Practice Makes Permanent

Photo Courtesy: Robin Sparf

By Alan Karickhoff, Swimming World College Intern

On the wall in the Dickinson College pool area, a sign is posted of the Red Devils training habits:

Dickinson Swimming

Red Devils Training Habits

Practice habits lead to meet performances, either good or bad. As a member of the Dickinson College Swim Team we follow all of the good practice habits listed below.


  1. Be early
  2. Be positive
  3. No excuses…be responsible for my own success
  4. Make all practices/make ups
  5. Call if I have a problem with practice attendance
  6. Set challenging practice goals
  7. Stay hydrated
  8. Respect others, the program and myself
  9. Take my turn leading my lane
  10. Streamline off all walls
  11. Swim to the finish (wall) every time
  12. Complete all of warm up and warm down
  13. Five second send-offs to start sets
  14. Always watch the clock for correct intervals
  15. 100% effort on all sets not just the ones I like
  16. Keep track of reps…don’t follow blindly
  17. Communicate with the coaching staff
  18. Listen…focus…follow directions

From a bird’s eye view, practice is simple. I swim down and back in a 25-yard pool. Eight laps is a 200, and twenty laps is a 500. We swim in a circle, staying always to the right, right up against the lane line. In Canada or Australia, you might see swimmers stay to left, swimming clockwise up and down the lanes, but not in the United States. Here, we swim counter-clockwise, for the most part. We might stop for a couple minutes after finishing a set, but it’s mostly just swimming up and down the length of a pool for two hours, while red mesh bags holding our kick boards, hand paddles, pull buoys, and snorkels sit on the pool deck at the ends of our lanes.

From Coach’s view, practice is still simple. Paul Richards is the head coach of the Dickinson College swim team. He goes by “Coach,” unusual for most swim coaches, as they usually go by their first name. He’s been the head coach for 21 years. On the chalkboards that hang on either side of the pool deck, he writes the first section of practice, visible from the water.

S – 400   K – 200   8 x 50s on :45   S – 200 (This is the warm-up)

Snorkel 12 x 200s Free on 2:45/2:40/2:35 (This is the first set)

K – 8 x 100s on 2:00 (This is a kicking only set)

Then he explains the set and comments on aspects of quality swimming: tight turns, no breathing under the flags, strong kicks off the walls.

“It doesn’t have to feel fast to be fast. It just has to be fast.” – a sign posted on a bulletin board on the pool deck.

Here, he explained, after we finished the warm-up, that there are twelve 200s freestyle using a snorkel, 2400 yards, a difficult set. The lack of complaints meant that the team is confident and positive.  Four weeks earlier, before everyone had enough endurance, the pool would have filled with rolling eyes at the sight of such a long and stressful set.

Then, he explained that the intervals went down by five seconds every four 200s, making it a 32-minute set, more than a quarter of practice. After every 200 I looked up at the clock to get my time. After the first 200 it showed 22:24. I was second in the lane and we started on the 22:00. I went a 2:19 for my first 200. I got 26 seconds rest before dipping back under the water and pushing off in a tight streamline on the 22:50.

Mentally recording times is necessary to understand where one is at physically. Every set I keep track of my time for each distance within the set. Comparing times from one practice to another is important because feeling fast doesn’t always mean one is going fast. Feeling doesn’t always correlate with reality so one often needs to make adjustments in pace through time comparisons.

At the beginning of the set, between each 200, during the twenty or so seconds when I shared the wall with the other swimmers who finished early, I heard minimal conversation. Meaningless inside jokes to keep the mood high and questions about dinner held the conversations. “Who’s laughing now Boswell!” Mitchell yelled to Sammy Boswell who sat on the bleachers rubbing out a leg cramp.

One teammate didn’t realize we were supposed to have snorkels on so he scrambled for his snorkel before the next 200. Another teammate noticed my lane only had two people so he asked our assistant coach if he could slide over from his lane of five people. Near the end of the set, with only a few seconds on the wall, I heard words of encouragement, heavy breathing, and the pounding of kicks across the pool trying to finish the set with strength.

Under the water, was another world, far from simple. My thoughts control the world.

Should I pick up my pace and catch up a bit. Is the guy behind me on my feet? Should I stick with the guy next to me or try to go a bit faster than him? Pull, catch, kick, flip, breath, 125. I think I’m good, I’ll stick with it. My catch feels good, not too long. Thirteen strokes that lap, perfect. My triceps are getting sore, maybe I should shorten my finish and pull more with my back and chest. Is my hand under my body or too far outside? Are my elbows high enough out of the water? I’m looking down too far now. I need to keep my head tilted up. Keep my hips up, don’t drag them.

Having swum competitively since I was seven years old, 14 years earlier, I still constantly have to think about my body position, hand position, head position, pace, stroke rate, kick tempo, breathing patterns, tight turns, and tight streamlines in just a 22-second race.

My mind was filled with ways to improve; to move faster across the surface, to create as minimal drag as possible, and to stay at a strong pace but not too strong. Not too strong because if I had picked up my pace too much my arms, my legs, my lungs, my chest, and my back would have struggled to stay within the interval.

I considered where I was going to take the last stroke into the turn, the flex of my ankles as they came over my head, the tuck of my knees as I placed my feet at a slight angle to the wall, and the sudden push off the wall into a tight streamline. I concentrated on my first stroke off the wall, the stroke that sets the pace for the rest of the lap and breaks through to the surface.

As practice continued, it became more difficult to ignore the pain deadening my body. My arms were heavy, as if each shoulder had five pound weights strapped to them. My abs burned and my legs were seizing into cramps. It was my turn to lead the lane for the last set.

We take turns because a lane leader gets a harder workout than the rest of the lane. Like in cycling the leader creates a draft for those behind him, essentially dragging the others behind him. At the end of the set, I grabbed my water bottle and emptied half the cold water down my throat, then dumping the other half over my pulsing head and red hot face.

Finally, Coach signaled for a cool down. Too tired to exclaim our relief, a whispered “yes” rose across the lanes. We ducked our heads back under the surface and finished the practice with an easy 200 cool down, working out our legs, removing the lactic acid built up within our muscles. A quick team cheer on deck ended practice. “Devils on three! One! Two! Three! DEVILS!” We walked to the showers, beat-up but feeling accomplished, having made it through two more of the 230 hours in the pool.


  1. Carson Rafuse

    Sandi McLean I haven’t read the article yet but the title itself makes me think you’ll like it

  2. Ollan P

    megap megap