Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Method In The Madness - An Evolution Of (Our) Squad Coaching Practices

Dear Swimmers

How nice is this weather?! Summer is just around the corner and if you haven't seen it already, you can check out our new Rottnest Channel Swim training guide here: http://www.swimsmoothperth.com/#!rotto-program/cjl8 - packed full of useful tips and information as well as a fully detailed step-by-step training planner with full session detail all 100+ sessions to get you across to Thomson's Bay - not to be missed!

The Method In The Madness - An Evolution Of (Our) Squad Coaching Practices

When it comes to numbers, I admit it, I'm a geek. When it comes to evolution of training practices to better deliver a squad session, I'm fastidious. But with evolution comes testing, experimentation, and a constant thirst for trying to do things better. As such, I thought that some of you would benefit from reading the below chronological developments with respect to how utilising technology in our training sessions has benefitted the delivery of our sessions, and looks set to continue for some time to come! It will also help to explain the method in the madness behind some of the recent initiatives we've been trying which are starting to generate much discussion, e.g. the use of the two groups on the same cycle time. So if you're curious about those and how they'll benefit you, read on, especially Phase 5 (at the end).

Of course, not all of you will want to read this (that's OK) - those who don't, won't; those who do…well perhaps you'll just be the ones making the biggest improvements by maximising your time in the sessions! I appreciate this is arguably my longest ever posting (oo er!!!).

At First, The New Thing is Rarely As Good As The Old Thing Was...

It's worth starting with this simple caveat, as so eloquently put by marketing guru and all-round fountain-of-wisdom, Seth Godin, from his book "Tribes":

"At first, the new thing is rarely as good as the old thing was. If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you'll never begin. Soon enough, the new thing will be better than the old thing. But if you wait until then, it's going to be too late. This isn't about having a great idea. The great ideas are out there, for free, on your neighbourhood blog. This is about taking initiative and making things happen. Getting out first and staking out the new territory almost always pays off."

It's fair to say, I've never been one to accept the status quo, even when that status quo was put in place by myself! It's only by diligently watching and observing how the squad develops like an organism and what seems to be working and with which group and why, that I can be confident in progressing these ideas for the benefit of you all. Like every good "experiment" there will always be trials and tribulations, but then without this empirical testing we'd still be stuck in the dark ages, so that is where we will begin.

PHASE 1: In The Olden Days There Was A Clock

If you've come from a swimming background, you instinctively know how to use the pool clock. In fact you might still harbour secret desires to melt down every single one of my tempo trainers and offer your time and assistance teaching those without a swimming background how to use the clock! But the clock is old. The clock is ugly. The clock doesn't tell you anything about your micro-incremental pacing nor is it easy to read on misty mornings or when the power is down it's rendered simply useless. So if you've ever felt guilty about not knowing how to use the clock in other squads, don't panic, I'm not a huge fan either! But of course at one point it did serve a purpose:


  • (usually) always there
  • a (relatively) accurate gauge of the times you are hitting (so long as you aren't short-sighted and don't do longer distances, where it's very easy to lose track of where you are on the dial)
  • allows coaches to set cycle times for individual lanes: a cycle time is the time that the coach expects you to hit per interval including the rest (we'll look at how our RM Cycles are an evolved version of this method in a moment)
  • great for ensuring people "mind the gap" (and you all know how fond I am of that!) with 5 or 10 second increments typically (of course we now replace this with a set distance - the green sign - before setting off)


  • 10 x 200 on 4:00 with 5 second intervals between each swimmer. The leader sets off for each successive 200m after 4 minutes has elapsed. The rest is what you made it - swim faster, get more rest. Simple, but restrictive to 5 second increments on the clock


The pool clock served a purpose and continues to serve a purpose in many squads around the world, and yes, elite squads at that - so it can't be too evil! However, it does have major limitations - enter the original Wetronome, circa 2004.

