Goal Time!

By Coach Nick Morrison
USAT and RRCA Certified Coach

Have you started thinking about what goals you have for the new year and in what events you want to participate? Most of you probably are making plans for the new year and that’s great to hear! As you look ahead, keep these tips in mind when making your goals.

Strive to make your goals challenging yet realistic. That’s often easier said than done. Try to use your past experience to project your future performance potential to help strike that balance. For example, we often use Jack Daniel’s VDOT calculator and race projections to help our athletes. Plug in your best times across various distances and see what VDOT the calculator gives and what times it projects for different race distances. You might find that your shorter distances like 1 mile or 5k project a higher VDOT than how you have performed in longer distance races like the marathon. A challenging yet realistic goal could be to run a marathon at the equivalent VDOT pace that your shorter races project.

Another way to strike the balance of challenging yet realistic is to make A, B, and C goals. If you’re making a time-based goal, break it up into 3 targets with A being the best performance, B being a little less, and C being a little less than that. There are so many variables outside of your control on race day, that it’s good to have A, B, and C goals so that you can still push yourself even if something like the weather doesn’t cooperate on the day of the event.

Make goals that are not timed-based/performance-oriented. So often as athletes, our first thought with regard to goals is I want to finish in X time or I want to place at a certain spot in the results. Those types of goals are great, but you should also make other goals that are focused on your growth as an overall athlete and include things like knowledge, skills, and enjoyment. For example, most triathletes that didn’t grow up swimming spend every workout swimming front crawl and only ever swim front crawl. Make a goal to learn other strokes or to get better at flip turns. Setting goals like this will not only help you get more enjoyment out of your training, but you will likely even find that it helps improve your performance.

Once you make your goals, the next step is to make a plan to meet those goals. What are you going to do in individual workouts that will help you reach your goals? How is your annual training plan structured to help you meet your goals? This is also where we can help as your coach. Make sure you coordinate and communicate with us so that we can come up with challenging yet appropriate goals for you and so that we can make a custom-fit training plan to help you achieve them. You’re going to do great in the new year!

Keys to a Strong Underwater Pull

By Coach Nick Morrison

When we talk about swim technique, it can quickly get overwhelming because there are a hundred different things to think about. Point your toes, keep your core engaged, rotate from the hips, keep your hands toned but not too tense. It’s a lot to think about! In order to make sense of it all, we need to focus on one thing at a time – preferably the one thing that will be most impactful in our stroke. The one thing that every swimming should focus on is developing a strong underwater pull.

A strong underwater pull is made up of three parts (I know, I know – I feel like I’m contradicting my ‘one thing’ statement already). Those are: 1) an early catch, 2) a vertical forearm pull, and 3) a late finish.

Early catch and late finish go hand in hand. Together, they make your distance per stroke as shown in the picture. The longer the distance you can cover with each stroke, the better. The catch is the point where your arm first grabs the water. You want this to be as early in the stroke as possible. The finish is the end of your stroke when your arm is fully extended and your hand is down past your hip.

Swimming - strong underwater pull

Between the catch and the finish is where the underwater pull happens. The key to a strong underwater pull is a vertical forearm. Think of your elbow to fingertips as your paddle which is propelling you through the water. You need that paddle to be vertical. This ensures that you are generating power in the right direction.

The most common mistake I see athletes make is rushing the catch. They will be so excited to start the pull that they forget to catch water first and their paddle won’t be vertical in the water until their arm is even with their shoulder. This causes a couple issues. First, it dramatically shortens your distance per stroke. Second, instead of propelling their body forward through the water, they are actually lifting their shoulders out of the water toward the surface because their paddle is not yet vertical when they start to pull.

So remember, be patient at the catch. Give yourself time to get your paddle vertical in the water. Then start your pull. Maintain that vertical paddle through the pull and finish all the way down past your hip. Finally, keep in mind that every incremental improvement helps.

Nutrition Basics in Daily Life

What you eat in your daily life has an impact in how well your body will be able to perform in training and on race day. Many athletes we coach are either trying to lose a few pounds, looking to optimize their performance, or simply seeking a healthy, well-balanced diet. This article outlines some key nutrition information and builds from very basic to slightly more intermediate levels. At the end, I also address some common misconceptions that I see causing confusion.

