Podcast, Swimming

Triathlon swim training with Russ Barber | EP#310

 November 1, 2021

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Russ Barber - That Triathlon Show

Russ Barber is the British Triathlon swim coach at Leeds Triathlon Centre, where his sessions are frequented by athletes like Olympic gold medalists Georgia Taylor-Brown and Jess Learmonth. Russ has also coached swimmers on four Olympic swim teams over his long career in swim coaching.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The training and coaching methods Russ uses at the Leeds Triathlon Centre to develop the swim of some of the best triathletes in the world
  • Technical elements of the training to work on weak spots in many triathletes' technical competency
  • Why he focuses on VO2max and speed more than threshold training
  • Example training sessions and weekly structures
  • Recommendations for how amateur athletes can better develop their technique and fitness
  • Coach and athlete welfare, mental health, and chronic fatigue

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Russ Barber background

03:45 -

  • My name is Russ Barber, and I am the performance swim coach for the Leeds Triathlon Centre. So, I work with the British Triathlon Federation.
  • Although I did some sprint triathlons when I was younger, my background is in performance swimming.
  • It involved working with athletes for the last 4 Olympic cycles.
  • Unfortunately, last year, during the pandemic, I had to take redundancy from my role in Sheffield, England. Luckily, triathlon was looking for a swim specialist, so I was employed pretty much after that.
  • The Leeds Triathlon Centre is a partnership between the two universities in Leeds, the British Triathlon Federation, and the Leeds City Council. They provide facilities and support for the best triathletes in the area.
  • Before I came along, they had been successful already (e.g., the Brownlee brothers). It was when Malcolm Brown and his team were working and controlling operations. (Until 2017)
  • On a daily routine, there is a head coach (Vicky Holland's coach). And a development coach Sinan Osman that works with upcoming athletes. He prepares the 18-years old athletes for two or three before they head into the performance program. There is also a run specific coach Ian Mitchell and me.
  • In England, there is the England Institute of Sport. It is an organisation supported by the government to help the best athletes in the country. We have help from them on physio, nutritional, medical side. They are not full time in Leeds.
  • We have a partnership with a triathlon centre (Brownlee Centre) in Leeds with a velodrome, a gym, a meeting room, physio, and doctor rooms.

Swim squat set up

08:25 -

  • 85% of what I do with the swim group is centralised. We all do similar things.
  • The standard program is five 2-hour sessions per week. We train from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. There are also three additional sessions, should we need them. Anyone that needs additional training can do them.
  • If someone wanted to, they could train up to eight sessions a week.
  • We have a mixture of athletes. We have world-class athletes but also have a group of eight to ten developing athletes. They are perhaps at the European Cup level. In total, we have 16 athletes in the group (half world-class).
  • Some athletes might want to do more sessions than the group. For example, Sam recently had a niggle on his foot, so he went on doing 45 000 meters for two or three weeks. (Doing those additional sessions)
  • Some athletes prefer to stick to four swim sessions when they train harder on the bike and the run. But most of the time, the athletes will do five 2-hour sessions.
  • Within that group, we might have some developing athletes that are not as capable as the rest on the swim. Therefore, they might not do the same sets as the others. This means focusing more on strength or power work.
  • In a usual week, the athletes might do 25 to 30 km per week. Most sessions are between 5 to 6.5 km. But, in a competition phase, the amount of training is lower. (20 to 22 km per week)
  • Once we get Abu Dhabi out of the way, we can train more and do up to 35 km per week.

