Swim Workout Lingo


This is the most important piece of terminology you’ll learn so it comes first.  In fact it’s so important I wrote an article about it.  In short, an interval is the amount of time you have to swim the prescribed distance AND REST before you begin the next swim.  Intervals will be based off of your threshold swim pace and will mostly be used on the main set of a workout which is the hardest part where the focus is on conditioning.  In a group training environment intervals can also be used on drill sets and kick sets just to keep everybody together, but if you’re swimming by yourself it’s very important to use them on the main set but far less important to use them when doing technique work.


Warm Up

You can do whatever you want for warmup and stop to rest as much as you want.  The purpose of a warmup is just to get used to being horizontal in a liquid, acclimate to the water temperature, and get blood flowing to the muscles you are about to use for the rest of practice.  We’re not trying to gain fitness in warmup and the average pace of warmup is irrelevant.  If you know strokes other than freestyle then warm up is a great time to do a few lengths of those strokes.  If you’re good at swimming you probably won’t stop much during warmup except to stretch.  If you’re newer to swimming you might stop quite a few times during warmup to keep the intensity down such that your warm up actually feels like a warm up.



A drill is a modified version of a stroke, or an activity that one performs in the water in order to teach a desired movement pattern so that you may later incorporate that movement pattern into your regular stroke.  Every stroke has drills developed for it, and other activities like diving, streamlining, dolphin kicking, and flip turns have their own drills to improve those skills as well.  The most important things about drill work is that you understand the purpose of the drill, perform the drill correctly, and then use the new movement pattern in your regular stroke.  Some drills might elevate your heart rate because they are difficult or they make breathing difficult, but the purpose of most drills is not to be physically difficult.  A drill should always be followed by a length or two of regular swimming and drill distances should be less than a 50 at a time if you’re an intermediate or beginner or less than a 100 at a time if you’re more advanced.  If you smash all your drill work back to back you’ll never have the opportunity to apply the new movement pattern to your regular stroke.



Sculling is the motion your arms should be doing when you’re treading water vertically but sculling can also move a swimmer horizontally through the water as well.  Some coaches call sculling a drill, but I like to put it into a category of its own because sculling can also be physically difficult on purpose.  When you scull you should not be using your legs for propulsion at all and you should ONLY SCULL.  Don’t cheat yourself by taking regular freestyle strokes to get your speed back up.  Sculling is just as slow as kicking and isn’t meant to be fast.  You’ll scull with a pull buoy or kickboard between your legs to support your legs since they won’t be kicking.  There are 4 main kinds of sculling you will encounter.  Front, mid, rear, and sit scull.  Sculling has to be taught like a drill so I’m not explaining it here.



If it just says kick it means flutter kick (the kick you do with freestyle) on your stomach.  Using a kickboard and a swim snorkel are always optional if the workout just says kick.  If another style of kick is desired (dolphin kick or kicking on your back) the workout will say so.  Kick means exactly that – do not use your arms.  Do not use your arms when your legs get tired, and don’t push off the bottom of the pool either.  The intense burn you feel after about 100 yards of kicking WILL GO AWAY if you kick through the burn.  If you always stop kicking when the burn sets in you will not improve your kicking.


Dolphin Kick

Kicking with your legs together in a full-body undulating motion.  It’s hard when you don’t know how to do it and only a little easier once you do know how to do it.  Dolphin kick is the kick performed with Butterfly and dolphin kicking on the back underwater is the 3rd fastest way for a swimmer to move through the water after pushing off the wall or diving in.



Do anything other than regular freestyle.  You could do a drill, scull, kick, or even do dolphin dives off the bottom of the pool if you really wanted to.



You can do anything you want including just swimming freestyle.  Warm up and Warm down are choice by default.  EZ swims between sets are also choice unless otherwise noted.



Always means using a pull buoy between your thighs.  Paddles are optional for pull sets.  If the pull buoy is to be placed elsewhere (like between your ankles), or if a kick board is to be used between the legs instead of a pull buoy the workout will say so.



DPS means Distance Per Stroke.  Stretch out your stroke slightly longer than what feels natural and really try to travel as far as you can on each stroke.  This helps improve stroke length (the distance your body travels per stroke).  Reducing drag and getting a better grip on the water are both ways to travel further per stroke.



Strong is similar to DPS in that we want your stroke stretched out but you should also swim at a harder effort.  If DPS is overgear work at 80% FTP, STRONG is overgear work at 95% FTP (and if you have no idea what FTP is, just know that STRONG means fast but with a stretched out stroke).