Level 1: Quantity and Calories

At the most basic level, we can think of food in terms of quantity which is most often measured in calories. Calories are a unit of energy. Food provides us the energy our bodies need to survive, move around all day, complete workouts, and build muscle after workouts. We need to keep our total caloric expenditure (everyday life + workouts) in balance with our total caloric consumption (how much we eat). Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your total caloric expenditure. If you find yourself eating more calories than you’re expending, you’re likely going to gain weight.

Level 2: Macronutrients

Protein (target 10-25% of your diet): Protein is used to build muscle. The best times to eat protein are during meals, after a workout, and just before bed. You do not need to eat protein during most workouts since it is not used as energy to fuel workouts. Small amounts of protein can be beneficial during longer exercise (over about 3 hours).

Carbohydrate (target 40-65%): Carbohydrates are used for immediate energy, with higher intensity exercise, over shorter duration. Your body is still burning carbohydrate for energy during longer, moderate and low intensity exercise, but it becomes the secondary fuel source. The best times to eat carbohydrates are shortly before, during, and after exercise and during meals. You should avoid eating carbohydrates in the couple hours before bed since you’re about to be sedentary. When your body consumes carbohydrate, it immediately converts it to glycogen and stores it in your muscles. Our bodies have a limit to how much glycogen they can store (typically around 1200-2000 calories), and any carbohydrate you consume beyond that limit will get converted to and stored as fat.

Fat (target 20-30%): Fat is used as energy in longer, moderate to low intensity exercise – it’s the main fuel source we use in endurance sports. The best times to eat fats are during meals. You should avoid eating fats shortly before and during exercise as it can cause GI issues. It also takes your body 10-12 hours to metabolize fat, so keep in mind that the fat you eat now won’t be ready to fuel exercise for 10-12 hours.

Level 3: Simple and complex carbohydrates and their impact on blood sugar/glycemic load

Blood sugar (glycemic load) is just that, the amount of sugar in our blood. Our blood sugar levels will naturally fluctuate throughout the day as we eat, digest, and exercise. Our goal needs to be to try and keep those fluctuations gradual and small instead of rapidly rising or falling to extreme high or extreme low levels. Carbohydrates are sugars, so we need to focus on what types of carbohydrates we’re eating in order to manage our glycemic load.

Simple carbs: Simple carbs are high glycemic foods which means they are digested quickly and cause a very fast and very high rise in blood sugar levels. This is a bad thing, so we want to avoid simple carbs in our diets. Simple carbs include foods like desserts, table sugar, soda, candy, white bread, and others.

Complex carbs: Complex carbs are low glycemic foods which means they are digested gradually, so they cause a slower rise in blood sugar and also a lower overall rise in blood sugar. These are good things, so we should try to pick complex carbs for our carbohydrate needs. Complex carbs include whole grains, whole wheat bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, chick peas, and more. Although at a molecular level, some foods like fruits and milk are simple carbs, you can think of them as being in the same category as complex carbs since they act more like complex carbs because they have plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber which results in the same gradual blood sugar increase that you get from true complex carbs. 

Glycemic response

In practice, this can actually get pretty confusing because it’s not entirely black and white as to which category a given food falls into. It’s probably more accurate to think of simple vs complex carbs as a spectrum rather than two distinct buckets. Some clues to look for are the amount of fiber and how refined/processed the food is – you want more fiber and less refinement/processing (ex. choose whole grain breads with visible grains, seeds, nuts, etc. instead of white bread which is highly processed). Also, if you stick to natural sources of carbs like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, you’ll be good.

Read more on simple and complex carbs here.

Level 4 and beyond

There is more beyond this information! Keep in mind that additional information builds on this foundation – it does not replace this foundational information. It’s just like how we all learned math growing up. First you learn basic addition and subtraction, then you learn your multiplication tables and long division, eventually maybe you continued to more advanced topics like algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and beyond. Each new advanced topic builds on the knowledge from the prior grades. If you can get the information outlined here correct though, you’re going to be doing pretty well. Then if you want to continue to learn more, that’s great too!

