Tag Archives: triathlon

Should swimming hard look hard?

Sun Yang, London Olympics. Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports.

Sun Yang, 2012 London Olympics. Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports.

Swimmers are a hard lot. We enter the pool at 5:30 in the morning, swim massive yards—swim them hard—and then do it again in the afternoon. We do it day after day. No easy sets. No extra rest. All pain. All guts. No glory. The only easy day was yesterday and all that. Right? Because to swim fast, we must do the following: Kick hard. Pull hard. Train hard. Swim hard. Race hard.

Hard, hard, hard.

I know because I’ve been there. I swam for thirteen years with Bob Gillett, who famously coached Misty Hyman to a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the early seventies and eighties, big yardage was the name of the game. As a seventh grader, I walked to school each morning after an 8,000-yard swim practice with wet hair and a tired smile, having derived a strange, masochistic pride from this, from working hard. If you are, or were, a competitive swimmer, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Then, after school, I got back in the pool and did it again. Day after day. Same thing. And this continued into my years as a collegiate swimmer at the U.S. Naval Academy. So I get it. Working hard. I really get it.

I think we all carry an innate sense of what working hard looks like. In swimming, the rooster-tailed, ferocious kick is a telltale sign that a swimmer is indeed working hard.

Those of you who have been coached by me, know I’m enamored with Sun Yang, the current world record holder in the 1500-meter freestyle. Why? Because he’s turning traditional thinking for how to go fast on its head. He’s doing what 99 percent of swim coaches in the world say you shouldn’t do, even for a distance specialist: He doesn’t kick enough. When he swims the 1500, he uses four kicks per stroke cycle. Only four. And at the London Olympics in 2012, where he breaks his own world record, there were plenty of times during his swim when he used only two kicks per stroke cycle! Check out  the video. Watch it for yourself.

This mindset of swim hard, kick hard, etcetera, is well ingrained in swimmers from the time we are small. But rather than try to describe this, I thought I’d let race commentary speak for itself.

I’ve excerpted much of what was said by two Australian commentators during Sun Yang’s historic swim at the Shanghai Aquatics Center in the summer of 2011 when he broke Grant Hackett’s 10-year-old record in the 1500-meter freestyle.

The announcers, Nicole Livingstone, an accomplished Australian Olympic swimmer, and Anthony Hudson, an Australian sportscaster, are incredulous—incredulous—when calling Sun Yang’s performance.

Particularly in Nicole’s case, it goes against everything she’s been taught, everything she knows. And the thing is, I get her. I understand the deeply-rooted psyche of a competitive swimmer, who grew up swimming when I did, who was successful because of the hard work and countless yards she put it in.

During the commentary, you hear it in her voice. In the inflection, tone, and cadence. I’ve tried to highlight those moments in the text below by italicizing when she emphasizes certain words.

Simply put,  her reaction is a telling statement on the swimming community’s collective mindset of what it looks like to go fast—it should look hard, as evidenced by a strong kick, of course.

This particular video clip begins 4:27 into Sun Yang’s swim.


For reference, the announcers’ words are written in blue. My comments are in black. The first time listed is the elapsed time in the video clip itself. The second time is Sun Yang’s running swim time. And finally, I’ve indicated who is speaking. I’ve not bothered with proper punctuation, truncating where necessary for brevity. Notes in brackets within the text of the commentary are my own additions.

:04/4:31/Nicole:   buries his head quite a bit on his recoveries

A high heads-up swim position used to be the norm, so it’s not surprising that Nicole would use the term “buried” to describe a head position where the head is straight and aligned with the spine.

:10/4:35/Nicole:   here’s the underwater, so nice elbow. Look at the pitch on the elbow!

Much of the post-race analyses I’ve read regarding Sun Yang’s races focus on his high elbow catch underwater. Indeed, this is brilliant. He is strong and fit and has trained countless yards to be able to hold this high elbow positioning during the catch for 1500 meters.

