These workouts will improve your cardiovascular strength
Whether you enjoy doing sprint or distance, freestyle or stroke, the primary goal in swimming is to improve your cardiovascular system. It’s everything in swimming.
A great cardiovascular system doesn’t just pay dividends for swimming. It also produces life-changing health benefits, such as a reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure, improved circulation, and reduced stress. What’s not to love?
Here are five expert-written workouts from U.S. Masters Swimming’s Workout Library. These workouts will build your cardio and each can be completed in about an hour. You’ll see improvements in your cardiovascular strength when you do these workouts.
Workout 1: Fun Day
This workout is fun way to start a season of training. After a layoff from the pool, a 25s-based set is a great way to work on your pace and not overtax your system too soon. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Listen to your body on the “choice” sections in this workout. If you’re getting back into the water, this is an ideal time to do drill or low-impact training. If you want to work on your leg strength, mix in some kick. If you like stroke, maybe do IM order or alternate stroke and freestyle swims. Sprinting 25s is a great way to get your heart rate up.
- Every so often, there’s a single 25 within the set. This is a reset or recovery within the workout, especially if the other 25s are grueling.
- A good rule of thumb is to have no less than five seconds rest in any one repeat within a set. Alter your rest interval based on your experience and the point of the season in which you’re training.
- For the final 6 x 50s, you’ll work three different segments of your 50: the first six strokes off the start on the first two, the portion around the turn in the second set of two, and the final part of your 50s during the final pair.
- You can repeat this workout a few times a month. As it becomes easier, add new elements (harder intervals, more stroke work, etc.) to find new ways to challenge yourself. Record your times (especially the final fast 50 off the block) and come back to this set every so often to see where you’re improving.
4 x 75s choice
Feel free to use some gear and sprint on this set.
1 x 25s choice
2 x 25s choice
3 x 25s choice
4 x 25s choice
25 x choice
5 x 25s choice
6 x 25s choice
2 x 25s choice
12 x 25s kick with fins, repeat cycle: 12 ½ fast/12 ½ easy, 25 fast/25 easy
6 x 50s choice, work your first six strokes on the first two, work your turns on the second two, and work your finish on the last set of two
50 choice, use block if possible
Workout 2: Head and Body Position
This workout includes a lot of drills, which are often seen as just slower swimming but should be an essential part of your cardiovascular training. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you traditionally breathe to only one side, there’s no question that bilateral breathing will give you a good workout (and possibly improve your stroke).
- Doing breathing pattern drills for a full 200 can be an excellent way to improve your cardiovascular strength. If you’re proficient in bilateral breathing, add two strokes to your pattern (e.g., from every three to every five). Sticking with this will improve your conditioning. Remember not to breathe the last few strokes into your turn or the first few strokes off the wall, and exhale consistently through your turn. These 10-plus yards with your head down will improve the speed and proficiency of your flip turn.
- While doing drills, you don’t always have to go slow. Adding drilling at race pace to your routine is very helpful. When you’re more confident with each of these drills, try them at or near race pace (with fins). This is a good way to test your muscle memory and prepare for race day.
During the drill set, focus on your head position. It should be neutral—looking straight below with the top of your head pointed toward the wall you’re going to. You’ll play with different positions to feel the difference.
400 choice on 15 seconds rest
8 x 50s choice on 1:10, 1: swim looking forward with water just above your goggles; 2: swim with your head neutral, top of head pointed forward; 3: swim with chin down, looking toward your feet; 4: swim whichever motion is smoothest in the water
Let's continue to think about head position during the pull and drill set. As you turn to breathe, your goal is to have one goggle in the water and one out. You may feel as though you tip the top of your head forward as you breathe.
3 x 200s pull on 30 seconds rest, 1: breathe to the left going down and right coming back; 2: breathe every three or five strokes by 50; 3: choice breathing pattern
1 minute rest
6 x 100s drill on 30 seconds, 25 right arm only, 25 left arm only, 25 fist drill, 25 catch-up drill
1 minute rest
8 x 25s kick on 40 seconds, odds: dolphin kick; evens: breaststroke kick
Workout 3: Backstroke
This workout is great for two reasons: 1) If you train mostly freestyle, backstroke can help break up the monotony; and 2) Backstroke works similar muscles in the opposite direction of freestyle. This will help counter issues such as rounded shoulders that many swimmers experience. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- In the warm-up, if you’re new to IM training or struggle with certain strokes, take small breaks (two to five seconds) on each wall when the 100 changes from kick to drill to build.
- Drill with fins is an excellent way to improve body roll and strengthen your legs by kicking longer under water.
- With the 2 x 75s backstroke, the rest after the initial 50 is to ensure that you can maintain or possibly even improve your speed for the final 25.
- For the 8 x 75s choice, you should alternate kicking and swimming by 25. It’d be ideal to do the entire set backstroke. However, if you’re new to backstroke, add in some freestyle. To make it a more difficult set, you can add butterfly or breaststroke and work on IM.
- For the 25s choice, do the same stroke for all eight. A descend set like this means that your 25s should get faster over the first group of four and then over the second group of four.