PHASE 2: That Lovable Yellow Beeper

When I set up Swim Smooth in 2004, at the very same time a company called Atamo from here in Perth had developed a tool called a Wetronome. One of the company's directors, Andrew Holmes, became a very close friend of mine and continues to swim with the squad to this day. He's due a long-service carriage clock fairly soon. Andrew's idea was to create a gadget that helped a swimmer monitor the consistency of their stroke rate (how many strokes you take per minute, or spm) or to be able to increase or decrease this rate by means of a simple audible beep. It was brilliant and pretty much bomb-proof at that! The current Finis Tempo Trainer Pro that we use today had a predecessor at this time called (funnily enough) a Tempo Trainer, this was a similar device but no way near as durable and worked on seconds per stroke as opposed to strokes per minute (that's a big difference as you need a calculator just to change the setting each time!).

Andrew's Wetronome had the ability to be able to be set as slow as 10spm or as high as 240spm (that's quick!), but I wanted it slower, much slower! The pool clock was down in my favour and I wanted a way to be able to set the beeper in increments of multiple seconds so that a swimmer could pace themselves out over a set distance, i.e. you want to swim at 1:40/100m - this is 25 seconds per 25m, so set the beeper to beep once every 25 seconds and aim to hold the pace. Andrew, being the genius that he is, obliged quickly and smoothly in a way that only a nimble technology company can. I had what I needed and it suddenly became a much better way of controlling those micro-incremental pacing issues that so many of us have. It was way more effective than the pool clock as you could actually work out where you were relative to your target pace and work to control this on the fly. Even the fancy swim watches out there weren't able to do this at the time - you could only retrospectively see how well you'd done after you'd done it. With the Wetronome we had real, live, pace control and that was a very powerful thing. Ironically enough, the original Finis Tempo Trainer always had the ability to do this by default in it's settings, but no one was using it other than a metronome for stroke rate until I got my inquisitive little hands on it! But they both had some issues:


  • a little tedious to set for on-the-fly busy squad sessions, especially the Tempo Trainer, as it was programmable in increments of 0:01 seconds up to 10 seconds before defaulting to full seconds meaning LOTS of button presses
  • both were only then adjustable in 1 whole second increments which meant that pace target times had to be either 1:20/100m or 1:24/100m or 1:28/100m if they were set per 25m, as such they lacked the fine tuning that I then sought


  • 20 x 100 with a target time of 1:36/100m, taking 1 beep recovery (effectively making the cycle time 2 minutes). The leader sets off for each successive 100m when the beeper goes on the 5th beep. If you missed a beep you were instructed to wait for the cycle to come around again as there was no way to re-start the cycle easily enough

PHASE 3: Getting Jiggy Wid It!

I can still recall the feeling of absolute geeky excitement when Finis released their Tempo Trainer Pro. Why? Because it became possible to program it to 1/100th second accuracy. Immediately my over-glider analytical brain went into over-drive! What if the only reason people hadn't been improving as much as they would like was because they didn't have an accurate enough pace source to allow fine adjustments to their target paces week-in, week-out. What if it were possible to initiate improvement just by setting weekly targets that were as little as 1/10th second per 25m faster than the week before - small enough not to feel the difference, but big enough to add up over say 10-12 weeks. Enter our 10 week CSS Development Program in January 2012 which saw a squad of 180 athletes ultimately all improve their CSS pace by an average of 3.5% and up to 13% in some cases. It revolutionised the way we trained like nothing before it.


  • super-accurate pacing
  • really helped to develop a swimmer's CSS pace over time (Critical Swim Speed - the truest measure of your ability to perform well over any distance greater than 400m), especially when the swimmer was swimming solo with the beeper on a consistent basis. The CSS is calculated by the rate of drop off in speed between a 400m and 200m time trial. Take your 400m time (e.g. 7:00) and your 200m time (e.g. 3:20) and divide the difference by two, e.g. 1:50. This is the pace you'd be predicted to hold then for a swim of 1500m, i.e. your threshold.
  • the ability to re-sync the cycle time with the push of the top button meant much smoother running of squad sessions and less waiting around (wasting time and ruining the training effect) by having to wait for the cycle to come back around again

