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by Scott Bay

December 26, 2019

Are you working out or practicing? The semantics of swimming can matter

Just about any Masters group or even lap-swim time has a bunch of swimmers seemingly doing the same thing. But, are they really? When you show up at the pool, you might want to ask yourself if you’re going for a workout or for practice.

What’s the Difference?

For starters, thoughtfulness. Regardless of gender or level, the difference between good swimmers and great swimmers is often mindset. This includes knowing when it’s OK to get just a workout and when you need to practice while you’re working out. There’s a reason that age-group workouts are mostly referred to as “swim practice.”

The two are not mutually exclusive. You have to do the hard work to get stronger from the workout but within that hard work, practicing is when you’re consciously seeking to do something just a little bit better than the last session or the last set or the last repeat.

Here are some examples of the difference between getting in a workout and getting in a good practice.

Workout: 10 x 100s freestyle on 1:30
Practice: 10 x 100s freestyle on 1:30 with streamlines beyond the flags off each wall

Workout: 6 x 200s IM on 2:45
Practice: 6 x 200s IM on 2:45 with 100% legal, perfect strokes and transitions

Workout: 400 pull with paddles
Practice: 400 pull with paddles and only breathing to your least-favorite side

To the casual observer, each of the above workout sets contain the same amount of physical work as the practice sets. What differentiates the two? Focus.

Hard Work + Focus

Your body responds to stimulus and experiences training effect; over time you get stronger at a movement—the result of hard work. Swimming is a complex series of movements and each trip down the pool is programming the brain to replicate a specific set of movements. That programming only takes place by practicing those patterns over and over again. Focus means you’re changing things to the way you really want them to be done.

Ever do a one-hand turn during a breaststroke or butterfly set? Ever do it all the time? Do you have to spend a lot of mental energy remembering to touch with two hands on race day? This is nothing new—you race how you practice—but how many times do you really focus on doing even the littlest of things correctly?

Making excellence an everyday part of your process leads to huge gains, not just in the way you race but in the way you feel after. If you walk in with an idea of doing at least one thing correctly, you can walk away afterward enjoying both your endorphins and a sense that today was better than yesterday or the day before.

Sometimes You Just Need a Workout

Ever hit your head swimming backstroke? When you get to the point where you’re zoned out, you may miss the flags. Some days are just like that and it is OK (except don’t hit your head, that hurts). Not every session is pure gold paving the way to your best performance. Still, part of making that practice mindset work is being aware of those days when they happen. Start the next session with a commitment to doing just one thing right and pretty soon you’ll have better and better races as a result, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment every time you get out of the pool. You did just have a good workout, and you had a great practice.


  • Technique and Training


  • Workouts