August 25, 2015
On today’s episode of Triathlon Research Radio, Sam Cook chats with Sara McLarty about coaching and swimming. Sara explains what brought her to coaching. They discuss her philosophy when it comes to coaching swimmers of all levels. Finally, Sara breaks down the proper manner in which time-constricted triathletes should train and manage their time.
Be sure, if you haven’t already, to sign up for our Triathlon Research Camp here for the opportunity to train with Gwen Jorgensen and Jamie Turner among several others.
00:28 Sam Cook:
Hello again Triathlon Research listener. My name is Sam Cook, the Founder of Triathlon Research and your host for today’s show. We are here today with a very interesting guest in the realm of swimming which I know that there are a few triathletes especially if you started late at night have a bit of phobia and/or struggles with swimming. What I’d like to do in today’s episode is interview Sara McLarty who is the founder of a swim company called—and Sara make sure I get this right—Swim Like A Pro, right?
01:05 Sara McLarty:
Yes, that’s correct.
Okay Sara, welcome to today’s show.
Sara, I’m really excited to have you on today’s show because I was just in Spain with Gwen Jorgensen and the Wizards and Jamie Turner and other the things that Gwen has a very strong connection to where you are based, which is Clermont Florida. She used to train there before she joined—
She used to live and and work from the US.
Yeah, she spent quite a bit of time there. That is where her initial I think first couple of years in triathlon a lot of it was spent. She came to know you there and has spent a lot of time in the pool with you. She definitely insisted to me that when we did our Clermont Camp coming up with here in December 2015, if you are listening to this in 2015 that’s coming up. She insisted that you would be the swim coach there. So, really, really excited to get you on board for that.
It’s great to be on board.
Yeah, it’s going to be awesome to introduce you to the athletes at the camp. We had a lot of fun last year in Clermont. Let’s dig in right now as to why Gwen is such a big fan of yours and I think it probably has something to do with your take on triathletes and swimming. So, why is your swim company called Swim like a Pro? And just tell us your philosophy behind swimming.
Sure, swim coaching before triathlon company however you want to call it for [00:02:47] we are [00:02:48]. That came about after starting to work with adult triathletes in the central Florida area. I’m now going on seven years ago. Over seven years ago I located to the area, started coaching here. I used my name as a professional triathlete who is always one of the fastest swimmers in the water and my knowledge of swimming and experience. I have been swimming since I was a baby. My mom and family were swimmers so swimming was in our blood and swam for some great coaches growing up. One name to throw out is Steve Lochte. He is the father of the well known swimmer Ryan Lochte. That was my club team coach so I trained with Ryan Lochte all through my teen years and then moved on to University of Florida, swam for multiple times Olympic coach Greg Troy at the University of Florida. I had four fantastic years there narrowly missing the Olympic team in swimming. I finished fourth at our Olympic trials when they only take the top two. I then moved on to triathlon and I’ve had an 11-year fantastic career in that realm. But while that was still going on, as I was competing as an athlete I always knew that coaching was a passion of mine and that stems from having fantastic coaches. I think when you are given the opportunity to train under passionate, caring coaches that focus on the smallest detail I think it builds a desire in that athlete to want to give back that passion as well. So here I am moving to Clermont in 2008 and I start a master swim team and I start working at the National Training Center facility coaching adults and novice athletes that are coming to swimming later in life. They would come to me with a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding about swimming and digging into it further and working for multiple years for hundreds upon hundreds of swimmers that would come in beautiful Clermont on winter when the weather is gorgeous here. I realized that triathlon is such a new sport. It’s only just over 25 years old. We have a tendency to try to do things differently and things that aren’t proven. A lot of it is just trying to find an easier way to do things that aren’t easy and that’s where Swim like a Pro came out of. It was the idea that if you want to swim fast, if you want to swim well as an adult, as a triathlete no matter who you are, you are pretty much you are going to have to swim like the pros do it and the pros that we are talking about are the fastest swimmers in open water, the fastest swimmers in the pool all prescribe to pretty much the same technique method, the same training methods that have worked historically over time. There really is no easy way to get that success. None of these Olympians suddenly at 20 decides you know what, I’m going to be a swimmer, I’m going to figure it out in two weeks and I’m going to be really good. It’s hard work, it’s time, it’s dedication, it’s hours spent in the pool and that’s really the only way around it. That was the creation of Swim like a Pro and a lot of the methods are what I have developed from successful coaches that I have worked with and trained under. Yes, that is how we coach swimming. That’s the philosophy for swim coaching there is no easy way to do it.
