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by Terry Heggy

October 9, 2017

A fun approach to continuous improvement

Masters swimmers are a diverse group, including TV stars, diplomats, and teachers. The technical nature of our sport also draws plenty of scientists and engineers. Many of our brainy lanemates spend their days manipulating the modern equivalents of protractors and slide rules to divine answers to complex questions. The good news is that it doesn’t require an advanced degree to apply basic engineering concepts to improve our swimming.


Step one is to collect data. We’ll use formal tracking tools for the big picture across the season, but we also want to pay attention to how things go within each workout.

  • How is our pace holding up? Are our splits even or are we fading as the set progresses? How does today’s workout compare to the previous one? Am I stronger and faster or weaker and slower?
  • How does it feel? Do certain muscles fatigue while others seem fine? Are there any specific aches and pains, and if so, when did they appear?
  • How is our form? Are we holding our distance per stroke? Breathing with one goggle in the water on freestyle? Achieving early vertical forearm? Getting out past the flags with each streamline off each wall?

Being tired (or even exhausted) is not necessarily a bad thing. The improvement that comes from training depends on working hard enough to force your muscles and metabolism to adapt to the stresses you apply. But strength and stamina gains don’t happen while you’re tired; they occur as the body recovers from those stresses.

With that in mind, let’s examine some ways our inner engineer can help us improve.

Failure Analysis and Fixes

No breakdowns—I’m not getting fatigued

This one’s easy: You’re not working hard enough.

Well, OK, perhaps a lack of fatigue is appropriate when you taper for a big competition. But otherwise…

Pace collapse—I get slower as I swim

As yardage increases in the buildup phase of the season, it’s OK to have a modest decline in workout performance. When we’re swimming monster yardage, cross-training, and doing strenuous dryland work, we simply get tired and may lose a second or two per 100 until our muscles adapt to the workload over time. But if you experience a dramatic drop in speed, or you become chronically fatigued (i.e., your heart rate won’t recover), it could indicate a serious condition (including heart attack), so seek medical attention immediately.

If you slow down within a particular set:

  • You might be a natural-born sprinter. Sprinters can certainly learn to swim distance well and do need to develop aerobic capacity but are inherently less likely to hold a steady pace through an entire 1650. That’s OK. You’ll crank it up on the short sets and can achieve an intensity the distance folks envy.
  • The set might be designed that way. If your coach asks for high intensity on short intervals, you’re expected to fight through fatigue to train your body to process metabolic byproducts (lactic acid) more effectively. That’s OK, too.
  • You might have taken it out too fast. If the goal is to hold an even pace (which is almost always the pathway to your fastest time over a long distance), too much intensity at the start can leave you depleted as the set goes on. The solution is to learn to relax and focus on stroke and breathing rhythm at the start of the swim.
  • You might not be as fit as you could be. The solution is to swim more, preferably with a USMS-certified Masters coach who can guide you to better fitness.

Ugh! My legs are tired

If a specific body part tends to fatigue before any others, you’ll benefit from strengthening that part. For legs, do more kick sets. For lats, do more pulling, etc. Target those muscles in your dryland and flexibility exercises as well.

But if you notice actual pain (such as a sore shoulder joint), you should have your stroke analyzed to correct form flaws and may need to see a physical therapist for corrective exercises. Depending up the severity of pain, you might need to see your doctor for an evaluation of the body part that hurts.

Form failures—My stroke falls apart

  • You might not be as fit as you could be. If your ability to hold good form doesn’t improve with additional exercise, then…
  • You might be losing focus. It’s natural to resume old habits when we stop concentrating on our stroke. Solutions include: minimizing distractions (don’t wear headphones, don’t think about work, get out to pee before you become desperate, etc.), having your coach monitor your form and provide focus reminders, and doing more drills or swimming where you focus only on form to make perfection a habit.

Cultivating Cognizance

Adding an inner engineer to your team is mostly a matter of awareness. Approach every workout with a goal to spot weaknesses and develop a plan for correcting them. It will become your blueprint for success!


  • Technique and Training


  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills