Training Strategies that Work
By Doug Huestis Head Coach Bay Masters



This article will be an elaboration and expansion of a talk I gave at the 1996 Pacific Swim Coaches Clinic in Napa. Primarily I will be sharing some training concepts, drills, and sets that I have found to be of use in the preparation of our swimmers for our yearly "Major Team Goals."

First and foremost is my philosophy of: Train to Compete --- Don't just Train to Train.

That said I do not want it be thought that I believe one is wasting one's time by "cranking out the yards." However if it is your swimmers desire to achieve their best times in competition, and not just in practice, you as their coaches need to evaluate the 'composition' of your practices.

A good analogy would be to think of your practices as a "Trans-mission." How many 'speeds' are you giving your swimmers?
If, on a weekly basis, most of the sets and practices consist of 100's with 10 seconds rest and 200's with 20 seconds rest, and so on, there is a pretty good chance that you are giving your swimmers a One Speed Transmission.

And usually what they are able to do in practices is what they will be limited to in competition-- one, perhaps two speeds (i.e., energy systems to tap into) at best.

There are essentially six different sources that a swimmer can draw upon. Those are the 3 Aerobic Training Levels (a "3- Speed Transmission") -- and the 3 Anaerobic Training Levels (another "3- Speed Transmission"). My training goal is to ensure that by the time we are at our major competition of the year our swimmers have at least a 5- Speed Transmission to work with. Just about the best book that covers this subject is “Swimming Even Faster” by Ernie Maglischo; which should be on just about every swimmer’s bookshelf !!

So what do our practices consist of?

On a general level the percentage breakdown (of total time spent) of practices that seems to work best for us is: warm-up = 8-10%; kick set = 15-18%; pull set = 15-18%; speed set = 3-5%; main set = 40-60%; and warm down = 3-5%.

We do make it a habit do some kind of 'speed work' in every practice on a year round basis.

Trying to "find some speed" in the last few weeks of a season is like trying to find a 'great date', in a Bar - at 1 am- on a Saturday night. Sure it can be done, but you just may not know what you're getting; and when you find out, it may be too late!

Here are some specific training drills/sets that have worked for us.

  1. Stroke Technique Work: The very best "Drill" I have ever seen is a 'Training Device' -- "FIST GLOVES". I have never, in some 40 years of coaching swimmers, seen a training adjunct that did such a superlative job of focusing a swimmers attention on exactly how they were 'anchoring' themselves and moving 'over' their hands. They find it somewhat frustrating while wearing them, and like all coaches, I ignore their 'cries of self pity'. But when they take them off, the improvement in distance per stroke (D.P.S.), is immediate, and with cumulative use -- permanent. Don't worry I'm not "on commission" -- I just think they're great!

  2. Pacing Work: Do you have swimmers who continually 'goes out too fast' and just can't seem to learn how to pace a swim? One of the 'Drills' I would have such a swimmer do would be to wear a wristwatch with a count-up/count-down function. After you have decided what the 'repeat' distance will be for the set - decide what pace the swimmer should be holding at. Then break that down to the “pace per 25”. So if your swimmer is going to swim 6 x 300 yd Free repeats and you would like him/her to hold 1:20 per 100 pace; set the wristwatch to count-down ("beep") every 20 seconds. Then instruct the swimmer that they must hear the watch "beeping"during each and every turn, and especially during the first few turns. If they 'stay on pace with the watch' -- their pacing ability should improve over a short time.

  3. Predictive Swimming Tests: I have been using a series of 'test sets' for the last 10 years and have found them to be valuable in ascertaining if we are indeed training the 'energy systems' in the manner, and time of season as we wished to.


  1. Base Test Set: 5 x 100's Free on 4:00 (with each 100 swum as fast as you can while holding all 100’s within 1 second of each other) -- Tests adaptations of Lactate Tolerance/Lactate Clearance ability. This set has been called "barbaric" by some swimmers. But it does work!! Also good for estimating 200 Free performance (take your averaged 100 time for this set and multiply by 2. That will usually be very close to your actual 200 time in upcoming competition – after ‘correction’ for the start –- (i.e., subtract 2 seconds for start).

  2. Aerobic Base Test Set: 20 x 100's Free with 10 seconds rest.Tests adaptations/shifts of anaerobic threshold (A.T. pace). We use results to monitor changes in endurance capacity and to help construct most, if not all, of our 'Aerobic' type sets.

  3. Stroke Test Set: 16 x 50's stroke on 2:00 in 4 sets of 4 x 50's with 4 x 25's EZ Free swims (10 second rest) after each set of 4 x 50's -- plus take an extra minute rest before the next 'cycle' of 4 x 50's. This set tests adaptations in your Lactate Production/Lactate Clearance rate. We have the IM'ers do one set of each stroke in IM order (i.e., cycle 1 = 4 x 50's Fly @ race pace, cycle 2 = Back, etc, etc.).


As a general rule we do each of these 'predictive' Test Sets once every 3-4 weeks starting six months out (plus 'taper time') from our major goal meet of the year.

Aside from these major test sets we do other types of sets/drills that focus on specific aspects of racing in competition.

They are:
  1. START Time Trials (timing swimmers from 'start' to 'breakout' [‘breakout point’ being standardized at 35 ft. from wall]; done 3 times and averaged);

  2. TURN Time Trials (timing the 'in/out' of turn using backstroke flags as reference point - same averaging system as starts); and

  3. RELAY Exchange Series -- using a 'continuously rotating through' relay where the swimmer's exchanges are judged to be either: 1) "Right-on"; 2) "Too Slow"; or (ouch!) 3) "JUMP".


These are done roughly every two weeks during the last 3-4 months of the season, with the results of the Start and Turn Time Trials being posted for all to see, as are the results of the Base, Distance, and Stroke Test Sets with – hopefully-- percentage improvements from the previous postings.

The way I look at it if you leave nothing to chance, chances are you will not be disappointed.

Doug Huestis coaches Bay Masters (BAY) in San Francisco. He has served as a member on the USMS Sports Medicine Committee, where he authored numerous articles on ‘Swimming Physiology and Training.’ He holds a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology, and was Head Masters Coach for The Olympic Club (1990-1997) where his swimmers broke over 225 Masters National and World Records and won 4 USMS National Championships and 2 FINA Masters World Championships.

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