So you’ve trained, and just for the listener if you’ve not heard of Ryan Lochte he is probably the best swimmer in US swimming right now. I know Michael Phelps had that title for a long time but I think the mantle is sort of passing. I don’t know the exact state of things.
I think they trade back and forth every other week.
Yeah, well Michael Phelps has retired a few times and come back out off of it but I think Ryan Lochte definitely last Olympics really burst onto the scene in terms of his performance and really gave Phelps a run for his money in the title of the best swimmer in the US.
Just to clarify that for anyone listening we have quite a pedigree here of coaching experience, not only from your family Sara but also from the people that you’ve trained with.
What event were you fourth in at the trials, which one was that?
The 400-freestyle. Just a second off of making the Olympics team so pretty cool, pretty neat experience.
I think for anyone who is listening to this, what was it like swimming in the trials, because one of my favorite books actually that I read was about something for gold, to really just—
Yes, the Southern California group out there, yeah?
It was Gold in the Water.
Gold in the Water, yes was talking about the life of an aspiring Olympian which you’ve lived. What was it like being in the Olympic trials and just the whole circuit leading into that?
You know, I can pretty much describe it by telling you the whole story. The whole story is I was an all round distance swimmer, so going into the trial I had six events that I could swim. They ranged from the 200 butterfly, 200 IM to the 400 IM, the 400 and 800 freestyle and as well the 200 freestyle. Leading into the Olympic trials I had posted like the third best American times in the 400 IM. That was my event. I was a 400 IM-er and I had posted one of the best times in the world that year and was swimming super fast. Come to the trials it is event one day one and I get up on the blocks in prelims and great butterfly, great 100 backstroke, fantastic first 50 of the breaststroke and then the piano fell and then I just started going backwards in the water. I was on pace for my best time and everything was looking great and then just the pressure or the excitement or I don’t know, something it just all came to fruition in the middle of my best event trying to qualify for finals and I didn’t even make it. I didn’t even make top eight, I didn’t even make it back to swim the event again. I was in tears for the entire day. That was my Olympic dream down the drain. We finally sucked it up a lot of, talking with the family and the coaches and sniffling and tears and everything. And it’s like you’ve got five more events, you never know what could happen. I went out the very next day in prelims, 400 freestyle, posted a good time, came back at night and that was the closest I made. I finished fourth the next day. It was a sad story if you just say I finished fourth at the Olympics trial but it’s a comeback story if you tell of what happened the day before.
I think the perspective is really critical for someone who is crying in their milk about being the fourth best in the best swim team in the world. I think any kid listening to this who is a swimmer would dream of just being in that position. Let alone triathletes who get to learn from someone who was a second away from qualifying from the Olympics in freestyle swimming which is pretty important in triathlon.
Yeah, swimming is definitely important for triathletes. The knowledge and experience that I gained from age group swimming, swimming collegiately, swimming for the world championships, open water, pool swimming and then graduating over into ITU triathlon, non-drafting triathlon, long distance triathlon I’ve been there. I’ve experienced it all and the experience combined with the knowledge and the understanding that I have of how the body moves through the water efficiently and everything I think makes me a really good swim coach.
Well, I know Gwen agrees. Let’s talk about how you really deliver for triathletes in terms of helping them swim like a pro because there are schools of thought out there that triathletes need to do things a little bit differently than pro swimmers and triathlon swimming is not the same as triathlon swimming. Address from your perspective having being an Olympic level swimmer or Olympic trial level swimmer for the United States and then also professional triathlete. Why do age groupers, in your opinion, need to look up to pros in the way they swim rather than do it differently?
