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by Terry Heggy

January 11, 2023

What goes into creating an effective workout?

Becoming a better swimmer requires effective training. Whether you train yourself or are responsible for providing training for others, success requires workouts that progressively improve technique, fitness, and psychological strength. While USMS offers a huge library of great workouts written by expert coaches, crafting your own workouts lets you fine-tune a training plan for your specific situation. This article outlines things to consider on your journey toward becoming a workout writing wizard.


Use the answers to these questions as an overall framework.

  • What performance goals should the workouts support? Is your training plan broken into “seasons” culminating in championship competitions? Are you primarily concerned with maintaining fitness and healthy aging? A mix of both?
  • Who are these workouts for? Will you need to provide adaptations for multiple talent/experience/ability levels?
  • Is participation predictable? If the same athletes show up for every practice, it’s easier to craft a progressive sequence that builds on what’s been done. If attendance is random and inconsistent, each workout should stand on its own.
  • What abbreviations, jargon, and notation shortcuts will you use? How will you ensure that your athletes clearly understand what they’re expected to do?
  • How will workouts be communicated? If you’ll be able to announce and explain each set in person, you can add nuance and detail in your on-deck speeches. If the workouts are printed to be used without direct access to the coach, the concepts either need to be simplified or the subtleties clearly defined in writing.


What makes your workouts special is your technical expertise, your understanding of your team and its athletes, your leadership skills, and your unique creativity and humor. Be proud to incorporate your personality into your workouts, and feel free to violate any of the “standard” workout concepts shared below. That said, here are a few things that most coaches rely on as guiding principles.

  • Every set has a purpose, and the coach understands how that purpose is fulfilled. It helps if the athletes also understand the set’s purpose (especially drills), so be prepared to explain the set’s goal. A set may have multiple purposes, including drag reduction, power enhancement, aerobic fitness, feel for the water, mental toughness, recovery, and a host of others. Pure frivolous enjoyment and socialization are also important and legitimate purposes, but showing off the coach’s diabolical skill at creating complex workouts is not.
  • Keep it simple. Let the swimmers focus on the set’s purpose rather than getting bogged down in myriad details. It’s probably OK to ask them to track both stroke count and swim time for a few 50s, but asking for simultaneous management of breath control, odd intervals, changing strokes, and swapping lane leaders might be too much. Use patterns (ladders, pyramids, bookends, IM order, increasing effort, etc.) rather than expecting them to brute-force remember a collection of random strokes and numbers just because you decided to create a nonsense set using an alphabetic crypto-cipher of the Fibonacci sequence.
  • Rest intervals matter. The ratio of effort to recovery interval determines the type of metabolic training achieved. For example, a set targeting maximum speed requires long periods of rest while a set about distance pacing can be done with very little rest between repeats. The rest interval should not only support the physical training goal of the set but must be tailored to accommodate variations in skill/speed. A set that is 10 x 50 on 2:00 is a sprint workout for someone who swims each 50 in 30 seconds—but it’s a distance workout for a beginner who is struggling to repeat 1:30 on each 50.
  • Great coaches are flexible. It’s OK to modify a workout on the spot if you see an opportunity to improve the outcome. If swimmers seem more fatigued than you expected, offer a less-intense set. If everyone’s turns stink during warmup, swap out your planned drill for some focused turn practice. If a swimmer has a sore shoulder, suggest they swim one-arm fly, etc.
  • Keep ‘em coming back. Not every workout needs to be fun, but we do need to give swimmers a reason to return. Those reasons may include improved skill, better fitness, faster times, social satisfaction, or a sense of belonging and individual respect/recognition. Most athletes want to work hard, be challenged, and even suffer in pursuit of their goals; so write workouts that prioritize the needs and desires of your swimmers.


There’s nothing sacred about this approach, but here’s a breakdown of a typical Masters workout:

  • Warm-up
  • Drill/technique focus set
  • Main set
  • Pull or kick set
  • Supplementary set
  • Cool-down


Though flexibility is awesome, both warm-up and cool-down are considered mandatory because they are physiological necessities for enhanced performance, injury prevention, and effective recovery. They can be done as a team under the coach’s guidance or by individuals based on how they feel. Coaches frequently include drill or stroke focus elements as part of warm-up and cool-down. If time and space are available, you may also include dryland exercises such as stretching/yoga/core work before and/or after the water session.

Every other element in this list is optional and can be arranged in whatever order works to achieve your training goals.

Drill/technique focus

Because swimming is such a technical sport, more performance gains come from improving skill than from increasing strength and fitness. This segment of workout can either be a specific breakdown element (one-arm butterfly, breaststroke pullout practice, 6 kicks on each side in catch position, etc.) or regular swimming with focus on a single element (full freestyle swim with focus on smooth in-line breathing, backstroke swim with emphasis on hip rotation, etc.) Drills focus on perfecting execution rather than speed, so it’s OK to go slow. Fins, paddles, and snorkels, etc. can be used to support the purpose of the drill.

Athletes vary wildly in their success with drill execution, so it may be wise to implement different drills to achieve the same goal…and to keep working on them across multiple practices until the desired result is achieved. Bad habits are reinforced if drills are performed incorrectly, so it’s important to monitor drills and provide timely feedback.

