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What’s The Best Swim Training Mix?

What’s The Best Swim Training Mix?

Before going into detail on the getting the ‘swim’ mix right, let me say that we at Trisutto view the whole mix of swim, bike and run disciplines as one. As such our coaches are taught to understand the impact of sessions and how they fit within a holistic program as opposed to isolating each discipline on an individual basis.

For example, if we had a hard interval run workout before the swim session we would not back it up with a speed or heart rate set in the pool, but an aerobic or recovery set. That acknowledged, let’s look at the swim specific mix that we believe allows swim improvement while also enhancing triathlon performances.

For age groupers who can find the time for three to four swim sets a week here is a basic breakdown:

1) Speed

We would look at a speed set of short but longer rest swims.

This set is characterised as 1 part work and 2 or 3 parts rest over distances no greater than 25m.

2) Endurance

One endurance day trying to cover at least the time of race distance.

We would look at this as 4 parts work, 1 part rest or 3 parts work and 1 part rest.

3) Heart Rate

A heart rate set or an anaerobic threshold set. Distance no higher than 100m per rep. My preference is for shorter 50ms or even on occasions 25s. 3 parts work 2 parts rest or even 1 part work 1 part rest.

4) Long Set

If we have the luxury of a 4th session within the week we would use it as an aerobic set or long slow recovery set with low heart rate but still minimum 45 minutes of work.

While I know many of our European age groupers may say ‘4 sessions, that’s a lot!’ I can assure those same athletes their triathlon performance is being hindered with any less. Swimming can have a double effect of not just helping your swim but can really help develop your cardiovascular fitness for the run.

It’s no coincidence in a half Iron distance that the people who swim over three times a week are also the ones motoring home the last 5km of the run.

To conclude:

I will answer the question / criticism that I’m going to be emailed by many:

Yes, I know I have included only one heart rate or threshold set. But before you shake your head in despair, remember we have to bike and run and during these sessions we will also be looking for a similar set.

The absolute biggest mistake in triathlon is not modifying the specific training routine of the swim, bike or run to adapt to a three discipline sport.

Triathlon is triathlon and our secret sauce is in getting the mix right. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Selecting Swim Interval Distances

Selecting Swim Interval Distances

Campers completing interval sets at Cyprus recently.

One of the most frequent questions asked by athletes and coaches is why in swimming do we gravitate to shorter distance reps done many times?

‘If an Ironman race is 3.8km, why swim 40 x 100m instead of a straight 4km to ‘get the distance’?’

The answer is about technique and the ability of the individual athlete to hold the stroke.

In triathlon even our shorter swims are considered ‘long’ by mainstream swimming standards. For an Olympic distance race we are swimming 1500m and for an Ironman 3800m, which for the sake of simplicity let’s say equates to 1500 arm strokes for the shorter distance and 3800-4000 for the longer.

This brings me to ask – what is more important? To encourage conditioning of the muscles for the good stroke, or cardiovascular conditioning to cover the distance?

Using the rest intervals of the repetition can help us have both. Keeping the rest less than the length of time of the‎ interval itself is a good rule of thumb.

How we break our own training down is often like this:

3 parts interval and 1 part rest.

If this is held for over 45 minutes of actual work time, you will gain a cardiovascular benefit. Keeping the intervals short will also allow you to gain more good strokes as it gives the arms a short break many times over the actual time of the set. Thus the athlete can cover a longer ti‎me duration with a better stroke, giving both arms and cardio an excellent work out.

It’s important to understand that an athlete who loses his stroke after 5 minutes during a 1500m non stop swim will get an inferior workout than a person doing 60 x 25m with 10 seconds rest while keeping tempo and stroke for more of the workout.

It we are dealing with a poor swimmer, or an athlete new to swimming, I even prefer to do 4 sets of 15 x 25m with a 5 minutes rest rather than to push on when I can see the stroke is falling apart.

For international swimmers I like sets of 50m efforts over 200m or 100m efforts over 400m.

Indeed some of my best distance swimmers would do a set of 200 x 25m on 25 seconds.

We frequently use sets like 80-100 x 50m on with the rest as short as 10 seconds.