Okay, that’s a fantastic question and it’s a fantastic concept. You are a runner and you watch some of your favorite runners, your Mirinda Carfraes, your Meb Keflezighis and is the first thought that you have is, oh I see them running fast and I see them being successful but I’m going to do it differently or as a person running not as fast as they are I should be definitely be doing something differently. I don’t think that that is the common running school of thought and I know running coaches like Bob McGee it doesn’t matter how fast you go, you should be striving to do the exact same things as those elite top level runners do and the same thing applies to the water. The biggest change is that no, we as triathletes, we as open water swimmers should not be swimming exactly the same as a pool swimmer and the biggest reason for that is our water is moving. Our water is moving in 18 different directions from the wind, the waves, the currents, the people kicking in front of us, the other people in the water and the chaos going around us. Pool swimmers have million-dollar lane lines, pool gutter systems etc. that are keeping the water they are swimming through as still as possible and they have five feet on either side of them until the next swimmer is. So as a result of that the biggest change that we as triathletes find is that the key is high tempo, high cadence, high stroke rate. That high stroke rate in the open water allows us to make up for times when we are in water that’s moving in the wrong direction or if we take up a pole stroke under water and it’s not as powerful because the water wasn’t nice and still for us. So the biggest difference is stroke rate but the concept of swimming and the way that our bodies can produce a powerful and efficient pole, same exact thing. Same exact way Josh Mo, new 40 year old athlete coming to the sport of triathlon, his body is going to be efficient in the water the same exact way that the Ryan Lochtes, the Gwen Jorgensen, the Javier Gomez are in the water. That is one of the biggest concepts that we teach is that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like, you are still going to try and make yourself move through the water the same way as everyone else with a little bit of a twist on it for open water and that was that high cadence aspect.
So your school of thought is that you can abide by big boy rules as a swimmer but the counter to that is going to be okay well Sara you grew up in the pool. How do you deal with people who didn’t grow up in the pool and bring them around to that style of thinking and help them catch up with people like yourself who come into the sport who’ve been swimming since they are little?
The same thing goes. Let me step back to the running thing again. We can look at the Meb Keflezighi, the Olympic champions, the Rini’s running and we can attempt to look like them. Now in our minds, we are definitely going to look like them in the visual aspect, in the actuality of it no, it might not be exactly the same but we are striving for that. We are using our body, our musculature, our physiology in the same way. But we might not be as flexible, we might not be as powerful, we might not be as strong but we are still trying to do the same movements. The biggest thing, let’s talk about swimming, let’s say how we are positioning our arm under our body in order to make a powerful pull and that is you are not using your shoulder. We are not using our small, little muscle, little shoulder ligaments. You are not putting your arm in the water and spinning them in circles and using what looks like just spinning your shoulders around. No, if you did that for a long length of time your shoulders would be trashed and why do we get a lot of people coming to us saying hey I’ve been swimming for a year and my shoulders hurt. I’ve got shoulder injuries. I’ve been to the doctor, they say I’ve got rotator cuff or an impingement or frustrated tendons etc. Those people are not swimming correctly, they are not putting their arm in the water and using their core strength, their lats, their pecs, their upper back to do the powerful pulls under water and that is how you do something like long distance swimming without getting injured. You find a way to use your big muscle groups to do a lot of the load and the work.
Yes. Let’s go into that a little bit which is, you are talking about the muscle movement that professional swimmers, professional triathletes have learned and what you are saying is, we can teach that to age groupers right?
Absolutely, and it’s just positioning. You get a lot of people and you just take a real quick under water video and above water video, you sit them down and you show it to them. For most people who have never seen themselves swim it’s a huge eye opener because so much of what we are doing when we are swimming we can’t see. So we have an idea of what we are doing and some of the times we need to be shown that what our idea is and what we are actually doing aren’t on the same page. A lot of times just taking a video of someone, a novice swimmer and sitting them down and saying you’ve probably been on YouTube or seen maybe the Olympic swimming on TV or triathlon on TV and you have a visual idea of what you are looking for. But because so much of that stroke is going on outside of your peripheral especially if you’ve got goggles on and that kind of blocks you a little bit more what they are doing isn’t matching with that. A lot of times it’s just going here is you swimming what do you see and they’ll go, that’s what I look like? I had no idea, I thought I was doing X, Y and Z and I’m definitely not doing X, Y and Z. Step one is just kind of connecting what we can’t see to what we are actually doing. And then step two is showing what we want it to look like, giving some drills, getting them into that position no matter what it takes. A lot of times for me on the pool like a lot of times I’m saying, I want you to overdo or over exaggerate this movement that we are trying to work on and really get them outside of their comfort zones and a lot of times once they step out of that comfort zone, it’s finally putting their body or arms or head or whatever it is we are trying to fix into the right position. So yes, I think that it’s anybody can do it and I have had success with everybody. Most of the people that come through working with myself or my core coach Misty Becerra, we get great improvement from our swimmers and they head off and send us messages, oh I swim straighter, I swim faster, I swim easier and that’s the success that we are looking for.
