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Swim Benches for Triathlon

Swim Benches for Triathlon

After our blog on the humble turbo trainer, we received requests for my thoughts on swim benches, and other swim tools used out of the water. As we have quite a few online athletes who work not only  shift work but in remote places, I thought we could pass on a little history with swim benches.

Let’s first answer the burning question, do you believe they are beneficial? The answer is an unequivocal yes. However, it depends what kind and if you use it to:

  • replace a swim workout
  • incorporate it with your training session
  • because you don’t have a pool alternative .

Then there are the many different swim benches available. Before I discuss some of them in detail, let me list them in my order of merit:

  1. isokinetic swim bench
  2. pulley system swim bench
  3. weighted pulley system swim bench
  4. own body weight resistance swim bench
  5. stretch chords. Or a bench set up with chords

Each of these apparatus can be improved further with a small tool, called the swim halo. With this device on your machine it can promote an arm position that mimics the correct position of the arms in the water.

Halo Swim Bench

Done properly swimmers who drop their elbows can be taken through the correct movement on the swim bench out of the water, so instruction can be very effective indeed.

As far back as 1978 I was using isokinetic boxes to develop my own swim benches. As I became a little more sophisticated around 1986 I was making them on the walls of our gym to be specific for breaststroke as well as butterfly. My squad would do a swim workout from 9am – 11am but I would still add between 2 and 4 workouts a week on these machines. These swim bench workouts being a minimum of 45 minutes of work.

It is fair to say that in triathlon I have not used them, as time becomes critical training for swim, bike and run inside the one Triathlon program. However as a teaching aid, or a replacement for lack of pool time availability, they are excellent.

Why do I prefer the isokinetic over the other 4 types of benches?  With this devise the power output lifts with the effort and acceleration of the stroke. This is crucial.  Benches that do not do this are counter productive as the weight or resistance is static along the full movement, and hence is dictated by the weakest point of your stroke.   The power phase of the stroke does not then have the necessary resistance to be developed as it could be. This is a massive problem. I have experimented with just strait isometric exercise on some of my lesser loved machines and I have found that I get a better result doing that in 3 or 4 static positions rather then doing the full swim stroke.

The second reason I ‘love the isokinetic movement’ is that once accustomed to it there is zero muscle pain the day afterwards – none. This is so important when doing multiple sports. We can do very very hard workouts for 1 hour 30 minutes on isokinetic machines and the next day zero soreness.  I have done only 25% of the work on other benches and athletes can’t lift their knives and forks at meal times for 3 days, they are that sore, and impedes training in the other disciplines.

One last point I’ll make on the execution of technique, is when using a swim bench, and trying to include the proper swim arm recovery. After the initial first ever session I personally abandoned that procedure. We recover the arm just by letting it swing back normally. I’m positive not doing a full swim recovery is not impeding improvement.

In summary,  if an athlete has pool access and only swims 3 times a week would I replace one of these swim workouts with a swim bench workout? Just the same answer when I’m asked should I replace one of these workouts with a gym session that will make me stronger. The answer from me is no.  And just if you miss-understood: No.   No.    No !

However, it is a legitimate tool to improve swimming if used correctly, and a great piece of kit for any level of swimmer




Key Performance Tools: The Turbo

Key Performance Tools: The Turbo

The terribly sad events of the past days are once again a reminder of the ever increasing dangers when training on public roads. It is worth reminding ourselves that the single most efficient and result producing tool for triathlon cycling improvement is the turbo trainer.

Discussing training with age group athletes at our training camps, I observe that so many who already have a busy work and family schedule are also spending so much time ‘commuting’ to training, or engaging in activities that our Trisutto pro (non-working, no kids) athletes do not have time to do!

A lot of the programs I see incorporate gym strength training, which is a waste of valuable time in pursuit of sports specific strength, and also will not develop your specific skill level in any of the three disciplines. Instead we incorporate strength work directly into the disciplines of swim, bike and run.

The reasoning is simple, but very effective:

What we’re trying to do is engage and strengthen the muscle groups that actually perform the discipline while using the correct skill technique for our sport.

Riding a turbo is far superior to road riding if you wish to become a bike monster! It can be controlled, it can be monitored and through smart training I’ve seen the turbo turn many a poor cyclist into a good one. For busy age group athletes, riding the turbo is also time efficient, with no commute to get to training routes considered safer for riding. Instead just hop on, and ‘give it a tonk’!

