Win a luxurious spa weekend courtesy of Arla LactoFREE
Swimming Events Guide 2024
Top Tips

Brighten up your swim training (by Dan Bullock)

Many open water swimmers complain how dull they find training. When you look at some of the training sets they do, it’s not surprising. Long straight swims lacking in originality, creativity and purpose are often the main offender. However, swim training can be made much more enjoyable, purposeful and effective. Here Dan Bullock, founder and head coach at SwimforTri shares his thoughts on how to do that with an in-depth look at some swim training methodologies.
Typically a swimming training session could be broken down as follows.
Preparation – Prior to entering the water perform some simple dry-land mobilizing exercises in an attempt to enter the water ‘warm.’
Warm-up – 15% (of total time), easy swimming to mobilize and encourage blood flow.
Subset –    20-25% used as an extension of the warm-up to build heart rate (HR) levels or to introduce some skills that need to be done while ‘neurally fresh.’
Mainset –   40-50% – a sustained period where HR is elevated. Ideally at least 30mins but could be longer depending on training goals.
Subset II – 10%, a secondary subset might be added to start a longer more technical warm down depending on the intensity of the main set or often sprints will be added if appropriate to the season.
Cool down 5 – 10%
Of course, these are just guidelines and you will come across sessions taking many different formats depending on the coach, training phase and time of the year. But let’s stick with this for now.

Warm up

Your warm up should start on land prior to entering the water with some easy mobilisation movements and mentally preparing yourself to train. Once in the water, it is literally a case of warming up the body ahead of intense activity. Usually it is an easy swim, predominantly FC or Backstroke with some drills thrown in. Avoid swim aids such as paddles and fins as these can overload unprepared muscles. Steer clear also of fly arms and breaststroke kick in the early parts of a warm-up due to the higher intensities they command.
Example warm up: 200m front crawl (FC), 150m drill (alternate 25m catch-up / 25m fists clenched), 100 backstroke, 50 breaststroke arms with FC legs. 


A subset is often swum as an extension of the warm-up to build HR levels so that when the necessary speeds and HRs of the main set are asked for they can be delivered immediately. Depending on the time of the year the subset could also be used to introduce any swim drills or technique elements that need to be done while ‘neurally fresh’. Drills done post mainset are often compromised due to the fatigue from the mainset.

Example subset: 8x25m FC, rest 10, streamlined submerged FC Kick to 10metres, surface and build to fast full stroke.

Main set

The main set is the part of the session that focuses on the aims of the long term swim training plan. Training sets can be designed in different ways to work on an improve speed, endurance and/or technique.

Interval Sessions

Interval training is a well-used and effective means of designing a training set that should be familiar to anyone with a swimming club background. The basic idea is to repeat a set distance in a time interval that encompasses both the swim and the rest period. Four key areas are adjustable to make a session more intense, productive and meaningful: interval distance, interval number, interval time and target time.
You might, for example, be working to build distance so in week 1 you attempt 4×200 metres (i.e. you swim 200m four times with rest after each 200m), building to week 4 where you attempt 4x300m.
Alternatively, you could keep the distance constant but aim to reduce the interval of the swim. For example, you get 2mins to swim 100m FC on week 1 before attempting another repeat. As your fitness improves you might attempt those same interval repeats on 1 min 50 seconds.
A third option is to keep the distance and time per interval constant but increase the number of repeats.
For example, you might start with 5x100m FC on your interval before reaching exhaustion and aim to build to 8 or 10 repeats over a number of weeks.
The final variable you can manipulate is your target time. For example, your coach might advise 8x100m FC with an interval of 2mins and a target of 1:45 meaning you get 15secs rest before starting again. After 4 repeats at this pace the effort might be too much and you slip to 1:50s. These are the benchmark times and efforts you should bear in mind and record in a training diary. These sets are ideal for gauging progress and teaching pacing skills. The aim with these sets is that, with a few weeks training hopefully you would improve and achieve the 8x100m FC with an interval of 2mins and hit the target time of 1:45 for each repeat. Once you can do that, you might increase the number of repeats to 12 or bring the interval down to 1:50 and attempt a new target of 1:40. The possibilities are endless.
Interval training covers many areas, can help you work on key skills and make training race specific.

Speed sessions

Training at high speed is often practiced with very short repeats (12.5metres) and lots of rest and differs from max effort training. Swimmers may try to swim faster then max speed through the use of long stretch cords pulling them through the water. However, this involves a lot of pool space and may be impractical in crowded masters swim sessions. Using fins to generate extra speed is a viable alternative.