Sara, we have a lot of triathletes and there are a lot of different thought processes out there. One of the questions that you typically get is, how many yards do I need to swim in order to get a certain time? So if I want to get down to sub 20 on the Olympic distance triathlon swim is there a yarded requirement that you see hard and fast or does that dependent on how much stroke work they put in? The other point I’ve heard swim coaches make is, look you only have limited amount of time for swim training compared to Michael Phelps who can do it all day, right?
So what’s the most efficient use of your time? Is it drills or is it just putting in volume or is there a balance?
The balance of course just like everything in life, balance is your best answer. Let’s take that with the Michael Phelps analogy and say yes, Michel Phelps can put in X amount of time into the water and triathletes freak out about that one. I’m never going to able to swim better because I only have X amount of time. But consider the fact that, of your limited training time you have a family, you have a job some of your training time is aerobic whether it’s biking or running, it’s all making you a fitter person, it’s all improving your aerobic capacity. So if you are limited with time in the water, spend a majority of your time on two things, drills and speed. So if you have, and I’m just going to take an average from the people that I see around here, about 45 minutes in the pool that is an average. Some people have about 30 minutes in the pool, some people can spend up to an hour in the pool, lunch break or before work, after work etc. Do not spend your limited swimming time going back and forth in the pool with no purpose, just getting yards. No time constrained triathlete should be spending time in the pool swimming yards. That is a waste of time that is the biggest waste of time. You are going to get that training biking and running and it’s all going to carry over because your cardiovascular system is going to be better and you are going to be a better athlete, period. The swimming is so much about technique and so little about your fitness level. The best example is how many of us go to masters practice and see this 70-year old guy with a big old pot belly completely unfit looking but because he has swam his whole life and knows the technique, can totally kick your butt. That is the example that swimming is so much not your fitness level but so much your technique. To answer your question is, is there a magic number? Yes the magic number is not caring what your number is but caring about how much proper technique you are able to do while you are in the pool and how much that time is spent working on becoming efficient in the water. So I would divide my time, and we do, as swim coaches with our masters programs we don’t have people come to our training sessions that they are paying for and we don’t say, I’d like you to swim 1000, ready, go. It doesn’t happen in the swim practices. They are going to come to us, we are doing drill sets then we are transitioning right into speed work and then we are doing a little bit of a recovery probably with a drill focus and then we are getting right into the next speed set, 50s, 100s, maybe even up to 150s of fast effort. Little recovery set again, second drill work, what are we doing? We are doing catch-up, we are doing fingertip drag, we are doing sharp drill right back into another quality set and that is how you can best spend your time in the water is between those two things.
So really what you do then, if I’m hearing you, is you assess athletes and you give them their prescription of drills versus yardage based on what you see, right? So you are not going to let an athlete go up and down the pool with that form.
No. How I like to look at it is we are going to swim hard for a period of time that I think this athlete should be able to maintain their good form and then we are going to recover and we are going to focus on some aspect of good form. We are going to let heart rates lower, muscles relax and then we are going to go do it again. I don’t ever see at any point in time during my swim practice form falling apart for yards and yards and yards and yards. I’ll stop that person, we’ll regroup. I’ll say, let’s do something else, let’s focus on this aspect of your stroke that is gone to crap right now. So there are no mindless yards where form tends to just not even be at the forethought. Those are yards that are actually hurting you as a swimmer. If you get in the pool and I say I’m going to swim 30 minutes non stop and oh the worst thing for me is to see the people put their headphones in, waterproof headphones. I’m like oh my gosh, that means that you are purposefully going to spend no time thinking about what you are doing in the water right now. And that I think actually hurts you because what it’s doing is it’s promoting that incorrect muscle memory. It’s just driving it home and driving it home and driving it home. Even if you wanted to make changes, now you’ve made it harder for yourself to make technique changes.
