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Welcome to the triswimcoach podcast! This is episode number 34 and this is Kevin and I have an interview today with a coach. He’s a triathlon and swimming coach here in Southern California. He’s in Irvine and his name is Mike Collins. So I’m going to give a little preference here. I actually screwed up the interview. I forgot to turn on the record button at the beginning so we recorded — about a couple of questions into the interview I turned on the recorder and so we actually managed to do those first questions over again. So, it’s all good but the first part, the intro and everything is a little bit choppy because I had to redo that. But just a background on the stuff that was left out was that I’ve known Mike for about 20 years from back at UC Davis when I swam competitively in college. He was the distance coach while I was hanging out over the sprint lanes. Now, it’s the gist of what we talked about in the beginning. We just cut that out and went right to the meat of it. One other announcement: we are opening up triswimsecrets. I mentioned this before but we’re actually offering just until the end of January, a $1 try-out period. So, you get 14 days to try the triswimsecrets course and it’s just $1. You can check it out! You can actually download everything in the first module which is a whole month’s worth of training and videos and podcasts and everything. You can get all of that for a buck! If you want to do that and it’s only going to go through January 31th. Just go to triswimsecrets.com! If you never got the 5 lessons or the 5-session course that we just released with all the PDFs that you got, you can still get that. You just go to triswimsecrets.com/access. So, without further ado, here is the interview! Hope you have a great week of training and we’ll talk to you soon!
I’m happy to have Mike Collins on the show today! Mike is a USAT-certified triathlon coach and the 2002 ITU Aquathlon World Champion. Mike has been racing triathlons since 1984 and has competed at distances from sprints to Iron Man. 9-48 in Hawaii in 1991. He raced professionally from 1987 to 1991, specializing in Olympic distance. He continues to perform well as a top age group triathlete in sprints and Olympic distance races. And his list of wins and top 5 finishes in Southern California is impressive. In addition to racing and coaching, Mike is a renowned writer and guest speaker on the subject of swimming. His articles have appeared in triathlete magazines, swim magazines, American swimming and many other national publications. His website is multisportsOC.com. Mike, welcome to the show!
Mike: Thanks a lot!
Kevin: Sure! The first question I had is as a triathlon coach dealing with a lot of newbie swimmers, what are two important things you have your athletes focus on as their getting started?
Mike: We work on technique to begin with and to me streamline’s a really important part of that even if they’re a new triathlete, even if they’ve just learned how to cut through the water better and balance their body. Coming from open water, whenever we do open water, they tend to swim with their heads so high of the water. So we work a lot on setting up that body alignment. And I do that by videotaping them off the bat like actually showing them what they’re doing and you can see their errors and maybe even showing them what correct swimming looks like so they can see it. The second part of what I want them to do is learn how to measure progress, that they’re actually timing themselves in repeat and counting their strokes and just learning how to measure so that they know these drills and things that their doing any good because just doing drills on their own doesn’t necessarily equal getting faster doing it right. So, I want them to be able to tell me how many strokes they’re taking per length, what their average pace per hundred was on a set and those kind of things and it’s definitely a challenge I think with some new athletes that just aren’t from a swimming background or aren’t used to timing themselves.
Kevin: Yeah, for sure! That’s good stuff! Now, as a certified total emerging coach, where do you down on the long gliding strokes versus focusing on the high elbow pull for triathletes?
Mike: I’m not really a certified TI coach anymore. I was at one time but I think they have good information on a lot of things to swim more efficiently with less effort output. But I really don’t believe in the word “glide” in freestyle because to me gliding is a non-action. You’re just pausing and when that happens your hips and legs will sink unless you’re kicking pretty hard and as triathletes, they usually don’t have good kicks to begin with and secondly, if you’re wearing a suit or whatever’ wetsuit, you’re not really going to need to kick much. I prefer to use the work extend which is more of an action whether extending as your body rotates and then the weight shifts through to the other side and not just stay out there because if you tend to glide, you’re going to stop the trailing on. I mean the back and then that’s when the sinking really happens- the disconnect to the core. I talked about circling the energy in the back and extending lines in front. So we got circling in the back lines in the front. And so, they’re trying to extend out in front while the pulling arm circles into recovery and there really shouldn’t be any dead spots or gliding in the stroke other than maybe the streamline push-off when you’re in the pool training.
