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Tuning In

As time is the ultimate arbiter of performance, practice environments necessarily focus almost exclusively on time. From the time it takes to complete a repetition, to the duration of the interval, to the number of seconds, it’s about time.

Focusing on the clock will certainly lead to improvements in performance. It is an extremely effective way to evaluate performance, motivate swimmers, and track progress. Focusing on time works without question.

Coaches and swimmers alike are able to tell if a training session was productive based upon how fast the swimmer swam. Was it fast? This tends to be the standard by which most swimmers and coaches evaluate a given training repetition, training set, and training session.

Rightfully so.

As swimmers are ultimately evaluated by how fast they cover a set distance, consistently evaluating the ability to cover different distances in different contexts is an important part of the training experience, perhaps even the most important. This works really well in guiding and evaluating training. Improved performances in training will generally result in improvements in competition.

Until they don’t.

There are some skills that are critical to racing performance that can be overlooked when using time as the primary evaluator of training success. As speed is an outcome, the focus is on achieving outcomes and less so on the process that’s required to get there. In some cases, swimmers can achieve performances in training while using skills that aren’t particularly productive in races.

Let’s take an example.

Say a swimmer performs 4x100m swims using a performance-appropriate interval, resulting in relatively short rest periods. During this set, the swimmer achieves their goal pace. Some potential issues-

  • Races are not performed at constant velocity

  • Races have no performance feedback after every 100m (time or coach)

  • Races require the ability to respond to an unfolding race

These are just a few examples of how races may differ. From this, we can determine that practices should develop the ability to sense the appropriate racing rhythm, know how to effectively modulate their effort, as well as the ability to execute different race strategies and understand the pacing these strategies require.

The potential problem with focusing exclusively on time is that we can leave a practice feeling successful (or not) depending on performance times, while ignoring other important aspects of performance that may lead to future successes. Without the use of time to evaluate a practice, swimmers and coaches are required to focus on these other critical skills. ‘Success’ is then determined by the ability to learn some of the less quantifiable skills that are just as important for performance.

This isn’t to say that using time to evaluate performance is bad. The point is that it can become problematic when used exclusively. If performances are not improving or failing to translate to competition, it can be useful to consider how an exclusive focus on time can be impeding performance progressions.

By including training that does not use time to evaluate performance, swimmers can develop complimentary skill sets that will further enhance their ability to become effective racers. The more they have these skills, the effective they will be at racing, and the more they will KNOW they are effective at racing. Confidence comes from preparation.

  • What are some of these skills that can be improved?

  • Why are they critical for performance?

  • How are they influenced by the use of time?


Rhythm is a critical skill in swimming. More rhythmic swimmers are able to swim faster with less effort. Yet rhythm is often ignored and few swimmers are able to consistently swim with rhythm, effectively change their rhythm, or maintain their rhythm under duress. These are skills that must be learned.

  • Are swimmers aware of their rhythm, and whether it’s working?

  • Can they change their rhythm abruptly with the appropriate amount of effort, or does a change in effort disrupt a smooth rhythm?

  • Can swimmers use rhythm to create speed versus solely increasing the effort?

  • Do they know where the rhythm of their stroke originates so that they can use that source to create speed? Can they feel how their stroke changes when they increase their speed?


If swimmers aren’t able to create and sustain effort on their own accord, without the pressure of external accountability, they’re not going to be able to generate the effort required during races, especially when it gets tough.

  • Are swimmers able to mobilize a maximal effort?

  • Are they able to sustain a maximal or near maximal effort?

  • Are they able to maintain effort when they begin to experience fatigue or discomfort?

Without the possibility of evaluating performance via time, swimmers can begin to tune in to whether they are truly giving maximal effort when required, and whether they are giving appropriate effort at others. They can also learn to assess how they respond when sustaining effort becomes challenge. They can learn how to endure for longer and sustain their focus when they are feeling discomfort. This becomes possible when effort is the focus, rather than time.


Swimming fast is about feeling. Swimmers need to perceive what they are doing as they move through the water, and use that information to modify and control their skills. If swimmers are unable to do so, they will not be successful in changing those skills. Constantly using time to evaluate success will reduce swimmers’ attention to what they feel, as well decrease the importance it is attributed.

By choosing to forgo timing repetitions on occasion, swimmers will begin to pay attention to what they are feeling when given the proper tasks and direction from a coach. A successful practice can become the development of a novel awareness of an existing skill, being able to feel the sensation of a new skill, or simply being able to quickly achieve the sensations they desire when switching from different tasks. All of these outcomes indicate a greater ability to manage the aquatic environment, a powerful outcome.

Pacing Control

Races are unpredictable. Having a singular race strategy is wonderful until a race develops that requires a different strategy.

  • Are swimmers able to execute multiple race strategies and respond to developments of the race?

  • At the same time, if swimmers do have strict race strategy, are they able to stick to it regardless of what is happening in the race?

Swimmers have no pace clock. They don’t really know how fast they are swimming. They have to respond and act accordingly. This skill must be developed in training and it must be developed without time as an evaluation at some point. Swimmers must execute these skills in races without a clock. The ability to do so must be developed in practice.

