Triathlon Swimming’s Golden Rules: An Interview With Gerry Rodrigues

This interview was conducted by Chris, from Flo Cycling.
This article has an incredible amount of information and outlines specifically what a triathlete learning to swim truly needs.  Learning to swim for many triathletes is a struggle because of the mass amounts of misinformation out there.  Gerry’s title for this article “Drowing in Misinformation” couldn’t be better.  In this interview, Gerry discusses how to cut through the clutter and provides a great amount of additional information.

Drowning in Misinformation
An Interview with Gerry Rodrigues
FLO Cycling:  
Tell us about your background in swimming and Tower 26?
 My background can be broken into three categories:
 A) Athlete
 B) Coach
 C) Publisher
FLO Cycling:
 What advice would you give to a new triathlete swimmer?

Let’s frame this with historical perspective, followed by a paradigm shift, and then a look out toward the horizon.
Unfortunately, both new and established triathletes encounter a minefield of obstacles to swimming improvement.  These include:
1) general, non-specific swim instruction;
2) a deluge of misinformation that is either simply wrong or again, not specific enough to their needs; and
3) the increasing infusion of online or remote “programming”. None of these examples are helpful to them.
Expanding upon these three examples, and then advising:
1) Non-specific swim instruction: Triathlon is still a sport in infancy with an Olympic debut in 2000, as is open water racing with its Olympic intro in 2008 with a 10k race. Duly, the evolution of swim instruction has yet to catch-up with the needs of the sport, ie. Specificity of the training, the type of swim mechanics needed, and racing skills. Mainly available to triathletes is traditional pool based training, with improper emphasis, taught by many untrained and/or misinformed coaches (see item 3). Masterful and imaginative coaches are far and few between.
2) Misinformation: Considering the abundance of non-specific swim instruction, coupled with unreliable publishing resources, triathletes struggle filtering information.
Preparing athletes for open water racing requires a lens-shift from swim coaches, publishers and educators; it’s a new paradigm. Publishers must be more diligent in providing substantive highly specialized, appropriate content for their subscribers and members.
The current approach of many publishers, providing “alternative or different perspectives” hits and misses the educational mark for their readers with the volatility of a 90s internet stock. These publishers need to recognize the paradigm shift.  Present content is “unfiltered” and often lumps pool-specific traditional information together with open water advice, as if they were one subject. Readers need distilled, qualitative, specifically purposeful content. Triathlon participants lack the appropriate filter or knowledge in sorting through the various opinions emanating from traditional pool coaching, and from an abundance of inexperienced coach authors (see item 3). Unfortunately, many editors lack expertise for such filtering.
Although Triathlete Magazine has improved their content and material presentation in the last year, advancements are still needed from the likes of: Inside Triathlon; Ironman’s LAVA Magazine; Competitor magazine; 3/GO Triathlon; Slowtwitch; Beginning Triathlete; Ironman on-line; Active Corp; USA Triathlon’s national publication; SWIMMER, the national magazine of US Masters swimming; SPLASH, the national magazine for USA swimming; and ASCA, the American Swim Coaches Association.
3) On-line or remote coaching is not coaching; it’s programming and generally low quality. Although I do some remote coaching, it is nowhere near as good as seeing someone in person. Why is quality generally low?
a) Lack of club coaching infrastructure for educating coaches;
b) Lack of proper editorial content and coach mentor programs; and
c) A very low entry barrier to triathlon coaching.
Many triathlon clubs do not have a head coach. There are approximately 900 triathlon clubs only, servicing about 1/3 million partial or yearly association members. Conversely, at USA swimming, there are a few thousand clubs servicing the same volume of members, with every club having multiple coaches providing daily instruction.
In triathlon, anyone can purchase a triathlon coaching credential for a few hundred dollars, by attending a two-day seminar, taking a test, then receiving a certificate. This new “coach” has a tacit stamp of approval from the sport’s national governing body, USA Triathlon.  Think about the message this basically sends:  No experience needed at anything.  Approximately 4,000 credentials have been issued.  This presents a puzzle to the consumer for proper coach selection while bringing new meaning to “let the buyer beware”. Compare this with USA swimming’s model where coaches are usually former swimmers, who spend countless years being educated and mentored by veteran coaches, while coaching juniors, all prior to becoming a head coach. And that’s if they can get hired for a head coaching position. In triathlon, a “coach” just arrives by calling himself a coach.
If you look at some of the respected coaches, most have gone through a LONG journey of competition, mentoring, education, and then coaching. For illustration, let’s take Matt Dixon, of purplepatch fitness whose resume I am most acquainted since I coached him for a brief period. His resume would be similar with other respected coaches:
  • Competitive swimmer for 15 years.
  • Olympic Trial finalist in 1992 and 1996.
  • Triathlete for eight years; professional for five years.
  • Evolved from Olympic distance, to ½ IM, and then to IM.
  • 2004 overall Vineman winner.
  • Age-group swim coach for 5 years.
  • Year round swim coaching to National standard.
  • Developed and fostered by a team of supporting senior coaches.
  • Coached swimming two years at NCAA div 1 with a team of 5 coaches.
  • Developed under guidance of multiple triathlon coaches and advisors.
  • Backbone of Masters in Clinic Physiology.
….and only after all this did he take on his first individual client. Respected and successful coaches don’t just arrive.
Advice to the new triathlete: Choose and hire a swim coach as carefully as you would a doctor for surgery on your child, using the same prudence. Seek someone with history in the sport who works full-time at the job. It’s helpful if they have both a swimming and coaching background, with successful experience coaching open water. If they were not a swimmer or swimming coach before, then be cautious. Find out if they had long-term mentoring from a bona fide swim coach or triathlon coach, and whether they have continued their education.
The horizon: Fortunately, with triathlon becoming an Olympic sport in 2000, more substantive coaches are entering the space, raising the present mark of swim coaching and triathlon coaching in general. There are many good swim coaches for triathletes; unfortunately, many do not publish. Here are some examples worth following when they do publish: Swim Smooth (Paul Newsome); Jim Vance; Mike Collins; Joel Filliol; Brett Sutton; Matt Dixon. These coaches together, along with a few others, are the future for triathlon swimming.
FLO Cycling:
What the most common swimming mistake people make?