:15/4:40/Nicole:   but he does bury the head when he’s on his recovery strokes

At 500 m, 4:51:43, +2.61 WR   [I’ve added splits and time above WR pace throughout in bold]

:32/4:57/Nicole:   I don’t know whether or not that means there’s a slight amount of fatigue there . . . not looking at by how efficient he is and how easy he seems to be doing it

:42/5:07/Anthony:   well, it just seems like Cochrane [Ryan Cochrane from Canada, in second place] has to work so hard going back up the pool to try and stay on pace

True, it does look like there’s a lot more going on in the pool a few lanes over. If Ryan was leading at this point, it would be “well deserved” because it looks like he’s working hard.

1:08/5:33/Nicole:   really relaxed kick, as well

1:13/5:38/Nicole:   but otherwise, the feet are just dragging along behind him with a really nice balance to help out the arms

1:21/5:46/Nicole:   when he wants to sprint, those feet will come up, and get a lot quicker and really start going to a 6-beat kick, but just [exasperated sigh]. . . dragging at the moment

Nicole describes Sun Yang’s crisp, integrated kick as legs dragging or floating five different times in the commentary.

1:33/5:58/Nicole:   nice high elbow. The pitch on the elbow is just so dramatic.

1:37/6:04/Nicole:   so the arm is extended and it’s from the elbow to the hand that bends all the way down underneath him and then the rest of the arm follows to finish the stroke. It’s just phenomenal.

Nicole loves a good catch. Now that is hard swimming.

1:58/6:15/Nicole:   and the amount of work that he would do in the training pool with Denis Cotterell [Sun Yang’s coach and also Grant Hackett’s coach] to be able to race a fast 1500, is somewhere around 30 hours a week in the water . There’s a lot of cross-training that goes on, as well, these days. So he would be a very fit boy . . . very swimming fit and water fit, doing anywhere up to 100 kilometers a week in the water . . . for just 1500 meters.

Nicole speaks clearly and confidently about the merits of Sun Yang’s catch and also about his training and high volume. True, good technique needs many yards behind it to do what Sun Yang is doing.

At 700m, 6:48:81, +2.85 WR

3:13/7:40/Nicole:   there is no bubbles or whitewash under him at all

At 800m, 7:47:45, +2.98 WR

3:26/7:53/Nicole:   look at that, there’s just hardly any wash underneath

3:29/7:56/Nicole:   well, you see Ryan Cochrane on the other side as he enters his hand is a whole heap of bubbles that follows him down

3:35/8:02/Nicole:   Cochrane looks like he’s sprinting to keep some kind of contact with Yang

4:09/8:36/Nicole:   look at the legs, they’re just dragging. It’s almost like he’s doing a recovery freestyle

At 900m, 8:46:11, +3:06 WR

5:02/9:29/Nicole:   well, he’s obviously swimming fast because the other competitors can’t keep up with him. I think it’s a little bit misleading looking at how efficient his technique is. It makes you think like he’s not swimming hard. I’m sure he is going hard given that he’s going 29. 4, 29.3, 29.2

Nicole is having a difficult time reconciling what she’s seeing. Yes, Sun Yang is swimming fast. And the statement, “It makes you think like he’s not swimming hard,” says a lot. Darn it, Sun Yang. You’re supposed to look like you’re swimming hard! Don’t you understand? How can I call this race if it doesn’t look like you’re trying hard?

At 1000m, 9:44:98, +3.20 WR

5:19/9:44/Nicole:   now . . . I think Denis Cotterell would have said to him, ‘the last 500 meters, really start to work this, start to pick it up, start to give it something

As if he’s not working hard already. . . Of course, because of how “easy” he makes it look, she would assume his coach would say something like this. Warm-up’s over. Time to work. Hard.

6:04/10:29/Nicole:   so still, no sense of urgency for him

6:10/10:35/Nicole:   you can see the extension as he enters the water with his hand, how far that hand goes forward, lunges forward, under the water

At 1100m, 10:43:67, +3.11 WR

6:29/10:54/Nicole:   still straight down the center of the lane, he has not deviated from the center of the lane

6:38/11:03/Nicole:   head buried quite prominently when he breathes and he puts the head back down and really gets down low

Neutral head position. That’s a real humdinger.

