Swimming Training Plans To Smash Your Goals

So you’ve been slogging away with the same old swimming training plan for months on end – and yet, you don’t see any improvement.

Sounds familiar? Don’t worry. It’s totally normal. In fact, I’d estimate that around 95% of swimmers experience this sense of stagnation at one point or another.

Why? Well, in most cases, the loss of progression is related to the way they set up their swimming training programme.

In this article, you’re going to learn how to build an effective swimming training plan that ensures continuous progression – no matter where you’re starting from.

It’s something we really believe in. So much so that it’s a part of every one of our private swimming lessons.

We’ll start by covering some fundamental training principles before talking about how to build a personalised training plan designed for success.

By the end, you’ll have the know-how to craft a winning plan and become the best swimmer you can be.

Sounds good? Let’s jump in.

Note: This training plan assumes you have already taken swimming classes and can swim at least 100m without stopping. As with any physical activity, it’s always wise to consult your doctor before commencing a new training plan if you have a known medical condition.

The Fundamentals of Swimming Training Plan Design

Instead of just handing you out a generic program and saying ‘do that’, I want to show you how you can design a balanced personal swimming training plan.

As the old (adapted) saying goes “Give a man a training plan and he’ll improve for six weeks, teach him how to design a program and he’ll improve for life”.

So, to that end, the following are core concepts that underpin all effective swimming training plans.

If you’re new to sports science, some of these might seem like fancy terms. So I’ll do my best to explain them as simply as possible.

But honestly, by the time you’ve absorbed this section, you’ll know more than 90% of swimmers about what goes into a great swimming plan.

The Principle of Progressive Overload

Put simply, progressive overload is about doing a little more than you did the last time to force your body to achieve a new higher level of performance.

It’s perhaps best illustrated by the story of Milo of Croton – an olympian who lived in the 6th century BC.

Milo gained legendary strength by carrying a small calf each day as it grew into a mighty ox.

As the calf gained weight, so too grew Milo’s strength, size, and power.

Ok, but what does lugging bovine creatures have to do with becoming a better swimmer?

Well, quite a lot actually.

See, the main reason people cease to progress their swimming is because they’re doing the same things week in week out, without adding the additional stress to push their body to adapt.

So, when designing a program the first thing you have to understand is that it must gradually increase in difficulty over time.

Otherwise, your body is perfectly happy to keep things the way they are (a phenomenon known as homeostasis).

So, the question is, how do you make it more difficult?

Well, there are several ways to do that which we’ll talk about now.

Swimming Volume, Intensity, Frequency

When designing a swimming training program there are three key training variables to consider:

1. Swimming Volume

No, we’re not talking about how loud the pool is.

Volume refers to how much total swimming you’re doing. It’s measured in meters.

Volume is typically talked about in weekly format (i.e. you did 4,500m this week) however it’s important to consider how much volume you complete in each session (and month to month, too.)
Applying the principle of progressive overload by adding more volume is a common way to make your training more difficult.

For example, if you swim 5 x 100m on 2:00 this week, but then you swim 7 x 100 on 2:00 next week, you’ve added more volume to your program.

Consistently adding volume month to month is a great way to ensure you keep progressing.

2. Swimming Intensity

Intensity refers to how hard your swimming is. It’s typically measured on an RPE scale.

In swimming, intensity is generally increased by reducing the rest time between repeats (or another way to look at is, by swimming faster!)

To illustrate, if you swim 5 x 100m in 2:00 this month, if you swim 5 x 100m in 1:50 next month, you’ve increased the intensity of your swimming set.

Pushing yourself to complete your set in a shorter amount of time tells your body that it needs to adapt to this new level of performance.

It’s important to note that swimming intensity and swimming volume have an inverse relationship. This simply means that as you increase your intensity, you’ll need to decrease your volume.

For example, if you go all out for 100m, chances are you’ll be pretty tired. You can’t simply get out, dive in and do another effort at the same speed.

Just like with volume, gradually ratcheting up the intensity of your swimming sessions over time provides the stimulus for your body to adapt to the new level of performance.

3. Swimming Frequency

The final swimming training variable to know about is frequency.

Frequency simply refers to the number of times you train within a given number of days, weeks or months.

For example, if you begin training twice a week this month, next month you may be up the frequency and train three times per week.

Next year, you may have increased your training frequency to five times a week or more.

Just like the other two variables, this gradual increase in frequency places more demands on your body and drives positive adaptation.

Speaking of adaptation, let’s talk about the role that stress, adaptation and recovery play in your swimming training plan.

Stress, Recovery, Adaptation in Swimming

Our bodies are incredibly resilient.

When you place appropriate stress on your body, it quickly gets to work building muscles, capillaries, and more to help us rise to meet the challenge.

Here’s a great illustration of this process from myithlete:

Understanding how our bodies respond to stress is important because it allows us to train at a level that stimulates adaptation (or improvement) without burning us out.

