Designing a Swim Training Program: the BTRE Protocol

Learn how you can build your own swim training program from STACK Expert Gary Mullen.

Swim Training
Swimming events in the Summer Olympics often inspire people to hit the pool for swim training. Unfortunately, most efforts to start (or resurrect) a swimming program fade within a few weeks, most commonly from either poor program design, little workout variety or loss of direction.

Swimming forces silence and solitude. These qualities drive many to the sport and repel others. Developing variety in your training is a prerequisite for success. And, like training programs for other sports, setting goals is essential. Serious swimmers set realistic long-term goals, ranging from competing at the national level to breaking 30 seconds in a 25-yard freestyle.

Once long-term goals are set, your training program must be guided by them. However, long-term goals are not the full story. Since each workout must have a purpose, short-term goals are also important. They keep you on track and contribute to your enjoyment of swim training.

When designing an effective program, incorporate the following components:


This is the easiest part of the protocol. The goal is to build cardiovascular capacity, which will allow you to concentrate on the most important aspect of swimming, technique. To improve your base, simply increase the time you swim without stopping by thirty seconds each workout. If you can only swim for ten minutes without a break, next workout attempt 10-1/2 minutes. Keep adding half-minute increments until you can swim for 15 minutes comfortably without a break.


Good technique is mandatory for swimming success. Unfortunately, it's difficult to manipulate technique and form by yourself. You really need a coach or training partner to videotape you and correct any technical problems. If this is impossible, try videotaping yourself and submitting the tape for analysis by a professional. Proper technique varies with body type. Many novice swimmers don't have the muscle length, strength or timing to perform the more technical movements of swimming. Try working with a rehabilitation specialist or a strength and conditioning coach to determine your unique requirements.


Once you have mastered technique, it's time to focus on skills. Like the golf swing, swimming movements require constant repetition. Apply perfect technique at different distances. For example, if you are training to swim a mile in a triathlon, determine your desired time and repeat 100s at the pace required to achieve it. Repetition will imprint the motor program in your brain.


Enhancement is the fun part. After several practices of repeating sets, it becomes easier. This is why progressions are critical. Once you can do 20 x 50, 10 x 100, or 30 x 12.5 at your race pace with a 20-second rest, either increase the distance, increase your speed or decrease your rest time. To continually improve, it's essential to challenge yourself. Keep progressing one of the variables while maintaining proper form and technique.

This protocol may not turn you into another Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin, but you will sees results. Olympic swimmers perform more complex training, but I guarantee they're built on a foundation of these basic elements. 
Swimming and swimmers are unique. They enjoy (or at least tolerate) waking up at 5:00 a.m. to hit a frigid pool. They like the silence and the solitude. To improve as a swimmer, however, you must set goals, make a plan, then follow the BTRE protocol.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock