What I learned from the coach of the greatest sprint swimmer of all time.
Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science)
I was very saddened to see the passing of a coaching icon over the weekend - Mr. Gennadi Touretski. Gennadi was the head coach on the Australian National Team during much of my stay at the Australian Institute of Sport in the lead up to the 1996 Olympic Games. He was also the coach of, in my opinion, one of, if not the greatest swimmer that the world has seen - Alex Popov.
I remember, to this day, entering the A.I.S. pool for the first time and meeting Gennadi and the other coaches as they wrapped up the session for the day. Immediately, I spotted him - in lane 2, my swimming idol - Popov, in the middle of a long cooldown. Crusing so ridiculously easy through the water that it led me to believe that I might be able to jump in and cruise alongside him. I was wrong. What looked like pure slow motion swimming, had Popov moving through the water at ~1:10/100. A pace that was anything but cruisy for me. Much like the romantic idea of swimming with the dolphins, the reality of swimming with Popov was that I was simply swimming with a different species, a species that had become one with the aquatic environment.
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#TBT to where it all began. My many jaunts up and down this 50m stretch taught me so much about the incredible power of an Environment Of Excellence and what it truly means to go 'all in' and train to your full potential. Was fun to relive some of those memories for the @thetriathloncoach podcast #AIS #Swimming
However, this transcendence of the terrestrial plane didn't come easily. It came through mile after mile of intensely focused work. If there are three words that sum up Gennadi to a T, it would
have to be those 3:
I have to say that I was both excited and intimidated to meet Gennadi. My experience with Russians to that point was limited to watching Rocky IV multiple times and, I have to say, at first impression, Gennadi looked the part: Serious & laconic to the point of bordering on cold. A stark contrast from the rest of the coaching staff who I had just had a friendly game of Tennis with, Gennadi was somehow above this, dead serious about, and always thinking about the sport. That was my first impression...
While clearly deep in the most elite sporting environment that Australia had to offer, shoulder to shoulder full of athletes who shared a common goal of becoming the absolute best in the world, there was still that slight undercurrent among the other coaches that "it's just sport". I think this is very much an element of Australian sporting culture that, while we will fight to the death on the field of play, we are also fond of saying "it's just a game." It wasn't "just a game" to Gennadi, & I dare say to many of the greats coming from the sporting system of the U.S.S.R. In the U.S.S.R, sport was life.
Another of Gennadi's compatriots - Matveyev sums up the Soviet attude to sport best in his landmark text: "Fundamentals of Sports Training"...
"As a many sided social phenomenon, sport is an active factor in physical education, one of the basic forms of preparing a person for labor and other socially necessary types of activity and, alongside this, one of the important means of the ethic and aesthetic education, satisfaction of the moral requirements of society, consolidation, expansion of international ties."
In other words, the Russians took their sport VERY seriously and saw it as a reflection of their worth as a society. This was the first, & perhaps obvious, source of Gennadi's intensity.
However, it didn't take long to break down the stoney facade and get a glimpse of the other source of Gennadi's intensity - a pure, almost child-like passion, for the sport! Looking back on it now, Gennadi and I trod a very similar path. We were both fairly cerebral folk who, at our core, were frustrated athletes! Although Gennadi swam at a higher level than I did, it was clear to me that he left the athletic phase of his life feeling that he failed to fulfill his potential. Despite being one of the top distance swimmers in Russia, Gennadi missed out on that coveted Olympic berth. When an athlete's life revolves around sport for so many years & he fails to meet expectations, it can lead to one of two directions - disenchantment with sport or a passion to 'figure it out'. Gennadi chose the latter...
After deciding to devote the rest of his life to coaching, Gennadi dove in to understanding the science of the sport with full force. He obtained multiple degrees in an array of sporting fields - physiology, biomechanics, fluid mechanics, nutrition - from various Russian universities and became a non-stop student of the sport. I soon came to realize that Gennadi's stoic expression was not one of coldness but one of constant, intense thought & when given the opportunity, the depth of this thought would manifest in the most incredible discussions on all matters related to swimming that I've ever been a part of. Gennadi had a way of distilling science and higher level concepts into principles and axioms that were both profound and inherently practical at the same time. Case in point...
