Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Red Mist

This morning's seemingly inoffensive swim session (Wednesday 4th July, 5.30am) should have probably come with a warning:


In my arsenal of training sessions lies this absolute corker of a session (as outlined above) - it's nothing fancy, nothing new and I certainly didn't "invent" it - coaches have been using this standard set of 10 x 400m on 20-30s rest for millenia it seems, but why is it so good?

Each and every Monday morning back in the UK as part of the British Triathlon team our coaches would have us do this particular session and I make no qualms about it - I hated every last meter of it and used to dread it completely!! It's so easy though for us to like what we're good at and moan and complain about that which we are not so good at, and in the case of this particular session, you will not find a more appropriate (and simple) session to focus on your needs as a triathlete and open water swimmer.

This morning (as per most Wednesdays) the swimmers were instructed to remove any fins, pull buoys, paddles etc from the pool deck and forget any notion of doing anything other than normal freestyle at race-specific intensity on short recoveries. It's the only session of the week that we take this format, the others giving you a different balance on pure technique and/or threshold speed work. The swimmers were warned that it would be tough, and again (like most Wednesdays), we were straight into it after a bit of dryland stretching and no formal warm-up - hitting a set pace, chasing the person in front and focused entirely on completing the set distance in the target times for their lane. Sound like a race start? Absolutely - nothing more specific available than this type of session and exactly why we do this type of session each and every Wednesday morning. Bizarrely enough, this session is also by far and away the most popular of all our squad sessions at the moment, so people must be recognising the positive impact it is having on their swimming...and yet, why so many grumpy faces and irritability this morning in particular...??!!

The reason for the fact that so many of you saw "Red Mist" this morning (and I reckon that was about 80% of you!), is because when you're right there on the rivet (just like in a race), you have two choices - suck it up and get on with it and control yourself and the negative thoughts that enter your (and everyone else's) head, or you give in to these negative thoughts, feel your stroke falling apart, tell yourself that it is all too hard and ultimately crumble as a result. You'll tell yourself that it's pointless "thrashing around" imprinting bad technique and you'd have been better off doing some drills or more technique-oriented work but this would be avoiding the truth and the principle behind this session. How do I know? I used to do the same every Monday morning back in the UK! However, time and experience has taught me that this session is a classic for a reason - because it works - and if you can get your head around the seeming "boredom" or "tedium" or "slog" of this session, you stand to make some massive inroads with your swimming. What's more, how often in a race of any description have you had these same mental tussles with yourself? For a Wednesday morning, if I don't make at least one of the squad "grumpy" I know that the session hasn't achieved it's goal - bringing you to the rivet, holding you there with your best maintainable technique and getting you to work through those mental battles is what this whole session is about - as such, I think we did a pretty good job of that this morning! ;-) 

More than a few of you exclaimed that you were getting frustrated with yourself, feeling like your stroke was falling apart, there was irritability and tension galore even between some of the swimmers (especially lane 2 who had to deal with two sub-groups in one lane - 5 swimming at 1:33 to 1:36 per 100m and 4 swimming at 1:52 to 1:55 per 100m making it awkward to pass each other), but this is good - racing is not plain sailing and some things are simply out of your control...putting yourself in a position on a regular basis where your mental capacity to control yourself under pressure is essential - my old gym teacher called it "Moral Fibre" as he regularly forced us to go cross-country running in sub-zero temperatures in shorts and a vest!

I still do this particular set every Monday morning at Claremont Pool at 5.30am with a bunch of WA's fastest triathletes and as tedious as that might sound to do the same thing each week, understanding the fundamental principles behind it (which I didn't back in the UK even though I was training full time and racing "PRO") I now use it as a benchmark - each week getting progressively better. I rely heavily upon my Finis Tempo Trainer PRO to assist me with this task and knowing how well I'm progressing. Back at the start of April 2012 I started up again with this set and did 10 x 400m holding 1:25 per 100m - do this for 2 weeks, then down to 10 x 400 holding 1:24 per 100m, then (as per the set above), 4 on 1:25, 3 on 1:24, 2 on 1:23, 1 on 1:22 for two weeks, then every fortnight I've been bringing each interval down by 1s per 100m to this week starting at 1:20 and finishing at 1:17 per 100m. You wouldn't think it was possible to reduce like this in incremental steps, but so far, so good (it'll have to stop somewhere though!). For me, this is great swimming - but it's taken consistency and mental tenacity to get there, something I never had when I was a junior and U23 in the UK. The net result - a P.B of 17'38" for 1500m (or 1:10.5 per 100m) last week in the pool (in my wetsuit), a full 52 seconds faster than I've ever swum in a wetsuit over that distance in the pool before. Back then I was swimming on average 35-40km per week, now I'm doing 18km per week but with more focus, consistency, understanding and not being afraid to put myself on the line without the fear of failing. Sounds cheesy and macho, but it's so true!

If you're keen to try this set in your own time, make sure you've done a recent CSS test set as outlined here: and using the free Swimulator+ app ( set your first 4 x 400m intervals to CSS + 6" per 100m (i.e. 1:20), then 3 x 400m at CSS + 5" per 100m (i.e. 1:19), then 2 x 400m at CSS +4" per 100m (i.e. 1:18) and finally 1 x 400m at CSS +3" per 100m (i.e. 1:17). You might well adjust these times accordingly as you do the set a few times and get better at pacing and knowing what you can handle. Generally, each week I do a repeat of exactly the same set / times from the previous week, I'll judge whether or not I'm ready to go 1s per 100m faster the next week on if I can make the final 400m interval and even be slightly in front on the last 400m. As I start to plateau (inevitable) I'll tweak this to just a 0.5s per 100m improvement each fortnight - I'll still be moving forwards though, and that's the point!

Nowadays I absolutely crave the simplicity of this Monday morning session each week - it lets me know where I am, let's me challenge myself and tackle that Red Mist bang on - if I get grumpy and a little irritable I know it's doing it's job, but from here I work hard to control these feelings and maintain a general sense of positive flow. Getting a little too "whoah, man far out" for you? maybe, but it's working - I'm combining the physical challenge with the mental tenacity needed to do well in a tough race and you can't ask for more than that if this is your goal.

When I'm away for 4 weeks in the UK for the Olympics in 3 weeks time, I'll be placing this session in the very capable hands of arguably one of WA's toughest triathletes and someone who knows what it means to work hard and reap the rewards - Brad Hosking. You can expect Brad to keep you on your toes...if he tells you to toughen up a bit and to knuckle down, it's not big macho talk designed to bruise your ego, it's designed to fundamentally help you address such an important aspect of your preparation and that is what this session is all about. 

Remember if you see Red Mist once a week, that's OK - we all do, but it's how you control yourself that really counts and which will make you a better athlete as a result!

Hope these ramblings have been useful for you...if you're not already swimming in the Wednesday 5.30am session then I'm afraid that it's already fully booked, but send me over an email of interest and I'll add you to the wait list...or who knows, maybe even set-up another of these sessions somewhere in the week??



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