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by Matt Donovan

December 28, 2017

Don’t worry if you don’t have a Masters team to swim with

Many Masters swimmers are lucky to have a great local club that offers structured workouts and training activities. For some, however, it’s quite the opposite. They head off to the pool each day with a small thought of what to do when they arrive, and hope to achieve some semblance of a workout. Then it just turns into 10 x 100s or an 800-600-400-200 slide.

Having a better plan before you hit the pool can mean the difference between a productive and efficient workout and just splashing around followed by a soak in the hot tub.

There are workouts in seven different specialties available for members at, but if you’d like to try writing your own, here are the five elements of each good workout.


Roughly 20 percent of your workout should be in the warm-up and preset stages.

I highly recommend using fins during all warm-ups (and never using pull buoys or paddles). There are more muscles in the legs than the shoulders. Put the work load on the legs early and give the shoulders some extra time to warm up. Very few swimmers are ever sidelined with an overworked quad or hamstring.

Drill/Prep Set

This should be directly related to your main set.

If you’re planning a distance set, get in some 50s pace so you’re ready to tackle those 3 x 500s. In the same spirit, if you’re doing some fast swims in the main set, then the prep set should mimic that as well. A 20 percent prep-to-main-set ratio when working sprints is a good rule of thumb. So, if your main set is fast 100s, then do some fast 20-yard sprints in the prep set. This can be kick or swim, with or without equipment, etc. Drills at speed are also a good way to test yourself.

Main Set

The main set is generally seen as the bulk of the workout, but that doesn’t always have to mean high yardage, especially if you have a big meet around the corner or if you need a recovery day.

The idea here is to know what you want to accomplish before you get to the pool. If you want to test yourself with 30 x 100s, that’s great! But be sure you know what you want your intervals to be, have a goal time, and have a plan to break it down (should you take it out fast and hang on? Descend in groups of 3-5-6-10? Add or take away equipment at a certain number?). Knowing this in advance will help you self-coach and not let yourself off the hook, or to be too tough either. If you plan to go with an interval of 1:30 and want to hold sub-1:20, keep a close eye on the clock and readjust as needed. Thirty 100s is a long way to go on the wrong interval or with little focus and game plan.


Every workout should have a race element. Avoid the word sprint as much as possible. That means too many different things to too many different people.

We all know what race means: “Don’t think, just get up and go!” This can be in any stroke or distance or by swimming or using equipment. If the main set is 30 x 100s, there are a few ways to introduce race. For a mid-distance swimmer, potentially go 20 x 100s pace, then 2 x 500 at the end with paddles and fins.

Sprinters generally never have to be told to race more, but they should work in more active recovery. One example: 50 all-out followed by 50 recovery, 50 kick (to flush out the legs), 2 x 25s drill, four times through.


This should be about 15 percent to 20 percent of the total volume of the workout. This is the part most swimmers either way overdo or underdo, but it truly has value to help us recover and prepare for the following day.

Keep in mind that other than the warm-up and cool-down, many of the parts can be interchangeable and adjusted to fit the theme of the workout—a drill can be placed in the middle of a main set as part of an active recovery. The same goes for the race element. Adding a 25 “race” in the middle of a distance set can spice things up and keep your mind engaged and prevent bad habits and poor pacing from setting in.

Finally, always have a written workout before getting to the pool. If it’s written, it’s real. It can be saved in a plastic bag or just stuck to a kickboard. If it’s not written, you’ll be more likely to skip important elements of the set and do less than initially intended.

The bottom line is to have fun. If you enjoy what you are doing each day you go to the pool, it’s a win. Who cares if the swimmer in the lane next to you looks at you sideways for never taking off your fins? An all-fin workout is better than no workout at all.


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