For even the best triathlon swimmers I rarely use 200m or 400m efforts with totally short rest. Instead we may kick down with varying rest intervals, shortening from 30 seconds to 20 to 10 to 5 then back up to 30 seconds and keep revolving them.

Or we might change the intensity:

A session such as 3 x (3 x 400m)

1. Moderate 2. Medium. 3. Mad

With a set interval of around 30 seconds so we still get an aerobic outcome. However, we mix it up. Short interval work combined with the above longer work and then, yes, the non-stop swim.

cyprus_intervals_2We typically use swim equipment when doing the non-stop swim.

When we do the non-stop swim we use the swim equipment. Paddles and pull buoy or pull buoy only. The very best triathlon swimmers may add a band. While we see this as power endurance training, we also do this so we can keep our stroke in place. The poorer the swimmer the less stroke mechanic mistakes are made with the swim gear. This again comes back to thinking about how many good strokes we take.

In conclusion, make a judgement on your level or your athletes level then apply the above information to your swim program. And remember it’s individual!

Nicola Spirig’s most effective set is 100 x 50m

Daniela Ryf’s most effective set is 400s done with a pull buoy.

And a Mary Beth Ellis favourite – hers, not mine is 200 x 25m!

You too can benefit by understanding the better the mechanics over time and distance the better you will swim on race day. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Dare to be Different

Last week I had the pleasure of watching Gregorio Paltrinieri at the European Championships.

When I think about athletic excellence what comes to mind is a perfect technique, effortless movements, speed without looking like working hard.

In swimming an effortless, ‘perfect’ looking stroke is usually defined as high elbow recovery, no-splash gentle entry, rhythmical kick, effortless slicing through the water. This is often called a classical stroke but is it a must when it comes to competitive swimming, whether in the pool, open water or first leg of triathlon? Obviously NOT!

I don’t really follow swimming but I was intrigued by a young Italian swimmer who I first heard about few years ago as he finished 5th in 1500m during London Olympics at the age of 17. Then he sky-rocketed to the European swimming scene after beating the European 1500m record during the championship in Berlin and winning World Championship in Kazan. I watched him race a few times and what amazed me was how different he looked compared with other swimmers in the race, how unconventional and different his technique was. Even Italian commentators describe is as ‘tecnica assimmetrica’. I was wondering how the hell he can swim so fast at the same time being so different?… I just thought it must be a freak and I continued practising my ‘high elbow’ recovery.

Since I stared working with Brett (Sutton) we regularly discuss the swimming technique nuances, different approaches to differently body shapes, different training principles, how to generate force under the water and how to develop and coach different athletes. A few conclusions are obvious and a few are less so, but I would summarise it in few points relevant to longer distance and triathlon swimming:

  • Swimmers can look different above the water and still swim fast as long as what they do above the water does not disturb the propulsion phase.
  • Good swimmers grab and hold a lot of water and then higher elbow comes handy but it is a high elbow below the water.
  • Good swimmers put power in the ‘right place’ – push water backwards with force, a lot of force.
  • Strong kick is not necessary in longer distance swimming, it is primarily used to balance the body.

Having worked with Trisutto squad for two years and equipped with both theoretical and practical knowledge I was excited to head to London Olympic Park swimming pool last week. Since London was hosting 2016 European Swimming Championship I wanted to see this unusually looking Italian swimmer in action.

Needless to day he didn’t disappoint! From first 100 meters he was in the front doing what he does best – swimming fast, applying the power in the right place, swinging his left arm forcefully across the water to allow right arm to push water back and all this pretty much without the kick, just light movements of his legs to balance his body. He won by almost 20 seconds beating the European record, 2nd fastest 1500m in the history only 3 sec under the world record.

Some may say his swimming looks ugly, some may say it is unconventional or just wrong, however, it works for him. The same applies to all of us, it doesn’t matter how you look if it works for you, if you swim fast, if you enjoy swimming, if it is not broken don’t change it. At the end of the day being different is not bad if you are winning. Hats off to his coaches for not trying to fit him into a swimming template.

