The Main Set: A Revolution in Swimming Workouts

By Wayne Goldsmith.

20 x 100 on 1:45

16 x 200 on 2:30

40 x 50 on 1:00

6 x 400 on 6:15

Anyone who’s had any involvement with the sport of swimming would be familiar with the concept of a Main Set.

Those combinations of repeats and rest times (intervals) that are the focus – the emphasis of all swimming workouts.

Typically, a Main Set is performed after a relatively standard and predictable workout design:

  • Warm Up.
  • Skills and Drills.
  • Speed Development / Pace work then…
  • Main Set.

In swimming pools all over the world, the Main Set has been done more or less the same way for the past 50 years.

But – I am here to tell you that things have changed.

The Main Set has changed – and for the better.

So – Why Do a Main Set?

For over a century, the sport of swimming has been “physiology” driven, i.e. the greatest focus in the sport has been on physical preparation. The dominant coaching ideology around the globe has been built on “fitness” and to concentrate on the physical preparation of swimmers.

In addition, many of the most influential texts and research into swimming training in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and even in this current decade have concentrated on the physical development of swimmers.

And flowing through a lot of this writing has been these principles:

  1. Swimming is an AEROBICALLY based sport;
  2. Therefore swimming training should be primarily focused on developing the AEROBIC capacity of the swimmers;
  3. The best way known to develop AEROBIC capacity is to complete training sets and practice activities which are relatively long in duration, i.e. 20-60 minutes, low intensity, i.e. 60-75% of maximum intensity and performed continuously, i.e. with limited rest.

Recent research into high intensity interval training (HIIT) and other alternate swimming philosophies has challenged these principles but for the most part – having worked with coaches in the US, UK, France, South Korea, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand for more than 25 years, the long duration, low intensity, continuous “Main Set” model is still the single most common training tool used by the majority of swimming coaches all over the world.

I say “majority” of swimming coaches….but not all.

There’s a big change in swimming coaching – and more specifically – a revolution in the way “Main Sets” are being completed.

warmup-team-talk-coach-ncaa-2016

Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

A Monumental Change in Swimming Workout Design: Split Main Sets.

Over the past few years, there’s been a real revolution is swimming workout design.

Coaches are experimenting with new ways delivering Main Sets which incorporate some innovative new approaches to ensuring swimmers gain the maximum possible benefit from their workout.

Here one simple example of this new direction in workout design:

Old Main Set: 24 X 100 on 1:45

New Main Set (Split Main Set): 24 x 100 on 1:45 but swum as:

  • 14 x 100 on 1:45
  • Ten minute break IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SET where swimmers:
    • Stretch
    • Drink water or sports drink
    • Eat a high protein snack
    • Do some “accupressure” techniques where they’re feeling tight, sore or where their movement is restricted.
  • And where the coach:
    • Connects with the swimmers
    • Re-enforces the critical aspects of the set
    • Adjusts and modifies the workout to make it more effective.
  • 10 x 100 on 1:45

The question you’re probably asking is WHY?

Because the Old Main Set philosophy does not make sense!

Think about it for a moment.

Around 90% of swimming events are 200 metres or less.

The sport is NOT about swimming meaningless, mass, miles of mediocrity. Even though it’s important to develop aerobic capacities, the sport is so much more than just endurance training.

If you had to define competitive swimming…..it’s moving through the water at maximum speed, with great technique, outstanding skills, powerful underwater kicking and doing it with a well-developed set of mental skills to manage and master the pressure, pain and stress of competitive environment.

In other words, competitive swimming is a balance of mental, technical, tactical AND of course – physical capabilities.

For a long time, however by sticking to the old way of swimming Main Sets, we’ve effectively been coaching swimmers to rely purely on fitness and physiology.

And it’s time to change.

In the above Main Set example, i.e. the 24 x 100, it’s important to consider what it is that coaches and swimmers are trying to achieve.

The dominant thinking has been to keep pushing through the entire Main Set, to get it done at all costs and to not get it done was a sign of “weakness” or “failure”.

We’ve all justified pushing swimmers through long, tedious, relentlessly hard Main Sets because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

However, how many times have seen swimmers “Make the time” and complete the entire Main Set but have done so with…

  • Poor technique
  • Poor skills execution
  • Breathing inside the flags
  • Poor underwater kicking
  • Sloppy finishes
  • Progressively slower and slower times
  • Uneven pace

The aim of swimming a Main Set is not merely to “survive” and “prove” you’re tough. The sport is tough enough as it is!

The real aim of swimming a Main Set in training is develop the complete, overall ability – that’s the technical, strategic, mental AND the physical ability – to compete faster in races.

