Podcast, Swimming

Swim training structure the Swim Smooth way with Paul Newsome (part 1) | EP#132

 June 11, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Swim training structure the Swim Smooth way with Paul Newsome (part 1) | EP#132

Paul Newsome coaches thousands of triathletes and open water swimmers every year through his company Swim Smooth with its local squad in Perth, through international courses and clinics, and as a coach education consultant for British Triathlon. This is part 1 of 2 of my interview with Paul.

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In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What types of swim workouts triathletes should include in their swim training.
  • What a typical weekly swim training structure might look like for triathletes.
  • The case for focusing on your threshold speed/Critical Swim Speed (CSS). 
  • Progression over periodisation.
  • Swim technique: different strokes for different folks.
  • Swim training equipment and toys you should be using. 

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About Paul Newsome

2:22 - 

  • Paul is the founder of Swim Smooth.
  • He coaches thousands of people every year through Swim Smooth by means of his local squad in Perth, Australia, as well as international courses and clinics.
  • Paul is also a coach education consultant for British Triathlon. 
  • Paul is British but lives in Perth, Australia for most of the year. 
  • He has also written a brilliant book called "Swim Smooth - The Complete Coaching System For Swimmers And Triathletes"

Types of swim workouts for triathletes

3:12 -

  • I run a coaching programme over in Perth, Australia. 
    • We have around 450 adult swimmers partaking in that.
    • We've just had our 10th birthday!
  • On a weekly basis we run several different types of swimming sessions.
  • On a Monday morning we start with a drills technique session.
    • This involves focus on form and technique. 
  • Many of our squad swimmers have performed a 1:1 video analysis with me so they know specifically what they need to work on. 
    • The session itself as a squad session focuses on typical areas we all need to improve and work upon. 
  • For example, I'm currently in Mallorca where I've been as part of the Best Fest Open Water Swimming festival here.
    • One of the things we've been talking about on the courses that we've been running for the coaches here is the notion that during the pure technique session you want to focus on key areas:
      • E.g. What happens to the stroke when somebody goes to take a breath.
      • If something was to go wrong with your stroke that's when it's likely to occur.
  • On a Tuesday, we focus on technique and endurance.
    • We start with drill and technique work, but then build into longer intervals. 
    • Typically centred around CSS pace.
    • The intervals tend to be longer - 200-600m, swam around CSS + 4 to 6 seconds per 100 meters.
      • Similar to half Ironman/Ironman pace.
    • We also factor in work with pull buoys and paddles, and even band work. 
      • This is to help build strength and endurance. 
  • On a Wednesday we have our 'red mist endurance' session which is my favourite to deliver.
    • This is the hardest session of the week.
    • I wanted to create something that really challenges athletes, specifically those doing Ironman distance or 5-10km swims. 
    • It's our longest session of the week, lasting 1.5 hours. 
    • Some of my top swimmers can get close to 6km done in that session. 
    • That session doesn't have a warm-up, we get straight into it as you would in a race.
  • We also have a CSS development session.
    • CSS = Critical Swim Speed, or threshold pace that can be maintained for 1500m. 
    • We do threshold testing in the pre-season. 
      • CSS test is performed using a 400m and 200m time trial. 
      • The calculation looks at the rate of drop-off between 200m and 400m speed.
    • Typically somebody who can sustain a good pace for a long period of time (i.e. Ironman athletes) will see a small drop off between the two paces.
    • Equally somebody who has more of a sprinting background may be able to hold a good pace for the 200m but it will drop-off for the 400m. 
    • Calculating it at the start of the season helps decide what lane people should swim in, as well as their focus for the season. 
  • My final session is our 'Saturday Stoic session'.
    • I encourage my triathletes to come along to this one, and follow it up with a bike and a run. 
    • This session is a blend of all four of the above sessions. 
    • We keep an open water theme running through it too. 
      • We might do some short turns or some drafting technique work. 
      • We might do swimming in close quarters together. 
    • It's generally a good fun session. 