6:59/11:24/Anthony:   Hackett’s last hundred was just on 57 seconds, so waiting to see what sort of time Sun Yang, if he’s still within striking range, could achieve

At 1200m, 11:42:21, +2.70 WR

7:36/12:01/Nicole:   there’s the underwater again. The lower half of the arm bends first after the entry, then the whole arm moves past down to the leg

7:52/12:17/Nicole:   and moving toward the lane rope a little bit, so maybe he’s starting to close his eyes a little bit more and trying to exert himself just a touch more

Nicole at this point is desperate for some exertion. Some evidence that Sun Yang is trying. That he’s working hard.

At 1300m, 12:41:16, +2.65 WR

8:17/12:42/Anthony:   2.65, he is gaining ground

8:48/13:13/Nicole:   if he’s going to do any sort of world record, he needs to move soon. I mean, he’s running out of race distance. That’s the pure fact of it.

She almost gets a little smug here. See, I told you. If you don’t work hard . . . well, that’s just the pure fact of it.

9:04/13:29/Nicole:   so maybe Grant Hackett’s world record will live to fight another Olympic Games. It’s been there since 2001.

She is hopeful indeed. This person, executing a ridiculously efficient swim stroke with the “dragging” legs just cannot move past a phenom like Grant Hackett, who utilized one of the strongest, sustainable kicks in swimming history.

9:12/13:38/Nicole:   there’s the bell lap

At 1400m, 13:39:92, +2.03 WR

9:13/13:39/Nicole:  What’s he got? What’s he got left? Is he tired?

9:20/13:46/Nicole:   Oh! There’s the kick!

Finally! This is it! This is how you go fast! She is the most excited she has been the entire race. Listen to her voice.

9:22/13:48/Anthony:   He’s really starting to rev it up now!

Yes! He’s working hard now! This is how you swim!

9:29/13:55/Anthony:   Sun Yang of China is working hard here!

Anthony says this proudly. Again. Finally. Something that makes sense. Hard work. He’s kicking hard. He’s in the last 75 meters of the race, but never mind that.

9:38/14:04/Nicole:   But look at the kick! I mean, he has had his legs floating for the first 1400 meters and it’s just been the most easy of strokes and now, look at the kick on him. The feet are right out of the water!

Halleluiah! The kick. He has a kick! He’s less than 25 meters from the finish, and finally, he’s decided to do it right!

9:50/14:16/Anthony:   Well, he’s going for it! He’s really gonna challenge here! This world record line, hopefully we’ll see it very shortly. Sun Yang of China, 14:23. We’re talking about a mark of 14:34:06. He’s gaining on it all the time! Grant Hackett will be very nervous right now!

10:07/14:33/Anthony:   Oh, what a performance! He’s gonna do it!

At 1500m, 14:34:14, -0.42 WR

10:12/Anthony:   Both records are gone! [World Record and Chinese Record]

10:19/Nicole:   What a time!

10:21/Anthony:    What an amazing way to do it, too, Nicole!

10:23/Nicole:   That is just incredible. He was nowhere near it with 100 to go. I think it was 2.6 he was away from it. And the last 100 meters, he’s gone 54 flat. 54 seconds in the last 100 meters. That was incredible. Imagine how fast he could go if he tried the whole way!

This is bar none the greatest line in the entire commentary. It all boils down to this in the swimming psyche.

10:49/Anthony:   And what an amazing mark, 14:34:14. So Grant Hackett’s record has been beaten. It was the one that survived . . . and we were hanging on to that one.

11:07/Nicole:   But we should say it stays at the Miami Swimming Club with Denis Cotterell, Sun Yang’s coach. Well done to Denis. A lot of hard yards, standing in the outdoor pool have been done between Sun Yang and Denis Cotterell

Yes, of course. It was the hard yards.

11:23/Nicole:   Wow. That was phenomenal. His stroke is just so efficient. So efficient. And then when he wants to put on a turn of speed, he just brings those legs in. Look at them. They’re just floating there. And in the last 100 meters, it was 54 flat. And he’s just brought in this massive 6-beat kick. And it wasn’t even the last 100. It was the last 50. His last 50 meters was 25.9.

11:51/Anthony:   It’s astonishing. As you said, he had plenty in reserve, didn’t he?

If you’ve made it this far in the article, congratulations. My hope is that this will make you think about what “hard” means. Swimming like Sun Yang—executing a clean, tight stroke with no bubbles or whitewash, while maintaining a high-elbow catch—is indeed hard. It is exacting. It takes hundreds of thousands of yards of dedicated, disciplined practice.

