Swimming Workouts 101

You might have a friend who has some swimming experience, or you might be trying out a new swimming group. But as triathletes, many of us do not have swim backgrounds, and the workouts look like some foreign language. 3×100 on 1:30? 4×50 descending? This is a quick primer on language commonly used to present swim workouts.

But before we even get into the details of the workout that was in the book, or on the board, let’s look at some terminology:

  • A length: crossing the pool a single time. You end up on the opposite edge from where you started.
  • A lap: crossing the pool twice, returning to the side where you started.

However, understanding “length” and “lap” doesn’t help us with the distance we are going as we swim. To determine the distance you are swimming, you need to know the length of the lane you are swimming in, measured from where you start to the opposite wall of the pool. In Redlands, these are some of the sizes of the main pools available to us:

  • Redlands YMCA: Currently has a 20 yard lap pool. The pool coming summer 2012 will be 25 yards.
  • Drayson Center: 25 yards in the lap areas.
  • University of Redlands: 25 yards in the main pool area. 20 yards in the shallower entrance part of the pool.
  • Crafton College: Olympic size pool, so 25 yards if the short direction is used, 50 meters if using the long direction.
  • LA Fitness or 24 Hour Fitness (most in the area): 25 yard pool

Some additional pool size details: Olympic pools are 25 yards by 50 meters. If in an Olympic pool and the lanes are set up going the short direction, it is 25 yards per length (50 yards per lap) — this distance is often referred to as “short course” (even if not in an Olympic pool). If instead the Olympic pool is set up with the lanes going the long direction, it is 50 meters per length (100 meters per lap) — this distance is often referred to as “long course” (even if not in an Olympic pool).

Knowing the size of the pool, we can figure out how to swim 100 yards (or meters). In a 25 yard pool, each length is 25 yards, and each lap 50 yards, so 2 laps is a 100 yard swim. That means you would swim down the lane and back twice to swim 100 yards.

If you are at the Redlands YMCA pool, or another 20 yard pool, a 100 will be 5 lengths of the pool, or 2.5 laps.

Now that we know how far our pool is, let’s look at the distances often presented in a swim workout. These will almost always be multiples of 25 since most pools are either 25 yards or 50 meters. So when a workout says to swim a 25, a 50, a 100, or even a 500, the workout is referring to a distance. If you are in a pool that is measured in yards, read it as 25, or 50, or 100, or 500 yards. If you are in a pool that is measured in meters, read it as 25, or 50, or 100, or 500 meters.

In swim workouts, use either yards or meters for the sets given based on the measurement of the pool you are in. The difference between the two is minimal, and using round numbers that fit in your pool will make the sets easier to follow. In this article I will use yards, but if you are at the Crafton pool and it is set up long course, you will be swimming meters.

If you are at the Redlands YMCA pool, or another 20 yard pool, you will want to use 20 or 30 yards when a workout calls for 25, and 40 or 60 yards when the workout calls for a 50. When you swim a 100, it will be 5 lengths of the pool, or 2.5 laps.

Now we are ready to jump in, so to speak, and understand the pieces that makeup a swim workout. Some examples of what a workout might list, along with a translation, are listed below:

200 wu wu = warmup, so swim 200 yards to warm up. Start out nice and easy, and mix in some backstroke if doing so helps you warm up.
200 cd cd = cooldown, so swim 200 yards to cool down. A relaxed pace, and mix in some backstroke if doing so helps you stretch a bit. Many triathlete sets are almost all freestyle, so the backstroke helps stretch out the chest and shoulders.
4 x 100 Swim 100, and do so 4 times
4 x 100 on 2:00 Swim 100, and do so 4 times. For each 100, you get 2 minutes. That means if it only takes you 1:45 to swim the 100, you will have 15 seconds of rest before you start again.
4 x 100 in 2:00 Swim 100, and do so 4 times. For each 100, you get 2 minutes. That means if it only takes you 1:45 to swim the 100, you will have 15 seconds of rest before you start again.
50 drill Swim 50 yards, and during them, instead of using a normal swim stroke, work on a drill to focus on a particular part of your stroke.
4 x 100 descending on 2:00 Swim 100, and do so 4 times. You will have 2 minutes for each 100, but the goal is to swim it faster each time. For example, if the first 100 you swim 1 minute and 55 seconds (1:55), you then have 5 seconds of rest. On the next 100, swim 1:52 and have 8 seconds of rest. Swim the third 100 in 1:50 and have 10 seconds of rest. And the fourth and final 100 should be in 1:48.
9 x 50 descending 1 -> 3 Swim 50, and do so 9 times. For the first three, you will do each one a bit faster. Then you will reset, and do the same within each set of the 3. Sometimes I think of this as easy, medium, fast when it is three. The first 50 is a “normal” effort. The next is a bit harder, and then the third is a strong one. Repeat this three times.
3 x 100 build Swim 100, and do so 3 times. Within each of the 100, you will build into a stronger and stronger pace. So you push off the wall, and start out at your normal swim pace. Gradually throughout the 100 you increase your effort so that by the final 25 you are swimming much stronger than when you started.

