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You’re 1 in 1,000 Baby: Understanding the Bio-Passport OFF-Score

Trends in Reticulocyte Percent (R%), R-count, and OFF-score for 3 blood samples taken over 10 days of racing for 253 riders participating in the 2010 and 2012 GiroBio,

Figure 1: Trends in Reticulocyte Percent (R%), R-count, and OFF-score for 3 blood samples taken over 10 days of racing for 253 riders participating in the 2010 and 2012 GiroBio,

Disclaimer: I am not a physician, hematologist, anti-doping expert, or even a veterinarian.  I am just a coach and athlete who has a passion for data analysis, visualization and clean and fair sporting.

The “Athlete’s Biological Passport” (ABP) is used in cycling to detect changes in an athlete’s balance of haemotological parameters that might be indicative of doping. The passport if a set of blood values and associated metrics that attempts to describe an athlete’s “normal” or “equilibrium” point, a way of separating natural variations due to genetics, environment and training stimuli from the variations that result from prohibited pharmacological stimuli. It is a complex topic, with the experts in interpreting the passport often expressing their beliefs in terms of probabilities, likelihoods, and ultimately, taking very conservative approaches to the responsibility that they have: their judgement can ultimately be a substitute for a “positive” or “negative” doping charge. One feature of the ABP is what’s known as the “OFF-Score” – a score which has an upper and lower range of “normal” values, in other words, a too high or too low OFF-score is considered to be indicative of doping. Though the experts reiterate that the OFF-score is merely one part of their ABP assessment, perhaps due to it’s wonderful name, and easily interpreted range (85-110 is considered “non-suspicious”), it seems to be a pretty cut and dried matter for arm-chair doping analysts.

OFFs, ONs, and ESAs
At first glance, the name “OFF-score” could give the impression that it was a suspicion score, that is, a number that says “something is off here”, but it’s not. In fact, the OFF-score could better be described is a an indication that a persons red-blood generative process has been switched “OFF”, which is noted as an effect of blood-transfusion, or “coming OFF” a round of EPO or other “erythropoiesis-stimulating agent” (ESAs), or activity (like coming down from altitude). In contrast to the OFF-score, there is also an “ON-score”, which refers to the opposite case, that is a score that indicates the likelihood that a person’s RBC production has been switched “ON”, perhaps as a result of a round of EPO or some other stimulus for the generation of red blood cells. Below is a quote from an article entitled “Blood doping and its detection (Jelkman & Karsten 2011)“:

Some blood parameters, such as the concentration of Epo and reticulocytes (Ret), increase on administration of ESAs (ON-score), whereas they decrease after RBC transfusion or after the cessation of ESA administration (OFF-score)

A Jury of Your Peers
Now, the OFF-score is not a score of cheating, or even of suspicion – at it’s core, it is simply a number that is derived from the ratio of hemoglobin (oxygen carrying red blood cells – Hg) and reticulocytes (%R – baby red blood cells). In general, the expectation is that the more baby-RBC’s you have, the higher your Hb since baby-RBCs grow up to hold a lot of Hg. The formula for OFF-score is as follows;

Eq 1: ([Hb] (g/L) − 60 × √ (reticulocyte percentage)

There are several things to note when considering the meaning of this score:

  • Units Conversion – In the passport files that you will see, Hb is usually in the range of 13-16, whereas in the OFF-score calculation, that value is effectively multiplied by 10, having a range of 130-160.
  • This value is an expression of the underlying notion that in the average or median athletes body more reticulocytes generally means more hemoglobin.  In other words, this is a way of measuring an individuals ratio of Ret/Hg against that of their peers.  The fact that there is a range of “normal” values means that the actual Ret/Hg ratios in human beings is not fixed … some folks RBC’s may “live longer”, resulting in a lower level of Ret to produce a given Hg level, or vice-versa.
  • The most important thing to note, is that a value that is considered “of concern” or “suspicious” is one that lies outside of the 99.9th percentile (as prescribed by the WADA guidelines).

