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The Endurance Blog: A Week With Brett Sutton

Coach Nick Thomas recently spent a week coaching alongside Brett Sutton. In this blog he gives us the low down on Brett's approach to endurance training.

I recently had the opportunity to shadow Brett Sutton as a coach during a training camp at his summer base in St Moritz. The week was an opportunity for age group athletes to train alongside his resident pro athletes and experience the training methods Brett has had so much success with.

There are several key points I took from the experience which should be of interest to all athletes and coaches. There will be some who raise the point that the requirements of pro athletes differ to that of age groupers but it must be noted that Brett applies his training philosophy to everyone, regardless of ability. The only real difference is the volume of training completed: a pro athlete completes more training than most age groupers as they have the available time. 

Brett trains his athletes as triathletes, not swimmers, cyclists or runners. The reason for this is he doesn’t believe any of his athletes have the required skill level to be specifically trained in any individual sport. To put this into perspective his athletes include the current women’s Olympic champion and Ironman world champion.

I’ve split the training principles into the following categories:

Swimming:

Brett isn’t interested in developing ‘feel’ for the water as he believes it’s a losing battle unless technique has been developed as an elite swimmer having risen through the junior ranks. The aim is to therefore develop ‘fit and ugly’ swimmers where improved fitness - not perfect technique - leads to faster swim times with less effort. Swimming is focused on relaxation, momentum, balance and timing, not stroke mechanics.

All swimming is designed to improve upper body strength endurance with the legs playing almost no part at all. The reasons for this are as follows:

  • Kicking raises heart rate and expends more calories leading to unnecessary fatigue in training and compromised bike and run splits when racing
  • Saving the legs means they’re able to bike faster as lactate levels are lower at the end of the swim (Note: his athletes are noted for their strong cycling but Brett attributes this to the swim training, not bike training)

During the entire week every main set consisted of pull, band, or paddles work throughout. I didn’t see one interval completed without at least one swimming aid and this was often the case during the warm up. A 2 hour 8km endurance set I watched the Olympic champion complete was as follows:

1500m FC continuous warm up (mostly with pull buoy)

60 x 100m (1:30 turnaround) with band

500m FC cool down


This is a sample hour session for an age grouper when someone is short of time:

30 x 100m (2:00 turnaround) with pull buoy, band and paddles

No warm up, no drills and no cool down.

The common theme throughout the week was to strip away the bullshit and maximise the the session’s effectiveness by making it as specific as possible. All killer, no filler!

Other points of note:

  • Warm ups were short
  • There was virtually no IM at all, often only if the athlete chose it during the cool down
  • Breast stroke was completed with a fly kick to reduce the risk of adductor injury
  • There were no kick sets
  • No conventional drills were completed
  • High elbow recoveries actively avoided
  • There was no chatting
  • Everyone listened and knew what they were doing

Cycling:

There’s a strong emphasis on high resistance work. This can be sustained 60-70 rpm work on gradual inclines or turbo work with resistance high enough to drop cadence to 40-50 rpm. The reason for this is to increase force production with a reduced heart rate so the athlete is less fatigued for the run.

Brett’s very much against high cadence work as almost nobody has the skill level to pedal fast without excessively raising heart rate. By working at a low cadence the legs are fresh and the athlete can then maintain running cadence off the bike.

Running:

Sessions are a mixture of long runs, hill reps and track sessions. There was nothing surprising about the general principles except for the way Brett approaches track sessions. He doesn’t see any justification in doing drills of any kind as his athletes don’t run fast enough or have the skill level to benefit from them. If he trained middle distance athletes he would use them but he believes the correct technique for efficient 10k-marathon running during a triathlon is completely different to that of a runner.

The warm up all athletes (including the Olympic champion) completed before the track sessions was as follows:

10-15 min easy run progressing towards the end

4 laps consisting of fast straights with jogging on the bends

They then went straight into the main set and had a cool down afterwards with no stretching whatsoever.

Strength & conditioning:

It’s well documented that none of Brett’s athletes do any land training at all. His argument is that if you have time to schedule a dedicated S&C session you can fit another swim, bike or run session into your training instead. His strength training is integrated into swim/bike/run training in the ways described above:

Swimming:

Resistance work with pull buoy, band and paddles

Cycling:

High resistance hill climbs and turbo work

Running:

Hill reps of varying duration and intensity


Take home messages:

Training should be logical for the intended event

Training should be appropriate to the skill level of the athlete

Maximise time - specificity with no padding

Easy means easy, hard means hard

There are several other principles I’ll be incorporating into my coaching from now on but it was reassuring to see some of my core principles being validated during the week. This includes the  repetitive nature of my swim sessions and my continuous focus on upper body training in the pool. If anything my sessions are currently too varied with far too much opportunity for people to chat and skive. Regulars frustrated by this will be happy to know that this is now being rectified so training will become harder, more specific and therefore more productive from now on.



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