How to Build the Perfect Swim Workout

Make the most of your training time in the pool with four fundamentals from STACK Expert Olivier Poirier-Leroy.

If you're looking to get a little more serious about training in the pool, or you want more structure around your time in the water, read on. Here is how to build a swim workout to achieve your goals.

Having a plan before you hop into the fast lane will keep you more engaged in your workout and ideally help you improve faster.

There are endless ways you can change your swim sets in the pool, but there are some fundamentals you should follow each time you train.

1. Swim with a focus on technique

Daily I see swimmers who thrash and gasp across the pool in a flurry of white water. The effort is there, but the technique isn't.

Like any other kind of resistance activity, swimming should be done with an emphasis on proper form—from beginning to end, from warm-up to your main set. Just as you wouldn't do Squats or Push-Ups with inefficient form, swimming without good technique is not only harder but also opens you up to increased injury risk.

2. Warm up properly

Before the meat and potatoes of your workout comes the appetizer—a.k.a. the warm-up. Here is a three-step process to make sure you are ready to fire it up later in the session:

Step 1: Mobility work outside the pool. Arm Swings, Leg Swings and opening up your thoracic spine with a foam roller are great ways to loosen up before you hop in the water. The easiest way to avoid swimmer's shoulder is to perform an effective pre-hab routine that includes opening up your upper back and shoulders before engaging in those hard efforts.

Step 2: General warm-up. This is easy- to medium-paced swimming, kicking and pulling. Mix up the strokes to open up the shoulders and hips, and employ lots of kick to boost your core temperature. The general warm-up should take up approximately 20 percent of your workout.

Step 3: The Pre-set. Here is where you really start to prime your body for the main set. Perform some build efforts (50's starting easy and finishing at close to all-out speed) and some drill work that is relevant to the things you are focusing on in your technique. The pre-set should take up about 10 percent of your total practice.

3. The main set

Alrighty, here's your big moment. Go time, baby. The heavy lifting of your swim workout. The main set.

Whatever your goal is in the pool, this is where you do the serious work to help you get there. If you are a sprinter, this is where you perform the ultra-speed stuff. If you're a distance swimmer, now is the time to belt out intervals as close to possible to your target race pace or heart rate.

Here are some sample sets:


  • 20x100 freestyle @:15 seconds rest between
  • 10x150 as [50 kick, 100 swim] @3:00
  • 100-200-300-400-300-200-100 ladder pull set @2/minutes per 100 base (Intervals: 2:00 for the 100, 4:00 for the 200, etc.)


  • 5 x [5 x 25 freestyle ALL OUT @:45] with 100 swim easy between rounds
  • 16x25 kick with :15 seconds rest between reps; alternate 1 ALL-OUT, 1 cruise


  • 16x50 pull, paddles and band @:15 rest between reps
  • 10 x 75 swim with fins as [25 build, 25 cruise, 25 all out] @:20 sec rest between reps

4. Recovery

Now that you have pummeled yourself, it's time to recover so you can come back and do it all over again. Your warm-down should comprise about 20 percent of the time you spend in the water.

The warm-down. Yes, I know—the last thing you want to do after a tough workout is spend more time training, even at a low to moderate pace. But warming down helps flush metabolic waste and prompts your nervous system to get back to square one. For sprint swimmers, the warm-down should be longer than for distance athletes, per USA Swimming's recommendations.

Dryland stretching. Once you are toweled off and have hopefully crushed some post-workout nutrition, some light stretching and foam rolling of your chest, shoulders, back and hips will help keep you loose—not only for tomorrow's workout, but over the duration of the weeks of training ahead.