But the main point here is that a swim stroke shouldn’t look hard. If it looks hard, there’s probably a lot of extra stuff going on that’s creating unnecessary drag.

Would you ever want to watch a ballet dancer that looked like they were working hard? These are some of the strongest athletes in the world, but you would never know it. Which is as it should be.

Take that same example and move it underwater to your favorite aquatic animal–a fish, a dolphin, a shark. If they’re spastically shaking their tails, something is very wrong. These animals disturb the water hardly at all as they move through it, having evolved over millions of years to cut the cleanest possible line through the aquatic medium. You might see a momentary series of fast twitches of the tail if a fish needs a quick burst of speed, just like a human sprinter uses a strong kick for short periods or Sun Yang uses one to sprint home in the last 50 meters.

After any quick turns of speed, however, the fish returns to a quiet, rhythmic movement, no bubbles, no splash—but they are still moving fast. What does this mean for humans? For long-distance swimmers, in particular? A savage kick on the back end might not be necessary. Denis Cotterell certainly recognized this. He didn’t force Sun Yang into a box—into doing excess kicking he clearly doesn’t need. Bottom line, swimming in a quiet, graceful way in order to go fast should be ok. The experts—that is, any fish (and one human world record holder)—will attest to this.

2-count vs 3-count breathing

breath closeup“Do I need to swim with 3-count, or bilateral, breathing?”


I’m surprised how many swimmers believe they MUST take three strokes between breaths. It’s just not true.

A 2-count breathing pattern is perfectly acceptable.

2-count breathing means taking two strokes between breaths, thus taking your breath on the same side each time. This does not mean two stroke cycles between breaths. A cycle consists of two individual strokes.

But before I start on the pros and cons of 2-count and 3-count breathing patterns, you will notice that there is no mention below of 4-count, 5-count, or some other higher numbered breathing pattern.

Usually, anything higher than a 3-count breathing pattern is not sustainable for the longer distances found in triathlon swimming events.

And while I’m on the subject, always start with the breathing pattern you intend on keeping. Do not start a race with seven or ten strokes between breaths. You’ll fall behind quickly on the oxygen uptake and this usually doesn’t end well.

So back to 2-count versus 3-count breathing . . .

Technically speaking, 3-count breathing is the more efficient of the two breathing patterns because the head remains in a streamlined position longer. Reducing drag is good, so 3-count breathing must be good, right? Well, if you can sustain it, then yes, 3-count breathing is fine. Go for it. But what happens if you can’t sustain it?

Then 2-count breathing is a sound alternative.

“But everyone says I need to do 3-count breathing!”

Ok, so let’s look at how the fastest swimmers in the world do it.

Cases in point:

  • Men’s 1500-meter freestyle final, 2012 London Olympics. Only one swimmer of the final eight used 3-count breathing. Seven swimmers used 2-count breathing. Occasionally, you even see a quick swing breath where there is only one stroke between breaths.
  • Women’s 800-meter freestyle final, same Olympics. All eight women used 2-count breathing. Sometimes, you see a quick 2-3 transition, where the swimmer used 2-count breathing, but switched sides mid-pool using 3 strokes between breaths to begin breathing on the other side.

These are just two examples of many where the fastest swimmers in the world use 2-count breathing.

And you know what? It’s ok. If you need the oxygen, you should take it. Period.


  • You come to oxygen sooner. This is the biggie. Fulfilling oxygen needs trumps everything!
    • Scores of swimmers attempt 3-count breathing, only to fall behind on their oxygen intake, the stroke devolving into a panicked 2-count frenzy with lifting and lurching and who knows what else to get a breath now that they’re behind on their oxygen requirements. Far better to begin with 2-count breathing from the get-go and establish a relaxed, easy breathing pattern that is sustainable.
  • A more relaxed stroke
    • Given a common stroke rate of one stroke per second, you are only two seconds away from your next breath at any given moment.


  • Can lead to an uneven stroke if you only practice breathing to one side
    • However, if you always practice right-side breathing traveling in one direction down the length of the pool and return with left-side breathing, you will have practiced each side equally and your stroke will remain even.
  • “Limits” field of view in an open water environment
    • If you employ proper open water sighting techniques, this is a non-issue.