You’re 1 in 1,000 Baby: Cheaters & Outliers
I have often heard suspicious values in a passport as representing “a 1 in a million chance that this athlete is NOT doping”, or claiming that being outside of the prescribed OFF-score range indicates a 99.9% chance that the athlete IS doping – it should be stated unequivocally that this is not correct. An OFF-score that meets the 99.9% threshold (high or low) is literally a 1 in 1,000 score. That is, the statistics suggest that in the whole population of non-doped athletes that have been tested, 1 out of every 1,000 samples is outside of this prescribed range, in other words 0.1%.

Factors Influencing OFF-score
Plugging numbers into Eq1, it can be shown that if you have a high Hb coupled with a low-%R, that yields a high OFF. The idea being that if you have a high number of mature RBC’s without a correspondingly high %R, that you might have just transfused some RBCs, or recently came off of EPO and your body is now shutting down reticulocyte production to allow you to return to your natural equilibrium level. However, coming back from altitude ( has been show to cause this effect, and the stress of stage racing has been shown to raise %R (see figure 1), which might manage to either raise OR lower OFF-score.

Visualizing Training Duration, Intensity & Performance


Figure 1: Training volume (total hours), average threshold interval performance, number of 30:30 repeats per week, and threshold interval best time by week, July 1, 2013 through October 3, 2013.

Here is an experiment in visualizing what I think are the relevant training stimuli that I have been applying over the last few months as I explore the sport of cyclocross.  My training schema is overall very simple.  I do some long rides on the road bike (reflected in “Total Hrs” column), and I do 2 activities on grass in a local park: 1) “30:30’s”, which are short hill climb repeats, about :30 in duration up a ~15% grade with about :30 rest on the way down in sets of 5-10, and 2) “Loops”, which are Tempo/threshold intervals on a grassy loop of about 2.5 miles (which for me is 10-15 minutes of riding).  The graph in Figure 1 plots aspects of those activities over the period from July 1, 2013 to October 3, 2013.  Below is the table that this plot draws from.  The 4 aspects that I have plotted are as follows:

  • Total Time training, in hours (does not include warmup & warmdown time) – in blue.
  • # of 30:30 intervals completed for the week – in orange.
  • Average Loop interval times for the week – in red.
  • Best Loop interval time for the week – in green.

Looking at threshold Loop interval performance, my times remained fairly static from July through the month of August – hovering around the high 12 minutes to low 13 minute range.  During the first week in September they began to drop fairly substantially, moving to the low 12 minute/high 11 minute range.  A couple of things worth noting, preceding that drop in the first week of September I managed to put in over 8 hours in the saddle, though that was followed by a week where I barely made 2 hours of total time.  The week prior to that I also began doing 30:30 repeats in earnest.  Also, though it is not reflected in the graph, my 30:30 repeat time improved from about :33 seconds per repeat in July to :26-:27 seconds per repeat by the end of September even as I increased the number of 30:30 repeats that I could do in a single session.  The target level of effort that I put into each 30:30 repeat is approximately that which I think I could sustain for a 2:00 all out effort.  The increase in number of repeats is a direct reflection of how fatigued I became after repeated efforts – my ability to recover from successive repeats improved dramatically over time.  Another notable aspect that coincided with this last month of training was my ability to “step on the gas” in a given interval.  Prior to September my fastest repeat and my slowest repeat were fairly similar, maybe :30 faster at the times that I really put the hammer down.  As the month of September wore on into October, my top-end capacity on these loops increased dramatically, with my fastest time for a single repeat dropping to 10:30, about a full minute faster than my sustainable tempo pace which settled in at roughly 11:30 per loop.  I think that much of this performance improvement was due to my ability to recover quickly after pushing it up the short uphill portions of the loop course – I was able to push it harder up the climbs, and recover at a faster pace.

Table 1: Training volume (total hours), average threshold interval performance, number of 30:30 repeats per week, and threshold interval best time by week, July 1, 2013 through October 3, 2013.