On one of my first mornings on deck, I walked in to see some of the swimmers twirling broomsticks around like wanna-be Ninjas. As I rubbed my bleary eyes for a closer look, I saw that there were paddles attached to the end of the broomstick. When I asked Gennadi about it, he taught me about the 'kayak principle'. In Gennadi's research, he had identified intra-cycle variations in sprint swimming to be a great limiter and a source of enormous energy cost. Small changes in the velocity within a stroke cycle amounted to very large amounts of extra energy in getting the 'boat' back up to speed. Therefore, a core technical principle of his was maintaining momentum or 'rhythm' in the stroke. Now, just cueing the swimmers on this stroke continuity wasn't going to cut it. So, day after day, he had them twirling these broomsticks around as part of the regular warm up routine to pattern this new movement into the swimmers' nervous system. You have to realize, all of these swimmers were coming from different home clubs and home coaches around the country & all had their own distinct techniques that had been developed over many years and many thousands of kilometers in the water. Gennadi knew this and had an uncanny ability to 'step into a swimmers body' work with their individual stroke while continuing to nudge them day by day towards better fundamental principles.
He was always watching, always analyzing, always demanding focus. This attitude of intense seriousness & focus carried across to Popov, who was to me, the absolute epitome of a professional athlete.
Nothing is more impressive to me as a coach than control. To me, control is what separates the professional and the amateur. Training camps are a great example. A camp of professional triathletes is characterized by a 'workman like' attitude where each session is executed to plan. An amateur camp is characterized by a lack of control, with athletes putting in max efforts because they 'felt like it.' In swimming terms, this is exemplified by the ability of a distance swimmer to hit hundred after hundred, at a specified pace, all within a tenth of a second. In the world of sprint swimming, this control is more rare. There is an attitude among many coaches that good sprint swimming in part is about 'letting go on the reins' & being OK with being a little out of control. This was certainly not true of Touretski. Every lap, of every workout whether fast, slow or something in between was completed with 100% technical precision. More important than anything else to Touretski was holding stroke counts - all distances, all speeds were to be done hitting the stroke count (27 strokes/50 for the 6'6" Popov). If the swimmer fell off the stroke count, even if they were able to hold pace, they were done for the day. Over the years, Popov developed such control of his stroke and Gennadi developed such understanding of his swimmer that he was never "done for the day" During his biggest weeks, he was swimming 100,000 meters and every meter - whether race pace sprinting, warm up or cool down was completed with technical excellence. This conscious decision to always put technique first and foremost resulted in the most technically beautiful swimmer that the world has known & it was purely through demanding constant, deliberate focus.
Yes, I did say 100,000 meters. 100km of swimming - some 25hrs in the water in addition to dryland work for a swimmer whose events lasted anything from 21 to 48 seconds(!) This brings me to the other word that typifies Gennadi to me - WORK.
Popov was known for his strength in the last 25 of the 100. Where other swimmers would start to fall back, Popov would continue to hold his pace and his technically superior stroke (as you can see in the 1996 Olympic 100m final on the right - the event that he was preparing for during my time at the A.I.S.). He was able to accomplish this because he was simply the most aerobically well conditioned sprinter on the planet...
Blood lactate testing was a very regular part of Gennadi's training process. I remember the first 'step test' that I saw Alex do along with some of the distance swimmers. I was absolutely gobsmacked to see Alex leading the way on the first set of 100's, ahead of guys with sub 15 minute 1500 meters to their name, in 1:04 per 100 and all with blood lactates of 2mmol/L! The only way to get that level of aerobic conditioning is with a lot of easy aerobic volume and Popov did alot! During the big weeks, I would see him rolling into the pool 3 times a day racking up 5 hours of low intensity perfection. It was this Tour De France level of aerobic preparation, previously unseen in the sprinting world that led to a guy who was simply never beat in the back half of a race.
