Five Gear Swimming by Terry Laughlin (2004)


Terry Laughlin is the founder and head coach of Total Immersion Swimming. Over the past 15 years Total Immersion (TI) has  become known globally for advancing the art of effective teaching and coaching. Terry’s book, Total Immersion, the Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier, has been the best-selling swimming book worldwide for the past eight years. In 1996, Terry was contracted by the U.S. Navy to revamp swimming instruction and train instructors at the Navy Seals training center in Coronado, CA. In September, Terry returned to active club coaching as the Head Coach of the Hawks Swimming Association in New Paltz, NY. He is an avid Masters and open water swimmer and lives in New Paltz, NY, with his wife Alice.



[Editors Note:  There is a copy of Terry’s handout at the end of this article.]


I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here today to talk with you about smart swimming. I’ve been a swimming coach for 32 years. From 1972 to 1988I coached in club and college teams before turning my focus from running workouts to intensive teaching in 1989, when I founded Total Immersion. In the early years, people outside TI had certain impressions concerning what we were about, including a perception that we had an uncritical love for Stroke Length. That perception led some to feel we were unconcerned with Speed, and thus that, TI could help you swim “pretty but not fast.”


In 1996 I volunteered my services as an assistant coach at West Point, asking head coach Ray Bosse to assign me to the “most underperforming group.” I did that mainly to demonstrate that what we taught to adult swimmers on weekends would also work with swimmers who were already fairly accomplished and needed to swim fast in absolute terms.


This was important because triathletes, who made up a large percentage of our clientele, don’t have a pressing need to swim fast in absolute terms. A fast triathlon time for 1500 meters in open water equates to about 1:20 for 100 meters and most triathletes are delighted to finish a 1.5K in a pace of 1:25 per 100. So any success we had in that arena wouldn’t necessarily demonstrate that TI methods could help people swim fast.


At Army, Ray assigned me to coach the sprinters, which, because Army is an NCAA D-1 school meant I had to be able to help college men and women swim fast in absolute terms. So for three seasons I became intently focused on applying TI methods in ways that could produce real speed. Our training was highly unconventional but we had unquestionable success, going from “underperforming” to dominate the sprint events in our conference, the Patriot League for all three seasons I coached there,


My interest in swimming fast is personal as well. I’ve been an enthusiastic open water  racer for 30 years and, like anyone I love to win races – at least in my age group. In absolute speed terms, my open water times aren’t strikingly fast, but I am more successful now than I have ever been. This past summer I swam 7 Open Water races and won my 50-54 age group by large margins in five of them and usually finish with very good swimmers who are 15 to 20 years younger than me. The significance of my own experiences is that I’ve always been my own primary guinea pig. Whatever I advocate in an article or book is something I’ve tried on myself first. I work out all the iterations and subtleties, the language I use to describe it, the sequence in which I’ll teach it etc. in my own training, before I recommend it to anyone else. Anything that ends up on the page, has been exhaustively tested in the water first.


I think of myself as an ideal test subject for how to coach “average swimmers” because I showed no evidence of talent in my youth. In college, I worked harder than anyone, but my results were never more than middling. I’m certain that the far greater success and satisfaction I’ve enjoyed as a “middle-aged swimmer” is a product of training that, while unconventional, is highly focused, whereas my college training was conventional, and not very focused.  The ideas I’ll be describing first occurred to me after reading a paper by Nick Thierry in 1993 which provided fascinating details about how Gennadi Touretsky developed Alexandre Popov, while he was still in his teens and leading up to his first Olympic gold in 1992. I developed them further while coaching the Army sprinters and have continued to refine them in my own training.


I’ve just begun coaching a very small, very modest club in New Paltz NY, called the Hawks Swimming Association. In their 15 years of existence the Hawks have never had more than 60 kids, never qualified a swimmer for Junior Nationals and has rarely ever competed in Senior swimming. At almost every practice so far, I’ve reminded them that we do not practice “to get in shape.” We practice “to develop the skills that win races.”


To illustrate that let’s talk about the swimming we’ve seen in the World Championships at Conseco Fieldhouse this week. When I compare what I observe in finals there with what I see of the kids I’ve just begun coaching at home, I see radically different levels of skill and execution. Coaches are always hungry to understand what makes elite athletes so much faster and what we can do with our own swimmers to make them more like the elites. One of the important differences, we can’t do much about: If you get anywhere near elite level swimmers at a meet like this, you instantly see that they’re physically very special – almost a super-human race, compared to the athletes most of us coach.


But of the 100-plus athletes at a World Championship, nearly everyone is a physical specimen, everyone is training hard and in extraordinary condition, yet we still have winners and also-rans. Generally, the people who are winning are executing better in observable ways. Last night I sat at finals with Ben Titley, the UK Performance coach who is a speaker here. We were talking about Stefan Widmer who coaches Libby Lenton. Did you happen to see Libby on the anchor of Australia’s 400 Free Relay. It was a strikingly beautiful and controlled swim, wasn’t it? It was remarkably well executed and looked quite different from the swim that our anchor, Kara Lynn Joyce, had.


Not to take anything away from Kara. She was in a high pressure situation against the world record holder in the 100m free, a very tough position to be in. Kara swam a somewhat ragged relay leg, particularly losing ground on the third turn. I might be somewhat presumptuous but I think the reason she did poorly on that turn was that she lacked a sense of control, whereas Libby swam a perfectly controlled swim, with consistent Stroke Length (SL) and Stroke Rate (SR).


Ben told me that he’s watched Stefan train Libby on several occasions, and noticed that they work relentlessly on Motor Programming. Stefan teaches Libby to swim with a particular SL. Then he trains her to swim at a specific SL/SR combo that will produce a World Record if she can sustain it for 100 meters. There’s nothing random or haphazard about her training; it’s devoted to programming her meticulously to swim a world record by executing the right SL/SR combo. When Libby can maintain that SL/SR combination for 20 meters, then they stretch it to 30 meters, and so on. I hope Stefan will describe this in detail in his own talk here


Also last night, you may have noticed that Brendan Hansen suddenly opened a gap on his rivals on the 5th length of the 200 meter breaststroke final. Was anyone counting his strokes? He swam his first 50 at 6 strokes a length, increased to 7 per length on the second 50, went to 8 strokes on the third 50, then increased to 9 strokes on the fourth 50. I don’t think that was by accident. I think that was planned and was a strategy that he learned to use successfully through practice.


