The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Squad Swimmers

Wanting to get more out of your squad training? If you swim in a Swim Smooth Squad with one of our Certified Coaches or another elsewhere, this is for you!

It was originally posted by our Head Coach Paul Newsome to his swimmers in Perth but wherever you are in the world it's just as relevant:

(Please note this isn't a real book!)

You can see Paul's accompanying videos for the Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel swim here:

Dear Swimmers,

I hope you had a great Christmas break and are fully recharged for a great year of swimming ahead of you! To get you motivated and fully back into the swing of things, why not start 2017 on the right note with 7 habitual changes you can make - or compound if you're already a good little squadie - with your swimming. You'll be very surprised how these little changes can stack up over time allowing you to improve your swimming performance, enjoyment and general wellbeing. What's more, they're the perfect new year's resolution and kick up the bum you might be needing right now!

I spent the Christmas holidays reading some great, inspiring books and at the top of that list was (well worth a read - it's a classic, but a good one!)

So, here are my 7 Habits of Highly Effective Squad Swimmers for your reading - and pragmatic application - pleasure! Let's start off with a quote from 23-time Olympic Gold Medallist, Michael Phelps (I'm a bit of a fan you see!):

"If you want to be the best, you have to do things that other people aren't willing to do." 

…as is evidenced on a daily basis, not everyone is willing to maintain all seven of these habits all of the time, but those that do, do make the biggest improvements. See which of the seven you could make a better go of sticking to in 2017 and reap the rewards as a result! You might not be racing for your 24th Olympic gold medal, but why not choose to optimise your time spent in the pool as non of these are impossible challenges, in fact Audrey Hepburn (of all people!) famously said that:

"Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I'M POSSIBLE"

Here goes:

1. Consistency Is Key

When you have periods of inconsistent attendance at either squad sessions or in your own swim sets, your swimming really suffers. Everyone thinks they "know" that, but we still beat ourselves up about it when we miss sessions (for whatever reason) and then wonder why we're not improving - or worse - going backwards.

Michael Phelps is famous for saying that he can't recall the last time / day he didn't swim and we all know his results speak for themselves, but then we're not all swimming full-time aiming for legendary swimming status! It's an inevitable fact that as a husband / wife / partner / mother / father / worker / normal human being, there are going to be times when you simply have to skip a session. So what should we do to get ourselves back on the bandwagon asap?

Using some sophisticated algorithms that we built into I've been able to track my own personal development for the Port-2-Pub 25km Solo Swim on the 25th March 2017. I'm hoping that by sharing this information it might give you greater insight into your own training.

It is possible to grade every session that you do with a point score (what's typically termed a "Training Stress Score") - a longer, harder session (like a Wednesday Red Mist session) might give you 100 points for example, versus an easy technique swim (like a Monday Pure Technique session) might give you 50 points. These points are all relative to the distance you cover in the session at an average pace relative to your Critical Swim Speed (CSS).

In order to gain long-term fitness you need to train of course, but you can't simply crank out 100 point sessions every day of the week or you'll implode (trust me, I've tried!), nor will you progress if you're not swimming regularly and consistently enough with sessions that never overly stress you. You need to balance the long-term fitness you are seeking with the short-term fatigue that your training generates. This is the "secret sauce" to good performances and everyone responds differently to how they handle this load.

As you can see from my chart below, things haven't been progressing as smoothly as I would have liked. Why not? Like you, I'm human too with a young family, a busy work schedule and the sense sometimes that I need to cram things in as best I can (not always ideal!).

I started in October and you can see that for the first 4 weeks leading up to my US Coaching trip, things are going really well. For the 2 weeks I was in the US I had to cut back on my training due to a busy work and travel schedule but ironically EVERY swim I did over there was amazing! Why? Simply because the 4 weeks I had trained prior were enough of a training stimulus to generate some real gains even though I was starting from a very low level of fitness. Essentially the extra rest periods in the US had the same effect as me tapering down to a key event; my fatigue levels dropped off allowing good performances and the training I was doing was just enough to claw onto my fitness gains. But this couldn't last, eventually the fitness drops away and you need more training stimulus. I got back to Perth and had my worst ever 10km swim at Champion Lakes - a full 18 minutes slower than I had been the last time I raced there (2014). This was the kick up the bum I needed to get back down to business!

For November and the first 2 weeks of December I nailed it, trying a little too greedily to claw back some fitness and hopefully deliver a much better performance at the Mullaloo 10km swim on the 27th December (due to poor weather this was rescheduled to 31st December and so sadly I missed it). But I over-stepped the mark. In the week before Christmas I felt totally lethargic and drained with no appetite to swim - I'm sure we've all been there! This though compounded with the holiday period and family commitments etc has forced a period of very inconsistent swimming BUT it has given me the opportunity to recover and get those fatigue levels down and get that motivation back up. Looking at this on the arbitrary fitness scale, I am at the same point as I was at the beginning of December, so effectively I've compromised all that hard work in the early part of December by being too greedy. As relaxing as Christmas time can be after the big fella has visited, the lead-up and stress prior can be very demanding and sadly there's no fancy chart that can measure this side of things, but it all counts.

