How to Structure your own Swim Workout

Want to know how to improve your swimming? Just swimming more won't do it. Most triathletes don't have perfect swim technique or swim form so you need to work hard on drills and goals to improve your efficiency in the water before you can get faster. Here's all the help you need to know exactly what you should be doing in the pool to become a better swimmer.

Intro to Swim Workouts

The typical plan for an effective swim workout for any level of swimmer is to begin with a warm-up, followed by a mainset of intervals and repeats, followed by drills and then a cool down. Some workouts will use swim aids (such as pull-buoy, paddles, kickboard, or fins) to perform drills to focus on specific areas. A workout is usually written up in a table, noting the number of laps per set and the time for rest in between sets, totalling the distance for the entire workout including the warm-up and cool-down. For workouts focussing on freestyle, the cool-down should include other strokes such as backstroke and breastroke to aid recovery by using other muscle groups.

You can easily build your own workout by following a structure that includes these blocks. Workouts with structure ensure you improve and minimise boredom. You'll be surprised how much easier a session can be if you're focussing on achieving small sets. Better still, swim with a friend or two!

Workout Terminology

  • WU - Warm up
  • WD - Warm down
  • Set - a set is a series of laps done in a particular combination. Often a workout will include a number of sets repeated with a rest in between each set.
  • RIB - stands for Rest in Between (indicating the time to rest between sets).
  • On - refers to the time between repeats ie. "6x50m on 1 minutes", means 6 repeat intervals of 1 minute per 50m. Rest is not indicated therefore allowing for individual variances in speed and rest in between sets. The faster you swim the intervals the more rest and vice versa.
  • Kick - use a kickboard or pull-buoy stretched out in front of you whilst kicking
  • Pull - use the pull-bouy between the legs but do not kick
  • Fin - use fins (flippers) to perform the set
  • Paddle - use the hand-paddles to perform the set
  • Swim - perform the set without aids, freestyle stroke unless otherwise indicated
  • SKPS - a set combining Swim, Kick, Pull, Swim laps in that order
  • Tarzan Drill - swimming with head up looking forward. A drill for triathletes to practise sighting
  • 3/5/7 - the number of strokes between breathing often done in a 3/5 or 3/5/7 set. ie. take 3 strokes and breathe, then 5 strokes then breathe, then 7 strokes and breathe. Also referred to as Hypoxic Breathing Drills.
  • IM - a type of set, stands for Individual Medley which is a set done using freestyle, backstroke, backstroke and butterfly. Butterfly can be substituted for any other stroke.
  • Ladder - this describes a combination of sets done by increasing or decreasing increments of distance. eg. 5x100m, 4x100m, 3x100m or 2x25m, 2x50m, 2x100m, 2x200m etc.
  • Pyramid - similar to Ladder however with ramp up to peak in middle and ramp down. eg. 4x50m, 2x100m, 1x200m, 2x100m, 4x50m.
  • Straight/Broken - Straight is a distance swim without stopping (eg. 500m). Broken is a distance divided into shorter swims by using rest in between (eg. 5x100m, 20sec RIB). Some sets alternate straight/broken eg. 500m straight, 6x50m (20sec RIB), 200m straight, 4x50m (20 sec RIB), 100m straight, 2x25m (10 sec RIB), 100m straight.

Some other drills you might want to try are listed in our "How to be a Better Swimmer Article".

5 Sample Workouts

Here's some sample workouts to give you some idea of how easy it is to make up your own workout. It's a good idea to put together a series of workouts of varying length and focus. Type them up on a piece of A4 paper using a large, clear font and laminate the sheets to keep them waterproof. Pick one workout before you leave home so you stay focussed and keep the sheet at the end of your lane so you can stay on track.

Workout 1: 1200m

WU - 200m swim, Rest 60 sec,
Main Set - 2x400m Ladder (2x50m Rest 30, 3x100 Rest 30)x2
WD - 200m IM

Workout 2: 1500m

WU - 100m swim, 400m SKPS
Main Set - 250m swim, 250m fin, 250m pull, 3x50m sprint (on 1 minute).
WD - 100m IM

Workout 3: 2000m

WU - 200m swim,
Main Set - 5x100 swim (45sec RIB) and last 25m of each lap Tarzan Drill, 10x50m pull (30 sec RIB)
WD - 200m swim

Workout 4: 2500m

WU - 400m swim
Main Set - 5x100m (20sec RIB), 200m pull, 5x100m fin (20 sec RIB), 200m pull, 5x100m swim
WD - 100m Kick, 100m IM

Workout 5: 3000m

WU - 300m pull, 400m fin, 300m swim
Main Set - Hypoxic Breathing Drills: 6x50 (30 sec RIB) with 3/5 breathing by 25m; Pyramid 100's (2x100, 3x100, 4x100, 3x100, 2x100).
WD - 100m kick, 200m IM

This list of workouts is far from exhaustive and doesn't include all of the available drills mentioned in this article. For other workout ideas and tips also read our "How to be a Better Swimmer Article". The idea is to mix it up a bit. Make it interesting, make it effective but most of all - do it often.

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Created: February 2011
Revised: November 2012
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