Less successful swimmers also increase their stroke count as they go through a race, but in a completely different way; with them stroke length and efficiency are a casualty of fatigue and pressure, not an expression of choice and control. Champions make strategic and tactical changes in their stroke count and gain speed when they do.


A similar example is Amanda  Beard in the 200 breaststroke final at Olympic Trials. She swam the entire race with a noticeable glide between strokes and took 15 strokes on the first 50 (Long Course), 17 on the second 50, 17 on the third 50 and 18 on the fourth 50 on her way to shattering the world record. Have any of you ever swum breast in a 50-meter pool and counted your strokes? If so, you probably know what a stunning accomplishment it is to complete 50 meters in 15 strokes. You have to have extraordinary efficiency – and swim…slowly… carefully…meticulously to complete a length in 15 strokes – let alone to do it at world record speed. I don’t believe that happened by accident. I am sure it was planned – and trained for – in a conscious way.


So what I see distinguishing champions from all the other gifted and highly trained athletes at a World Championship is the ability to execute with greater choice and control. And this is something that I think any swimmer – even 10 year olds to some degree – can be taught. If we can identify the skills, habits and behaviors that are associated with winning important races, it’s my contention that we should spend as much of our training time as possible teaching and honing them….and we get in shape while we do it, rather then focus on getting in shape and hoping that race-winning skills somehow develop along the way.


So let’s see if we can identify the skills associated with World and Olympic championships. One, the people who swim fastest in the second half, and particularly the final quarter of the race are those who win races and set records. We don’t have television at our house so I didn’t get to watch much of the Olympics, but in the races I did see it was so striking that the people who were swimming the second half well were winning – Michael Phelps in the 100 meter butterfly being a prime example. He was a body length behind Ian Crocker at the turn and he ended up winning the race by four-one-hundredths. I saw that pattern repeated over and over – strong closers win races and set records.


So if we identify that as a race-winning characteristic, how do we teach it? I suppose most people would say that being a strong closer is a product of being in better shape. But I’m not so convinced of that and I’ll bet that training logs and fitness tests of the gold vs. silver medalists would bear me out. I think we need to ask ourselves this question: “Is progressive pacing an athletic contest or a game of skill?” It’s my strong conviction that well executed races like these are not simply the product of being in great shape; it’s more a product of having a plan for doing that, practicing that plan consistently and in an organized way, and thus being adept at executing that strategy in a race. You win races at the end because you’re programmed to do that. My object today is to show you some practical ways to program your own swimmers in that way.


Are you familiar with the equation Velocity (V) equals Stroke Length (SL) times Stroke Rate (SR)? I’ve written about it so often that some people have probably come to the conclusion that I think SL is “next to godliness” and SR is “a bad thing.” It’s not that simple. Just as you can’t get the area of a Square, without both Width and Length, you can’t produce V without both SL and SR. My contention is that most swimmers could benefit by a more thoughtful approach to finding the best combination.


I look at it this way: Some swimmers are what I call “Stroke Length Enabled” (SLE). The SLE swimmer can do what Libby, Brendan, and Amanda did – choose a stroke count at which to swim, and, under race pressure, change that count effectively and strategically. Stroke count changes don’t just “happen” to them because the person in the next lane is pulling away and their response is “I have to go harder.” When swimmers respond like that, their form breaks down a bit, the SL goes down, the SR goes up…but it doesn’t go up effectively!


The SLE swimmer is one who, prior to the race, decides what count they’ll use on each segment of the race, and then execute it with control, confidence and effectiveness so that change in count becomes a “race-winning weapon.”  For any Velocity, and any swimmer, there is an optimal blend of SL and SR. If your SL is too high – i.e. if you’re taking too few strokes — you lose your rhythm, and need to put too much power into each stroke. If your SR is too high, you lose the effectiveness of using your body well, of stroking with complete, core-powered movement cycles.


An example of that is the 400 IM final the other night between Kaitlyn Sandeno and Katie Hoff. During breaststroke, Kaitlyn was taking considerably longer strokes. Katie was turning over at a much higher rate – but she looked like a windup toy by contrast. She was using far more energy yet falling behind. Kaitlyn was extending her whole body on every stroke, using her muscles more effectively and pulling away with much less rate. She took control of the race there because she had obviously practiced to swim the breaststroke that way.


What effective blending of SL and SR also gives you is more SR and energy “in the bank” for use when you need it. Amanda Beard, by swimming at 15 strokes for the first 50 meters, has the option to raise it. A less efficient swimmer, who may already be at 18 or higher on the first 50, has far fewer options for the next 150. So someone who has learned to swim fast enough to stay in the race on the first half, while “saving strokes,” has more options for how to swim the second half of the race.


And finally, by practicing in the way I’m about to outline, you have more ways to attack a race. Sometimes a race plan doesn’t work exactly as you’d hoped and you have to change the plan – as often happens in distance swimming. Being adept at using different combinations of SL and SR gives you more “arrows in your quiver” for different situations that may arise in the race. The only way you gain that capability is by systematically practicing different combinations of SL and SR .


In our first two weeks of practice, I’ve already begun teaching the Hawks swimmers the rudiments of what we saw Kaitlyn and Brendan and Libby do here. Here’s the process we’ll follow:


They will count their strokes per length on literally every set, so they always know their SL. They will learn the difference in feeling, timing and coordination when swimming freestyle at 13 strokes per length (SPL) vs. 16 SPL. It’s not that they’ll avoid taking 16, but any time they do, I want it to be a choice not a casualty of lost efficiency. And when they make that choice, they’ll do it effectively because they’ve practiced being smooth, controlled, fluent at 16 SPL just as well as at 13.