Training and swimming philosophy

13:25 -

  • I am not an experienced triathlon coach. I am a fan of it, and after I retired from swimming, I did a bit of triathlon.
  • Therefore, these months working in the triathlon scene has been a learning experience. And I feel there are some crossovers that I find that are relevant to all sports.
  • One of the first things I look for is the mindset culture in the group. On my first few sessions, I was not looking too much at the swimming side of things. I was looking more towards the behaviour of the athletes and how they work together. It is something we need to look at when we are coaching.
  • There needs to exist a culture of professionalism and progression and be prepared to try out new things. In triathlon, there is not a problem with working hard.
  • Once that is looked at, we pass to the technical part of swimming. The first thing to look at is the athlete's aquatic posture, seeing if we have straight lines and bodies that can smoothly move through the water.
  • And that was a shock to the system to some triathletes. The postures you need for running and biking are often very different from what swimming coaches want. We want straight backs, dynamic and mobile scapulas, lower back and hips. Therefore, we try to address those things.
  • We do simple things. Some exercises on dry land before entering the pool so the athletes can stay as flat as possible. (switching on and tensing the muscles, and being dynamic in that flat position as well)
  • When I talked with the athletes about engaging the core (pulling the belly button to the back to have a flat line on the back), many were not breathing. And we cannot do that when we are swimming. Therefore, it is working on the ability to switch on those muscles to have a flat back. And relax the muscles that do not need to be tense to breathe well and have good mobility.
  • In this initial period of working with the athletes, we focus on efficiency and technique. They need to understand that swimming faster is not only about trying to move their arms faster. And allow for them to have tools they could use in different situations.
  • I want the athletes to have an effective sprint at the start of the race and a good backend speed. And I want them to be efficient when executing the drills. It is not only swimming 5000 meters.
  • We try to bring awareness to the athletes on stroke length and rate. I think they are good on the bike and the run because of it.
  • To work on efficiency, I could see athletes used to swim to be in the pack. They would do sharp strokes, protecting from another stroke, no kicking or rotation. My attitude is asking if instead of swimming in the peloton, they could swim at the front. That has to be my goal as a swimming coach.
  • Therefore, I want to teach them on the long front end and not speed into the catch. I try to see if the later part of the stroke is where we get the power. Also, I would add a leg kick athletes could use to change the pace to help them deal with race situations better.
  • For me, I felt this period was a reminder to the athletes of those skills. It helps them to have a tool kit better than the standard one they would have before. This work worked as now we have athletes that lead races and put others in difficulties during races.
  • With the athletes that now lead the races, we focus on improving efficiency (decrease stroke rate). And with the others, try to give them the speed to get on the front pack if they choose to do it.

Sessions focused on the physiological aspect of swimming

23:28 -

  • If you used to look into an endurance swimmer, those would focus on the 800, 1500 and open water events. As they do little training outside of the pool, we have to get them to do 70 to 90 km of swimming per week. The goal is to have all the aerobic, anaerobic thresholds, Vo2Max and speed swimming they may do.
  • Within triathlon, we have so much aerobic and anaerobic development outside of the pool that I feel that they might not need so much focus on it. It will be different for the 70.3 and Ironman races. When you look at super-sprint, sprint and Olympic distances, we might not need so much development. In the super-sprint, you might not use an energy system, and in the sprint, you might be working on the alactic and Vo2Max energy systems. For the Olympic distance, you would be going to the anaerobic threshold zone.
  • But for me, it is not a significant thing. Therefore, since I am in Leeds, we do a little aerobic training. And the anaerobic threshold has not played a crucial role in my sessions. We do it, but there are more fundamental things to look into for the athletes.
  • The focus for me is efficient sprinting, Vo2Max efforts, and the threshold work is race-specific. (focus on the race pace)
  • In the competition phase, we do a session focused on Vo2Max. It bases itself on the 400-meter pace. We have one workout where we go through the different energy systems. (sprint, Vo2Max and threshold work)
  • We also do a pure speed and power session. The other two workouts will be a one-long aerobic training and one only focused on skills.

