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Coaching the Triathlon Swim: Training a busy Doctor for Ironman. Part 2.

In Part 1, we interviewed Ironman competitor Ian Kurth, MD, who did nearly all of his 2016 triathlon swim training at home with his Vasa SwimErg indoor swim trainer.  His excellent race results and his personal story are informative and very inspirational.  Ian received remote swim coaching for using the Vasa SwimErg from Coach Eric Neilsen.  Their innovative approach was very effective. In this interview, Coach Neilsen shares his success formula and explains why coaching remotely is a viable option for athletes and triathlon coaches. 

How long have you been coaching swimming & multi-sport? What got you started, and why do you love coaching?


male triathlon coach headshot

Coach Eric Neilsen:  I started coaching masters swimming in 1991 and was fortunate to have Alan Voisard as my first mentor.  The program was growing with swimmers and triathletes (San Diego in the 90’s), so it was a natural progression to work with triathletes on swimming as I gained more experience and knowledge in all 3 sports. I  was looking for a career change from the corporate world.  My decision to do so has allowed me to enjoy this journey for the last 25 years.  Coaching has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people and to learn SO MUCH from them over the years. I love the challenge of trying to find the best recipe for each athlete I work with.  

Do you have specific goals for each type of coaching you are involved with?


Eric Neilsen:  Each sport presents its own challenges and triathletes are managing three sports. There is a great quote from John Leonard, Executive Director of ASCA, that has stuck with me and I apply it to all sports:

“The technically proficient swimmer has no limits, the technical deficient swimmer has nothing but limits”.  

Performance wise,  I have specific test sets I like to use in the different sports which can be modified based on the athlete.  The mental aspect of sport is huge!  Helping an athlete understand this allows them to create a plan for success.

What is your background as an athlete? Any good stories about that?


Male Triathlete on bike
Eric on a bike ride in Colorado

Eric Neilsen: I grew up playing soccer and skiing through high school and always love to ride my bike.  I loved swimming but no swim team as I was a bit on the chubby side and back in the 70’s all they had were tiny speedo’s so no way that was going to happen.  In junior college, I took a swim class as I wanted to do a triathlon.  Well, the water polo coach recruited me and that really started me down my path in the pool.  

You have been using the Vasa SwimErg as an athlete and as a coach for some years now. How does training with it move you towards your goals?  


Eric Neilsen:  The ability to compare power and stroke rate is fantastic. That feature really helps me dial in the best combination of both variables to find my best sustained speed for a given amount of time.  The SwimErg offers big TIME SAVINGS.  I can get an excellent workout done in the amount of time it would take to drive to and from the pool.  Training for Ironman Kona in 2009 & 2010, I did at least 1/3 of my swim workouts on the Vasa SwimErg.  

How does it move the athletes you coach toward their goals?


Eric Neilsen:  I take what I have learned from using it myself and pass that along to the athletes I coach.  I feel that when a coach is still actively participating in the sports they coach, they can make better fine tuning adjustments to the types of workouts and the dialogue they use with them.  With the ANT+ power meter and ability to upload & track data, I can look at where an athlete might start to fade on different types of sets.  Determining the athlete’s limiters, such as the ability to generate force, ability to sustain stroke rate or a combination of both, is critical to making progress.

We have received many reports that coaching with a Vasa SwimErg is a great way to help all athletes, and especially adult-learned swimmers, to work on the fundamentals of their stroke technique.  Do you find that it works well as a teaching tool?   If yes, why and how do you do it?


Eric breaking down technique on the SwimErg
Eric breaking down technique on the SwimErg

Eric Neilsen: Absolutely!  I can work with a swimmer and break down different parts of the stroke while they are dry, warm, and can hear, see and breathe.  Think about that for a second… learning as adults can be very challenging.  So, by removing cold & wet, leaky goggles, hearing challenges,  and last but not least, breathing issues, I believe the athlete has a much better chance to learn a skill with a lot less stress.

On the Vasa SwimErg I can easily manipulate their arms, head and body position.  Often times, I will do this before they even get on the Erg.  I can easily demonstrate something on the Erg, then have them try to replicate it.   I can be very specific, both verbally and visually.  Swimming is a “feel” sport, so we must embrace a ‘learn by doing’ mentality.  Exploring and identifying the biomechanics that make us go slow is equally as important as the ones that make us go fast. As we fatigue, poor biomechanics can surface.  So if an athlete starts to notice poor biomechanics, chances are they are slowing down or having to work a lot harder to go the same speed.

If you could choose only one benefit you strive for attaining with the Vasa, what would it be and why?