Technique session

9:25 -

  • Not everybody will have performed a video analysis session to look at their technique. 
  • When we prescribe our technique session we do have some general drills that can address a variety of key factors.
  • When I perform the drill session I like to split it up into different sections. 
    • This way the swimmers in the squad know exactly what we're working on. 
    • E.g. Section 1 might be posture and alignment, section 2 may be body rotation, section 3 might be catch and pull through, and the final section could be rhythm and timing. 
  • Even if you haven't had a video analysis performed, there are key areas within the freestyle stroke where many people can benefit from working on.
    • E.g. When you go to take a breath, if something is going to go wrong it'll go wrong there. 
  • One classic thing people do is crossing their hand over their head. 
    • For this we do a drill called the javelin drill. 
    • This involves the swimmer utilising a pair of fins, kicking on the side using a Finis Freestyler paddle with a keel.
    • This tool is designed to fall off your hand if you cross over in front of the head. 
    • This gives you immediate feedback.
    • This is great as a coach, and the swimmer can then see what's happening themselves. 
  • Another drill sequence I like to do is sculling, then doggy paddle, then into freestyle, performed with a pull buoy.
    • We'd typically do 12.5m sculling, 12.5m doggy paddle.
    • This highlights the initial part of the catch and pull through within the stroke. 
    • You're on your front with your arms extended out in front of you, usually with your head out of the water. 
    • The sculling motion should feel like you're trying to mix hot and cold water together. 
    • The key thing with this sequence is keeping your elbows high.
      • Your finger tips should be deeper than your wrist, and your wrist deeper than your elbow. 
      • The sculling motion should then take you forwards.
    • Doggy paddle has your head in the water and pulling your arms through the water. 
      • It should feel like pulling along a rope or climbing a ladder under water. 
    • This sequence is to help you feel the water well. 
  • All our technique sessions are graded from beginner to very elite. 
    • Some of the top swimmers in our squad are racing at a national and international level in open water swimming and triathlon. 
  • For an intermediate athlete, in an hour we might get 2.4 - 2.7km done.
    • Some of the faster swimmers would get 3 - 3.2km done.
    • Some of the newer swimmers would get 2 - 2.3km done. 
  • The key focus of the technique session is not distance.
    • I say to everybody at the start of the session it's an easy session and your chance to focus on technique.
  • We do a lot of drills into freestyle to ensure you incorporate what you learn into your stroke. 
    • When doing drills it's important to remember that it's done to help you swim more efficiently in full stroke freestyle. 
    • If you were to just do drills with plenty of rest, but no transference to freestyle, they can become alien to the normal stroke. 
    • Wherever possible I'll always try to get the swimmer to go immediately from the drill into the freestyle.
  • We're lucky in Perth as we have the highest population of 50m swimming pools on the planet.
    • This length of pool is excellent for drill work because it gives you the opportunity to do 25m drill, and then straight into freestyle without the interruption of turning. 