Real Life Story: 

I was working with a great coach on deck in Australia. He’d produced several great Olympians and many world-class swimmers over a long coaching career and was renowned for his tough workouts and commitment to hard training.

During a Main Set I saw him wave at a swimmer, call him to the side of the pool and ask him to get out of the water.

The coach and the swimmer then engaged in an “eye-to-eye” discussion for around 1 minute – in quiet voices – but with very deliberate intent and unbreakable focus, after which the swimmer jumped back in and continued swimming the main set.

I approached the coach and asked him, “Why did you interrupt the Main Set to talk to the swimmer?”

He replied, “Never choose HEART RATE over HEART!”.

He continued, “It is absolutely essential to train a swimmer physically and to get them ready to swim fast through the development of speed, strength, power and endurance…however – it is just as important to work with them as people, to coach them when the opportunity is presented and to inspire them mentally and emotionally when needed”. 

Here’s 10 Reasons Why to Have a Break in the Middle of the Main Set.

  1. Stretch – there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that stretching when the body is warmed up is more effective than trying to push and force a relatively “cold” muscle to stretch before training. Plus there’s the added benefit of identifying tight and stiff muscles and joints to stretch and reduce potential injury risk. There’s also a lot of evidence about not stretching to the end of “range”, i.e. as far as you can stretch, before training as the effect of long-hold, end of range stretches can be to actually increase the risk of injury.
  2. Drink – it is easy to become dehydrated during workouts. As the body dehydrates over a workout, there can be a progressive increase in heart rate when swimming at the same speed. Even though coaches are getting better at encouraging swimmers to drink during workouts, the mid main set break provides the opportunity for swimmers to drink a more significant volume of fluid.
  3. Eat – eating during Main Sets has been a relatively new development, however it is increasing in popularity in swimming squads all over the world. As a general guide, these Mid-Set-Meals, should be a small quantity (i.e. around a handful) of a protein and carbohydrate rich snack. Some of these snacks may include “trail-mix” i.e. a mixture of nuts and dried fruit and small quantities of protein “bars”.
  4. Accupressure or similar self-massage technique – far too many injuries have been caused by swimmers pushing themselves to get the Main Set done at all costs. Swimmers can “feel” stiffness and “tightness” gradually increasing over their Main Set and the traditional thinking has been to “push-through-it” and then stretch and try to recover after the workout has concluded. By doing a “body-check” during the Main Set break, swimmers can identify any problem areas and take some remedial actions on deck during training to reduce the possibility of injury.
  5. Mentally re-focus – the mid Main Set break gives the coach and the swimmer the time to think about the goals and objectives of the workout and to re-focus on the things are important. In some programs coaches are introducing a short “meditation” style break where swimmers sit quietly, complete a few slow, deep breaths and work through a type of “mantra” to help them focus on the things that matter in the workout.
  6. Re-connect with the coach – the break also gives the coach a relatively calm, quiet and more relaxed opportunity to re-connect with the swimmers and give them quality feedback, ask them questions about how they feel the workout is going and provide individual swimmers with specific instructions to incorporate into the remainder of the main set.
  7. Re-connect with the important technical and skills aspects of the workout – the mid Main set break provides the perfect opportunity for what we call “contextual learning”, i.e. learning when and where the learning is most relevant. During this time, the coach could “teach” and work through a specific aspect of technique or skill that the swimmers need to concentrate on for the second part of the main set. For example, the coach may have a white board on deck and use this opportunity to draw a simple diagram about an aspect of swimming skills such as underwater kick, streamlining, turning-speed, “breakout” technique and so on.
  8. Reflect on the first part of the Main Set and consider how it can be done better – asking swimmers questions about their workout is a powerful coaching technique and the mid Main Set break is the perfect opportunity to use “directional questioning, i.e. asking questions that help swimmers make better decisions towards achieving a specific outcome.
  9. Gives the swimmer and the coach time to consider modifying the second part of the Main set to make it better – and following on from the “directional questioning” is the opportunity to make changes to the remainder of the main set based on how the swimmer is feeling. For example a swimmer reporting that they’re tired, stiff, sore and feeling limited in their movement might continue the main set but on a longer interval time, i.e. with more rest between repeats. A swimmer who feels great and who is looking for a higher level of challenge, might complete the set on a shorter repeat time and complete each repeat at a higher speed, with fewer strokes etc.
  10. Most important – the break allows the swimmer to complete the Main Set to a consistently high standard across the full Main Set distance. The primary problem with the traditional main set design has been the “must complete it all – at all costs” mentality that has permeated through world swimming. By having a mid main set break and spending time attending to the swimmer’s nutritional, hydration, biomechanical, technical, mental, emotional and movement requirements, the great news is…the swimmer can complete the main set at a higher standard than they could without the break.

