A million years ago when I was swimming in college at Georgia Tech the head coach said in a meeting that we should all be calling what we do when we go to the pool a practice and never a workout. A practice implies you are there to improve a particular skill. A workout implies we’re just there to work on fitness. For the rest of my collegiate career I was always careful to refer to our swimming time as practice.
The most applicable definition of practice according to google is:
“perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.”
Sounds pretty good right? You go to the pool to perform the activity of swimming on a regular basis to get better at swimming. OK, let’s look up the definition of workout now:
“a session of vigorous physical exercise or training.”
That seems pretty logical as well. I will also note that the historical usage of the word practice has been pretty steady, but the usage of “workout” has shot up ~20 fold from the 1950s onward. So what are you doing when you go to the pool? Are you practicing or are you working out? Hopefully both, but the terminology you use depends on the circumstances. Yes, the rabbit hole goes deeper.
If you grew up swimming you already know that swimmers refer to the time they spend in the pool as practice. They’ll say something like, “UGH, I don’t want to get up at 4:50 AM to be at swim practice by 6:00”, or “OMG that was the hardest practice ever”. You won’t hear an age group swimmer say, “I have to go to swim workout”. They won’t even say, “I hope the workout isn’t hard today”, but rather, “I hope practice isn’t hard today”.
How about if you’re an adult and you’re going to swim on your own? Let’s say you’re getting up at 5:00 to be at LA Fitness by 6:00 to do your swimming. What do you call it then? You probably refer to it as a workout. “I really don’t want to get up to go do this swim workout”. If you told a coworker that you did a swim practice they’d probably ask you who you practiced with, but if you told him you did a workout they’d probably ask you how it went.
When you’re in the water even if you are focusing on your swim skills more than you are focusing on getting your HR up to improve fitness the terminology that best fits is “workout”. This is also in line with “trainer workout”, “bike workout”, “run workout”, and “track workout”. It sounds weird to say, “I have a trainer practice to do” right? So if you swim ON YOUR OWN with nobody coaching or watching you the best word is workout EVEN IF you were just doing easy drills the entire time.
Now, what about group swims? If you go and train with a group of triathletes in the pool do you call that practice or a workout? That’s a bit of a toss up. I would frequently refer to the sheets of paper with the prescribed sets as the “workout”, but I would refer to the setting as practice, or sometimes “masters practice” even though my sessions catered 100% to triathletes. Whenever I would get a first timer brand new to the swimming world sometimes they would be taken aback by the phrase “masters practice” usually joking, “I’m not a master of anything”. I’d explain that in the swimming world anybody who is swimming competitively (meaning entering swimming only competitions that happen in a pool) who is not in college or a professional is referred to as a Masters swimmer. For swimming you can enter as Masters swim meet at 18. For cycling Masters starts to kick in at 35, and for Triathlon depending on the race either 45 or 55 typically.
If you’re going to swim with a group of adults in a non-collegiate setting you should either call it “triathlete swim practice” if there are no pure swimmers there, or “Masters practice” if the group caters to pure swimmers in addition to triathletes. Typically a Masters practice will have some “triathlete lanes” or a “triathlete lane” singular, but a “triathlete swim practice” will not have a “masters lane”.
You might have read in some books that every time you get in the water you are there to practice and a workout is what you get while you are practicing. This is only true if you’re in really bad shape or really bad at swimming. Once you are good enough at swimming you could perform drills all day at an intensity that is not high enough to create any fitness improvements. You might get some marginal improvements in swim specific flexibility and muscle mass, but your aerobic engine will stay the same size.
If you want to be fast at swimming you must perform hard workouts during which you will PRACTICE good technique as best as you can to achieve the fastest times possible. Think of the phrase “we PRACTICE law at this lawfirm”. You PRACTICE good technique. The goal of practicing your swim technique is to be faster in the water or be able to swim a reasonable speed at a lower intensity. Drills TEACH you the technique you should be PRACTICING. Drills are not practice. You PRACTICE that technique during the main set which gives you a WORKOUT. A beautiful stroke is useless if you don’t have the aerobic engine to do it long term. On the flip side, a huge aerobic engine is useless in the water if you don’t know the technique (but it’s still pretty useful on the bike and run heh).
You should also know that the point of a workout is to swim FAST, it’s not to work hard. Hard work is what happens when you’re swimming FAST. Good technique happens when you’re swimming FAST because you can’t swim fast without good technique.
Remember elementary school when you learned your multiplication tables? Sitting in class conceptualizing different ways to perform multiplication is the drill work. Going home and doing 40 multiplication problems on your own is your practice. All 40 of those multiplication problems together constitutes a workout (a mental workout). You wouldn’t be able to perform mental workouts all day in the same way you couldn’t perform physical workouts all day either.
I named my website swimwithsam and elsewhere I had to pick between “swim with sam workouts” or “swim with sam practices” because “swim with sam” was already taken. I had to choose one over the other and I went with “workouts” because I want people to understand that drills and technique are important but working hard is also important. Also workouts is easier to spell for an international audience and I felt that “swim with sam workouts” was catchier than “swim with sam practices”. The files I post are “workouts” and when you do them you’ll be getting a workout, but ultimately you will be practicing the sport of swimming.