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by Terry Heggy

May 10, 2016

Tips for dealing with speed differentials across workout lanes

Every Masters swim team coach dreams of having unrestricted pool time, an infinite number of workout lanes, and a full staff of eager and competent assistant coaches. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of us have to do our best with limited resources. But, with a little planning and creativity, we can still give our athletes consistently great swim workout experiences.

Set the Stage (and Set an Example)

Arrive early and make sure the pool, equipment, and pace clocks are set up properly for the workout you have planned. Know your facility’s procedures and staff so you can help with lane ropes, tarps, flags, etc., especially for morning workouts. (Many pool managers have discovered that sleep-deprived teenage lifeguards sometimes struggle to wake up in time for pre-dawn Masters practices.)

Proudly represent your team by wearing your team shirts, displaying your USMS team banner, and offering each attendee a warm and welcoming greeting as they arrive. Allow swimmers to greet their friends, but encourage them to get into their assigned lane and warm up while saving the major gossip exchanges until practice is over.

Manage the Lanes

We don’t always have enough space to provide completely compatible lane assignments. In other words, we won’t be able to ensure that every swimmer in every lane is exactly the same speed as their lanemates. Consider these guidelines:

  • Etiquette. Make sure everyone understands and follows the circle swimming etiquette rules.
  • Numbers. It’s generally better to have compatible speeds rather than equal numbers, even if this means you have six people in one lane and two in another.
  • Specialties. People have different specialties. For example, if someone is a distance freestyle specialist who struggles with butterfly, you may need to move him to swim in a lane with faster people during a timed 1650 and a slower lane for an IM set.
  • Flexibility. Design workouts with flexibility to alter sets on crowded days. There are fewer “pull over, I’m comin’ through!” situations in a set of 50s than there are in 1000s. There are also fewer opportunities for arm-whacking collisions in freestyle sets than in butterfly.
  • Adaptations. You can instruct the fastest swimmers in a lane to switch to backstroke, breaststroke, or kicking when they get too far ahead of their lane mates.

After achieving the best possible lane compatibility, the coach’s next decision is how to actually deliver the workout. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of each option.

Option 1: The Same Workout for Everyone

In this approach, every swimmer performs the exact same distances and number of repeats. If the set is 10 x 100, then everyone does ten of them. The faster swimmers finish first, so the coach creates a workout long enough for those swimmers to fill the entire practice. Some people will run out of time and will simply truncate the workout, skipping the last few sets.

The advantage of this option is that it is the easiest for the coach. You only have to create one workout and can print the same sheet for each lane, or write it one time on a big display board. As each lane finishes a set, the coach can move to that lane to explain the purpose of the sets.

The disadvantages are:

  • Unless the coach intends to specify sendoffs by speaking to each lane, sendoff intervals can’t be specified. With written instructions only, you have to describe recovery time as “10 seconds rest” or “1 minute” rest, rather than saying “go on a 1:30 sendoff.”
  • Not everyone gets the same training focus. For example, if the last set is the only sprint set, only the fastest lanes will receive that particular training benefit.
  • There is no shared experience across lanes. People in lane one may not hear the amazing feedback the coach gives to lane six, and there is little opportunity to get to know anything about your teammates from across the ropes.

Option 2: Tailored Workouts for Each Lane

To tailor workouts for each lane, you simply customize the number of repeats or sendoffs within each set. The fastest lanes may do 10 x 100, while another lane may be assigned to do only 5 x 100, or perhaps 10 x 75.

The advantages of this approach include:

  • Each lane gets to do every set (even though its length is modified for that lane).
  • The coach can explain the purpose of each set and deliver feedback to the entire team at the same time.
  • Because each lane begins and ends each set at nearly the same time, everyone feels that they’re included and are equally as important as the folks in the other lanes.

The disadvantage is that the coach has to do more math when creating the workout, and will have to print out (or write down) multiple workouts.

Option 3: Proportionate Workouts

The proportionate workout concept is to have each lane finish their set at the same time without requiring the coach to mathematically tailor the workout. It works like this:

  • Hold a team time trial, where each swimmer swims as far as they can in 6:15 (yards) or 7:05 (meters.)
  • Round that distance to the nearest 50 to determine that swimmer’s “chunk” distance. If Stanley Swimmer went 360 yards, his chunk would be 350. If his sister Sara went 495, her chunk would be 500.
  • Divide that distance by 100 to determine that swimmer’s “stack” number. Stanley’s stack would be three-and-a-half, and Sara’s would be five.
  • Create your workouts using chunks and stacks instead of yards and repetition numbers.

Instead of writing 7 x 100 for Stanley’s lane and 10 x 100 for Sara’s lane, you simply say that everyone is doing a “double stack.” A “half chunk”, then, would be a straight 175 swim for Stanley’s lane and a continuous 250 for Sara’s. The math works for any fraction or multiple, and everyone will get an equivalent workout while finishing each set at nearly the same time.

The proportional workout option provides these benefits:

  • You get all the advantages of the tailored workouts, plus additional incentive for people to improve to achieve the next higher stack number.
  • It’s a sneaky way to get people to participate in middle-distance time trials.
  • It allows the coach to use creativity to design better workouts, as opposed to spending workout prep time doing arithmetic.

Team members pick up these concepts quickly, and new swimmers can adopt the chunk and stack numbers their lanemates use without needing to do the time trial. Some individual adjustment may be necessary for nonfreestyle sets, because some people are better kickers than swimmers, or go much faster with a pull buoy, etc. But it’s really easy to adapt—just have them stop when everyone else is finished.

Other Considerations

Whichever option you use, remember that each lane is as important as any other. Every swimmer deserves a good workout, useful feedback from the coach, and a chance to feel like a valued member of the team. When the workout is finished, take the time to thank everyone for participating, and remind them how much fun they’ll have when they come back for the next workout!


  • Coaches Only