Week End Total hrs Loop Avg (min) # 30:30 Loop Best (min)
7/7/2013 3.42
7/14/2013 3.08
7/21/2013 2.38
7/28/2013 1.25 13.50 13.00
8/4/2013 4.13
8/11/2013 3.77 12.92 8 12.92
8/19/2013 4.49 12.80 12.50
8/26/2013 3.73
9/1/2013 3.42 13.28 20 13.28
9/8/2013 7.20 12.02 12.02
9/15/2013 1.30 11.65 6 11.65
9/22/2013 4.03 12.00 25 11.67
9/29/2013 2.50 12.00 27 11.33
10/6/2013 1.06 11.17 10.50

Open Water Stage Races

On Saturday May 18th, we will be hosting a unique open water swimming event – the Ben Hair Memorial Open Water – a “stage” race. This race will feature all the regular mass-start draft legal action of the typical open water event, but will have the added twist of a Team Time Trial and an overall ranking of athletes based on their total time for the individual open water swim and their teams time in the TTT. It is this “total time ranking” that makes a stage race a stage race – that is, athletes compete in multiple events, often different events that play to different athletes strengths, and the overall winner is that person who holds themself together, limiting their losses on stages that do not play to their strengths, and “taking time out of” their competitors on those that do. The Ben Hair Memorial Open Water race has the twist of the Team Time Trial in there, but there are many other ways to run a stage race. Stage racing is very rare in the swimming world, but with the ever-growing numbers of races and racers, we should expect to see more of them in the near future – suspense, teamwork and fun – what’s not to like?

Stage racing is a concept that is most well known in cycling, where competitors race over multiple courses, or stages, and their cumulative time for all stages results in their final ranking for the race. Since these races often give awards for individual stage finishes and for team rankings, this overall time ranking is often referred to as the “General Classification”. These types of races abound, with famous traditional races like the Tour de France, and the Giro d’Italia in Europe, and now domestic races such as the Tour of California, the Tour of the Gila and the USA Pro Cycling challenge.

Swimming Stage Races
Swimming stage races are, however, quite rare. In addition to the 2013 Ben Hair Memorial Open Water race, there are only two other races in the U.S. that fit the bill: the Highland Lakes stage race in Texas, and the Hudson River 8 Bridges Swim in New York.

The Highland Lakes stage race, run in the Austin Texas area, bills itself as “The Worlds First Open Water Stage Race” – This race features 5 stages, in 5 different lakes with the 2013 edition happening October 23rd through 27th. This race was first run in 2007 and has been featured in Swimming World’s online magazine. This race is of somewhat moderate proportions, with its “Monster Challenge” stage competition featuring over 15 miles of racing. The overall winner in 2012, Keith Bell, spent just under 7 hours in the water.

The Hudson River 8 Bridges Swim began in 2011, with a general classification awarded for total time in 2012 – – the stage distances are mind-boggling, with the “shortest” stage at 13 miles, and the longest being 19.8 miles. However, these are all swum down stream, so the individual stages end up under 5-6 hours – still of epic proportions. The 2012 overall winner, Grace Van Der Byl, completed the race in 31 hours and 47 minutes.

This years Ben Hair Memorial stage race is a sprint-fest by comparison, only two stages with the general classification based on the total time for the individual 5k and the 1k Team Time Trial. These stages are swum in a single day, however, and will place a real emphasis on the strength of an athletes team, since a strong athlete with a weak team could easily lose a minute or more to a rival with a deeper team.

Rethinking the Qualification System for U.S. Open Water Nationals

A number of years ago, USA Swimming instituted changes to the Junior and Senior national system of meets to address concerns within the coaching community and within the leadership of our sports governing body.  These concerns were largely based on a desire to have a system of meets that would serve as a series of integrated steps in an achievement pathway that led logically to excellence on the international stage.  Those systemic changes have continued to evolve over the years to the current model of a single long course National championships and a single Junior National meet, both held in summer.

