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How to Structure Your Own Swim Workout

By Alan Kipping-Ruane

swim workoutWhen you head to the pool for a swim workout, do you ever wonder what you should be doing? Many athletes tend to think they only need to jump in the pool, swim a certain distance, do some fast speed work and then hurry on with the rest of their day. This is not the best way to train, but not everyone can afford a personal coach to give them specific workouts to meet their goals and time demands. I have put together a great pre/during/post swim guideline below to help you make the most out of your workout.

Warming Up:
When you get to the pool deck and get situated (kickboard, water bottle and gear laid out), do a few quick arm rotations and dry land swimming drills. Even some elastic bands can help get your upper body prepped and ready for your swim workout. You wouldn’t think of going for a hard run without a warm-up and dynamic stretch, so why should swimming be any different? 

Personally, I like to do about 10 shoulder shrugs and some imitation swimming with my arms to warm-up my upper body. Then, to get my lower body geared up for the swim, I’ll do 10 knee bends and flex, stretch and loosen my ankles. Then I’m sufficiently warmed up and ready to swim. Your workout should start out with some type of in water warm-up that is easy. Some examples are:

  • 200 swim, 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 swim
  • 400-500 swim
  • 2-4 x 150 free / 50 no-free
  • 2-4 x 400s (150 free, 50 non-free - repeated twice)
  • 400 swim, 300 pull, 200 kick, 100 drill choice

Drilling It:
After you have done a thorough warm-up and ingested some fluids, it is time to move on quickly to a drill set to get your arms moving and heart rate up. A drill set will be a bit faster than your warm-up, but not as “hard” as your main set. The primary goal is to focus on good swim technique before fatigue sets in.

I like to give my athletes pretty standard drill sets by only changing up the number of repeats or distance in the set. The drill set rest/recovery period should be no longer than 15 seconds. Here are a few examples of a drill set:

  • 4-10 x 75s with 15 sec rest (kick, drill, swim by 25)  (could also be Pull, kick, swim or Drill Swim, Drill, etc.)
  • 3 x (100 pull, 50 swim)
  • 2 - 4 x 150s (25 drill, 50 swim)
Main Set:
After your drill set is complete, a quick one minute break is all you need to determine your main set, the goal of your workout. Your swim workout goal can be broken into three types: Speed/Sprinting/ Lactate Threshold sets, Technique/Strength sets and Distance/Endurance sets. 

Each workout should focus on one of these three goal types which will determine your main set; however the exception to the rule is when you might combine them. Below are some examples of how to structure your main set:

Speed Day:

  • 3 x (100 swim hard, 50 easy)
  • 10 x 100s @ lactate threshold effort
  • 2 x (5 x 100s fast @ descending effort, 100 easy)

Distance Day:

  • 4 x 300s @ moderate effort w/ :20seconds rest
  • 6 x 200s
  • Odds: max distance per stroke - focus on good technique
  • Evens: moderate effort
  • 4 x 400s

Technique/Strength Day:

  • 4 x (100 pull, 50 one arm drill, 250 pull)
  • 3 x (4 x 50s Band Training w/ 10 sec rest, 300 Pull w/ 15 sec rest, 50 easy) @ moderate effort
  • 2 x (4 x 100s w/ 15 sec rest breathing ever 3/4/5/6 by 25)
  • #1 - Pulling
  • #2 - Swim

Warming Down Isn’t Everything:
After completing your main set, perform a quick cool down to end your swim workout.  It’s easy to finish your main set and hop out of the pool to leave, but I would highly advise against this. A cool down can be short, no longer than 300 meters, and will help prevent injury to your body.

For my athletes, I generally advise a 100-300 meter warm down of straight easy freestyle with emphasis on good technique. To make for a really effective workout, once you’re done swimming, get out for a quick core workout. I tell my athletes to do this either right on the pool deck or right when they get home.

  • 3 x 30 sec of holding a plank position.
  • 3 x 20 sec of side plank
  • 2-3 sets of favorite core exercises  (Example: Pointers, Bicycle Crunches)

Finishing up
The workouts I’ve provided above should be used as a guide to help you learn more about how and what you should be doing at the pool. Staring at the black line can get boring, but if you take charge of your workout, getting bored or losing focus doesn’t have to be an excuse anymore. Now you know how to properly structure your swim workout. So stop doing 30 x 50 or 100 free repeats all day and make a new plan.

Alan is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and the owner of TriGuy Multisport Coaching. He is a former US Navy Rescue Swimmer, competitive swimmer, and uses his expertise in swimming and running to help athletes unlock their potential in and out of the water. In addition, he competes as an elite amateur triathlete and has been coaching swimming since the age of 17. To find out more information about how you can unlock your athletic potential, go to or follow him on Twitter @triguycoaching.