The Curious Case Of Darren Smith

  • By Courtney Baird
  • Published Jun 12, 2012
  • Updated Oct 31, 2014 at 4:38 PM UTC
Photo: Jason Wise

But as willing as Smith is to broaden his horizons and seek the advice of others, he remains ever the iconoclast—someone who isn’t afraid to buck the trend and do what he feels is right, even if everyone tells him it isn’t.

“Some things come pretty natural to me,” he said. “I think I’ve got some rare combination of being reasonably smart, very hard working, relentless and having good common sense. There are not many people who have all of that.”

His philosophy on swimming is a case in point.

If you have a traditional swimming background, you were probably taught to glide at the top of your stroke, swim with an S-curve, and generally follow the pattern set by Olympic superstars such as Michael Phelps, Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe.

But when Smith began to learn how to swim for himself in his mid-20s, he slowly developed the theory that perhaps their style of swimming wasn’t the most appropriate style for the open water—or for him.

Smith initially worked with a coach who was big on fitness but not technique, and he improved marginally. Then he moved to another coach who used the opposite approach and they “took loads of time off without huge physically tough sets,” Smith said.

Smith later noticed that the swim strokes of Hackett, a pool swimmer and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1500m freestyle, and his brother, an elite open-water swimmer, were different.

“I saw two different models for two different environments from both elite people,” Smith said. “So they’re specifically designing themselves to be capable in that environment.”

Smith posited that what was right for swimmers like Phelps, Hackett and Thorpe—men who are more than 6 feet tall, have freakish range of motion and enormous hands and feet, and deal only in pristine pool water—probably wasn’t right for him: a short triathlete interested in moving quickly through choppy open water, made even more turbulent by a pack.

These days, after a long process of determining the best open-water swim stroke (which included publishing the paper “Some Ideas for Improving Open Water Swimming” with Ross Sanders, currently chair of sports science at the University of Edinburgh), if you ask Smith about swimming, he’ll flood you with useful information on the topic, and the information will likely oppose what you have heard from traditional swim coaches.

“Swimming is about applying force to a very slippery medium, water, so that the body can go past and go forward,” Smith said. “It’s not about pulling the water—it’s not about anything other than putting your hand in, holding tension and then pulling your body past that hand or forearm.”

He will tell you that gliding in the open water is the worst thing you can do, because your body position and forward velocity drop very quickly in turbulent water, much more quickly than in a pristine pool environment. In other words, “You need to get rid of the time where you’re not doing anything productive,” he said.

If you learned how to swim from Smith, he would teach you to swim with your hips and not your arms, as most triathletes tend to do—a lesson he gives in part with a drill that involves a kickboard.

During the several swim workouts I watched in Sedona, his athletes grabbed their kickboards at various occasions—theirs were about half the size of your typical kickboard—and held them between their thighs, like you would a pull-buoy, so they were sticking up, almost perpendicular to the water as opposed to flat against it. Then they would then start swimming—just like you would with a pull-buoy—and the kickboard would increase resistance to the hips, forcing the athletes to “work the muscles of the core a lot,” Smith said, and rotate in the way a real swimmer would.

When the kickboard was removed, “Whamo! Lovely swimming with the hips doing the work they should,” Smith said.

Range of motion is another biggie for Smith, as he insists that his athletes develop the range of motion needed to swim fast—and this can require work with a physio and lots of stretching.

Squad newbie Haug was one such athlete who came to Smith with limited range of motion, and whenever she stepped on the pool deck in Sedona, she could be seen at various intervals with her hand high aloft her head and the squad’s massage therapist, Bennett, behind her, helping her with her stretches and working on her shoulder.

Bennett’s job as a massage therapist was also to help keep all of Smith’s athletes injury-free, something that is of utmost importance when it comes to one of Smith’s most basic principles for improvement: consistent work.

Smith says that under-training an athlete by 20 percent all the time, and all the while keeping them from getting sick or injured for months, packing in uninterrupted training in the process, is better than constantly sitting on the precipice of overtraining.

He looks at it like this: If an athlete trains for 18 months without ever having to back off, even if he is under-training a little, this athlete would be more fit than if he were to train right on the edge for a few weeks, have to back off for a few weeks, then train on the edge for five weeks, get sick for two weeks, then train on the edge for six weeks, get injured for six weeks, and continue this endless cycle that so many endurance athletes follow.

“Since I started to work with [Darren], I’ve been free of injuries,” said Riveros, the 2011 sprint world champion and winner of the Sydney leg of the World Championship Series in 2010. “I would say that’s the main thing for me, because before I used to have a lot of injuries. I think because I’ve been training consistently and am free of injuries, that’s the main reason I’ve gotten the results I have.”

This insistence on consistent training is part of the reason why Smith prefers to train in elevations around 4,500 feet.

Indeed, most athletes who travel to the region of Arizona in which Sedona lies do so to train in Flagstaff, which sits at around 7,000 feet. These athletes training in Flagstaff will often descend to Sedona to partake in the “live high-train low” theory of training.

Not Smith, as he fears that living high and training low might put too much of a load on some of his athletes, forcing them to overtrain and then take unwanted breaks. The lower elevation of Sedona and his other camp in Davos, Switzerland, which sits at around 5,000 feet, still grants athletes some of the physiological benefits of altitude training but doesn’t put them at as much risk of overtraining as it would if they were sleeping higher up.

“I’m not saying I’m right [about this], but it works for us,” Smith said.

Smith also asks that his athletes keep track of overtraining markers daily. He speaks with them about these markers every morning, asking them about their resting heart rate, their sleep quality and how long it took them to get to sleep, how sore their muscles are, what their mood is like, how high their anxiety level is, any stresses in their personal lives and other such indicators.

“We’ve had a long history of not getting that ill and so forth,” Smith said. “We’ve had two cases in 12 years where I’ve really overtrained people. … So we’ve got a monitoring system that includes mostly perception on stuff: anxiety, sleep quality and various other bits and pieces that give us some indication of what the nervous system is doing. Because when your nervous system is really tired—if you’re overtrained, you can’t sleep, you’re anxious. You can sleep hours, but maybe you toss and turn getting to sleep. So that gives us an insight into the nervous system fatigue, which is the main driver of overtraining.”

And in between these discussions about overtraining markers Smith is always watching, analyzing, critiquing.

“Good. Just do that for the rest of your career,” he remarked to Giglmayr after they adjusted something in his swim stroke.

If Smith’s success as a coach is any indication, he’ll be the better for it if he does.

Additional reporting by Bethany Leach Mavis.

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