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by Terry Heggy

September 11, 2017

Mixing it up is a fun way to get swimmers engaged

One of the biggest challenges we face as coaches is keeping our workouts fresh. As we plan our seasons, it’s easy to get so focused on training goals for the team that we forget to give our swimmers any mental breaks from the routine.

Here is one way to mix in some fun by getting swimmers involved in running the workout.

The Concept

A grab-bag workout is exactly what it sounds like: Multiple sets are written down on slips of paper and then mixed up in a bag, bucket, hat, or bowl. Sets are then selected at random by drawing a slip from the bag. The entire team then swims whatever set is chosen.


The beauty of the grab bag is that the coach still makes up the workout sets, so it fits into your seasonal training plan—but the swimmers feel like they are collaborating in designing the practice. Consider these items when creating the sets.

  • Keep the sets short. The shorter the sets are, the more swimmers can reach into the bag. Sets don’t have to be the same length, but if they approximate each other in either time or perceived effort, the swimmers will feel a sense of equality and fairness. Examples include the following:

»       8 minutes of 50s freestyle with 10 seconds rest

»       8 minutes continuous swim backstroke

»       5 x 1:00 vertical kick with 30 seconds rest

»       4 x 100 IM on 2:00

  • Include extremes. Fairness aside, be sure to include at least one really tough set and at least one easy set. Throw in a 200 butterfly, a timed 400 IM, or some all-out sprints with minimal rest as well as some creative sets such as social kicking, relaxation drills, or kickboard surfing.
  • Double up. Fill the bag with at least twice as many sets as you have time for. Give swimmers more than a handful of paper to dig around in. Consider laminating the cards so you can use them again and again.
  • Don’t dismiss drylands. Include push-ups, sit-ups, and wall dips, etc. Don’t forget starts, turns, and relays as well.

Include the time to draw the card and explain the set as you plan the workout. And of course, allow time for warm-up and cool-down, too.


People cherish things that are rare, so it’s best to limit grab bag days to a few times per year. Consider offering them:

  • When mental fatigue is high, such as after an extended series of maximum distance workouts
  • As an incentive to increase participation during periods where attendance is typically low (vacation season, holidays, immediately after competitions, etc.)
  • When you feel that you’ve fallen into a coaching rut and need to change it up.

There’s not enough time for every swimmer to draw a card, so come up with a system of selecting set choosers from among the group. Possibilities include the following:

  • Have swimmers predict a time for a 400 freestyle, and take the six swimmers who were closest to their target.
  • Choose a “Swimmer of the Day” for each workout during the previous week, and let those swimmers pick the cards.
  • Observe which individual performs the best on each grab bag set, and let that person select the next set.
  • Have grab bag week, where only the main set for each day comes out of the bag.
  • Offer one or two “Get out of jail free” opportunities per grab bag workout. The swimmer who chooses a set can opt to throw their selection back in the pot and choose a second card. If a swimmer uses this option, the group must swim the next set drawn. Once the GOOJF opportunities have been used up, each remaining set drawn is mandatory.
  • Include cards that specify the distance, but not the stroke. The card chooser then selects the stroke (or drill) the team will swim for that set.
  • Ask swimmers to list their favorite sets for incorporation into the grab bag.


Have fun with the idea. Decorate the bag with your team logo, use a plastic jack-o’-lantern on Halloween or a giant stocking in December. Include cards for giveaways (coffee gift certificate, USMS cap, swimmer spotlight on the team website for a month, etc.).


  • Technique and Training


  • Workouts