Podcast, Swimming

Paul Newsome | EP#389

 May 8, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Paul Newsome - That Triathlon Show

Paul Newsome is a swim coach with a wealth of experience in helping triathletes and open water swimmers get faster in the water. He is well-known as the founder of Swim Smooth, through which he has been providing coaching and education to athletes around the world for nearly twenty years. He recently worked directly with Chelsea Sodaro to improve her swim ahead of her Ironman World Championship victory in 2022.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • How Paul helped improve Chelsea Sodaro's swimming in the lead-up towards her Kona win in 2022
  • A look into the structure of Chelsea's swim training
  • Red Mist endurance training
  • The hierarchy of stroke correction
  • Cause and effect issues in swim technique (treat the root cause not the symptom)
  • Using swim toys as an aid in technique assessment
  • Finding the right stroke rate

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Paul's background

03:01 -

  • I have been involved in Triathlon since 1994 and studied sports and exercise science at Bath University in the UK.
  • I moved to Australia in 2001 and became a triathlon coach specialising in swimming coaching.
  • In 2004, I founded Swim Smooth, a company and brand that produces content and training methodology to help swimmers and triathletes improve their efficiency in the pool and open water.
  • Swim Smooth has a network of coaches around the world, and there are certified Swim Smooth coaches, and provide coaching methodology for the British Triathlon and world triathlon (ITU).
  • My passion is to help swimmers and coaches learn how to swim smoothly.

Working with Chelsea Sodaro 

04:59 -·      

  • Me and Dan Plews have been friends for over 25 years since Dan was 11 years old.
  • Dan works and runs the coaching company Endure IQ.
  • We met at the speaker's first-ever Triathlon with an open water swim, where Dan cycled around the triathlon course on the speaker's wheel when he was 11 years old.
  • Dan set the world age group record at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships a few years ago, and I helped improve his swimming for this record.
  • Chelsea, who raced with the BMC team last year, had trouble performing well on the bike and run. So, Dan asked me to look at Chelsea's stroke.
  • We met at the Best Fest in New Yorker last year, where the speaker was running a coach education course and Chelsea was part of the BMC team.
  • Dan hooked them up together for a video analysis session at the Best Center's pool, and things started from there.

Chelsea's first session

07:20 -

  • I conducted a video analysis session with Chelsea, who wanted to qualify for Kona after doing Hamburg.
  • When Chelsea started swimming; I noticed that she had a beautiful two-beat leg kick and a high stroke rate would be efficient for the bike and run.
  • However, her stroke became different when she swam at a race pace. She added a delay at the front and a solid six-beat leg kick, which slowed her down by only 1.5 seconds per 100 meters.
  • We went to the pool deck to compare and analyse her warm-up and race-pace strokes and found a disconnect between them.
  • Chelsea told me that she had been experiencing dead legs during the first 5-10 km of the bike, which impacted her performance.
  • We aimed to get Chelsea to swim with her warm-up stroke at race pace to address the issue.
  • We encouraged Chelsea to focus on energy efficiency and save her legs for the bike and run.
  • We used a radio headset to give direct feedback to Chelsea during the session.
  • Another person Chelsea had been working with had advised her against using a stroke rate of over 80 strokes per minute, but we went in the opposite direction.
  • We worked on her stroke rate and found the optimal stroke rate for her was around 88-90 strokes per minute.
  • Wedid a stroke correction session to fine-tune her technique

Pro triathletes stroke rate

10:05 -

  • Different swimmers benefit from different stroke rates depending on their body type and build.
  • Chelsea, being short and female, benefits from a high stroke rate of around 88-90 strokes per minute.
  • Marko is an entirely different athlete from Florian, with longer limbs and bigger hands and feet, resulting in a different stroke dynamic.
  • The Brownlee brothers sit at around 90 strokes per minute.
  • Gregorio Paltrinieri, one of the world's best swimmers, frequently sits at over 90 strokes per minute.
  • Swim Smooth coaches individuals based on their body type, build, and discipline they are working towards, rather than coaching the stroke as a whole.
  • Traditional swim coaching often relies on a single number to measure efficiency, which can be inaccurate for different individuals.
  • By increasing Chelsea's stroke rate by 10-12 strokes per minute allowed her to detune her leg kick and perform better in biking and running.

