I understand that the following points, questions, answers, etc. are rather general. Due to the fact that I do not know of any swimmers who read the blog, I felt I shouldn't get too detailed. Of course, if you have any more specific questions (or even further general ones), please feel free to leave a comment, message me, or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'd be happy to talk more.
First, let's start with some general information:
Q: What are the benefits and downsides of swimming in comparison to other general training methods?
A: In my mind, swimming has three main benefits over most any other general form of exercise. Swimming is non-weight bearing. You've all seen the aquatic classes filled with retirement age or older adults. Whether it be the elderly or people with (for example) a shoulder or knee injury, both groups are advised to avoid applying significant weight to the joints and therefore must avoid weight training, biking, running, court sports, etc. Since roughly 70% of your body is water, we are bouyant in water and therefore our body is required to apply less energy and force to maintain our stature. Swimming is a great sport in which the possibility of injury is greatly reduced (just don't dive deep on the shallow end and you're good!). Secondly, swimming is one of few exercises to make use of muscles throughout your entire body simultaneously. When you're pulling with your arms, you're kicking with your legs and maintaining the prone position with your core. There are certainly ways to rely more on one part of the body more than others, but once you're swimming, you're entire body is engaged. Lastly, done correctly, swimming incorporates stretching into itself and therefore requires a much shorter post-workout routine. After lifting, running, biking, court games, and just about anything else excluding yoga, I always take 15-20 minutes and stretch. After swimming however, I may stretch for 5 minutes if I feel like it, but I never feel "tight" after a swimming workout.
I also recognize that there are two downsides to swim training.
First, the amount of training required to become proficient at regular workouts is much greater than other forms of exercise. I train with swimming, but I have been in the pool since I was six weeks old and swam competitively for nine years. I would never deter someone from wanting to swim as a training routine, but I acknowledge that for those not equipped with previous technique training, it can be difficult to pick up quickly. You don't take a couple quick lessons and then head off on your own. Secondly, some people complain about dry skin from the pool. It's true, the chlorine in the pool can really dry out your skin, but with moisturizer, you are good to go.
Now, a bit more of how to go about swim training...
Q: How do you design a swim training schedule?
A: Firstly, there are a few general guidelines to any workout or training schedule that apply here.
1. Do not jump the gun. Unless you already have built an endurance base, ease your way into swimming workouts. Start out with short, slow workouts and gradually increase to longer, faster workouts.
2. Endurance before speed. Do not expect to break out of the first week of swim training and be setting world records. Focus first on increasing your endurance - increase the length of your workouts, decrease the rest you take between sets, or increasing the length the distance you swim between breaks. Once you have a reliable base where you are beginning to swim at consistent speeds, then you can begin working on speed.
3. Technique and drills, Drills, DRILLS!!! I swam competitively for nine years and I will never design an entire workout without having a drill set in there. I don't care if this is your first time in contact with water or you're Michael Phelps, technique always needs your attention. Tons of training without drilling technique allows yourself to build bad habits. Early in your training, you should be doing a LOT of drills to make sure you are proficient. Down the road, you can back off, but never eliminate drills completely.
4. Be imaginative. There are tons of technique drills you can pick up from online resources or other swimmers. There are always an unlimited number of ways to design specific workouts. I always find repetitive workouts quite boring. For that reason alone, I enjoy designing workouts with unique twists or patterns to each one. Let your imagination run wild with it and you may end up finding something that works incredibly well.
Beyond those general points, the first thing I would do is determine your goal. Your goal can dictate a lot about how to approach swim workouts. For myself, my goal is to complete the swim portion of two Ironman 70.3 races which is a 1.2 mile swim. Based on that, I should eventually work up to swimming more than 1.2 miles per workout. This does not prepare me to set any records just yet, but it does set me up to be able to simply finish a swim at that distance. If your goal is not a race, but simply to be able to swim a certain distance (or amount of time), then your job simply is to start where you are comfortable and work your way up to your goal over time.
Second, I would determine whether you are looking to build endurance or speed. If my goal is simply to finish this race, then I can focus solely on adding distance to my workouts. However, if I am shooting for a specific finish time, then I need to work my way up to swimming sets at a pace faster than that time requires.
Lastly, it is important to be very self-critical when you swim. Even if you have a swimming buddy there to help motivate you through the workouts, they won't be able to tell you that your form is off or that you're not doing the hard set as hard as you can; those are up to you to tell yourself. When you're out on the field, the road, a trail, or in the gym, others can watch you clearly and let you know that you what you need to change, but while splashing around in the pool, breathing, and paying attention to your own body, it is hard to keep track of others.
Q: What type of sets are good to do in a workout?
A: Any and all sets have their benefits. This is where some research into swim workouts others have posted, talking with swimmers, trial and error in the pool, and some imagination come in handy. Since I had practice for 9 years, I have a lot to pull from when writing my own workouts, but I still try my best to come up with new things. I will always post my workouts here on the blog, so feel free to pull ideas from those. But all the general basics are there for you to construct your own workouts; use your imagination.
Every set I've ever done simply addresses these five points...
1. You can swim any stroke of your choice
2. You can swim one length, two, three, four, five, six... at a time.
3. You can repeat that once, twice, three... ten, twenty, thirty... times
4. You can rest a certain amount of time between each repetition [rest interval] or give yourself a preset time to swim each repetition [time interval]
5. You can incorporate a technique drill or just swim
An example set would be ten 50s on a 55 second time interval with a rooster tail drill going down and swim normally coming back. Therefore, the replies to the above points would be.
1. I'll swim freestyle
2. I'll swim two lengths at a time (a "50")
3. I'll repeat that ten times
4. I will give myself 55 seconds to complete each repetition before starting again
5. I'll do the first length with a rooster tail drill to work on my full pull through and then swim normally coming back
Q: How do I know what type of sets are best to do?
A: Your body will tell you. At first, you won't be able to swim 100s (four lengths) well, so do 50s and 25s. Push yourself once a practice to do a single set of 100s and soon enough you'll be moving up to 200s, 500s, and more. The same goes for speed. You may not be able to swim a single length in less than 40 seconds. So start out with rest intervals until your speed seems consistent, then start with 50 second time intervals, work your way down to 40 second intervals and as you continue to cut down, you'll be doing 50s on the 40 second time interval and still have five seconds rest inbetween. So let your body tell you what to do, but don't let a good pain (muscles being worked) to convince you that you need to stop.
Q: How do I train for speed?
A: All swim training begins by building up endurance. You have to be able to withstand the distance of a full workout before you can do a speed workout. Once you have a decent size workout being consistently done, begin including fast paced sets in your workout. In order to race fast, you have to practice going fast. The main difference between speed an endurance workouts is the focus of each set (time interval and distance). For speed workouts, you want fast paced, short workouts. For endurance workouts, you want endurance pace, long workouts.
Pleae feel free to leave a comment, message, or email me (email@example.com) with any further thoughts/questions.