Podcast, Swimming

Technique improvement and swim training for triathletes with Brenton Ford | EP#320

 January 10, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Brenton Ford - That Triathlon Show

Brenton Ford is a swim coach based in Australia. Brenton is the founder of Effortless Swimming, a swim coaching business through which he helps triathletes and swimmers improve their swim technique with free content (e.g. Youtube and podcast) as well as in-person clinics and online programs.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Limiters for swim performance in age-group triathletes
    -What is good freestyle swimming technique in an age-group triathlon context?
  • How to improve your freestyle swimming technique
  • Training structure, and how to train for fitness improvements
  • The value of video analysis and how to get the most out of it

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Brenton's Background

03:43 -

  • My name is Brenton Ford, and I run a swimming coaching company, "Effortless Swimming". We specialise in helping triathletes improve their swimming technique.
  • I started this business 12 years ago and worked with 6000 to 7000 swimmers. We do underwater filming and video analysis. Our goal is to help the athletes get faster, understand the technique, and make changes over a couple of months/years.
  • This work has been my speciality for some years.
  • I was also a competitive swimmer and achieved some pleasing results nationally. After that, I coached a master's swimming club in Australia for about eight years. I took them to five national championships.
  • Then, I started my business and opened some clinics all over the country. I coach many people online, and we also do some swimming training camps.
  • My life is 90 % swimming, and I love helping people improve their swimming performance.
  • I did one season in triathlon, where I did an Olympic distance, a half and a full Ironman.
  • I prepared to do Ironman Melbourne in the last year of the event. However, the event cancellation led me to do an Ironman in New Zealand.
  • I did it to take one thing out of the bucket list. It was one event I wanted to do because I had many friends in the sport.
  • The experience helped me to understand the demands and dynamics of the event. Every discipline will influence how you perform overall.
  • It was a pleasant experience because of the training and the fitness level I achieved. Now, when my kids are older, maybe I will do another one again.

Age groupers swimming limitations

06:31 -

  • The primary constraint comes from the time you can put into swim training. You have two other sports to train for as well.
  • Therefore, time is one limitation. Many people can swim about three or four hours per week.
  • Therefore, you need to make the most of your time in the water.
  • The second one could be fatigue. You might have much fatigue accumulated in the legs. (when training for other sports) So, you will not feel good when you get in the pool.
  • You have to adjust your training to consider that constraint and have intensity in your sessions.
  • Another restriction can be mobility. When I started triathlon, I had a swimming background, and my mobility was good.
  • When I started cycling and running, I got more tired of my shoulders and thoracic spine. My mobility decreased as I could not rotate or recover on the top of the water adequately.
  • We might overcome mobility restrictions, but it takes some management.
  • Another point is on open water swimming. There is a difference between open water and pool swimming.
  • We have to learn how to swim properly in the open water.
  • One challenge I have is that I work with people to swim well in the pool. First, they need to understand the primary concepts about technique.
  • Once we have the proper technique, we adapt it to the demands of open water swimming. It is distinct from coaching a distance swimmer.
  • When I started coaching, I coaching I had a false belief that everyone knew how to swim. If I asked for a correction in the movement, athletes would do them.
  • However, many people do not understand the swimming fundamentals. So, we might have to work on the basics first.
  • Triathlon swimming is a lot different from pool swimming. Therefore, it took four or five years to understand the differences.
  • And I believe it is a mistake many swim coaches perform. (not considering the open water swimming specific aspects)
  • They teach athletes to be swimmers and not a triathlon swimmer.

The balance between technique and swimming fitness

10:18 -

  • Most athletes I work with are aerobically strong.
  • Therefore, the problem is not about increasing fitness. Fitness is already the primary focus of the other two sports.
  • For many of them, the limitation is on the technical side.
  • If they are doing two swim sessions per week, you will probably need to increase the volume to three.
  • And, of course, four workouts are even better. Nevertheless, the minimum number of swim sessions should be three per week.
  • When doing three sessions, you need to have proper training sets. The aim is to work in different zones instead of always working at the same pace.
  • Swimming constantly at the same speed can help a bit. But it is not the most optimal path to improve performance over the long term.
  • If you talk to the best swimmers/triathletes, all their sessions have warm-ups and main sets with speed variations. (intervals of different lengths)
  • After that, much of the improvements come down to technique. I am biased on the topic, but it is a primary factor to consider.
  • The final two points that athletes need to address are open water skills and race ability.
  • These topics are the primary point to look into when you have already structured swimming training.