Developing your top end speed might be useful in an open water situation if you want to surge ahead at a turn, drop an annoying drafter or sprint for the finish

Heart rate training

Instead of a time based target, you can base your training on heart rates if you are familiar with your HR zones. For example, you could swim an interval set of 8x100m FC with a HR target of 80% of your max and a rest period determined by the time taken for your HR to recover to 60% of max. Because checking HR while you swim is tricky, measure it at the end of each 100m to check you’ve hit 80%, and then monitor it until it falls to 60%. This style of training is highly individualised and would potentially cause issues if done in a lane with 4-5 swimmers all taking different rest periods.

If you don’t have a long swimming history, these types of intervals may make more sense than time based intervals. Until you are familiar with your swim abilities you might try this approach, especially if you are familiar with your HR zones from other sports (although they may be different in the water).

Negative and even split swims

You can choose to even split or negative split your intervals. For example, to work on ‘back end’ endurance (the ability to finish a race strongly) you could do a set of 400m swims and aim to ‘negative split’ each one. This basically means swimming the second half faster than the first. With practice, you should be able to gauge this precisely so you can swim at exactly the right effort to complete the second 200m say 10s or 15s faster than the first.

Even split swims are similar except you aim to swim each half of the swim in the same time. This generally requires an increase in effort and HR in the second half to offset increasing fatigue.
Practicing negative and even split swimming can really help you develop your pace awareness to ensure you don’t start your races too fast.

Mixing strokes

Medley training involves swimming all four strokes, usually in the same sequence as they are raced in competition: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and front crawl. The ability to swim all four stokes makes training infinitely more interesting and variable. But it’s not just the variety that makes swimming other strokes worthwhile. Open water swimmers naturally put a big focus on front crawl, and this can overload the shoulders through the constant repetition of the same movement. Mixing in other gives the shoulders a new range of motion and can help reduce the risk of injury. Backstroke works well as a recovery stroke to unwind (almost reverse) the front crawl action. Swimmers often notice overall fitness improvements when they incorporate other strokes into their regime due to the ‘cross training’ effect as you mix muscle groups. The different strokes will also need effort from different parts of the body. Finally, varying your swimming can help your ‘feel for the water’ as you channel water through new pathways.

Build swims

Build swims involve a gradual pace and effort increase throughout the duration of the assigned distance. You could either do this time based or on effort levels.

For example, try 6x 300m build FC. The first 100m of each set should be at 60%, the second at 70% and the 3rd at 80%. Your coach could also specify a time based build swim, i.e. you should improve by approximately 5secs per 100m for the duration of the 300m. Despite the differing effort levels between each part of the swim, rest is only taken after each 300m. A large wall-mounted pace clock can be a big help for these types of sets.
A change of pace in the pool is something that I have noticed many open water swimmers struggle with. For the more competitive swimmer this is an essential element of the swim.

Reducing sets (also known as descending)

A reducing or descending set would mean that each repeat should be faster than the previous one (i.e. the time decreases: effort therefore goes up). Targets could be assigned as either time based or effort based. For instance:

4x200m FC, reduce 1-4 from 60% to maximum. In this case the first 200m would be swum at 60% effort, the next at 75%, the third might be 85-90% and the last at maximum effort. Alternatively you can aim to swim each one in a specific time say 3:40 for the first 200m, 3:30 on the second, 3:20 on the third and then finish with your best effort.
A variety on this is the ‘get out swim’ (apparently a favourite of Mark Spitz). The idea is to set a tough, challenging time for the final interval. If you make it, you get out and go home early

Broken swims

In an effort to swim faster then your race pace you try a ‘broken swim’ where you attempt to beat your best time for a distance. This is made possible by breaking it into smaller sections with additional rest. This is different to interval training in that you take a fixed amount of rest at each break (as opposed to the combined swim and rest time of interval training).

A broken swim might work as follows: 3 x 200m broken with 5secs at each 50m, with you 400m pace as the target. If your best time for a pool based 400m was 6mins then your aim would be to beat this by swimming each 50m in just under 45secs. Between each 50m you would take your own 5 seconds rest, regardless of what anyone else in the lane is doing.
If you’re having a good day and this is too easy, make it harder by breaking only at 100m or 150m.
I like to see our swimmers perform these sets about 2 weeks out from major competitions to help fine tune ‘race speed.’ The sets would usually be longer then the example given and worked out for best 1500m or race distances.

