Do you know how to get better turns?

Swimming faster than your opponents is a great way to win races, unfortunately there are many races where the fastest ‘swimmer’ loses. How is this possible? Simple, they have bad habits on their turns. You will see this more so in distance races as a swimmer will move past their competition on each lap only to be pegged back or even passed on each turn. This means you are expelling more energy than your opponent each lap only to lose all of your advantage on a simple flip turn. In a sprint race it happens as well, a 50-yard freestyle can be won on a great flip turn regardless of anything else you do in that race. Many contributing factors affect the quality of a turn, it can be from poor streamlines, breathing in or out of the turn and losing momentum or gliding into the wall and treating it as a rest period.


A swimmer spends may hours every week in the water, depending on their volume and their size of pool they perform anywhere from hundreds to thousands of flip turns in varying degrees of tiredness and so it is inevitable that they get a little bit lazy on their turns. This is not the end of the world and as a coach you have to expect it, however, you need to make sure there are adequate high performance sets and training where you really hone in on the turns and focus on them so that in races the laziness does not creep in.

A great way to do this is by doing lower volume work with a high focus on turn performance. An example would be 75-yard freestyles on a slower interval than usual but high focus on;

  • No breathing 2 strokes in or two strokes out of the wall.
  • Long walls (underwater kick a minimum of 10 yards fast).
  • Fast flips with tight tucked body position.
  • Perfect streamlines out of the wall.
  • Building speed into the wall to replicate race speed turns.

As a coach you need to be very strict on this type of set or it completely loses its purpose. You cannot be on every swimmer at every wall in every practice and although they should always be focused on good turn practice it cannot be expected that they keep this level every time. However, setting up a small set to really focus on racing turns allows them to aim for perfection and feel how it should be in their swims. Then from this set you can implement one or two of these into longer distance sets. Making a longer swim where there is no breathing allowed two strokes in two strokes out for example or only focusing on long walls or only focusing on building into the turns allows the swimmer to think about one aspect at a time in a lower intensity set which will develop into good habits. Once they get the individual skills locked in their overall performance will improve and they will begin to use the skills they feel improve their usual turns best in sets. If a swimmer realizes their 10-yards underwater kick is faster they will use it even when they are tired to save energy or keep up with their team mates on tough sets.

Overall a fast turn can make a good swimmer great, shave seconds off their times and is not a very hard skill to improve. In the same respect if neglected by a coach or a swimmer it can turn into a huge weakness that will be exposed in a race. Put in the work and explain the importance of it to your swimmers and they should be excited to work on them.

From seven years old to Olympic glory. What drives Katie Ledecky


When Katie Ledecky was seven years old, she was not the fastest swimmer in the pool. In fact, her main goal was to compete in a 25-meter race without stopping and hanging on the lane line.


That summer she practiced hard, and by the time she felt confident enough to attempt the feat, she’d developed an ear infection. When the doctor told Katie and her mom that the little swimmer wouldn’t be able to compete that weekend, he was unprepared for Katie’s response. She wailed so long and loud that the doctor finally gave in and simply told her mother to pack Katie’s ears with cotton before the race. At that meet, Katie didn’t win the race or set any records, but she did complete the 25-meter lap without stopping.

Over the years, many people have asked Katie, her parents and her coaches about when and how she became the fierce competitor she is. They want to know how and why she does what she does, and how she manages to continue setting records and winning. But even more than that, people want to know what drives Katie Ledecky to do the amazing things she does in the pool. When reporters ask her these questions, Katie usually offers her trademark smile and shrug, and when these interviewers turn to her parents and coaches, they admit that they aren’t sure either.


However, when you look at Ledecky’s family history, it becomes a little more obvious that she comes from head down, work hard people who have consistently done what was necessary to get the job done. Her grandfather, Bud Hagen, served in World War II as a doctor and was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for saving soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa (despite his own broken ribs) was her role model for endurance. He was the one who advised his granddaughter to “Take the lead, keep the lead,” and it stuck. Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen, swam competitively in her youth, and often swam so hard she would retch and struggle to draw a breath by the end of a race, and she passed on the “give it your all” gene.

Katie’s coaches have consistently said that they aren’t the ones motivating her – she motivates herself to perform at her absolute best in every practice and every race. Her coaches provide her with the skills needed to improve her strokes and breathing techniques. Coach Yuri Suguiyama has been credited with helping Ledecky develop and refine her long loping stroke, one-side breathing technique and high-speed kick, and he says that discovering the right stroke and kick for her was the key to opening up her winning potential.

Every other coach that has worked with Ledecky says that her internal motivation and her ability to bounce back quickly (from a less than ideal practice or race) is something they rarely see in swimmers. She takes the good with the bad and comes back stronger and more determined the next time she dives in. Part of her internal motivation comes from a practice she began at eight years of age – setting her own “Want Times,” and is something she continues to do.

What Ledecky herself says it comes down to is simply wanting to swim. She’s said in interviews that she loves being in the water, and that often, during a race, she blots out the other swimmers and races against her own times. During the 2016 Olympics, she told Sports Illustrated reporter, S.L. Price, “I love being in the water. I love training. I hate when I have to take a week off. At the end of the season I always take a week or 10 days off or longer, and I really don’t like it. That’s when we go to Palisades the most and sometimes I have to do laps because I just get way too anxious.”

For those who are curious about what drives a champion like Katie Ledecky, the answer might come down to something straightforward and simple – this swimmer lives to swim.