Examples of different sessions

27:29 -

  • With the Vo2Max, when we are not racing, we can do 1500 to 2000 meters of Vo2Max intensity.
  • For coaches who work on heart rate, we train at 15 to 5 bpm below peak heart rate. In terms of perceived effort, we are looking at 9/10 to 9.5/10.
  • I do not work based on lactate or metabolic values.
  • One set might be 24x100 meters on 1min40s, where you go three reps hard and one recovery. Or 3x50 meters, 2x100 meters and 1x150 meters where we try to maintain pace.
  • When I was a swimming coach, my mindset would be an anaerobic threshold with a 1:0.5 work/rest ratio. (e.g., 60 seconds work, 30 seconds of rest)
  • And we aimed for 3000 meters of work.
  • On the Vo2Max training, it would be a 1:1 work/rest ratio. (with 2000 meters of work)
  • And the speed training would be a 1:2 or 1:3 work/rest ratio.
  • When I came into the triathlon scene, the athletes were not ready for long periods of rest. I introduced this concept of work/rest ratio, and they would start to complain about it. Therefore, I lowered the rest ratios. (e.g., Vo2Max work of 1:0.5 work/rest ratio)
  • I do not have a problem doing it if the heart rate and perceived efforts are in the right place.
  • My coaching success was more on the middle to long-distance events. Within swimming, as we are doing ten sessions a week, it becomes hard to do that work. And your job as a coach is to motivate your athletes to do it. We have to, even if they have already done 60 km of swimming that week.
  • And I found the exact opposite when I came to triathlon.
  • When I ask the athletes to sprint, they go automatically to a fast inefficient stroke. I know most world-class 50 meters freestyle swimmers do a stroke rate of 55 to 60 strokes per minute.
  • And triathletes, when they do all-out, they would do 65 to 70 strokes per minute. And they did not have speed despite the high stroke rate. By lowering down the stroke rate, they went faster.
  • We do sets like 5x50 meters. (first sprint to 15 meters, second to 20, third 25, fourth recovery and the last one the 50 meters) And repeat some times.
  • We work the alactic system this way, and that the athletes are powerful with efficient strokes. And we also touch on the anaerobic system in this session.
  • In the period without racing, I introduce more of those sets.

Tests Russ uses for swimming

35:21 -

  • As a young coach, I studied all the books and became interested in all the technical stuff. I had several years of testing things. I did lactate testing, heart rate testing, step tests or jump testing.
  • The truth is that I do not think we got anything from it. I cannot say that my knowledge as a coach developed, and the athletes benefited from it.
  • One of the most successful swimming coaches is Eddie Reese. He is the swimming coach from the University of Texas. He has coached over 40 Olympic medallists. In the mid-2000s, I visited him with one of my athletes leading up to Beijing 2008.
  • I spent some weeks with him, and on the first session, I had a lactate analyser on one pocket, a heart rate monitor on the other, a stopwatch on my neck and a piece of paper and a pen.
  • Eddie looked at me and asked if I was going to do any coaching. And it knocked me flat. I spent all these years developing these techniques of testing everything, and Eddie does none of that. And he is the most successful coach ever.
  • He only uses his eyes, experience, gut instinct. He looks at the athletes and evaluates how hard they are working. He uses traditional methods like stroke counting.
  • When I came back, I revised the way I was coaching and did much less testing. He started using my gut instinct and being more dynamic.
  • I do occasionally use testing. I think it is interesting for the athletes. It gives us a good idea of where we are at a certain period. (Energy system-wise)
  • For example, if I have a mesocycle where I want to improve lactate production, I do lactate testing as an easy way to evaluate that parameter. But I might only use it for three weeks and two or three times per year.
  • I use it in situations the athlete is getting faster, and he might lose distance per stroke. Therefore, I might use some stroke counting sets. (e.g., 10x50 m, 4x50 m at a low aerobic pace counting strokes and 6x50 m increasing the speed by one second per 50 m - while trying to maintain distance stroke)
  • I prefer using test sets like that over physiological testing.
  • However, we do physiological testing. We do the 5x400 m step test. Occasionally, we do the ramp test, and we can do heart rate testing. But I would say I am using the sets and the rest between intervals to control the athletes' output. (Instead of using results from test sets)
  • In the 5x400 m tests, we record the time, lactate and heart rate. Then, we create graphics of that data.
  • About the 400 m pace, in the last ten years of my coaching career, most athletes I coached that were successful were 200, 400 and 800 m, athletes. And I found an accurate correlation between 400 m pace and Vo2Max pace. If you have an athlete with a target of four minutes, you know that they should go at 50 seconds per 100 m. (respecting the work/rest ratio)
  • And when I do that, the athlete achieves a heart rate around ten beats below the peak. When I took the lactate, the values would be on Vo2Max ranges. That is something I used for many years with success.