Always have and always will be a fan of the turbo.

In my earlier days a turbo set was an every second ride occurrence, however with the onset of ITU legal draft races I let it go. With the last years increasing focus on Ironman I reintroduced it as a big part of what we do. Athletes don’t have to work on if it is not to their liking, however let me be clear:

It is the key to opening the door to time-trialling success, and is at the core of our TBF (Total Body Force) method. The turbo:

– Addresses time management issues (no commute, no gym).

– Better promotes strength acquisition within the specific cycling muscles

– Addresses safety concerns of training on public roads

– Is suitable for all weather conditions (too hot, too cold, too wet), seasons, daylight or nighttime hours.

Efficient, Sport specific and Safe Bike Training

Priorities – What Will Really Make You Faster

Priorities – What Will Really Make You Faster

During our off season, many of us ask ourselves what our priorities are for the next triathlon season.

Different people have different priorities. For some it may be improving their swim, learning more about different training methods at a training camp, or perhaps upgrading their equipment. Sometimes this can lead to buying new equipment we don’t really need (or want), although another jersey or a new bike may provide motivation to train harder. 😉 Priorities all serve a similar purpose – to help us to be faster in the next season.

Every year there are ‘breakthroughs’ in new equipment, training protocols, recovery methods, and nutritional products. However, we should not forget the basics, of what actually makes us faster. It is training  and common sense…, so often forgotten or over shadowed by the promises of improvements without effort or commonly called ‘free speed’.

I recently came across an article (Forget The Gadgets and Hacks: Nail The Basics) which examined these current trends in a simple but powerful comparison. Athletes who are chasing the ‘last’ 1% might have forgotten that what actually makes them faster is the ‘first’ 99%. The 99% being the basics: a sound training plan executed well, accompanied by recovery (primarily sleep) and good natural nutrition.

It is my belief as a coach that even sound nutrition and recovery are secondary to a good training plan executed well!


Avoiding the gadgets decreases distractions. Photo: The Guardian

I would like to use the example of an athlete I coach. She has a very demanding and stressful job, gets by on limited sleep, and her nutrition could be better. She has a basic understanding of equipment, and her position on the bike has room for improvement. Despite what many would see as shortcomings, she has instead focused on the 99%. The result; a 2 hour improvement in her Ironman.

Why has she improved?
She takes her training seriously, yet is not tempted or distracted by the 1%. Whilst training is a priority in her busy schedule, she still finds time for family and friends. However what she does not spend time on is reading about triathlon, researching new equipment, trying superfoods, doing fitness tests and analysing every workout! Her head is not filled with clutter. If she has an extra 30 minutes, she goes for a short swim or a run.

With permission below are extracts taken from her race feedback after her recent ‘A’ race (where she recorded her huge Ironman distance PB).

  • I was so fit and felt so good. I was actually thinking the other day that one of the advantages of always eating sweets and all sorts of things is that then in the races I can eat anything on the bike with no problems at all. I ate so many chocolates on the bike that for a moment I thought I would end the Ironman weighing more than when I had started!
  • Yes it is true about pushing more in the Ironman. I do not think I could have pushed more on the run, but then when I see the pictures at the finish still looking so fresh, I am wondering if I just wanted to look good for the picture, that I always keep 1% energy to cross the finish line, or maybe simply that I still had something more to give?
  • My bike position, indeed, possibly loads to improve (I did not tell you as I felt embarrassed but I had not practiced with the aerobars on my bike before the race except that day in 70.3 race last month, all the aerobar position I had practiced was on the watt bike in the gym).
  • My friends and triathlon colleagues were shocked by my performance in the Ironman, and started asking about the type of wheels I had as they noticed I never had aero wheels before. None asked about the training plan, the coach ( or all the effort we have put in to make me fitter; rather it was like they credited it to the wheels only.
  • We did certainly cause some sort of shock in my club as I was first female in the race and nobody expected this considering I was one of the slowest people on the bike at any distance and now many want to know about what do I do, what bike I have, etc etc. I would rather be unnoticed and keep doing my training.
  • I am recovering much faster than I had expected. I have been doing 20 minutes of swim, or very easy bike every day, and that has helped a lot.
  • Training for the Ironman was easy. Every day I did the training plan you sent me. I have no time to read or think about my sessions, it is your job to do all this stuff and give me sessions that are right for me.