Main set

The main set incorporates the bulk of the workout’s physical exertion, and its completion is typically what exhausted swimmers brag about to their family and friends. What’s great is that there are an infinite number of ways to accomplish the set’s purpose, whether it’s designed for lactate tolerance, pacing, turn execution, or sprint butterfly with breath control. Start by identifying what result you want the swimmer to achieve, and then be as creative as you want in designing a set to meet that goal. Schedule a variety of main sets throughout the season to cover the gamut of training needs, including base fitness, lactate tolerance, race pacing, pure speed, and of course, technical fine-tuning in all competitive strokes. As you taper for your goal competitions, the main set should focus on meet preparation while allowing the muscles to recover to full strength by race day.

Here are the elements that go into defining the set:

  • Duration—There’s no hard rule, but the main set is typically from one third to two thirds of the entire practice.
  • Repeat distance—Choose the distance for each repeat within the set. These are measured in yards/meters, so it could be 25s, 50s, 100s, 400s, etc. The distances may vary within the set: You might have a descending ladder, for example: such as 250, 200, 150, 100, 50. Or you could do 2 x 100, 2 x 50, 2 x 25 and repeat that sequence three times.
  • Stroke—You may assign a specific stroke to each repeat, or you may let the athletes choose.
  • Rest—The rest allowed between repeats has an inverse relationship with the speed that can be sustained in the set. Longer rest generally means faster swims, while shorter rest generally means more of a steady pace that would be appropriate for distance swimming or low-intensity aerobic conditioning.

    If you assign rest by saying “Rest 10 seconds,” it means the swimmer will begin the next repeat exactly 10 seconds after they finish the previous swim, regardless of how fast they went. The other option is to define a sendoff, such as “Go on 1:30.” This means the swimmer begin a new swim every 90 seconds, regardless of their previous finish time. On a 1:30 sendoff, if they finish in 1:20, they’ll get 10 seconds rest. If they finish in 1:12, they’ll get 18 seconds rest, etc.

    I prefer using sendoffs when training for distance pacing because it creates awareness of how pace affects fatigue throughout the set. I prefer using rest when doing broken swims such as a 200 broken 5 seconds at each 50. Those sets help people get the feel of racing that specific distance.
  • Number of repeats—Typical workout notation lists the number of repeats times the distance followed by the stroke, rest (or interval) and any coach’s notes. Here are a couple of examples:

    10 x 100 free on 2:00, breathing every 5th arm
    5 x 200 IM, rest 45, odd lengths hard
    1 x 800, broken by 10 seconds rest at each 100, steady pace throughout
  • Recovery—Based on your training goal, you may want to assign a recovery swim after a challenging set or set segment. An easy 50 or 100 gives swimmers a chance to mentally and physically recover before beginning the subsequent challenge.

These formulas show how these elements influence set duration.

For sets with rest after each repeat: [Set Duration] =
([number of repeats] x [swim time + rest amount]) + recovery swim duration.

For sets on a sendoff: [Set Duration] =
([number of repeats] x [interval]) + recovery swim duration.

When swimmer speed varies within the group, sendoffs should vary accordingly, which means that one of these accommodations must occur:

  • Slower swimmers will be assigned a smaller number of repeats for the distance.
  • Slower swimmers will be assigned a shorter distance for each of the designated number of repeats.
  • The set is assigned a specific time duration (e.g. 30 minutes), so individual numbers of repeats are not assigned. Each swimmer does as many swim/rest repeats as they can fit into the time limit.

Supplementary sets (including pull and kick)

Your workout’s duration may only leave time for warm-up, drill, main set, and cool-down. But for those who have the luxury, there are other options to add. A supplementary set can be a smaller version (or perhaps even a repeat of) the main set, or it could focus on strokes rather than freestyle. It’s structured the same way, with repeats and rest organized to fill a predetermined amount of time. As with the main set, supplementary sets fulfill a specific training purpose (even if that purpose is just to have fun.)

Pull buoys, fins, snorkels, etc. (frequently called toys by Masters swimmers) offer variety and can be used to strengthen arms and legs because they enable the swimmer to apply additional force. They can also be used to increase speed so the athletes can feel their drag profile at race pace. They serve a specific training purpose and should not be used as cheats just to make swimming easier.

Supplementary sets may also include routine test sets you can use to measure progress over the season. These could include anything from an all-out 100 for time to a set of 10 x 400 with 20 seconds rest. I like to include timed swims in every workout to keep racing skills sharp as well as collecting feedback on individual fitness.

Some coaches establish designated days for test sets, like the first Monday of each month. Some coaches announce the focus of each day’s workout on a published team calendar. The point is to remember that workouts are for the athletes, and it’s OK if you repeat the same sets from time to time. Workout design is about effective training, not about uniqueness. Feel free to include workouts from the USMS site or sets that you’ve learned from other coaches.

That said, though, remember to have fun. Design special workouts for holidays, and celebrate birthdays with sets you know the birthday swimmer will enjoy. Include sets that involve social interaction and team building. Add enough variety to avoid boredom, but don’t feel pressured to create novelty just for the sake of novelty. Take advantage of available pre-designed nationwide workout events, such as the USMS Fitness Challenges and Virtual Championships.


Experiment to find the best way to deliver the workout, whether it’s with printed sheets encased in waterproof sleeves for each lane, giant handwriting on a humongous white board, or just walking the deck while your voice booms with confidence and authority. Explain your terminology and notation quirks, preferably backed up with a printable explanation page on your team’s website. Clearly explain the purpose of the set and its rest intervals and solicit questions to ensure your communication was received. If an athlete doesn’t understand the set or its purpose, it is the coach’s fault, not the swimmer’s.

Your greatest assets in writing and delivering workouts are your own personality and enthusiastic commitment to swimming and to the athletes you coach. Write your workouts with a passion that shows you care about your swimmers, and the results will speak for themselves.


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