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Learning or Performing? Part II

In part I, we explored the differences between learning environments and racing environments. The following characteristics can describe different types of training-


  • Novel experiences

  • Unmastered tasks

  • Constant variation

  • Complex tasks

  • Expectations of effort and engagement

  • High levels of challenge

  • More frequent failure

  • Struggle

  • Optimal failure rates

  • Clear task goals and direct feedback


  • Simple tasks

  • Mastered tasks

  • Limited failure

  • High levels of success

  • Expectations of performance

  • High performance standards

Check out part I for a more detailed description. In part II, we're going to put these ideas into practice, taking a look at what these two types of sets look like in several different contexts.

Race Preparation Sets

Race preparation sets involve race-relevant distances and speeds. They can take many different forms. Let’s consider two similar sets that target the same race, yet have very different objectives. One set is focused on performing at race speed, whereas the other set is focused on learning the skills of racing. In both sets, the volumes are the same, the densities are similar, and the speeds are similar. The outcomes will be very different in terms of how they are performed, and what is achieved.

The sets described are for illustrative purposes. Simply change the intervals, speeds, and volumes to suit your swimmers and the goals of a given practice.


2 rounds through

10x50m@40 performed at 400m race speed

6x100m@1:40 Easy recovery with controlled stroke count

In this set, the task is to repeat each performance at race pace for 400m. The objective is form swimmers to lock in to what those speeds feel like as well as manage how to sustain those speeds as physiological stress mounts. It is about consistency and performing at expected performance levels.

It is more about rehearsal than development. Swimmers are practicing the relevant racing speeds and activating the relevant physiology. There is little variation and there is a high number of consistent repetitions. Assuming swimmers are appropriately prepared and under normal levels of fatigue, this set should be manageable and predictable. While swimmers may be slightly faster or slower depending on the day, the set should bring no surprises. It is about performance.


2 rounds through

100m@1:30 FAST

6x50@45 alternate between 1 second faster than 400m speed and 1 second slower than 400m

100m@1:30 FAST; try to match the first 100

6x100m@1:40 Easy recovery with controlled stroke count

In this set, swimmers are learning how to controlling their speed, shifting their effort levels, and manage rapidly shifting physiological stress while still performing to a specified performance standard. This is much more reflective of the realities of racing. It is unpredictable and messy. Swimmers must start fast, respond to varying physiological challenges, and then find a way to finish.

There is less emphasis on the absolute performance times, and more emphasis on learning how to control speed and shift gears after being fatigued. To be successful in this type of set, swimmers will need to learn-

How to swim the first 100 without fear of the remainder of the set.

How to continue to swim fast after a significant effort to start.

How to shift gears and control speed depending on the objective.

How to mobilize effort and the end and empty the tanks.

These are skills that swimmers must possess for success in middle distance events. While they are supported by physiological capacities, having the required fitness does not mean swimmers will be able to execute the skills. This must be practiced and sets designed to challenge these skills are required.

When first performing a set like this, swimmers will struggle with one or all of the skills listed above. It is very different than a traditional performance-oriented pace set. It can get really messy, and that’s good. It’s opportunity for improvement. Over time, swimmers will learn how to accomplish all of these skills if they are addressed in training.

Skill Acquisition Sets

In this example, we’ll take a look at two different type of skill acquisition sets, one that is focused on performance and one that is focused on learning. As with the race development sets described above, the intentions and thus the outcomes are quite different, even if the sets look similar on paper.

In the first case, we are rehearsing and performing previously mastered skills. In the latter, we are working through learning new skills. Performance consolidates mastered skills. Learning develops new ones.


6 rounds through

2x25@30 Favorite breaststroke drill

1x25@30 swim breaststroke des 1-3 to strong effort/des 4-6 to stronger effort

In this set up, swimmers are rehearsing their favorite drill that they have already mastered. They are reacquainting themselves with the sensations that they find beneficial, and then applying it to regular swimming. They are slowly adding speed to the regular swim to apply what they are refreshing in the drill.

