How To: Write a basic pool swimming set

Many swimmers are often confused about how to write a basic pool set. Many experienced but younger swimmers from a club background had become accustomed to having a coach always provide their sets, without ever needing to understand for themselves what the coach is trying to achieve or why a particular set is used on a particular day or even how a set is constructed, though they usually figure it out.

Other swimmers without a club background, (I was one of these), who get training sets from differing sources, often do so without a plan or requirement, or just pick ones that fall within a certain distance range.

One partial solution, and easy, is to seek out free sets online, from basic 0 to 1500 metre plans to longer and more advanced sets. When seeking out sets online or even from friends, you will know your own constraints. If you are training for your first open water mile race, then neither the training sets of a Channel aspirant nor a 100 metre sprinter will be of much use.

There are some simple parameters around coming up with a swimming set.

The first thing you need to decide is the time and/or the distance for the set. For many those two may be different. You may be aiming for a weekly total to build up fitness or strength through distance. You may be swimming during lunch break. You may be more interested in speed and technique improvements, or you may be trying to have bit of everything.

On the red top

Go on red top

At its most simple, it may be that you have one hour available or you want to swim 3000 metres, both of which are common sets for Master’s swimmers. What seems mysterious is quite straight-forward once you understand the basic design. Swim sets are often broken into three or four components:

  1. Warm Up
  2. Kick or technique set
  3. Main set
  4. Swim down

You can see from this that it really is very simple.

1. Warm up. When I was a racing cyclist I was able to seemingly go from cold to high heart rate with little warm up, which made time trials my favourite event. (Sigh, those days are past).  Warm up works well and is a requirement for all endurance sports. It is the simple process of gradually raising the heart rate to where it can support maximal effort. Warm up should start easy and increase in intensity toward the end. Note: Active stretching outside the water before starting is NOT advised for swimming and is not part of warm-up.

2. Kick or technique sets are the optional part of the set, especially for shorter sets such as an hour. But regardless of competence or time or distance, you should never completely abandon technique training. We often, especially open water and distance swimmers neglect kick sets. I’m certainly guilty of neglecting kick. But it’s also easy to neglect technique work as I discovered in 2012, which led to me having to rebuild my stroke last winter after visiting the Swim Smooth clinic. Warm-up and Technique/Kick, 1 and 2 can be combined so that you do technique or kick work as your warm up.  Sometimes this part is called the “pre-main” set and comprises the high intensity part of warm up.

3. Self explanatory, the main set is the most of the work in the set. Your main set will be longer if you are not using a “pre-main” or kick set. This the focus of the overall set. Some coaches and swimmers like to place the kick set after the main set.

4. Swim down, or warm down as it’s known in other sports, is usually short and should be easy, to allow the heart rate to drop. You shouldn’t be finishing your set heaving for breath, though an occasional time this happens to everyone and is fine.

Now we have a plan, and assuming an hour is allocated, we can put some times onto the parts: We can allocate 10 to 15 minutes for warm-up. Then another 10 minutes to 15 minutes for kick or technique. After that, we have 30 to 40 minutes for the main set depending on whether there is a pre-main set, and finally 5 minutes for swim down.

These rules are not absolute. A 3000 metres set of thirty by one hundred metres on a fixed time doesn’t adhere to the design, though the first five to ten repetitions may be used for warm up, and the last two or four for swim down.  Understanding a basic design helps you to come up with your own sets off the cuff.

In the next part of this we’ll look beyond a standard one-day set design to starting to put together a longer term plan and the complimentary variation in daily set design.


9 thoughts on “How To: Write a basic pool swimming set

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