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by Terry Heggy

September 23, 2015

Set targets for the season and for each workout set

After winning four gold medals and setting four world records in the 1976 Olympics, champion backstroker John Naber revealed that before that season started, he had calculated the time he was reasonably sure could win each race (knowing that it would be faster than anyone had gone before). Then he subtracted that time from his current best, ending up with the number of seconds he’d need to improve to hit that target time. Then he divided that time increment by the number of swim practices remaining before the competition. The resulting small fraction of a second represented how much he needed to improve during each remaining swim workout.

Naber then approached every single practice knowing it was an opportunity to improve by that tiny little bit, knowing that if he let that opportunity pass, the required increment would grow. Staying focused on those small improvements at each workout helped him make the huge strides through the season that led him to his Olympic goals.

Our goals as Masters swimmers may be more modest, but we, too, can focus on improvement through each set of every workout.

The Big Picture

Start by writing down your goals for the season, as well as longer-term targets. Use the SMART system to ensure that they are clear and well designed. Then using the big goals as a guide, make a list of elements that serve as building blocks for those goals. For example, if your goal is to cut one minute off your 1650 time, it could involve improvements in:

Achieving your goal might require attending more practices, getting to bed earlier, working more closely with your coach, or getting a professional video analysis. Whatever steps you identify as leading to the big goal, write them down. Then look at your swim workouts as opportunities to achieve the small steps that lead to the big rewards.

Ponder the Purpose

Every drill and swim set has a purpose—make sure you know what it is. Ask your coach to explain it, if necessary. Doing drills incorrectly could not only be a complete waste of time, but could actually be counterproductive if you’re practicing an improper technique.

Swim Like You Race

Different races require different paces. And because different metabolic systems come into play at different distances, it’s important to include a mix of training types within your program. Think about that in the context of your micro-goals as you approach each workout set. What part of your swimming are you trying to improve right now?

Bill Spahn has coached numerous champions, including Tom Jager when he held the world record in the 50-meter freestyle—so he knows a lot about speed. Coach Spahn’s mantra is “To swim fast, you have to swim fast!” In other words, he continually preaches that you have to spend a significant part of your training time swimming at (or faster than) your race pace. Those segments will involve shorter distances than you race, so you’ll be able to produce the required speed.

Distance swimmers can learn race pacing from swimming FSYCH (fastest sendoff you can hold) sets. An example would be 10 x 100 on an interval that gives you 2 to 5 seconds rest. The idea is that by holding the same aggressive sendoff throughout a long set, you learn to not take it out too fast and to retain smooth power and good pacing. And as you gain speed throughout the season, you can gradually lower the sendoff threshold.

Seize the Opportunity

You should understand what you’re trying to achieve in each and every set. Swim with a target in mind, whether that target is a specific time goal, a specific distance you want to get off the wall on your turns, a heart-rate target, or a specific number of strokes per length.

Your coach chooses the rest intervals to achieve a particular metabolic training effect, so don’t “cheat” by taking more or less rest than designated. Ask questions if you don’t understand why you’re doing something a specific way. Then once you understand it, focus on how that next effort will support your big-picture goals.

Enjoy the Journey

One last thought: Sometimes the purpose of a workout set is simply to have some fun. One of the joys of Masters swimming is the opportunity to savor the social aspect of this great sport through the camaraderie of a USMS club. When you write up your goals for the season, don’t forget to include the ones about smiling, laughing, and sharing good times in the water with your friends and loved ones. See you at the pool!


  • Technique and Training