Podcast, Swimming

Get your triathlon swim training right and avoid costly pitfalls with Gerry Rodrigues | EP#107

 March 5, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Get your triathlon swim training right and avoid costly pitfalls with Gerry Rodrigues | EP#107

Triathlon swim coach Gerry Rodrigues discusses how to improve your triathlon swimming through having the right training prescription, and avoiding low-relevance training that may be relevant for pool swimmers, but not for triathletes.

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In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The 4 most common and most costly mistakes triathletes make in their swim training. 
  • Things that pool swimmers do (and coaches prescribe) that have little relevance for triathlon swimming.
  • Swimming at different effort levels and the importance of putting yourself in the hurt box.
  • The Tower 26 training program. 

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About Gerry Rodrigues

1:00 - 

Common mistakes that triathletes make in planning their swim training

4:12 -

  • The biggest mistake triathletes make is not swimming!
    • The swim is only 10% of an Ironman race so it can often be put to the back burner.
    • Unfortunately, these people tend to get into the most difficulties in racing by being unprepared.
  • There's a thinking process by many athletes that technique is the holy grail.
    • There is an oversubscription that technique is going to fix everything. 
    • You need to recognise that technique is important, but it's a balance between the technical demands and the right training protocols.
    • Many think that because you swim and get a little winded it's a technical problem, but it's usually a muscular endurance issue.
      • You might be super fit in running but it doesn't always translate to swim fitness.
    • Anyone that comes into the sport relatively new to it, or they are specifically unfit in swimming doesn't need to focus on technique straight away.
      • You want to first focus on fitness, spend 3 weeks swimming 3 times a week.
      • This gives you some specific muscle endurance so you can then absorb any technical tips or demands that are suggested.
    • Trying to make changes without the muscular fitness will fallshort of what you want to achieve.
    • It is a delicate balance between technique and fitness training.
      • Across a whole season there needs to be some form of periodisation between them.
  • For those that do train and put time into swim preparation, many swim at steady state, not varying outputs and paces much.
    •  It hurts to push yourself!
    • Swimming in a squad can help with this, it gives you extra motivation to push yourself harder.
    • I often ask athletes to do a set and ascend their output - e.g. do 4x100 and each 100 gets faster.
      • I've typically found that their times are tightly clustered, which is disappointing for the athlete who has put in effort but not seen much change.
      • A lot of the time this is because the first effort was too fast.
      • Athletes have to learn to go easier than their steady state.
      • The 4x100 should be: easy effort, moderate effort, strong aerobic effort, out of comfort zone effort.
    • E.g. If you do the same in running, 4x1 mile repeats ascending speed you would need to start slower than normal:
      • If you started at 8 min/mile pace and your best is 7.30 min/mile, you might not be able to improve much through your 1 mile repeats.
      • But if you started at 15 min/mile pace, you'd be able to do 15 min/mile pace, then 12 min/mile pace, then 9 min/mile pace and then end up at your fastest 7 min/mile by the end.
    • You do this over and over in training to see changes.
  • For athletes that are willing to experiment and attempt changes (technical, workout prescription etc.), there's often some impatience.
    • It's going to take a fair number of trials over a certain period of time to see changes.
  • I'm not sure whether it's harder for athletes to push themselves to pain in swimming compared to cycling or running.
    • It may be partly personality driven.
    • If someone didn't have an athletic background prior to triathlon they're not used to pushing their bodies to the limits of pain.
      • You have to be coaxed along a bit.
  • If you really want great performance, these are the things you need to do.
    • This is why having a coach can be helpful.