Why I have written this blog? Good question! I wanted to share my experience with the community and tell you what I was thinking about when I was watching the race: If you asked me for the definition of ‘total body force’ as advocating by Trisutto I would have no doubt – this is it! Gregorio Pantrinieri, the total body force master.

Happy swimming! online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Swimming Towards Faster Bike Splits

Swimming Towards Faster Bike Splits

Coach Mat with the squad in Gran Canaria. 

Transitions from sport to sport is the key feature in triathlon, where the preceding activity will affect the succeeding. As a rule of thumb, the less energy consumed in the previous leg, the more energy you have for the following.

Swimming is arguably the most energy consuming of all 3 sports and since it’s the first event of the race, it’s critical to be properly conditioned, have sustainable bio-mechanics and develop a more efficient energy system. Improving on those 3 basic parameters will delay the on-set of fatigue, keep the blood acidity low and heart rate controlled.

This makes reaching your best bike split not entirely about increased riding fitness or perfecting the infinite details surrounding cycling, but more of a matter of “how fresh” you feel mounting your bike after swimming in open water. Since the competition style of triathlon makes it very difficult to emulate race day in training, working repeatedly on specific principals will make an athlete ready for the stress of real world competition.

It’s important to understand that those who do come from a swimming background, can definitely get away with less swim training and still perform well.

Be serious with your swim training

A lot of triathletes neglect their swim training since it’s the leg that takes the less time in the races, particularly in the longer distances. Those who don’t come from a swimming background are usually the first to neglect it. However, it’s important to be able to swim longer or at higher intensity than the race day distance or you might struggle later in the event, due to compounding fatigue where everything was given on the swim.

Swimming is a sport that can consistently be done safely in higher volume and greater intensity than biking and running, since it causes less impact to the body because we are suspended in water. Then it utilizes more of our cardiovascular system and engages different muscle groups, particularly in our upper body. This also makes swimming a better sport for overall conditioning.

Give your legs a break and use the swim toys


There’s a lot of discussion on the difference between a “high beat” and “low beat” kick style of swimming. Evidently, a “high beat” kicker will require more overall energy and raise their heart rate sooner due to a higher consumption of oxygen. Where a “low beat” kicker will save up his leg energy for later on and keep his heart rate lower, as less muscles are engaged.

Using paddles/pull/band equipment in training will allow the athletes to gradually shift into a more economical kicking style that targets the upper body better, then depends less on their legs for propulsion and lift. This is not only for races, but also in training, where more leg energy will be left to be poured into other workouts, thus increasing the quality of all workouts.

Swim toys also help to train for longer durations, add variety and help maintain your range of motion as you fatigue. All the while helping to simulate swimming in a wetsuit.

Let the lactic acid sit and stick

Skip the warm down once per week after a specific and high exertion main set. This will give an extreme sensation of “heavy shoulders” for the rest of the day and will subtly teach athletes on how to deal with this sensation by developing an ease and familiarity with the discomfort.

The effect of not doing a proper warm down after a hard swim will surely be felt for a few hours – just like it does on race day, during the later stages. This is due to a lack of circulation and few over-head movements required. Lactic acid is a very sticky substance and will remain stuck around the bones, so it’s important to be able to deal with it, mentally and physically, as it does affect the fluidity and comfort of our movements.

Don’t spend too much time at the walls

The overall value of workouts are quantified by how much distance is covered in a particular duration. So once per week or every 5 days, do an up-tempo aerobic set, where you slowly decrease the recovery time between efforts. Reduce it through-out the swim workout and eventually maintain those short “send-off” cycles over time.

The length of intervals can be short, medium or long, depending on your ability and distance you’re training for. The ultimate goal is to swim slightly above your race effort, so that your race effort feels more manageable come race day. Then as you become stronger, your system will be more efficient at a lower intensity, increasing your average cruising speed. This will allow the athlete’s body to consume less energy, oxygen and produce less lactic acid at their best aerobic effort than before.

These specific “short rest” sessions at high intensity can be painful and many avoid them by doing drills or speed work with lots of rest, of which won’t train the desired system to improve your top end aerobic capacity.