So you probably just throw them out of the pool when that happens, right?
They don’t come to practice with music, yes.
One of the things that really amazed me when I started working with different people like Bobby McGee and different swim coaches and even cycling coaches is not all yards are laps or RPMs are created equal. You can have two people doing the exact same workout and just if one of them decides to switch their mind on and think and have a focal point about the thing that they are doing you get a completely different engagement, you get a completely different result from the exact same amount of calorie spent maybe if they are comfortable in fitness. I think that’s just what always amazes me about triathletes is how much they try and checkout during a workout with headphones and everything else.
Yes, and that is why—and this is a really good point—that is why elite athletes have coaches. Every single elite top level from the shortest distance to the longest distance has a coach that probably is we’ll call it on deck you are at the run session with them on the bike on a scooter or something and on deck probably 85 or more percent of the time. That is because the coach’s job is what you just said, it is to take the same exact practice and turn it from getting through the yards to making a point out of every single yard. There is no elite athlete that is super successful, okay there are I’m sure without having a coach right there with them at all times. That’s the difference, age groupers open up their training peaks app, they look at their workouts, they put their headphones and equipment on and they go out and ride or run or swim through the miles.
So really Sara what you are saying and what you’ve seen because there are some amazing professionals and age groupers and people of all levels who come through national training center is if you are listening to this and you want to become a professional or a podium level or qualify for Kona it’s not about getting more time. Because I think so many triathletes talk about how, if I just had more time I would do these things and it’s really all about being more conscious and also getting help.
Yes. It is finding a way to make the absolutely most out of the time that you have and even the people saying if I had more time, if I had more time, your bodies can only handle a certain amount of time. There is only a certain amount of quality training time that we can load our bodies with on a weekly or monthly basis before problems start happening. So let’s use that number as 20 hours. You can do 20 hours of just BS training or you can do 20 hours of high quality training one of those is going to result in you being a much better athlete.
Yes. So you really just have to figure out, what do you really want out of this sport? Do you want to compete and just participate or do you really want to achieve some goals and a professional level mindset is all about purposeful training.
Just go ahead.
I was just more agreeing with exactly what you were saying. Having a knowledgeable coach there definitely makes that time much more purposeful.
Well Sara your family, both yourself and Justin were professional triathletes and I actually was commenting to you one of my races a few years ago. I was watching I think in Austin a race and Andy Patson, your brother was from of the pack. What really blew me away was watching how easy their strokes looked compared to the rest of the pack. The first ones to get out of the water had just the smoothest strokes versus everyone else behind them was. It looked just like they are really thrashing. But one of the things you’ve said here is professional triathletes need a higher stroke rate but even at a higher stroke rate your brother was making it look easy. What are some insights you can give for people who watch pros and try to figure out, how do I make it look that easy but what are they really doing there?
That is the elusive feel for the water and that is something that can’t be taught. That feel for the water that effortless looking stroke comes with time. It comes with time spent in the water. I think we were talking about this earlier but what is that perfect yardage number? And I wanted to answer to that too is more times in the pool is better than one longer session and the same thing goes for this, how do you make that effortless, how do you get that feel for the water? It’s being in the water more often, having more opportunities for your body to feel the water and experience the water. I was just talking with an athlete the other day and he was like I’m getting in the pool twice a week and I pound out 2000 to 2500 yards and I’m like whoa, whoa, whoa! I would be much happier if you got in the pool three times a week and swam 1500 yards knowing that that last 500 to 1000 yards weren’t just you pounding the water because your body is tired. We’ve got to think of both my brother Dustin and Andy Pots and all of these lifelong swimmers, they have hours and hours and hours of pool time behind them. How can you catch up, how can you a middle aged adult, how can I catch up with those years that I’ll never get a chance to do again? It’s more times in the water. Not one time in the pool doing all your yards or one time in the lake doing one long swim. It’s getting to the pool multiple times and keeping your feel for the water. As an elite level athlete when we were swimming at University of Florida and we would be tapering down for a championship meet some of us distance swimmers, myself included, would be told to come to the pool at a normally scheduled some practice time. So let’s say we were swimming ten or eleven times a week but doing taper it would be down to seven times a week with some extra mornings to sleep in. We would be told we still had to come to the pool another three times during the week, literally swim a 200 and get out. It was maintaining that feel for the water, not letting more than 24 hours go by without our bodies being submersed in the water to maintain that feel for the water. That can still apply to us like if you literally only have 30 minutes to get a workout in, that is fantastic. You can get so much done in 30 minutes in the pool. I would say it would be more of a benefit than spending 30 minutes running or 30 minutes biking with the same amount of time.
