Friday, May 23, 2014

*Mega* Megan: Going From 2:12 to 1:32 /100m Pace

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Today on the blog we're going to take a look at the swimming of Megan Surrette, a 36 year old Hydrogeologist from Perth. Over the last two years she has made incredible improvements to her swimming, taking over 4 seconds per 100m off her threshold times and in March this year completing the mighty 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim! :

Click to enlarge

Coached by our SS Head Coach Paul Newsome in Perth, she's worked on her stroke technique, her swim fitness and her open water skills to go from the back of our slowest lane in the SS squads to knocking on the door of the top lane!

Meet Megan - she looks innocent enough doesn't she?
The amazing thing about Megan is how 'normal' she is, perhaps initially swimming at a similar level and with a similar style to yourself. She's not especially tall, she doesn't have the athletic talent of an Olympian and she has to train around a full-time professional job.

As we'll see below, Megan has developed a great little stroke packed with punch and rhythm. She's develop a good feel for the water despite not having any swimming background. She's determined, she's persistent and she's swim fit. And the really scary thing (for our top lane) is that she's still improving!

Megan was a classic Bambino with a slight tendency to over-glide and if you feel you fit this Swim Type yourself then make sure you take a close look at how and why Megan's improved and bring a little of that 'Megan Magic' to your own swimming! Even if you are already a strong swimmer yourself, there's some big lessons to be learnt here in what will help you make big strides forward with your swimming... and some of them go against conventional 'wisdom'.

Paul takes up the story:
Paul with Megan - proud as punch!

What is every coach's number one goal, the thing that keeps you getting up at 4.20am every morning come wind, rain or shine? Simply to see your swimmers - all of your swimmers - improve, flourish and develop a deep love for this wonderful sport of swimming. That is all you can ever ask for.

Whether that leads to an elite athlete winning a big championship event, or to take someone with a complete phobia of water to achieving their very first length of freestyle, these moments are what drives coaches on day after day, week after week, year after year. It is a very rewarding occupation especially when a swimmer achieves something they never believed they could do (despite me occasionally being asked by random pool patrons what I do for a real job!).

A few months back I was archiving the last three years of my recorded 1-2-1 video analysis sessions (all 5,273 of them!) which left me reflecting on who had made the most significant improvement overall. So many swimmers came to mind, including Gavin Cooke's 46 seconds per 100m speed increase in 10 weeks, a brilliant and incredibly short-term improvement. Also 3-time Ironman Champion Kate Bevilaqua taking her 3.8km time from 1:04:50 to 49:33 in 4 years, going from the back of the pro-ranks out of the water to the very front. Or perhaps triathlete Renee Baker, taking her threshold pace from 1:45 /100m to 1:22 /100m and in doing so turning Pro. 

The one I’ve picked out for you to study here was a young lady called Megan Surrette because of the sheer range of her improvement (from 2:12 to 1:32 /100m at threshold) and the fact she is still on a rapid trajectory of improvement after that. Plus she achieved this not as a full-time athlete but with a professional job around which to squeeze in her training.

I've made a special recording for you looking at Megan's stroke (before and after), some of her race footage and a included a quick video interview on how she's feeling about her swimming these days. It's 37 minutes long but I highly recommend you watch it as I explore the things that made a big difference to her swimming:

Click to watch Paul's full Youtube analysis of Megan's progress

Or if you prefer, continue reading below as I take a brief look at the same points in written form.

Introducing Mega Megan!

We'll let Megan introduce herself:

"I am a Hydrogeologist and work as a consultant here in Perth but I grew up in a rural community in Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. Nova Scotia is a relatively small province that is almost an island so you are never far from the ocean, which is brilliant as I always loved the ocean (I refuse to live inland).

