Dave Salo on Changing Gears

Thanks to Chris Ritter @RITTERSP for this great feature article! 

As a coach you can write the best workout based on a combination of science and then art on the pool deck. But the quality of what you write doesn’t matter unless your swimmers understand the exact level of intensity you want throughout the practice, and especially on the “fast” parts.

You hear other swim coaches say it all the time.

“Ok let’s go fast.”

“Ok no even faster!”

“Now we’re really going to go even faster!”

But how fast is fast?

The more specific you can be with what you mean by “fast” or any other speed the better the results will be from the training.

Coach Dave Salo (Univ of Southern Cal) has developed a few systems to communicate this throughout his years of coaching.

He first outlined having swimmers just tracking their pulse or heart-rate while resting on the wall immediately after an effort. The athletes would simply count the beats in a 10-second period.

If it was around 23 beats that was “medium” intensity and 28 or more beats was “maximum” intensity.

This has morphed over the years to also include the “gears” analogy. Coach Salo wants his swimmers to think about their change of speed in terms of gears just as you would while riding a bike or in a car.

1st gear is simply easy or “warm-up” speed. This doesn’t mean sloppy technique but it is very low intensity.

Bump up to 3rd gear and this is a strong/medium pace that closely relates to a “heart-rate 23” type of speed.

Finally the 5th gear is maximum speed, which translates to a “heart-rate 28+” speed.

Having the gears analogy greatly helps Coach Salo translate the intensity he wants his swimmers to be at throughout any given set.

For those athletes that are more analytical they can check their heart-rate to see what range they’re in. And those swimmers that want to go more by “feel” can simply stick to imagining their gears for swimming speed.

When swimmers and coaches can quickly and accurately understand the desired pace for a set the results will automatically be greater.

No more “fast…..ok now faster…….now faster still!”

Challenge for swimmers: Think about what “gear” you’re in during each part of your next few practices. Then practice “switching gears” when you get a build or descend set. Be sure to “check your speed” with your heart-rate and/or the clock.

Challenge for coaches: Design sets in your up-coming workouts that allow swimmers to experiment and “play” with changing gears throughout a set. Help them confirm that they are changing gears by checking heart-rate as well as their actual pace times.

Listen below to Coach Salo explain the “gears analogy” within a workout.

Salo - Gears - Commit.jpg

PS – Check out Coach Salo talking through an entire week of practices with many of them containing gear indicators. Note how he uses these to drive the performance instead of just relying on the interval to dictate the speed.


Chris Ritter founded RITTER Sports Performance to help athletes and coaches get better. He has experience as both a swim coach and strength coach with Olympians and all other abilities. Learn more at RITTERSP.com (http://rittersp.com/) or Subscribe to the RITTER Sports Performance Podcast (http://rittersp.com/itunes)

One thought on “Dave Salo on Changing Gears

  1. In my opinion, the important take home point for all coaches, no matter what type of indicator used, is that they should relate to an intensity and/or pace.

    I tend to use terms such as “smooth, tempo, strong, fast, sprint, blast” or “relaxed, long and strong”. They can be different effort levels depending on the day and athlete – however, all of them also have a technical goal that has the same importance than the actual pace.

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