Swim Sets to Jump-start Your Season

Even top swimmers can benefit from technique work, so working out stroke inefficiencies is time well spent.

It's mid-winter. You've taken some time off after the end of the season and you're feeling rested, refreshed and ready to get in the water again.

The only problem is you feel slow and sloppy and far from having the smooth speed you had back in August. Here are several workouts to jump-start you toward those blazing swim splits.

Technique Primer

First to go after taking time away from the pool is your feel--your ability to be efficient and grab the water. Your efficiency goes down, your stroke count goes up, and suddenly it seems very difficult to hold a pace anywhere near what felt easy only a few weeks earlier. Now is the time to implement stroke drills to remind yourself what you need to focus on.

Warmup: 400 easy followed by a set of 4 x 50 on 10 seconds rest
Main set: Your main set will consist of two sets of 10 x 50 drills. Your drills will be a progression from single-arm free to catch-up as follows:
  • 2 x 50 single-arm free. Right arm down, left arm back. Keep your non-pulling arm in front of you in a streamline position, and breathe toward the pulling arm.
  • 2 x 50 single-arm free. As above, but this time, keep your non-pulling arm at your side.
  • 2 x 50 single-arm free. Keep your non-pulling arm at your side and breathe to the non-pulling side.
  • 2 x 50 catch-up drill. Your right hand does not pull until your left hand hits the water and vice versa.
  • 2 x 50 catch-up drill. Breathe to both sides.
Notes: Repeat this set once, and focus throughout on keeping your elbow high during the pull while using your hip rotation to help snap your arm through the pull phase. On the catch-up drill, focus on hip and shoulder rotation, with close to 180 degrees of rotation, from side to side, throughout each stroke cycle.

This isn't a difficult workout, and speed isn't a major concern. Rather, focus on perfect form and on trying to limit your stroke count.

Confidence Booster

A big part of swimming well is confidence. To many people, 1,500 meters is a long way to swim--and longer distances can seem impossible. A good early-season workout is to simply get used to swimming continuously for 30 or more minutes.

Begin with a brief warmup of 200 to 400 meters followed by light stretching. Then, swim easy for 30 minutes. In the beginning, take it very easy, and try to relax and swim comfortably while focusing on maintaining a good stroke. Don't worry too much about pacing or volume.

As you develop more endurance, you can add time to this swim, but I wouldn't suggest going more than 45 to 60 minutes at any one time. However, as your fitness develops you can introduce a T-30 into your main sets on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. This is a timed 30-minute swim for distance. You'll simply swim as far as you can in 30 minutes. This is a good fitness marker year-to-year or even throughout the season.

Endurance Builder

How many times have you been in a race where people take off at the beginning of the swim only to fade rapidly? In such instances, endurance is often lacking. To remedy this, you can include longer intervals in your training, or you can include the following two sets, which build endurance through shorter repeats.

Endurance set No. 1: Broken 1500

Warmup: 200 to 400 followed by 4 x 50 build on 10 seconds rest
Main set: 60 x 25 at race pace plus 10 seconds. For example, a 20-minute 1500 is 1:20 per 100, which equals 20 seconds per 25. So, do your 25s on 30 seconds. This will seem easy in the early stages but will catch up with you. To increase the challenge, perform the first 30 x 25 at race pace plus five seconds and the second 30 x 25 at race pace plus 10 seconds.

Endurance set No. 2: Descend 50s

Warmup: 200 to 400 followed by 4 x 50 build on 10 seconds rest
Main set:

  • 2 x 50 on 1:30
  • 2 x 50 on 1:25
  • 2 x 50 on 1:20
  • 2 x 50 on 1:15 ...
  • Continue to descend every two 50s by five seconds until you can no longer make the pace time. This is a great benchmark workout as you should be able to get deeper into it as your fitness improves. But it's also excellent for developing endurance. If 1:30 is too fast, you can begin wherever is comfortable. The first two to three sets should be very easy, and you should be able to get through six to eight sets of two, regardless of your starting point. Keep in mind that the last two to three 50s will be very hard and should offer little to no rest.

    By incorporating the above sessions into your training schedule, you should be able to jump-start your swim training and set yourself up for a successful season.


    Jimmy Archer is a pro triathlete, coach, and freelance writer. He has been a pro triathlete for eight years and a triathlete coach for Trismarter.com for three years. During his career Jimmy has raced at all distances and formats of triathlon, competing for the U.S.A. on four national teams and finishing top 10 at five XTERRA world championships. He can be reached at jimmy@trismarter.com.

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