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by Matt Donovan

February 16, 2021

A one-size-fits-all approach to coaching doesn’t benefit anyone

Masters clubs feature all types of athletes: some who competed in college, some with a background in club or high school swimming, some who picked up the sport as an adult, and some who just learned how to swim.

Coaching a group with a range of abilities might seem challenging but it’s quite doable.

Let your swimmers know that sets are written to work on their strengths and weaknesses and explain that they don’t need to worry about what other swimmers are doing. It’s important to let them know that what you wrote for their lane is the workout that’ll make them better.

Here are five ways to write sets for swimmers of multiple ability levels who are practicing at the same time.

Alternate Distance

All swimmers leave on the same intervals, but swim different distances. For example, a speedy lane could do 200s on a 3-minute interval, a slower lane could do 150s in that time, and an even slower lane could do 100s. If your swimmers are achieving roughly the same work-to-rest ratio, everyone is getting the same cardiovascular benefit.

IM or Stroke vs Freestyle

This works well when there are triathletes who prefer to train mostly freestyle or if you have stroke or IM swimmers who are strong in a particular stroke and have no one to push them. The stroke swimmers can break a 100 into a 75 stroke/25 freestyle, and the freestylers can do a 75 freestyle/25 stroke, or whatever ratio would produce a similar finishing time.

With an all-IM set, tell your swimmers to drop their worst stroke and add in their best to keep up. As they improve, reduce their worst stroke by a 25.

If a set such as 8 x 200s IM is too challenging for some of your swimmers, have them alternate 200 IM and 200 freestyle. Doing all repetitions on the same interval will allow them to recover during the set.

Chase Starts

This is great for highly competitive swimmers, and it’s simple once you know roughly how fast each swimmer goes on a given set.

For example, your middle-tier swimmers can get a head start on a 100 by leaving 5, 7, or 10 seconds ahead of your fastest swimmers, with both groups racing to finish first.

For long distance swimmers, especially those getting ready for an open water competition, send a pair off on a 30-minute swim, and instruct the faster swimmer to lap the slower one a certain number of times.

Swimming Golf

My favorite swimming golf set is 10 x 100s on 2:00. Before the set, give each swimmer a goal time. For every second on each 100 a swimmer goes over the goal time, the swimmer is assessed +1 stroke (golf stroke, not swim stroke) and for every second under, is assessed -1 stroke. The swimmer with the lowest score wins.

If the work-to-rest ratio isn’t consistent among the two swimmers, the slower swimmer can subtract a 25 or the faster swimmer can add a 25 to the distance for the set.

Whistle Kick

One of the most difficult things to coach when it comes to varying abilities is kick sets. Sometimes your best swimmer is the worst kicker (and vice versa), and intervals are near impossible in a big group.

To sidestep that problem, try whistle kick. Send the swimmers off on their boards (or with their snorkels, or kicking on their backs), and instruct them that when they hear one long whistle, they’re to kick as hard and as fast as they can until they hear two short whistles. Upon hearing the two short whistles, they should do a relaxed recovery kick until the next long whistle.

Have a pattern in mind, such as a pyramid that starts with :15 hard/:15 easy, then :30/:30, :45/:45, 1:00/1:00, and then back down. The beauty of this set is that everyone gets the same work-to-rest ratio. The potential downside is that it’s completely up to the swimmers as to how hard they push themselves.


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