Fitness level to swim high stroke rates

16:46 -

  • Garmin provides stroke rate feedback in stroke cycles per minute, not strokes per minute.
  • Stroke rate refers to the right and left-hand strokes, not just one hand.
  • Fitness and stroke rates have been studied scientifically since 2010.
  • A study in Texas looked at the effect of manipulating a swimmer's stroke rate on their efficiency and economy.
  • Some swimmers are taught to lengthen their strokes and take fewer strokes per lap, which can lead to overgliding.
  • The study found that increasing stroke rate can improve efficiency and economy in swimming.
  • Garmin provides stroke rate feedback in stroke cycles per minute, not strokes per minute.
  • Stroke rate refers to the right and left-hand strokes, not just one hand.
  • Fitness and stroke rates have been studied scientifically since 2010. 

Chelsea time to adapt

22:30 -

  • Doubt existed in Chelsea's mind about improving their performance in the swim leg.
  • I suggested thinking outside the box to find the cause of poor performance in the bike and run.
  • We use video recordings to demonstrate the swimmer's progress and improvements during sessions, so she could see the improvements in her swimming technique and feel better after making adjustments.
  • My advice conflicted with previous instructions, but the athlete was willing to try a different approach.

Improvements in her swimming

24:00 -

  • She could complete the session easier.
  • The goal was to ensure Chelsea could hit the required numbers while swimming, biking, and running.
  • She is already a good swimmer and hits good speeds.
  • The focus is now on making the person faster while feeling more economical.

Work after the first session

25:05 -

  • We wished we could have done more, but we made the best of it.
  • I flew to Auckland and stayed with Dan Plews for two weeks, and we had several meetings and discussed Chelsea's training program.
  • We focus on the three keys of efficient freestyle swimming: technique, training, and adapting to open water.
  • The stroke technique work is only a third of the efficient freestyle swimming pie.
  • Unfortunately, I did not work with Chelsea in open water or do any drafting work. So, my role was to write programs that would facilitate Chelsea's training concerning the physiology required.

Chelsea's swimming programme and swim structure

26:21 –

  • We do an endurance training session called the red mist session, which is explicitly designed for half and full-ironman athletes to improve their training economy and race performance.
  • These sessions involve longer distance intervals on short cycle times, with no warm-up, to help desensitise the athletes from going too fast at the start of a race and potentially ruining their performance.
  • As they are challenging, it creates a tense and anxious atmosphere to simulate race conditions. The athletes only need to experience a few of these sessions to understand how to pace themselves correctly.
  • These sessions are held twice a week, every Wednesday morning at 5.30 and Friday morning at 9.30 in Perth.
  • We incorporate these sessions into the training program to help the athletes prepare for actual race conditions.
  • As an athlete, I used to do the classic red mist session every Monday morning. It consisted of 10 times 400 meters but became dull over time.
  • Now, I create a weekly session that provides the same physiological response but with more interest and intrigue.
  • Let me give you an example of a session.
  • It's only 4,000 meters and involves 10x400m without a warm-up. You'll do 4x400 at CSS+6, 3x400 at CSS+5, 2x400 at CSS+4, and one final 400 at CSS+3.
  • You get faster as you progress through the intervals, but the number of intervals at each level reduces.
  • You should take a maximum of 30s rest between intervals, but if you can manage as little as 20 seconds, that's even better. This session is like a broken 4K swim.
  • If 4,000 meters sounds too daunting, you can adjust the session to suit your fitness level by doing ten 300s or even 10 200s.
  • As a coach, I work closely with swimmers and know their CSS pace.
  • I once worked with Joe Skipper, who asked me for help with his CSS pace. He wanted to determine his threshold pace of 1min22s/100m accurately.
  • We did a 7x200m lactate step test to determine this, which was a laborious and expensive.
  • During the test, we had to start very slowly and gradually increase speed for each 200m.
  • Most people don't pace the test well, affecting the lactate profile produced. Joe's result was 1min21.6s/100, which was only 0.4 of a second per 100m, different from what I had previously estimated by eyeballing.
  • This difference could have been due to factors like how he felt that day or his training in the days leading up to the test.
  • To set up levels for the Red Mist Endurance Session like Chelsea Sodaro, we need to do a CSS test myself.
  • Firstly, you should do a warm-up, then do a 400-meter time trial, pacing yourself as best as possible. After that, you should rest for 10 minutes and then do a 200-meter time trial.
  • By subtracting my 200-meter time from my 400-meter time and dividing it by two, I can determine my threshold pace. For instance, if I did 7min for my 400 and 3min20s for my 200, my threshold pace would be 1min50s/100m.
  • I can use my little tempo trainer to pace me out accurately at 27.5 seconds per 25 meters, ensuring that I pace myself out for the entire duration of the swimming session.
  • During the Red Mist Endurance Session, I maintain a lower pace throughout the workout without ever reaching my threshold pace.
  • Despite the lower intensity, the cumulative effect of the distance covered during intervals combined with minimal rest intervals between each interval makes it challenging to maintain the desired pace towards the end of the session.