The fastest average pace per 100 that you could maintain on a swim that takes roughly 15-20 minutes. . . at least that’s what I use for a threshold pace.  At the collegiate level a common threshold test is a 3000 for time.  For triathletes, depending on pace, an effective test can be anywhere from a short as a 400 to as long as a 1500.



There’s a bit of wiggle room here regarding fast.  If you see fast on a workout you know that it means “not easy” or “not slow” but it doesn’t necessarily mean as hard as you can swim either.  Often the interval of the main set will determine how fast you have to swim to make the interval.  If the interval is easy but the workout says swim fast that means to make the interval by a lot.



You should only see the word sprint used for distances of a 50 and less.  Sprint means to do whatever possible to get your hand on the wall in the shortest amount of time.  To describe SPRINT to my triathletes I tell them to imagine the intensity of a 100m dash runner and not of a 1500m runner.  I also like to demonstrate on the pool deck by gritting my teeth, spinning my arms with good technique as fast as I can, and make grunting noises.  Sprinting implies maximum intensity but still with some semblance of technique because the number one goal of sprinting is to get across the pool as quickly as possible.  The secondary goal is to make you swim at max effort.  If you were training as a pure sprinter your sprint technique would be very important, but as a triathlete you mostly use sprinting as a strength and neuromuscular exercise.  Most triathletes can not truly sprint more than a 25 (15-25 seconds).  Only former swimmers are going to be able to sprint a whole 50 (25-30 second range) and even then that’s a stretch.  A true sprint will require at minimum 2 minutes of recovery and possibly longer.  Doing a big set of sprint work will make your threshold pace seem pedestrian by comparison.  If you’re a new swimmer (in the water less than a few months) your sprint pace for a 25 might eventually be your threshold pace a few years down the road.



Blast is even higher intensity than sprinting but it’s not necessarily faster.  The goal with blast is to get your arms and legs moving as fast as possible but not necessarily with the technique that moves you down the pool the fastest.  Blast exists to make your sprint intensity and turnover feel manageable by comparison.  A Blast in the pool might compare to a 5 second spin-up on the bike where you try to hit the highest cadence possible (certainly 140+) but not necessarily the highest power possible (highest power might be achieved at a lower cadence and much higher resistance).  You will never BLAST more than half a length of the pool (12.5 yards or meters).  Frequently you’ll BLAST prescribed for a certain stroke count (6, 8, 10 etc).


Just Make the Interval

If you’re doing a set of 100 repeats and the interval is easy but the set says “just make the interval” that means the set is pretty easy.  If the interval is very hard it’s kind of a given that the goal is to just make the interval.



IM means individual medley.  A medley is all 4 strokes in the order of Butterfly, Backstroke, Breastroke, and Freestyle.  I do have my athletes learn Backstroke as well as how to at least attempt Butterfly.  I don’t spend any time teaching proper Breastroke but most triathletes have a default version of Breaststroke that they use for sighting when they’re completely lost and or treading water.  Because each triathlete has the basic components of all 4 strokes we do do IM once in a blue moon as conditioning work and general “feel for the water” work.  As an aside the medley relay (notice it’s not called the individual medley relay, but just the medley relay) is swum in the order of backstroke, breastroke, butterfly, freestyle because there would be no way for the backstroker to start in the water if he’s waiting for somebody to touch the wall, so the backstroker goes first.

For anybody who doesn’t know butterfly yet I bet you know what it looks like.  You’ll do your best impression of butterfly off the wall for as many strokes as you can and then switch to freestyle for the remainder of the butterfly leg.  Everybody can eventually figure out backstroke.  For the breastroke if the kick bothers your knee then you’ll substitute backstroke for breastroke.


Hypoxic / No Breather / As few breaths as possible / Underwater

You won’t see the word Hypoxic on a workout, but you will see things like “200 breathe 3, 5, 3, 7 by 50s”.  What that means is on the first 50 of that 200 breathe every 3 strokes.  On the second 50 breathe every 5 strokes.  On the third 50 breathe every 3 again, and on the 4th 50 breathe every 7 strokes.  A stroke is each individual arm movement.  No breather means exactly that – try your best not to breathe for the distance prescribed.  As few breaths as possible means exactly that – breathe as little as possible for the prescribed distance.  Underwater means your body is completely underwater by a few feet at least.  I wrote an article about Hypoxic training for triathletes.