Kevin: Yeah, good stuff! That actually falls in line exactly with what I found too!
Mike: Yeah! We call it the beyond over TI when maybe they’re going to total immersion camp or watch the video and they’re really trying to get this wrong extended gliding stroke and it’s just stroke-pause-stroke-pause-stroke-pause. You can definitely fix that with something like a tempo trainer. Something to help them keep the tempo going.
Kevin: Yeah, no doubt though.
Mike: That’s part of good coaching I think. It is using those tools and keeping people measurable and accountable for what they’re doing. So, that requires maybe a little bit more rest between sets sometimes to evaluate the data or think about it or whatever. But I think it’s pretty important to be using several variables when you’re checking their progress beyond just time. You can bang out a 1 10,000 free but if that was with a really messy, wild kick and a bunch of arm strokes, you’re not going to be able to hold that for a 1.5k swim. So that’s pretty important to get that balance. One of the new tools we’re starting to play with a little bit it’s kind of cool is that “swim sense” that Finesse has. Have you played with one of those at all?
Kevin: No, I haven’t.
Mike: It’s pretty neat! It’s a watch that will do a lot of that info for you. You just start it. You push off and you swim. It tells you how many strokes you took and the time and you could do some other pretty cool data. Since we do so many repeats, I just think that to improve you have to hold on pretty good form and it’s hard to do that doing long straight swims so you tend to do intervals stuff but you got to start and stop the watch every repeat which is a little… I’m not used to doing that but I think their next version of their hardware is just going to automatically detect. It’s kind of neat! It’ll tell you like even though it’s a different in freestyle strokes to breast stroke to back stroke. So, it kind of color codes the results differently. It’s almost like a power meter but for swimming. So many people are starting to train with power now on the bike.
Kevin: Right. Yeah, that sounds awesome! Now, how much sprinting would you have someone do who’s training for a longer distance race like where there’s a mile swim at the beginning?
Mike: You know, we’d do some fast swimming pretty much every day. In our program, we have different days of the week. I have different focuses. Monday being the middle distance day, Tuesday is more of stroke AM, Wednesday is distance day, Thursday is another coach’s choice day; and Friday, we call it Fast Friday. And on weekends, we’ll have like some longer distance stuff. I tell people pretty much try to make that Monday-Wednesday-Friday so they’re hitting each energy system. But even on distance day, we’re going to do some things that are faster than race pace because if you want to be able to hold a 115 pace per hundred, then you better be comfortable swimming at 105 to 110 pace. If you do all your swimming long, easy pace swimming, you’re just not going to have that extra gear you’ll need for racing. Plus, there’s that intensity required at the start. Breaking through waves, things like that really up the heart rate lot. So, we’ll even attack that by doing a distance set by starting off with some butterfly before it.
Kevin: Sounds brutal!
Mike: So it kind of gets your heart rate up off the bat and then you have to learn to settle down and go at your race pace. We’re trying and we haven’t done a lot during this winter but we’ll start gearing it back up again as doing what we call POW which is Pool-Open Water workouts where we’ll do stuff without lane lines in and doing some buoys in the water and instead of swimming up and back on lanes we go around buoys and workout and just mix out the sets that way. We still do it as intervals but you’re not getting the walls, you’re tangled with other people going around. Brings up the anxiety level a little bit and just helps you deal with some of the conditions you’ll see on races.
Kevin: Do you have people that are throwing blows out there?
Mike: Yeah, some people get scratched. I did a little video and you can hear these guys cussing in it because they got scratched. But no, people are pretty considerate of it. It breaks up pretty fast too between your better swimmers and your poor swimmers.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly.