As we begin to think about the growth of the sport of open water swimming, it is natural we are turning a critical eye towards the current system of advancement for our open water athletes.  The governing body and coaches have set up an open water national team, national championships, and support our elite open water swimmers in many positive ways, and our athletes in turn have made their way onto many international podiums … but as the world open water scene grows, we must continue to evolve and improve our system of advancement.

The Road to U.S. Nationals is Through the Pool – Are There Better Ways?
In the U.S., athletes wishing to simply compete in an international distance race such as 5k or 10k face significant obstacles.  Simply put, the demands of the pool season and constraints of weather limit opportunities for racing to late spring (primarily May) and late summer (primarily September).  Perhaps because of this scarcity of races, the only way of qualifying for US Open Water nats is to meet a pool qualifying standards (800 or 1500) or by placing in the top 15 of a world cup event (of which there are exactly Zero held in the US in the 2013 calendar):

Click to access Qual%20Standards.pdf

Gender Distance 800 LCM 1500 LCM 1000 SCY 1650 SCY
Women 10K 09:03.5 17:18.3 09:59.2 16:43.5
Men 10K 08:23.4 16:14.3 09:13.4 15:39.9
Women 5K 09:09.9 17:38.7 10:11.2 16:55.0
Men 5K 08:32.5 16:36.7 09:25.4 15:56.3

That is not to say that these standards are unreasonable, they are not.  Corresponding roughly to the qualifying times for the summer Junior nationals, they are certain to weed out the pretenders.  Nor is it to say that we should not have pool standards, since there will still be cases where geographic and climatic constraints eliminate opportunity for some athletes, even if we were to expand the open water meet calendar significantly.

However, it is my opinion that there are still a couple of ideas that we should consider as we look to the future:

  1. Since they are based on relatively short events (800-1500), there are possible flaws in the way the pool standards are constructed that merit consideration.   By having relatively short pool races act as a surrogate for open water ability, the current cuts place an emphasis on speed over endurance, and pool swimming over open water.  Moreover, the 10k pool standards are faster than the 5k pool standards, whereas we would expect that athletes who excel at 10k might actually be slower in the 1500/1650 than athletes who excel at the 5k.
  2. A system of open water qualifier meets would help to not only identify those athletes who may have a special propensity for the unique demands of open water swimming, they would also provide a critical proving ground for gaining race experience prior to showing up at nationals or a world cup race.

Some Alternative Models
All of this is not to say that the current approach to qualifying does not insure a high level of competition – it surely succeeds in that regard. But the path to achievement is tipped in favor of older, often post-collegiate swimmers with a record of success in pool events.  At the very least, the current pool system could be enhanced to better reflect the endurance demands of the actual international race distances, and to acknowledge that there is far more to success in open water than simply having a good aerobic engine.  The following are a few ideas that have been put forth for consideration:

  • Open Water Qualifier Meets:
    • Hold regional Open Water Qualifiers for Nationals, or,
    • Provide a certain number of qualifying slots at pre-specified invitational open water meets.
  • Junior Nationals/Sectionals:
    • Add open water events at junior national meets, with top 10 finishers automatically qualifying for the senior level OW nationals
    • Add open water events at sectionals, with top 3 finishers qualifying for Senior Nats, and top 6 finishers qualifying for Junior Nats
  • Pool meets specifically for open-water qualification:
    • Devise a meet framework for a 3-5k pool swim qualifier, and/or:
    • Set qualifying times for the annual postal 3k meet, with mandatory judging/timing criteria equivalent to a dual meet or hosted time trial meet

As we move forward it is important that we consider the pathway that we lay out for our athletes, providing a wide range of opportunity to athletes regardless of their geographic and climatic challenges.  In the end, this may also help to insure that we continue to see those folks with the greatest open water potential find their way to the top step of the podium.

Robert Burgholzer is currently helping with the Ben Hair Open Water Meet which features a 5k and a team time trial, on May 18, 2013.