Swim tools and aids for swim training

45:39 -

  • We use pull-buoys, but I try to use also a band when using them. The goal is to see the legs and feet rotating along the same longitudinal axis that the rest of the body is.
  • Many times, when we do this work, the non-use of a band allows for the feet to stay flat. Therefore, we lose on that rotation.
  • We use big hand paddles to increase power. We train with finger paddles to have a feeling on the tilt at the front of the stroke. It allows for getting the elbow up. We also use sponges to create drag and work on power and strength.
  • We also work with snorkelers with the goal of not focusing on the stroke and technique. Often, if you look at the hand path, most athletes can swim relatively well with good biomechanics when they do not need to breathe. However, when you turn your head to the side, they use their arms to counterbalance that movement. (Instead of using them as a propulsion mean)
  • We use tennis balls so that the athletes hold them in their hands and rotate the balls forwards. The reason is for them to tilt the wrist and have a high elbow.
  • We also swim with or against stretch cords with the focus on working on speed. It allows for working at race-pace without putting in the effort.
  • We use fins a lot when doing stroke drills. I want the stroke drills done right. That was one thing I noticed when I started working with the group. The athletes all had a toolkit of exercises they could use, but they were doing them because that was what they always did. And so, they were not doing the drills right. Much of the swimming drills require a leg kick to execute them well. Half of the triathletes do not work on an effective leg kick. By using the fins, it gives them that propulsion and extra buoyancy.
  • We use them to get over speed. If I am trying to get an athlete to hold good technique at sprint speeds, the fins help maintain that pace.
  • Overall, we use things that most athletes train already within their routines. They allow for mixing things up and having the athlete think about other things. (Apart from the physical progressions we can use with those tools)

Working on the leg kick

50:31 -

  • Two out of three athletes hate kicking. So, I always have arguments between those that like it and those who dislike doing it.
  • We do not do much kick work. Most days, we do 500 to 800 m of kick work in drills, sprint, and recovery kicking. Per week, we might do between 2000 to 3000 meters of kick.
  • We do enough to make it relevant, and athletes can use it as a tool.
  • We mix things up. We do a lot of dolphins kicking, flat and side kicking or deep kicking. (About 20 % of all kicking methods)

Common mistakes among triathletes

52:23 -

  • Generally, there is a mindset of mileage and threshold among them that I think is not necessary. And, not relevant to many athletes.
  • Athletes with a good swimming background and efficient stroke benefit from short rests and threshold training. We might work on some technical aspects, but they can take something from that work.
  • Other athletes with an undeveloped stroke to do more mileage and threshold will not get the same benefits. You are only good at what you practice the most. If you practice something poorly (poor skills), you will be very good at doing that. And that is not the goal we want.
  • What I would say to triathletes out there is to not think of mileage and threshold. Focus on having "gears". It means to be able to sprint, to swim at 400 m or threshold pace. And swim efficiently at a low aerobic pace. And have good skills that you can maintain at higher speeds.
  • Rotation, hip rotation and linking it to the stroke is a crucial skill to develop. It is well known in the swimming world, but not so much in the triathlon scene.
  • The triathlon swim seems to be too focused on the front rather than the back of the stroke. I would say to relax the hand at the front part and get power at the back of the stroke.

