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by Terry Heggy

February 15, 2018

Finding a balance between routine and surprise

A swimmer I coached for several years once said, “I’m amazed that you can come up with a unique workout every single day!” The comment surprised me because I hadn’t consciously tried to avoid repetition and honestly felt that many of my workouts were the same.

But upon further review, I realized that the swimmer-driven process I use does result in each workout having its own signature, which keeps the swimmers from becoming bored.

With that in mind, I’d like to share some thoughts about the craft of designing workouts.

The Foundation

Workout design evolves from the team’s established goals. These include the following:

  • Seasonal structure (designated goal meets, individual performance targets, etc.)
  • Event participation (engaging swimmers in competitions)
  • Team-building and camaraderie

Plan your season to include mastering fundamentals, building fitness, tuning racing skills, and tapering for championship performance. Craft each workout to balance those elements as appropriate to where you are in the season. Also balance what swimmers want with what you know they need. To create a feeling of comfort and routine, use a workout template that might include the following:

  • Warm-up
  • Technique (drills, focus swims)
  • Kicking
  • Work set
  • Cool-down

The template is a guide, so feel free to switch the order based on knowledge of your swimmers. I often modify the number of repeats in the work set based on results of the technique segment. For example, if the technique focus is on breaststroke kick and everyone nails it on the first attempt, I’ll add a few extra 200s to the work set. If they struggle instead, we may spend an additional 20 minutes fine-tuning the kick, which means the work set gets cut short. Flexibility in workout management contributes to the perception of daily workout uniqueness.

You may also have multiple work sets in a single practice. You might split the group into distance and sprint or give everyone an aerobic set followed by a race pace set. The template should function like a concert venue—a familiar setting that houses a variety of exciting experiences.

Workout Elements

Develop a workout design and delivery style that suits your personality. Here are some ingredients that have served me well over the years.

Favorite sets

There is no reason each set must be unique; familiar sets give swimmers a sense of stability as well as benchmarks to test their progress. My favorite sets include the following:

  • 10 x 100s on FSYCH
  • 12 x 75 rolling IM (fly-back-breast, then back-breast-free, etc.)
  • The Davis Mile (a broken 1650 ladder: 275, 250, 200, etc. down to 25)
  • 5 x 200s, negative splitting each 200

Sprinkle your favorite sets across the month, and hand out kudos when you see improvement. Avoid duplicating entire workouts, though; when swimmers see the same laminated workouts coming out of a file box, they may think the coach is disengaged (phoning it in) rather than earning his or her pay.

The incremental reveal

I prefer to describe each set as it begins rather than writing the entire workout on a board at the start of practice. Swimmers tend to reserve effort if they know what’s coming, so I encourage them to focus on one set at a time and give their best effort to each workout segment.

At the same time, I try to give the sets a logical structure. If we time a 400 followed by a timed 300, the swimmers will likely guess that the 200 and 100 are coming, and that’s great. What I don’t want is swimmers losing focus because the set baffles them. As you describe the set, watch their eyes for signs of confusion. Each explanation should clearly define your expectations so that swimmers can correctly execute the set to achieve its purpose.

The other advantage of the incremental reveal is that you can throw in surprises. In the 400-300-200-100 set, for example, people will crank it up to sprint the final 100. But if you then ask them to do another one even faster, they’ll somehow find the energy to get it done.

Side dishes

The only way to get fast is to practice going fast, so I like to have the team time something at every single workout. Other nontemplate regular workout elements include the following:

  • Recovery swims, such as an easy 50 after a work set
  • Socialization, such as time to chat with lanemates between sets, relays, buddy drills, technique demos, hot tub soaking, etc.
  • Personal touches, such as telling jokes, singing, or asking trivia questions

Think of your workout design as part of your personal branding strategy. If you consistently deliver workouts that are familiar without being boring, your swimmers will embrace you as a trusted partner in their athletic journey.


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