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by Scott Bay

June 19, 2013

Essential questions to consider when writing your workouts

While standing on a pool deck watching some age group and senior kids swim a workout, it dawned on me how coaches of Masters swimmers have challenges that probably go unnoticed by our USA Swimming counterparts.

Think about it for a minute:

Most age group teams are divided up by age and ability, with different workout times, or at least a coach on deck for each group. How many Masters coaches do you have on deck to handle your newbies all the way up to your Trials qualifiers? This wide range of abilities are all in the same pool at the same time, a challenging situation that doesn’t take into account differences in age, fitness, and health. Do you have just one coach trying to serve them all? Probably, as that’s the case for most Masters programs.

But wait, there’s more: Triathletes and fitness swimmers also want to hop in and get some expert coaching, too. These are just some of the challenges that make coaching Masters different from coaching age groupers.

So then the question becomes: How do you write a workout that addresses the needs of all of those different groups all swimming in the same pool, at the same time? And just to keep it interesting, remember that you only have an hour or so to get it all done because water aerobics and synchro need the pool, too.

It’s tough, but you can manage this situation. The following guiding principles can help:  


Coaches vary widely on their approaches to how much (volume), how fast (intensity), and how much technique work (drills and stroke correction) each workout should offer. The ratio of one to the other also varies with the time of the year, depending on whether the team is gearing up for a big meet, or rebuilding after a recent championship. As a coach, are you more likely to write distance, sprint, or open water workouts based on your background and comfort level with each discipline? Does this fit the goals of the groups in the water?


Your athletes’ goals should be your goals in terms of workouts and set design. Their parents are not making them come to the pool, so you have to make sure you’re giving them what they need to be successful in meeting their goals. This will make want to return for the next workout.

Nuts and bolts of workouts

Great workouts encompass a focus on one or more body systems. This goes beyond the cardiovascular energy systems that most of us think of when we think about the purpose of fitness swimming. What about the neuromuscular systems? Are we getting enough speed work in to ensure the continued fast twitching of fast-twitch muscles? What about strength training? What about mental toughness training? It’s probably impossible to write every single workout to serve all of these divergent ends in a meaningful way, but when you write a workout, ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish with this workout?”

Writing the workout

Pick one or two things and start thinking about what sets you would write to provide your swimmers with a good aerobic, anaerobic, threshold, neuromuscular, speed, strength, or mental workout. What is the difference between 50s on 2:00 and 50s on :40? We can write the same volume in terms of repeats and yards, but what you are accomplishing with each set? How about repeats that are longer? How much kicking should your swimmers do? What about drills? Should they use fins, paddles, and snorkels?

For experienced coaches, making these kinds of decisions constitute the easy part of writing workouts. We tend to coach the way we have been coached. For those seeking more knowledge, we also have great resources at There are workouts written by professional Masters coaches or specialists, divided into categories to make selecting the right workout easier. Then comes the hard part: Differentiating the workout to meet the needs of all your swimmers.

After writing (or downloading) your brilliant workout that addresses all of the questions above, how do you make it meaningful for everyone in your pool? Some coaches adjust the yardage depending on ability and speed—one lane will do 150s to the lane next to it doing 200s. This brings everyone to the wall at the same time, making it easier to manage the group. Still, other coaches have been successful in modifying intervals while keeping the volume similar. This may require a shuffling of lanes from time to time.

Another approach is writing different workouts with a similar focus tailored to the varying levels and abilities of your swimmers. For example, an aerobic set for your pool sprinters and a volume set for your triathletes and distance swimmers. Again, grouping here is important. Some coaches will give everyone the same warm-up, then give specialty sets to the various groups in the pool.

Within any given week you may actually employ all of these techniques, depending on your workout goals. This is what makes successful Masters coaches: the ability to be flexible and dynamic while still fitting everything into one workout.

No matter how you choose to approach writing workouts for your athletes, the key is to have a plan and make sure it makes sense for your group. This is the essence of good workout writing. How much, how fast, and all of those other elements can—and should—be adjusted for your swimmers. Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if you struggle with it the first time you try. Just like learning a new stroke, if it were easy, everyone would do it.


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