For those who come from a swim background…

GC Camp Swim7-web

It’s important to train and understand the difference between being in “swim fast” condition or in “swim strong” condition. Former swimmers have the ability to tap into deeper and higher intensity than non-swimmers, thus possibly making their engines “burn too hot”, of which can greatly affect the later stages of a triathlon.

Being in “swim fast” condition is the ability to go at your highest velocity for the given distance, of which will require a lot of energy and risk forcing the athletes to recover in the early stages of the bike. Kind of like a gas guzzling sports car who’s efficiency is overlooked by the numbers of its top end speed. This is developed by focusing on short/intense efforts with ample rest between and having more idealistic bio-mechanics.

Being in “swim strong” condition is the ability to sustain sub maximal velocity, longer, further and under any circumstances. Like an economical diesel engine, who once is up and going, can maintain a speed just below its top velocity, but for an extended duration. This is developed by focusing on longer/steadier effort with reduced rest between and somewhat compromised bio-mechanics.

To conclude:

The bike can also be trained specifically to adapt for a better transition, by doing swim/bike workouts or some bike rides, the emphasis is on getting at it from the first few minutes of pedaling, gradually and consistently tightening the tempo. Then simultaneously focusing on being dynamic on your bike, which will develop some “starting pep” and train your body to get going sooner than later!

In the end, being extra swim fit does not mean a faster swim spilt, but rather a better overall performance across the line. As cliché as it might sound, the mind set needs to be tweaked from swim+bike+run, to triathlon!

Mat O’Halloran is the former Asian Tri Coach of the year. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Don’t Drink, Don’t Sink

Don’t Drink, Don’t Sink

Educating new camp athletes on the benefits of a water bottle on swim deck!

Each season brings a new group of triathletes and with them their inevitable water bottles to the side of the swim pool. Season after season I have tried to explain why this coach doesn’t entertain them.

Before we start let me clarify;

In very high heat and humidity camps we do allow water bottles on deck – in fact encourage it.

However, in normal circumstances our pros or age groupers refrain from drinking out of a water bottle while swimming.


If we do an Ironman we are not able to replenish our hydration supplies for at least one hour in the swim.

The actual time without hydration can be much more.

Not only are you swimming without breaks, but there is plenty of time standing around after the warm up being marshalled for the swim start.

It has been my clear observation that there is no drink station on the swim course or at the start area before entering the water. So even the very best swimmers wait at least 1hr 30 before they can take on any fluid other than the stuff they are swimming in.

To see athletes at swim training taking a drink between sets is bad enough. Seeing age group athletes sneaking a quick sip on their water bottle in between reps is ridiculous.

This is training your system to expect to be given water. Water it won’t get on race day.

If one is accustomed to drinking in the middle of your swimming, the body won’t adapt well when it doesn’t get its normal hydration. Why would anyone expect it to?

At we believe that for an Ironman everything can and needs to be trained. Drinking a litre of water at training for an hour when on race day we are allowed none is a recipe for impending disaster.

GC Camp Swim-blog

Remember this, we are also usually racing in a wetsuit that increases our core body temperature. You will sweat much more on race day than in your normal swim in the pool.

Thus not allowing athletes to drink out of a water bottle during swim workouts is training your system to cope with a race day situation. It’s not a punishment and it’s not being mean.

It’s specific training for a very real problem.

Of course health experts will advise you to keep hydrated by swimming with bottle. That’s their job.

But the same experts would also be unlikely to advise you that swimming 3.8km, riding 180km and running 42.2km in the same day is a good idea for your health either.

But where is the fun in that?

I stood on deck for 15 years as a professional swim coach, usually with around 50 athletes in the water at any one time. Swim starts are very early morning in Australia (usually around 5-530am) and most athletes skip ‘real breakfast’ to come straight to the pool with a cup of chocolate or coffee to wake them up. These athletes swim between 5-6km each session. Some 8-10km.

You wouldn’t see water bottles on the swim deck, nor would you see anyone fainting or passing out because of dehydration either.

The longest race these athletes would do is perhaps 17 minutes for a 1500m.

Meanwhile, our sport asks age-groupers to swim without water for a minimum of 1 hour and be without hydration for anything up to 2 hours. Yet these are the ones training themselves to be water dependent.