I had never received any formal swimming instruction (prior to Swim Smooth) apart from the occasional lifesaving course growing up. I moved to Perth in 2007 and considered myself a runner at the time. I took up Triathlon through peer pressure from work colleagues! One of my colleagues swam with the Swim Smooth squad and recommended that I try squad swimming and/or a 1-2-1 Video Analysis. She is very passionate about the Swim Smooth approach and knew I would benefit from it. However, I was very reluctant to do either as I considered my swimming ability to be too poor but I finally booked into a 1-2-1 session with Paul in June 2012."


In this first session Megan was swimming at a pace of 2:12/100m with a stroke rate of 44 SPM (strokes per minute), taking exactly 50 strokes to complete each 50m. Technically she looks pretty good - she's smooth, elegant and very symmetrical but ultimately quite slow for this level of technical proficiency:

[My full recorded analysis from that session is here]

We ascertained that the factors preventing her from progressing at that point were:

- Surprisingly low sinking legs.
- A lack of "Feel for the Water" or "Oomph" to her catch at the front of the stroke.
- A stroke rate well below what she should have been swimming at.

If we focus on the 3rd point for a moment - Megan was (even then) one of the smoothest >2:00 /100m swimmers I have ever taken for a session. She had grace, poise and very little splash or bubbles. My initial response looking at her stroke was that it simply looked "slow" and that she looked almost unwilling to disturb the water at all as she moved through it.

Without saying why, I asked her to swim at 52 SPM using a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro just to see how it felt. She was surprised to find that she was easily able to elevate her stroke rate by 18% and that it actually felt more fluid and rhythmical to swim like this.

It's no use simply telling someone that their stroke rate is too slow, we need to ascertain why that is the case and what can be done to enhance the stroke and as a direct consequence allow higher stroke rates to be sustained. Of course not every swimmer needs to elevate their stroke rate, as discussed here it's a case of ascertaining whether it is too slow (or too fast) for your given swimming speed, height, build, arm length and the swimming events you are targeting: i.e. pool or open water.

For Megan (as we saw in our review of Triathlon World Champion Non Stanford's stroke), she had a slight tendency to reach up towards the surface of the water as she glided forwards and this was inhibiting her ability to maintain the perpetual motion of her stroke:

Reaching up and gliding forwards was inhibiting not only Megan's stroke rate
but also her potential to improve her speed and efficiency

Working on those elements of her stroke, Megan was "completely shocked that my swimming improved so dramatically" after the first video analysis session.


Here's Megan swimming 12 months on in July 2013, she's swimming at a pace of 1:44/100m, which is a brilliant improvement of 28 seconds per 100m. Or to put it another way, she's improved her 1500m time by a full 7 minutes! :

[My full recorded analysis from that session is here]
She is swimming at 64 SPM here (an elevation of 45% from the original video) and you can clearly see the extra rhythm. But most interestingly, she was taking 6 more strokes to complete each 50m length! How could this be? How could a swimmer improve their speed and their efficiency so much but be taking more strokes to complete each length?

Since the late 1980's old-school swim coaches have repeatedly told us that taking fewer strokes is the "key metric" to improve your efficiency but this is far from the real truth. Taking fewer strokes pretty much became the world view of efficiency, and let’s face it, is very easy to simply count your strokes and monitor it. However, the real key to greater efficiency is not to simply minimise stroke count but to strike the right balance between the length of your stroke and your stroke rate. 50 strokes per 50m might sound better than 56 but in the case of Megan, it clearly wasn't right for her.

Are you endlessly in pursuit of making your stroke ever longer and praising yourself for every stroke dropped per length? Great if your speed is improving, but if its not, something needs to change!

Swim Training

Of course, it's not only the technical adjustments to Megan's stroke that have led to such amazing improvements but also the type of specific fitness training and volume she has been swimming.

