Masters clubs are diverse—your workouts can meet all your swimmers’ needs using these tips
When I first started coaching Masters, I was an assistant responsible for coaching workouts written by the head coach. It was nice to show up with workout in hand, put it on the board, and run practice. I didn’t really put any thought into the workout except for making sure I interpreted it as I coached and gave feedback to the swimmers. Several years later when I became the head coach, I was shocked to learn how long each workout took to write.
I wasn’t new to writing workouts, having been both a USA Swimming and a high school coach in the past. I could whip out a workout for one of those in less than 10 minutes. I knew my swimmers were at practice every day of the week, I knew what they had done each day, how they performed, whether we were going to have a hard workout or recovery workout, and what my end goal for the season was.
Masters Swimming is a whole different animal. Some people you see at every practice, and some come a few times a month. The youngest swimmer could be 18, the oldest in their 80s or 90s. You can have former college and high school swimmers, triathletes, and even people who are just learning how to swim. Some have season goals for Nationals times and Top 10s and some are just in the pool waiting for open water season to begin.
All of these things need to be taken into consideration when writing workouts for your group of swimmers. When the goal is to build your program and promote a lifelong commitment to swimming, you want the workout to support those goals and bring swimmers back to your workouts consistently.
As I developed my Masters workout writing skills, I learned what worked for my swimmers. I also discovered that it helps to follow some guidelines, which made my workouts much more likely to be successful for all the swimmers in the pool.
Time of Day
One of the first things I found was that the time of day you have practice makes a big impact on the focus of your swimmers.
Are your practices at 5 a.m.? Chances are that everyone in the pool is there before they either go to work or head off to do all the things on their list for the day. They want to maximize their time and get out of the pool quickly because they’re already thinking of what they have to do next. And it’s early—they might not be fully awake—so a number of simple sets may work better than a long, complicated set with something different every interval.
Quantity seems to matter to this group. Getting up for early morning practices takes discipline and these swimmers are committed. Sets with repeats in multiples of 10 or 20 mean that they can focus on the swim and intensity without a lot of stop and go. Distance sets work well with this group too. They know they can crank out 4 x 500 or even 4 x 1000 and then they’re on their way for the day.
The swimmers who come in for evening practice are likely to be both physically and mentally tired at the end of a long day. Many of them might not have been home since they left for work, or they had just a few minutes to stop by on their way to the pool. The last thing they want to do is keep track of a complicated set. It’s been a long day and they want to swim their workout, grab some food, and finish their day.
Another important consideration for this group is longer rest periods in between sets to provide a little extra recovery. Sets with repeats of 5 or 10 with a good amount of rest provide a mental break, which means you’ll get more out of them throughout the workout. Since they were already tired when they jumped in the water, longer distance swims can seem even more exhausting. By using repeats of short to middle distance, they know they can push until the rest stop at the wall.
Are you lucky enough to have pool space and enough participants for a late morning or midday practice? Although your swimmers may have things to do before or after practice, time constraints seem to be a little less for this group. These are often retirees, moms, or those with flexible work schedules. They’re also the social swimmers and the ones most likely to enjoy any experimentation with crazy workouts. If you’re changing things up between every repeat, that means they have time to chat as well. Long distances, short distances, toys—they’re often ready for anything. Keeping them moving is the hardest part of coaching this group. Keep rest intervals low knowing that they’ll drag the rest out between each set. Be prepared for practice to run late for this group!
After hearing at many meets that my swimmers were skipping a good meet warm-up, I started making them think a little more about what they’re swimming and how long they warm up.
We do a warm-up set of 10 x 100 on a regular basis so that everyone has a better understanding of how their body gets ready to swim. If you have some age group swimmers try this set, they may be ready to swim pace repeats after three and swim fast after six of the 100s. We found that to not be the case with the majority of Masters swimmers. Most took four to eight 100s to be able to hold their consistent pace time and could not even get close to fast or race speeds within the set.