Comments on swim training


  • I often encounter swimmers complaining about their lack of progress despite training with a master squad doing 100m intervals with minutes of rest in between.
  • This type of training may be suitable for short-distance events, but it does little for endurance development.
  • A professional Ironman athlete, Matt Burton, came to me with the same issue. He was used to doing high-intensity intervals but struggled with the Red Mist endurance sessions, where he ended up swimming over 17 minutes for a kilometre. I encouraged him to continue this training, but it proved too challenging.
  • To improve your swimming, you need structured, specific, and purposeful training that meets your needs.
  • If you've done all the technique work and watched countless YouTube videos, it's time to evaluate if you're doing the correct type of training.
  • When I was working with Chelsea in Auckland, preparing for Kona, we focused on finding the appropriate training for her needs.

Chelsea's CSS 

36:56 –

  • Chelsea had an impressive swimming speed of around 1min16-17s/100m long course meters. 
  • Even during warm-up, the swimmer was swimming well under 1min20s/100m in a long course 50-meter pool. 
  • However, the problem that needed to be solved was why Chelsea couldn't translate this performance on the bike and run. 
  • Chelsea's pace during the Kona event was 1min27s, which is significantly slower. It's not clear how accurate the course system was. 
  • However, Chelsea mentioned in interviews that once she got into the lead group, she felt it was easy and didn't need to go any faster. 
  • I believe that she was in an excellent economical state at that point, as evidenced by her noticing a rainbow during the race.

Chelsea's training volume

38:58 –

  • We had Chelsea do some double swim days, which is uncommon for most people but can be helpful, especially if swimming is not their strength. The first session was always more extended, and the second session was typically shorter. 
  • In terms of volume, the swimmer would cover around 18 to 24 km in a week, depending on the week's focus. 
  • We did various sessions, including Red Mist Endurance, pure technique sessions, and CSS development sessions. 
  • One of my favourite sessions was the Goldilocks set, which involved doing four 100s followed by a 200, four 100s followed by a 300, and four 100s followed by a 400, all at a threshold pace using the tempo trainer.
  • The recovery time was generous, but the goal was to see how well the swimmer could sustain the pace over distance. 
  • The main set was 2,100 meters in total.

Stroke correction hierarchy

42:37 –

  • The most important aspect to me is their breathing efficiency. 
  • I always ask myself if they're holding onto their breath, exhaling properly underwater, and whether they can breathe bilaterally. 
  • Timing is also crucial, and lifting their head too high is a common mistake. Conversely, I assess whether the swimmer has the correct kicking timing. 
  • While many believe a two-beat kick is ideal, it can be disastrous if combined with a slow stroke rate. 
  • Two-beat kickers typically work well with a higher stroke rate, while six-beat kickers tend to work well with a longer stroke and slower stroke rate.
  • Matching the wrong kick with the wrong stroke can be catastrophic, resulting in a massive dead spot at the front end of the stroke. 
  • Sprinters use a high stroke rate and a six-beat leg kick, whereas distance freestyle requires a different approach.
  • I only suggest changing a swimmer's kicking timing if they are at the appropriate stage in their development, as it can be a crucial factor in their performance.
  • The acronym BLABT, which stands for body position, leg kick, arms, breathing, and timing, is often referenced in swimming training. However, I disagree with the order of importance, as breathing should be the first area to focus on, as it affects the swimmer's comfort and ability to control their exhaling. 
  • After addressing breathing, I would work on body position and leg movements, followed by the catch and pull-through technique and timing. 
  • Rotational ability, posture, and alignment also play a role in swimming performance and affect drag. To improve swimming performance, the focus should be on addressing either drag or a lack of effective propulsion. 
  • Swimmers with drag issues may need to improve their body position, leg kick, and arm movements, while those with propulsion issues may need to adjust their kicking or pull-through techniques. 
  • In the case of Chelsea, her kicking technique was affecting her performance, so we focused on improving that.
  • A Kicktastic swimmer typically swims with a pull buoy and swims slower than others in their lane.
  • Most people think using a pull buoy makes swimming more accessible, but Kicktastics have poor efficiency on their catch and pull-through.
  • Kicktastics swim slower because the pull buoy takes away their propulsive force, which their legs generate.

