Developing Swim Workouts

Developing Swim Workouts with Heather Lendway

heather detroit swim

We asked Heather Lendway (Overall Age Group National and World Champion Triathlete) to help us non-swimmers understand the basic ‘rules’ when it comes to swimming.  We know that it is not most beneficial to simply jump in the pool and swim for 30 minutes straight.  But if you don’t know what else to do it is hard not to do that.  After all it works for running, why not do the same for swimming. 
If we are going to try to train like a swimmer we need to understand how fast we should be swimming, how long to rest, and what distances to be swimming.  What she wrote is what she would tell a person who she has no information on.  It may not be perfect for everyone but this is a great starting point for someone who wants to look forward to the swim leg of the triathlon instead of dreading the swim leg.
Heather acknowledges that you can use your pace from a recent triathlon as a base line for threshold pace in the pool but suggests you do the following:
-After a solid warm up consisting of at least 500 yards, swim a straight 300 yd. time trial as fast as possible.  Divide your total time by 3.  This is your threshold pace per 100yd. 
-Swim 3+ times per week making certain that each week you have at least one session each week of each of the following: Quality session (speed/threshold), Endurance session, and Technique session.
-Base your threshold workouts on a work to rest ratio of 4:1 or 5:1.  For instance, if you swam your 300yd TT in 5:15 then your threshold pace is 1:45 per 100.  If you are swimming a set of 100’s your goal time is 1:45 with your push off time being 2:15.  Meaning you will have 30 seconds rest between each rep of the given set.
-For 50yd repeats you will have a 50 second goal time with a push off at 1:15 to 1:30.  This would have you swimming faster than threshold but giving more rest.  Swimming this effort would be a work to rest ratio of 2:1 or even 1:1.
-A starting point for endurance sessions may include sets of 400 yds. (Or longer) for each repeat.  When swimming an endurance set like this you want to be certain to descend the 400’s.  Meaning that if you are swimming 4 X 400 the first 400 is your slowest and your last 400 is your fastest. (follow link below for more ideas on endurance sets)
-During the endurance sessions your rest should be 20-30 seconds between repeats. 
-Technique sessions will be compiled with mostly drills which are designed to help you learn the intricacies of the stroke and learn the feel of the water.  There are numerous stroke and kick drills to choose from.
Read below to get more details about the process of designing swim workouts as well as some sample workouts.  Adjust the times to fit your fitness and skill.  Remember that swimming is a technique heavy sport which requires time to master.  With consistency and guidance you will see great improvements in your swim times and soon enough you will be looking for races with disproportionately long swim legs.



Heather — Depending on the distance triathlon you’re preparing for I would recommend spending at least three days a week at the pool if you want to see improvement in your times (anything less would likely just maintain your current speed).  One session should concentrate on longer distance sets to help build your aerobic capacity.  Another session should be more quality and speed work; swimming sets at and above your endurance threshold.  The third session should have more focus on technique including stroke work and drills.  If you’re training for an Ironman distance race you may want to get in four or five swim workout each week.   That said, no matter what distance you’re training for, you’ll achieve maximum improvement swimming 4-5 times a week, but anything more would greatly increase your injury risk.   If you can get a couple extra swim workouts in I would add a quality workout then a distance workout.

Every workout should begin with warm-up swum at a comfortable pace.  I recommend including drills, kicking and non-free in your warm-up to make sure all your different muscle groups are activated.  I would also include some 50’s or 25’s build or fast to get your heart rate up in preparation for the work ahead.  A sample warm-up would be: 100 swim, 100 kick, 100 IM, 100 drill, 100 swim, taking 10-20 seconds rest between each.  Follow this up with 4×50 build to 85% with about 20 seconds rest.

Moving on to the main set, if you’re looking to build a distance workout it’s easy to create different sets of ladders, descending sets or “locos”.  Many of my distance workouts will also include negative split sets (the second half of the swim faster than the first half) or broken miles.  Distance workouts usually will be 3-4K in length, with a main set of 2-2.5K including sets where the distance is 400 or greater.  Pending how much time you have you can use variations of the sets mentioned above to make a complete workout (see below for samples).

Main sets for a quality day typically will be made up of 50’s and 100’s either with short rest trying to maintain your threshold pace or longer rest max effort pace.  (See guidelines below for assistance figuring out your threshold pace).  Start with 4-5 100’s trying to hold your threshold pace throughout, the work to rest ratio should be around 4:1 or 5:1.  So, if my threshold pace is 1:15 I would go on an interval of 1:30.  As you get more comfortable holding your threshold pace, work up to doing 10x100s.  If you’re looking to get faster, slowly work to maintain a faster pace on these 100’s, one second at a time.  If you get significantly faster make sure to drop your interval to maintain the work to rest ratio.  That said, the key is to hold a consistent pace throughout the set, if your times drop off towards the end of the set your threshold time may be a little too fast.  To change it up you can do similar sets with 50’s or a set of 100’s followed by a set of 50’s.