Common Misconceptions: Fad Diets

We need to be careful about chasing fad diets. Fad diets typically follow the outline of, “Only eat this, never eat that.” Typically, what happens with fad diets is that when someone starts the diet they see initial success and weight loss. This is primarily because of the ‘never eat that’ part of the diet’s rules. By cutting out a significant part of the dieter’s food intake, the diet will be successful in getting that individual to initially lose weight. In the long term though, many people end up struggling with fad diets because the diet is either too restrictive or because the person finds replacement foods that technically follow the guidelines of the diet but still end up giving the person too many calories overall.

Common Misconceptions: Calories

“Counting calories alone is not enough” vs “Calories don’t matter” / “Calories aren’t a thing”

It is absolutely correct that counting calories alone is not enough if you are trying to watch your weight. Countless individuals struggle to lose weight even after significantly reducing their caloric intake because they still have a poor mix of macronutrients or are eating lots of simple carbs.

However, “Counting calories alone is not enough” is a very different statement than, “Calories don’t matter.” The first is correct while the second (calories don’t matter) is most definitely not correct. This is an important distinction to keep in mind for two reasons. First, an endurance athlete (and by endurance athlete, I don’t just mean professionals – I mean anyone completing and training for runs, bike rides, triathlons, etc. at any pace) typically follows a training plan that consists of both an off season where your volume is relatively lower (say 20-30 miles per week for a runner) and peak training season where your volume gets significantly higher (40, 50, or even more miles per week). With this type of training, your body needs fewer calories during the off season and more calories during peak training. If you aren’t able to adjust throughout the year, you’re going to find yourself either gaining weight in the offseason because you’re eating too much or struggling through workouts during peak season because you’re eating too little and your body is out of energy. Second, even if you are eating an appropriate diet of the right foods (complex carbs, healthy fats from plants, etc.) you can still gain weight if you’re eating too much of it and your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure.

Common Misconceptions: Carbohydrates are the enemy

The trend right now is that carbs are the enemy. Carbohydrates are not the enemy and not all carbohydrates are bad for you. You need to include complex carbohydrates in your diet – especially if you are an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athletes, not just the pros). You do need to keep in mind your overall balance of macronutrients to make sure you’re not getting more carbohydrates than you need, but carbohydrates are a part of that balance.

Simple carbohydrates are the enemy. This is true and this is what experts actually mean – it just gets misstated by many other individuals. Unfortunately, simple carbohydrates are abundant in our culture. They’re hard to avoid if you eat out much, so you’re better off preparing your own meals where you can ensure you’re not dumping extra sugar in everything like many restaurants do. If you do eat out, try to be conscious of where you go and what you order.

Low carb and no carb diets are also catching on right now because the average American leads a pretty sedentary lifestyle – they drive everywhere instead of walking, they don’t get much or any exercise, and they sit in an office job all day. If you’re an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athlete), you’re not the average American leading that sedentary lifestyle. The average American does not run marathons, complete Ironmans, or participate in century rides. Endurance athletes of all ability levels need carbs – you don’t need to go overboard with them, but you do need them.


Sources: USA Triathlon, RRCA, Jesse Kropelnicki


How to develop a high elbow catch to pull water with your entire forearm

Sculling is one of my favorite drills to do with athletes in the pool because it helps develop two critical skills – a high elbow catch and pulling water with the entire forearm.

The catch is the first part of the stroke and when a swimmer drops their forearm vertical in the water so that they can then begin the pull which propels their body through the water. The key to a good catch is to keep the elbow high – near the surface of the water – and to catch as early in the stroke as possible – notice in the picture below how the elbow is even with the forehead. This allows the swimmer to press back in the water with a vertical forearm which propels the athlete through the water.

Sculling - correct

Notice instead that if the athlete let’s their elbows drop, that it creates more of a 45-degree angle in the water. This is a less efficient position because now instead of sending all of the pressure back in the water, the swimmer is sending the pressure back and down – towards the bottom of the pool. This causes the chest to lift and the legs to sink in the water. 

Sculling - incorrect

To do the sculling drill, position both arms at the catch and then windshield-wiper the arms. This is the same type of motion you make treading water. Focus on keeping those elbows high and pressing back with the entire forearm. Check out this quick video to see what it looks like.