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by Mark Gangloff

November 12, 2009

Swimming lap after lap can make us better; it can get us into physical shape, it can increase aerobic capacity and it can teach us perseverance. However, swimming long distances is not always the recipe for success. Often, after too many yards, our stroke technique breaks down, our bodies wear out and we can get bored with our training. Though swimming long distances can be challenging, I have found that there are just as many challenges in a practice with shorter, faster efforts. Many swimmers and coaches are making a complete transition to shorter, faster, workouts while other are merely marrying the two schools of thought to produce well-rounded athletes. All athletes, no matter what their end goals may be, should include high intensity, quality workouts into their routine once in a while.

It has always been my goal in swimming to go as fast as I can. I started competing as an age-group swimmer, progressed through high school and college and now swim professionally. I have trained as much as 13,000 meters and as little as 3,000 meters in one practice. Each workout had its own purpose, but as I continue through my career, I know it is not how many laps I swim, but rather how well I swim each lap, that is going to make me better. In 2003, I swam under the 1:01 barrier in the 100-meter breaststroke and it took me five years to break the next milestone of under 1:00. Yes, you read that correctly, five years to take off one second. What I learned during that time, is that in order to become a better swimmer sometimes … less is more.

My definition of a quality practice is swimming EVERY lap with a purpose that is physically and/or mentally challenging. Quality is important to me because I am trying to shave hundredths of a second from my time. But, again, whether your goal is to go fast or simply remain injury free and improve your stroke, quality is key.

Here is an example of a workout I recently enjoyed:

Warm-up (1500 yards)

  • 400 free
  • 4 x 75 descend 1-4
  • 300 kick
  • 16 x 25 with fins – Odds 12.5 yards under water and 12.5 yards swim; evens 12.5 yards swim and 12.5 yards under water. All of the underwater is fast and all the swimming is good technique
  • 100 easy

Main Set (1200 – 2000 yards depending on how much easy swimming)

  • 48 x 25 ALL OUT!!!
  • 6 x (8 x 25) Sets 1,3, and 5 are your best stroke other than free; sets 2,4, and 6 are free Decrease intervals by 5 seconds per round (e.g. :45, :40, :35, :30, :25, :20) 100 to 200 easy between each round
  • 1 x 50 off the blocks FAST!!!

Warm Down (300 yards)

  • 300 easy

Total (3000 – 3800)

This practice allows for swimmers to push themselves physically, mentally, and technically without having to swim anything over 400 yards. By deconstructing the workout, swimmers are able to push each effort to the physical max. It allows enough time on the wall for swimmers to receive stroke technique feedback from coaches and make the required stroke adjustments.

Below are a few of the benefits associated with swimming quality (not quantity) workouts.

Perfecting Each Lap

  • Gain awareness of stroke. By decreasing the length of each effort in practice, swimmers are able to better focus on stroke technique. Swimmers can gain a more conscious awareness of each stroke; they will feel head position, kicking imbalances, hold on the water and other inconsistencies.
  • Get instruction from coaches. In quality workouts, swimmers will often have more time between efforts creating an optimal environment to take time for feedback from coaches. Often times what you feel and what you are actually doing are two completely different things. Coaches can objectively see what you are doing and provide feedback before your next effort.
  • Make changes. With shorter efforts, swimmers have more opportunities to make changes, receive additional feedback and adjust accordingly. It is hard to make changes to technique; often when swimming long distances swimmers revert back to their old technique instead of making the necessary changes.

Increasing Speed

  • Swim at race pace in practice. For swimmers that compete, swimming at race pace during practice not only boosts confidence, but also provides swimmers with the chance to chart progress with each in-practice effort.
  • Set the bar. As a competitive swimmer, the goal is to maintain efficient and effective strokes throughout a race. By increasing the speed of efforts within a practice, swimmers can simulate a perfect race with perfect technique.
  • Work hard. For those athletes that do not compete, understand that you will still get a great workout by swimming shorter, faster efforts in practice. Working hard and swimming far are not always synonymous.

Having Fun and Swimming Fast

  • Swim against the clock. Shorter, faster, efforts allow swimmers to watch and race the clock multiple times during a practice. Swimming against the clock can be fun, encouraging and lead to the accomplishment of multiple goals within a single practice.
  • Compete with teammates. Shorter, faster efforts in a workout set athletes up for a little friendly competition. Shorter, faster efforts and the opportunity to race your teammates, can often times help break up the monotony of swimming lap after lap. Challenge your teammates to swim the practice above and see how much you can push one another.
  • Build camaraderie. Swimmers can not only track their own progress during quality workouts, but swimmers will also have opportunity to watch, cheer for and encourage their teammates. Shorter efforts and longer recovery is the perfect combination to help build up one of your teammates. As you build up others, your performances will increase as well.

Different swimmers swim for different reasons. There is a time and a place for long workouts, short workouts and everything in between. Swimming shorter, faster workouts has many benefits and all swimmers are encouraged to give it a try. Grab your stop watch, put on your game face, invite a teammate and give a quality work out a try.


Mark Gangloff, 27, a USMS member, is a 2004 and 2008 Olympian (100m breaststroke and 4x100 medley relay). Gangloff has earned two Olympic gold medals and currently holds the American Record in the 50m breaststroke. He lives and trains in Auburn, Alabama. Gangloff's next race will be at the Dual in the Pool next month.