On a quality day you should also throw in some max effort speed work, in this case the work to rest ratio should be close to 1:1.  For example, if I sprint 50’s in 31 seconds and 100’s in 1:03s, my interval should be 1:00 and 2:00 respectively.  I typically like to throw in 5-10 50’s and/or 2-5 100’s like this on a quality day, on occasion I’ll use fins to get an even faster feel for the water. If speed work is not currently in your routine, fast 25’s are a good place to start! A solid quality day would be about 1.5-2.5K in distance (see sample sets below).

Lastly, on a technique day, I would recommend incorporating drills and stroke work into longer sets or repeats, mixing in a little speed, non-free and kicking.   For the drills and stroke work concentrate on drills that help to mimic the adjustments you need to make with your stroke.   During the swim portions try to think about your technique for the first 25 or 50, you don’t have to think about it throughout the entire workout, eventually it will become second nature.  Intervals should be fairly comfortable throughout the workout, the purpose is to improve your stroke.  These workouts could range anywhere from 2-4K depending how much filler you add (see sample sets below).  Technique day is also a great day to incorporate some longer kick sets, see some samples below.

After the hard work is done I always include a bit of cool down, usually at least 200 or until I feel I’ve stretched out enough.

Estimating your threshold pace:

You can estimate your threshold pace in a few ways.  The first way would be to base it off your pace from a recent race.  That said if you’re much faster in a wetsuit than the pool that likely isn’t the best way to measure.  Instead head to the pool, do about an 800 warm-up; including some build 50’s.  When you feel ready swim a 300 max effort, divide your time by three to get your estimated threshold pace.

Workout Samples:




Ladder: 100-200-300-400-300-200-100, you can substitute any distances here and even increase by 50 or 25 instead of 100.  You want an average of 10-15 seconds rest per 100, so the shorter distances will be harder.

Descending: 4×400 descend, you should get about 30 seconds rest after the first 400 and more rest as you get faster.  This is a great way to push yourself past your threshold pace.  Change up your descending sets to be 3-5 repeats for distances of 300-500.

Locos: Alternating fast and easy lengths non-stop swimming, 1-1-2-2-3-3-4-4-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-1, totaling 1000.  Make different sets by adding 5-5 or removing a set of 4’s depending on your needs. This is great practice for maintaining your speed over longer distances.

Negative Split: 500 Negative split, swim first 250 at a moderate pace, do an open turn at the 250 to check your time and go faster on the second half. You could do this with any distance 200+.

Broken Mile: 11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, lengths of the pool with 15 seconds rest between each.  Numbers 11-9 swim at a moderate pace, numbers 8-5 swim at your threshold pace and 4-1 are fast.



Main Set Sample 1:

1-1-2-2-3-3-4-4 @ 1:00 rest

2×400@6:00 Negative Split

4×350@5:00 Descend

2350 Total

Main Set Sample 2:

Ladder up and down with repeats, at 1:20 base:








3000 Total


Use 5:1 or 4:1 work to rest ratio for threshold sets and  approximately 1:1 for the sprints.

Main Set Sample 1:

4×100@ 1:30 holding 1:15 (threshold)

4×50@ :45 holding :35-:36  (slightly faster than threshold)

1×100@2:00 EZ

3×100@2:00 All out sprint

6×50@1:00 All out sprint with fins

 1300 Total

Main Set Sample 2:

3×100@1:30 holding 1:15 (threshold)

1×50@1:00 EZ

2×100@2:00 Sprint

1×50@1:00 EZ

3×100@1:30 holding 1:15 (threshold)

1×50@2:00 EZ

4×50@1:00 Sprint

1150 Total


Main Set Sample 1:

8×25 @:45 alternating drill/swim

Repeat pattern 4 times:

300 – DPS, count strokes every 4th length @ :30 seconds rest

4×50@1:00 drill/swim by 25

300 – 100 free – 100 IM – 100 Strong

4×50@1:15 Kicking 25 moderate, 25 fast

3300 Total


Main Set Sample 2:

Repeat pattern twice:

6×50@ 1:00 drill/swim by 25

500 Negative split @ 7:30

4×50@ 1:15 build kick

300 RB 5 @4:30

2×50@1:00 drill

100 Best effort at your perfect stroke

3200 Total


Kick Set 1

                8×75 –  25 easy, 25 moderate, 25 fast – Choose an interval with 15-20 seconds rest


Kick Set 2:

                16×25 with Fins – Choose an interval with 10-15 seconds rest

                Odds – streamline kicking under water

                Evens – Kicking streamline on your back


Kick Set 3

                4×50 build – Choose an interval with 10-15 seconds rest

                4×25 sprint – Choose an interval with 10-15 seconds rest

                4×50 descend – Choose an interval with 10-15 seconds rest

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