Ben Hair Memorial Open Water Swim Meet – May 18, 2013

5th Annual Race @ Christophers Run Campground In Mineral VA
Distances 500m – 1000m – 2000m – 3000m – 5000m & a 1k Team Time Trial

We are pleased to announce this years swim, which features a range of opportunities with race distances from 500m up to 5k, a large block of camping area at the race site (as well as many other lodging options, see below), and an open water clinic for both coaches and swimmers. This is a USA Swimming Sanctioned event, but is open to all athletes (see Entry & Eligibility Information below). In an effort to enhance the team aspect of this event we are including team scoring and a new event – the Team Time Trial (details below). The result is a meet that can provide the athlete with a range of team-oriented, challenging, and motivating events. Coaches and team directors can download the official Virginia Swimming meet announcement. All proceeds from this meet go to the Ben Hair Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Ben Hair Just Swim For Life Foundation.

This years race features a variety of challenging and interesting events. All events except the 500m are open to all ages:

  • Races from 500m – 5,000m – Mass start events from the 1k to 5k are open to all athletes, and a special 500m swim for 10&under athletes only.
  • The Earliest USA Swimming 5k on the East Coast – This is the earliest opportunity to swim 5k in a USA Swimming sanctioned meet on the east coast north of Florida, and it’s placement in this slot on the calendar allows access to this race before the height of the long course season. Our intention for adding the 5k swim this year was simple: to provide an opportunity for our athletes to gain experience in this international open water racing distance. In the same way that we work to provide an environment for swimmers to have their first open water racing experience, we offer this 5k with the intention of providing our accomplished distance swimmers with a stepping stone to national and international level competition.
  • Introducing the Team Time Trial to Open Water Swimming – Our Team Time Trial event is the first of its kind in the open water world. Teams of 4-8 athletes will start as a single unit, with separate teams starting at 3 minute intervals. The athletes will swim one loop of the course (1km), with the time of the 4th swimmer to cross the line awarded as the teams time. Athletes are encouraged to use the draft in order to get the fastest possible time for their first 4 athletes. A special “General Classification” (GC) award will be given to the athletes who have the fastest combined time for their individual 5k and their teams TTT time with awards for both Men and Women.
  • Open Water Clinic – The open water clinic will take place on Saturday afternoon and will cover Open Water protocols for officials as well as talks on training & racing strategies for coaches and swimmers & is free for all participants.
  • Camping & Lodging – We have reserved a large area for teams to set up camp, with camping for 300, electricity and full hook ups. Outside of the reserved area, but still in the Christopher Run Campground are RV hookups, private campsites and cabins available for rent. There are also numerous rental homes bordering Lake Anna & several hotels within 10-20 mins.

Entry & Eligibility Information
This event is sanctioned by United States Swimming, but it is open to all athletes. Competitors who are not members of USA Swimming will be required to purchase a single day membership ($12US) and must pre-register (see below for non-USS entry instructions).

Non-USS Member Registration Instructions
For detailed instructions and all entry forms, go to this page on

Breathing: The Limiting Factor

I was recently challenged by an old friend (Sue Chen @1650sue) to consider the question of breathing into and out of flip turns.  My personal thoughts on the subject have always been simple: if you can get away with it, do it.  However, this was an opportunity to question my beliefs on the subject.   What resulted was aa veritable rabbit’s hole of inquiry.  Thus, this will form a series of blogs where I try to lay out the basic state of scientific knowledge of the factors governing breathing rate in swimming.

“You want to know the secret of life,” he asked. “It is to breathe in and out.” — Sixto Rodriguez


  • Swimming performance is limited by oxygen consumption especially longer distance races (200-500 free and above).
  • Oxygen consumption is a function of respiration rate (breaths per minute) and tidal volume (size of breaths).
  • Tidal volume can be adjusted somewhat to accommodate conditions, but within certain individual limits.
  • In swimming, respiration rate is limited by stroke rate (strokes per minute) and breathing pattern (strokes per breath).
  • Increases in respiration rate are also limited, and at some point become counter-productive due to “hyper-ventilation”.