Notice how our performance level drops after training. Training has caused damage to our bodies.

Giving our systems appropriate time to recover is essential to reach a new level of performance.

If you train again too soon without adequate recovery here’s what happens to your performance:

So the idea isn’t always to train more often and train harder. Instead, you need to train with enough volume, intensity and frequency to deliver a training stimulus that you can recover from.

Remember, you don’t actually become a stronger fitter in the pool. Ironically, when you’re training hard, you actually become weaker and less powerful.

But in the hours and days after your training session, with good nutrition and sleep, your body works to build up your work capacity for the next training session.

The Need for Specificity

Many swimming coaches neglect the principles of specificity.

In a nutshell, specificity means that you become better at what you train.

It seems obvious. But you’d be surprised at the number of swimmers who want to swim a faster 50 free, but never incorporate sprints into their training.

Seriously, if you want to swim 1500m in a triathlon but can only do 900m, you need to start building up your training volume to match that goal.

If you want to swim better backstroke, you need to actually spend time working on your backstroke.

I know, it seems crazy to have to say this, but I consistently meet coaches and swimmers whose training is totally disconnected from what they’re trying to achieve.

A Note on Consistency

Changes in our skill level and physiology happen slowly.

If you’re just starting, you’ll experience progress relatively quickly.

However, if you’re an intermediate or advanced swimmer, you’ll need to train consistently for weeks and months to make big progress.

That’s why it’s important to design a program that you can maintain in the long run.

Sure, anyone can stick to a program for four weeks – but the difference between those who become excellent swimmers and those who stay average is often the willingness to stay the course.

So, even if you’re only making minor improvements each month, you’d be surprised how quickly small gains can add up over time.

How to Create Simple (But Effective) Swimming Training Program

Now that you’ve learned the main theory behind swimming program design, lets’ sketch out a barebones program to help you build your own.

There’s literally thousands of philosophies and ideas when it comes to building a great swimming program.

But for this article, I want to share an approach that’s grounded in sport science and adheres to the concepts we talked about above.

We’ll start by determining the goals of your swimming program:

1. Choose Your Swimming Goal

Every swimming training program needs a goal.

No matter whether you want to lose a couple of pounds or qualify for the Olympic games you need to know where you want to be so you can plan accordingly.

So, before you put on your togs and hit the pool, the first thing you need to do is set SMART goals.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Because you’re reading this post, I’m guessing one of your goals is to “get better at swimming”.

To transform this into a SMART goal you’d say something like (depending on your aims):

“I want to swim 800m front crawl in 14 minutes or less by August 31st, 2021”

See the way this goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound?

SMART goals give you focus and clarity about where you want to go.

And once you have a clear picture of what success looks like, it’s easy to work backward and plan the training to get you there.

Let’s look at exactly how to do that now.

Determine Your Goal Pace

Once you know your goal time for a given distance, you want to calculate what swimming pace that translates into over different distances.

So, here’s what that looks like using the example of the sub-14 minute 800m freestyle from above (rounding to the nearest second):

Distance (m) Pace
800 14:00
400 7:00
200 3:30
100 1:45
50 0:53
25 0:26

Calculating your goal pace for different distances allows you to design training sets that adhere to the principle of specificity we talked about earlier.

By consistently hitting this pace in training you’ll be training your body to become accustomed to swimming at the intensity required to reach your goal.

If you’re swimming at slower speeds, then you won’t be specifically training your body’s ability to deliver the performance you want.

Make sense? Let’s keep going.

3. Figure Out Your Starting Point

Now that you know what speed you need to be training at, it’s time to figure out where to start.

There’s a number of ways you can do this, but the most straightforward is to undertake what’s known as a test set.

To do a test set, do a short warm-up and then do as many 50m repeats at your goal pace as you can.

Note you’ll need a pool with a race clock or a smartwatch that can track your time.

To illustrate here’s a simple test session you can do yourself:

  • Warm-up: 200m easy front crawl
  • Test Set: ? x 50m @ Goal race pace with 15 seconds rest
  • Cool-down: 200m double-arm back crawl easy

The idea here is to keep trying to complete 50m at your goal speed until you start to fall off the pace.

So, for example, if you swim 8 x 50m at or below 0:53s each but your 16th drops to 0:54s then you know your starting point is 8 reps at your target pace.

Now that you know your current work capacity, it’s time to increase it by training with appropriate intensity and volume.

4. Plan Out Your Main Swimming Training Sets

Ok, by now you know two things:

  • What your current swimming capacity is
  • Where you’d like your performance to be

That means all that’s left to do is create a program to bridge the gap between those points.

Here’s how to build a basic program that’ll deliver results.