Hypoxic training

Breath holding while swim training is often used to keep the head still during FC swims to improve technique. Unnecessary or excessive head movement during FC will increase resistance and drag, affecting your ability to remain streamlined. Various studies have shown that it does not produce the ‘high altitude’ training effects we once thought. Adopting a breathing pattern where you take a breath on alternate sides at challenging intervals (every 3rd, 5th or 7th stroke cycle) will help to keep the head still for longer instilling the sensation of a solid head position. Turning to breathe should be the only time your head moves. Approach this style of training with care, headaches can be an issue and diminished lung capacity in more mature swimmers will make this extremely demanding. Rather then recreate high altitude effects, reduced breathing training creates hypercapnia, more CO2.
Using this as a technique style of training I challenge swimmers to perform the last length of a set of 100m swims by taking just 3-6 breaths (ability dependent). I do not mind when they are taken and by handing over the ownership of this part of the set to the swimmer it brings the focus back to their technique. If the swimmer refocuses on streamline and distance per stroke, small efficient leg kick and a good catch the O2 requirement per stroke should come down and the breath limit is achievable.

Time/Distance based swims

A challenging alternative to swimming on an interval basis is to swim as far as you can in a given time. These tests are known as T20s or T30s where the number represents the number of minutes of swimming.

The traditional T20 is used to find out how far you can swim in 20mins. From this various swim speeds can be calculated and used to set repeat times for other training set. A variation we use is to break down the T20 into 4mins of kick, 6mins of pull and a final 10min swim for a brutal test of fitness.
Another variation of time based swimming we use is the challenging ‘Pyramid of Pain’. Swim 1min FC, 2min FC, 3min FC, 4min FC, 5min FC, (optional 6min). The coach should blow a whistle to signal the start and end of each time period. The rest interval is 60s during which swimmers should return to the nearest wall, ready to start the next swim. Attempt to swim further on the way down than on the way up.

Test set

A necessary part of recording and checking your progress is to test your self on a regular basis with a benchmark set. At an elite level parameters would be kept identical down to the smallest detail (i.e. same pool, same time of day, same temperature, same warm up). However, this is not always practical for masters swimmers. The test sets can take many forms but a common formulation is the 7x200m step test.

HR, stroke count, split times should all be checked and noted. Aim to swim the 200m even split. The first 200m is swum at 60 BPM below max HR and you descend the set to the last 200m being swum at max HR. From the results you can record max HR, best time for the 200m, swim velocity (average for 100m in secs), stroke rate (strokes per minute) and stroke count (strokes per 25m/50m).

This common test set is fairly scientific and at a novice to intermediate level some of the simpler methods can be adopted. These might include the so-called SWIM GOLF. Here you add your stroke count to time over 25 or 50m and combine the two for a score. Attempting to lower the score with inefficient speed will keep the score high. Attempting too much distance per stroke will lead to a slow time and also reduce the total score

Another test based on a 400m time trial followed by a 200m or 50m time trial can be used to estimate your Critical Swim Speed, a useful statistic to know when determining your target pace for interval sessions.

Swim down

All the above sets are challenging and so should be followed by a swim down or cool down to gently lower the HR, return breathing to normal and reduce the dilation of blood vessels. This requires an easy sustained swim of at least 3 minutes. A training session would always finish with a 200-400m swim down, perhaps longer depending on the intensity levels in the session.
With my swimmers I insist on some form of backstroke to unwind from long FC sessions. Double arm backstroke (possibly with a float between the legs) can be used as an alternative.

Challenge yourself

The language of swimming is complex but try not be deterred by it and enjoy your swimming by being a little more creative with your session planning. Good technique gets you so far and needs to be refined before moving onto more serious fitness swim sessions. There comes a time though when you need to work hard as well! Not to the extent your technique falls apart but you should be getting out fairly shattered after the appropriate sets are swum at the appropriate intensity at the appropriate time.

Top tips for training harder

  • Move up a lane within your club session and hang onto the faster swimmers. Your coach can give guidance on this but you need to make the effort. Be realistic of course.
  • Try to lead a few sets in your regular lane – with no draft this will be a harder swim for you.
  • If you are between lanes and really can’t move up but are keen to work harder add a drag suit.
  • Add paddles to your swims to help build resistance.
  • Stop pulling sets that are designated full stroke sets. (A triathletes favourite)
  • Work on correcting your leg kick, you will get faster. With our groups it was noted that the current ‘fastest swimmer’ in the pool was also the ‘fastest kicker.’
  • A pull buoy does not replicate putting on a wetsuit and you should not train with this in mind. Your balance and rotation will be altered when pulling. A wetsuit will not stop a bad leg kick creating drag, you just will not have to work so hard to keep a bad leg kick afloat!

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.