We’ll refine, for each swimmer the appropriate range of stroke counts. Using myself as an example, when training in a 25-yard pool my freestyle range is from 11 or 12 SPL when I’m swimming with great discipline, up to 15 or 16 when I’m practicing race-type efforts. That range will be individual by swimmer but will generally trend downward over time. A swimmer whose range may be 17 to 22 now, in two months could have a range of 15 to 20, partially because we’ll be teaching efficiency, but also from the simple habit of always counting – and knowing that we value the count as an important aspect of our practice. What gets examined gets improved, and that certainly goes for stroke count.


We’ll develop the ability to choose and adjust their SL or count at will. In a breaststroke set, I will, for instance, expect my swimmers to be able to swim four consecutive 25s at, say, 5, 6, 7, and 8 strokes and adjust their glide accurately to nail the count on each one, without over-stretching or rushing the last few yards.


We’ll develop the ability to maintain a given SL for progressively greater distances. If I ask a swimmer to cover 25 yards of free in 13 strokes, that may not be difficult. But when I tell her she’s got to complete 50 yards in 26 strokes, the degree of difficulty goes up markedly. At 52 strokes for 100 yards, she’ll probably have to employ intense concentration. And when setting these challenges, I emphasize that they must swim with flow, not by interrupting good rhythm or straining in some way. This should be an exercise in mental acuity not physical effort.


We’ll challenge them to do descending sets on an unchanging stroke count. I might give a set of 4 x 100 free with a maximum stroke count of 56 (average of 14 SPL) with the instruction to descend without exceeding 56 strokes. Figuring out how to add speed without adding strokes forces you to swim more effectively. There are several ways to solve that puzzle, but until you’ve done that exercise, you probably won’t figure it out. And some solutions require less energy or effort than others. The only way to learn the optimal solution – then internalize it for racing – is to do such sets regularly in practice.


And finally, we’ll teach 10-year old with a freestyle range of 13 to 17 spl, we are equally intent on developing their ability to swim with control at 13 SPL and at 17 SPL. That’s a critical racing skill, but won’t develop without specific practice.


Those are the characteristics of an SLE swimmer. The opposite is a Stroke Rate Limited (SRL) swimmer – they can only swim fast with turnover. The SRL swimmer starts out at a high SR, because that’s the only way they can avoid falling behind. And if they do fall behind, their only possible response is to try to turn over yet more. It’s not a good place to be in a race, and definitely doesn’t lead to a sense of control.


The 400 Free Relay anchor leg, may be an example of what happens when you don’t feel in control. Kara Lynn is a really brilliant swimmer and undoubtedly will have impressive races when she’s tapered, but in this instance didn’t appear to be feeling in control against Libby and I think that pressure led directly to her poor third turn. I would like to train my swimmers so they have a means of maintaining a sense of control, whatever the race situation. I believe that will far more likely be the case if we “practice control” in all the ways I’ve outlined here. A swimmer who trains less mindfully and knows no other way to descend a set than to “go harder” is less likely to develop that sense of control.


My main point here is that higher stroke rates are not always undesirable. You may need it to generate your greatest V, but coaches must understand that it takes high level coordination and well-trained muscle memory to stroke efficiently at your top SR. You achieve that by practicing higher stroke counts and practicing being smooth and controlled at the top of your stroke count range.


What role does fitness play? Obviously the body’s physiology is more taxed as the rate increases. If you have practiced generating “first half speed” at lower stroke counts and rates, then the physiological demands at the halfway point of a race will be far lower than otherwise. And if you’ve practiced swimming higher counts – and generating greater speed as a result – then your body will have adapted to the energy demands that occur when it does that.


The key distinction between this and conventional training is that when you practice in this “race rehearsal” mode that I’m describing, all the fitness you developed gets applied to the muscles for efficient swimming. When you simply do Energy System Training – that is focus on maintaining a certain heart rate for a certain duration – the physiology gets training but there’s no guarantee that muscle memory also does. If your form degrades, say, a 200 HR, then the training effects occur in the muscles for ragged swimming – and why would we want to condition them?


This is why I never permit my swimmers to practice inefficient swimming under any circumstances. I don’t want the muscle memory for ragged swimming to be imprinted and it’s pointless to train for energy production in those muscles. If you want to be a strong finisher in races, then you want to make sure you continue to recruit the muscles for efficient swimming when you’re at your “red line” and you want those muscles to be “in shape” to deliver performance when the demand is highest. So, as a coach, you need to decide you’ll never never let your swimmers train the muscles for ragged swimming.


For that reason, I never give my swimmers “lactate tolerance” sets, where you swim 100 repeats on long rest mainly to learn to deal with pain. When I gave such sets, after reading how it was essential to “buffer lactates,”  I never liked how my swimmers looked during them. So now we practice swimming smoothly at every point in our stroke count range — sometimes at low intensity, sometimes at higher intensity. My goal is to train them to swim with steadily improving technique as they approach their “red line” and to gradually move that red line higher.


Have you seen the T-shirt slogans “Pain, Torture, Agony” and “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger?” There’s long been a masochistic pride in how much pain a good swimmer can endure. I actually tell my swimmers that swimming well should never hurt. I tell them that you should feel sensation while swimming fast – and at times you may feel intense sensation – but if you’re swimming right, it should feel good!


Over the years I’ve talked to a half dozen swimmers who set world records. I always ask them: “What did it feel like to swim faster than anyone in history; what sensations did you experience during the swim?” Every one of them described feeling great. None talked about having to “push through pain barriers.” I spent the first week of February in Austin with Eddie Reese. While there, I asked Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Neil Walker, and Ian Crocker that question. Aaron described his world record swim in the 200 backstroke this way: “When I hit the touchpad I felt like I could have kept going at that speed.” All four said similar things.


I think that can help us understand how Michael Phelps is able to string together so many fast races in period of a few days, setting four or five world records in a few days at the World Championships, or racing 17 times in eight days at Athens. One critical reason is that his lactate reading is incredibly low after a fast swim – he’s been measured at 5.0 millimoles of lactate per liter of blood, compared to readings of 15 or higher in some swimmers. Some people think he just has freakish physiology. I’m more inclined to believe it’s because he swims with superhuman economy of movement. I think he swims so fast precisely because he doesn’t give a maximum effort – because he’s always under control. That makes me think we may put too much emphasis on pushing through pain barriers. I’d rather have my swimmers feel like Aaron or Michael in their races. To get them there, I teach them to feel good at slower speeds and to continue feeling good at progressively faster paces.


