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by Terry Heggy

March 9, 2020

How to prioritize your improvement efforts in swimming

When I was a kid (not long after the discovery of fire and well before the invention of goggles), the prevailing philosophy in swim training was summarized in two words: more yardage. Coaches used whips and cattle prods as motivational tools and sweetened their morning coffee with a heaping spoonful of brutality. Athletes were expected to be masochists, believing that suffering was the solitary source of success.

Fortunately, our sport has evolved. The relentless march of science has revealed that agony and suffering are only part of the swim success puzzle. You can throw out your old posters of the outdated swimming food pyramid with yardage as the base of all success.

We now know that reducing drag is far more important than increasing strength and that optimal swimming fitness is achieved through a balanced program that intelligently trains multiple performance systems.

It’s no longer a matter of cranking out mondo mileage to enhance our machismo score. Instead, we envision each stroke, drill, and workout set a building block we’ll ultimately assemble into a happy, complete, and optimized swimmer.

An Important Note

Although I’m discouraging an exclusively macho approach, I am not saying that hard work isn’t important or that your optimal performance won’t require significant time spent in the pain cave. What I am saying is that you’ll benefit most by getting your priorities straight. Don’t neglect the base of the pyramid, or you’ll wonder why weaker athletes have passed you by.

This article isn’t about specific motions or workouts, but about the way you think about training.


The bottom of the pyramid is the highest priority. You can be strong as an ox and focused as a chess master, but if your drag profile stinks, you’ll struggle mightily as some featherweight scatterbrain with a good streamline effortlessly glides by. Notice how each level relates to the others and ask yourself these questions as you ascend from the base (drag reduction) to the peak (propulsion to conditioning to focus).

Drag reduction

  • Are my streamlines off the wall as straight and narrow as possible? Am I deep enough to avoid the water’s surface tension until my breakout stroke?
  • Is my core engaged to keep my body aligned both vertically and horizontally during each phase of my stroke?
  • Am I keeping my head within the drag profile during the entire breathing motion?
  • Are my hands entering without pushing any water forward or distorting my body line?
  • Is my kick exclusively within my propulsion zone?
  • Am I sensing resistance that indicates I’m out of line? Am I immediately correcting my form to eliminate all possible drag?


  • Do my hands and forearms maximize my pulling surface area?
  • Is my kick properly engaging the water to create thrust?
  • Am I taking advantage of coupling motions such as rotation and hip drive?
  • Do I maintain acceleration (force applied to the water) throughout the entire length of the stroke?


  • Does everything I eat or drink contribute to a healthier and more powerful metabolism?
  • Do I counteract toxic behaviors (like sitting, or standing with poor posture) with frequent movements that revitalize my body and keep me limber?
  • Does my daily routine include strength and flexibility training?
  • Am I getting enough rest and recovery?
  • Do I listen to my Masters swim coach and do everything exactly as instructed?


  • Do I concentrate on drag reduction, propulsion, and conditioning when I swim?
  • Do I support my teammates to create an environment of enthusiasm for mutual achievement?
  • Am I working to eliminate stress and add joy for a healthy life balance?
  • Have I written down my goals and committed to the steps necessary to achieve them? (Note: You could print out this list of questions as a focus reminder.)

There are plenty of distractions to disrupt your focus, so it’s unrealistic to expect you to ask these questions on every stroke, turn, and dive (not to mention while you’re preparing pancakes or hiking on a mountainside). But the attention you give these topics will determine the habits that lead to your greatest performance.


  • Technique and Training