple distances.

How do they do it?  What’s going on inside their head?

From the outside it may seem like it’s all smooth sailing, but in reality they are constantly working on getting better, eliminating the rough spots, and paying attention to where they can focus better.

In Episode 8 of Tri 2 Listen, Suzanne Atkinson (head coach of Steel City Endurance, and also host of the podcast) talks with Kirsten about what was going through her mind on race day when she sealed her spot at Kona by winning her age group.

Listen to this audiogram to hear how Kirsten divides the race into three major components (no, not swim, bike and run, lol)

You can hear the entire episode with Kirsten and her father Volker at Tri 2 Listen or on iTunes, Apple or Spotify podcasting apps.  Just search for “Tri 2 Listen”, or click below.

Listen to Tri 2 Listen on Apple
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Spotify
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Google

When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

green sea turtle swimming towards camera

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Why would you want to lower stroke count?

Well, if it’s too high of course. 😉  So how do you know if it’s too high?When swimming at an easy pace, ie, not adding much power or force, you should be able to move forward through the water with relative ease indicating that you’re well balanced and streamlined in the water.

Everyone will find a limit where either swimming easier turns into drilling, or there is a lower limit to how slow you can swim before you feel you start to sink.   Just above that point…what’s your stroke count?

You can reduce Stroke Count or (strokes per length) by reducing drag or increasing power.  Stroke count is only a reflection of two competing forces water resistance vs stroking force.

These are some additional ways to think about balancing two swim skills to achieve speed in swimming:

Streamlining vs power
Flexibility vs Mobility
Slipperiness vs Strength

Based on your height, an “ideal number” for your stroke count can vary.  For a 5’2″ person, maybe 18 is a conservative lower end target. For a 6’2″ person, perhaps 15 a good lower end target.   If you can’t hit those targets at ANY speed…there are streamlining and /or balance issues…basically problems with drag.

As you increase your tempo, time between strokes decreases, travel distance decreases and stroke count goes up.  What’s the upper limit of the number of strokes where you still feel smooth and in control?  For me…around 21-22 SPL in a SCY pool when swimming comfortably fast.

Can you choose your stroke count at will?   This would indicate that you’ve got great control over your form.  Does your stroke count vary widely (maybe more than 2 SPL) when swimming at the same sustainable pace ?  This suggests poor technique or technique that’s not wired in…as an 18 stroke 25 yd swim at 30 seconds is a very different stroke than a 16 or 20 SPL 25 yd swim at 30 seconds.

The stroke rate ramp test is a good test…but it only shows you your current comfort level. It doesn’t help you diagnose if your SPL and tempo ranges are good for you…only what feels good to you now.  Unless we all have perfect technique, what feels good can always been improved.

FWIW at 5’3″ I can swim equally comfortably at 14 SPL or at 22 SPL…the difference is speed.  at 14 SPL I’m swimming 1:50/100s easily and relaxed.  at 22 SPL I’m swimming 1:30s and getting tired.  A sustainable 1000 yd swim for me is around 1:40/100 and 18/19 SPL…unwavering from that narrow range.

Finally, if tempo stays the same, lowering your SPL (by either improving streamlining or adding efficient propulsion) will make you go faster!

Lots of good reasons to consider lowering SPL as part of a well balanced diet of swim practice and improvement exercises.

Note: This originally appeared in the USA Triathlon Coaching email forum in January, 2013.  Going through and cleaning up old emails I thought it was worth sharing here.

Triathletes over Fifty: Staying Healthy & Injury-free

Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.

Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?

The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?

Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.

The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.

  • You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
  • You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
  • You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
  • You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
  • You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from

In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.

Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?

Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?

Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.

Infographic showing the benefits of exericse.

Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training

The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.

The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.

Problems with Blood Flow

  • Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
  • Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.

Problems with Muscle Tissue:

  • Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
  • Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
  • Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation

Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart

  • Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
  • Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.

Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes

Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.

In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?

In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?

The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.

Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.

Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.

Bibligraphy

  1. 1.
    Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
  2. 2.
    Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347
  3. 3.
    Franklin B, Fern A, Voytas J. Training principles for elite senior athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004;3(3):173-179. doi:10.1249/00149619-200406000-00014
  4. 4.
    Sharma S, Merghani A, Mont L. Exercise and the heart: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eur Heart J. 2015;36(23):1445-1453. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehv090
  5. 5.
    Merghani A, Malhotra A, Sharma S. The U-shaped relationship between exercise and cardiac morbidity. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2016;26(3):232-240. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2015.06.005
  6. 6.
    Harris K, Creswell L, Haas T, et al. Death and Cardiac Arrest in U.S. Triathlon Participants, 1985 to 2016: A Case Series. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167(8):529-535. doi:10.7326/M17-0847
  7. 7.
    Windsor J, Newman J, Sheppard M. Cardiovascular Disease and Triathlon-Related Deaths in the United Kingdom. Wilderness Environ Med. February 2020. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2019.11.002