In the table above, some new terms were used. Let’s just define those again, with a bit more detail:

  • Drill: Instead of using a regular swim stroke, work on a drill that focuses on a particular stroke weakness. Some examples include catch-up, fist swim, and swimming wide. The best way to know what drill to work on is by having a coach watch you swim and then give a recommendation based on your particular stroke. At our swim clinics, Mike or other coaches provide drill suggestions to address your individual stroke.
  • Descending: each repeat will be done faster than the one before it. You swim a constant pace within the repeat, increasing your speed/effort level on successive repeats.
  • Build: within each repeat you increase your speed/effort level. Your pace is changing during a single repeat, and resetting at the start of the next repeat.

These sets bring us to a tough part of swimming: counting and keeping track, both of time and of distance. Some suggestions on keeping track of time include the following:

  • Wear a stop watch, and press the button as you do your laps. Be careful of adjusting your stroke to facilitate hitting the button, or spending time looking at your wrist as this will change your position in the water.
  • Learn to use a pace clock. These are especially useful when analog (and there are hands showing seconds). You can use the placement of the seconds hand to help you keep track. For example, if you are swimming 4 x 100 on 2:05, start when the second hand is at the top of the clock, and swim 100. You will need to start again when the seconds hand is on the 5 (since that will be 2:05 since you last started). For your 3rd 100, you will leave when the second hand is on the 10. And for the 4th and final 100, you will leave when the second hand is on the 15. The tricky part of this is when you are swimming repeats on 2:00, as that doesn’t give the same counting help. And at 1:30 again, it is tough since you only get to know if you are on an odd or an even numbered lap (based on if the seconds hand is at the top or bottom of the clock).

To keep track of distance, there are again a couple of approaches:

  • Know the distance on each piece of your swim workout, but don’t worry about the total. For example, if you are doing 4 x 100, don’t try to count to 400, but instead focus on counting each 100, and doing so 4 times.
  • Use the clock: if you know it takes you 2 minutes to swim a 100, and you have been swimming for 3 minutes, you are at 150 yards.

As you start swimming, don’t worry about the details of building and descending. Your first goal is to get comfortable doing a complete length, then a complete lap, and then a 100. Once you are comfortable with that, then mix in some sets of 25s, 50s, and 100s. From there you can then add more distances. Once you are really comfortable swimming, then it is time to start really working on different paces and effort levels (for example, by incorporating sets with building and descending). Of course, through out, you will be working drills to improve your stroke, and building your endurance. And of course, remember to have fun in the water! Swimming is just another playground for triathletes to explore their fitness and ability.

5 thoughts on “Swimming Workouts 101

  1. Pingback: Swim Clinic Details | Redlands Tri Club

  2. I’M FROM ARGENTINA, I’LL BE IN REDLANDS UNTIL 15TH OF OCTOBER, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHRE I COULD RENT A MOUNTAIN BIKE, I USUALLY RUN 5 OR 6 MILES IN AN HOUR, RIDE A BIKE AROUND 15 MILES OR SWIMM AN HOUR, 1 OF THIS ACTIVITIES PER DAY. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THERE IS A GROUP WHERE I CAN GO TO SHARE ANY OF THIS ACTIVITIES. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. KARINA

    • Hi Karina! I’m not sure what local bike shops rent bikes, but you could try Redlands Cyclery and they might know.

      We have a group run on Wednesday evenings at 6:30, as well as some training that people in the group have organized for the swim this weekend. You could check out the forum on here to see what is going on. Welcome to the area 🙂

  3. I have an older GT mountain bike with full suspension that you could borrow. I live in Loma Linda near Hulda Crooks park.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


− 4 = one