Looking at these assumptions, it becomes clear that the regulation of our oxygen supply in the form of breathing pattern, and the actual mechanisms that govern the absorption of oxygen into the blood stream are of critical importance.  Two related questions come to mind:

  1. Is there a limit to our ability to adjust tidal volume?
  2. In other words, is there a point at which we need to take more frequent breaths instead of simply larger breaths?

A Decent Proposal
If the answer to these questions is in the affirmative, I will make one proposition:

It is in our best interest to take as many breaths per length as possible without hyperventilating.

So, in order to come up with real recommendations about breathing into and out of turns, we need to figure out if their is a real physiological need for extra breaths, and the bio-mechanical/hydrodynamic costs of taking those breaths.  If the physiological need is there, it leads us to one more final proposition:

There are better and worse ways to execute a breath in the strokes leading into and coming out of a turn.

To be continued…

Open water: the antidote to sprint relays?

Back in the late 80s, when the sprint relays, 4×50 medley and 4×50 freestyle, were introduced to NCAA championships there was a lot of concern about whether or not this would undermine distance swimming in United States. The mathematics was simple, by adding 2 relays (and their associated points) to the equation, sprinters became far more valuable than distance swimmers. Because there were now more opportunities for fast twitch fiber possessing individuals, sprinters inherently became more versatile. Two consequences were expected: 1) less distance swimmers would be recruited and offered scholarships and more sprinters would take their places, And 2) There would be a decline in United States swimming’s international success in distance races.

While it is no doubt true that there are now more scholarship spots occupied by sprint swimmers as opposed to distance swimmers, the other consequence, that we would lose prominence international distance races is less clear. On the women’s side we had Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett occupying top spots in the international competitions during the 90s and the last decades crop of dominant women such as Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler and Katie Ledecky (and Eva Fabian and Christine Jennings in open water). However, on the men’s side there were number of years that saw very few American male swimmers succeeding in international distance competition. Recent years, American men have fared better with Larson Jensen, Chris Thompson, Fran Crippen, Alex Meyer and others leading a resurgence in United States men’s endurance swimming. Despite our recent success it is hard not to look at the Australians and the dominance of their men in international endurance swimming and wonder if there is not something to learn.

A culture of distance swimming
One of the popular explanations for Australian men’s dominance in distance-learning is this superstar status of swimmers in general and the cultural significance of open water racing to Australian people. This is a compelling hypothesis and many of us in the distance Swimming community have been interested in how we might create such a culture in our own country. Members of USA swimming have responded to this idea by hosting more and more open water swimming events in the hopes that “if we build it they will come”. In parallel with the growth of open water opportunities for youth swimmers we have seen an enormous increase in open water opportunities for adult swimmers. Part of this is a result of the growth of the sport of triathlon in United States and part is simply a growth in open water swimmings popularity amongst the American population in general. Interestingly, there seems to be rather little overlap between youth open water swimming and adult open water swimming races. This makes sense given the short summer season for youth swimmers and the emphasis on performance in pool racing. For a serious youth swimmer, a weekend spent open water racing needs to be productive, i.e. it cannot be lost training time. Perhaps more importantly, it must be scheduled at the right time of the season, so as not to compromise pool successes.

The time of opportunity
At time when Olympic sports such as wrestling are being cut from the international scorecard open water swimming is on the rise. There’s also a strong World Cup swimming circuit with prize money for top performers and the open water culture in the U.S. is gaining momentum – in both youth and adult swimming. However, youth open water swimming is still very much an afterthought for year-round swimmers in the US. Our meets are only successful when we squeeze them into the pool schedule. Perhaps it is time to take a next step? By increasing emphasis in open water opportunities via camps, junior national open water races, and regional races that complement our pool swimming schedule, we can enhance the value of open water and endurance swimming in general. I do not know if this will “save US distance swimming”, nor am I convinced that it needs to be saved at all. However, the time is ripe for international open water competition, and the building blocks are in place for youth swimming in the USA to set the foundation for our swimmers to rise to the same international prominence achieved by their counterparts in other countries.

