Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to attend Swim Smooth.  If you’re not familiar with Swim Smooth, check out their website, www.swimsmooth.com to learn more about their approach.  They’ve also written a book (aptly titled Swim Smooth).

Hosted at the beautiful Alga Norte Community Center in Carlsbad, California, Swim Smooth was a 3-day course that consisted of 10 hours of hands-on, experiential and lecture-based learning each day.   Think about that: 30 hours in 3 days.  Folks, this is one of the most comprehensive programs out there.

Not a certification, this was “coaches course.”  The class consisted of around 20 coaches who were selected from the 200 applicants from all over the world.  In our class we had those who were already running large age group swim teams, open water swimmers, triathlon coaches and those who just wanted to learn to swim better.  It was an interesting mix of adults with two things in common: we all loved to swim and we all had our own swim story.

My swim story.

Swim Smooth was created by two fantastically British men: Paul and Adam.  I cannot say enough good things about them – they are the perfect example of a Visionary and Integrator described in the book Rocket Fuel.  One is the front man, the other seems more behind the scenes but together what they are doing is amazing.

Their goal, simply put, is to change the world of triathlon and open water swimming.  This is important to note as they are not interested in teaching all 4 strokes or making you a more competitive masters swimmer.  It’s all about the skills and fitness required to excel at endurance events.

The schedule was intense:  10 hours every day with no breaks.  You ate through, sat through and worked through the entire day.  The first day was mostly interesting lecture on the theories behind the Swim Smooth approach.  If I could describe my biggest takeaway from the weekend, it would be from this first day:

Coach the swimmer, not the stroke.

From years of experience and gathered from thousands of videos, they have put together a system for classifying and working with swimmers.  For example, the “Arnies” who are muscle-bound, fighting the water, sinking in their legs.  The approach describes how to identify and then work with each swimmer.  Again, they do not feel there is a right way or one way to swim.  It’s all about meeting the swimmer where they are and working with them.

How refreshing that they supported their approach with research and examples from the swimming world.  It’s one thing to create your own system/science.  It’s another thing to back it up!  One example – we talked a lot about the legendary Janet Evans, who is of the best representations of swimming in a way that works best for you.  Janet stood at 5’2” and swam with a stroke rate of over 100 strokes per minute.  Compare this to Ian Thorpe who swam closer 60 strokes per minute.  Both are highly decorated Olympians and arguably two of the best swimmers in history.  For years, Janet’s coach was prodded to fix her stroke, slow it down!  So they worked on it and guess what happened – she got slower.  He said that was the last time he ever counted her strokes again.

Janet and Ian exemplify what seemed to be the ultimate 2 swim forms with Swim Smooth: the Swinger and the Smooth.  Their system seemed to move swimmers towards Swinger or Smooth, however, they repeatedly urged us to remember that the best swimmers are adaptable, able to change their stroke to meet changing conditions, demands and events.

The Swim Smooth system also incorporates a lot of tools and toys from Finis.  Assorted paddles, fins and the Tempo Trainer.  Swim Smooth includes a lot of work with the Tempo Trainer and focusing on your stroke rate.  There are entire swim systems out there designed to get you to slow down your stroke rate.  Swim Smooth comes back with saying not so fast.  Or, it depends on …. the swimmer!  As a real life example, they compared myself to the tallest participant in the course, Chris.  Chris stood at 6 feet 4 inches compared to my 5 feet 2 inches.  When Chris warmed up, he swam with a stroke count in the upper 40s.  My warm up rate was in the high 70s.  At high speed, he was well into the 60s while I was spinning along in the upper 90s.  Imagine if we had reversed our stroke rates?  Finding your range of an optimal stroke rate is a big part of their system.

Swinger vs Smooth.  And because we all need a picture of ourselves in a swimsuit on the internet.

One of the things I had enjoyed the most was how this course included time to do what brought us there in the first place – swimming!  We were in the pool for 2 days out of the course.  On the first day, we had to jump in and swim 200 yards while being filmed.  No warm up.  They feel this best represents what you’ll do at the start of a race – nervous, fresh and not quite warmed up into your stroke.  To film, they rigged a Go Pro to a piece of piping and captured footage of you swimming from the side and a birds eye view.

Perhaps the biggest value of this program was when Paul himself viewed and provided feedback for each coach’s video.  While it might seem tedious to sit through each stroke feedback session, it actually solidified much of the learning we were doing.  It was real, hands-on learning in how to identify errors and what to do to fix them.  Paul had a system for drawing angles, pointing out flaws and then using video of top swimmers (ie., Rebecca Adlington, Michael Phelps) to demonstrate proper elbow angles, hand position, head position, etc.  I’ve already implemented Paul’s suggestions from my analysis and (surprise!) they made me immediately faster.

Also in the first day, they brought in a local long distance swimmer to provide filming, feedback and stroke correction.   We went through this process countless times but each time I felt I learned a little more or honed in my observational skills.  And, each time you learned a little more about their system – a correction hierarchy if you will.  When first looking at a swimmer, they start with asking where the main problem is:  swimming with less drag or getting more propulsion.  As far as actual stroke correction, the starting point is breathing!  In their words: if something is going to go wrong with our stroke, it will be when breathing.  Without proper breathing, you will never be comfortable with swimming and without comfort you will never swim to your potential.  They are proponents of bilateral breathing if for nothing more than improving your adaptability when in open water conditions.  From there, the correction hierarchy includes:  kicking, posture, rotation, catch & pull, rhythm & timing.  We learned the “why” behind a lot of stroke errors I often see: crossover, splayed kick, dropping elbow, legs sinking and then the “how” on how to fix them.

