This is part of a series called The Happier Swimmer: how to set up your practice lifestyle so that you are making steady improvement toward your goal, making the body safer and stronger, and enjoying the process more than ever so you have the motivation to keep going.
In this series:
- Do Only That Which Matters
- Tips For Designing A Single Practice Session
- Designing A Weekly Practice Pattern
- More to come…
Building A Weekly Practice Pattern
The first task (shared in the previous post in this series) is to design a single practice that is actually targeted at improving your skills, as far as that can be done in a single session. The next step is to build a series of practices that build your skills and fitness together in a deeper, progressive process.
Below is a simple way to build a weekly practice pattern that will develop the various dimensions of your swimming-specific fitness and skill together.
Basically, you choose a few skill projects. Then you work on those same skills all week, but in different modes on different days. Based on your results in each mode, for the next week of practices, you hold or slightly increase the challenge level in each practice and repeat the process. You may work on the same skills for a few weeks, if needed. Then you choose some new skill projects and repeat the process. That’s essentially it.
Obviously, if you have a very specific swim achievement goal, then your practice sets will be designed with the conditions of that goal in mind, regarding total volume, repeat distances, intensity, speed, etc. That’s beyond the scope of this post but you may get the idea.
Choose Your Skill Projects
First, choose two or maybe three skill projects. Rather than bounce around to many during a single practice, or bounce around to many over the course of a week, stay devoted to just a few and do the work of imprinting them deeply over many practices.
You may keep some or all of the same projects for two weeks or more. Being a bit obsessed is ok, as long as you are staying mentally engaged in the training. Take as many weeks as you need.
Although you will focus consistently on just a few skill projects for a week or more, the intent here is that you would take the same skills and work on them in various modalities of the various practice types (explained below). In this way you will get both necessary repetition of the same skills and necessary variety in how you work on them which will set up a superior neuromuscular training situation for you.
If you bounce around between skills too much, or only train something in one mode, the quality and speed of development will likely go way down.
Same Skills, Different Modes
Type 1: Form Practice
The purpose of this practice is to be extremely careful to test, observe, experiment with adjustments and decide upon the specific focal points that you will use to correct or protect your technical form for each skill project.
This is where you give great concentration to identifying the specific focal points you need to use during the rest of the week for each of your chosen skill projects, as you challenge your performance system in different ways. You may use any mixture of drills and whole stroke that help you expose weaknesses, test ideas, and confirm which focal points will work best to improve your form.
This would not necessarily be a physically demanding practice, but it should require your absolute best attention and effort to be precise in your movement patterns. You could use this as a recovery swim day, if you’ve been going hard in the other practices, or in triathlon training.
Type 2: Stroke Length Practice
The purpose of this practice is to improve or strengthen control over stroke length. Suitable and consistent stroke length is the foundation for both speed and endurance.
If your stroke length is shorter than what is optimal for your body and event and conditions of the swim, then this practice may be challenging you to work with longer-than-comfortable stroke length. You may get some idea on this process in How To Make Your Stroke Longer.
If your stroke length is already within the optimal range, then this practice may have you work with longer-than-comfortable stroke length in order to strengthen the very specific musculature to make your currently optimal stroke length even stronger. Or you may work with your current stroke length at longer-than-comfortable repeat distances or with challenging tempo.
After warm up, design just one, maybe two sets at most, that require you to either hold your optimal stroke length or work on making it slightly closer to your optimal, or slightly longer than your optimal to strengthen that specific movement pattern. You may create this challenge over a set of intervals, or do it over a continuous distance.
By pushing yourself to hold your assigned stroke length into the fatigue zone, you are strengthening the specific muscles and neural connections to maintain that stroke length.
Type 3: Tempo Practice
After warm up, design just one, maybe two sets at most, that require you to either hold your optimal tempo (or small range of tempos), or to work on expanding that range, usually into slightly faster-than-comfortable tempos.
When you work on faster tempos, the objective is to maintain the same precision you have at more comfortable tempos. Tempo sets are about training your neural circuits to become more efficient and performing the full, precise movement pattern under fixed time constraint, and incrementally tighter time constraint.
Type 4: Pace Practice
You may recall that SPL x Tempo = Pace. Slightly lower stroke count or slightly increase tempo to slightly increase pace.
Now you may put both stroke count and tempo together to require yourself to hold a fixed pace, or small range of paces, or to work with slightly increasing paces. You are both counting strokes and using a Tempo Trainer to take each stroke on a fixed time constraint. That is going to be very hard, but very good work! This is the culmination of the separate stroke length and tempo work you’ve done.
You may create this challenge over a set of intervals, or do it over a continuous distance.
Some of my swimmers who thrive on these kind of practices.
Type 5: Distance Practice
Now work on swimming longer continuous distance (a quantity a bit past your comfort zone) holding one of those stroke skills (a quality) and one of the pace metrics (either a fixed comfortable stroke count or a fixed comfortable tempo) or both.
How Many Days Per Week?
If you have only three days of practice a week, you may do well to do the first three practices in this list. If you have more days to practice each week, you may add either 4 or 5, depending on what you need to work on more.
More Challenge, Week To Week
You should design each of the practices so that they push your comfort zone a bit on one dimension of difficulty. Once you feel adapted or more comfortable with that challenge, increase the challenge slightly for the next week.
You may increase the challenge incrementally in any one of these ways, and it is often best to make a change in only one of these ways at a time:
- Blend two focal points together (rather than being focused on only one)
- Slightly decrease strokes per length requirement
- Slightly increase tempo (by -0.03, -0.02, or just -0.01)
- Add more distance by adding more repetitions or rounds (which means holding attention more often).
- Add more distance by making each repetition or interval longer (which means holding attention for longer spans of time).
- Convert passive Rest Intervals into active Rest Intervals (rather than sit at the wall, do a drill or swim gently).
- Make shorter or remove Rest Intervals.
There is A LOT more detail we could put into this because there are so many nuanced and personalized ways to work on each swimmer. This outline above is intended to just get you going in that direction. You can start applying a blend of both the principle of mindful repetition and the principle of targeted variation in your training to make it more effective in improving both skill and fitness together, rather than mistakenly treat them as separate activities in practice.
This approach gives you variety during the week so that you are more likely to be eager to get to the next practice and see what will happen when you work on that same skill in a different way. You have consistency (repetition) in working on the same skill more often so that it gets more thoroughly developed.
And you have consistency from week to week so that you can more easily compare this week’s results to last week’s and notice more clearly where you are making progress and where there still may be problem spots. This will provide you with better insight as to how to modify the next practice to work on those weaknesses, and give you a boost of encouragement when you notice more subtle but very important markers of improvement.