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Swim Workouts 101

Have you ever made the plan to go do a swim workout, only to get to the pool and not be 100% sure of where to start? Did you have questions like “how far should I go”, “should I just swim some laps” …and “is that enough of a workout”, or “should I do this workout listed on the whiteboard and what does it mean”?

Good news is, you’re not alone. As swim coaches, we get these questions often. Therefore, this piece is directed towards those of you who have taken an interest in swimming, have the gear and have been in the pool a few times, but might not know how to turn your enjoyment for swimming into a regular workout routine. This article is to help give you all some fundamental guidance on how to better prepare a workout of your own and how to interpret a swim workout plan on a whiteboard. This may also be helpful deciding whether or not an Adult Swim Training or Master’s Swim class might be in your future, and if you plan to make swimming a focal component in your overall training regimen.

Common questions:

Q. When you show up at the pool and there is all that shorthand on the white board, what does it mean, and how can the lay-person translate that into a guided workout?

This is a great question and one we get often! This is a big one, so we’ll take some time here. Let’s take a few examples of what you might see on a whiteboard and we can identify a few key, consistent terms and numbers you’ll see on most workouts (we’re not going to get too complicated here):

  • Identifying the “big” numbers like “25”, “50”, “75”, “100”, “150” etc. - these identify the number of yards/meters the distance you will be swimming. These do not mean how many laps you are doing (which is sometimes the assumption). Pool lengths at each pool are: LSAC - 25 yards (yds), WAC - 25 meters (m), LPAC/LVAC/EAC – 20 yds. So referring back to the aforementioned numbers, if you’re plan states you’re doing a set of “8x25”, it means you are swimming 8 single lengths of the pool (or 8x20 in the case of the other pool lengths).

Typically, next to these numbers you will see “:10”, “:20”, “:30” etc. These are identified as your Rest Interval in terms of seconds you are resting between sets.

  • Swim Stroke Identifiers:
    Free/Fr – Freestyle (front crawl)
    Back/BK – Backstroke
    Fly – Butterfly
    Breast/BR – Breaststroke
    IM – Individual Medley: to be performed in this order – Butterfly-Backstroke-Breaststroke-Freestyle
    RIMO – Reverse Individual Medley Order – Do everything above in reverse

Let’s create a few sets of swims you might see in a workout (or that you could create for yourself next time you do a swim workout) based on what we just identified:

  • 4 x 100 Free @ :20
    8 x 50 Free @ :10
    Translated – first series, you will be swimming 100 yds (4 lengths of the pool), 4 times and you will be resting 20 seconds between each 100 yds you swim. The second series is swimming 50 yds/m (2 lengths of the pool) 8 times with a 10 second rest in between each 50 yds/m you swim

Some other key symbols:
    • “K” – Kick (typically with a kickboard)
    • “Fins” – Use of fins are recommended in this set – these are the yellow flippers available in the nets in the pool area
    • “Pull” – Use of a buoy (the blue and white striped “figure 8” items in the pool area) is recommended for this set. These will go between your thighs to aid in buoyancy and to focus strictly on upper body work. Typically used in conjunction with hand paddles to add more of a strength component to the exercise.
    • “Build” – getting faster within the length identified – ex: 100 Build – started with a moderate speed in the first 25 yds/m and then try to go stronger/faster each subsequent 25 until you finish the 4th length
    • “Descend” – similar to above, but the idea is to decrease your TIME between each length – ex: 4x100 descend – if your first 100 yds is completed in 2 minutes (2:00), your second should be done in less time (i.e. 1 min, 55 secs – 1:55), third 100 in 1:50, final 100 in 1:45 – in theory. Therefore, your time descends each set.
    • “Choice” – your choice of stoke(s) to be swum within this segment
    • “WU/CD” – Warm Up / Cool Down

Swim workout crop
Example white board workout at the pool.

Q. When swimming, how do you know you are getting a good workout? Should you focus on breath control, heart rate, endurance or speed?

