Article image

by Terry Heggy

December 18, 2018

Design sets that swimmers can grasp

One of the joys of coaching is that it provides an outlet for your creativity. It’s fun to think of unique ways to share your passion for helping swimmers improve. But as your brain is brewing its brilliance, remember that your athletes don’t possess your experience, nor will they have the same amount of time to think about the sets. It’s easy to overwhelm swimmers with more information than they can absorb, which can generate confusion, frustration, or anger. Here are some ideas for sets that keep swimmers coming back.

One Thing at a Time

There are infinite technical details to master in each stroke, but it’s best to tackle one thing at a time. Empathize with how your athletes feel—wet, tired, and worried about daily concerns, etc.—and then concentrate on one training element for each workout. Communicate that single purpose so that each athlete fully understands your expectations.

The idea is to avoid cerebral overload, not to stop you from encouraging continual improvement. Consider the following examples.

  • A singular focus on posture could include reminders about head position, spinal alignment, and kick depth.
  • A set centered on sprinting might include reminders about tempo, breathing, and kick power.

As you describe the set, watch the expressions and behaviors within the lanes. If faces look confused, or if swimmers immediately start asking each other questions, repeat and simplify your explanation.


Unless every swimmer in your workout is well-trained in performing your favorite drills, avoid giving generic directions such as “drill down, swim back.” Such a lack of specificity often results in people doing what’s easiest rather than what they need. Instead, select drills that directly target flaws you’ve  observed.

Incorrectly performed drills are a waste of valuable pool time. Clearly explain how the upcoming drill contributes to proper stroke awareness and performance, and define in detail the results you expect to see. Immediately follow up with correction or confirmation feedback.

Work sets

The purpose in a work set is to improve a specific swimming attribute. It might be pacing, aerobic fitness, sprint speed, butterfly turns, or mental toughness. It might focus on specific heart rates, streamlining, or distance per stroke. But a single set can’t possibly hit every aspect of swim training so resist the urge to take a “kitchen sink” approach. Regardless of its cleverness, a giant jumble of random strokes and distances can leave swimmers baffled and discouraged. No one is impressed with your creative complexity if the set doesn’t have a clear goal, and no one gets inspired to work hard on a set they can’t understand.

In other words, if your workout must be written down to be understood, it’s probably too complicated.

I’m not saying you can’t create a mix within a set. You’ll bore swimmers if your sets aren’t at least moderately interesting. Examples of easily comprehensible mix sets include the following:

  • 5 x (200 free on 10 seconds rest, 50 choice sprint on 20 seconds rest). Purpose: Develop ability to push hard when fatigued.
  • 8 x (100 IM on 15 seconds rest, 100 recovery freestyle on five seconds rest). Purpose: Improve IM fitness with active recovery.
  • 5 x (250 free, 200 IM, and 150 kick all on the same fast sendoff). Purpose: Fun aerobic conditioning.

I’m not discouraging displaying your workouts on a board. Just don’t write anything that generates head scratching, philosophical discussions, or sudden urges for prolonged bathroom breaks. And always remember to write legibly in LARGE print so that everyone on the team can read them without glasses.

Use terms that new swimmers will understand, and clearly explain complicated concepts. Define common jargon on your web page, and (if rest intervals permit) remind folks of each set’s purpose between swims. Your plan to create workouts that move swimmers toward goals can succeed only if the sets are understood and undertaken.


  • Coaches Only


  • Coaches
  • Coaching
  • Communication