One of the most challenging parts of being a self-coached swimmer is figuring out what to do in your workouts. Because most people don’t have a background in coaching and set design, they revert to the simplest thing they know how to do, that is steady, low-intensity swimming for a set amount of time, e.g., swimming for 20 minutes straight, or completing a set distance, e.g., swimming 20 laps of your neighborhood pool. Although all exercise is good exercise, using this method has two drawbacks: the first is that without a regular infusion of new stressors, your fitness level will quickly plateau. The second problem is that doing the same thing every session is just like eating the same meal every day for lunch. You can live off it, but it gets really boring after a while.
When exercise becomes a boring chore, you are less likely to continue. To maintain fitness and keep yourself mentally engaged with exercise, I advocate adding interval work to your exercise routine. Interval sets can be designed to improve sprint speed, endurance, or recovery.
Below, I will provide a definition of each of the terms and my favorite sets that I have written over my 30+ year career as a swim coach. Each set is designed to be swum using the freestyle stroke. In each case, I will provide intervals for beginner, intermediate, and advanced swimmers. You will likely have to adjust these to suit your needs. After you swim these sets a few times, modify them to make them perfect for you, considering your stroke preferences, limitations, and strengths as a swimmer.
My definition of a sprint set is one that requires you to swim as fast you possibly can for 25-100 yards (or meters). The shorter the distance, the more effort you should put in from the start. For example, if you swim 4 x 25 yards all out, you should be going as hard as you can from the very beginning and maintain that intensity throughout the 25 yards. By contrast, for a 100-yard sprint, you need to save a little for the finish. If you don’t, the last 30-40 yards will be a slow, exhausted grind. Remember, you want to maintain the highest intensity possible for the longest duration possible. Here is my favorite sprint set.
3 x 25 yards ALL OUT!
75 yards very easy recovery, maintaining good form throughout.
If you have access to a diving block and are comfortable diving, do the first 25 of each set from a dive start.
Do three to four rounds of this set.
Rest for at least two minutes after the 75, between each round.
The interval for the 25’s should not allow any more than 5 seconds of rest between each 25.
To improve aerobic endurance, we need to swim at, or just above, what is called our lactate threshold. In the simplest terms, when we exercise above this point, we begin to make more lactic acid than we can remove from the blood. You know this is happening because lactic acid makes your muscles burn and feel tight. You want to swim at an intensity that makes you feel like you could sustain it for about 30 minutes, but if you went any faster, you would tire within 5-10 minutes. It’s a subtle distinction that requires practice and the ability to listen to your body.
There are two basic approaches to writing sets that improve aerobic endurance and both work great. The first is to swim several repeats right at your lactate threshold. This is the classic 15 x 100 with about 5-10 seconds rest between each. The other method is to do a moderate-distance swim above lactate threshold followed immediately by recovery swimming just below threshold. This is my preferred method. I enjoy the alteration in speed between the different distances.
150 yards above threshold
3 x 50 yards recovery, just below threshold
Do 4-8 rounds of this set.
|3 x 50
If there is one weakness that I see most often in workout program design, by both self-coached athletes and professional coaches, it is a lack of time dedicated to active recovery. When you engage in any form of exercise, you are applying a physical stress to your body that is more than it experiences during every day living. With aerobic activities like swimming, your body’s ability to metabolize carbs and fats to make energy is stressed. After several weeks of doing these activities, your muscles respond by adding more mitochondria, the little furnaces that burn carbs and fats. But this adaptation doesn’t happen during the times when you are doing the highest-intensity work. It happens during recovery, when you decrease the intensity of exercise, the volume of exercise, or both. If you exercise 5-6 days per week you should add in at least one, and preferably two, days of active recovery. The point is to still do some exercise, but to focus on stroke technique by doing modified forms of swimming, like stroke drills, kicking with or without fins, or pulling with a buoy between your legs to keep them afloat.
6 x 300 swim/kick with fins, no kick board.
Split each 300 into six 50s alternating between 50 yards of swimming and 50 yards of kicking in a tight streamline position.
You should get between 20-40 seconds of rest between each 300.
This should be plenty to get you started. You can find many more sets like these arranged in three separate 12-week swim programs for beginner, intermediate, and advanced swimmers in my book, The Swim Prescription. Happy swimming!
ALEXANDER HUTCHISON, PH.D., is a fitness and wellness expert in Dallas, TX and the owner of The Athlete Company. The Senior Editor for the journal Advanced Biology, he has experience coachine swimming, water polo, triathlon, marathon, and most recently, strength and conditioning. After completing his master’s degree in Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, Alexander was named the head swimming coach at Austin College. He received his doctorate in Exercise Physiology and Immunology at the University of Houston. He reviews for several journals in exercise science, nutrition, and immunology, and is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. He is the author of Exercise Ain’t Enough: HIIT, Honey, and the Hadza and The Swim Prescription.