Matt Brown Discusses the Preparation of World Champion Ning Zetao

For the last two years Australian coach Matt Brown has been working with several Chinese athletes, the most notable being 100 freestyle world champion Ning Zetao. Brown is currently the Director of Coaching at the Surrey Park Swimming Club in Melbourne a job that he took just over a year ago.

Brown has served on the coaching staff of serval of Australia’s national teams including the 2008 and 2012 Olympic team, the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games team and the 2009, 2011 and 2013 World Championship teams. He is best known for his work developing Emily Seebohm who he coached from the age of 10 and eventually went on to win the Olympic silver medal in the 100 backstroke in London.

Because of his success the Chinese Swimming Federation sought out his expertise in helping their swimmers prepare for both the 2015 World Championships in Kazan then the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Brown has enjoyed the process of working with both the country’s swimmers and coaches because of how much they respect his knowledge, their work ethic and their willingness to learn.

Brown sees his role with the Chinese team as an advisor and feels that his work with the team is a win win scenario for both the Chinese and the Australian swimmers who train with him in Melbourne, “I am just a resource that they utilize,” Brown told SwimSwam. “They help me out in the way that it has been great for my group. It has been a really great fast track for them to see how elite athletes work.”

“We do very similar programs. Sometimes I have my athletes cross over into the Chinese sessions, sometimes we do sessions together with 40 people in the water. It has just been great for these blokes to see that they are not far behind them.”

Brown points out that one of the most challenging things for the Chinese athletes is the not only the change in the overall environment, both culturally and the weather, but also the training environment. Most of the swimmers are used to training with teammates from their own provinces, but when they are with Brown they are grouped very differently, “It is province vs province when they come to me. I might have six or seven province teams with 30 athletes in the water and I just put them all together. I don’t break them up into provinces. I break them up into 100 and 200 strokers, 400 IMers and form strokers.”

Then there is the difference in training structure and content. When the athletes come to Brown most are used to high volume programs whereas Brown’s training philosophy is built around intensity, “I tell them to have a very good fitness base when they come in, so all their conditioning is done.”

“I work with them from about week 10 to two or three weeks out from the major meet. We do a lot of specific race conditioning, race speed, race development and then take them back down off that quality.”

“At first it is hard in terms of intensity, it is always intense. They say we are not used to this, we don’t swim that number of repeats at that high of a speed. I think what has helped is that they have seen really good results whether they swim 100s or whether they swim 400s we have been getting really good results.”

“One of the biggest things is that it just leaves them so torn down for a period of time they need to adjust their rest going into the major meets.”

Ning is the perfect example of one of the swimmers that comes off a very high volume program and has had to get used to Brown’s method’s, “What did take him by surprise was the volume of intensity. When I first started working with him I would put a set up on the board and he would just laugh and say, ‘I can’t do that it is too fast, it is too many. I may do one of those, but not 16.’ or whatever it was.”

Over the time Ning has worked with Brown he has developed a great deal of confidence in his methods and credited him for his results in Kazan last summer, “He gave me a short course of training but he gave me self-confidence, helped me with confidence for the championships,’’ Ning told The Australian last summer after winning gold at the World Championships.

“He is a very high-level coach. I hope I have chance to do more co-operation to prepare for the Rio Olympic Games.”

One of the things that Brown has been most impressed with is Ning’s aerobic capacity, “His strength is he comes off big volume,” says Brown. “His coach does a lot of aerobic conditioning with him and I suppose one of the things that was appealing about what I was doing is that my volumes weren’t as high. He is used to eight to nine kilometers in a session 11 times a week. I am going somewhere between four to six kilometers nine times a week.”

One of the sets Ning has done that has been an example of just how strong his aerobic capacity is weas during one of Brown’s recovery sessions, “He did 6 x 500, it was a recovery morning with alactic stuff at the end. It was short course, we only do two short course practices a week. It was on a 1:10 base and you could swim it or you could pull it. They like using big paddles when they do recovery type swimming.”

The intensity of the set was based on heart rate and Brown wanted Ning, who was doing the set as pull with large paddles, to be at a heart rate of 150, which he terms as an A2 zone of training. “He was holding between 5:15 and 5:10 comfortably,” explains Brown. “I said on number six if you want to have a crack at it you can if not just go through.”

“He decided he wanted to have a crack at it and went 4:44.”

After the set Brown wanted to know just how that performance would stack up against one of the all time greats. So he called long time friend Dennis Cotterell and asked him what Grant Hackett would do in the same situation. Cotterell said that a really good performance would have been between 4:40 and 4:45.

Brown shared with SwimSwam some of the sets that he has done each time Ning has come to train in Melbourne.

Each set includes ‘removal’ work. How the speed of ‘removal’ work is determined is explained below.

Removal Speed

The pace of removal speed is based on the average 100 meters in a two kilometer time trial plus 2-3 seconds. As an example if someone went 22 minutes for the time trial that would equate to 1:06 per 100 meters therefore the speed of removal work would be between 1:08-1:09 per 100 meters.

Set #1

The following set is a series of 25s that is swum at faster than race speed. Ning’s best time for a short course 100 freestyle is a 46.76, which he posted in 2014, but the speed of the set is based on a 46 second 100.

Dividing the 100 into quarters is a pace of 11.5. To determine the speed of the set you then minus time for a hand touch and the goal is to hold between 10.8-11.0 for each 25.

Another major component of this set is stroke count. As the pace times become more difficult Brown does not want to see the efficiency of his stroke deteriorate.

5 x (4 x 25 + 200 removal) each round is on 8 minutes

#1 – @ 1 min

#2 – @ 50

#3 – @ 40

#4 – @ 30

#5 – @ 20

This set is done twice.

Ning has done this set accomplishing the goal times for the majority of the 25s, but would fall off on the final two 25s  posting times between 11.4 and 11.5.

Set #2

Four times through 4 x 50 @ 1:30 from a push with a goal pace of sub 26 seconds

3 minutes rest between sets with no cool down

After the 12 50s Ning would then go:

3 x 50 dive walk back @ 3:00 with a goal pace of sub 24

Plus 1 x 100 from a dive

He has done this set holding 25 high for the 4 x 50 and between 23.7 and 24 low for the 3 x 50. In the same set he has followed that up with a 50.3 for the final 100. At the end of the set he has gotten his lactate up to 24 mmol.

Brown explains that once this set is complete the athletes will not perform a cool down.

“I want them to keep the lactate in their system,” explains Brown. He credits this type of work for how efficient Seebhom became in the way her body removed lacate after a race.

“With Emily when we would be at the Olympics or World’s she would get out with super high lactates of 14 or 15 mmol, which is pretty high for a 100. Within 600 meters of swim down and cold baths she was down to 1.5 mmol.”

 Set #3

This set is done with a race suit.

Ning will do a pre-race warm up and then have 30 minutes before the set begins.

2 x 100 dive with a 600 swim off

*each 100 fast and 600 swim off is done on 15 minutes

2 x 50 dive with a 350 swim off

*each 50 and 350 swim off is done on 10 minutes

The last time that Ning has done this set he went:

  • 48.3 (23.0/25.3)
  • 49.0 (23.7/25.3)
  • 22.45
  • 22.86

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Bob Vitti

Good article.


Excellent insight into world class preparation. Thanks for this!


48.3 and 49.0 with just a race suit? That’s the real deal!

About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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