The best Freestyle Kicking Pattern for Triathletes

Underwater view of a man swimming in a pool

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“The design is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Kicking has Multiple Functions in the Freestyle Swim

The kick can help rotate the body, create forward movement, and provide lift in the back end. Each swimmer needs to understand how their kick is fitting in to their stroke, what benefit it’s giving them and how they can improve it. Some folks will use kicking to keep the back end up, while in the mean time they are pushing down on the front of the water with their stroke. If they were to fix the front end, the back end could be repurposed and the same energy used would help them go faster. Yet in many swim squads, as long as the athlete is doing a continuous or 6 beat kick the coach is happy, and hopes over time they’ll get better at it.

Kick Removed equals the popular “band swimming” drill

If you take the above quote to the extreme and “take away” all the leg movements you’re left with the ever popular “band” swimming or no kick swimming, which helps teach swimmer how to quiet the legs, create good balance in the front half and identify the core muscles better.

Progress from there to 2 beat kicking which adds additional rotational component and not a lot of lift.  A 4 beat may provide more lift and compensate for balance asymmetries at various stroke points (sun yang uses a 4 beat on his breathing cycle) and often a 2 beat on non -breathing for example.

Progressing again, a well timed 6 beat kick provides rotation as well as propulsion. Each step also uses more energy and is less efficient when comparing energy spent for forward movement produced. Having the technical ability to choose your kick strategically based on energy management as well as swim speed in a triathlon is a high level goal for any triathlete.

How much Energy should Triathletes spend in the Swim?

No one suggests that a triathlete should go all out on the bike portion of a tri, or that their best tri run split should be equal to their best standalone run split. Yet many swim-centric triathlon or masters coaches will suggest swimming with a 6 beat kick during a triathlon.  This inconsistency in energy expenditure is baffling.

So why the inconsistency in suggesting a 6 beat or flutter kick…  is it best for a triathlete because it will result in the best speed ? It may be faster when done well…but also uses more energy than a 2 beat kick. If a triathlete needs to manage energy across 3 sports, why not use kick timing as an energy management strategy and opt for a 2 beat kick more often?

Why not spend time developing both a 2 and a 6 so you have choices? After all, you train in more than one bike gear too, right?

Triathletes Should get Confident with Multiple Patterns for Maximum Choices while Racing.

It seems like the same coaches who advise against a 2 Beat Kick are also gung-ho for the “band” swimming drill.  In this drill an elastic band is placed around the ankles to remove the kick, and force the athlete to focus on balance and the front end of the stroke.  I think it’s also an excellent drill…especially when it can be done as a no-kick drill withOUT the band! Learnign to control the legs adequately and keep them closely streamlined without having a restricting band, also teaches the swimmer how to control the legs while kicking in any pattern.

If the kick is a progression of frequency from no kicking to a rapid flutter kick, then a 2, 4 & 6 beat kick all fall along this spectrum.   It’s incongrunent to prescribe band drills but proscribe the two beat kick.    Practice all types and expand your options while getting faster as well.

Some examples of Elite Swimmers & Their Kicks…

Here’s a fast female with a 2 beat kick from what I can tell… honesty with a tempo that fast I don’t know how she’d fit in 4 or 6 beats.  This is the incomparable Janet Evans, a 5’0″ powerhouse champion.

 

Here is Katie Ledecky, World Record Holder in the 1500m at her performance in the 2015 World championship.  This is a great video to wtach because she displays a variety of kick patterns including 2, 4 & 6 beat.  her 4 beat kick is an asymmetric 1-3 kick, which means it resembles a 2 Beat kick on one half of the body and a 6  beat kick on the other half.   Take a look and let me know what you see…

Here’s a great one of Katie Ledecky & Simone Manuel competing in the 200m race.  Simone Manuel who I have written about before, is racing at the long end of her competitive ability, and Katie Ledecky is racing at the short end.   Who do you think will win? Both are using 6 beat kicks here the entire way as far as I can tell.    This shows that the distance can help determine the kick pattern.  In the 1500m Ledecky kicks less often.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What are your thoughts on the best kick timing for triathletes?

Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/tpsdave-12019/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>David Mark</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>Pixabay</a>

10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach

Choosing a triathlon coach is daunting whether it is your first time or your fifth. Knowing what questions to ask is hard when you’re not even sure what you are looking for.

Use these questions as a guide not only for interviewing a coach, but also to ask yourself if you are considering self-coaching.