However, they are not necessarily learning new skills. They are simply reinforcing the work that has already been done. This can be beneficial late in a season when the goal is to help swimmers gain confidence and consistency in their skills. By performing those activities that have been demonstrated to be beneficial, swimmers can consolidate their progress. The problem becomes when coaches


4 rounds through

2x25@45 Breaststroke pull with light dolphin kick + parachute; add stroke count + time and minimize sum

2x25@45 Breaststroke pull with light dolphin kick no parachute; add stroke count + time and minimize sum

1x25@30 swim breaststroke des 1-3 to strong effort/des 4-6 to stronger effort

For the pull, ODD rounds are with small paddles and EVEN rounds are with hands

This is a simple set is designed for a breaststroker who is coming is struggling to pull effectively. To learn how to pull effectively, the swimmer is placed in an environment where they must accomplish a goal, and the only way to accomplish that goal is to pull effectively. Learning is magnified by the addition of resistance as the added resistance will punish swimmers that pull ineffectively. Good breaststroke kickers will unable to rely on their kick.

There is a clear goal (minimize the sum of stroke count and time) and there is clear feedback after each 25 (swimmers will receive their number). As swimmers move through the set, they are expected to reduce the sum of time and stroke count, indicating that they are learning effective strategies. To do so, they will need to swim in new ways. If they are consistently repeating performances, they are not learning new strategies. This may be a significant struggle for some and they will need to learn how pull differently.

Swimmers are also challenging by performing the task in multiple contexts, some with paddles and some with parachutes. This will require the implementation of different, yet similar solutions. Further, switching tasks requires to re-learn or re-establish previously executed strategies. To increase or decrease the challenge, the intervals can be increased or decreased. Other options are to increase the speed expectations or place limitations on the number of strokes can take.

While the contrast between the two sets is not obvious, it occurs s a result of the intention. In the first set, swimmers are simply performing previously mastered skills with the intention to rehearse and consolidate the previously established skills. They are executing what they have mastered to make sure it’s still there. By choosing drills that make them ‘feel good’ and then transferring that into regular swimming, swimmers are performing.

The second set is focused on learning a specific skill. Swimmers are placed in a novel context with changing constraints, and they are excepted to achieve challenging objectives within those constraints. The stroke count, speed, resistance, hand size, and pull constraints all serve to limit the number of effective solutions, and swimmers must find those solutions to be successful. This is learning.

Aerobic Endurance Sets

While aerobic endurance sets tend to be performed below the limits of the athletes at any one moment in time, there are certainly distinctions between performance sets and learning sets in this context as well. Performance sets typically be characterized by consistent speeds performed right around ‘threshold’, and they tend to be ‘dense’ in that they are performed on the tightest recovery interval that allows for the desired performance. They demonstrate the performance level of the aerobic system. An extreme example would be a time 3000m swim or a 30-minute swim for maximal distance.

In contrast, learning sets will be characterized by shifting efforts and paces where swimmers are learning to manage their outputs and maintain skills at their aerobic limit. As there tends to be a biomechanical shift towards higher stroke rates and lower stroke lengths at and beyond threshold, swimmers can train to resist these changes.


In this set, swimmers are performing to their aerobic limits with a simple set that stresses these capacities to their limit. Swimmer are striving to perform at their best and little direct learning is achieved. Swimmers should be familiar with the context and there is minimal to no variation in speed over the course of the set.

3 rounds through

10x100@1:20 ‘Best average’ effort (select an interval that allows ~10 seconds of rest)

200@3 Cruise speed

Improving the average performance over time would indicate an aerobic improvement. There is not much skill involved in this set, beyond reflecting the current performance capacities of the swimmer. Their aerobic fitness will be reflected by the speeds achieved during the set, although this type of set might not necessarily be the best way to develop aerobic fitness for all swimmers.

Consistency of effort and speed is the objective. Fitter swimmers will be able to perform at a higher level for a longer period of time. The set can be progress by increasing the speed, decreasing the interval, or increasing the volume. Improved performances indicate improved fitness.