Mike: Dave Salo is the head coach of Nova for a long time and now he’s at FC and he’s been considered as a sprint coach but what’s funny is his coach is Mellouli who won the Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 and I think he won it at the world championships too! He doesn’t get off a bunch of long, straight swims to those guys and yet those guys can just click in and hold pace. There’s trickier ways to do it. You keep the heart rate up for 20 minutes or 25 minutes, like it’s going to be in the race. But with that just being a long, straight swim. You do need to do some straight swimming and get in open water to get your acclamation for it. We’re rarely doing repeats over 400 or 500 meters.
Kevin: Oh, okay! Well, that makes sense. Can you give me three of your top race day tips?
Mike: First one is get in the water before the start to really acclimate. I think too many people just because there’s a lot of last minute stuff to do of getting your transition areas set and doing this and that and walking all over the start. A lot of people do not get in the water and get acclimated. So, they’re getting on the land, they’re getting all hot in their wetsuit and when they jump in into the cold water and it just shocks your system too much and they end up hyperventilating. We really work to try to make sure that we’re down at the swim start with enough time before and a lot of time they don’t want you in the water before but you got to find a way to get in and get wet before the start. And that means getting the head really wet, getting the water in the wetsuit… all that kinds of stuff. And then, being prepared to go out pretty fast but not hard. I tell people that you got to learn the difference between effort and speed because they are two totally different things. Most people they go out hard and they kick a lot and they turn their arms over fast and it just blows them up in a hurry. You add the tightness of the wetsuit to that and they start getting really overcooked in a hurry.
The different styles of swimming in a wetsuit is something that we work on a lot too. It’s not just race day stuff but stuff we practice a little bit ahead of time. I think your stroke needs to change a little bit in a wetsuit because it of the increased floatation, because of the more tightness on the shoulders, because of the potential to overheat even in cooler water. If you’re turning over pretty fast, you’ve got to learn those differences of swimming in a suit and remember that when you get in a racing situation instead of just going to auto-pilot mode.
Mike: And may the 3rd thing would be to just have a strategy for the race on where you’re going to start at. To the left side or to the right side or how close to the buoys you want to swim. How you’re going to manage your effort over the course of the swim and specifically what are you going to use as your sights during the race other than buoys because buoys to me are like one of the last things that I use to navigate with.
Mike: A lot of people don’t have those. They don’t even know how many buoys it is before the turn or how many turn buoys there really are. They’re just getting out there and randomly following who’s in the front of them instead of having a clear picture of what part of the race they’re going to push and where is the place to make up some ground, at what point in the swim are you going to have the sun directly on your face where you will not see much.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly! It’s not always a good idea to follow the person in front of your because they may not know where they are going either. Now, what the best way in your mind to avoid that panic frenzy at the beginning of a race?
Mike: Practicing being in it. The more race starts you’ve done, open water races in addition to just triathlons, you get the comfort level increased. You get more used to doing it. And there is some groups that will train like that on a regular basis. I know Joey Rodriguez up in Santa Monica, they do a lot of weekly workout where they go to the beach and practice those entries and exits and that aggressiveness that you need to have in open water. To me, it’s like a separate set of skills that you need, separate from swimming is the open water tactics portion of it and the skill of dolphining through surf and those things because you don’t have to be a great swimmer to just dolphin and get out through surf pretty fast and you could be clear of a lot of people in a hurry if you just know how to do that. Once you’re around that first buoy, things settle down a lot. So, if you can just figure out how to get to that first buoy pretty quick and around it, things settle down so much. You see, a lot of people they just go out slowly getting through the surf and they get stuck just in that big egg in a snake. They’re just getting beat on the whole way.
Kevin: Yeah, and that takes up so much energy!
Mike: Yup! It’s interesting I’m even seeing that happen in Iron Man races how much people are just getting beat on the entire swim. I was in Arizona watching that race and the pros went off and the 15 or 20 minutes later, they sent the age groupers but wind turned on like 5 minutes after the race started for the age groupers and it just started getting all choppy. When that first group of people went by, their weights started bouncing off the wall in the channel there. And 100 or 200 yards back they’re just swimming in this frothy, bouncing, crazy mess! I’d hate to be in that for 2 and a half miles.