DISADVANTAGES (using the beeper like this isn't all roses though):

  • potentially less need for super accuracy in a squad session when only the lane leader truly benefits and knows how close to their pace they are
  • psychologically demanding / off-putting if you fall behind on your targets leading to a lot of stress for the leader


  • 10 x 400 at a CSS of +6s/100m for the 1st four intervals, +5s/100m for the next three intervals, +4s/100m for the next two intervals, +3s/100m for the last interval. Set the beeper per 25m and aim to stay with it. Take 1 beep recovery between each interval and reduce the beeper down by 0.25s every new block. Precision is everything.

PHASE 4: The Swirling, Whirling Red Mist!

Those of you familiar with the above set will know that this formed the basis for what has become our most popular session of the week - the Wednesday 5.30am "Red Mist" session - so called because of the stress and tension that following the beeper so precisely for 4 to 5km creates and perfectly replicates the feeling of stress within a race. The idea of course is to subject you to that feeling regularly enough so that racing just becomes a walk in the park. Nearly. Keeping calm in this situation is what it's all about and this session is as much a test of your mental tenacity as it is your physical strength.

In search for new sets that could be concocted to deliver this exact same effect (without always giving you 10 x 400m each Wednesday, which funnily enough I do, but would certainly bore most of you to tears!), I started to drift back to the old school method of working on cycle times. These are less accurate for pace awareness, but combining a Friday's CSS session (with pacing precision) and Wednesday's Red Mist session (with looser targets but challenging endurance) would deliver the best of both worlds. The great thing about using the Tempo Trainer Pro over the clock then is that these increments can be as small as 1/100th of a second or as large as 1 second, but of course way more precise than having to work cycle times in 5 second increments on the clock and again, for longer intervals, you always get a bit of an idea of how well you're going.

Initially, I used to just put numbers up on the board which *seemed* right until Coach Cyndy prompted me to write a formula to calculate the varying degrees of cycle times that we were using. This enabled us to systemise the method for use within our app.swimsmooth.com and essentially make it available for wider public use. We called this an RM Cycle (or "Red Mist" Cycle) and is calculable simply by taking your 100m CSS pace, i.e. 1:40, dividing it by two to give your 50m pace and then adding 1 to 8 seconds etc to give the RM Cycle time, i.e. RM5 would be 50+5 seconds in this example or 55 seconds per 50m. The lower the RM Cycle number, the tighter (harder) the set.


  • a significant psychological boost as you're always ahead of the beeper
  • allows for day-2-day variation in how you're feeling due to being less precise than the CSS targets
  • has allowed a vast amount of variation and creativity in our sessions

I am proud to say that with this method, I have now created over 120 Red Mist Sessions since we initiated the method and as such, if you've swum with us consistently on a Wednesday morning for 2+ years, you won't have repeated a single session in that time!


  • 20 x 50 on RM6, 10 x 100 on RM5, 5 x 200 on RM4, 5 x 400 on RM3. Set the beeper per 50m and aim to beat the beeper. Your recovery between intervals is formed by how far ahead of the beeper's 50m cycle you get.

PHASE 5: Current Day Thinking

There is no doubt that the methods described in Phases 4 and 5 are both very beneficial for your ongoing improvement - so much so that if I'm feeling really adventurous we'll often split a session 50/50 where sometimes you're "staying with the beeper" (based off CSS paces) and sometimes you're encouraged to "beat the beeper" (RM Cycles). We will continue to use both methods going forwards of course. 