Practical Training Sets

Importantly, all of these training tasks should be explored without timing the repetitions. Swimmers and coaches use time to evaluate performance, to know it a training session was a successful one. By removing the clock, both parties will need to evaluate the practice based upon whether the subjective outcome was achieved, not whether the repetitions were fast or not. They’ll have to engage in feeling and seeing if the desired skills are learned.

Many coaches may say they already do this during drill sets where the focus is on a specific skill and performance is not measured by time. While it’s easy to work on all of these aspects at relatively slow speeds, and that can be useful, swimmers must understand these concepts in race-like environments. They must be able to evaluate their effectiveness based on these secondary traits, and they must be able to do in race relevant situations, without simply measuring performance.

To further enhance the diminished presence of time, it can be valuable to eliminate intervals on occasion, thus fully eliminating reliance on the clock. The potential issue is that it becomes possible for both coach and swimmer to glance at the clock if the clock is still present, even if there is no overt timing. Potential solutions are to simply allow swimmers to perform repetitions when they feel ready, or to include a recovery-based activity as the interval. In the latter case, the swimmer could perform 10 bobs or 10 deep breaths between each repetition.

However, it is simply unsafe or impractical to do so in many situations. There are too many swimmers and it’s simply not feasible to have them departing at random times. At worst, there could have collisions, and at best swimmers could interrupt repetitions of their teammates by getting in the way. Intervals can sometimes be the only solution. Fortunately, swimmers often focus their attention where coaches focus their attention. If coaches are focused on the soft skills and never mentioning times, swimmers will often behave accordingly.

That stated, let’s get into some example sets. Many of these training sets work multiple components at the same time. There will always be sensation, there will always be a perception, there will always be come degree of effort, and there will always be pacing of some sort. At any point, a choice must be made as to where the focus must be placed. With all of the sets, they could effectively serve a different purpose.

Set #1


Gradually build effort until you can’t continue to accelerate; rest accordingly

Gradually build rhythm until you can’t continue to accelerate; rest accordingly

Aggressively build effort until you can’t continue to accelerate; rest accordingly

Aggressively rhythm effort until you can’t continue to accelerate; rest accordingly

*2 rounds choice of equipment + 2 rounds of no equipment; can be done in any order

For the first two repetitions, the swimmers should build their effort over longer distances, perhaps 200 yards. In the second two repetitions, it might take place over 50 yards. They must distinguish between effort and rhythm. Coaches can help guide the process by questioning swimmers about why they felt they were unable to continue to accelerate, as well as how they were attempting to increase their speed.

The purpose of this set is to help swimmers to tune in to how to control their speed, as well as to differentiate between effort and rhythm. They’ll also have to determine how to optimally accelerate, and where that acceleration will come from. They’ll learn to pay attention to where their limits are, as well as the possibilities for expanding those limits. Simply, it requires them to pay attention to their speed, as well as if they’re using their speed effectively.

For coaches, they must improve their ability to see when swimmers are moving effortfully or rhythmically. In addition, they must learn to see if swimmers are able to accelerate smoothly as opposed to experiencing abrupt changes in speed, indicating a lack of control over their strokes.

By removing time and concrete distances, swimmers and coaches are left to use feelings and images of speed, effort, and rhythm to evaluate performance. If swimmers have better awareness and control of these traits, they’re more likely to be able to navigate races successfully, implementing each attribute most effectively.

Coaches can guide the set by asking the following questions-

  • What prevented you from continuing to increase your speed?

  • What was the limiting factor?

  • Which was more effective, using rhythm or effort?

  • Where is there more room for improvement?

  • Was it easier to build with rhythm or effort?

Set #2

8 maximal efforts; continue to swim until you’ve lost the maximal effort; rest accordingly

Must use 4 different sets of equipment

The task of this set is to start at a maximal effort and go until you can’t maintain that effort, or when there is a marked change in skill or speed. Swimmers are faced with the challenge of pushing through the discomfort of the situation, as well as controlling their skills when it starts to get hard.

To be successful, swimmers must learn to manage the fatigue they will experience at the end of a race, when they feel they can no longer go on. They must continue to put out effort, and they must control their skills which will surely erode. Winning races is about maintaining effort and maintaining skilled execution. This set allows swimmers to practice in that environment.

For coaches, they must learn to see when swimmers cross the line, when their skills deteriorate, and when they simply run out of gas. This can be incredibly useful when providing guidance during traditional training sets, as well as determining when enough is enough.

Coaches can guide the set by asking the following questions-

  • Why did you stop?

  • Did your skills fall apart?

  • Was the discomfort too much?

  • What can you do to hold it slightly longer?