Top / Bottom / 60 / 30

The terms top and bottom came from the usage of analog pool clocks where the red hand is the second hand and the black hand is the minute hand which is largely ignored.  When the red hand is pointing at the top (also marked as 60 and not 00) the coach calls that the top and it’s a good round number on which to start a set.  The bottom is when the red hand is pointing at the 30 second mark.  At a group swim the coach needs to keep everybody organized and starting sets at the same time so that’s where these terms came from.  Also, when it comes to pushing off the wall at exactly the right time a swimmer will typically submerge 1-2 seconds before the prescribed send-off and then the legs will start extending such that the feet leave the wall right on the send-off.  It’s a good habit to always leave the wall exactly on the sendoff because it will make timing yourself more accurate and seconds matter.


With Fins or just “fins”

Means do the set with fins.  You can drill, kick, or swim with fins on.  If the set does not say fins then it means do not use fins.  If it says fins optional then I know most of you are going to choose to use fins but it can be good to challenge yourself and go without fins from time to time.  I recommend the longer flexible fins for triathletes and not the short “zoomer” style fins.  Zoomers are used to develop a fast powerful kick.  Longer flexible fins will give you a large propulsive boost from your legs without too much extra work.  When I say long and flexible I mean 5-8 inches of flexible material past the toes – not 2 feet like you might see in scuba diving fins.



Get faster from the first effort to the last effort.  It means descend your TIME and ascend your EFFORT.  If you were doing 5x 200s on a 4:20 interval descend then your times might come out to something like 4:02, 3:56, 3:54, 3:51, 3:48.  Let’s say all your times were the same as the previous example except instead of 3:48 on the last one you went 3:30.  That could indicate you were “saving up” for the last swim and the previous 4 swims were easier than they should have been.  Generally you want the last effort of a set of descending to be as hard as you can go.  The first effort should be moderate, not easy.  We could just as well have called it ascend but descend is the terminology we use in the swimming world.


Aggressive descend / Descend and hold

Aggressive descend just means instead of starting at a moderate effort you start “kinda hard” and get even faster from there.  Descend and hold means descend down to a certain time / pace and then hold it there.  Let’s say the set was 6x 100s descend 1-4 hold 5 and 6.  That means descend 1-4 and then whatever your time was on number 4 hold that same time for 5 and 6.  It would be similar to a bike interval of “1 min @ 200 watts, 1 min @ 220 watts, 1 min @ 240 watts, 3 min @ 260 watts.



Build is similar to descend but it’s done within an individual swim, not across multiple swims of the same set.  Let’s say the practice says 8x 25s build. That means start each 25 at a moderate intensity and then through the course of the 25 get progressively faster and faster until your last few strokes before you hit the wall are at sprint intensity.  You could also build a 100 where you get faster just as before but the acceleration is spread out over a 100.  If the workout said “100 build each 25, that would mean swim a continuous 100 and build every individual 25 of that 100 (starting moderate and getting faster by the time you hit the wall and repeating that 4 times total to total a 100).  You are unlikely to see that.  Most of the building that you will do will be over a 25 or a 50, rarely a 100.  You’ll frequently see some build work in a drill set or in a short set that comes right before the main set.


Half Sprint

It just means sprint half a lap.  It doesn’t refer to the intensity that you should sprint.  Swimmers do a lot of half-sprints.  I’d say the’re almost the equivalent of a runner’s stride that they would perform during warmup.  A coach could write “Sprint 12.5 yards then 12.5 yards EZ” but it’s easier just to write “25 half-sprint”.


Best Average

Achieve the lowest possible average time per swim for a set of repeats.  Most often done for sets of 50s or 100s.  Basically it means swim as hard as you CONSISTENTLY can on a set where the interval is moderate.  If the interval was very hard you could still do best average but your average time per swim would be SLOWER because you’re getting less rest after each swim.  A set of something like 6x 100s best average on an easy interval (let’s say 1.5 times your threshold pace) is a very hard set.  A collegiate swimmer might do as many as 20x 100s best average on a set like that but a triathlete will tire much sooner on a set that is all high quality swimming.


Warm Down

In swimming we call it warm down, not cool down.  We just do.  OK, I think part of the reason is the water temperature of a competition pool is quite cold and one will get cold if you sit around for more than about 5 minutes doing nothing.  After a race the body is quite warm from the effort but the water can cool you down very quickly.  The swimmer should keep moving to stay warm in the “warm down” pool (also the warm up pool) until they’ve flushed the lactic acid built up during the race.  A swimmer certainly would not want to quickly cool off after a race and so we don’t use the phrase cool down.  It’s always warm down.  You can do whatever you want for warmdown as long as you feel truly at rest at the end of your warmdown.  If you’re new to swimming and even swimming a 200 without stopping is a maximal effort, then a 100 continuous for warmdown is going to be too hard for your warmdown.  You want to feel like your  HR is at a walking intensity when you finish warmdown.