How to improve swimming technique

The preamble to improve technique

12:42 -

  • Before addressing the technique, we need to understand that changes in the swim stroke take time to present results.
  • When working with athletes, I let them know what improvements and work we will be doing. (as well the timelines)
  • Everyone is distinct on what they need to work. When you change some aspect, people might get faster or slower.
  • One rule I put myself was first working on improvements with immediate speed gains. (in the past)
  • However, it is a misconception as you work on distinct muscle groups. It will take time to develop the strength and endurance of those patterns.
  • The technique is a motor path you developed for several years.
  • It takes six to eight weeks to change those patterns. When you make these changes, you will not make them right in every stroke. (e.g., only doing it well in one every four strokes)
  • If you do not force these changes, I find it is when people improve more and faster.
  • If we relax and stay calm when swimming, we go faster. Those swimmers that want immediate improvements cannot achieve that so well.
  • The primary aspect is for athletes to accept where they are at a given period. (and only focus on those adjustments for 6-8 weeks)
  • I often receive emails from people only seeing substantial improvements after three months.
  • In the beginning, it feels like nothing happened. However, we need to give time for the adaptations to occur.
  • When you do changes, things will feel uncomfortable and awkward. Until the new motor patterns develop, the stroke will remain like that. (feeling awkward)
  • I warn people I work with that it is ok to feel you do not know how to swim for a while. At least, we change something. And that is our goal.

The five core principles of swimming technique

15:47 -

  • There are some crucial points I look at first when analysing the swim technique.
  • We might not look at the "Catch and Pull" first, but check their breathing and alignment.
  • Therefore, it was fundamental to write down these five core principles. We want to evaluate and improve the technique in that order.
  • The first thing is their breathing and relaxation. If you are panicking and out of breath, anything else will go out of the window.
  • There is so much that goes into your breathing. I studied breathing in the last two or three years.
  • Breathing is the only part of your autonomic system you have control of your body.
  • Therefore, our stress response to something unusual is our breathing modification.
  • If we can breathe better, it is a pleasant improvement in swimming and life.
  • After that, we look at balance. We evaluate body position, which is the first performance improvement achievable. (minimise drag)
  • We look for things that neglect that balance. The head position impacts balance, but there are other factors to consider. (how people enter with the hand and their kick; how they hold their body and their posture)
  • The third principle is alignment. We evaluate what the hands are doing at the front and the recovery phase.
  • The fourth is the "Catch and Pull".
  • The last one is the rhythm and the timing. This period is where you put everything together. (sync every aspect of swimming)
  • You can look for more information about these core principles on our website.
  • When doing your video analysis, these five core principles are a path to go.

Do people struggle more in a particular core principle?

18:46 -

  • The more beginner athletes are to swim, the more principles athletes will need to look into in their training.
  • Beginners struggle with breathing and balance.
  • More experienced athletes will need to look into their equilibrium and rotation.
  • The more advanced swimmers need to focus more on the "Catch and Pull".
  • In conclusion, it will depend on your experience with swimming. However, even those experience athletes pick up things from the first principles.
  • There are always minor details we can work on and improve.

Concept of "high elbow"

19:57 -

  • There is much confusion about this concept.
  • Coaches often talk about "high elbow recovery". (when your arm comes on the top of the water)
  • Sometimes, we can confuse that term with a "high elbow catch". (what is happening under the water)
  • First, with a "high elbow recovery", the focus is on keeping the elbow above the water with some clearance.
  • Regarding the "high elbow catch", I thought the elbow should be near the surface. (when I was a swimmer)
  • When I did that, I felt a bit awkward. And it never worked well for me.
  • A "high elbow catch" is the position you want to work towards when the fingertips pointing down.
  • You are on your side and with the arm fully extended at the front. (beginning of the "catch")
  • Then, your arm starts to move downwards. When the fingertips point down, the "catch" period finishes.
  • In that position, we want to have a high elbow.
  • If you look from the side and draw a straight line from the shoulder to the fingertips, a "high elbow" will be above that line.
  • A better term for it would be an "elbow forwards" position.
  • This position is better because we can press back with the hand and forearm. (and therefore, propel ourselves forwards)
  • Coaches often use the term "early vertical forearm".
  • It makes sense, but it is difficult to achieve. Moreover, it passes the idea that you need the forearm to be at 90º.
  • It can lead you to some uncomfortable positions with your stroke.
  • Many good swimmers and triathletes present a slight "high elbow position". They do not look like Michael Phelps with an extreme 90º catch. Most of us do not do ten swimming sessions per week and have super flexible shoulders.
  • There is no need to go to this extreme position. It is awkward, not sustainable, and you probably will not do it on open water.
  • I might do some drills to get a feel for that position. But when they swim, they do not need to do it.
  • The best way to improve the "high elbow catch" is with some drills breaking down that aspect of the stroke.
  • It can be challenging to hear me talk about the catch and then change it. (without evaluating the different phases of the movement)
  • With some drills, you have time to only focus on that and improve it.
  • We suggest athletes some drill progressions as a part of the warm-up. To improve it, we have to be consistent in every session. (it is not only doing a specific training focusing on drills)
  • I work with people online, and they send me some videos. People also come to clinics every few months. And it is fantastic to see that progression over time.
  • Athletes see what they need to do and work on that part. After a few months, they improve that part of the stroke substantially.