Well that’s pretty interesting insight. I think a lot of people assume that if they can’t do an hour, hour and a half in the pool then that will just not do it.
No. I don’t suggest an hour and a half in the pool for your average age group triathlete, not at all.
Sara, I just wanted to kind of bring this home and wrap it up. I’m very much looking forward to meeting you in December in Clermont. You’ll be there with Gwen and Gwen was really insisting that you be there for her campus year what is one of your favorite memories of working with Gwen who is on an absolutely roll in the sport of triathlon, historic winning streak here?
Absolutely. We were training in Clermont a couple of winters ago. She was living here and literally in the winter you are just getting base miles in and doing training sessions, getting ready for the year and she had a couple bike run sessions. It was a bunch of many bricks her coach wanted her to do to get that feeling. This is Gwen’s maybe second year of triathlon so that bike-run transition was she needed some practice with, some experience. So we rode out to Central Florida in 2008, we were full of undeveloped, housing developments. Roads would be paved but no houses would be built because of the big recession. They make the perfect quick courses because there is a perfect housing loop, paved concrete, not a single house on it, nothing but grass and weeds. We’d warm up, we’d bike out there and we set up our running stuff and our transition gear and we are going to do probably four or five mini bike runs. I told Gwen, I said your goal in every single one is to try and get out of T2 faster than me, alright? I am the slowest professional triathlete runner and here we are talking Gwen, the fastest professional triathlete runner. I said you need to get to our little weird chalked lines and everything and I’d beat here every time and it just comes down to an experience thing. I’ve done estimated 450 triathlons in my life. So that was a lot of fun, it was like, what! You got this down, your goal is to beat me through. We had a lot of fun attacking each other and then trying to get through T2 first.
Well, at least you can say you beat Gwen Jorgensen at something back in the day. Again she’s a huge fan of yours and the time that you guys spent together. So I’m really looking forward to watching you and Jamie Turner and Bobby McGee and Brenton Ford and all these people get together at this amazing camp. Sara, thank you again for joining us for today’s episode.
Thank you, it was a blast.
Thank you. And really interesting insights for the audience about what it’s like being an Olympic level hopeful in swimming, moving into the professional triathlon ranks. And then how to transition from doing the teaching which is a much harder thing than I think most people realize. It’s one thing to do something because you’ve grown up to and it’s the other thing to learn how to communicate it and that’s where true master comes in, it’s being able to coach someone in the skills.
It’s a constant, constant learning. It will never end, always learning something new.
I think the great part about the sport as a coach is the rabbit holes as you say are endless and things that you can learn. Thank you again Sara for joining us and thank you triathlon research listener for taking this time to invest in your own education as a triathlete. I know that you have many choices on what information you go to and we try our best here to get you only the best information from people who really know what works. I can’t think of a better person to communicate the lessons for you on your swimming. If you are interested in working more with Sara, you can go to the National Training Center and find her master swim group. If you want to do that during the Triathlon Research Camp you’ll definitely get some one on one time with her and small group time with her. I think you are actually teaching open water swimming at the camp which is going to be really awesome to see.
See you teach how to translate pool coaching which is going to be taught by Brenton Ford at that camp into the open water skills.
Open water, yeah, bring your wet suits.
Exactly. So with that, thank you again for joining us and I really look forward to seeing you again on the next episode.
Absolutely, thank you so much.