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How To Modify A Set For Skill Part I

Many of you are likely already a member of a team, or part of a training group. You enjoy the workouts you do, you enjoy your teammates, you enjoy your coach, you enjoy the accountability, and you enjoy the routine. For some or all of those reasons, you don’t want to do your own thing.

However, you feel like you’re not progressing with your skills as much as you’d like. You wonder if there are other ways to improve your skills, all the while still remaining part of the training group you really enjoy. It could also be that you train by yourself a couple times per week while also training with a group a couple times per week. While training with the team, you’d like to continue to work on your feel for the water.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. In this chapter, we’re going to go over how to modify sets that are given to you by your coach, in a way that is productive for your goals. Importantly, we’re going to do so in a way that isn’t disruptive to the practice your participating in, nor does it offend the coach you’re choosing to swim for.


Before you go changing a coach’s sets, be aware of the etiquette of doing so. If you’re going to modify sets that your coach is giving you, it’s important to keep the notion of respect in mind. Whenever you ask for a set to be modified, or modify the set yourself, intended or not, the implication is that the sets aren’t good enough. If you’re pushy about it, most coaches are going to get tired of it sooner or later. Understand that even the most relaxed coach will eventually get frustrated by your implied criticism.

If you would like to do something different than what is prescribed, it is YOUR responsibility to make the adjustments, and to do so without inconveniencing or offending anyone. Expecting your coach to change his/her entire set or practice to accommodate you is unrealistic. If you’re interested in incorporating some of the ideas we discussed, bring it up with your coach, explain how you’ll do so without causing disruptions, and ask for permission.

It’s important to consider your training partners as well. If your lane is doing 20x25s and you decide to do 8x75s, you can be pretty certain that you are going to disrupt what they are doing. That’s not going to make you any friends. Ensure that any changes you make are able to be performed without disrupting any of your training partners.

If you don’t want to accommodate others, no problem! The best solution is to just train on your own. Problem solved. If you do want to have the team experience, we’ll explore some simple ways to adjust what the sets you’re giving to help you accomplishing your goals while keeping the peace.


Modifying training sets all comes down to options. Most of the time, you don’t know what your coach is going to throw at you, so you need to be ready with multiple options you can choose from. The more options you have, and the better you understand how to use them, the more effective you’ll be at modifying the practices you’re given. Below are 5 great options, with a lot of choices within each strategy. Let’s take a look-

Just keep track. A simple way to adjust the sets you’re given is to simply begin to keep track of your stroke count and your times. Work to improve either or both over the course of the set. This will help you maintain your awareness of how you are swimming and whether you are swimming with great skills. If your stroke count or your speed is off, it’s a great indicator that something is off, and it’s time to refocus on how you’re swimming. Doing so helps you get better and no one else even needs to know what you’re doing. It certainly won’t affect your teammates or coach. This is a great way to make progress with no intrusion.

Design a game. Make any set you’re given a game. Any set can be turned into a challenge where you trying to use what you’re feeling to swim faster, longer, or both. If it’s an extended set, or there are multiple rounds, simply change your equipment as you go. Different sensation will lead to better awareness and more learning.

  • Descend and hold stroke count. Establish a stroke count and stick with it. Over the course of the set, try to reduce your time while keeping the stroke count the same. Depending on how many repetitions there are, you can try to get faster for all of them, or you can try to get faster in groups. For example, if there are 8 efforts, you could try to descend 1-8 or descend 1-4 and 5-8.

  • Hold speed and lower your stroke count. Like above, but inverted. Choose a reasonably challenging speed and aim to be consistent with hitting that time. Then, work to descend you stroke count while holding the speed constant. This will force you to improve your efficiency at speed. How can you do it? Feel the water better and use that information to swim longer.

  • Play golf. This is a combination of the two strategies above, with a little more freedom. The goal is to reduce the sum of your time and your stroke count over the course of the set. You can focus your attention on the time, the count, or both. As long as the sum goes down, you win! The value is that you’re forced to swim efficiently and effectively; you can’t sacrifice one for the other if you hope to win.

  • Vary your stroke count. The goal here is to perform some repetitions where you aim to swim normally and others where you swim even longer. You can also change your stroke count on a lap to lap basis. For instance, you could aim to swim with 14 strokes in one direction and 12 strokes in the opposite direction. This requires you be in control of your swimming. How do you do that? Pay attention to what you’re feeling and learn to associate those feelings with certain performances.

  • Call your shot- stroke count. This simple. Make a prediction and then make it happen. If you have a 100-yard freestyle to swim, you can set the goal of swimming it with 14 strokes per 25. Then you do it! Lower is not necessarily the goal. The task is to predict what you’re going to do, then use the sensory feedback you’re getting to make sure it happens. You can make any type of prediction you’d like, and then find a way to execute it. The bigger the disparity between repetitions, the more challenging this is. Alternating between 11 strokes and 15 strokes is going to be more difficult than alternating between 14 and 15. You can also choose to vary within a given swim, as described above.

  • Call your shot- speed. This is the same as with stroke count, except you’re going to predict your time, and then do it. This is more difficult than using stroke count because you don’t get any feedback until after the swim is over. With stroke count, you get feedback after every lap. With speed, you only find out after it’s over. You REALLY have to pay attention to how you’re moving through the water and the effort you’re exerting.

  • Call your shot- golf. This is a version of golf where you try to predict performance, rather than just trying to lower performance each swim. This requires you to give some thought as to how each repetition SHOULD feel prior to execution, then you have to compare your expectations with reality as you go through the swim. Easier said than done. The bigger the difference between the swim in terms of the score, the more difficult this will be. You may find that higher scores are just as tough to hit as lower scores.

All of these strategies can work with ANY set that repeats the same distance more than once. Why is it effective? It forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing and it gives you crystal clear feedback about how well you’re doing. What’s the perfect recipe for learning? Focused attention and great feedback. Just as importantly, you can make these adjustments without interfering with your lane mates in any way. For more learning, adjust the equipment you’re wearing as you go. Anything works here.

Stay tuned for next time, where I'll show you some options for modifying sets in a respectful manner.

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