We do that through the kind of training described on these slides, which has the goals of: (a) increasing your SL, (b) expanding your capacity to go greater distances and achieve greater speeds within your SPL range and (c) learning how to be effective at your red line.


This slide illustrates how we describe training speeds for our swimmers. I suppose many of you are familiar with the list of training speeds prescribed by U.S. Swimming. The other day when I led the Stroke School, I had to ask coaches in the audience what they were. After 32 years of coaching I’m clueless as to how they’re labeled and what they mean. I’ve read the list but I can never remember all the labels, let alone the work-to-rest ratios and rest intervals for each. If I was to tell someone on my team, “I want you to swim this at EN3,” they’d just look at me blankly.


So we use a much simpler set of just five training speed descriptions that have proven perfectly adequate in my own training. I didn’t bother giving them labels until I began coaching the team, because I needed a simple way for them to understand what I was asking for in a set. I expect they will work better for my team of average swimmers than a more complicated system. Here are our training speeds:


Perfect – This is our slowest training speed — warmup or recovery pace or even below. It represents whatever speed you are able to do when swimming the most meticulously perfect stroke you can. Whenever we do any recovery swimming after intensive efforts we’ll do it at the highest possible efficiency levels.
Cruise – This is our next training speed. If I ask you to define “Cruise” for me what words would you use? That’s right: smooth and sustainable; in running terms, it might be called “conversational pace.” I can continue at this pace for a while without feeling any stress or perhaps breaking a sweat..


Brisk – At this level I’m adding a little speed. It’s like breaking a sweat while running, feeling that your heart rate is rising. My chest isn’t heaving, but I have the feeling of doing a bit of work, but still submaximal. Another term for it might be “easy speed.”


Race – This pace is race specific. If I say “Race speed” and we’re talking about the 100 Breaststroke, that’s one feeling; if we’re talking about a 200 Breaststroke that’s another feeling. “Race” will mean something different when thinking about the middle of a 1500-meter free than when thinking about the middle of a 400 meter free. The most important aspect of this training speed is that I want my swimmers in training to be able to vividly relate nearly any set to a specific sense of effort/tempo/power they would feel when swimming their best at a particular stage of a particular race.


Race Plus –  This speed is anything above that. And once again it’s race specific. A training set that feels like “Race” speed for the 400 meter swim could be “Race Plus” for the 1500 meter swim. If the swimmer is training to race the 1500 meters at 38 SPL (per 50 meters) and expects to race much of the 400 at 40 SPL, then the stroke count being maintained in the set could determine whether the swim was Race or Race Plus. A set of 35-second 50s at 40 spl could be Race for the 400 meters. A set of 35-second 50s at 38 spl would be Race Plus for the same swimmer’s 1500.


What I like about this structure is that it employs language any swimmer can understand immediately and it’s highly practical. If I say Cruise to my swimmers, they know instantly what I’m talking about. Further, after training for 30-plus years myself, I’m pretty tuned into effort levels, but I simply cannot make distinctions between 9 levels of effort so I can’t help but wonder what practical purpose that serves. Five training speed categories seem quite adequate to me.


Another way to do what I’m describing here is to use tempo trainers – the beeping device you can wear on your goggles or in your cap. But if I have 30 swimmers and each trainer cost 25 bucks and we all have to fiddle with setting them before each set, that’s not practical in a team setting. Whereas if they each know their stroke count ranges from months of counting on various sets, we can easily use those counts to customize training for each individual.


I want my swimmers to own the controlling mechanism for their race. You can’t wear a tempo trainer in a race, but by counting strokes constantly and learning to adjust them at will, they can make decisions such as Brendan did in his 200 meter breast, in their own races. The steps to achieving this level of control are outlined on the handout:


Step One Learn your Strokes Per Length (SPL). You do it by making stroke-counting a habit. We count all strokes, all distances. You’ll have the largest range of counts – four to six — in freestyle. In backstroke the range might be reduced by a stroke or two, depending on where you surface. Butterfly and breaststroke the range gets smaller yet, because a cycle of fly or breast equals two strokes of free or back. In breaststroke we work with a range of 3 or 4 stroke counts. Butterfly has the smallest range of counts to work with, because fly is pretty much all or nothing in rhythm. Reduce the rhythm too much and the stroke stalls. We have a range of 2 and in rare cases 3 strokes to work with. Again, if your pushoff is taking you 15 meters down the pool, that will reduce your range. For warmup we regularly do 100 IM’s with a range of 40 to 46 strokes. I also figure out appropriate stroke count ranges for every stroke combo (fly-back, or back-breast, or breast-free) we could do.


We start many of our practices with about 30 minutes of sets with Fistgloves. We count strokes with the gloves on and take note of how it changes when we remove them. Sometimes we swim at lower counts after removing the gloves and other times I’ll instruct them to take the same number of strokes without gloves that they took with them, to emphasize speed and tempo more.


We count cycles on many of our drills as well. We count the number of cycles it takes to complete 25 yards underwater dolphin. We do breaststroke pulls with no kick and goggles held above the water and count how many pulls it takes to go 25 yards. We always count our breaststroke kicks-per-length and virtually always count our dolphin kicks per length in streamline on the back or side. The count is a concrete measure of how effective your propulsive movements are.


I have no problem with people swimming slower when they are focused on improving their current SPL levels. Slower swimming with a purpose of examining and improving your efficiency – to strengthen your foundation when you resume speed later – is valuable. Swimming slowly, but with a very low count is an example of practicing discipline and concentration; the intent is always to add speed back in later but you should “drive a hard bargain” in trading strokes for speed as you do.