The improvements this athlete achieved last season were great. Could she improve more? Probably yes!
We start this season with more experience, and with that we may choose to focus more on nutrition, better equipment and recovery. Last season we worked with what we had, with the time available, and what she was comfortable with. We concentrated on the first 90%, resulting in an outstanding race performance.

Happy Training and a successful 2017 season.


Rafal Medak is a coach based in London.
Join Rafal in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria in March and April for his Triathlon Camps. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.


Bike Shoes & Cleat Positions

Bike Shoes & Cleat Positions

Daniela Ryf with the mid-foot cleat position.

Since working with Age Group athletes it is clear that they usually want to know about the specific, technical parts to our training. Unless we’re talking the bike. On the bike questions usually come down to the mechanical side and why we use specific equipment.

The three most commonly asked questions in order ‎of popularity:

1) Shoes & Cleat positions

2) Size of Cranks

3) Seat position on the bike

It doesn’t matter in which country, these are the hot topics.

Let’s address the first today.

With Daniela Ryf’s explosive performances this year and the wearing of the Biomac ‘ballet shoes’ early in the season, it has created the buzz around the fact that the shoes are in fact are custom made for mid-foot cleats. Thus giving a completely different position on the bike.

While this position was new for Daniela, several squad members have been using a compilation of different cleat positions since 1993.

Our Head German Coach, Jo Spindler, used them for 10 years while racing extremely successfully and running off the bike with times equal to the sport’s superstars. I will ask Jo to follow up on this blog with his take on the topic in more technical detail.

Diana Riesler_BikeJo Spindler coached athlete & multiple Ironman Champion, Diana Riesler.

However, for now I will point out why we incorporate them into some of our athletes’ programs:

The number one point is we do not use them primarily to help bike speed.

I am in the business of training triathletes. Not cyclists. We use this set up primarily to enhance the run component of our ‎triathlon.

While remembering our bike set up is a total package. Pedal placement does not take place without crank length and seat angle position being accounted for. We don’t just change the shoe position, we break it down in finite parts just as we do with the swim.

There must be a reason for any change and it must not fit just what is best for the bike, but what will work in harmony with the run.

Mid-foot in my opinion is superior in time-trialling and running off the bike if one pushes bigger gears and does not rely on the spinning motion. There is a view that it can be beneficial to higher cadences ‎also, but I personally use it for the less spin inclined.

We do not advocate it for the drafting races.

While it may be easy to assume it works for Daniela Ryf because of her superior size plus talent – as an example I would prefer to look to Diana Riesler, who had a breakthrough year in 2015 with Ironman 70.3 and Ironman wins. Diana has ridden at least 10 Ironman performance with a sub 5-hour ride. What makes that so impressive? She weighs 52kg. A pocket rocket on the bike who has improved her run greatly with each season.

Diana also rides more forward and deep, just as the Angry Bird. She wears the custom Biomac shoes as explained here. Size and power of the athlete is not the main ingredient to the sub 5-hour club.

Diana_Jo_ShoeDiana’s customised cleat position.


We use the shoes on very few athletes because they must be able to cope with the psychological aspects of using a technique that is not espoused through the triathlon community.

However, if athletes can and are willing to change their position on the bike it is our opinion that it takes away some of the workload off specific calf muscles, that in turn allows the athlete to run faster and further off the bike. online professional coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Intensity Measuring Tools – Pros and Cons

Intensity Measuring Tools – Pros and Cons

A few of our gadgets.

Intensity is the measure of how hard we are going. As endurance athletes we need to care about intensity because we don’t want to go out too hard and explode, or too easy and leave time on the table.

There are multiple ways to measure intensity; heart rate monitors, GPS units, pool clocks etc., but the most important one that all athletes should strive to master is ‘perceived exertion.’ I highly recommend it because we have it with us all the time and it doesn’t need batteries or recharging. I also really like the fact that it makes us pay attention to what’s really going on in our body – it engages you and this engagement is what helps us raise our level big time. Why is that? Because focusing on perceived exertion makes you pay attention to your breathing, to your muscles and to your fatigue level. Yes, it can very subjective (particularly when just learning) and that’s why I have no problem with beginners using the technology during their first couple of seasons.