The Most Productive Warmdown

Another Carrot
Warm-down, schmarm-down – how often do we get a “proper” warm-down done?  It takes valuable time, time often that we have already spent because our main set went longer than we thought, or our workout started later than we thought.  And while experience may say that we are more likely to excel tomorrow when we do a thorough warm-down today, it is still just to easy to let it slide.  Only the most disciplined athletes/coaches get it done.  Even if the promise of tomorrows good sensations don’t entice us to warm-down, perhaps we can come up with a reason to make it even more appealing?  Can we have another carrot please?

Maximizing Propulsion
For most athletes, I have found that the breath is the single greatest obstacle to effective propulsion.  There is a very powerful relationship between the head and hands, when the head is in the neutral position (i.e., not turned to either side for a breath) our ability to position our hands effectively in the water and to deliver our most powerful pull is at its peak.  As soon as we have our head turned to the side, both of these abilities are compromised, we can neither pull with peak force, nor position our hands well (the exception being young, highly flexible athletes, but even these folks have limitations).  Even the best of the best, see Michael Phelps video below, get their head in line prior to the peak of propulsion.

So, the quick-fix is to simply make sure that your head is in line when you pull.  OK, but in reality, it is not that simple, getting all of these things to work in a rhythmic fashion is our challenge, fatigue, oxygen demands, coordination, kick timing deficiencies – all of these things work against us.  So, what I choose to do is to use restricted breathing swimming, breathing every 4,5 or 6 strokes to get time to practice what it feels like to have my head perfectly in line.  I do these on easy swims with high rest in order to avoid it being a “hypoxic” exercise, since as soon as we get short of breath, our focus wanes and our stroke tends to get sloppy.  This is FEEL PRACTICE.  When the head is in-line and the stroke is not interrupted by breathing we can truly be at our propulsive best.  And to do this at the end of a workout, for warm-down, is perfect.  Here is how I go about it:

20 x 25 EASY swim breathing every 4-6 strokes
on :30 (get 10-15 rest)

Focus on Feel, Occasionally Count
One way that we think of measuring stroke effectiveness is by counting, less stroke equals greater propulsion, right?  Well only sort of, less stroke might equal greater coasting, or greater kicking, or harder pulling.  What  you really want to do here is focus on feel.  How do my hands feel?  Are they grabbing water?  Do I feel firm resistance?  At what points in the stroke is the resistance the firmest?  Can I feel the water rushing by my body as I propel myself?  Do I feel comfortable?  That is, do I feel “absence of awkwardness”?  Do I have gaps in the feeling of positive resistance against my hand?  Can I eliminate those gaps?

After I have probed my sensations with those questions, I can take an occasional look at the clock, or a count of my strokes, especially if I am tweaking something, performing an experiment.

Open Water Training: The Picket Fence


Image 1: Buoy placement and terminology for the “Picket Fence”. The “short loop” is done by swimming around buoys #1 and #2, while the “Long Loop” is done swimming laps from buoys #1 to #3.

The majority of aspiring open water swimmers spend a preponderance of their time practising in the pool, and rightfully looking for ways to tweak their pool training regimen to build skills for open water (think sighting, swimming without walls). But when we get outside into the open water it sometimes seems that we forget all of the clever techniques for training that we have developed in the pool. We just swim for distance or swim for time. But there is so much more that can be done to maximize our fitness, and accelerate the aquisition of open-water specific skills.

Running a successful open water workout for a wide variety of athletes can be tricky business, but there are some basic ways that we can organize our workouts to not only allow a flexible use of the open water, but to do so in a manner that accommodates a wide range of athletes. One of these is the “Picket Fence”.