There are several, but probably at the top of the list is the athlete who swims straight for 20-40 minutes, a couple of times a week. Next would be those who subscribe to all those conventional “pool” drills such as side kicking, switch drills, sculling, and consistent bilateral third stroke breathing. These are possibly appropriate drills, but generally administered to an inappropriate audience or prescribed at inopportune times in an athlete’s development.

FLO Cycling:
What drills/training tools give athletes the most bang for their buck AND is it true that people can do too many drills?

Given the limited time budget for triathletes, many spend way too much time doing the traditional “pool” drills mentioned. It’s almost a waste of time. I’ve observed beginners kicking on their sides, almost drowning; complete torture, too advanced, and a real waste of learning time. Just swim! Build some specific muscular endurance for a month (10-12 one hour sessions), and then you’re better able to receive technical feedback.
Get yourself a swim snorkel, a pull buoy, a pair of fins and an ankle strap. Here’s the package:
Some will need a tempo trainer, to rid themselves of the catch-up like swimming called “front quadrant swimming” they were taught or read. It slows their stroke rate down and is the absolute slowest form of swimming for a non-competitive, inexperienced participant. It’s also “old school” not meeting the needs for the modern day open water swimmer.
To read the complete interview, which includes more tips on swimming strategies and Chris Foster, TriLAB-sponsored triathlete, click here to go to FLO Cycling.

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One Response to Triathlon Swimming’s Golden Rules: An Interview With Gerry Rodrigues

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