As you age and your metabolism slows, it takes longer to get cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems ready for fast swimming. If you don’t have time for a warm-up of 1200-1500 yards, try doing a warm-up swim of a couple hundred yards and then a couple of pre-sets. Your swimmers will be more successful with their main set if your warm-up prepares them properly.
Swimmers at the end of the day deserve special consideration for warm-up. Shoulders droop, posture is hunched, and leg muscles are tight. Leg cramps, especially when using fins, seem to be a larger problem for evening swimmers. Make sure your warm-up gives plenty of time for water breaks, includes drills to loosen stiff muscles, and warms up the legs a little slower to prevent cramping.
Injuries and Impairments
Chances are pretty good that in every practice, one or more of your Masters swimmers has an injury or impairment you need to accommodate. If you have breaststroke planned for your main set today and someone with a knee injury or impairment who cannot kick, do you have an option available? It helps to look over, plan, and write it as part of the workout in advance of practice.
If you’re running multiple lanes and have multiple injuries, it takes a lot of time away from coaching trying to figure out how to change things up in the middle of practice. By giving those swimmers alternatives as you present or write the set, you can help with their feeling of inclusion and of success. It also helps keep lanes and the workout moving throughout practice.
We should all be so lucky to have a group in which everyone is training for the same thing: an open water swim, big meet at the end of the season, etc. But most practice groups seem to be a mixed bag with swimmers who can swim all strokes to triathletes who only want to swim freestyle. And what about the first timer who learned how to swim strokes 30 years ago?
When you write your workouts and plan your week or season, do you accommodate for all types of swimmers? Trying to convince a triathlete to swim repeats of IM can be next to impossible sometimes. But if your goal is to swim an IM practice, how do you write a workout for that? Again, knowing your accommodations in advance can help things moving smoothly on deck.
For example, if you want to assign 10 x 100 IM, what about planning to have the triathletes swim the even numbers fast freestyle and the odd numbers recovery IM? The rookies that can’t yet handle all four strokes may drill on some lengths or repeats. It’s much easier to coach and give feedback on deck when everyone in the pool is working on the same interval, even if they’re swimming different strokes.
At times in the season, you may have to separate into different groups. If you have swimmers preparing for Nationals and triathletes getting ready for the first race of the season, sometimes it is easier to have two workouts prepared and divide your pool or practice times into different workouts.
As a coach, you know that swimming all four strokes is best not only for injury prevention but also to improve the other strokes as well. Giving the right amount of freestyle to those who need it and including alternate strokes keeps everyone happy.
If you’re going to do a freestyle set for your triathletes, but your pool swimmers want to get some other strokes in, mix and match within the set. For example, 5 x 100 freestyle can easily become 25 fly/75 free, 25 free/25 back/50 free, 50 free/25 breast/25 free, 100 free, 100 IM. Organize the lanes by speed and, again, you’ve got the whole group swimming together and working on the things that are important to them.
Cool-down is important for every practice. Going from a long horizontal workout to standing vertical on deck can lead to dizziness and even fainting. Even if it’s a couple of laps, swimming slowly to give the heart rate time to drop is always a good idea at the end of practice.
If we’re short on time one of my favorites that I can usually get everyone—even those short on time—to complete is 4 x 25. Count your strokes on the first one and drop a stroke each time. The focus is on technique and good swimming, along with bringing the heart rate back down. Another alternative is to make your last set of the day an ascending set. Often the swimmers don’t realize that by the last repeat they’re done with cool-down and ready to get out of the pool.
Know Your Swimmers
Every club, every day, every season, and every group of swimmers are different. One of my mentor coaches gave me really good advice when I started writing workouts. She told me that when I pull from my database of workouts for one of my favorites, it may not work exactly the same this year as it did last year. Our training focus may be different, and it’s likely the composition of the group will be different as well. Knowing your group of swimmers, what will work best for them, and being able to adapt the workouts for each practice makes it a lot easier to write great workouts for all of your swimmers.
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