  1. 2-3 buoys (or something that can be used for the purpose)
  2. A stretch of open water at least 50 yards long
  3. Anchor buoys in a Straight Line (like a picket fence – see figure 1), equidistant along the stretch of water

Uses of the Picket Fence
With this framework, the line of buoys forms a general course with two basic distances for use as laps. We refer to them as the “short loop” and the “long loop”. A third option, whereby swimmers swim laps between the 2nd and 3rd buoys can also be used, we refer to that as the “far loop”. These loops can be used simply to spice things up (see the warmup portion of the example workout below), and they can also be used to accommodate a variety of ability levels and comfort levels (see main set in sample workout below). Many of the athletes who are preparing for open water races are adults new to swimming and have a great deal of fear of open (and deep) water. Acclimatization is also something that we need to focus on with some of our and less experienced age groupers.
For swim coaches that have developed a whole library of productive pool workouts, a little bit of structure in the open water can allow us to create in a manner that plays to our strengths, while still reaping the rewards of wall-free swimming.  Using the picket fence, we can set up a workout that is interesting, is very amenable to speed-play, and can help us to more accurately quantify the distance travelled in a workout.
Workout: A sample workout using the “picket fence” that can customize to various speeds and comfort levels.  This workout was done on a course approximately 250 meters in length, with about 75 meters between buoy 1 and 2.  Total time is 1-1.5 hours.

WARMUP (or 25:00 whichever comes first)

ON GROUP REST + :10 – Get Used to Swimming Next to Someone

1 LAP LONG LOOP (SLOW) *Option do 1-2 Short Loop if needed
REST :30-:60


Into the Comfort Zone

We so often talk about “getting out of the comfort zone”, but in reality, we can only execute at the peak of technical proficiency when we are “in the comfort zone”. The following blog describes the efforts of a year-round swim coach to raise his swimmers level of comfort when performing flip turns. Similar to the way that driving 60 MPH feels really slow after you have been going 100 MPH, his activities are efforts at “acclimitization” (note: safety and supervision are key when attempting any drills or activities). While the pursuit of more comfortable flip-turns may not be directly applicable to an open water swimmer, or even someone who does not do flip turns, the basic principle is the same – fear undermines focus and focus is the essential ingredient to peak performance.

Speeding Into the Wall
We have been trying to ‘embrace the fall’ all season, especially in respect to approaching a turn in free and back. Many of them decelerate (even the elite swimmers) as they approach a wall for simple lack of spacial awareness and confidence in their training. I noticed in workout one day how they all raise their head as they approach a turn in free (sectional level swimmers) and asked them bluntly what they were doing and they all responded with the fear of hitting the wall! So that inspired me to work on what we have termed ‘stroke accelerators’, (really poor name for this drill as it doesn’t really describe what we are doing), where we accelerate to top speed to the flags and attempt to carry the speed into the flip with no fear (or less and less as time goes on). I know it is a very basic concept but it has them focused on racing into the wall and keeping their head down and their speed up, it is particularly successful for backstroke as we are doing stroke count to the flags so they anticipate the flags and can accelerate from the expected arrival of the flags rather than be surprised by the arrival of the flags.

This was reinforced by a video on floswimming where a group of swimmers, including Nathan Adrian, were doing a running start and diving in at the flags and racing through the turn. I embraced this high speed approach to the flip and used this drill with varying success at practice. Again because many of them were afraid of hitting the wall from 5 yards out and were therefore bracing for impact and decelerating.

This also reminded me of an article I recently read from USA Swimming ( where Stu Kahn used juggling and riding a unicycle as a form of creating athleticism, brought me back to the days at OSC playing hackey sack in the back courtyard. I have always believed that increasing athleticism can not only make them better athletes and therefore more adept at picking up stroke corrections but can at the same time add the joy to workout that is often lacking at elite levels of training. From playing disc golf to football and ultimate frisbee to running outside in the woods in the spring/fall and summer this all breaks the monotony of training and still achieves the impact of making the swimmers better athletes now and in the long run.

David Hardy is the head coach of Flying Gull Aquatic Club in the suburban Maryland/D.C. Metro area.


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