Drills to improve the catch

25:33 -

  • There are two types of progression.
  • One is the YMCA drills progression. This drill is where you move your arms in the four crucial positions in the stroke.
  • It breaks down the essential parts of the catch and pool.
  • The other is a dog paddle drill, where you move through the "catch" and come back to the front.
  • There is another one where you kick on your side while maintaining a "high elbow position".
  • Also, there is a combination of both. You swim on your side and go through the dog paddle drill.
  • People respond differently to different drills. So, I like to try out a couple.
  • Another aspect when considering the "catch" is the speed of the movement. It should be from "slow to fast". It is not like turning the pedals on the bike at a constant velocity.
  • It should be slower on the first part of the stroke ("The catch"). And then accelerate through the pull phase.
  • Therefore, you should consider the "catch" setup phase instead of the power phase.
  • We see people trying to get faster already on the "catch". (put all the speed and power on the "catch").
  • The "catch is an overhead movement. Therefore, you are not in a proper position to produce power. Moreover, when pushing on the initial part, you only press down on the water.
  • When decelerating the "catch", you find you can accelerate more by holding more water. (it is easier and faster)

Common mistakes and misconceptions on technique

28:36 -

  • People tend to jump around a lot on what they are working on in a period. They might see a swimming technique type and change their style upside down to adapt it.
  • The videos I put on Youtube about the different parts of the strokes might be good for 20 % of the people watching.
  • However, to the other 80 %, it might be irrelevant.
  • It is better to film yourself or have some coach evaluate your technique. (and work on two or three things about it)
  • You can do it and focus only on that and stop all the outside noise.
  • Getting distracted is easy. (from Instagram videos or listening to me)
  • When you work on something specific to you, you see improvements. Nevertheless, people get ideas from videos.
  • One mistake about the stroke is the lack of alignment. It is common when you go to a public pool. Half of the people will be crossing over at the front of the stroke.
  • If you can get on the "train tracks - line of your ears", every time your hand enters the water, it follows that track. By working on this alignment, people can solve many of the problems associated with the stroke.
  • It gets to the point people think they are doing it too far. (when they are doing the movement correctly)
  • Our perception of the movement overhead is lower. Therefore, to make changes, we might have to exaggerate the movement to think that is not proper. But by doing it, we are changing the stroke.
  • If you are crossing over and you are not confident, look forward and see what your hands are doing.
  • It is a good thing about crossing over. You get immediate visual feedback.
  • The "catch and the pull" is 20 % of the stroke, but you can make 80 % of the difference. Thus, I have a primary focus on that.
  • Aside from that, we look at posture and kicking. If you have poor posture around the shoulders, you do not use your muscles efficiently. We want a straight posture on the water (like a standing soldier).
  • We provide some simple in-land exercises with athletes to show them the improvements with good posture. (ability to apply force) A good posture consists of a straight back, chest open and relaxed shoulders. Athletes can produce twice the power because they can use their larger muscles.
  • 20 to 25 % of the swimmer I evaluate swim with poor posture. When we change it, the improvements are incredible.

"Pull" phase

33:23 -

  • Through the "catch and pull", you want to have your finger pointing to the bottom of the pool.
  • Sometimes, we see swimmers with their fingers directed to the side of the pool after the catch. It leads to a poor catch position. (cannot hold so much water)
  • When you finish at the back, keep the palms pushing back all the way. They will turn to the body at the end. It helps you have more surface area when pressing back.
  • The "easy pull" is when swimmers turn their hands to their bodies after the belly button. By doing this, they lose a lot of propulsion from the stroke.
  • Another point is to press back even after passing the hip. Many swimmers have a short "pull phase". They come out before the hip. Therefore, they lose over 20 % of their distance per stroke only because of this.
  • I had an athlete that with a modification, made substantial improvements. He could not swim faster than 1:45min/100m because he swam with a "short pull phase".
  • Moreover, there was no reach or extension at the front. So, the athlete had a lot of turnover and effort. He said he did it because he was swimming with much faster athletes.
  • He had an improvement from 2min to 1:45 min of pace swimming like that. However, he could not improve more.
  • We worked on the reach and extended the pull. And with a slower stroke rate, the athlete increased the speed to the 1:30min/100m pace he wanted to achieve.