Step Two Develop your range. Here are two simple examples. If I instruct a swimmer to go 25 yards at 13 strokes, then 50 at 26 strokes, then 75 yards at 39, and finally 100 yards at 52 strokes, as the distance increases, she’ll have to be more focused and disciplined to maintain the same SPL she might have done with ease for 25 yards. Going in the other direction, if I give a set of 200 + 150 + 100 +50, all done at 14 SPL, the swimmer will be able to add speed as the distances decrease, without trying simply because it gets easier to hold 14 SPL at progressively shorter distances. They may have to be careful and attentive to hold 14 SPL for an entire 200, but can move more freely as the distance gets shorter. By the time they get to the 50, they can swim somewhat aggressively, which naturally leads to swimming faster.


What’s the desirable training effect in that set? As they gain speed on the 150, 100 and 50 from their initial pace in the 200 – and maintain the same stroke count – in effect they are creating more V by raising their SR, while keeping SL the same. I didn’t tell them to raise their SR – it just happened as they swam faster. This gave them an experience of maintaining SL while raising SR, simply by reducing the repeat distance. That experience goes into their nervous system and becomes an aspect of skill that is usually only displayed by gifted swimmers. This way, we’re teaching “average” swimmers to master a very advanced skill. We may not talk about this explicitly but through practice this skill becomes implicit in the “neural software” they use to control their swimming.


If we do a “Pyramid” set – increasing distance on the first half of the set, then decreasing distance on the second half at a constant SPL  – they practice being careful and disciplined going up, then adding speed as they come down. This way they solve two different puzzles on the same set.


For a distance set, let’s say we have a swimmer who has mastered the challenge of maintaining 13 SPL for a set of 10 x 100, and I want to test their ability to maintain 13 SPL for a full 1000, without taking a break every 100.  I’ll emphasize to them that the challenge is to maintain 13 SPL for as long as they can do so comfortably, without straining to do so. Concentrating intently is good; putting a hitch or delay in your stroke – or gliding into the turn – is not good, because that’s bad practice. When they can’t maintain 13 SPL with rhythm and flow, I instruct them swim a length of “recovery backstroke” then resume freestyle at 13 SPL. The effect of this “active recovery” is to let them feel a bit more refreshed on freestyle.


The first time I give this, they might need to include 5 lengths of recovery backstroke in the 1000. The next time we do it, the goal would be to complete it a bit faster – or to need only 4 or fewer active rest backstroke laps. Working at it this way we can systematically expand their “efficiency range” while practicing only good form and rhythm. And as they subtract “recovery laps” from their total, they’ll also naturally improve their total time for the 1000. When they finally complete a nonstop 1000 at 13 SPL, they’ve programmed themselves to swim 1000 with consistent efficiency, rather than the more typical process of losing efficiency progressively as a swimmer pushes on to complete a long swim.


This doesn’t mean that I want them to swim a 1000 at 13 SPL all the time. But when they master it, if I tell them to swim a 1000 but allow them 14 SPL, they’ll be able to swim that 1000 at higher speed and still be at a great level of efficiency.  And if I give them the OK to swim the second 500 at 15 SPL, then they can pick up speed. That gives us an implicit and natural way to practice and master negative splitting.


Step Three Introduce “Gears” Practice. When they’ve mastered the art of swimming at a good level of efficiency, and applying that SPL over different distances and speeds, we can introduce what I call Gears practice, which I describe as “playing stroke counts like scales on a piano.” Before they ever attempt even a simple piece of music, piano students spend many hours moving their fingers up and down the keyboard and developing a facility for finding the right notes with ease. We want our swimmers to develop similar facility with their stroke counts or SL. A very basic set of this sort would be 4 rounds of 4 x 25, where on the first round they go 12-13-14-15. On the second round, they reverse that, then repeat those patterns on the next two rounds. As I said, I try everything myself before giving it to my swimmers. If you try this, you’ll discover that it’s a totally different puzzle to go from 15 to 12 strokes than it is to go from 12 to 15.


What I’m constantly looking for in practice design is to change the task with frequency, balancing the difficulty of the puzzle with their ability to solve it successfully. I make these puzzles progressively more challenging with time because I want their nervous systems to always be dealing with tasks that require concentration to succeed at. The swimmers love coming to practice when every set is a problem-solving exercise, rather than a rote repetition that’s little changed from day to day.


We don’t use the pace clock very often for these sets. Instead we’ll set the interval at a certain number of what I call “yoga breaths”, usually three to five. Or we’ll say that the first swimmer in the lane will leave when the third or fourth swimmer finishes. I want them to be totally focused on calibrating their SL, not on watching the pace clock.


Another important part of practice design is that virtually all of our sets include a basic group of tasks, which are repeated several times. We usually do three to four rounds of the basic set. The reason for repeating it three or four times is that usually spend the first round figuring out the puzzle. Their choices and adjustments improve in the second and third round and they consolidate the optimal solution in the fourth round. I explain that the first round or two their only goal is to get better at calibrating so if, on a particular lap you’re supposed to take 14 strokes, you reach the other end and strike the wall with your 14th stroke, no stretching or rushing necessary in the last couple of strokes. As you gain confidence in your calibration, you can swim more aggressively and add a bit of speed. This feels like effortless speed, because it comes out of an adjustment in timing rather than an increase in effort.


The series on this slide represents several different puzzles on rounds of 4 x 25, then 3 x 50, then 2 x 75 and finishing with 1 x 100. On the first round, they’re all at 12 SPL, requiring the discipline to maintain the same SL over increasing distances. On the second round, it’s still 12 SPL on the 25s, but we add one SPL at each increasing distance—13 SPL on the 50s, 14 SPL on the 75s and finally 15 SPL on the 100, allowing them to maintain or perhaps increase speed as the distance increases, but still be at a good level of efficiency at the end. The final round is the most difficult task of all – we allow 15 SPL on the 25s, reduce to 14 SPL on the 50s, to 13 SPL on the 75s and finally just 12 SPL for the 100. Subtracting strokes is always more difficult than adding, but subtracting as you increase distance is about as challenging a task as you can come up with. You’ve got to be relentlessly tuned in and meticulous on that 100.


