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by Matt Donovan

August 26, 2019

Small changes could add up to large results for self-coached swimmers

Swimming, with its back-and-forth routine, can send self-coached swimmers into a rut and, without the encouragement of lanemates and a coach, steal motivation. But uniquely designed workouts can help shake you out of the rut and provide stresses on your body that help improve your fitness even more.

Not all swimmers have or want a coach on deck, so here’s how to productively add volume to your swimming workouts on your own.

Getting Started

Don’t make any changes to your routine. Simply log the time you’re in the pool and the total yardage. Keep tallies of the yardage and distance for your warm-up, main sets, and cool-down. It may be effective to do this for two weeks if workout logging isn’t something you do regularly. Take brief notes on how you felt on each portion of the workout and a general idea of the pace and intervals held. This will be helpful in addressing your needs and goals moving forward.

At the end of the week or two, look at what you have. The results might surprise you. What you perceive to be happening and what’s actually happening in the pool might be different.


There are generally two types of self-coached swimmers when it comes to warm-up.

One thinks the walk to the pool and a sprint 50 is all they need. This isn’t effective for a variety of reasons, especially if the goal is to add volume to their workouts.

Your warm-up doesn’t need to be slow and drawn out. You can add in base volume, fin work, drills, and even have a pre-set built in that’ll lead to your main focus of the day. The additional volume will also prepare your body for that intense main set you intend to do.

If you’ve found through your logging notes that you’re hitting a wall in your main sets, one of the reasons could be that you aren’t warmed up enough. Remember: you aren’t 17 anymore.

The second type of warm-up swimmer is the “I need to feel good” warm-up swimmer, who has long and probably excessive warm-up routines filled with all sorts of bells and whistles.

This eats up the clock and has a drastic effect on volume goals. If you’re this type of warm-up swimmer, shorten your warm-up and get to the main set quicker. Unless you have specific health concerns, 15 to 20 minutes is more than enough time to effectively warm up.

Planning Your Week

Look at your week and see where there are common trends. If you only have 45 minutes at the pool each Tuesday, make that your sprint, kick, or drill day. Or throw on a pair of fins and do a 45-minute swim, starting slow and building as you go. Count your laps, or even use this as an opportunity to space out. Maybe even make this short day your off day or dryland day. Find days in the week where you and the facility you use have the available time to get in the volume you’re hoping to get.

After you’ve logged and calculated your volume for the week, train to ensure that you’ve maintained that yardage for a four- to six-week stretch. If you’ve been consistent at that yardage level, you can effectively raise it by 10 to 15 percent every four to six weeks (20 percent if you’ve been diligent and have no injuries or health concerns). Add volume over the course of the entire week rather than adding a “distance day.”

Planning Your Sets

When you plan your sets, keep it simple. If your logging shows that all of your sets are 10 x 100s, you don’t need to jump right to 10 x 500s. In fact, you really don’t even need to do 10 x 200s. Simply try 10 x 125s. That’s an additional 250 that only adds five minutes to your workout. Do that four times a week, and you just added 1,000 to your total yardage without much more effort.

If time is an issue, change that 10 x 100s to 8 x 125s. The yardage is the same, but the time you’re working per swim has lengthened. Stressing your body for a longer period of time will have a positive effect on your training and, in turn, your racing.

If you’re more of a stroke or individual medley swimmer and you struggle to add more repeats to your sets, add some freestyle. Stroke-set 100s can be extended by adding a 25 freestyle mid-swim. Rotate through, and 4 x 100s butterfly becomes 25 freestyle/75 butterfly, 25 butterfly/25 freestyle/50 butterfly, 50 butterfly/25 freestyle/25 butterfly, and 75 butterfly/25 freestyle).

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I’m a huge fan of fins. Put them on and go, go, go. Fins can improve any set with regard to distance, intensity, quality, and speed.

Time Versus Distance

If you’re a beginner or are coming off an extended break, don’t go to the pool with a goal to do a certain distance. It isn’t usually effective and can be demoralizing. Simply tell yourself that you’ll be in the pool and stay active for 30 minutes. This doesn’t have to be all swimming. If you get winded and need a break, walk in the shallow end or kick on the wall. If you dedicate yourself to coming back to the pool on a regular schedule, it’ll lead to more minutes, more sets, more yards, and more goals achieved.

One Final Thought

Be honest with yourself about the work you’re getting done in the timeframe that you’ve set aside for your fitness. This time is important, not just for your race-day goals but also for your physical and mental well-being. Take it seriously, and the dividends will pay off in and out of the pool.


  • Technique and Training


  • Workouts
  • Sets