In this set, swimmers are also training in an aerobic context. However, swimmers must now manage changes in speed, dynamically shifting physiology, and they must maintain their stroke count across different speeds and physiological stresses. This is a very different challenge and swimmers will need to learn how to manage this context. This challenges also further reflect the dynamics of racing, where skills must be maintained under duress. Swimmers must also be able respond to speed changes from other swimmers, as well as dictate these responses as appropriate.

3 rounds through

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ +1 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ -1 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ +2 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ -2 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ +3 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ -3 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ +2 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ -2 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ +1 second; Maintain the same stroke count

100@1:30 ‘Best average speed’ -1 second; Maintain the same stroke count

200@3 Cruise speed

The main focus is being able to control pace and change gears, all while staying in an aerobic context. On some of the faster efforts, swimmers will likely go ‘over the edge’. They must do so with technical control, and then find a way to recover during a subsequent slower effort.

The interval is a little looser compared to the previous set to create more of a buffer for the swimmers in the event that they lose control of their physiology or their skills. It’s perfectly acceptable for that to happen, and we want to make sure they can get back into the set if necessary. The set can be progressed by reducing the interval, increasing the volume, reducing the stroke count, increasing the overall speed, or increasing the variation of the speeds. All of these challenges will force swimmers to better manage technique and speed under fatigue, while simultaneously improving fitness.

While the two sets appear similar, the former is about maximizing aerobic performance in the moment by creating a very straight forward stimulus that has limited constraints. The second set demands much more control of speed changes, the physiology required to facilitate those changes, as well as the ability to maintain efficiency under stress. These skills must be learned.


As mentioned earlier, remember that one type of training is not ‘better’ than the other. What’s important is that each type of training is used at the appropriate time. In general, learning environments are conducive to earlier in the training cycle when it’s important to develop performances. Whether is it is technical skill, tactical execution, or physiological capacities, early in the season is more appropriate for development.

As championship season approaches later in the training cycle, there can be a shift towards performance-oriented training. At that point, there is less opportunity for development and it becomes critical to consolidate the progress that has been made up to that point. Swimmers must be able to consistently display the skills that they have developed over the course of the season. They must be able to display these skills in situations that represent the requirements of competition. When this can be done more often than not, there is greater likelihood that these performances will happen when it matters.

As swimmers move through the training cycle and a training career, it’s really valuable to note what types of training tend to are effective. Swimmers and coaches should have a better understanding of which types of activities facilitate performance. As in the skill acquisition example, swimmers will have their favorite tasks that make them feel good. Whatever these favorite tasks are, they should comprise a significant portion of the training prior major competition to help make sure performances happen.

The dynamics of shifting training emphasis over the course of a season should also be reflected in a training career. Younger swimmers should focus their training activities on learning, occasionally spending time with performance training to help ensure that the acquired skills can be demonstrate in competition.

In contrast, older swimmers will likely spend more of their time with performance-oriented tasks as they should have developed a broader base of the skills required for competing effectively. Both types of training are required for both types of swimmers. It a matter of achieving a balance that reflects the needs of the swimmers in question, and exceptions certainly exist.


As coaches, we’re trying to get the best out of our swimmers every day. This is critical if swimmers are going to be successful in the long-term. This is often reflected in swimming fast on a daily basis. However, ‘getting the best’ is not necessarily the same as performing the best. There are some activities that allow swimmers to perform to their potential, yet don’t necessarily result in improved performance. They simply demonstrate it. If we continue to focus in this area, it can compromise long-term improvement.

There needs to be an equal focus on learning throughout the training process. This type of training might not result in performances on any one day, yet it will result in improved performances over time. It’s okay if performance is lower, as long as learning is being facilitated. In some cases, this may be required for learning to happen.

Learning and performing are both integral components of developing fast swimming. While one is not more important than the other, there tends to be a focus on performance driven training at the expense of learning. With a shift towards learning-based training sets and sessions, we can help to ensure that long-term progress is possible for all of our swimmers.

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