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by Terry Heggy

February 16, 2020

Consider how practice components influence one another

A basic workout template includes:

  • Warm-up
  • Drills/technique
  • Physical and mental conditioning
  • Cool-down

Within that framework, there’s a lot of flexibility. Warm-up could include (or consist entirely of) drills, for example. The conditioning segment could be a single main set or a series of smaller work sets interspersed with recovery, stretching, or additional drills. Yet although your creativity in workout design enables infinite possibilities for challenging workouts that never get boring, there’s more to it than simply stringing random sets together. Here are some things to consider as you craft a workout from start to finish.

The Big Picture

Each workout is part of a larger program, serving a specific purpose within the flow of the season. At the same time, Masters swimmers tend to exhibit less consistent attendance than age-groupers might. I’ve had days where everyone in the pool had missed the previous practice, so I defer the workout I had written for that day and simply repeat the previous day’s workout. (Recycling is good for the environment, right?)

Consider how holidays, seasonal trends, and competition schedules impact your attendance. Adapt workouts accordingly.

  • Adjacent events—If the intensity of your previous workout left swimmers shambling into the showers like the walking dead, you may want to consider making your next one easier. Similarly, if you have a meet this weekend, Friday could highlight starts, turns, and mental focus rather than spirit-crushing intensity. On the other hand, if you’re in the toughness-building part of the season, feel free to let your inner sadist take the helm.
  • Flexibility—Be open to the possibility of altering the workout based on what you observe as you watch the swimmers. I usually include a tentative set in each workout that I’ll eliminate if I see something in warm-up that cries out for correction. For example, if I see several swimmers doing sloppy turns in warm-up, I may swap out my planned set of 5 x 50s descending on 1:00 for five minutes’ worth of wall work. Or if all my breaststrokers show up on the same day, my planned backstroke yardage may get replaced by a set designed to delight the frog people.

From Start to Finish

Be aware of the physical and psychological changes that swimmers experience through the course of a practice. In general, people tend to become more fatigued and less mentally focused as the workout progresses. These changes are often more dramatic among older athletes and among sprinters. Distance swimmers may actually get faster as they pile up yardage. Get to know your team and design your workouts with this progression in mind.

Physical factors

For best results, certain sets should be done only when the athletes are fully warmed up, yet still fresh and strong. These include:

  • Race speed swimming—Swimming at full race speed lets athletes experience the body position, drag factors, and turnover rates they’ll use in their races. Fins can be used to simulate this feeling to a certain degree, but only fresh all-out sprinting delivers the full experience. (Note: This is different from ultra-short race-pace training, which focuses on the clock rather than solely on the sensation.)
  • Challenging drills—The most valuable drills are those that habituate proper technique by demanding laser focus on the target performance factors. Such focus requires freshness; sloppy drill performance simply reinforces sloppiness.

Other sets provide the best training effect when done while fully fatigued, or during a progression toward complete fatigue. These must follow other sets or be long sets themselves, which means they’ll extend into the later parts of the practice. They include:

  • Lactate tolerance—Teaching the body to flush toxins and deal with the discomfort caused by high effort requires discomfort caused by high effort (aka fatigue).
  • Distance pace consistency—Learning to hold a steady pace over a long distance requires working on pace under a variety of conditions. The best distance swimmers learn how to factor fatigue levels into the allocation of effort to maintain a certain speed. (This generally means relaxing when fresh and working harder when tired.)
  • No garbage yardage—Garbage yardage is swimming that accomplishes nothing. Many lap swimmers swim their target mile or whatever, but never improve because they don’t force their bodies to adapt. Similarly, many competitive swimmers allow their form to deteriorate as they fatigue, reverting to old habits and poor drag profiles. When the physically demanding sets you assign have worn swimmers down to the point where they’re tempted to just go through the motions, remind them to focus on technique and drag elimination, even if their energy and power are gone. Dead-tired swimming doesn’t have to be garbage.

Other physical factors to consider in your workout design include recovery (rest, easy swimming, stretching, etc.), bathroom or hydration breaks, and ambient conditions. If the water is freezing, don’t make them stand around waiting for the next set. If the water is boiling hot, make sure they have a chance to cool off. Safety always outweighs other considerations.

Mental focus

Consider brain fatigue in your workout design.

  • Socialization—Provide opportunities for swimmers to talk, make friends, and support each other. These opportunities do not necessarily have to be during practice, but if you see eyes glazing over late in practice, consider a peer review of the last set. Ask lanemates to share what they could do to improve performance next time.
  • Clarity—Make your workouts understandable. If swimmers must constantly check the board to remember what they’re supposed to do, they’re probably not focused on workout performance.
  • Pace—Provide breaks between sets that support your workout goals. The time you take to explain a set also serves as rest (and perhaps an opportunity to lose warmth or stiffen up). Think of breaks in terms of heart rate; how rested do you want them to be at the start of the next swim?

The workout’s rhythm is part of its design. It’s OK if you want that rhythm to be a rapid-fire staccato drumbeat and it’s OK for it to emulate a soothing three-act symphony, as long as the different parts work together in pursuit of overall goals.


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