What all those sets have in common, because of the constantly changing repeat distances and stroke counts, is the need to have every single brain cell turned on from beginning to end. I think the most valuable items are those that require intense concentration and meticulous execution. If I can keep their brain cells fired up for an hour or two, we’ll have a high-value practice. I think it’s far more important to turn on brain cells than muscle cells. Muscle cells will get recruited regardless – you can’t go down the pool without using your muscles and aerobic system — but if I consider brain cells first when planning practice, I’ll end up with swimmers who are fit and better prepared to take initiative and be resourceful.


Time or speed are secondary when I introduce these Gears sets; we usually don’t even use the pace clock on them. My initial goal is for them to master the art of making subtle changes in stroke length and gain the control to swim at any count in their SPL range at will and with consistent accuracy. When I see they can choose and achieve their counts consistently, and seamlessly change counts up or down then we’ll start referencing the pace clock.


Another reason we don’t use the pace clock initially is to foster the “clock in the head” feeling. I want them to “know in their bones” whether they’ve gone faster and to develop a more finely calibrated sense of relative speeds. First gain the coordination to change stroke counts seamlessly, then learn how to swim faster without changing your counts, then learn how to swim faster BY changing your count – speed as a product of higher level coordination, rather than more intense effort. And finally we can use the pace clock to let them associate a concrete value, in minutes and seconds, with the kinesthetic sensations they’ve already developed.


Too often the pace clock becomes an unforgiving taskmaster, in every set, from beginning to end of season, from start to finish of practice. By turning off the clock when I introduce these sets, we focus on the skills and coordination that produce speed, then quantify those speeds later. I think this is the key to developing high-level racing and pacing skills. You can’t refer to the clock in the middle of the race; all you have to go on is your own sense of speed. I believe that sense is more highly developed if they train without the clock at times but are given “speedplay” exercises.


Step Four Introduce the Pace Clock By introducing the pace clock as one measure of how you’re swimming, but not the only measure, and introducing it when your swimmers have mastered foundation skills, I think you can use it more effectively. Swimming Golf is one of the simplest ways to do that. The simple way is to add your Strokes plus Seconds for a given distance to arrive at your score. 25 strokes plus 30 seconds equals a Score of 50. Adding one more measure to that score increases its value enormously. That would be your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or perhaps Heart Rate (HR). Scoring 50 with an RPE of 2 (on a scale of 5) or HR of 130, would be better than the same score with an RPE of 4 or HR of 180.


We do Swim Golf in many ways. If you do four 50s, all at 35 seconds, but figure out how to subtract one stroke each time that’s a valuable exercise. Or four 50s at 25 strokes, but figure out how to descend 35, 34, 33, 32 seconds without changing the stroke count is a completely different puzzle, equally valuable. Or I might ask them to swim four 50s, all at a total score of 60. First 50 is 32 strokes and 28 seconds, next at 31 strokes and 29 seconds, third at 30 strokes and 30 seconds and the last at 29 strokes and 31 seconds. As you go through the set, you’re asking yourself which combo, at a score of 60, gives me the lowest RPE. What’s the easiest way for me to achieve a score of 60? An exercise like this helps them develop a feeling for swimming some stage of some race more economically and effectively; at some point they’ll probably use this intelligence to stay in good position, while remaining well under their red line…and that becomes a skill that may produce a winning finish.


I explain to my swimmers that the feeling and SL/SR combination that produces your lowest Golf score will not equate to your top speed. As you approach your highest speeds, you can’t really trade one stroke for one second, without overkicking or something else that increases your energy cost. But a great Golf score does equate well to how you’d like to feel in the first quarter of a race, when you’re trying to put yourself in good position, with the lowest heart rate or stroke rate of anyone in the field, setting yourself up to control the pace in the second half.


In another exercise we’ll descend several brief rounds – perhaps 3 x 50s in each round – at each of several stroke counts, perhaps a round each at 26 strokes, 27 strokes, 28 strokes and 29 strokes. I would probably put a recovery 50 – at 23 strokes — between rounds. Our goal is to aim for your best possible score at each count. I’ll ask the swimmers to find out which stroke count produces the lowest score at the lowest RPE; the answer will not be the same for every swimmer.


What I like most about this set is that it gets them to execute a slightly different set of neuromuscular instructions on every single 50. As they swim slightly faster on each of the first 3 x 50s, at 26 strokes, they will have swum a slightly different V/SR combination at the same SL on each 50. They’ll repeat that at a new SL in each successive round. In the course of those 12 x 50s, they will swim 12 slightly different, but completely unique, combinations of SL and SR. If you value nervous system stimulus as part of your training, what could be more valuable as a way of discovering their own most optimal combination of SL and SR?


That systematic experimentation is utterly different from what happens most of the time in conventional training. We give our swimmers countless sets of 500s, 200s or 100s in the course of a season…and they swim them all pretty much the same. But the primary requirement to create continual training adaptation is to find stimuli for our various physiological systems; it seems to me we’re missing out on a great opportunity to maximize training effect, by not assigning sets to be done at different stroke counts.


A different approach to the same idea is by using time, rather than stroke count as the regulator. Swim 3 x 50s at 33 seconds, at different stroke counts, then 3 x 50s at 32 seconds at the same range of stroke counts, then rounds at 31 and 30 seconds. At the end, again ask which combination produced the lowest Golf score with the lowest RPE or HR. Once again, in each of 12 x 50s in a set, they’ve processed slightly different information in their nervous system.


The more frequently you can get the nervous system to master a new task, the more adept and automatically it can find the optimal solution – the one with the lowest energy cost. And greater frequency in processing new information in the nervous system is also the factor most associated with moving the related skill up to autonomic brain centers from the centers of conscious control. Making skills “automatic” is critical to racing success, particularly in shorter events.


This is my personal bias, but I think that it’s far more important to train the nervous system — to be adaptable, to make smart choices, to make subtle adjustments well, etc. — than to train the aerobic system. Again, I emphasize, the aerobic system always gets trained, no matter what you do. But the nervous system only gets quality training when you make that a priority in your practice planning.