Value of video analysis

36:24 -

  • It helps to see what you are doing on the water. Usually, what you think you are doing is different from reality.
  • If you can close that gap, you take the first step to change the stroke. (only 10 % of the athletes I work with know how they are swimming)
  • Many people do not want to see the video analysis.
  • People know it is looking bad or embarrassed with their looks. However, for me, it is like ripping off a bandage. It is painful at first, but it is only then that the healing begins.
  • It is a step for people to do it or have a coach analyse it.
  • It is worthwhile to do it. There is nothing better than that for accessing the stroke.

Having a coach vs being self-coached

37:29 -

  • If the changes are evident, many people can see them and work them out. (crossovers are easy to detect or lift the head when breathing)
  • You can go far when analysing your video if you know what to look for when seeing it.
  • People that watch their videos have a good understanding of the complete assessment they need to do.
  • However, a coach can break down the things athletes should work on to improve. Moreover, they can be more granular with the analysis.
  • Often, people send videos knowing something is wrong, but they do not know what.
  • Someone that has experience will catch the things that are not correct.
  • In addition, coaches can provide you with a plan. The fice core principles are indicative of it.
  • If you want to improve the "catch", you need to work on breathing and alignment. (before)
  • To make a video analysis, the primary video footages you need are: swimming towards the camera and the side swimming view.
  • You need to be two or three lanes away from the swimmer. (when filming the side view)
  • If you use a flexible tripod (gorilla pod or something with bendy legs to attach the GoPro), you can put it on the bottom of the pool. (or secure it to the lane line)
  • If you coach, you can use a "selfie stick".
  • We can follow people along with the pool and get a side view. (We obtain the front, side and top views)
  • You have to analyse a couple of strokes to understand the mistakes.
  • If you can have 8/10 strokes from each view, you will have good data to analyse.
  • If you get a proper video analysis, the improvements will be significant.

Apps Brenton uses to analyse videos

42:20 -

  • We use two apps. ( "Coach's Eye" and "Skillest")
  • Coach's Eye allows you to analyse your video or from a couple of friends.
  • "Skillest" is what we use in the clinic. It is a golf coaching app, but it is valid for what we do.
  • We do video analysis at least every three months. With our stroke analysis coaching, we do it every week. (athletes send us a video regularly in the beginning)
  • After, we spread it out to two to four weeks.
  • It is not an option for many people. However, you can focus on one or two things at a time. (with your camera)
  • The more frequent you can do it, the better. Therefore, you can stay on top of the changes. Sometimes, you might think you solved a problem, but nothing changed at all.
  • Video analysis will shortcut your time to improve your swimming technique.

Improving swimming fitness

Weekly workout plan

44:48 -

  • It depends on the athlete. Generally, we have a threshold pace session, an aerobic-focused workout and a threshold/speed session.
  • If they train for an Ironman (half), we want to make the most of those three swims per week.
  • An aerobic session would be four to five kilometres. Some of it would be with pull buoys, paddles. The aim is to get more distance and endurance in the arms.
  • The other two sessions with threshold and variable pace focus on the CSS pace. (critical swim speed)
  • We want to work well in those sessions close to race pace. And incorporate speed variations in between.
  • I had some professionals on my podcast. And one of them said he only swims three times per week. However, he describes the intensity as: "It seems my arms will fall off".
  • All the sessions are 5-6 km and at moderate to high intensity. Therefore, the athlete finishes tired in the end.
  • It is not the best approach for everyone. Nevertheless, I understand the idea of pushing on those three swims.