How athletes can improve their technique

55:59 -

  • I think understanding how an efficient stroke works and trying it for a period is crucial. First, we need to do it at some level before thinking of doing some video analysis.
  • When you start learning a new skill, there are different points you have to address. And only by doing already some aspects well automatically, you can start thinking of some crucial points.
  • You should get a level of swimming competence brought to you by a local squad or a local swimming coach.
  • One thing I was surprised about is that there is a good swimming club in most towns. (With people that understand the fundaments of swimming)
  • The link between them and triathletes is limited. And I always found that peculiar. (Existence of experts that want to help that people do not try to reach) This is why the federation contacted me to try to connect the two competencies.
  • The fault, I think it is on both sides. (Swimming and triathlon community) We can be elitists sometimes. If you have a squad that can do ten sessions per week and a triathlete that can only do some, the coach might not want to work with them.
  • On the other side, there are so many improvements to be made to triathletes easily. For me, the fundamental is to focus on efficiency and stroke counting.
  • The crucial points to focus on are distance per stroke instead of the stroke rate. And once that distance per stroke is well developed, you can start increasing the stroke rate and doing more tempo and speed work.
  • If you do things in that order, you have a chance to improve much in the sport.

Open water sessions

1:01:51 -

  • We have two dedicated open-water sessions a week during the summer. We can go to a lake and swim there. We make one of those sessions a long one. The goal is to acclimatise and to do 5 to 6 km.
  • The second session is race-specific, and we work on dives, re-entries, exits, sprints, threshold, Vo2Max or drafting. I introduce a disruptor in a group of four or five athletes. The goal is to make the other athletes' lives miserable. They do things like banging into them, rolling over, chopping them through or getting in the way.
  • It seems to be working well. If you look at the standard distance of triathlon, we have a lot of athletes who are doing good. And the athletes that want to go to the front have to learn how to deal with that.
  • During the winter, the water temperature is 14 or 15 ºC. Therefore, we stop open-water swimming. But we try to maintain some of those skills by doing them in the pool.
  • We regularly swim in wetsuits in the pool. And work on sighting and drafting work.

Burnout and chronic fatigue

1:04:36 -

  • For many years, we did not understand it and did not know how to tackle it.
  • In the last 20 years of my coaching career, I found many people with severe mental problems. (People that had taken lives, alcoholic or with mental breakdowns) I faced chronic fatigue as well.
  • I think we are starting to address the problem better. In the last 2/3 years, we focused more on it. And I believe it is becoming less stigmatised. People are now ready to talk about it more.
  • We need to look after ourselves as coaches in a world-class way. (The same way we look after our athletes)
  • Most coaches that work with athletes excel at giving advice and managing athletes' lives properly. We help them develop a mental attitude that allows them to stay healthy.
  • But how many coaches do what they say? And how many are strict with us about recovery, nutrition, and general health?
  • I am not near the level of looking after myself as I am competent in looking after world-class athletes.
  • I believe we must strive to get that balance. The people that get that balance end up being the most successful.
  • I do not think there is an excuse not to do it now. To say we do not know.
  • When I started coaching, it was long before the internet. The only way you could find things was to try to hire someone or go to the library. Whereas now, with few clicks on the internet, you can find out about all these things.
  • So, we know now that sleep tends to work in 1h30 cycles. Therefore, for most people, we need a minimum of five 1h30 cycles. We also understand how the brain works and how the mental narrative can control how we feel. So, we need to take this seriously.
  • First, we must make sure our athletes are being looked after properly. 50 % is about telling them what they need to do in the pool. And the other half is all about these topics I am addressing.
  • We are awful as coaches at looking after ourselves. If we looked after ourselves as we do with our athletes, we would be much happier, healthier, and fitter.
  • Having been ill myself, I have a strong opinion on this topic.