By Mary Gebhart

Your body can handle it. Well maybe not….. (Over training)

Overtraining in a Swim Season

Once a base of swim skills has been built up it never completely disappears, this is why we have athletes like Michael Phelps who can take an extended break and come back to win gold medals and also why we have collegiate athletes who can take entire summer off out of the pool and come back in and compete after a few weeks of training under their belt. The danger is that in an effort to regain their ability quickly they try to do too much in order to get there faster and fall into an overtraining phase where they struggle to recover.

You see this in early season collegiate athletes, they get back with high levels of motivation and do more than they need initially. Their coaches will give them higher volume training in the pool than they have done all summer and then they will begin their weights sessions and look to do additional sessions on their own. The issue with this is the push themselves too far too soon and as their season progresses their motivation can dip, their workload in the classroom increases, their performance can stall and by the end of the season they truly are running on fumes because they started with too much of a workload. Eric Helms is a professional powerlifter and natural bodybuilder who holds two Masters degrees, one in philosophy in sports nutrition for energy restricted weight lifters and a second in exercise science in performance enhancement and injury prevention. performance enhancement specialist with the NSCA, NASM and USAW. Eric is also pursuing his PHD in strength and conditioning from AUT in Auckland, New Zealand. It is through his research that I have been able to truly understand how to effectively train athletes in the pool and gym. The main goal has to be progressive overload for the athlete, this means that the optimal amount of training volume and frequency is the minimum amount possible in which you see good progress. Helms states, “I advise people start on the low end range of what seems to be in the range of optimal, and then only increase if performance is not increasing”.


So with swim training, especially when a strength program is included in their schedule you want to start low. This could be two or three gym sessions a week and 5 swim sessions a week and as the season progresses you can add another gym session add some swim mornings and obviously increase both volume and intensity within the sessions. While doing this there also needs to be deload weeks in the weight room, recovery sessions in the pool and overall great nutrition and recovery methods used by the athletes. As a coach it must be your priority to continually make progress with your athletes, it is sometimes hard to judge due during the course of a season as not every swim will be a personal best but progress in their sessions is a great marker. Being able to perform more intense sessions, holding better averages and generally lowering intervals throughout the season are all measurable areas to look at and if they can’t do this it may be time to look at how you have increased their volume and if it needs to be altered for their benefit.

Is Open Water Swimming a Good Alternative to the Pool?

For swimmers who practice and compete in pools, getting away from the black line on the bottom of the pool might never have crossed their minds.

Over the past several decades, open water swimming (the practice of swimming in oceans, lakes and/or rivers) has gained popularity. The practice officially began in 1810 when Lord Byron swam several miles from the Dardanelles to Asia, and, in 1896, open water swimming made its first appearance in the modern Olympic Games (in Athens) with a 1500m swim. Since 2008, a 10k open water swim has been an officially sanctioned Olympic event


Embraced on a global level, open water-swimming events now take place everywhere from Istanbul to Copenhagen to Lake Zurich. Competition is fierce and swimmers brave a wide range of conditions to compete in events and claim bragging rights. Event distances range from 2.5K to the staggering 193K Eight Bridges Hudson River Swim, and require a great deal of training and planning in order to account for a wide range of possibilities.  


Getting ready for the race in Chicago at Ohio Beach, September 2016. (Photo by Mary Gebhart)


In Chicago, the Big Shoulders Open Water Classic has become a beloved tradition on the first Saturday after Labor Day. Founded in 1991 by the late Bill Mulliken, Olympic Gold Medal winner (’60 Rome breaststroke) as a fundraiser for the University of Illinois at Chicago swim team, Big Shoulders has grown to be one of the premier open-water races in the United States. The race is limited to 1200 registrants (800 for the 5K and 400 for the 2.5K), and every March registration closes earlier as swimmers log on and sign up to swim (in 2017 registration closed in just four hours).  

Most open water swimmers choose freestyle as their stroke because it allows them to sight the buoys or triangulate (looking for two aligned, easily visible objects behind the destination) when the race is a straight swim between start and end. The Big Shoulders swim is set up as a 2.5K course marked by four large buoys so that 5K swimmers take two trips around the course. The swimmers are assigned a swim cap color based on their entry times and are started in waves with the Elite 5K swimmers taking off at 8:00 am and ascending age groups following every four minutes until 8:28 am when the 46 & Over 2.5K swimmers start.

It’s a grueling course and it can be more than some swimmers can handle. Part of the challenge is the water. Lake Michigan temperatures can fluctuate widely and rapidly based on the changes in weather and wind. As a result, the rules for Big Shoulders state that if the water temperature drops to 60 degrees or below, all swimmers are required to wear wetsuits (however, as in competitive pool swimming, wearing a wetsuit disqualifies swimmers from posting any official open water swim times). More often than not, the water is warm enough for swimmers to skip the wetsuit, but occasionally swimmers will still find the water too cold and be unable to finish the race.


On the Big Shoulders Open Swim Classic course. September 2016. (Photo by Mary Gebhart)


This is when the race monitors and lifeguards are essential. Lifeguards are positioned at various points on the course in rowboats to help swimmers stay on course and to pull out anyone who can’t make it to the finish line. The race monitors circle the course in motorized boats ensuring that all swimmers stay outside the buoys, and picking up swimmers that can’t finish and depositing them near the beach.


At the end of the race, organizers award metals to the fastest swimmers in each group and host a huge barbeque on Ohio Beach!


By Mary Gebhart