  • Use 60-70% of your test set score to build your first training set: If you managed 8x50m at your goal pace, your first set would be 5 x 50m at your goal pace with 15s rest.
  • Aim to complete at 3 sets per session: Don’t just swim 5 x 50m at goal pace and call it a day. You’ll want to train 5 x 50m at your goal pace, rest for 3-5 minutes. Then repeat for at least two more rounds.
  • Aim to complete 2-3 sessions per week: Depending on your schedule and recovery, try to swim three times per week. Always leave one day of rest between sessions. Less can still be effective.
  • Build intensity week by week: Every week you complete all of your sets, increase the difficulty for the following week, here’s how that might look:
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
3 rounds of 5 x 50m at goal pace with 15s rest. 4 rounds of 5 x 50m at goal pace with 15s rest. 5 rounds of 5 x 50m at goal pace with 15s rest. 2 rounds of 4 x 100m at goal pace with 15s rest. 3 rounds of 4 x 100m at goal pace with 15s rest. 4 rounds of 4 x 100m at goal pace with 15s rest.
Rest 3 minutes between rounds Rest 3 minutes between rounds Rest 3 minutes between rounds Rest 3 minutes between rounds Rest 3 minutes between rounds Rest 3 minutes between rounds
Volume 750m 1000m 1250m 800m 1200m 1600m

Notice how the number of rounds increases each week from week 1-3, then instead of 50m repeats I’ve switched to 100m repeated for week 4-6.

Longer distances at race pace are more challenging than shorter distances, so even though the total volume drops to 800m, this session should be similar if not more difficult to the previous session in week 3.

But if you recall from above, you can increase the difficulty of your session in several ways:

  • Add more rounds
  • Add more repeats
  • Increase the distance of the repeat
  • Reduce the rest between repeats
  • Reduce the rest between rounds

All of these incremental tweaks can build your work capacity and take you closer to your goal.

However you decide to ratchet up the difficulty, the important thing is that you are pushing yourself from week to week and constantly improving.

Note: With this kind of training, it’s common to swim too fast in the first few repeats. It’s imperative to stay on pace – even if it feels easy at the start of the set. Remember, you’re training your body to swim at a certain pace. The more time you spend swimming at that pace, the more automatic it becomes.

5. Plan the Other Aspects of Your Swimming Training Plan

Once you’ve got your main sets planned out for the next few weeks, it’s time to add in four more components to your swimming training plan:

  • Warm-ups: To get your body warmed up and ready to perform. Keep things simple here: swim 100-400m as a mixture of drills, kick, and full stroke for the stroke you’ll be training in your main set.
  • Drill/Skill Sets: To help you master your technique and hone your skills. Work at least one stroke-specific skill per session. Ideally, work with a coach so they can prescribe drills that address your weakest areas.
  • Cool -downs: To initiate the recovery process. Swim 100-400m nice and easy. Bonus points if it’s a different stroke to the one you trained in the main set.
  • Dryland work: To correct postural imbalances and build power for swimming. Check our article on dryland training that you can do at home.

Building a session with a simple warm-up, a short skill set, your race pace main set, and a cool down doesn’t have to be complicated.

Throw in 1-2 dryland workouts per week and you’ll start to see progression like never before.

What to Do When Progression Stalls

So, now you know how to create an effective swimming training plan that adheres to the scientific principles of training.

But there’s one thing we haven’t covered: What to do when you stop improving.

It’s not physically possible to keep adding more intensity and volume to your training forever.

Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you won’t be able to complete a session because it’s too difficult.

When that happens, pull back on your training for a full week. This is known as a de-load.

You can still swim, but avoid doing so at any great intensity or volume. Instead, simply go and enjoy your laps in the pool without pushing yourself.

When the next week comes around, start at 60-70% of the intensity you did the previous week and slowly work your way back up. Your first few sessions should feel relatively easy

Throwing a de-load into your swimming training plan every few weeks gives your body extra time to recover and adapt to a new performance level. It reduces the odds of overtraining and burnout.

Sure, it can be hard to take your foot off the gas. We all want to make progress as quickly as possible. But think of a de-load as one step back to take two steps forward.

Go Forth & Build a Swimming Training Plan

Building a swimming training program doesn’t need to be complicated.

The approach outlined in this post is simple: Follow the scientific principles of training, train the way you want to perform, and gradually scale up your performance over time.

In this article, among other things, we’ve learned that:

  • Swimming training needs to be specific to your goals
  • To improve you must increase the intensity, volume, or frequency of your swimming over time
  • Consistency is the most under-rated aspect for becoming a better swimming
  • SMART goal setting is crucial to your success
  • Knowing where you are now and where you want to be is essential to design a great swimming training program
  • Effective training sessions include a warm up, the main set, a drill set, and a cooldown
  • De-loads are the best way to keep progressing when progress stalls

Hopefully, you’re now equipped with the knowledge to design your own swimming training plan, no matter what you want to achieve.

If you’ve got any questions or comments, please leave them below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Alistair Mills
by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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