So you can hopefully see that consistency isn't always about laziness as you might think, sometimes it can be brought on by trying to do too much, too soon and being too greedy about it - the result is the same: a drop in performance. Oftentimes operating at 80% of your true capacity is what facilitates the most consistent of training programs. That old adage of "a little and often" is often the best medicine.

2. Opt To Lead A Set More Than Once In A While

The ultimate best way to train is by yourself with a beeper set specifically for you, not in a squad. Argh! Did I really say that? It's true though - I should know, I've got no mates and always have to train solo! I've always made big leaps in performance in small time frames because everything I do is totally tailored to my current level of fitness. However, as I've just shown you, even then, it's possible to get this wrong and without anyone overseeing what you are doing, it's very likely that you might go astray. Equally, the motivation to train totally by yourself 100% of the time is (I believe) a finite resource. Whereas I have to rely 100% of the time on my own intrinsic motivation to train, the extrinsic motivation you receive in the squad from the coach and your fellow squad buddies is more than enough to outweigh the biased positives of training solo; in fact, it might just be what keeps the majority of you so relatively consistent in the first place! Many of you have been swimming with me for 10+ years now and I dare say even the hardiest of solo swimmers would have lost their intrinsic mojo by now had it not been for the collective motivation that the squad generates, so this is a good thing!

Squad swimmer Rob Franklyn said it best in what ultimately became part of my thank you speech at this year's Squad Christmas Party (thanks Rob!):

"Where does the black line lead? In life we rarely see people skinned of their pretences, force fields down. The environment at Swim Smooth is different. While being semi-naked and half asleep is a start, the fact that it all runs seamlessly and effortlessly, everyone has a predetermined position (assigned unknowingly to swimmers somehow) and each gets personal attention whenever needed (you are at the end of each lane whenever I stop for breath – how can this be!), lulls us poor unsuspecting into thinking it is a mere dream and the pain will stop as soon as eyes open. Your squad brings it all together and shows people as they really are. It matters not whether you are 20 or 70 y.o; a heart surgeon, student, teacher or labourer, funny or grumpy, competitive or in the way, all are just swimmers chasing the black line, feeling good about it, sharing a gag, clearing the head, soaking up the rays, making friends and enjoying the company. It's a rare place, it doesn't just happen without a lot of work on your part - I wanted to say thanks for letting me be part of it all for so long. Some of my best friends are to be found floating (mostly face down!) in the pool (or on the deck!)! So where does the black line lead – not sure but happy to keep following to find out!" 

So, how can you reap all the benefits of the squad environment, but still optimise your training time with us? Simple, opt to lead your lane / group more than once in a while. Try not to shy away from the beeper being handed to you. Know that with sweet uncertainty you will make the target times, and if not, no big deal - pass it on! You gave it a go and you got chance to benefit from the pacing control that swimming with the beeper assists. Don't shy away.

3. Don't Swim On Toes*

Swimming on someone's toes has been shown to reduce your energy expenditure by up to 38%. That's great if you're racing an Ironman or a shorter open water swimming event and due practice is certainly worthwhile* but think of it another way (especially you Rottnest Solo swimmers) - you're working 38% easier than you would be doing leading the lane by yourself which is precisely what you'll have to do when you swim across to Thomson's Bay (no drafting allowed). Swimmers who incessantly swim on the toes of the people in front of them (rather than the recommended 5 to 8 second gap) are effectively always under-training. Period. You can't then expect to swim at anywhere close to the speeds you're holding in the squad if you're always on someone's feet. Yes I bang about this a lot, but ultimately you need to be in control of this. Only you can make this habitual change. If you slow down for a while, so what? Your future self will thank you for it.

You could say, well I do leave the right gap but I always end up on those feet in front of me. Two options: follow point 2 (above) and lead a little more frequently; or simply avoid the necessity to close the gap down after you've set off - maintain that gap and all will be right in the world!

*unless specifically instructed to do so

4. Don't Short-Turn*

If you're preparing for a swim event in the open water, guess what, you can't put your feet down at the shallow end (there isn't one) nor can you cut the corner off a straight line (across to Rottnest). The classic thing I see all too frequently is people short-turning and looking like they're fiddling with their goggles as a way to "explain" why they're doing this. Get some new goggles. Putting your feet down has the following detrimental effects:
  • you lose your rhythm
  • you mess up the rhythm of those behind you
  • you reduce your fatigue in a long set - this is NOT a good thing - this is something you need to learn to adapt and deal with for longer swims
  • you accelerate off the ground and into your stroke and straight onto the feet of those in front of you (see point 3)

If there's one habitual change that'll really make a difference for you, it's this one. Remember, short-term loss of being able to stay with your group for long-term gain of improved fitness. I know which I'd choose.