Role of the Federations in longevity and mental health of coaches

1:10:17 -

  • I think both the individual and the federations have a role in addressing this issue. As employers, we have the responsibility to take action to help our employees.
  • But ultimately, we all have individual needs. One of my colleagues and best friends ended up taking his own life a few years ago. None of us knew he was in that state.
  • It is one situation where no amount of federation work could save him. What needed to happen was for him to open about his problems long before they happened.
  • We need to have education on supporting each other and having environments of trust and support. But we have to take care of our health and well-being.
  • A few years ago, I did a CPD with the British Federation. Some people teach us how to manage people and support communities after catastrophes. When you are in those situations, you can push yourself because you are trying to save lives. (Work on primal things)
  • You can become much more tired compared to your day-to-day life routine. People would become so exhausted in situations of catastrophes they would start to make bad decisions. In that case, they developed a system where if one of your colleagues came up to you and said to take a break, it would be a disciplinary offence to say no.
  • If someone recognises that in yourself and you want to keep going, you could not say no. You have to stop and take a break. You put trust in your colleagues to know what is best for you.
  • In your routine, we do not deal with those situations, but it is still very emotional. And when an athlete comes to me and asks for help to get an Olympic medal, that makes me push much harder than I usually would.
  • We need to have a system where we work, and we trust others to listen to their pieces of advice.

Additional considerations regarding athlete welfare

1:15:25 -

  • Many people we work with are students. Therefore, they are away from the family. (They might only see them once or twice per year)
  • The family are the people that would put a hand on the shoulder and give good advice. And I see myself not only as a sports coach but also as someone that can advise and support.
  • Being the coach athletes know you always have time for is a fundamental part of my coaching role. But you have to be careful as a coach so that it does not become a burden.
  • I think being available could help. One thing I found in triathlon is recovery. (Mental and physical) And it is something we need to address.
  • We do this to minimise injury and have the quality of the sessions we perform. Professional athletes are not good at evaluating themselves. Therefore, it is the coaches' role to tell them when they did a good job. And to give positive feedback about the training. Outside of being clinical analytical. (Analyse what can be better)
  • We assume we are doing it. But if we analyse it, we find ourselves giving constructive criticisms rather than talking about what they did well.
  • I also think the challenges we give to athletes need to be progressive. We have our aspirations, but we should not rush into them. The more time we take in developing the right skills to perform, the more likely we will achieve our aspirations.
  • We often go for that goal so hard in the beginning that we find ourselves with no energy and demotivated to continue.

General questions

1:19:48 -

What would you tell yourself ten years ago if you could? 

Probably, I would tell myself about the mental narrative topic. I was very task focused. And ten years ago, I thought I was indestructible. I was travelling all around the world and living out of a suitcase and junk food. Now I am above 50 years old, and things are starting to hurt and break. I would say to look after myself better. To try to focus on a more recovery style of coaching rather than constantly pushing. That would have been better for me and my athletes. And it would mean you would have more longevity in the sport.

What is one thing within coaching or training you are now learning/curious about or fascinated by and why?

It is the balance between hard work and recovery. To understand how long to push in a certain period. In my coaching, I performed a mesocycle approach (three hard weeks, one easy). And it got to a point I did recovery weeks on need. The reason was I was pushing more before the recovery weeks. But there, I worked with some world-class athletes that knew their bodies. For example, one Olympic medallist athlete I coached since she was eight years old. I could coach her for 17 years. Therefore, I knew her to apply that recovery on need approach. However, for other athletes, I did not know that well. And could not be as reflective of their training to give good feedback on their condition. In conclusion, I am intrigued by the work/recovery model because different athletes will get different model approaches.

Rapid fire questions

1:24:55 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

The Science of Swimming by James E. Counsilman

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

It was from Eddie Reece when I asked him what I could do to become a better coach. He said I had a strong presence, and it could be overwhelming not to learn how to use that power. I was in my 20s when he said that, and it was an eye-opener to me. To use your strengths, power and influence to work with the athletes as a coach.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

In the short time I worked in triathlon, I worked with Ben Bright (Olympic Head Coach of British Triathlon) leading up to Tokyo. And I enjoyed working and learning with him. Outside of triathlon, William Swettenham can be the reason for success British Swimming in the last decade. And last, Terry Dennis, who was my boss at CT Leeds in the 90s. A lot of what I talk about today comes from him.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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