Swim toys to diagnose technique mistakes

48:49 -

  • I believe training tools are essential for improving an athlete's stroke  mechanics.
  • The pull buoy highlights areas of weakness in a swimmer's propulsive side of the stroke. However, a pull buoy may not be practical for kicktastic swimmers who rely heavily on their legs for propulsion. 
  • Similarly, a wetsuit may not benefit kicktastic swimmers since it can lift their legs too high, causing them to kick thin air instead of water. 
  • Huub Wetsuits designed a wetsuit specifically for kicktastic swimmers that reduces buoyancy, especially in the legs, to help them sit better in the water.
  • Paddles are another valuable tool for improving stroke mechanics, but the type of paddle used is crucial. 
  • Finis is a US-based company that produces paddles like the Finis Freestyler, which provide biofeedback to the swimmer. 
  • These paddles fall off the hand if the swimmer has poor mechanics during the catch and pull-through, providing real-time feedback to the athlete.
  • Unlike the pull buoy, which is harder to feel in real-time, these paddles allow the swimmer to change their stroke and feel their impact immediately.
  • They also do a pair called the agility paddle, which has no straps, just a hole for the thumb.  

Finding technical mistakes

52:57 -

  • It's essential to approach every aspect of freestyle swimming this way. 
  • My wife is a physiotherapist who specialises in shoulder injuries, and through her work, I've learned a lot about coaching indirectly. 
  • Physios always look for the root cause of a problem, whether it's a sore back or a knee issue, and this approach has influenced how I coach.
  • I've passed on this knowledge to the coaches and governing bodies I work with. 
  • When it comes to cause and effect in swimming, many things could go wrong with a swimmer's stroke, but giving them too many things to work on can be overwhelming. 
  • Our Swim Smooth methodology simplifies the process by identifying and addressing the root problem rather than trying to fix multiple issues simultaneously. 
  • Good coaching is about what you include in your coaching and what you leave out. Sometimes, swimmers may ask about something I haven't mentioned, like their leg kick, but it's because they don't have to focus on that point in their development.
  • Focusing on too many things can become a distraction and hinder progress.
  • One example is the arm pull-through and how it can affect a swimmer's body position in the water. 
  • I mention several reasons a swimmer's legs might sink low in the water, including pushing down with the lead arm to lift the head for breathing. 
  • To address this issue, I emphasise the importance of getting the swimmer's legs sitting higher in the water and explaining the step-by-step process we will use to achieve this goal. 
  • Giving clear and concise feedback to the swimmer is essential, using the analogy of summarising the key points in 30 seconds or less.

Common reasons for different swimming approaches

59:02 -

  • I have 20 years of experience in video analysis and collected over 10,000
  • recorded video analysis sessions of swimmers, identifying patterns and trends in how I communicate with each swimmer based on their swim type. 
  • By recognising six different swim types and attaching learning styles and
  • personalities, I can tailor my coaching approach to suit each swimmer's needs. 
  • For example, an Arnie swimmer who's very kinesthetic will only spend 10-12 minutes on video analysis, whereas an Overglider who wants to understand the science and logic behind what I'm telling them may spend up to 45 minutes on video analysis. 
  • I believe in customising the coaching experience for the individual swimmer, considering their learning styles, personalities, backgrounds, and experiences. 
  • This approach is crucial for effective coaching and improving each swimmer's technique.