Kevin: Yeah, no kidding! You did a DVD on transitions. I’ve seen it before and it was good! I actually have a little link to it on my site and I can put it up again in the show notes. Can you give just a couple of takeaways from what you were teaching in that video?
Mike: To me, transitions are like– in swimming, we try to improve our walls and our turns that so much of a race could be won or lost in swimming in your walls and just doing the turns right. It’s really not so much a conditioning thing as it is knowing how to do it right and having practiced it until you’re absolute money to do it right every time. You don’t see how level athletes missing their flip turn. You see Phelps or whoever go 15 meters underwater– 10 meters and just break out with all this momentum and speed and they’re just money to do that every time.
When you look at high level triathletes, you see them get in and out of transition so fast and not really making mistakes but it happens so fast you just take it for granted. But those skills are not that hard to learn. Once you’re taught how to do it and you just practice it enough… the running, mount onto your bike, leaving your shoes on the pedal when you dismount toward the actual movements that it takes to get out of a wetsuit. These good athletes are getting out of them quick and to me, it’s just not something that you have to take that long to learn or that if you’re beginner athlete, you don’t have to know it. In my first season of triathlon, I could learn how to do transitions fast enough to save me 3 minutes. That’s a lot of time junk and it puts you up with a lot better people out on to the bike or into the run or whatever that you wouldn’t have been with otherwise. I tell people, “You lose 15 seconds in your transition to somebody running and that’s 15 seconds ahead of you is way up the road and that’s a lot of work to get them back. With me beginner athletes, I tell them to go into the results and add together their T1 time and their T2 time and compare that to their age group and there should not be more than a 10 to 20 second difference between them and the fastest person in their age group in that transition. If there is, then they damn well better work on that first because that’s the easiest place to save money or time.
Mike: I got beginner athletes that are just phenomenal on transition. Now they just got to train enough to get good at the other stuff.
Mike: Why not go for the lowest hanging through- the things you can learn quickly and practice and be pretty good at it.
Mike: And now you’re looking at who’s doing good at the Iron Man. It’s the guys that came up through ITU racing. They’ve gone through all that. They’re doing pretty quick transitions in Iron Man too! I’m not saying everybody should be coming out doing 2-minute or under transitions at Iron Man. There’s reasons to get more nutrition or put on socks or take whatever fluids and medication or whatever you got to do. But still, it’s phenomenal how good they are at transitioning.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely! Cool! That’s about all I’ve got. What else do you have planned for this year? You’re doing the high school coaching; you mentioned that before the show.
Mike: Yeah, I’m still working with several triathletes and not really coaching any pros right now. Mostly just age groupers but there’s a constant inflow of new people that want to learn how to do it but swimming is still my main sport but I do a lot of running technique instruction and impose method of running and apply a lot of the same principles across all 3 sports and I just feel that even in biking and running there’s so much technique to it that people aren’t aware of that if they did work more on their form they’d get faster and they’d be less injury-prone. We just see such a high level of injuries in sports. Unfortunately, I end up getting most people after they are already injured but I used to be more on the pro side of that before they get there.
Kevin: Totally! Are you still racing?
Mike: Am I still what?
Kevin: Are you still racing at all?
Mike: Yeah, a little bit. I went to Sprint Worlds in Australia and got 4th and I usually do several sprints and Olympic distances races and last year, I was crazy I went to Wildflower and I actually did all 3 of the races: the wall course, the mountain bike, sprint and the Olympic. It was more on a dare but it was kind of fun. It made me train a little bit more.
Mike: I still do a few races every year– got to stay in it. I think I’ve lost my hunger to try to do the very best. Now, I just do it to go out with the people and have a good time.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s cool! That’s probably even more fun than trying to win every time.
Kevin: Cool! Well, Mike’s website is multisportsOC.com. If you’re in the Orange County area, you can look him up there and get a hold of him for some personal coaching! Mike, thanks so much for coming on! It was awesome!
Mike: Thanks again, Kevin! Good luck with your stuff too!