Endurance plus technique session

16:55 - 

  • This session would have an 800-1000m warm up.
  • It may incorporate technique work done the previous day.
    • E.g. The broken arrow drill, with fins on, kicking on the side. 
    • As you kick on the side you raise one arm straight up to vertical, pause for one second, and then break the elbow and spear into the water from there. 
    • This is a good way to loosen your thoracic region and shoulders. 
    • Many swimmers when they swim with a wetsuit on try to swim with the classic high elbow recovery over the top of the water.
      • It often looks pretty, but if you're forcing your elbow high over the water against the resistance of a wetsuit it can fatigue the shoulders quicker.
    • This is why this drill is particularly good for triathletes. 
    • It encourages a slightly straighter arm recovery. 
      • If you look at the Brownlee's, they don't swim with the classic high elbow recovery, it's more up and over. 
      • This is because they're trying to get above waves and chop, but also not to fight against the resistance of the neoprene. 
  • I then move onto work will pull buoy, paddles and/or bands. 
    • The idea is to isolate the catch phase of the freestyle swim stroke whilst under a bit of resistance. 
    • Bands are essentially like a rubber band tied around the ankles. 
      • It's not enjoyable the first time you try it! 
      • If you have poor body position, you may feel like you're sitting vertical in the water. 
      • We only do this over very short distances (25-50m).
      • The idea is to push off in a good torpedo position, tilt the pelvis and stretch through the core. 
      • Focusing on keeping a good momentum within the freestyle swim stroke. 
  • Swimming in the open water is very different to swimming in a pool.
    • You have to content with waves, swell, chop etc. 
    • These knock around your momentum. 
    • Working with bands in technique/endurance sessions encourages you to get the momentum going within the stroke.
  • Then we would finish with 4x400m, at CSS pace plus 4 seconds per hundred.
    • This session is similar in length to pure technique sessions, and also lasts an hour. 
    • The swimmer should find that pace moderately challenging but doable.
    • CSS pace plus 4 is approximately what you would maintain for an Ironman.
  • We use a Finish tempo trainer for this session. 
    • E.g. A mid-pack athlete might be swimming 1:40 per 100m for their CSS.
    • I would set the tempo trainer at 1:44 per hundred (CSS+4), so I would have it beep at the swimmer every 26 seconds. 
    • All they need to do is make sure they're staying with the beeper every 25m.
  • Recovery between intervals is very important to consider for a session like this. 
    • When you are operating at below threshold pace, you can afford to take short recovery times.
    • I think it's a major mistake for triathletes to take too much recovery between their intervals. 
    • You can lose physiological benefits of a session by taking too much rest.
  • I often base rest/recovery period on the cycle time. 
    • E.g. using the 4 x 400m cycle at CSS+4 cycle. 
    • The tempo trainer may be set to beep every 26 seconds. 
    • If the swimmer completes the 400m as the beeper goes, I would suggest take one beat recovery - in this case 26 seconds rest.
    • Then the swimmer doesn't need to worry about having a watch, they can listen to the tempo trainer. 
    • This gives a work to rest ratio of 1 part rest to16 parts work. 
      • This is a short recovery period relative to the distance.  

'Red mist' session

23:28 - 

  • For this session I have to thank my coaches from previous years: Chris Jones, Robin Bew, Richard Hobson.
  • This is a session we used to do every Monday morning and I used to hate it as an athlete. 
    • When I got into triathlon I had speed but I couldn't maintain it over a long distance. 
    • When it came to a race I could go fast in the first 200m, but then started to struggle significantly. 
    • It wasn't a physiological problem, more that I hadn't trained myself correctly. 
  • This session should be the bread and butter of any athlete's training programme. 
  • The initial session was always 10x400m.
  • I've utilised the tempo trainer to try and make the session more engaging.
  • The typical session would be:
    • 4x400m at CSS+6
    • 3x400m at CSS+5
    • 2x400m at CSS+4
    • 400m at CSS+3
  • Again these aren't terribly challenging speeds in isolation.
    • However you get a cumulative effect of 10 x 400's in a row getting gradually quicker as you get more fatigued.
  • I would usually have 1 beep recovery for each one. 
  • This was the original idea for the 10 x 400's, but I had to start changing the session to keep my athletes interested! 
  • Over the years we have developed around 165 versions of this sessions.
    • All have the same physiological goals.
  • We do 'red mist cycles'.
    • Using the tempo trainer set every 25m, with the swimmer aiming to stay with the beeper, can become psychologically tough. 
      • If you're having a bad day it can be hard to stay with the pace.
      • If you're having a good day it can feel like the tempo trainer is holding you back. 
    • Red Mist cycles example: someone doing 1:40 per 100. 
      • If they're doing this pace, each 50m takes 50 seconds. 
      • Red Mist cycle five (RM5) would be 50 seconds per 50 m plus an extra 5 seconds.
      • In mode 2 of the tempo trainer this would be 55 seconds. 
      • It's like using the old fashioned pool clock.
      • The swimmer is instructed to get ahead of the beeper, and however far ahead you are becomes your recovery time.
      • The swimmer might be tempted to go out and gain 5 seconds for every 50m they do, giving them 40s rest. 
        • This would then see them swimming at threshold pace for 400m, and holding this for the set which is likely impossible. 
      • Typically athletes gain 2-3 seconds for every 50m.
  • It's a psychologically different way of tackling training.
    • E.g. If my swimmers see RM8 on the board, they know that's their threshold pace + 8 seconds per 50m. 
    • This will be a relatively generous recovery. 
    • Equally if they see RM2 or RM3, they know they're in for a bit of trouble! 
  • I like to mix and match those things, and it's always based around the 10x400m. 
    • Although it was boring, I now realise why my coaches were giving me that set. 
    • It truly is a great one. 