A typical day for Alex in the meat of this "Endurance Phase"
1500 FR/BK A1 (60-70% MHR)
1200 75FS/25 Drill (Shark fin) A1 (60-70% MHR)
1000 Kick A1 (60-70% MHR)
1hr Dryland - Row/Run/Circuit A1 (60-70% MHR)
~ 2hrs @ 60 - 70% MHR
600 A1 (60 - 70% MHR)
6 x 100 @ 1:30 A2 (70 - 75% MHR)
6 x 15 @ 1:15 SP
2000 FS A3 (75 - 80% MHR)
10 x 100 @ 1:45 AT (80 - 85% MHR)
5 x 25 @ 2:00 SP (11s)
500 A1 (60- 70% MHR)
~ 90 min w/30min @ 75-85% MHR + 200m Speed work + 30 min mobility
300 A1 (60 - 70% MHR)
200 Build A2/AT (70 - 80% MHR)
4 x 50 @ 60 MVO2 (27s)
100 easy Rec
2 x 50 @ 1:30 LP (25s)
1200 Pull Rec
6 x 25!+25 EZ @ 45 MVO2
4 x 50 @ 50 MVO2 (27s)
2 x 50 @ 60 LP (25s)
600 A1 (60 - 70% MHR)
~ 60 min w/~5 min (700m) speed work
Overall, ~5hrs of work with ~85% A1/A2 ~10% A3/AT ~5% MVO2/Sp. There were no other Sprint swimmers in the world doing this sort of aerobic volume at the time and it showed in the last 25m of just about every race Alex competed in!
However, sprinting (& swimming in general) is about more than pure aerobic development & Gennadi exposed me to just how complex putting all of the ingredients together can be. The Russians are now well known for their "Block periodization" approach to training. Brought to world attention by Vladimir Issurin via his 2008 book, they had been implementing this approach in a number of sports since the early 1980's and one of the first sports to adopt this approach was swimming. The Russian coach Igor Koshkin used a block periodization approach to train the World Record Holder, and the first man to break 15 minutes in the 1500m, Vladimir Salnikov & Gennadi, coming from the same school, used a very similar approach to bring Alex to the top of the world in the sprint events. Gennadi's attraction to Block Periodization should come as no surprise as the key tenet is dividing the preparation cycle up into very short periods of intensely focussed work...
A typical 12 week cycle for Alex would be...
3 weeks Prep (30-50k/week) - Technique Emphasis
4 week Endurance (80-100k/week) - Aerobic Volume Emphasis
3 week Specific (40-60k/week) - Race Pace Emphasis (~20% total)
2 week Comp (30-50k/week) - Taper + Maintain Race Pace
Coming from more traditional swim programs of pretty much 2 x 90min-2hr each and every day, these swings in training load were completely foreign to me. "Won't Alex lose all of the hard work gained in the endurance phase if he then takes 9 weeks at such markedly reduced volume?" I asked. "He will lose some as he gains other, more important qualities", Gennadi said, "However, the key is to start the next endurance phase at a slightly higher level than the last." He explained this as the concept of 'footprints in the snow'...
An example that sticks with me....— Alan Couzens (@Alan_Couzens) August 8, 2020
The concept of #AerobicBase training as 'footprints in the snow'. If you leave them unattended, they'll snow over & you have to start from scratch. If you keep coming back to them, you'll have a much faster route to the peak when needed.#Genius
Later, as I read more about block periodization, I would come to realize that he was talking about residual training effects, i.e. rather than trying to keep everything at the highest level all the time, to allow some qualities to detrain while intense focus is given to other qualities, all the while, though ensuring that each of the qualities continues to increase on a cycle by cycle basis. Aerobic fitness, in particular, while small in each cycle to cycle improvement, is a relatively long lasting quality and, so long as it is revisited every 10 weeks or so, continued improvements can be made within a relatively short period of time. Speed, on the other hand is not a long lasting quality and must be attended to on a more frequent (almost daily) basis. This whole process of intensely focusing on one quality while keeping the others just ticking along reminded me a lot of the plate spinners...
and, through continuous testing and refinement, Gennadi was a master at it. And he kept the Popov plates spinning at full force for more than 10 years!
It's testament to the timeless wisdom of Gennadi that now, 25 years on from my experience working with and learning from him, that my work is still profoundly impacted by my time with him. This is especially the case, given that I have since moved sports from swimming - an event where some events last as little as 20 seconds to Ironman triathlon which lasts more than 8 hours! Needless to say, after seeing the level of commitment a swimmer whose events lasted less than a minute placed on technical and aerobic development, they remain the highest of high priorities for the triathletes who I am fortunate enough to work with &, perhaps, who are unfortunate enough to have encountered a coach who got to see first hand just what it takes to reach the very top of sport.
Gennadi, thank you for the generosity, the wisdom and the passion for the sport that you showed a young coach. Your legacy will live on for many years to come. 🙏