Here’s a stroke-changing Swim Golf set we did last week. We did four rounds of 5 x 50. In each round, the first 50 was backstroke, the second 25 back + 25 breast, the third  breaststroke, the fourth 25 breast + 25 free and the fifth freestyle. We did the first two rounds with fistgloves, then removed the gloves for the last two rounds. In each round we did the first four 50s at Perfect speed (from the training speeds mentioned earlier) and the fifth 50 try to get your best Golf score, using any combination of strokes plus seconds. Other ways of doing this could be to score the odd 50s and swim Perfect on the evens, or Perfect on the odds and try for best score on the evens depending whether you wanted to work more on the stroke or on the stroke combo, which would emphasize the IM training elements.


The range of possible sets like these is limited only by your imagination. Apart from the health benefits, one of the great paybacks I get from my own swim training is that it stimulates my practice creativity. I always come out of the pool with several great training ideas. I don’t get nearly as many ideas sitting at my desk, as I do while swimming and immediately after.


Here are sets I use that are typical of those I do to train for distance . None of the Hawks are quite ready for this kind of distance training yet, but when they are – probably after a few months of seasoning — I’ll give them similar sets. The first example is a set of 5 x 500. On the first I limit myself to 13 SPL. I find it a tremendous challenge to complete a 500 in that count, which forces me to be super-attentive to every stroke. If I miss a turn just slightly, or am a bit sloppy on my pushoff, I know it will be that much harder to make it to my next turn in 13 strokes. One poor turn can create a spiral of difficulty, because a loss of momentum going into the next wall – because you had difficulty getting there in 13 strokes – means the next turn and the lap that follows will also be harder. So if I want to sustain 13 SPL for a full 500, I can’t slacken my attention for a moment.


On the next 500 I only have to hold 13 SPL on the first 250, then go to 14 SPL on the second 250. And just because of the extra stroke each length, I’ll usually negative split. I don’t even have to try to negative split. Simply because I have the freedom to take 14 strokes on the second 250, a negative split happens. On the third 500, I’ll allow myself 14 SPL – I’m going to swim this one a bit faster than the previous one, simply by taking more strokes. On the fourth 500, the same thing happens as on number two – a negative split – but this time it’s faster because the stroke count is 250 at 14 SPL and 250 at 15 SPL. And the last 500, I’ll take 15 SPL all the way, which will make this the fastest 500. I might even let myself take 16 strokes on the last 100 – but if I do, that will be a choice not an accident.


Another way I’ve swum 5 x 500 that also creates a natural descending and negative-splitting set, but with a narrower stroke count range is to swim the first 500 at 14 SPL, on the second 500 hold 14 SPL for 400, then go to 15 SPL on the last 100. Each succeeding 500, I’ll shift one additional 100 to 15 SPL, working from back to front. The last 500 will be 100 at 14 SPL plus 400 at 15 SPL. That first 100 at 14 SPL will make me stay controlled at the beginning, setting me up to finish strongly as the stroke count goes up.


Swimming 500-yard repeats this way imprints the habits that program you to swim the 500 with the progressive pacing that has been the usual pattern in NCAA and American records, which is what I mean when I talk about training as rehearsal for the skills that win races.


The Masters coach were I swim gives us three to five 500 repeats every Tuesday evening. In the course of a year’s worth of training we probably swim at least 150 practice 500s. I’ll bet many club swimmers do as many as 200 to 250 500-yard repeats in the course of a year. When you swim this many practice 500s in a season, how do you avoid mindless repetition? My goal is to find a way to make every 500 we do in the course of a year a meaningful training exercise. Stroke count and pace challenges are one of the ways I do that.


Here’s a set I’ve done that would be appropriate for middle distance swimmers – 5 rounds of 4 x 100. You do the first round at 48 strokes (12 SPL), descending from 1 to 4. For me, descending a set of 100s at 48 total strokes, is tough; on the fourth 100 in that first set my brain is working overtime searching for some way to add a bit more speed, without going to 49 strokes. On the second round, I’ll get to take 52 strokes (13 SPL) as I descend the next four 100s. After doing the first set at 48 strokes, the second round at 52 strokes is still a fairly low count, but it seems like a lot of strokes. I descend again, aiming for a faster average than on the first set, not difficult at all with the extra stroke each lap. On the third round I go to 56 strokes (14 SPL) and I have to concentrate a bit on staying smooth, because 56 feels like a high SR. On the fourth round I get 60 strokes and I’m focused on fitting in what feels like a lot of strokes, but staying smooth and controlled as I do. And then I do a 5th round where I do 1 x 100 at each count – or I could swim each 100 at 12+13+14+15 SPL, where I’m pushing my nervous system to change SL and SR more quickly.


Another set is four rounds of 4 x 50 on a minute, ascend-descend. If you hold all 16 50s at 27 strokes, and descend the first four, that’s easy. But ascending the next four, still at 27 strokes, is a tougher brain puzzler because few swimmers ever do that in training.


Here are some sets for sprinters. The first one I pulled from my West Point log book is 16 x 25. You do the first four with Fistgloves – though you could do the set without gloves if you want. On the first round, you just swim Brisk and count your strokes. Take the average count from that set and it becomes your “N” for the rest of the set. Let’s say you average 13 SPL. The rest of the set is 4 rounds of 3 x 25. In each round, the first 25 should be at N-2 or 11 strokes, the second 25 at N-1 or 12 strokes, and the third 25 at N or 13. You swim the N-2 at 95% speed — very nearly as fast as you can go, but at two fewer strokes. Another puzzle to solve: I only get 11 strokes but I have to swim it fast – how do I do that? And each 25 is a different task than the one before and after it – so the brain has to process an updated instruction set on each of the twelve 25s.


Another sprint set: 4 rounds of 4 x 25s. All the odd 25s are Silent. I think of Silent Swimming as a “crystallizing focal point.”  When they swim silently, however they choose to solve the problem of eliminating noise in the stroke, they always swim more fluently and efficiently. Rather than focus on head position or where the hand enters, etc, this is an all-encompassing focal point. In order to swim silently, everything has to get better, and it does. So the odd 25s are all at 12 SPL, Perfect speed and Silent. And the even 25s are one each at 12, 13, 14, 15; we repeat that pattern on the last eight. Each of those are to be swum as fast – and as quiet – as possible.  When we do descending sets or fast sets, I always tell them to listen to themselves as they do and to make the least noise they possibly can when going fast. Try it; your swimmers will swim more efficiently when you just give them that instruction.