Paul teaching us proper catch position.  Notice the elbow above the hand.  Note that you do not necessarily establish this position by keeping your elbow high! 

Swim Smooth also focuses on improving how you swim in open water.  They cited several triathletes, showing footage of their “not so pretty” ways of swimming – Harry Wiltshire, the Brownlee brothers, Jodie Swallow.  All are some of the best triathlon swimmers across all distances, none swim pretty.  They lean towards more of an “open water sufficient” stroke – aggressive, high turnover, adaptable given the conditions.  They suggested looking your race history for more insight into your swimming – do you swim better on courses with left or right turns, choppy or smooth courses, etc.  Any of those strengths (or weaknesses) say something about your swimming.

A few words on swimming from this guy who does triathlons, you might know him – Alistair Brownlee.

The second day was more information, more practical sessions and a lot more swimming!  They selected a few of us to go through a ramp test.  This consisted of setting a Tempo Trainer a few beats below our normal stroke rate and then ramping it up – what a revealing process!  With this, they recorded our stroke rate, speed and RPE.  This process showed me that my naturally high stroke rate of 78 (which according to their chart was on the upper end of where I should be) actually needs to go higher!  Even over 95 strokes/minute, I was getting faster but still not tapped out RPE-wise.  What struck me, though, from this entire ramp test was how individual each swimmer is.  The other swimmer in my lane was a woman slightly taller than me but started with a stroke rate of 56 ended in the 70s.  Once again, coach the swimmer!

A few hours later, we had to get back into the pool to do a CSS test.  Believe it or not, after prescribing this to countless athletes over the years, I’ve never done a CSS test.  Done properly, a CSS test includes a warm up, a 400 all out where you look at the split for the first 100 to assess pacing as well as overall time, 10 minutes of easy swimming and then a 200 all out.  Afterwards, you determine “CSS” or “critical swim speed” or a pace just below your threshold.  Knowing a current CSS allows you to prescribe workouts with appropriate paces in order to improve your endurance swimming.  A CSS test also looks at the drop off between the 400 and 200 which gives you a better idea of the engine on the swimmer again allowing you to design a training plan or workouts specific to an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.

On the final day, we put it all together with 10 swimmers who traveled from Canada, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada for stroke analysis.  We were paired with another coach and assigned a swimmer.  Our swimmer was a 70+ woman who swam masters 5 times a week at her retirement community in Phoenix.  I loved her passion for improving her stroke and her quick ability to take feedback and integrate it directly into what she was doing.  She needed a few corrections but mostly – she needed confidence!  By giving her plenty of encouragement and drills designed to improve HER stroke, she made immediate progress – WOW!  These swimmers spent the ENTIRE day with us – starting with Paul’s presentation on stroke correction, stroke rate, the Swim Smooth approach and then going through each video before getting back into the pool to correct their individual strokes and do a CSS test.  Going through this entire process (again) was a fantastic way to solidify the main concepts and see those concepts in action in real life, real time.

Coaching our swimmer on proper hand position & entry.

That next day, after the red eye from San Diego, I found myself on a pool deck coaching.  The transfer from what I learned at Swim Smooth was immediate – I was able to identify the types of swimmers in front of me, their flaws but more importantly – finally understand and communicate how to address those flaws with drills, language and tools.  Because of that, the benefit of this coaches course has far surpassed any program I’ve ever done and more than justified the steeper-than-most cost.

As for becoming a certified Swim Smooth coach, it’s much more of a process than take this test & here’s a badge for your website like most programs.  There’s about a half dozen things you need to do (an exam, many hours of video analysis, etc).  Once complete, you can apply to move forward in their program which includes a 2-week trip to Perth to work with their swim squad.  Their Australian swim squad has over 400 swimmers (and over 300 on the waitlist!), 12 practices a week, 4 lanes, 12 swimmers per lane.  This is huge!  Clearly it’s a system they seem to want to replicate while preserving what has made it one of the best:  a high quality, consistent, well-researched system and coaching staff.   To be one of their coaches, you also need to commit to starting your own Swim Smooth squad, following their protocol and paying their annual franchising fee.  At first I thought: wow, this is aggressive and limiting!  After all, who can take 2 weeks out of life, leave their family and job behind to stand on a pool deck in Australia?  But after seeing all of the time, research, effort and love Paul and Adam have put into this system, they’re making the expectation clear – they are invested on this mission to improve triathlon and endurance swimming and their coaches must be too.

Send me back to SoCal – now.

Luckily, when I was at the clinic, I met the only certified Swim Smooth coach who lives in Chicago.  She is able to offer swim clinics with stroke analysis following their protocol.  Multisport Mastery will be partnering with this coach to offer a clinic this winter and we are excited about other future opportunities.  Meanwhile, I very much look forward to implementing pieces of this system and feedback on deck with my swimmers and athletes.  And perhaps when my kids are a little older, I’ll pursue the full certification (next up: convince husband we need a 2 week Australian vacation!).