Following on from the advice in that first video analysis session, Megan joined our regular Swim Smooth Perth squad sessions and consistently swam 3 to 4 times per week. During these sessions we continued to refine her stroke technique but also introduced her to the value of training at higher intensities through CSS evaluation and training despite her saying:

"I do distinctly remember thinking there is NO WAY I will ever have a CSS less than 2:00 min/100 m. EVER. And to be frank, I am always shocked after every time trial when you tell me I've improved my CSS. I would be elated even if it just stayed the same!"

I also encouraged Megan to partake in our Wednesday "Red Mist" endurance sessions even though initially she had concerns that she'd be the slowest swimmer by a long stretch and that maybe it was "above her station":

"I do know that I felt a big difference when I started swimming Wednesday mornings. I am not sure whether Wednesday improved my CSS or not but it definitely increased my confidence – 1 km TT? *shoulder shrug* … sure, whatever :-)"

The proof is in the pudding here and since July last year, Megan has further improved her swimming to a CSS pace of 1:32.5 / 100m - wow!

Should You Be More Like Megan?

Megan dons her war-paint (and plenty of sunscreen)
before the Rottnest Channel swim!
This positive demeanour is what has always made Megan such a pleasure to coach, and I think we can all learn a lot from this. It sounds derogatory to say that Megan's swimming mood is "monotone" but really this is the highest compliment I can give: there are no high-highs, but equally there are no low-lows either - just dependable consistency and ultimately it's this attitude that has led to such a massive improvement.

There is no rocket science here - Megan is a "glass half-full" type of person and is able to very quickly write off any disappointments and move forwards. Each session is but a very small piece in the greater jigsaw puzzle that is your swimming improvement. Are you able to do this or are you caught in an endless cycle of paralysing yourself through endless critical analysis. Megan just gets on and does it, do you?

The Ultimate Challenge for the Ultimate Improver

And so after just 20 months of swimming and getting her CSS pace down from 2:12 /100m to 1:32.5 /100m, Megan took on the challenge of the mighty 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim on 22nd February 2014. She completed the swim in 6h 42m 57s at an average pace of 2:02 /100m which takes into account stoppage time for drinks, course changes and a significant cross current. At a conservative estimate, Megan's real water speed would have been around 1:50/100m - 22 seconds per 100m faster than her original video analysis recording in 2012, for a continuous distance 200 times longer!

The start of the Rottnest Channel Swim - from here the island is over the horizon!
Turning her arms over 45% faster than nearly two years ago can never be described as inefficient given the magnitude and duration of one of the ultimate endurance events on the planet. Megan had found her true stroke and had refined her engine perfectly - all that was left to consider was her mental aptitude but as we'll see in this final review in Megan's words, this was actually her trump card:

"I suspect this blasé attitude I developed toward the longer distances during the Wednesday sessions extended to my thoughts of attempting a solo Rotto swim. Although, I am really not certain why I thought I could tackle Rotto. Likely pure naivety! Up until just prior to the City Beach 10 km qualifier (early November 2013), the longest distance I had swum (solo) in the open water was 5 km at the Rotto Rehearsal in February 2013. I swam 8 km in the river with SS coaches Emma and Sally the weekend before City Beach. I felt good. I could have kept swimming. So I decided to sign up for the City Beach swim and the rest is history really.

"The City Beach swim solidified in my mind that A) I do really like swimming longer distances; B) I'm not completely rubbish at pacing; and C) I knew that I was capable of having a go at Rotto. This confidence was the key for me.

"Technically I think the things that improved my swimming are (or perhaps better said, make me feel more comfortable in the water): focusing on spearing a bit deeper in the water (my swimming mantra used to be no hand-brakes, no dead spots); lifting my head position a bit more forward  - I'm not certain what this has done, but it feels great!"

Megan would be the first to say that if she can do it, so can you! Just as Megan's journey started by coming to see myself for a consultation, by visiting one of our excellent Certified Swim Smooth Coaches, you too can find out exactly what you need to do to improve.

Special thanks to Megan for allowing us to share her journey with the world. Thanks Megan, I'm very proud of you!


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