Swim Workout 101

After swimming competitively for 10+ years I swam quite a few workouts.  My coach was really creative.  We rarely did the same exact workout twice.  A few people have asked me to write some workouts for them since most triathletes try to train for swimming like they do for running or cycling…continuous long workouts.  While swimming may be the bane of some triathlete’s existence, it doesn’t have to be as mundane as people make it out to be.

First, some clarification on a few things.  When swimming in a pool you need a few items…a suit that fits (no swim trunks or bikinis), goggles that don’t leak, a swim cap if you have longer hair, and a watch.  Most pools are 25 yards or 50 meters.  I call one length (25 yards) a lap.  Any workout I write will be for a 25 yd pool so you will have to adjust if you are in a 50 m pool.  4 laps make a 100 yd swim, 8 make 200 yds, 20 make  500 yds, etc.  A set is comprised of multiple distances at set intervals.  A workout is comprised of multiple sets.  Usually a workout consists of a warm up set, drill set and/or kick set, main set (can be multiple ones) , and cool down.

Below, I will explain each type of set and give basic examples.  Other posts will include full workouts, explanation of drills and types of sets.  The examples will be set up like this 3 x 100’s @ 1:30  This means swim a 100 yd in 1 minute 30 seconds three times through.  Another is 10 x 50’s @ 10 sec rest.  50 yd swim with 10 seconds rest after each one 10 times.

Warm up- This should be slower and something to warm your body up.  Some people like to do the same warm up everytime they swim while others like to change it up.  I prefer a short warm up and then get started with swimming hard but there are a lot of people whose bodies need to be properly warmed up for a longer period of time before raising their heart rates.


  • 400 yd easy swim
  • 8 x 50’s @ 10 sec rest
  • 2 x 100’s @ 10 sec rest, 2 x 200’s @ 10 sec rest
  • 6 x 100’s @ 15 sec rest (1-2 easy, 3-4 faster, 5-6 faster)

Drill set– Drills are exercises that we do in order to focus on one main part of your stroke.  These are usually done at a slower pace but require a lot of thought and effort.  There are hundreds of drills out there for the four swimming strokes.  It is best to have somebody physically show you a drill and then help you perfect it but I will do my best to describe them in a later post and will just use Drill #1, Drill #2, etc. until I post explanations.

Drills may seem like a waste of time if you have a “need for speed” but they will optimize your efficiency in the water when used properly.  Try to perfect one or two at a time and slowly include more in your workout routine.  Another idea is to focus on one or two parts of your stroke in a season.  Take an entire season to improve gliding through the water or elongating the stroke…use more drills that work towards that particular goal.


  • 600 swim (25 of Drill #1, 25 of Drill #2, 50 perfect stroke emphasis on goal of drills)
  • 10 x 50’s @ 10 sec rest (25 Drill #1, 25 perfect stroke)
  • Swim Golf set, 8 x 50’s @ 1:00 (Count strokes and time the 50 yds.  Every stroke and second = 1 point.  Add all your strokes and seconds together to get your score.  The goal of the set is to keep or lower your score by increasing the length of your pull, gliding, and maintaining speed.  Example- 30 strokes for a 50 yds in :45 seconds = Golf score 75 points)

Kick Set– Kicking is a main component in swimming.  Your legs are extremely powerful and can help maintain a good balance in the water.  Since I am gearing these posts towards triathletes I will obviously focus on the freestyle kick.  Since most swims in triathlons are considered distance swims in competitive swim the kick is not quite as important for propulsion.  I still feel triathletes should learn the proper way to kick and incorporate into their workouts so that your kick is working for you rather than against you by creating drag.


  • 10 x 100’s @ 15 sec rest (Odd 100’s are 25 swim, 50 kick fast, 25 swim, Even 100’s are 25 kick, 50 swim fast, 25 kick-you will need to drop your kickboard at the opposite end of the pool to swim)
  • 9 x 50’s @ 10 sec rest descend #1-3  (Descend means that #1 is easy, #2 is faster, #3 is even faster…so each 50 is gets harder and then #4 is easy, # 5 is faster, #6 is even faster and repeat until set is finished)
  • 10 x 25’s @ 5 sec rest all out power kick (Power kick is a type of kick where the hands are locked together and stretched out in front of the body at the surface.  The swimmer’s head is above water.  The feet should be furiously kicking at the surface of the water.  This is a very difficult but beneficial way to kick.

Main Set- These are my favorite sets because they are about speed, conditioning, and pushing yourself.  There should always be a goal with your main set.  Do you want to work on distance?  Do you want to challenge yourself aerobically?  Do you need to work on speed?  A main set can vary from 600 yards to 4,000 yards.  There can be one big main set in a workout or 3 smaller main sets.  Your swim workouts never have to be the same because there are endless possibilities and combinations.
My goal is to provide basic examples, explanations, and ideas.  I know I will not post workouts here every day or even every month.  Hopefully, through what I do post you can begin to design your own workouts, add variety to mine, or just use the ones I’ve posted and be satisfied with the variety I have provided.  Personally, I prefer old school workouts.  There are a handful of sets I love pushing myself on and will play around with the distance or intervals but I don’t get too creative.


  • 4 x 100’s descend #1-4 @ 10 sec rest descend  (see explanation on descend in the Kick Set section) and 1 x 400 @ 30 sec rest.  Repeat all 2 times.  Total = 1600 yds
  • 3 x 100’s @ 20 sec rest (get average pace), 3 x 100’s @ 15 sec rest (hold average pace), 3 x 100’s @ 10 sec rest (hold average pace).  Repeat 3 times through.  Total = 2700 yds
  • 8 x 200’s build@ 20 sec rest (Build means that each 200 yd starts out slow and then gradually gets faster until the last part is a sprint)

Cool Down– This is important to lower your heart rate and relax your muscles.  You will have to figure out if your body needs a longer or shorter cool down.  Don’t leave the pool unless you have done at minimum 200-300 yards of nice easy swimming.


  • 3 x 100’s easy @ 10 sec rest
  • 300 easy (25 freestyle, 25 backstroke)
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10 Responses to Swim Workout 101

  1. Pingback: Swim Workouts

  2. Than you so much for taking the time to write such detailed explanations. I am about to begin training for my first tri and I’m totally intimidated by the swim!

    I’m so glad to have found your blog!!!

    • Courtney says:

      You are in the same boat as most triathletes. Take it one practice at a time. Just remember, it’s your time to shine once you’re done with the swim and you can start catching up to people 🙂

      Let me know if there are any questions you have!

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  7. Kelly says:

    Thanks for sharing this post! I’m going to print it out. 🙂

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