However, my most recent observations have shown a plateauing of certain groups within each of the squads and I wanted to know why this was happening and to instigate some changes as much as rocking the status quo might initially rock the apple cart! My belief is this:

  1. having two groups working within the lane has indeed allowed us to narrow the range of CSS paces within a group such that everyone is working closer to a target time appropriate for them, but on certain sessions (longer intervals typically), this has meant the faster group catching the slower group too frequently which causes a bit more "Red Mist" than even I enjoy instigating! Perhaps this melée creates too much disruption?
  2. despite the warnings to "mind the gap" not many do this diligently enough and a group of very similar speed swimmers ultimately sees those at the back of the group drafting along at the sub-threshold paces even if that is not their intention
  3. drafting has been shown to save you 38% of your energy expenditure - but in a training context, you might as well view this as meaning that unless you're leading you're possibly not working hard enough and consistently enough to gain the true benefits of the session
  4. the real improvers in the last two years have consistently been those who've stayed down a lane (rather than move up) and have never shied away from leading the lane when asked
  5. whilst I know for a fact (given the June questionnaire) that only 50% of the squad are training for anything remotely competitive, I am sure we all want to improve and in some way, these weekly sessions almost satisfy the competitive drive in many of you thus negating the feeling that you must race if you're training this frequently

With a full squad it's difficult to ensure that a) everyone gets chance to lead, and (perhaps more importantly) b) everyone has a suitable gap in front of them to give the same sensation as leading more consistently. This can be achieved by splitting the group as we have done recently:

  • two groups, each with the fastest two swimmers in the lane leading a group on the same cycle time
  • in theory the two groups will never meet, making for less congestion and a better lane dynamic
  • other swimmers are distributed evenly such that half the original group 1 is at the front of the new group 1 and the other half is at the front of group 2. Group 2 then gets split in a similar manner
  • a cycle time is created that is half-way between the two original groups - this allows a touch extra recovery for the faster swimmers than normal and a touch less for the slower swimmers, but where everyone benefits is that the faster swimmers end up "racing" their "opponent" to the middle of the pool each time (and thus bringing these guys / girls off their plateaus) and the slower swimmers always inevitably end up with a gap in front of them - less drafting means more quality work and that means improvement

For your reference I've been applying this method now in Lane 2 of the Wednesday and Friday 5.30am squad for over 18 months (so it's not entirely new and off-the-wall as you might believe) and have had some great results with those guys and girls. I want you to experience that too.

Don't Panic Mr Mannering!

The key thing is for those who have essentially moved up within their lane is not to panic - you are expected to drop off the pace of the guys and girls in front of you and end up drafting less - as was evidenced this morning, you'll still make the cycle times (albeit this is a skill to set on my part now, i.e. the "experiment") and will still end up swimming at a pace that is appropriate to yourself with the long-term view of clawing your way up to the faster swimmers in the group. Win, win. You don't have to feel like you have to keep up. That's the point.

Ultimately it's fair to say that the best way for everyone to improve would be to have 30 lanes, 1 person to a lane, each with their own beeper, each working to their own targets. This is unrealistic of course. The next best thing? Swim by yourself of course. I do. I have to. But what is it that is missing most when training solo like this? Camaraderie. Team spirit. Group motivation. The sense of belonging. Trust me, I'm a loner (!), but I'd much prefer to be in there swimming with you all!

Hope this helps give you some perspective on the methods in my madness! As ever I'll be constantly seeking a better way and welcome your feedback and inquisition at all times. That is what good coaching is all about. Thanks for reading!



  1. Hey Paul,
    Thanks for this detailed post on the evolution of your squad training. After going through your 3 day Coach Education Course in 2013 along using the app for support its been an interesting journey applying the Swim Smooth methods to the swimmers I coach. I appreciate the detail you put into this post and it helps to understand the reasoning behind the evolution and how RM cycles along the the Tempo Trainers are best applied to a squad format to help our swimmers improve. Thanks!

  2. Thanks to your input and your Coach Ed course in 2012 we are pretty much on that same cycle in our club session and now quite happily working with the Tempo Trainer Pros (18 months now). We only have the one club session a week, so a bit restricted, however, the lane control is now great and lane selection is via a CSS assessment every 10 weeks or so. May look at grouping our fastest two lanes and splitting the faster swimmers across both lanes as leaders on the same CSS pace with the slowest behind as we have quite close lane pacing. Obviously no chance having two groups in a 25m pool!! Hope you and Adam are well? Matt (Shillabeer)


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