Key Swim Sessions Each Week

Based on a talk given at Giant / Blueseventy Event In London on 2nd Feb 2017

Video of talk can be found here.


Before getting into any specific sessions we should start with the fundamentals  – whatever level of swimmer you are, whatever you goals, THE most important aspect of any swim session is… Turning up! No matter how good the session is if you don’t turn up and swim they are no use. This means the coach/self-coached athletes’ priority is to make swimming enjoyable enough that you actually want to show up to the pool. This might mean arranging to swim with a friend, or even better join a squad. If using toys gets you swimming then use them. Put on the core shorts, the pull buoy, paddles, snorkel. No matter what the best swim coaches might be saying about the use of swim aids this season;  Swimming with these is better than not swimming.

Typically people swim better and work harder when training in a group. This means it’s probably better to swim in a group and compromise the specific session that might be have been set just for you, and do what the group is doing. Specificity is good, yes – but variety is also and keeping things fresh and interesting could be crucial.

Group or squad swims are  even better if there is a coach poolside. Technique improves over the long haul, with regular reminders  of the things you’re trying to address in your technique. Technical issues are  not typically resolved in an occasional one-to-one session, instead it’s those few second comment’s made a few times each session, several times each week for weeks and months and years.

so – swim regularly, keep the sessions interesting and enjoyable, swim in a coached session. These are great starters for making improvements in you swimming.

I still don’t want to discuss specific sessions, as there are some ground rules that you should apply to every session to get the most out of it.

  • Engage the coach. In a pool of 30 swimmers the coach will not be able to give feedback on everyone all the time. Also some coaches feel less able to repeatedly tell adults the same thing (which is normally what is required) in the way that they do when coaching children. So at the start of the session speak to the coach and let him know you’re keen for any feedback he can give you
  • Work. All sessions include some work. I don’t believe in “technique only” sessions as a regular feature of a training programme. At certain times of year this may be appropriate and then it is best done with a coach in attendance. I suspect at times it’s even used as an excuse for an easy session. Technique needs to be put under pressure so following some technique work do some harder swimming trying to practise what the technique has taught you.
  • Concentrate. When you are cycling and running for a lot of your training you can let you mind wander, put the world to rights or gossip with your pals, and you’ll still get good results. This is not the case with swimming. You need to be engaged and focussed, thinking about every stroke. This is the only way you will improve. I think about every stroke I make in the water. So at the start of each length have something in mind to focus on during that particular length. Have a fall back thing that you will focus on if your coach hasn’t highlighted anything specific. I have two I use –  “finger press at start of the catch” and “really shove the water to my feet”. This focus on what you are doing should mean you don’t lose count during a set!
  • Pace Clock. Learn to use the pace clock. Triathletes love spending their time pressing the buttons on Garmins and generally not focussing on swimming. If you have use for the data (normally it’s purely for posting on Strava) then wear the watch but just leave it be. Once you’re used to the pace clock it’s far quicker getting your splits from that and  it can help you count – e.g. 12 x 50 on 1:05 is just once round the clock. (see the bottom for explanation of splits) Secondly the pace clock can be a great tool to practise sighting. Depending on where the pace clock is you can take a look at it when it’s at the far end of the pool. So off the turn you take a look at it using “crocodile eyes” on your third stroke without breaking your stroke rhythm.  This also allows you to get your splits. With practise you’ll be able to get 100 splits on a 400 using only the pace clock.
  • Minimise dead time. This is particularly important where you have a fixed time in the pool (e.g. in a squad). Try and turn up on time and swim until you have to get out. If others are in the lane chatting just get on with it. An extra 100m each session in a week of three sessions adds up to 15k of swimming in the year. In 10 years of triathlon thats 150k of swimming. Just imagine what your swimming would be like right now if you’d already banked an extra 150k of swimming.
  • Count Strokes. Get into the habit of counting strokes (per length). Count strokes regularly. This is not specifically to endlessly try to reduce it. It’s much more important so you can spot when your stroke mechanics are deteriorating so it can prompt you to focus. You will develop a sense of what your stroke is and then as you tire can notice when it goes up. This is when you need to focus and get back on it maintaining stroke length. This is how you build muscular endurance.

So… now, finally on to some session specifics:

When designing swim session for triathletes, it’s important to remember the nature of the race we’re doing. In our case, the swim is at the start of a much longer event and is normally in open water – where you’re only sense of pace will be by perceived effort level. To this end we’re looking to build ‘sub max’ swim pace and a good sense of pacing. We’re also looking for efficiency so that we can swim the distance without expending too much energy. It’s also the only of our 3 race disciplines  where it’s realistic to swim race distance virtually every session. Doing this will help no-end with your race performance.

Here are three types of sets that I incorporate in to the sessions I give:


These are sets of repeats where you build the pace in subsequent efforts. It’s typical for even experienced swimmers to go too fast at the start. It’s a great way to get a feel for how easy you have to feel your going when you’re fresh to be swimming at the right pace. Examples of this sort of set are:

12 x 100 build each 3 – this means you do 100 easy / steady, then the 2nd one a bit faster and the 3rd one faster still. Repeat that cycle 4 times to get 12 reps.

Another example is:

4 x 25 build 1-4

4 x 50 build 1-4

4 x 100 build 1-4

This gives a nice progression from build pace over a single length which is typically easier to achieve and then increasing the distance. As your pace judgement improves you should be able to do a series of 400s with each getting a little faster.


These give you a great sense of the pace you plan to swim at. They are done with short rest – only 5-10s. The rest isn’t really for recovery (you shouldn’t need it for your race pace) but more so you can check your pacing. So say your target is 30 minutes for 1.5k (i.e. 2 mins per 100) here are a couple of sessions

15 x 100 on 2:10 holding 2:00 per 100.

A progression from this which puts you under a little more pressure is

15 x 100 done cycling through (2 on 2:10 and 1 on 2:05)

8 x 50 on 1:10 holding 1:00 per 50

4 x 100 on 2:10 holding 2:00 per 100

2 x 200 on 4:10 holding 4:00 per 100

400 aiming for 8 mins

This progression uses the shorter reps to get you dialled in to the pace and then you try and hit a final 400 at the pace.


I love these sessions as they build strength and muscular endurance which will translate in to efficiency. The idea is to do some fun harder intervals interspersed with paddle work. The paddle work is focussed on maintaining stroke length.

A couple of examples are [using 30 min 1.5k swimmer as an example of repeat times]:

3 x [ 4 x 100 build 1-4 on 2:15, 200 pull with paddles on 5:00]

3 x [4 x 50 FAST on 1:30, 400 pull with paddles on 9:00]

** Explanation of swim sets. 8 x 50 on 1:10 means that each 50 starts 1:10 after the previous one. So if you swim a 50 in 55s you will get 15s rest before starting the next one. If you take 1:05 you’ll only get 5s rest.

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