Another great question. This will very much depend on your skill level and how well; how comfortable you are breathing in your swim. If you feel you need improvement in your endurance, usually that means you either need to build more time in the pool and/or need to improve your breathing during your stroke. Many times, one’s endurance level depends on your breathing (or lack thereof) underwater. Once your endurance improves, then you can build on your workout – increasing intensity or your “RPE” – Rate of Perceived Exertion. Moderate efforts should be an RPE around 4-6, hard efforts around 6-7, sprints around 8+. This will be different for everyone, so find what feels right for you. Another good way to structure a workout is to alternate your exertion level. A steady state swim is ok sometimes, but if you want to build your endurance engine and improve strength in the water, give yourself a mix of moderate/strong efforts, easy swims with fast sprints, adding in harder strokes or changing your swim speed within a distance. Give yourself appropriate rest intervals as you build your endurance. You will see improvement as your rest intervals decrease between sets.

*Hot Tip – It’s perfectly ok to come to the pool and “just swim”. Swimming is great as an active recovery exercise because it does not negatively affect your joints and the wear and tear that sometimes happens from weightlifting, running, etc. Sometimes, you just need that Zen feeling while moving through the water.

Swimming

Q. As a beginner, where should I start and how should I build my workouts to progress my swimming capabilities?

It is ok to start with shorter distances and to manage your expectations on how long you will go out of the gate. Don’t feel you have to jump in and swim a mile right off the bat. The fact that you’ve made it to the pool and you’re moving is a fantastic start. Just do a few laps and see how you’re feeling. As you gain more confidence and endurance, the workouts will come. A good beginner workout could be just 20 mins of work, swimming around 900-1000 total yds/m. Give yourself time to work on your breathing, getting comfortable in the pool, and building your endurance.

Q. What are some good benchmark goals to work towards as a beginning swimmer?

Some great benchmarks to shoot for can be:

  • Showing up! The more you show up for a swim, the better you’ll get!
  • Being able to go farther, longer, with shorter rest intervals
  • Adding more variety into your workouts
  • Seeing your time decrease – in how long it takes to complete a certain length
  • Learning/Adding additional strokes to your workout (instead of just freestyle)

CAC_3for99Swim crop

Below is an example workout that would be a good challenge for a beginning swimmer

WU: 400 yds (you’re going to do a 400 yard warm up and that will be broken down as the following sets):

200 swim @ :30 (Swim 8 lengths of the pool continuous for a total of 200 yds/m and when you are finished, you will have a 30 second Rest Interval before you move onto the next exercise)

100 K @ :20 (You will kick with – or without – a kickboard for 4 lengths of the pool focusing on your flutter kick and you will have a 20 sec Rest Interval after before the next exercise)

200 pull (Finally, you will swim another 8 lengths of the pool continuous for another 200 yds/m but this time with a pull buoy between your legs, focusing on your swim stroke.)

*Hot Tip- kicking with a kickboard is hard and sometimes you don’t feel like you go very far very fast. This should help you better understand that on a stroke like freestyle, your propulsion comes from your pull in the water.

Main Set: 1200yds (Your main set will consist of 1200 yards/meters and it is broken down as the following):

4 x 100 Build @ :30 (You will swim 4 lengths of the pool without stopping, 4 times. Within this 100-yard swim, you will build up your speed every length of the pool. Start out nice and moderate, building to a faster pace each subsequent length of the pool. Your final length or 25 yds/m should be pretty strong/fast. You will have 30 secs rest between each 100 yards you swim)

50 easy (swim 2 lengths of the pool continuous with a light, smooth, easy stroke)

8 x 25 Sprint @ :15 (swim 1 length of the pool very hard, 8 times. You will have a Rest Interval of 15 secs between each length)

4 x 100 Build @ :30

50 easy

8 x 25 Sprint @ :15

CD: 100yds (cool down)

100 easy swim – choice (you will have a choice of which stroke(s) you would like to swim during this time. You could do all freestyle or mix it up with backstroke or breaststroke)

TOTAL – 1800 yards ~ 30-45 min workout

BRAIN MCCLELLANDBrian McClelland is Head Coach for CAC's Triathlon Club and a U.S. Masters Swimming Level 2 Coach.

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