Virtual Swim Coaching
Does virtual coaching work?
Yes, yes it does...so long as you find the right fit for your needs. I started searching for a swim coach in 2019 to help me plan training for longer distances, but gave up because I couldn't find anyone with marathon swimming experience in my area. It took another year or so for me to realize that virtual swim coaching was even a thing. It's made a big difference for me in many ways, so I asked my swim coach if she'd be willing to let me share how it works and what we do. Here we go...
Meet Shannon Keegan! Shannon is an accomplished marathon swimmer, based out of Oregon (USA). She's the founder of Intrepid Water Adventure Swimming, an open water and marathon swimming coaching service to help people in their swimming journeys. Be sure to check out the blog on her website, lots of interesting content to read. Shannon also hosts Marathon Swim Stories, a regular podcast where she explores what makes swimmers do what they do, how they do it, why they do it.
I found Shannon almost by accident. She had just successfully completed the 40km crossing of Lac Memphremagog in the summer of 2019, called "In Search of Memphre", a swim I had just signed up for. I came across her blog post about the swim on facebook, and later that day started reading her blog from end-to-end. One article in particular caught my attention, called "Minimalist Training", in which she talks about how she trained only one day a week in preparation for the Search. I was intrigued. Shannon wrote about how as a busy mom, she had to find a way to train without sacrificing family time. What I found really interesting was her focus on swimming efficiency, mindfulness, and believing you can figure it out.
I had been struggling with lower back pain during long swims, the prognosis from a back specialist was that my L5-S1 lumbosacral joint disks had erosion, but not severe enough for medical intervention - so I was going to have to look at external factors to alleviate the pain, such as fixing misalignment in my swimming form, core strength to better support my lower back, and pain meds if needed.
On top of all that, I knew I needed help training for the 40km swim. I'd made it up to 25km on past swims, but making that jump up to higher distance is a little scary, and I worried that even if I could correct my back pain issues, my tendency for self-doubt could tank the swim. I needed someone to help correct inefficiencies with my stroke, keep me accountable to my training plan, and get in my head to help me chase out any gremlins.
A good virtual coaching program should offer a free introductory video chat, so that you can meet the coach, talk about your goals and how their program works. This is really important, you're investing training time and money, you need to see if the fit feels right. I sent an email to Shannon ahead of our chat, explained the things I was looking for, and asked a few questions about how she provides feedback to swimmers. I figured this would also give her some time to think about what I was looking for, whether her approach and program would work well for my goals, and if she thought the fit would be good too.
Before you have the chat with your potential new coach, learn more about their background. Google is your friend, look them up! What is their swimming background, how long have they been coaching, who have they been coaching, do they have a website or blog you can read? Talk to other people they've coached as well if that helps. I discovered that Shannon had done a number of epic marathon swims, she shared interesting insights on her blog, and she expressed a strong passion for helping others no matter what their swim experience or goals. She also seemed really friendly and approachable, which is good because I'm pretty shy with people I don't know well. If you're meeting with a virtual swim coach and don't feel excited about the potential you can imagine in your own training at this point...maybe keep looking. You need to find someone you can really connect with.
Next, we had to figure out how to make this work. We live miles apart, how would I get technique feedback from Shannon? I had to find opportunities to get video of me swimming.
Public lane swims usually won't let you take video, as a matter of privacy for other swimmers (but you can always ask). I swim with a couple of local clubs, and luckily the coaches and lane mates had no issues with me putting my phone at the end of the lane (waterproof case!) and letting the video run. On a couple of occasions, the swim coach or fellow swimmers were willing to take video for me from the side of the pool, walking alongside me while I swam. Always offer to return the favour! You could also do video in open water, or even tethered swimming in a backyard pool.
I upload my videos for Shannon, and get feedback on things we've been working on. Below is an example, turn on audio to hear what she has to say. Most coaches will work with some kind of software that allows them to give feedback, but even verbal feedback or email would work really well. I do find it helps to have audio overlay though, and pausing on specific movements to discuss what's happening.
For feedback and guidance, you'll need to meet with your swim coach regularly. You need to figure out how often you can meet, and what you can afford, you are paying for a coach's time, after all. I decided that a weekly written check-in and a monthly virtual call would work well for me. Shannon uses a special platform for uploading check-ins and videos, so I log in and leave updates and input weekly. And then we log in to a zoom call for our monthly meetings.
What kind of stuff can you talk about with a virtual swim coach? Pretty much just about anything, so it's more about your comfort level, what you need for your training, and whether the swim coach is on the same page. Shannon helps me come up with swim sets to practice different skills and build distance, she identifies technique work to build up and refine my skills, and as those things progress we plan to start talking more about fear, motivation, drive, and building tools I can use to help get me through tough points in a swim. I also asked Shannon if we could make a point of discussing nutrition and weight loss goals each month, because it's something I need to keep on my radar and it helps me to talk about it.
So yeah, it's up to you to communicate what you need to your swim coach, but you've also got to listen and be humble enough to accept constructive feedback. That's why you're there, after all! Feel free to eavesdrop on our feedback session below.
Questions about virtual swim coaching? Give me a shout!