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Training: Designing The Perfect Swim Workout For You

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Written by: Sara McLarty

It’s the middle of the week. The clock has just clicked to noon. It’s time for a lunch break, a few minutes of personal time before going back to work. What better way to use this time than to take a quick dip in the pool? Swimming a couple of laps is the perfect way to mentally recharge, not to mention go faster at the next race.

These lunch-break minutes—an extra baby-sitting hour, laundry-in-the-dryer time, or any spare moments that just become free—are prized gems. They should be expertly shaped and polished so that every angle glitters and sparkles. They should be set in only the most beautiful and precious metals. Every minute spent in the pool should be designed to produce the maximum benefit.

A common belief among multisport athletes is that swim training is very similar to cycling and running. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As a result of this misinformation, millions of continuous laps in the pool are performed every day. Stop! Please stop! Stop on the wall. Stop between sets. Stop on the other wall. Stop in the middle of the pool. Stop between intervals. Just S-T-O-P!

The most time-efficient way to improve swimming speed is to incorporate sets, intervals, drills and various levels of effort into your workout. A “set” is a fixed number of repetitions of a certain distance done at one time. For example: 4×100, 8×50, or 3×300. An “interval” is the period of time between one event and the next, or the amount of time given to complete a swim before starting the next one. For example: 100s on 2:00, 50s on 1:10, or 300s on 4:30. For this article, “drill” will refer to anything that is not freestyle swimming. Pulling, kicking, technique work, other strokes and breath control fall into this category. Finally, some common terms used to designate effort levels in the water are: “race-pace,” “strong,” “cruise,” “aerobic” and “recovery.”

Swimming a well-designed workout will provide the most benefit for every precious minute in the pool. The first stage of all training sessions—and swimming is no exception—is to warm up all the muscle groups. Warmup can start on the pool deck with some light stretching and arm swings. If the water is extremely cold, dry-land warm-up is very important to prevent muscles from seizing up when they are suddenly submerged. An athlete should use the first 400 to 600 yards of a typical 3,000-yard workout as warmup. These laps should be swum without looking at the pace clock or other swimmers; focus only on making slow, smooth strokes with pretty technique.

The second stage of a swim workout is focused on correcting and improving technique. This is where most coaches will assign a drill set. One example of a set is 8×75 yards as 25 kick/25 drill/25 swim. The purpose of a kick drill is to strengthen the legs for a more powerful freestyle kick. Some coaches will designate a specific drill to be used on the second lap. If no details are provided, the swimmer should choose a drill he knows will improve his stroke. The final 25 yards (swim) are where the swimmer tries to correctly put the kick and stroke together.

It is common that a rest interval, for example 30 seconds rest after each 75 yards, will be assigned for the second stage. This type of interval allows each swimmer to complete the set at her own pace. The focus is on correct technique, not speed.

A second drill or technique set might be included if that is the focus of the workout. If the focus is on improving speed or increasing power, the third stage is the main set. A main set should also have a specific goal that the swimmer tries to achieve. Descending time, holding pace, or best average are some examples of a main-set goal. The focus of the main set is to go fast and work hard. This is the part of the workout where swimmers get out of breath and turn red.

During a typical 3,000-yard workout, the main set is between 1,000 and 1,500 yards. Some examples include 4×300 swim on 6:00 (descend time 1-4); 12×100 strong swim (4 on 2:00, 4 on 1:55, 4 on 1:50); 3×150 pull/50 race-pace swim on 4:30. The main set might include pulling, swimming, kicking or a combination.

Another focus of the main set can be breath-control or hypoxic work. Just as hard pulling sets increase upper-body strength, hypoxic breathing sets strengthen the breathing muscles and increase lung capacity. There are a few situations an athlete might find himself in open water swimming where the ability to hold his breath is an advantage such as in diving under waves or being pushed underwater by a competitor. A hypoxic swimming set looks like this: 5×150 swim (3/5/7 breathing pattern by 25). This means the swimmer breathes every third stroke on the first lap, every fifth stroke on the second lap, every seventh on the third lap, and then repeats the cycle to complete a 150-yard swim.

The fourth stage of swim practice is always cool-down. Cool-down can be as simple as 100 or 200 yards swum easily to lower the heart rate and stretch out the muscles. It can also be longer and purposeful, especially after an intense main set. The amount of lactic acid buildup in a swimmer’s muscles has a direct effect on the length and importance of the cool down. A simple set like 400 with fins (50 kick/50 swim) or 6×50 swim (extra long strokes) will help flush out the acid and reduce post-workout cramping.

Sara McLarty has swum for 20 years under some of the greatest swim coaches in the country. Now she’s one of the fastest swimmers in the pool, open water and triathlon and she coaches the Masters swim program at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla. If you aren’t close enough to swim with her three mornings each week, visit where she posts every workout in three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced.