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Reading a Set

Posted by Glenn Mills on Mar 22, 2011 03:25PM

When a coach gives swimmers a set, chances are there is meaning behind the set.  This is especially true in complex sets, sets that don't follow the typical pattern of 10 x something.

How athletes analyze a set prior to starting becomes as important as swimming the set.  The longer I'm around swimming, the more I start to realize that far too many swimmers view sets as parts of practice to get through... to get to the next set.  They tend to miss the meaning of the set, and don't put enough thought into planning how to accomplish what's been placed before them.

A point of reference: There is typically a huge difference between how a swimmer who is merely attending practice views a workout...and how a swimmer who earns his/her living by swimming or who truly cares about their swimming (I mean deep inside) views a workout.   Professional swimmers (or those who act professionally during a practice) view sets as mini opportunities to improve something, or to move one step closer to their goal.  There is very little wasted time in any practice, and each set is meant to give a chance to learn, train, or improve something.  Seeing sets as chances rather than chores can in itself help make you a better swimmer.

When the coach gives a set, an athlete should immediately begin figuring out how they are going to accomplish that set.  Which part will they be demanded to work, and which part can they take the chance to work on something else?  If there's a really tough part in the middle, the athlete will do their best to save up through the beginning part, and then do their best to survive the rest, after they've made that middle part.

Here's a quick example from this morning's practice.  This set was given and the thought process immediately started.  It was long course meters:
• 4 x 50 kick on 1:00
• 4 x 100 on 1:25 - mix up the strokes
• 4 x 50 kick on :50
• 4 x 200 on 2:45 - mix up the strokes if possible

At first glance, what's the tough part of that set?  If you picked the 4 x 50 kick on the :50, you're correct.  Right in the middle of the set, and it's kicking, which to most swimmers means... REST TIME!  In this particular set, it basically meant a 200 sprint kick, and then jump right into 4 x 200 on a reasonable interval.  The swimmers needed to be aware of this at the beginning of the set.  They needed to understand WHICH part of the set was going to be the toughest, rather than worrying about the 200s at the end, or how long it was going to take... they needed to relax just enough in the first part so that they could ACCOMPLISH the set.

This happens every day at pools all across the country.  Coaches give sets and workouts and, for some reason, swimmers everywhere think "intervals" are "suggestions."  They are not.  Think of it this way, interval ≠ suggestion, interval = demand.  It's the coach's job to create sets that ARE difficult, and DO demand performance.  If that demand is the same every day, done with the same distance, same stroke, same interval... what a BORING practice you must have.  To have a coach that puts the fast stuff at various spots in a practice is exciting... unless you're just going through the motions.

I've written somewhere else on the site about descending intervals, and how to accomplish them, and that's in the same thought process as reading a set.  Here's another example:
• 4 x 100 on 1:25
• 4 x 100 on 1:20
• 4 x 100 on 1:15
• 4 x 100 on 1:10

In this example it's EASY to see what is going to be hard.  So the question is:  How do you approach and swim the set so that you can accomplish it?  If you're unaware of your ability to make the 1:10s, you may need to "taste test" a couple times while you've got the rest.  Rather than waiting until it's forced on you, dip down under 1:10 for one or two 100s while you're on the 1:25.  Maybe dip down again while you're on the 1:20... and then barely make the 1:15s, saving as much of your energy as possible until it's time to RIP.  Swimming the 1:15s as easily as possible will be teaching you a lot about efficiency and the importance of saving energy.  If you're questioning your ability to make the 1:10s, and you wait until the last minute to attack, there's a good chance you may over swim the first one and go too fast... say a 1:03... and use all your energy, meaning you don't make #3-#4.  The idea would be to go the last 4 x 100s at about 1:08 and accomplishing the set, rather than blasting one or two, and not finishing.

When you start to accomplish sets like this, that set can continue down to 4 x 100 on 1:05 - 1:00 - :55 depending on what kind of pool you're in and your ability.  

Swimmers need to be in a bit of panic prior to a set that incorporates tight intervals.  "How am I going to make it?" 
Swimmers need to be in a bit of panic prior to a set that DOESN'T incorporate tight intervals.  "What am I going to learn to make me faster?"

Going through the motions of going back and forth in a pool may ultimately get you in better shape, and may ultimately make you faster.  The question is NEVER about whether swimming back and forth is beneficial to health.  The question is whether the time you spend in the pool, and how you utilize that time, will aid in you reaching your POTENTIAL!

Understanding the meaning of a set prior to pushing off means having a plan of what, and how, you're going to accomplish what's been assigned.  Not doing this means you're really not doing all you can to reach your potential, and you won't be as happy at the end of the season as those people who HAVE planned... on each set. 

Now go back to practice and HEAR what the coach gives you, don't just listen. :)






Archived Comments

Responded Mar 24, 2011 05:37PM

Its a lot like Jimi Hendrix...most people listen, very few hear him.

Too often kids just assume that they won't make 50s kick @ :50, concede kicking a straight 200 and using the 1st (possibly 2nd) 200 to get back with the group. Rather than attack the kick and see if they can get rest and how many they can make to remember should this set will be seen again (undoubtedly).

Thanks Glenn.

Responded Mar 24, 2011 10:22PM

Good point Wiken. Hendrix was sick. Filthy.

Responded Apr 06, 2011 08:03PM

Love the article.

Responded Apr 13, 2011 08:14PM

Amazing article.

Responded Mar 07, 2012 08:16PM

Great stuff! Especially younger swimmers tend to "just to make the set". I've found that reminding kids over and over again of their next meet, or goals during the season really makes them think of their work. Kind of like "planting an idea" from Inception :D Thank you for the article! All coaches should read this :)

Responded Feb 19, 2013 09:24PM

Good points. Thank you for sharing again. :)


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