CSS development session

29:07 - 

  • My favourite CSS development session is the Goldilocks set. 
  • Once you've identified your CSS pace you can do this set. 
  • It's basically:
    • 3 or 4x100m at your CSS pace followed by 200m at CSS pace (baby bear).
    • 3 or 4x100m at your CSS pace followed by 300m at CSS pace (mama bear).
    • 3 or 4x100m at your CSS pace followed by 400m at CSS pace (papa bear). 
  • The idea is to show people that CSS pace, by itself over 100m is challenging but not impossible. 
  • This becomes a progressive set by going from 200m at that pace, to 300, to 400m. 
    • By the time you're on the 400m you've already covered 1700m at your threshold pace. 
  • This highlights if people have gone too fast in the early session, you'll struggle with the pace by the end. 
    • This should help if this happens often in races. 
  • In terms of distance for a CSS development main set:
    • Beginners 1400-1500m total.
    • Faster swimmers may go anything up to 2.4km. 
    • I have some very good national standard open water swimmers who may extend the session to 3km. 
  • If I've got someone swimming 1:55 for threshold pace vs 1:05 for threshold pace, I'm trying to look at the cumulative time instead of the distance. 
    • You want the same cumulative time at threshold pace. 

What about speed work?

32:23 - 

  • The average triathlete is probably getting at best 2-3 sessions per week in the pool.
  • My focus for a triathlete would typically be one session on technique and endurance, one of red mist endurance and one of CSS development.
    • Some of our CSS sessions go faster than threshold pace and you've then be in the 'speed training' zone. 
  • We do a session called the 'Spike set' which is borrowed from Grant Hackett's coach back in the day. 
    • It's a series of 40x50m with progressively incresing recovery cycle times.
    • Also progressively increasing frequency of sprinting. 
    • It allows the athlete to really get the speed up. 
    • The set itself is:
      • 16x50m sprinting every 4.
      • 12x50m sprinting every 3.
      • 8x50m sprinting every 2.
      • 4x50m sprinting each 1. 
    • To use our RM cycles at the start we might do:
      • RM4 for the 16x50's, giving the swimmer 3-4 seconds rest between each one. 
      • RM7 for the 12x50's, giving the swimmer 7 seconds rest. 
      • RM10 for the 8x50's, giving about 10 seconds rest. 
      • RM13 for the 4x50's, giving about 13-15 seconds rest. 
  • We don't devalue speed training particularly, but it's all about management of time. 
  • If you're training 10-12 hours a week, it comes down to getting in the most important sessions that are going to make the biggest difference to your swimming.
  • If you have extra time, a speed session will help. 
    • We do try to incorporate at the end of some of our sessions, 8x50m sprint work. 
    • It might involve drafting or race stimulation with a deep water start. 
  • Although CSS testing has been attributed to Swim Smooth, it's actually been around since the early 90's.
  • When I first got a power meter myself in 2006, I read Training with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan and was really inspired. 
    • I started thinking there must be something that's easier than lactate testing to analyse a swimmers threshold pace, similar to FTP on the bike. 
  • The CSS was a simple test I found. 
    • In the early days, the test was done with 400m and 50m.
      • The 400m looked at how aerobically conditioned the swimmer was. 
      • The 50m looked at how anaerobically conditioned the swimmer was. 
    • Over time, the 200m has been seen as a more valid way to measure the true rate of drop off of sprint speed, and ability to sustain speed. 
  • The rate of drop off tells you a lot about a particular athlete. 
    • If someone comes to me from a team sport e.g. soccer or rugby, the rate of drop off will usually be high. 
    • I.e. even though they're not technically that sound in the water, they're still going to have plenty of power and strength. 
    • This gives them the ability to force out a good speed over the 200m, but they'll drop off quite significantly across the 400m. 
  • When you look at that very simply, it makes no sense for that particular athlete to do plenty of speed work with lots of rest and recovery. 
    • This will just make them faster at the top end but the rate of drop off may well increase. 
  • Time strapped athletes are better spending most of their time doing Red Mist endurance sessions, or CSS pace.
    • This pace is very important for them, not just for physiological benefits but also to help with pacing. 

Periodisation of the training year

37:55 -

  • I don't incorporate periodisation into my training!
  • When I first started coaching in 2002, I was working for the Stadium Triathlon club in Perth. 
    • In this role I had just gained my degree in Sport and Exercise Science from University. 
    • My favourite areas were physiology and biomechanics. 
    • I wanted to impress all the athletes I was coaching so I produced this highly intricate periodised programme, based on all the testing and studies done at Uni. 
    • The reality was that in delivering this to a group of age group triathletes who only swam 2-3 times a week, the periodisation was way too intricate.
  • I think this issue is becoming more of a paramount concern these days. 
    • Back in those days, most people in the squad built towards one particular event together. 
    • This made it easier to put the periodised programme in place. 
    • These days, there are so many different types of events on the calendar. 
      • There's SwimRun, Aquathons, Aqua bikes, etc. 
    • This makes it really difficult these days to periodise a programme to an event. 
  • Personally what I do is keep the structure I mentioned earlier of the weekly sessions.
    • I encourage my athletes who often work with individual triathlon coaches who know the format, to attend whichever sessions are appropriate. 
    • E.g. You've raced this weekend so don't do the Red Mist session. 
  • I see my role as a squad coach to keep a consistent routine going year in, year out.
  • I think one of the biggest mistakes triathletes make is using the winter period for slow base training in the pool. 
    • The base training typically involves lots of slow steady swimming with a focus on technique and drills. 
    • Whilst it's not too bad, it can lead to a period where threshold pace tends to drop off.
    • I prefer my swimmers to use the above structure and tap into it when needed. 
  • It sounds flippant to say I don't periodise, but I try to keep an established routine constant. 
  • When you speak to the worlds best triathletes and open water swimmers about periodisation, many of them won't strictly follow it.
    • They might peak for an event maybe. 
    • Many will talk about the consistency of their training, and the importance of routine. 
  • This was highlighted for me by one of my former training partners and good friend of mine: Tim Don.
    • Tim, up until recently, held the world record for the Ironman distance triathlon.
    • He unfortunately got knocked off his bike last year just before Kona. 
    • Tim as a junior was always very good, but my coach kept telling me I could race near him - which never eventuated! 
    • My coach spoke to Tim, and he said the reason he became so successful was establishing consistency. 
    • His programme wasn't very fanciful but it was his ability to keep the routine going. 
  • I've taken this on myself, and try and instil it into the athletes I coach. 
  • You can still get progression, which comes from measuring CSS pace.
    • We have a CSS tweaker which allows you to tweak your pace as you feel you're making improvements. 
  • These days, I've done a lot of testing on myself and with my athletes to find what works. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Paul Newsome 

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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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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  • According to my swimming experience, Finis TT is a good product, but a little big and single function. I use COUNTU Tempo as my daily swimming metronome, which is easy to use, smaller and can work as timer and lap counter also.

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