Stroke rate ramp test

1:01:53 -

  • I enjoy these but usually do not conduct stroke rate ramp tests in the first session with a swimmer. 
  • A swimmer's optimal range of strokes per minute depends on their speed, height and build and is available in a stroke rate chart.
  • Doing a stroke rate ramp test in the first session is ineffective since it is usually better to wait a few weeks for the swimmer to adjust to the changes. 
  • In a second session, we would identify a swimmer's stroke type and adjust the stroke rate accordingly, typically starting slower than the swimmer's current rate.
  • I count the number of strokes, the lap time and the swimmer's perceived exertion on a scale of 1 to 10. 
  • Finally, I asked the swimmer to provide feedback on how the swim felt, such as whether it was fluid or awkward.
  • The test is limited in distance, only covering 50 meters, but the idea is to encourage swimmers to use a tempo trainer to further train at their optimal stroke rate.
  • We use the test to try different stroke rates and record the swimmer's response and times. 
  • The stroke rate ramp test is described as a practical and fun way to help swimmers improve their performance and is based on physiological ramp tests that we did at Bath University.

Tempo trainer

1:08.34 –

  • One of the modes used for cycle times is called red mist cycles, which allows for the standardisation of training sessions across a group of swimmers. 
  • The range in any given red mist session can be between 1min15s/100m at the threshold pace up to 2min15s/100m. 
  • The coach might set a training session where they're not swimming at a predetermined pace, but they ensure that each swimmer gets a standardised amount of recovery based on trying to get ahead of the beeper. 
  • This is similar to a classic master session where the coach might say, "We're going to go 10x100m on a 1min30s cycle. If you swim 1min20s, you get 10s rest." 
  • However, doing it on a clock is typically rounded out to the easiest way of reading the clock, which gives a very different type of session based on the swimmers relative to their threshold pace. 
  • In contrast, the red mist cycles are relative to each swimmer's threshold pace, which ensures standardisation across the board.
  • This means that every swimmer in the squad gets the same physiological response regardless of their pace because the session has been written to deliver that.

Top three mistakes that you see in age group swimmers 

1:10:36 –

  • I often see swimmers making the mistake of holding their breath underwater, exacerbating poor body position and making the activity more anaerobic. 
  • To address this issue, I teach swimmers to exhale correctly, which helps them sink without using their arms or legs. 
  • When something goes wrong with a swimmer's stroke, it usually happens when they take a breath.
  • Another common issue I observe is crossing over in front of the head, which can put pressure on the front of the shoulder. To fix this, I use the javelin drill, which involves kicking on your side with a paddle on the lead hand and then swimming freestyle, breathing away from that paddle.
  • The final would be the catch and pull-through
  • technique.
  • We need to focus on the depth of the hand at the start of the catch rather than dropping the elbow. 
  • The depth of the hand is crucial in setting up a better catch and pull-through, and it is an issue he frequently sees in swimmers. I dislike the term "drop the elbow" because the elbow height is usually not significantly different in elite swimmers compared to non-elite swimmers. 

Rapid fire questions

1:15:27 -

What is your favourite place to train?

My absolute favourite place to train is a place called Layton Beach down here in Perth in, Western Australia.  But it's not so much the place; it's the person I swim with.  And every Sunday morning, I swim
with my mate Chris down there through the water

What bucket list race or event would you want to do?

For the last 10 or 15 years, I've mainly focused on marathon
swimming.  And that's taken me to some crazy and cool places.  Last year, I was in Montenegro doing this brand-new swim. 
It's called the Ultra Swim 33.3, which is a fantastic event.  The idea is you do a 33 km split over four days.  33 km is the theoretical shortest
distance between Dover and Calais for the  English Channel, which I did as a continuous swim in 2011.  But this event is designed to get
swimmers in and almost do it on a Tour de France style of racing
where the winner has a theoretical yellow jersey each day, and you accumulate towards the end of the race.  So that was a great event to do last year. But on my bucket list, one of the races I've never done is the Laguna Foquette Triathlon in Thailand. The swim is in two parts.  You start in a buoyant salty ocean or seawater.  You run over a little bank, and then you go into this lagoon, which is freshwater.  And everyone says that the second part of the swim is terrible because you feel like you're sinking low in the water there.  

If you could instantly acquire an expert level in any skill in the world for yourself, what would that be?  

I'd learn to play a musical instrument, specifically the guitar.  


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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