It's a fundamental fact that in a squad of 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 swimmers there are going to be differences in speed (CSS pace) across the group. It is EXPECTED that on longer intervals and towards the end of a session you WILL get dropped by those who are faster in front of you. Take the ego hit, it's OK, trust me. Not taking it will leave you massively disappointed when it really counts. No one wants that.

Remember this is a list of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Squad Swimmers I'm yet to see in my 20 years of swim coaching anyone who would be regarded as being "highly effective" for their own relative level of achievement who cuts corners in swim sets. Recognise this as an issue and then make 2017 the year that you crack this habit.

*unless specifically instructed to do so

5. Pace Effectively, Don't Beat The Beeper And Don't Skip Intervals)

OMG, did I really write that? Two negatives in what is supposed to part of a positive habitual change to your swimming? Yes, I did.

This is not an instruction manual on how to use the Finis Tempo Trainer PRO - you all know how to do that, it's very simple. Either stay with the predetermined pace per 25m or beat it per 50m depending on the set / instruction / session. But when it comes to staying with the beeper, don't be tempted to beat it to fluff your feathers in front of your group only to have to then skip an interval (or two) to recover from what was effectively too fast. It's not fancy and it's not impressive. Impressive is sticking with the beeper and that all important "C" word: control.

Notice how this issue tends to happen more often in sub-threshold type sessions, i.e. Tuesday's Technique / Endurance sets and / or Wednesday's Red Mist Endurance sets. Here, technically it will be more than possible to beat the beeper at times - but remember there's a method in my madness - sometimes swimming at a sub-threshold pace (even if it feels "below" you) is important to develop your ability to maintain form, speed and a level of aerobic control at a pace which is significantly more reflective of what you'd ultimately end up averaging in a longer race. Think of it as developing a wider range of gears - too much emphasis at the higher end of your aerobic spectrum too frequently will massively diminish your aerobic development, especially if to achieve your efforts you need additional recovery time and reduced volume to achieve it.

Be a stayer.

6. Do Drills Patiently And With Panache

Of all the sessions I crave having some friends for to help with a little mojo, a Pure Technique session is not one of them. Racing through drills for the sake of it makes no sense at all. Showing control and patience is essential. Understand why you are doing the drill and then do it patiently and with panache. We've got a great resource of all our drills filmed from every conceivable angle and with full audio commentary available at for $2.99/mo - or you can simply keep your head up, listen, watch and observe when we do drill demonstrations and give reasoning for why a drill should be done a certain way (especially in the Monday Pure Technique sessions). If there was ever a time to be a squad "slow coach" - during a drills session is that time. Even if you know the drills inside out, slow down a bit. These sessions are NEVER about how much distance you cover, but it never ceases to surprise me how disappointed some people look when they've "only" covered 2.2km but have done it with fine form. Enjoy these sessions and take the time to do the drills properly - your stroke (and shoulders) will really thank you for it!

7. Optimise Your Stroke For You

It's amazing what a little stroke TLC can do for even the most regular and consistent of squad swimmers. Many of your squad buddies who continue to progress with their swimming check in with me at least once per year for a stroke tune-up. During this session we film you from above and below the water, then sit down record the analysis of your stroke and what needs to be done, before finally hopping back into the water and with direct audio feedback using our clever little waterproof radio headset, I can give you realtime feedback with how you're going with the changes you're trying to make. So comprehensive and effective is the session that it's not something you need to keep coming back for week after week or month after month, think of it simply as your annual check-up and service giving you the key points of what you should be focusing on during your squad sessions, further optimising your training time.

Find your local Swim Smooth Coach, get in contact and book a session today:




Unknown said...

Hi, What is better, 5 or 6 short sessions a week (30min to 45min). Or 3 longer sessions of say 1.5 hours

Adam Young said...

Hi Neil, what speed are you swimming and what are you training for? Is 4x 1hr an option?

Unknown said...

I'm pretty slow, my CSS is 2:15. I'm following the beginner / Intermediate Iron distance program. Just really looking for a rule of thumb.

Adam Young said...

Hi Neil,

Ok sure - I would aim for the 4x 1hr middle ground - that should provide you with a good level of training combined with recovery.

I hope that helps!


dale moore said...

can you have speed with endurance training.
I wish to do 5 km's swims.
I train on my own and can get plenty of speed and lose endurance.

Can I have my cake and eat it to

dale moore said...

can you have speed with endurance training.
I wish to do 5 km's swims.
I train on my own and can get plenty of speed and lose endurance.

Can I have my cake and eat it to

Unknown said...

Thanks for the feedback Adam. I've had a lesson and the coach suggested I reduce the length of my sessions while I concentrate on technique for a little while. So I'll do as you say and try to do 4 or 5 sessions. Thanks!

Adam Young said...


OK cool.


Can you be a bit more specific? Are you racing short distances, if so what events?


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