Ask yourself one question.

Is it important to just “get the work done” or to “get the work done with a commitment to great technique, outstanding skills, injury minimization and the holistic development of the mental and emotional skills of swimming?”

To those of You Still Doubting the Split Main Set Revolution…..

Unlike some of other “revolutionary” ideas in the swimming industry, this one isn’t driven by any personal or commercial interests.

I am merely reporting on what I’ve seen – and continue to see – in swimming programs in different parts of the world. There are some very, very smart coaches incorporating split Main Sets into their workouts every day – and many of these coaches have produced and continue to produce world-class swimmers.

Is there anything wrong with continuing to do your Main Sets the traditional way, i.e. without the break?

Of course not!

Swimmers have won Olympic Gold Medals and set world records swimming their Main Sets without eating or resting or meditating or doing any of the things I’ve outlined in this article. And no doubt many swimmers and coaches will continue to deliver outstanding results using the traditional Main Set model.

However, like all industries and all walks of life, swimming is evolving.

Smart young coaches are entering the business and experimenting with new ideas, creative workouts and innovative ways of helping swimmers to realize their potential. Some very experienced coaches are also adopting new ideas through their commitment to continuous improvement and ongoing learning.

Split Main Sets are just one of a hundred new ideas coming into the sport – but it’s an idea which has the potential to impact positively on the preparation and performance of countless swimmers around the world.

Give it try – and see if it works for you!

Summary:

  • It’s time to re-think the concept of the Main Set. The old model of swimming workout design has changed and we’re seeing some remarkably innovative and creative training methods being implemented all over the world.
  • There is no point to smashing a swimmer up and down a pool simply to complete their Main Set. If swimming in competition was like a game of “Survivor” then maybe the old “swim-’til-you-drop” type workouts might still have a place. But swimming fast is about the swimmer’s capacity to maintain maximum speed, outstanding technique and brilliant skills at race pace – and under race conditions. You don’t learn this by swimming a lot of laps at mediocre speeds with terrible technique and awful skills.
  • Be imaginative. Be creative. Now that the “rules” of Main Set design have been broken – who knows where this will end. Experiment. Take a few risks. In the end the name of the game is to help every swimmer to realize their potential and to see their dreams come true. If that takes a little Main Set Madness….then so be it!

Wayne Goldsmith

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

27 Comments

27 comments

  1. Roger Denny

    “Meaningless, mass, miles of mediocrity.”
    Yep, sounds exactly like most of my sets during the 80s.

  2. Donald P. Spellman

    Life is a Main Set.
    Everything else is just Drills, Pulling, Kicking,or Swimming.

  3. Andrea Thorn

    Jimmy… Never choose heart rate over heart! I like that line! Lol!

  4. Soan Thung

    Roberto: sound like your ideas.

  5. Vasco Lopes

    Tiago Vasconcelos nao estou a frente no meu tempo, mas nao sou comum…..lol. le bem

    • Penny Watkins

      Such an important point to actually connect with each other and check to body scan and assess what’s going on…especially for old birds like me!!

    • Naomi Fox

      Well quite . Not that I could do 24 x 100’s on 1.45 with it without a break! X

  6. Carrol Besseling

    Brilliant. Overuse and poor technique lead to injury. Cannot understand pushing tired swimmers whilst watching all the technique fly out the window. They can get aerobic elsewhere as well.

  7. Sean Barnes

    Practice Makes Permanent! All coaches need to stop a workout (for an individual, or the team) if the focus is lost. Swimmers DQ in practice, yet we’re surprised when they DQ in a meet. Swimmers can’t tell you their time within a set, or a stroke count, yet we want fast, efficient times at meets. Perfect Practice Makes Permanently Perfect.

  8. Aiden Smith

    Jaden Harris Drew Ross-Ashby Ashlea Smith

  9. Guy Eylon

    I do this a lot
    Always prefer quality above mileage

  10. Guy Eylon

    I do this a lot
    Always prefer quality above mileage

  11. Rodney Wakeham

    My conversation with Coach JL was ahead of its time!

  12. Devesh Chohan

    Darren O’Brien Lucas Gregory read this

  13. Enrique Cabrera

    Mira Abraham Alvarez nunca habia visto este enfoque me pareció muy interesante.

Author: Wayne Goldsmith

avatar
Wayne Goldsmith has been an influential figure in world swimming for more than 20 years. He has written more than 500 articles on swimming, swimming coaching, swimming science, triathlon and swimming performance which have been published in books, magazines and online all over the world. Wayne has been a staff writer for Swimming World for the past ten years. Wayne lives, writes and coaches on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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