My veterans on the other hand always get “the look” by Coach when they are fussing about with their power meter zones or heart rates during workouts and races. I like to remind them that when you are gadget oriented you are susceptible to letting the numbers tell you how you are feeling. If you’re an experienced athlete and are still relying on a piece of equipment to tell you if you are executing properly then there has been a breakdown in the process already.

It’s a hard sell, but I often tell my age-group athletes not to waste 30 valuable minutes every day downloading and analysing every day activities on their Strava or Training Peaks accounts. Truth is it’s completely unnecessary, and 99% of the sub 8:30 Ironman triathletes I know don’t bother with things like that themselves. Why? They say they are too tired to be fussing around with it and instead would rather sleep the extra 30 minutes a day. To me that sounds like an excellent choice!

Race smart, but be brave in trusting yourself and your training.

Coach Luis Villavicencio had 7 World Championship qualifiers in 2015. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Luis_SquadSome of our Thursday morning swim animals this week! 

Swim Training in Short Pools

Swim Training in Short Pools

Daniela Ryf training with the anchor.

At our recent camp in Jeju we had to improvise as the Olympic standard pool closed down for three days over Korean Thanksgiving. It left our Kona-bound pros a little nervous, as during a crucial period in the lead up to the season’s ‘Big Dance’ they found themselves preparing in a 20m lap pool in the aqua park.

It has had me reflecting on the early days of my swim coaching career and how sessions with the stretch chord might help some age groupers who only have a small pool in their apartments or frequently travel long distances so they can get to a 25m or 50m pool. It’s quite possible you’d be better served doing every second workout in the mini-pool with a little bit of innovation.

Let me explain why. My first ever State Swimming Champion in the mid-70s came out of a winter swimming in a 12.5m pool.

Yes, off 8 laps to the 100m Bruce Leverton won the 100m backstroke final.

During our preparation in the swim ‘puddle’ we took inspiration from an Aussie swim great, Mark Kerry. Mark lived in a hotel complex run by his parents and they trained him to his first National Championships in a 16m pool (or 3 laps to 50m). Mark went on to great heights – American University, Olympic medals and a star career as a model in the USA.

Similarly, 10 years later I advised a swimmer in our team who lived in a remote area that she needn’t make the long trip to the big city as she had a 15m pool next door. Off her winter training she made the trip down to the Age Group Australian Championships to win the 100m butterfly in 63 seconds. Not too shabby. Triathlon’s best females swim about this for 100m freestyle now.


When asked by the media ‘how do you even swim in winter?’ they were taken aback that she did every swim main set using a $9 dollar swim stretch chord. Coach told her it would make her strong. It did. She represented Australia that year without leaving home.

Fast forward nearly 40 years. Nicola Spirig and Daniela Ryf both use the stretch chord to enhance their new strokes. Nicola uses hers in a 12m pool at the the Giardino Hotel in St Moritz. Daniela is using hers as I write in a hotel pool in Kona.

Yes, before the biggest race of her life Coach is perfectly happy to for her to swim in the hotel rather than 50m pool for certain sessions.

Having this equipment is a must for all triathletes who travel to race. It gives you the chance to swim at any hotel sized swim pool.

Michelle Derron searching for the wall using the stretch chord.

We also use a number of other swim tools apart from paddles and pull-buoy, which I have written about earlier. These were all developed from the days when heated pools were not the norm.

The ‘bucket’ was a favourite that my father would use to great effect. Inflicting many a lungbusting aerobic set in the most unlikely swim pools. The ‘parachute’ is a further innovation along with the Dennis Cotteral ‘Octopus’. We use a cut down version of this that is not as tough for the girls, known in the swim world as the ‘Octopussy’.

Add to this the 3m chord, the 10m chord and the 15m chord and we have all the tools to make any size pool feel like a long way.

These are all cheap options to the jet resistance pool that can also be bought anywhere in the world and be used with great effect.

So I hope with a little out of the box thinking you can turn that pool you think is too small into a positive addition to your swim program.

Short pool session in Jeju left no-one in any doubt that you can still get a very exhausting swim workout. online professional coaches are available to help improve your performance here.