400 choice on 10 seconds rest
400 IM on 15 seconds rest (25 kick-50 drill-25 build)
Main set (backstroke drill progression)
Take your time and use these drills to perfect your backstroke technique.
8 x 50s drill on 15 seconds rest, 1: kick while rotating your hips; 2: 25 right arm/25 left arm; 3: take three strokes with each arm; 4: take a stroke and then do six kicks—fins re OK on this set
2 x 75s backstroke on 20 seconds rest
8 x 75 choice on 20 seconds rest, odd: kick-swim-kick; evens: swim-kick-swim
8 x 25s choice on 35 seconds, descend 1-4 and 5-8
Workout 4: Speed
This is a great set to help work on pacing for cardiovascular strength and to test your speed in some mid-distance races (such as a 200 freestyle). Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep a close eye on the clock for those 12 x 25s. On the odd ones, work on your breakout speed but be as consistent as possible from one to the next. On the even ones, build your speed. This means you should start at a controlled speed and get slightly faster with each 25. Always keep an eye on the clock from swim to swim and when you repeat this set on a future date.
- Working your kicking and breathing patterns will help you increase your overall speed. Some swimmers like to finish the 25s in a set like this with a flip turn, AKA “finish to the feet.” This gives you a little extra work on the front half of your turn, and some coaches believe this is a more accurate way to calculate splits.
- The two rounds of 2 x 200s (broken at the 100) is an opportunity to get your heart rate up and maintain a similar speed for an entire 200. Some see this as cheating, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your cardiovascular system cannot fully recover in 10 or 15 seconds. That short break on the wall will allow you to get a few breaths, calculate your splits, and, most importantly, give you a mental break (the most underrated type of recovery).
400 choice on 20 seconds rest
4 x 75s choice on 15 seconds rest, 25 kick-25 drill-25 build
12 x 25s choice on 30, odds: swim first six strokes strong; evens: build
Work on your racing speed with these broken swims. Be sure to take the required rest so you can give it your all on the set.
2 x 200s choice on 5:00, fast, break at the 100 for 15 seconds
2 minutes rest
2 x 200s choice on 6:00, fast, break at 50s for 10 seconds
2 minutes rest
200 choice on 5:00, fast, break at 25s for 10 seconds
Workout 5: Happy Halloween
Even though this is another fun workout, this is a great way to build and test your cardio.
- The skull drill in the warm-up is a great way to work on body position in the water. If this is a new skill for you, try using fins and a center-mount snorkel. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Zombie and tombstone kick are excellent ways to build leg strength and cardio. This is one of the few times you’ll work so hard that you’ll feel yourself sweating in the pool.
- The pull set is an opportunity to build cardio through breath control. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean holding your breath. Be sure to exhale as naturally as possible during this set so that you don’t hyperventilate. Do this set with paddles, and then add a pull buoy as you get stronger. For some, more commonly men, swimming with a buoy is actually easier. Be sure that you’re rotating properly. Too much buoy training can make you flat in the water and shorten your stroke. There are many types of paddles. Try a few different ones to find the right style for you. When in doubt, go with a smaller paddle. Your shoulders will thank you.
- Kicking is one of the best ways to work cardio. Your legs are one of your biggest muscle groups and, therefore, need a ton of oxygen-providing blood. If you’re taxing your legs, you’re building your cardiovascular system. Beginners should kick on their back so that they can breathe consistently. As they progress, they should switch to kicking on their stomach with their face in the water.
400 choice on 20 seconds rest
3 x 100s choice on 10 seconds rest, 25 windshield-wiper skull (scull), 25 kick right side, 25 kick left side, 25 underwater recovery (un-human stroke)
Main Set—Ghouls and Goblins
12 x 25s kick on 40 seconds rest, odd: zombie kick (kick on back with board held up toward the ceiling), even: tombstone kick (board vertical with at least half underwater as you kick)
6 x 100s pull on 2:15, dreadful pulls: You have an allotment of 12 breaths per 100; spread them out throughout the 100
12 x 25s choice on 40 seconds, gravedigger swims: 12 ½ fast kick then 12 ½ sprint to the wall—you’ll be digging your own grave if you really work these hard
25 choice on 10 seconds rest, skull (scull)
25 choice on 10 seconds rest, corpse swim (backstroke)
25 choice on 10 seconds rest, cadaver kicks (underwater dolphin kicks)
25 choice on 10 seconds rest, dead man’s float (easy kick and skull (scull) face down)
Get More Cardio-Building Workouts in USMS’s Workout Library
U.S. Masters Swimming has created a searchable database of online workouts, developed for seven swimming specialties and featuring all ranges of distances, strokes, and skill levels. With this members-only feature, you can:
- Subscribe to receive workouts for the week emailed to you every Monday
- Filter by course, desired distance, and type of sets you want to do
- Send workouts to your smartwatch via our Swim.com integration
- Customize a workout via Swim.com and truly make the workout yours
- Print workouts easily so you can bring them to the pool
- Technique and Training