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by Terry Heggy

August 3, 2015

Challenge yourself and mix it up!

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Yet many Masters swimmers repeat the same workout with only minor variety, and then wonder why they don’t improve.

Here are some suggestions to help you break out of that rut.

Embrace Disorder

  • Swim 100 IMs with the order mixed up. If you do every combination, you’ll get through 18 unique 100s. It’s fun to print the options on strips of paper and let each person in your lane pull one out of a bowl as you go through the set.
  • Swim IMs made up of nonstandard strokes. Throw in some sidestroke, corkscrew, dogpaddle, or Tazmanian Hula.
  • Swim freestyle with dolphin kick, backstroke with breaststroke kick, or butterfly with flutter kick. You’ll be surprised how much concentration and effort it takes to do it right.

Rolling Thunder

Different levels of intensity train different metabolic systems, which is why we all need to mix in some sprinting, threshold swims, long, slow distance, etc. But a good fusion set can be an interesting way to challenge yourself as well.

  • Swim a set of 5 x 200 free, with 100 of each repeat at a significantly higher effort, trying to keep the total 200 time the same throughout the set. Take plenty of rest:
    • 100 hard, 100 moderate
    • 25 moderate, 100 hard, 75 moderate
    • 50 moderate, 100 hard, 50 moderate
    • 75 moderate, 100 hard, 25 moderate
    • 100 moderate, 100 hard

You can extend this idea to any distance. For 500s, you might swim 150 of it at the higher intensity. Pay attention to how you feel on each repeat; you’ll likely learn something about how you should pace your races.

Immersion Inversion

Just roll over and do your favorite set on your back.

This is especially good for those swimmers (I’m talking to you, triathletes) who rarely practice nonfreestyle strokes. Backstroke not only helps you balance muscular development and open up your chest, but it also forces you to pay attention to your bodyline and drag profile. This focus pays dividends to your freestyle through improved awareness and flexibility.

Practicing your butterfly and breaststroke skills on your back also pays off. A two-arm backstroke with dolphin kick (aka inverted fly) works your core while it challenges your rhythm and coordination. Breaststroke kick on your back allows you to really focus on keeping your knees in the correct position (i.e., not lifting them too high up out of the water during recovery) and then accelerating the feet all the way together to finish the kick thrust motion.

Creative Accessorizing

Don’t let your equipment get in a rut, either.

  • Swim with your pull buoy as if it were a water polo ball, pushing it in front of you with your bow wave. Or swim with it on top of your head. These drills force you to develop a powerful kick while maintaining awareness of your upper body orientation.
  • Or, do an arms-only pull set without the buoy! Lock your toes together (or use a stretch band to lock your legs together sans flotation). Without a buoy supporting your inactive legs, you’ll be forced to develop a good extension on your catch and execute a powerful pull. (This is a tough one, so to avoid practicing poor body position, you should do this drill sparingly, and only when you’re fresh and strong.)
  • Grab a brick or dumbbell (or your water bottle, etc.) and do some vertical kicking in the deep end. Your leg muscles will get a good workout while you gain awareness of your ankle flexibility and core strength.

A Little Insanity is Good

Every set you do should have a specific purpose. But sometimes it’s OK if that purpose is merely to alleviate boredom and throw some fun into the workout. If you’re paying attention to what you’re doing, though, you’ll be able to improve your technique and fitness even with silly sets … and your understanding of your body’s relationship with the water will improve from these detours off the beaten path.

At the same time, remember that it’s important to hang onto your standard sets, too. You should regularly do certain sets to test your fitness and track your progress. Common standard sets include 10 x 100 on the fastest sendoff you can hold, timed 500s (or 800s), and high-effort 100s on the clock. But in between those checkups, it’s OK to mix it up a bit and have some fun!


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Drills