Set #3

100 w/30 seconds rest 25 solid/25 strong

100 w/30 seconds rest 25 steady/25 fast

100 w/30 seconds rest 25 ez/25 MAX

200 w/30 seconds rest 25 solid/25 strong

200 w/30 seconds rest 50 steady/50 fast

200 w/30 seconds rest 50 ez/50 MAX

300 w/30 seconds rest 75 solid/75 strong

300 w/30 seconds rest 75 steady/75 fast

300 w/30 seconds rest 75 ez/75 MAX

Change speed with a focus on RHYTHM, not simply effort

This set works best with swimmers that already possess a sense of rhythm, and are aware of what their different rhythms feel like. The goal here is for swimmers to change their rhythms as required, and they want to get into that rhythm as quickly as possible. They want to switch rhythms immediately and they want to feel it ‘click’ right away. The more swimmers are able to accomplish this task, the more control they have over HOW they are swimming. While switching gears will necessarily require a change in effort, swimmers should work to accomplish the speed changes through rhythm

Coaches can guide the process by asking the following questions-

  • Were you able to switch rhythms effectively?

  • Did you get into the desired rhythm?

  • How long did it take until you feel like everything came together?

  • What can you do to make the rhythm smoother?

  • What can you do to make the rhythm click faster?

Set #4

6x25@1 ~200 pace effort; heavy resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pa; #5/6 1 pad

6x25@1 ~200 pace effort; medium resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pa; #5/6 1 pad

6x25@1 ~200 pace effort; Low resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pa; #5/6 1 pad

*Whatever resistance options you have, try to decrease the resistance across the rounds. If you only have one option, go resistance/no resistance/fins by round.

^Tennis ball, can also be performed with a closed fist.

Swimmers should try to create as much pressure as possible with each stroke, and try to make each stroke feel the same. There repetitions aren’t timed, and swimmers should aim to achieve a strong effort on each repetition.

The purpose here is to create more awareness of how the arm is creating propulsion with the hand and forearm. The use of resistance magnifies the feedback swimmers receive from the water, and changing the resistance changes the feedback. By changing the ‘size’ of the hand with each repetition, swimmers also get a lot of feedback about the relative roles of the hand and forearm. They can learn how to change that relationship.

The purpose is to help swimmers tune into the sensory information that they’re receiving from each stroke. The more aware they are of this information, the more they can use this information to get feedback about how well they are performing propulsive actions. By improving sensory awareness, swimmer can gain the ability to control their skills in race situations, notice when they’re off track, and make the change. Only by tuning in, can they develop that skill.

Coaches can guide the process by asking the following questions-

  • How does the pressure change as the resistance is lowered?

  • How does the pressure change as you go from TB to hand to paddle?

  • Are you able to create equal pressure on both sides with uneven hands?

  • Which side tends to have more pressure?

  • How can you better create equal pressure?

  • How can you create more pressure?

Set #5

100@1:30 Maximal effort

6x50@45 des effort in pairs of 2

100@1:30 Maximal effort

100 recovery swim

100@1:30 Maximal effort

8x50@45 ODD slightly faster than 400m race effort EVEN slightly slow than 400m race effort

100@1:30 Maximal effort

100 recovery swim

5x100@1:30 50 des 1-5 to Maximal effort/50 400m race effort

100@1:30 Maximal effort

100 recovery swim

6x100@1:30 Varying effort above and below 400m race effort; coach tells swimmers the required effort for each repetition after the prior repetition.

Races are not always an exercise of monotonous pacing. They can be very dynamic. Providing different racing experiences can help swimmers feel what may happen in a race, rather than just repeating an idealized speed. This particular set is an example of that, using the 400m freestyle as an example. These are simple examples and many others are possible. The key is to change effort, and require swimmers to navigate that through their perceptions, not using time.

They must feel when they have more to give, as well as if they are over the edge. Learning that skill is a successful practice.

No times are provided by this set, and swimmer must focus on perceiving if they are managing their fatigue and performance appropriately. Intervals are provided to keep the effort and stress high, as well as to keep the training session organized. Swimmers and coaches should be prevented from getting the swimmers’ actual times.

The focus is on managing fatigue and retaining the ability to race. Once swimmers and coaches are tuned in, the same sets can be performed with times to get a sense of how fast swimmers are performing. This can help to calibrate what they are feeling.

Coaches can guide the process by asking the following questions-

  • When did you go over the edge?

  • Did you have too much at the end?

  • What do you struggle with when you begin to fatigue?

  • What can you do to better manage fatigue?

  • Where can you place your focus to maintain performance?


A relentless focus on the clock will orient swimmers to optimizing their speed for a given task. Clearly, this is a critical component of effective training. At the same time, it is not without its potential issues. An exclusive reliance on the timing performances can lead to swimmers and coaches evaluating training sessions SOLELY on the merits of speed. This can lead to the underdevelopment of many skills required to race effectively.

In races, swimmers do not receive performance feedback after every lap, as they may in training. They must execute the entire swim without calibrating their effort at set junctures. They must manage their speed, effort, and rhythm relying only on their internal perceptions.

Further executing the skills required to race effectively can only be done through intrinsic feedback from what swimmers feel. This feedback can be ignored when exclusively focused on speed.

All of these potential issues can be mitigated by performing some training sessions without timed repetitions. Coaches and swimmers must than evaluate practices based upon the execution, not solely on outcomes. By balancing both components in training, we can provide swimmers with a more effective training experience, better preparing them for the realities of competition.


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