Here are some examples of sets using different strokes. You can create more intensive neuromuscular stimulus in backstroke by varying both the number of dolphins and the number of strokes. This is two rounds of 4 x 50 backstroke, all at 11 SPL. In each round they do the first 50 with three dolphins off each wall, then 11 strokes, the second 50 with four dolphins then 11 strokes, the third with five dolphins plus 11 strokes and the fourth with six dolphins plus 11 strokes. As they increase from three to six dolphins, they have to “fit in” their 11 strokes faster. On this set, they are not only practicing a rate change on their swimming, they’re also getting to work out the optimal number of dolphins.


People don’t always use the same number of dolphins on the pushoff. From beginning to end of a 200 many swimmers will usually decrease the number of dolphins they take before surfacing. If my swimmers will make an adjustment like that I’d rather it be planned and practiced, not an accident. So we practice backstroke with varying numbers of dolphins. Sometimes we keep the number of strokes consistent, though the dolphins change. Other times we’ll change the stroke count or let if float, as the number of dolphins changes.


This breaststroke set is one I gave Brendan Hansen when Eddie Reese invited me to plan a couple of sets for the UT swimmers. In a set of 8 x 50, the first was at 4+4 strokes, the second at 4+5, the third at 5+5 the fourth at 5+6, the fifth at 6+6, the sixth at 6+7, the seventh at 7+7  and the final 50 at 7+8 strokes. Brendan felt comfortable on the first six 50s, but had trouble fitting in 7 strokes and couldn’t complete eight strokes on the final 25. He “ran out of pool” in other words. I suggested that he take it as a challenge to fit in 8 strokes…and do it smoothly, without feeling ragged or choppy. On his own, he did the set a second time and solved that puzzle. What I enjoyed was how he got out of the pool enthused over how much fun he had solving that SL puzzle. Even with his level of accomplishment and experience, he was susceptible to an approach that made the set interesting and fun by adjusting the stroke count on each successive 50 and challenged him with a task that he had to concentrate to succeed at. Could “functional fun” like that be anything but a good thing?


Five-Gear Swimming Handout


Step 1: Learn your SL

Make counting a habit.

All Strokes – All Distances

IM’s and Combo’s too

During/After Technique Practice & Fistgloves

Certain Drills & Underwater Dolphins

“Stroke Discipline” matters more than speed.


Step 2: Expand your SL Range

Ladder Up: 25+50+75+100

Ladder Down: 200+150+100+50

Up-Down 25+50+75+100+75+50+25

Distance Test: 1×500 – 1×1000, etc.


Step 3: Learn to “Play” SL (like piano scales)

4 x 4 x 25: 12-13-14-15-15-14-13-12…

3-4 rounds of 25+50+75+100

  • 25@12/50@12+13/75@12+13+14/100@12+13+14+15


  • @ 12-24-36-48 total strokes
  • @12-26-42-60 total strokes
  • @15-28-39-48 total strokes

First learn to calibrate

Then add “easy speed.”


Step 4: Focus on Time/Speed

Swim Golf (strokes + seconds = score)

4 x 50 @ :35  Descend from 30 to 27 strokes (65 to 62 score)

4 x 50 @ 30 strokes Descend from :35 to :32 (65 to 62 score)

4 x 50 @  60 SCORE – How many different stroke counts?

  • 32+:28/29+:31/30+:30/29+:31/28+:32
  • Which combo best HR/RPE?


Best Scores @ Different Stroke Counts

3 x 50 @ 26 strokes

3 x 50 @ 27 strokes

3 x 50 @ 28 strokes

3 x 50 @ 29 strokes

  • Descend score on each round and compare.
  • Which count produced best combo of score/HR/RPE?


Best Scores @ Different Speeds

3 rounds of

1 x 50 @ :34

1 x 50 @ :32

1 x 50 @ :30

1 x 50 @ :28

Try for best score @ each speed.

Stroke Combo Sets

4 rounds of: (1-2 w/FGs)

1 x 50 BK

1 x 50 BK-BR

1 x 50 BR

1 x 50 BR-FR

1 x 50 FR

  • Score odd 50s, Perfect/count on evens
  • Perfect/count on odds; Score on evens
  • Perfect/count on 1-4; Score on #5


Specific Race Prep



5 x 500

#1 @ 13spl

#2 @ 13-14spl

#3 @ 14spl
#4 @ 14-15spl

#5 @ 15spl


5 x 500

#1 @ 14spl

#2 400@14+100@15

#3 300@14+200@15

#4 200@14+300@15

#5 100@14+400@15


Middle Distance

5 rounds of 4 x 100. Descend each 1-4

1st round @ 48 strokes

2nd round @ 52 strokes

3rd round @ 56 strokes

4th round @ 60 strokes

5th round @ 48-52-56-60 strokes


4 rounds of 4 x 50 on 1:00

Descend/Ascend x 4s

Hold all 50s at 27 strokes.

I.E. :36-:35-:34-:33-:33-:34-:35-:36 x 2



16 x 25 w/FG

1-4 Swim “brisk” & count strokes. Average becomes “N”

5-16 in 4 rounds of 3. In each round, #1 @ -2 SPL,  #2 @ -1 SPL,   #3 @ N

Swim each SPL at 95% speed.


4 rounds of 4 x 25

All odd 25s @ 12 SPL – Silent & Perfect

Even 25s @ 12-13-14-15-12-13-14-15 SPL

All as FAST & as quiet as possible.

Different Strokes


Swim 2 rounds of 4 x 50 BK – All @ 11 SPL

Descend each round

#1 w/3 Dolphins

#2 w/4 Dolphins

#3 w/5 Dolphins

#4 w/6 Dolphins


Swim 8 x 50 BR.  Descend 1-8

#1 @ 4SPL

#2 @ 4+5SPL

#3 @ 5SPL

#4 @ 5+6SPL

#5 @ 6SPL

#6 @ 6+7SPL

#7 @ 7SPL

#8 @ 7+8SPL





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