  1. Where can I read or hear about examples of your past coaching? Experienced coaches will have a ready list of past clients, write-ups on their own websites and often the athletes will write their own race reports that give credit to their coach.  Don’t get enamored by coaches of celebrity triathletes. There are only so many Chef Gordons, Apolo Anton Ohnos or Hines Wards to be coached.   There are hundreds of thousands of athletes you many have never heard of who have been coached by excellent age group coaches. 
  2. Who is your favorite triathlon coach and why? The answer can reveal a lot about the coach’s training style and philosophy. It’s probably that they aspire to coach in a similar way to the coaches that they admire. 
  3. What training technologies do you use and why?   There are so many new technologies out on the market today, and you can’t expect to be an expert in all of them.  Coaches, however, tend to either stick with their tried and true technologies or be early adopters of new gear and gadgets.   You’ll want to make sure that your personality matches your coach’s use of tools and gadgets. And if you’ve invested a lot of time and dollars into a power meter, for example, you’ll want to make sure your coach is comfortable and experienced using it for her clients as well. 
  4. How will you optimize my training for my goal race?   There are a handful of common methods to plan a season, and then dozens if not infinite ways to manipulate basic training ideas.   Some elements of optimization don’t change from person to person, such as the principals of frequency, intensity, specificity, progressive overload.  However, there are a number of ways those elements are combined and emphasized during the season is one thing that makes a certain coaching style unique. 
  5. What kind of experience do you have for my *unique situation*?   This can be any kind of unique situation.   A medical condition like diabetes or a history of a heart attack or pacemaker,  a cancer survivor or even current cancer treatment, recent or remote surgery, limb amputation, visual loss, hearing loss… the list goes on and on.   If you have a unique situation that you think may disqualify you from being a triathlete, think again. I guarantee there is a coach who has worked with someone like you before.  And if not, coaches are trained in how to modify training, bikes, swim workouts, etc to accommodate special people. Find out if your potential coach has experience or has connections to another coach who does. 


Getting comfortable interviewing a potential coach is vital for you to choose the right coach for you. You’ll receive 5 MORE questions to ask when interviewing a triathlon coach by downloading our 2-page infographic “10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach” and have it immediately delivered to your email inbox.

VO2 Max Workouts for Triathletes

Triathlete Cornering on Bike Course at Pittsburgh Triathlon

VO2 Max Workouts consume the most oxygen that your body is able to utilize, which means you’ll run faster, bike harder and swim with more power than on any easy endurance workout. But that’s not important if it doesn’t also improve your performance overall! VO2 max is typically achieved in an all-out effort of 3-8 minutes depending on your genetics and fitness. Outstanding athletes may be able to hold their true VO2 max for a full 8 minutes, but most people cannot.

Only by performing a variety of VO2 Max workouts can you get an idea of how much effort they require and   how long you can sustain them. But sustaining a VO2 Max interval is painful and hard!  There is a sneaky way to make VO2 max workouts work better for you and make them much, much easier to do!

The whole idea of interval work (at any intensity) is to use shorter sets with rests to add up to a total of more work that you would otherwise, be able to do as a continuous effort. You can reach your VO2 max after about 30 seconds of starting an interval at the appropriate intensity, but after you stop or slow down, our oxygen needs diminish and your heart rate slows, and you are no longer at your VO2 max. When you start your next interval, your “bucket” has only partially emptied depending on the intensity of your rest interval (how low your HR or Power or Vo2 drops during the rest)…which determines how far you need to fill the bucket up again to be back at your Vo2 Max.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a given interval.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10 sec max, 20 sec rest) will hit a component of VO2 eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning. Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and see some benefits, taper them off in the spring time and resume them prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5 minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5 minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all out 5 min power again, OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10-sec max, 20-sec rest) will hit a component of VO2
eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning.
Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an
introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the
season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown
that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of
VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop
off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and
see some benefits, taper them off in the springtime and resume them
prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the
longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you
will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5-minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5-minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all-out 5 min power again OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

I hope that gives you some more ideas on how to design integrate VO2 max sets into your training.

This article originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologyMD.com in January of 2009

5 Ways to Become a Better Hill Climber – Bike Training

Make Climbing Hills fun by training specifically for your race or adventure!

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

Recently an athlete asked me the following question:

I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall.  Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!

Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs?  I would like to work on those at least once a week.

Here is my answer:

You can do several things to train for climbs.

#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing

The first is to climb, climb, climb!  Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio.  So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs.  Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).

#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills

Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly.  Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter.  This taps into anaerobic energy stores.  So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness.

#3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts

As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked. So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills.


#4 Overall Leg Strength Work (Bodyweight Training)

I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight.  Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).

#5  Develop a Solid Core for Climbing 

Don’t forget solid core work.  When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike.  Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).

Mixing it all together

I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.

That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers.  It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!

This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009