  • Body remains in streamline longer, producing less drag
    • The better the swimmer, the less the breathing pattern will factor. Better swimmers create less drag during the process of breathing, rolling more evenly on their longitudinal axes to attain the breath. So breathing more often is of little consequence with respect to creating drag.
    • For swimmers with poor breathing mechanics, who lift the head to breathe allowing the hips to drop, or who pull laterally to breathe, pulling their bodies off a straight alignment, having the head down in streamline for a longer period of time is of great benefit.
  • Promotes even body roll to both sides
    • You can still practice breathing to both sides with 2-count breathing, as explained above, but with 3-count breathing, this even roll to both sides is guaranteed.
  • Aids in awareness of positioning in the open water
    • Depending on venue, sighting to the sides may be the only thing you need, like if swimming in a narrow channel or river. In this case, 3-count breathing is a great help. Of course, if you’re able to breathe on both sides, even with 2-count breathing, you can switch sides at your leisure for sighting purposes.
    • Generally speaking, however, you will still need to sight looking forward to swim the straightest line, regardless of breathing pattern.


  • Could be too long between breaths to keep up with oxygen requirements
    • Your stroke rate might not be fast enough to accommodate waiting three full strokes until you see air again. If you are determined to swim with a 3-count breathing pattern, try increasing stroke rate, thereby reducing the amount of time between breaths, and this might allow you to do so.
    • Intensity level also greatly affects the ability to hold a 3-count breathing pattern. And to be clear, I’m talking about intensity over longer distances, like 200 meters and up, not a 50-meter sprint. At higher intensity efforts, oxygen requirements go up, so the need for a breath sooner often requires a switch to 2-count breathing. If you lower your intensity level, 3-count breathing might be sustainable.


Racing at Altitude

Lake Mary, Flagstaff, AZ

After the Ironman Lake Tahoe announcement, we have received many questions about how to race at altitude and what effects it can have on performance. The general consensus among the sports science community is that the effects from altitude are seen at altitudes above 3,500 feet. IM Lake Tahoe will be raced above 6,200 feet and definitely fits the definition of a race at altitude. Here locally, we have events in Flagstaff and Show Low that are raced at altitudes of 7,000 feet and 6,200 feet respectively.

Due to a decrease in atmospheric pressure at altitude, we take in less O2 per breath than we do at sea level. The body tries to make up for this O2 deficit by increasing the respiratory rate and the heart rate. This is an attempt by the body to increase the amount of O2 that is delivered to the muscles. The end result is that during exercise, we can expect to hit lactate threshold at slower paces and typically see higher HRs than we would at sea level.

So keep the following things in mind when racing at altitude. These are written with Olympic-distance racing in mind, but the principles can be applied across all distances. The intensities are obviously lower the longer the race distance.

Swim – Start very, very slow. Your breathing rate is fixed while swimming but there is less O2 available per breath than what you are used to. By fixed, this refers to the fact that you can only breathe every so many strokes because your head is otherwise underwater. If you are two-count breathing, you are only able to breathe once every two strokes. You cannot increase respiratory rate without increasing stroke rate. If you start too fast you will go into O2 debt (exceed LT) in about 2-4 min. We see this every year where people who start in a sprint end up breast stroking at the first buoy as they try and increase their respiratory rate (get the head out of the water) to get some more O2 into their system. Start slowly and build into the swim – stay in control. Do not sprint the first 200 meters! This applies to all racers – fast or not so fast. Be smart. Swimming at altitude is the biggest challenge you face on race day. Start slow and you will give yourself a chance.

Bike/Run – Trust your perceived exertion when racing at altitude. While HR is usually high when resting at altitude due to the body trying to get more oxygen where it needs to go, the HR is usually suppressed during exercise because we hit threshold at much lower outputs than we do at sea level. Expect to hurt the same as you would at threshold at sea level but you will be moving at a somewhat slower pace due to the decreased O2. The same goes for the run. You will hurt the same but will be moving slower than at sea level. Don’t get discouraged if you see slower mph or pace/mile than what you are used to. Just push yourself at what feels like a threshold effort and you will be right on course.  Realistically, racing a 7,000-foot course is probably not the likeliest place to set a PR J. You can expect a decrease in performance by about 7% at 7,000 feet. This means a 45-min 10K runner will be doing well to run under 49 min at 7,000 feet. Adjust your time goals accordingly. Try and ride at what feels like threshold to just below threshold on the bike and threshold to just above threshold on the run.

Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when at altitude as the increased respiratory rates can cause you to get dehydrated faster even when just walking around.

Have fun, race hard and enjoy the mountains!

Racing in the Heat – Sprint and Olympic Distance Triathlons

It looks like the summer is going to be here soon, so it’s time to talk about racing in the heat! Heat is the number one inhibitor of athletic performance in endurance sports. In other words, no one races their fastest when it is hot!

ice vestPhysiologists define extreme heat as any race taking place in 80 degrees or more. Runners have long known that best performances occur in temperatures near 55 degrees. For every 10 degrees above that, race pace slows by a few percent.

There is only so much blood in the body and when some of that blood is being diverted away from working muscles for cooling purposes, then we can’t do as much work. Also, an exercising body creates a tremendous amount of heat. Once core temperature exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), the brain forces the body to slow down so that core temperature does not become lethal.

Managing core temperature is the name of the game when racing in the heat. If you overheat the engine, then you fall apart and slow way down. In order to avoid overheating, you have to slow down (i.e. generate less heat)!

Respect the heat! The most recent Boston Marathon was run in 90-degree heat. The winner’s time was the slowest time posted since 1985. A conservative pace was the fastest way to get to the finish. If the lead runners had run their PR goal times in terms of pacing, they would have blown up around mile 20.cooling with water bottle

Bigger people do worse in the heat than smaller people—the more mass you have, the more heat you generate when exercising. At the 1996 Olympic marathon, scientists calculated the mass of the winner based on the air temp being 80 degrees with 60% humidity. In order to produce a time near 2:08, they predicted the winner would need to weight 45 kilos. They were off by one kilo. The winner weighed 44 kilos! So, if you are bigger, then you need to be even more conservative with the heat.

Here are some tips for racing the Sprint and Olympic distance races in the heat:

Start the race normally hydrated. Do not over hydrate or you will dilute your electrolytes. Sip on a sports drink that contains plenty of sodium in the morning of the race. Stay cool as long as possible. Do not get into your wetsuit too early!

Consider wearing a sleeveless wetsuit or no wetsuit if the water is in the 70s and the air temp is going to be above 80. If you start to overheat in the water, then the day is doomed. It is almost impossible to cool your core temperature down during the race unless you almost come to a halt.

Once you are out of the water, do not let your skin dry off. Splash cold water on your head, arms, legs and core. Pay attention to splash water especially on the legs as those are the muscles doing the most work. Splashing water on your head and neck can cool the blood in the brain and can trick the brain into thinking it is cooler than it really is. Remember how much water Floyd Landis splashed on himself on Stager 16 of the Tour in 2006!

cooling with water bottle on runSlow down! Do not hammer at or above lactate threshold if you plan on running well. Your core temperature will elevate. It is easy do this since the evaporative cooling effect of the air on the bike makes it feel cooler than it is. If you start to feel hot on the bike then you have already accumulated too much heat – slow down. Aim at a conservative level 3-4 pace (sub threshold). The hotter it is, the slower you should go. Be sure to trust your perceived effort and speed. The heart rate will likely start climbing and be elevated all day on hot conditions.

Get off of the bike and settle into a reasonable tempo pace (level 3) for the first mile. At the mile point, you will be able to assess if this pace is sustainable. If you are already suffering, then slow down a bit. If it feels sustainable, then it will likely be hard by the second mile. Focus on quick feet and maintaining a steady rhythm. Your focus is to not slow down the rest of the run. Your heart rate, perceived effort, and core temperature will inch upwards as the run goes on. What seemed like a reasonable tempo pace at mile one may feel like an all-out level 5b effort by mile 5! Start your kick with about 800m to the finish. If you start a mile out, you will likely burn up about 600yds later. Again, splash as much water on you as you can during the race!!

Your nutrition can remain the same as any Sprint or Olympic race. You might consider some salt tablets on the bike if you are a bigger athlete prone to muscle cramps in the heat.