Things to avoid in swim training prescription

16:35 - 

  • I don't know if there's a "right" training prescription - rather, there's what I've become more aligned to after trying many things.
    • I started coaching triathletes in 1983.
  • There's some misinformation in triathlon from the swimming perspective.
  • In the 80's there were no coaches, in the 90's there were a few more coaches and in the 2000's we started getting a lot of coaches because it became an Olympic sport.
  • In the 90's there was a particular way of teaching what should be done in the swim.
    • Some was very traditional and came from coaches who were swim coaches.
      • But not all of this applies, and it sends a confusing message.
      • E.g. Usain Bolt is a terrific runner, but just because he's a great runner doesn't mean we'd hire his coach to coach us for a half marathon in a triathlon. The guy coaches an athlete that runs a 10 second race!
        • The training prescription and technical prescription would be completely different for someone running a half marathon in a triathlon, or a 10K in an Olympic distance triathlon or a marathon in an Ironman.
  • We need to look at the demands of this specific sport, and extract from competitive swimming what can add value, but take away the things that don't have an application in triathlon.
    • E.g. flip turns. It adds no value to swimming a half Ironman or Ironman race.
      • Some coaches would debate that it does, but in a time budgeted triathlete's swim training schedule (often just 2 hours a week), spending time learning to do flip turns should be a very low priority.
  • Another example is kicking - triathletes don't need to kick for propulsion.
    • We need to learn to kick well enough so our kick doesn't create damage or take away from propulsion.
    • Unless you're an ITU elite athlete, trying to learn to kick for propulsion is a waste of time.
  • You can more readily teach someone to pull a lot better to become a faster swimmer through pulling, rather than kicking.
  • Also, early vertical forearm isn't that helpful in swimming, let alone triathlon.
    • Early vertical forearm means once your hand enters the water, the first thing you try to do is pop the elbow up and keep it super high, close to the surface, while the hand itself goes deeper so you can grab the water and your elbow stays high.
    • This wasn't part of swimming in the early 70's. Now it's what they teach in modern day swimming, but athletes aren't that much faster.
      • We could argue the reason they're faster is better dives and better push off from the wall.
    • Early vertical forearm is a difficult ask for a triathlete who doesn't have the mobility relative to a swimmer, particularly if they're from a running background.

Things to include in your triathlon swim training program

24:40 - 

  • I'm not somebody who looks for quick success.
  • As a former magazine owner and publisher, I know you're taught to write about how to achieve 'instant success' in the headlines. Everything was time crunched.
    • This is present in triathlon too!
  • I tend to look at things over a longer horizon - e.g. 1-2 years.
  • When we write out training plans, they're a plan for a minimum of a year at a time and we break it into 5 phases.
  • When someone comes to our programme and ask if they can have a plan for a race in 90 days or 120 days I have to refuse.
  • If you want to use triathlon as a lifestyle and do it for multiple years, you need to have a longer lens for training.
    • It takes a long time to become an overnight success.
    • I gave a talk about the chef Gordon Ramsay. Gordon has a coach in the UK but when he's in the US he swims in our programme.
      • Most people know his name now, or will have seen him on TV as a celebrity chef.
      • But if you know his story, it took him 17 years to become an overnight success.
      • Nobody saw the 17 years when he was working in the kitchen sweeping the floor to start.
      • You climb your way up to become this "overnight success", but there was a lead up!

    How to structure your workouts

    28:35 - 

    • From a macro perspective, it's important to look at how triathlon fits into your lifestyle, your career, other sports or hobbies, and your family.
    • You start with a time budget of what you can allocate to training.
    • With the assistance of a professional, you can break out what portion would be segmented for each sport.
      • This prescriptive amount would vary based on the athletes strengths and weaknesses.
    • Once you've done this, many athletes would have 2-3 times a week to swim.
      • If you're only swimming 2 times a week, they need to be key sessions.
      • If you have 3 times a week to swim, at least 2 need to be key sessions.
      • If you swim 4 times a week, 2 could be key sessions and 2 could be different variations of supporting elements.
    • Across all three disciplines, you need 2 key foundation sessions a week.
      • Not just from a training perspective, from a full presence perspective where you are completely engaged, 100% dedicated emotionally and physically to the activity.
    • All of our sessions - whether it's our subscription plan or our location based programme, have 2 key sessions and then supporting sessions after that.
      • People have family commitments, they have to travel for work etc.
      • If you had a plan that had 3-4 workouts for swimming and they had to miss 1 or 2, with these plans you know which sessions are essential not to miss.
    • The length of the key sessions would be determined by the athlete - where they are in their progression, what they're trying to achieve.
      • In the perfect world, 75 minutes would be ideal - 90 minutes even better, particularly if you're training for an Ironman.
    • 45 minute sessions that many athletes do 1-2 times week aren't going to have a great return on investment if they don't have a swim background/good knowledge base on the swim.
    • People often cram the swim session (e.g. squeeze it in at lunch or go after work before the pool closes) which isn't helpful.
    • With the people who are stuck with their swimming, you often find it's because their training isn't right.
      • This is the majority of people who join our subscription training programme.
      • You need to stimulate different training protocols.