Example of threshold/speed variation intervals

47:10 -

  • You can start slower than CSS and increase speed over time.
  • I like to do sessions by RPE. It is a proper method to improve skills as a swimmer. We get information on what I have to do to swim at a target pace and whether I can hold it for the race.
  • An example of a session at the end of the preparation phase: 800 m at 70 %, 4x100 m at 85 %. I consider this to be at CSS pace. After, we do 600 m at 80 % and 4x100 m at 85 %. In the end, we do 400 m at 90 % and 4x100 m at 85 %.
  • We maintain the "CSS" interval pace but increase the intensity as distance decreases.
  • RPE will vary for the different distances you are doing. The 4x100 m at 85 % will be faster than the 400 m at 90 %.
  • Your 90 % for 400 m will be distinct from the 90 % at 100 m. It is not a prescribed intensity.
  • I am a fan of RPE because you excel at finding the proper pace. (a challenge for people new to the sport)

Differences between beginner and advanced swimmers sessions

50:32 -

  • If someone comes from a swimming background, they can do their sessions with lower intensity. (the aim is to maintain swimming fitness)
  • It takes a while to learn to push on the pool for beginners.
  • Therefore, it is essential beginners track their speed throughout the session. Many beginners do not look at the clock or paces when swimming.
  • You might ask them the best 400 m, and they might not know. Beginners could do 10x100 m and not check the time splits.
  • While the workouts might be the same, the aims could be different. A good coach will explain the session's goals.
  • Beginners go from doing two kilometres time trials to having a proper training structure. And so, they start improving the most after this moment.
  • Beginners have a physical and mental rest, with less distance in each set. Therefore, shorter intervals allow for maintaining the swimming technique. An 800 m interval will fall apart at the end. Thus, I believe splitting the distances is a perfect approach.

Tracking swim volume

54:06 -

  • The slower swimmer will take more time to do a 3-4 km session.
  • The minimum duration for the swim workout is one hour. (especially if you are only doing three swims per week)
  • I evaluate the workouts by time. Amateur athletes might only have 60-90 minutes to swim per session. (family/life constraints)
  • I will prescribe the session to reach a specific distance. However, I do not focus on the distance volume per week.
  • You can do 10 km per week of rubbish swimming. (going up and down on the pool)
  • On the other hand, you can do 8 km of structured training, with variable paces and technique work.
  • We will start to look at distance for swimmers who do long events. (10-20 km swim races)
  • In those cases, we want to build the volume to improve endurance.
  • Having more focus on the session time is beneficial for competitive athletes. Beginners think a session is about swimming for 60-90 minutes straight.
  • However, those sessions broken down by a coach help you keep engaged in the session. (a warm-up, followed by the main set where you do not go all out from the start, and a cooldown)
  • These sessions can help people swim for an hour without feeling bored or too tired.
  • The primary cornerstones that will improve your performance are technique and training consistency.
  • The third one specific to triathlon would be open water skills.
  • If you do those things well, you will see differences over time.

Tips and advice for Ironman athletes that want to improve their swimming splits

1:00:27 -

  • Video analysis would be the first thing for someone that qualified for Kona or at that level.
  • There are some methods to do those. (even if they are challenging)
  • It will be the best they can do if they have never done it before.
  • Then, it is about patience to develop swimming technique. (not looking to rush the changes)
  • In the early stages, speed is not the primary concern.
  • The best time to work on the stroke will be at the start of the season. You would not recommend doing stroke modifications during the season. (no significant changes one to two months before a race you have been six months preparing)
  • Therefore, starting at an adequate time is beneficial as well. Then, do consistent checkups on your technique. (to evaluate progression over time)
  • You might have made some improvements, so it is time to focus on something else.
  • Aside from that, having a coach or a squad to train with is advantageous.
  • By covering these points, you can make huge improvements. (even only in six months)
  • I did a podcast with a swimmer in Sidney, and she did a clinic analysis in December. She spent two/three months practising, and times were not changing.
  • Suddenly, she increased her pace by 10-15s/100m, and she still had a month out of the race.
  • If she did not believe she would get faster, she would give up after a month of practising. (because of no differences in speed)
  • If you have faith in the process, the results will come. It will be a linear improvement trajectory.
  • I think these improvements are climbing a mountain. You want to reach the top. (swimming fast) However, you might have many ups and downs to reach the top. (as well as stagnation periods sometimes)
  • Therefore, do not get discouraged if people do not improve every single time.
  • We need patience with the progress and how you swim.
  • When you relax, you move much better.
  • When people walk on the pool, you can see how they come in and prepare to swim.
  • If someone is nervous or reserved outside the pool, it will come out on the swimming technique.
  • Therefore, go to the pool like you owe the place. (confident and that transfers into the swimming)
  • If you go shoulder hunched over and head down, you will probably swim that way.

General questions

1:05:56 -

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

I am working with a gym nearby and doing a different type of strength training. I am excited to see the results. The other is breathing and breath control to see how it can help my swimmers.

Rapid fire questions

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes: Master the Freestyle Technique Used by the World's Fastest Swimmers (Swim Speed Series)

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

Get up early.

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

I would say my dad for his passion and ability to stay long term with things.


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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