Eric Neilsen:

What: Sport-specific power and endurance.  

Why: specificity of training for the demands of your sport is essential to maximize performance. Hundredths of seconds matter in the pool and in triathlon, you generally are not going to win the race on the swim, but you can certainly lose it if you give up too much, too early.

Would you describe how you coach athletes who are training with the SwimErg remotely – those who are not located near you?  What technologies do you leverage to make your coaching effective?


Eric Neilsen:  A big part of the remote coaching is providing athletes with workouts that are specific to the demands of their sport and goals.  Some are training almost exclusively on the SwimErg with limited time or access to a pool.  Many compliment their pool time with Vasa training, so I can adjust to Erg sessions to fill the gap on what they may not be getting at the pool.  

It is helpful to simulate pool sets on the SwimErg by using time instead of distance. I have developed reference sets for Triathlon at the Sprint, Olympic, ½ IM and full Ironman distances that help give athletes a real good sense of pacing properly for their respective events.  

Pulling the data out of the SwimErg with the ANT+ power meter and uploading into TrainingPeaks for further analysis is useful for both coach and athlete.  

Video is a great tool.  When possible, I have the athlete record a 6-8 second video clip, taken from the front, side, back and directly above them (bird’s eye view)  is very helpful.  Often, I can see their form and make stroke corrections from these video clips.

Since Vasa swim training is primarily focused on improving swim-specific power and stroke technique, what other land exercises so you prescribe?


Eric Neilsen:  Taking care of the core along with the smaller muscles of the shoulder (rotator cuff) is very important.  Weak core = “it’s like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe”.  I don’t know the author, but I love the visual.   

These can be strengthened with any number of exercises using bands & light resistance. Front and side plank are not only good core exercises but great for stabilizing the shoulders.  

There are a couple of exercises I like to do on the Vasa SwimErg, too.  One is lying prone on the bench, facing the rear stanchion, and swimming backward.  This works the muscles used to recover the arms.  The other exercise is laying on my back (head toward the front of Erg) and swimming with a double arm backstroke.

Lately, I have been reading more about the importance of thoracic spine mobility, its role in swimming and maintaining good posture.  We can all use some improvement here regardless of sport.

Why do these?  If an athlete is healthy, they can train.  If they can train, they have the potential to get faster.  Everyone wants to get faster right?!

How long until you typically see improvements in their swimming as a result of your program?  What specific improvements do these athletes typically experience in their swimming as a result of your coaching program that integrates Vasa SwimErg with in-water swimming?


Eric is Head Coach for the FAST Masters Swim team
Eric is Head Coach for the FAST Masters Swim team

Eric Neilsen: On the Vasa SwimErg, it sometimes is instantaneous and within the first session or week. This is usually the adult learned swimmer who is on a steep learning curve.  They have a big breakthrough in technique and you can watch the stroke rate or power go up.  For most athletes,  I would say 2-3 weeks is pretty normal.  Specific improvements include better pacing, less effort to go the same speed or even faster, better pulling sets in the pool if strength was a limiter, and the ability to sustain a higher stroke rate.

How do you integrate training on the SwimErg with actual swimming in the pool & open water?  What brings it all together for the athletes you coach who are doing this?


Eric Neilsen: Some athletes will do a short, technique session prior to going to the pool. This allows them to warm up and focus on parts of their stroke.  On the Vasa SwimErg, the athlete must maintain a good body-line and if they are weak in their lower back and other core areas, they will fatigue here quicker than their arms during exercise.  So a focus point getting into the pool will often be trying to maintain that good body-line they have on the SwimErg when swimming.  

Vasa: Thanks so much, Eric!  It’s been great talking with you today!


Eric Neilsen is a multisport coach and consultant having competed in close to 100 triathlons since 1986 and has been coaching swimmers & triathletes since 1991. He runs a coaching business Train Smart Race Fast working with athletes of all abilities from novice to professional, by providing personalized services that empower clients to achieve their full athletic potential.  Coach Neilsen coaches athletes on how to use the Vasa SwimErg properly, including technique instruction, training plans, and performance testing.

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Eric’s athletic resume is impressive as well including being a:

  • 3-time Ironman Hawaii World Championship Finisher
  • 4-time 70.3 Ironman World Championship Qualifier
  • 8-time Boston Marathon Qualifier
  • Masters Swimming All-American.

For more info, go to: – or – E-mail:  [email protected]


Eric is one of 11 of the World’s most respected coaches & athletes from the Vasa community who contributed to our highly useful ebook, Four Keys to Fearless Open Water Swimming.  It’s free – Click here to get your free copy.