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Alec Rukosuev: Building Better Athletes with Swimming

In the May 2011 issue of Competitor, we profiled “crazy Russian” coach Alec Rukosuev. It was difficult to translate all of his passion and insight into one print page, so here’s more from the ass kicker, in his own words.

Former Russian national champion at the 1500-meter freestyle and professional triathlete, Alec Rukosuev, 44, is now a Level 5 ASCA coach who lives in Clermont, Fla., and trains junior champion swimmers at Fast Lane Aquatics, as well as triathletes and runners.

Rukosuev believes in periodization and building fitness organically through sufficient time spent training in low heart-rate zones. While he advocates swimming for every age and sport, he purports that kids should build their aerobic capacities through no-impact swimming, regardless of their aspirations.

How he got into triathlon

“I started losing interest in swimming and my times started to show it and I wasn’t making the cuts for traveling teams. I was almost desperate, what was I going to do? I was an athlete and couldn’t see myself stop doing things. The summer of 1989, I came home to Omsk and there was an ad on TV for the first Siberian triathlon, and I just showed up to the race and they provided me with a bike. I won the race without any training prior to that, that was 1988, I believe. The following year, I went to Soviet Union nationals and maybe trained for three weeks ahead of time.”

“Within one year of going into triathlon, maybe three months into it, I ran 33:40 for 10K on the track—that isn’t great. In 1994, I ran a marathon; I ran 2:25 and then ran my second one is 2:21. Running came natural to me because of my swimming background, but it was a struggle to develop my cycling skills; it took maybe about six years to get good on the bike.”

Typical training week when he was a professional triathlete

“I ran a minimum of 60 miles a week, including track workouts and drills on the track. The American way of training is to run 30 miles a week and no track workouts. I tried to use my knowledge from swimming and build into running. I had to experiment with biking and ask people for advice. If somebody was doing well on the bike, I would call him up and ask what he was doing. I was never afraid to do a lot and I think that helped.”

“Triathlon is becoming significantly more of an elite sport now. Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was a sport for the weekend warriors. Whereas now, people are coming to triathlon with high pedigrees and they’re successful runners or swimmers. Going just from college and never doing sports and wanting to be a pro triathlon isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

On racing as a pro again

“I will never compete again. I know that. I enjoy my family. I am extremely busy with coaching swimming and I have a pretty good team, about 150 kids on the team. It takes a lot of time to be a good coach, and I believe that when you get out of the system [of being a professional athlete], you can find different forms of satisfaction—you don’t have to find it just through racing.”

On coaching triathletes

“I write triathletes workouts for the track. I also focus heavily on swimming because I really think it helps triathletes. You can use a lot of ideas in swimming to help train for triathlon.”

“With triathletes, you have to be so patient, especially with girls. They can have injury after injury. You just have to be patient and keep doing what you need to do.”

“You can be successful at age 24 or successful at age 34 in triathlon.”

Differences between amateurs and pros

“I believe pros take the time to build the foundation for the season. They do a lot of work in low heart-rate zones. Amateurs don’t put money in the bank; they constantly take money out of the bank. They feel good and then they think they should just hammer.”

“For the pro athletes that I coach, like Sara McLarty, we build a good foundation for the season. If you train for a long time in a low heart-rate zone, the fitness comes. Then your body will tell you. For example, if you’re running for an hour and a half or two hours and you want to run faster for the last 45 minutes, this is your body telling you that you’re getting there. I’m not saying you don’t do fast workouts; we do plenty. But, you have to be proficient for your age and your heart to build. When I used to train, I would go on group rides in December, I needed to keep my heart rate low—I would stick with periodization.”

The sacrifices pro athletes must make

“I would like to give advice to the pros: If you want to be successful, you need to be very selfish. Workouts come first, rest comes second, and everything else comes third. Rest between workouts is so important and some athletes don’t pay attention to that.”

On recovery

“I tell my swimmers that your next workout starts when you finish your last one. Especially when doing multi-sports, athletes need to focus on stretching and resting and nutrition.”

Athlete vs. coach

“I’m a better coach than an athlete because when I was an athlete, if I needed to run 60 or 70 miles a week, I would stick to the plan, no matter if it was good or bad for me. As a coach, I talk to my athletes every single day about that day. If something goes wrong, you step back and do two days recovery even if it’s an extremely heavy week. You might not repeat a certain workout, or you might do it every other week.  And it’s OK to rest.”

“I try and put my competitiveness into coaching and see how good a coach I can be.”

On coaching young swimmers

“I just think 95 percent of the kids don’t see the missed opportunities. I have plenty of kids swimming faster now, the top 5 percent in the U.S., which is extremely hard to do. But, to me, if they truly committed, maybe they’d have a chance to go to the Olympics. Swimming in the U.S. is the most competitive sport in the world.”

“Never give up on a kid—that’s what I learned from swimming.”

“I would tell any parent to keep kids swimming. We have at least 10 young triathletes on the team, little kids. I think the kids, regardless of if they want to be competitive or not, they need to be swimmers because that’s an easy way to build their aerobic capacity.”

On swimming and aerobic fitness

“I truly believe that the power of aerobic fitness is unbelievable and if you can combine aerobic conditioning with power on the bike, you can be very, very successful. I think, aerobically, coaching swimming helped me to open my eyes because if I tell my kids in the water that we’re doing a 2400m swim, nobody would blink. If you tell some athletes to run 2400m on the track, they say, are you sure about that? To me, it’s different in the water, but swimmers work out probably harder than a lot of sports. The only advice I can give, if I can give advice, is the most successful Olympic distance training I had was when I was training for half Ironmans.”

“The speed will come after you build the aerobic base. The problem is everybody wants to be a champion in two months or three months. It’s such a long journey to become an athlete.”

Advice for young athletes

“My own daughter never ran longer than a mile [before age 9], and ran a 5K at 9 years old in 20 minutes, but she’s going to be swimming as long as possible because I know it’s going to set her up. Running a 5K at 9 years old is good but it doesn’t mean your kid should run track at 9 years old.”

“I tell kids—young triathletes—just make sure you do everything you’re supposed to do. Don’t wait because there’s not going to be another chance. I keep talking to swimmers and I talk about momentum—to create momentum to train and stick with it. If you’re breaking momentum, missing workouts here and there and punching holes, that’s a straight way to mediocrity. Successful races and swim don’t happen the last three weeks before a race; they happen way before that.”

On mental conditioning

“I think if you have inspiration to be whatever you want to be, whether that’s winning age group championships or being a pro, you need to be fierce and think that way. My goal was to compete to the best of my ability and I’m not extremely happy with my career—I think I could have done better.”

Sabrina Grotewold is a senior editor for Competitor.