I can advise if you that if have hydrated well before you enter the pool area and swim between 30 minutes to 1hr 30 in the water, then having a water bottle is not making you a better triathlete.

It could however be ensuring that you are going to have a severe problem on race day! online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Swim BottleSwim bottle receiving the treatment.

Kick It!: Training a Functional Freestyle Kick

Kick It!: Training a Functional Freestyle Kick

Coach Mateo on deck at our Calgary camp.

My last article, One-Arm Drown, provided a look at the potential benefits and limitations of swim drills and how we incorporate them into training on a very limited basis. Similarly, as I wrote in that article, I do not have my athletes do isolated kick work:

The kick, as I coach it, is not primarily intended for propulsive drive. Rather, I train athletes to develop a kick that is streamlined (or contained within their streamline shadow) and therefore not a liability. A functional kick helps a swimmer with timing and flow. As such, rather than devoting time to isolated kick training, I have my athletes do functional kick work within the broader freestyle swim training.

This article presents the three kicking exercises that I incorporate into swim training: triple switch, kick burst, and overkick.

Triple Switch

This is a functional kick exercise that allows the swimmer to train the kick while actually swimming freestyle. In addition to the kick, this drill also works on body awareness, streamlining, balance, stability, and breath control, and relaxation or composure under stress.


For triple switch the athlete takes three strokes and then pauses in the sideline streamline position with the lead arm extended to the front. The finishing arm is extended to the rear so that the thumb is touching his thigh, at the front of the leg, below his speedo. During the pause, the athlete executes six small and quick flutter kicks. The range of the kick must be contained within the swimmers streamline shadow. The key to this drill is in having the swimmer only breathe on the second stroke of each three-stroke sequence. By breathing on the second stroke only, the swimmer trains stability, breath control, relaxation, and focus. In triple switch, breathing on the first or third stroke can cause a swimmer to over-rotate and therefore compromise stability, whereas breathing on the second stroke in this drill promotes streamlining and stability.

Kick Burst

At first, many swimmers have difficulty distinguishing kick burst from triple switch. However, these are actually two very different exercises. When done correctly kick burst becomes a high intensity effort. Kick burst also builds timing and power in the kick as well as body awareness in the stroke. This is an excellent drill to help with streamlining and balance for a swimmer whose legs pop open in the breath stroke. This drill is also a great way to introduce intensity in the warm-up or at any point in the session.


Kick burst is very close to standard swimming. When doing this drill, the athlete can breathe on either side or bilaterally. For kick burst, when the athlete initiates the breath stroke, she executes a vigorous burst of kicking from the moment that she begins the set and catch (press), all the way through the push to the finish. Once the breath stroke and the accompanying kick burst are complete, the swimmer reverts to her typical kicking style until the next breath stroke.


Like kick burst, overkick, is a high-intensity effort. This is the most effective drill for training power and intensity in the kick while still swimming normal freestyle. As such, this is my top choice to train a functional, powerful, streamlined, high-intensity kick within the freestyle stroke.


For overkick, the athlete simply executes a high-tempo, high-intensity, high-power kick while swimming an otherwise normal freestyle. As always, the kick must be performed within a small range of motion that is contained within the swimmer’s streamline shadow. The swimmer can do overkick while swimming at a moderate, strong, very strong, or fast tempo. By doing overkick within a variety of swim tempos, the athlete develops enhanced body awareness as well as a broader range of capabilities within his freestyle technique. Overkick is best done for short efforts of 15 to 35 meters with the remainder of the 25 or 50 being long and smooth freestyle with a standard kick.

I will occasionally mix triple switch and kick burst in the following set to complete a warm-up: 4×150 on the :10 rest, swum as 50 triple switch, 50 kick burst, 50 smooth. This set connects the athletes’ work on a functional freestyle kick, body awareness, stability, and intensity. It is a great way to get the squad focused and ready for the big work in the main set.

At the most fundamental level, these kick exercises can help to improve your kick mechanics and therefore enhance your streamlining, propulsion, and flow. Done with consistency and focus, these kick drills can increase your sense body awareness and confidence, and elevate your performance in the water and out.

View Coach Mateo Mercur’s full profile here.