How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

This post is part of a collaborative project with Donal at LoneSwimmer, delving into basic issues of training and technique in swimming. Donal also published a post today, check it out here.

Whenever possible, I prefer swimming with other people – either with a training partner or in a coached squad workout. But occasionally my schedule dictates finding water at a public lap swim session. It’s possible to get a good workout at open lap swim, but it takes a bit of planning and training know-how.

Based on my observations at hundreds of public lap swim sessions over the years, there are some folks who come to swim laps, desire to become better swimmers, but simply don’t know how to go about the task. For those without a background in competitive swimming or similar sport, it may not be at all obvious.

For example, one of the more common approaches I see at the pool consists of: (1) Getting in the water. (2) Swimming continuously for X amount of time. (3) Getting out.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers on getting the most out of solo workouts at a public lap swim session:

Learn proper lane etiquette.

It will be less frustrating for you… and everyone around you in the pool.

Have a workout plan.

Not necessarily a full written workout with every detail, but at least a basic mental structure of a workout. What do you want to accomplish today?

A basic workout structure can be as simple as this:

  • Warm-up – mostly easy swimming.
  • Technique work & build into main set.
  • Main set.
  • Kick or pull set.
  • Cool-down.

Interval training is more efficient than continuous swimming.

Continuous low-intensity swimming is an inefficient way to build cardiovascular endurance. Interval training (repetitions of shorter distances, swum at higher intensities than one could sustain continuously) is far more effective.

Check out the Marathon Swimmers Forum for some good example interval sets:

Don’t rely on pool gear.

Fins, paddles, buoys and snorkels are swim tools, designed for specific purposes, typically strength or technique-related. When you use any swim tool for an entire workout (or majority of it), it’s no longer a tool but rather a swim aid.

If you can’t swim without fins, in my view, you can’t swim. What happens when they fall off accidentally in the ocean? If you always strap on paddles for the main set, what happens when you compete and you can’t use your paddles?

Learn flip turns – even if you only compete in open water.

If you do open turns, you’re basically coming to a complete stop between every length of the pool. Open turns are surprisingly common among triathletes, even relatively fast ones. I’ve never understood it; plus it looks goofy. Flip turns (sometimes called tumble turns) allow you to transfer much more momentum from one length to the next. It makes pool swimming much more bearable.

Learn all four strokes – even if you only compete in freestyle/front-crawl.

Different strokes work different muscle groups, and it will make you a better athlete. Backstroke can provide a nice change of pace for your shoulders after too much front-crawl.

10 thoughts on “How to get an effective workout at public lap swim”

  1. Learning all four strokes is a must IMO. I came to swimming as a triathlete and was dead set on not doing the strokes. It only took me a month of swimming with Masters to abandon any thoughts of continuing with triathlons. Loved swimming way more and the 100 IM is by far my favorite race. I’ve also noticed that after a good IM set, my freestyle is way better. I think the streamline of breast and fly, and the rotation and wide entry I focus on in back really translate to a more solid free.

  2. In re: flip-turns, they are also a time saver. If you have limited time in the public lap pool, cutting a second or so off of every lap (could be up to 2 seconds per lap for some swimmers I’ve seen), then after a while, you’re saving time. Or, if you’re set on swimming for an hour, then you add a few more yards by flip-turning.
    At least, that’s what I tell the guys I’m coaching.

    1. Yep – great point. 1+ seconds sounds about right. I also think flipturns are much easier (i.e., energy saving) than open turns.

  3. Since this looks like a sports radio type discussion, I’ll add my views and then hang up. First off, I’m a 62 year-old swimmer and swimming is my main cardiovascular exercise. I swim five days a week in a 25 yard pool and I DON’T do flip turns. I came late to fitness swimming, but love it and wish I started earlier in my life. I played hockey and was an official at higher levels, but was aged out a few years ago. I still play twice a week in an Over 40 league and hope I never have to quit.

    My comments are about getting a good workout. I want to get better and record all of my workouts. I bought a Garmin Swim and find it the best swimming investment I ever made. I don’t have the best vision these days and the watch keeps my lap counts accurate. I also use old Zoomer fins and a kick board.

    I average 1800 yards in 34:45. I then add another 500-750 yards of freestyle, kick another 300, and sometimes incorporate a pull buoy. I suffer from several orthopedic injuries, including five knee surgeries, an elbow that is pinned together and left me with a loss of 35 degrees of movement, disc problems, and now am developing hip problems. But swimming is such a pleasure for me because no matter how much I ache, a workout refreshes me and leaves me feeling great.

    My point is that all I do is 2500 yards of freestyle, some kicking, and that is it. I do not belong to a Masters group because I can’t find a convenient program. I would love to have some coaching so that I could learn the other strokes better, but You Tube and blogs like this are it for me. Since there are many people like me out there who are aging and have joint problems, I wish U.S. Masters would put a program together, perhaps a series of clinics, that would improve my experience. I don’t race except against myself and my doctor.

  4. Proper lane etiquette is a must. Remember that swimming in a public pool means you have to share the space with others. You are not the only one getting in their practice or daily exercise. Be respectful and encourage your fellow swimmers when you can!

  5. I’m with Bob. I’m 64 and would love a program for those of us that are trying to keep in good cardiovascular shape and keep ourselves loose and flexible. Not
    looking to win races or compete.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.