Aussie swimmers go the distance

Bring it on, mates! The USA will have some steep competition in distance events due to the the likes of Kieren Perkins  Credit: Bob Martin/Allsport
Whether youre a college swimmer who dreams of notching a sub-15-minute 1,500 or a fitness or Masters swimmer who wants to lower your time by two seconds, you can learn a lot from the distance dudes Down Under.

Many American coaches credit Australias dominance in the distance events to the example Kieren Perkins sets. The 26-year-old has won the gold in the 1,500-meter freestyle at Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996). He also holds the world record in the 1,500- and 800-meter freestyle.

The Australians have some great athletes, says Dennis Pursley, director of USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo. When Janet Evans was dominant, it wasnt because our system was so good, it was because she was exceptional and her coach recognized what was good for her.

They take pride in their events
Defend your event against those who say it takes too long or isnt exciting. Emphasize the strategy, the skills, the pacing, and the toughness involved. Take it from the Aussies.

Theres a tradition of distance swimming in Australia, says Don Talbot, coach of Australias national team, who added that swimming for 15 minutes is the toughest thing in the sport.

Pursley agrees. They take pride in the event, he says. "In Australia, the 1,500 is cool.

If you want to bring other swimmers into the distance fold, or youre having trouble hanging in there yourself, then make distance swimming fun. Ask your sprinter teammates to stick around during the event. Get them involved in counting laps for you. Move your distance swimming outside to open water in the summer.

It's part of the culture
A fun atmosphere in Australia contributes to the countrys strong and popular distance programs. Its rare that an athletic kid doesnt learn to swim early at a surf or life-saving club. This culture encourages all water sports: swimming, surfing, using paddleboards, and rowing. Life-saving competitions are as common as American baseball games.

Its great training, says John Carew, Perkins coach. Open-water swimming races of one, two, and three kilometers abound, and the 1,500-meter race is a major television event.

Its like the Super Bowl in America, Pursley says. The athletes are major celebrities, and Perkins gets millions in endorsement deals.

Of course, tradition, cult-building, and fun will get you only so far, so up the ante. Eventually, you have to analyze your training. Are you training too much, not enough, or with the wrong intensity? The Australians say the secret to distance success has as much to do with how you train as how much you train. In the 70s, American distance kings swam upward of 100,000 yards a week of moderately fast swimming. By contrast, Perkins swims 80,000 meters (about 88,000 yards) a week must of it at race pace.

They train to the limit
We do a lot of fact work, a lot of interval training, says Carew, who doesnt like to share details of Perkins workouts. What he does reveal, however, is daunting: Perkins swims 11 workouts a week, each consisting of 8,000 meters. On the four days a week Perkins swims 16,000 split between morning and afternoon sessions he often does 200- and 400- meter sets at or above the anaerobic threshold. On other days, he may swim a 2K or 3K at race pace, or a 1K at a sprint pace.

Only four of the weekly sessions are considered easy. In addition, Perkins rides a stationary bike for 30 minutes five days a week, does 30-minute stretchcord workouts five days a week, and lifts weights five hours a week in the gym, focusing on core strength.

Australias other distance champs, Grant Hackett and Daniel Kowalski, average around 60,000 to 70,000 meters a week with the same high-intensity emphasis. Kowalski, for instance, often swims 16x400, maintaining a near race pace throughout and finishing with a sprint. Twice a week, hell swim 3,000 or 4,000 in a range at or above the anaerobic threshold, in sets of varying distances: 50s, 200s, 400s.

Embrace technique. Dont be shy about changing your stroke or taking on new ideas about technique. Jump at every chance to learn something new. Enroll in clinics, visit the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, talk to different coaches and pick the brains of other distance swimmers.

Then they blind them with science
A big part of the Aussies success is sports science. We have more involvement with our scientists, and they work better with our coaches than anywhere else, says Talbot. This is where academics and sports meet.

To ensure that, Australia has a network that makes state-of-the-art expertise available to coaches and swimmers at any level. Pursley concedes that the Australians have been more aggressive than Americans in integrating sports science into their programs. Their coaches may be more accepting of what might be considered meddling, he says.

Take care of yourself in and out of the pool. Eat enough and eat healthy.

Perkins eats well, Carew says. His mothers a dietician lots of vegetables, low-fat, no rubbish. But he does eat red meat; you need that protein.

If youre always getting sick or tired, you may be over-training. The Australians are trying to figure out exactly what amount of training helps protect the immune system. Theyre doing that by measuring blood. Talbot is vague on the details, but he says there are dozens of significant measurable components in the blood, which may reveal valuable information about the effects of different workouts and diets.

If athletes are supposed to be physically superior, says Talbot, they should be superior in all aspects, including their blood. We bring all that to the coaches on the deck, and they employ their own knowledge and instincts. Thats where you find the art of coaching.

For most of you, swimming 80,000 yards a week is neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, Dennis Cotter, who coaches Hackett and Kowalski, suggests establishing a solid base, with a strong emphasis on technique.

Presuming you swim five or six hours a week, he says, you should be able to increase the intensity over a month or two and then start adding one high-intensity session a week. Swim your 400s faster than your 1,500-meter race pace, do 10x50 at or near your maximum speed, he suggests. Then you might progress to two high-intensity sessions a week, but no more.

Repeat it. If you want to swim like Aussies, you got to think like them too. Use all the science available, make every workout count, and swim more fast laps. In short, work smart and hard.

next: So what else makes the Aussies such good distance swimmers?

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