A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to have an open-water coaching session with Sean Kelly, the ex Head Coach of British Swimming’s open-water team and the guy who coaches Keri-Anne Payne, Cassie Patten (who finished third in Beijing behind Keri-Anne), James Goddard, David Carry and Michael Rock. I was there like a shot. After all, five minutes with Sean is going to be more useful than hours of my own training. Here’s how the session at Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lido panned out.
Togged up in Speedo kit (Sean is a Speedo sponsored coach and the company invited me along for the session), I waited in my wetsuit whilst a chap from the BBC was filmed being put through his paces.
Once I got in, Sean told me to swim out and back. The water in the Lido wasn’t the best (this was a couple of weeks ago during that really hot weather) but it’s a beautiful facility – 100m long, apparently, though it didn’t feel it!
“There’s not a lot I can give you in terms of coaching points,” Sean said. “Your stroke is really sound.”
Excuse me. I need to take a moment.
OK, I’m fine now.
So, after Sean Kelly told me my stroke was really sound, I asked him how I could get faster. This is my sticking point – I’m well aware that my stroke is OK, particularly when I remember not to get lazy, but I am really quite slow, and seem to have got slower over the years if anything.
Once your technique is OK, Sean said, there are three ways to improve:
1 Stroke length (‘distance per stroke’)
2 Stroke rate
3 Body position (or ‘what you present to the water’, which I thought was a very poetic way of putting it)
We worked on stroke rate. Sean set me off swimming again, offering to time my stroke rate with some nifty coaching gadget he had about his person. In the 100m Lido, I was swimming at 33.5 strokes per minute. (Interestingly, Sean refers to one stroke as two arm pulls – left and right – as opposed to each individual arm stroke, which I’m more used to. So, I’d normally say I swim at about 65-67 spm on very long swims.)
“Swim out again,” he said, “then, on the way back, try to pick it up a bit and we’ll see if your stroke rate comes up by a few.”
So I did, and it did. Obviously I needed to still be swimming at a sustainable rate, not thrashing wildly and losing control, so I swam something like I might do during the final 200m of a triathlon when I know there’s someone in my age-group just in front of me.
“Very good,” said Sean. “That was 37.5 spm – up 4 strokes from before.”
I was chuffed, then asked what Keri-Anne’s stroke rate is. Sean looked at me as if to say “are you sure you want to know this?”
“In a long race – like the 10,000m – Keri-Anne will swim at between 47-49spm,” he said. “But when she’s sprinting in the final 800m (!), her rate will go up to 55spm.”
OK hang on. Firstly, this is a swimmer for whom the final half a mile is a sprint. Secondly: 55spm. 55? I guess that’s why she’s one of the best OW swimmers in the world.
Sean then told me a little anecdote about Keri-Anne. “I once told her that she could have an extra day off training if she completed the hardest set we could come up with,” he said. “She wrote the set herself. It consisted of 18x800m, in a short-course pool, and she did each 800m on a 10-minute swim interval. I don’t know how much rest she was getting but I can remember that she swam the 18th 800m in 8:41. The set – 16,400m – took her 3 hours.”
If you’ve ever swum one 800m against the clock, let alone several, you’ll appreciate just how incredible doing a set of 18 800s off 10-minutes is. I guess Keri-Anne really wanted that extra rest day!
Sean’s open-water swimmers do most of their training in the pool, regardless of the time of year. I interviewed Keri-Anne recently for Triathlete’s World magazine and that’s what she told me, too. I remember being surprised at the time, but Sean explained why they train almost exclusively in the pool. “Our training has to be measurable,” he said. “There are too many variables in open-water, and a coach can’t keep a close enough eye on the swimmers to be able to record data at the top and bottom of what’s going on. When we travel to an open-water race, we’ll get in the water a couple of times to acclimatise and get used to the course.”
After I’d finished swimming, I asked Sean for some top tips which I could pass on to you guys. Here they are:
- concentrate on minimal gains, whether on your stroke length, body position or stroke rate. They all add up.
- look at your basic stroke count and work to reduce it, even by a fraction
- work on your tempo: if you can maintain the same stroke count/dps but increase your stroke rate/tempo and you will go faster – it’s a fact, supported by mathematical equations
- swim some water polo drills (front crawl but with your head up and looking forward) to strengthen your back and make it easier to sight often during longer races. Sean’s athletes will do sets of 400m (with paddles!) of polo drills (ouch). Try 25m polo drill, 75m full stroke.
- work on your kick – yes, even in a wetsuit – to maintain a good body position
- stretch. Sean’s swimmers spend ages stretching (after, never before, training) and are super-flexible. Stretch the chest, the shoulder girdle, the neck, back, hips
Thank you, Speedo, for inviting me along and thank you Sean for your time, attention and generous words of wisdom.