    Tower 26 subscription training programme

    35:13 - 

    • The plan is mainly for those in the Northern hemisphere because we follow the northern hemispheres race calendar.
      • Generally means the bulk of races are April - October.
      • Less races, and less training in the winter months.
    • We've set up our yearly plan around that to carry athletes through five different phases within the year.
      • We have a phase that's mainly technical and is during the off season.
      • We have a foundation phase which we're in now.
      • We have some skill building for open water.
      • We have a race phase.
    • Many of the athletes that come into our plan are self-coached and some have tried different plans but there's been no macro plan about the value of the workout.
      • E.g. taking a plan a friend suggested because it worked well for them.
    • This plan is much more methodically and carefully laid out.
    • If listen to our most recent episode (EP46 - Adaption takes how long?) we interview Jamie who was a podcast listener who had been stuck for a few years.
      • She sent in a question: If I started doing flip turns in my workout will that help?
      • This told me everything I needed to know about why she wasn't improving in swimming.
      • I made her an offer, join our plan and if you don't improve I'll give you all your money back.
      • She'd been stuck for 3 years and within 1 month she was already 5 seconds faster in her 100 freestyle and 1:30 faster in her 1K time trial.
    • The money back offer is out there for anybody who doesn't get better but we haven't had any requests yet for money back because it doesn't happen.
    • Jamie (above example) joined the plan in the technical phase so she benefitted from that, but her main problem was that she trained at one gear/one effort.
      • If you train at 75% effort and that's 1:40/100m, and you do this consistently in training, on race day you will be the same.
      • You have to swim 1:30's or even 1:10's - which may seem impossible, but you can do it for short periods of time (e.g. 20m).
        • You can probably run a 4 minute mile for 10 metres!
    • Give the change your introducing several weeks to take hold - 10 sessions at the minimum.
      • Ideally 3 sessions a week for 3 weeks.
      • You need to stimulate and re-stimulate to make changes, especially if you've never been an athlete.
    • You can see significant benefits in swimming when you go from 2 sessions per week to 3 sessions.
      • If you have no background in that activity before that's going to be a huge benefit (assuming you're doing the right thing in the pool).

    Tower 26 training programme

    Rapid fire questions

    31:48 - 

    • Who is somebody in triathlon swimming or endurance sports that you admire and look up to?
      • I'm in awe of the athletes, certainly on the elites end that swim and race so well and make tremendous improvements. Like let's take Richard Murray from South Africa. Here's a guy who just wasn't a very good swimmer and now over the last several years he's just progressed a little bit each year and now he's, you know, close to being at the front pack. So I'm in awe of all of them. I don't have favourites per say.
      • Give me 5 minutes to talk to any one of them and I'd be delighted! 

    Key takeaway

    • Don't think you can just work on technique and become faster. You need to work on fitness.
      • It can and should hurt! But you need to do that in swimming the same as biking and running.
    • Vary your paces when swimming.
      • E.g. Mikael recently did 8x200 descending times and went from 3.45 to 2.46 - the idea was to have at least a 1 minute difference from first to last (so this was almost a successful set). 
      • Feel different outputs and how they correlate with actual pace.
    • It takes time, consistency, patience and training with great purpose to make changes.
      • Even though we intuitively know this we often don't practice it as much as we should.

    Links, resources & contact

    Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with Gerry Rodrigues

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

    I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

    I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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    Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

    Mikael Eriksson

    I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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