How Far Should You Swim?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 17th, 2009

Triathletes and fitness swimmers often rely on swim workouts published on websites or in magazines. Virtually all of those workouts prescribe some arbitrary number and distance of repeats  – like 10 x 50 – as if there’s a formula for improvement.

There is no formula: You improve at the rate your brain and nervous system can encode and memorize new skills or tasks. Swimming 500 yards (or even 10 x 50) with consistent efficiency and pace IS a skill, and a quite advanced one at that.

Therefore your lap regime should be organic, not arbitrary. To make it organic, base it on “mojo” rather than some formula. Keep swimming as long as you feel you are doing what you want to do. Stop as soon as you’re not.

I use “mojo” to refer to a feeling you’re striving for. The feeling could be as simple and general as ease. Or it could be slightly more specific– like “weightless legs.” Or it could be highly specific such as Feel your hand pause for a nanosecond on catch. (For more examples see How to Breathe Easier in which I suggested five focal points or sensations to improve breathing technique.)

For new or untrained swimmers, I usually recommend that they start a swim routine, or any set, with a single  pool length — usually 25 yards. Pick a stroke thought – one thing you’d like to do really well the entire lap. When you reach the end, take 5 deep slow “cleansing” breaths – but keep thinking your stroke thought, because thinking it activates the same brain cells as doing it. Repeat.

Stay with one thought and one-length-at-a-time for 7 to 10 minutes. In fact, if you “lose your mojo” before the end of the pool, you don’t have to complete the length. Stop and take your breather anywhere. You’ll learn faster by progressing incrementally from 5 easy strokes to 7, then 9, etc, than doing 5 easy strokes followed by 15 barely-hanging-on strokes. And if you start to feel breathless, rest for more than 5 breaths.

When should you introduce your next mini-goal or focal point? The recommendation I make above for 7 to 10 minutes is a general guideline. Continue with the same thought so long as you feel you’re still improving your awareness or skill on that point. Introduce a new stroke thought when you feel the original one is as good as you can make it right this moment, or when you feel eager for new stimulus.

When should you increase the distance of your practice repeats? Step up to 2-length, or 50-yard, repeats when one length is consistently good and you feel no fatigue – physical or mental – when you complete it. Because 2 lengths is really 2 x 1 length with no rest, you could gradually decrease the number of “cleansing breaths” you take before pushing off again. When you can complete 5 to 8 successive lengths with consistent mojo, taking just 2 or 3 cleansing breaths between, you’re ready to step up to a continuous 50 yards. And when the 2nd length of your 50 matches the mojo and ease of your 1st length, you can add a 3rd.

Call this an organic rather than arbitrary way to increase your distance.

Happy laps!

16 Responses to “How Far Should You Swim?”

  1. bkjagadish says:

    Another motivating & educative article from my Swim Guru Terry ! Btw Terry , can you kindly elaborate on the word ” mojo ” in swimming context. I have returned to reading your articles after quite a long time and seem to have missed this word which you would have definitely highlighted in earlier posts .
    My heartfelt THANKS to you dear Terry for this and many other posts which i am furiously lapping up now after my return from long absence .

  2. jaewon yoo says:

    I always thank you for your kind comentaries

  3. BKJ Good question. It’s a slang term in American English, but derives from the African-American folk belief called hoodoo. For them, a mojo is a type of magic charm. I use it to refer to something that is such a great experience, it FEELS like magic.

  4. TSwain says:

    There is obviously a lot to learn. There are some good points here.

  5. Dean says:

    I really like this approach to swimming and I have seen great improvement in my “skill” level and ease of swimming by utilizing this technique. It seems that once you “isolate” a specific swim thought and work on it (while you are rested) it results in what I call breakthroughs where your drag decreases and you swim faster with greater efficiency and even less effort for example.
    This is trial and error process as not all swim thoughts lead to improvements, this is where sticking with TI as a foundation and and experimenting with different stroke thoughts within the TI structure will eventually lead you to breakthroughs and have you swimming better than you ever thought possible.

    To adopt this technique, you have to let go of the notion that you must swim a mile without stopping, and instead find enjoyment from learning and waiting for those breakthroughs which allow you to find greater efficiency and ease in the water.

  6. Kevin Milam says:

    The “mojo” idea is good, but if one is training to race I think it’s important to be able to concentrate and maintain form when your mojo starts to be harder to hang onto. There comes a point in most every race where fatigue starts to eat away at technique and speed. So sure, I generally do as you suggest Terry, and do so as a general rule, but when my form, the stroke-element I’m working on, and by extension my speed starts to degenerate I try to push through the fatigue. I don’t try to push “harder”, but try to maintain form and “slipperiness”. When I start to lose the battle of technique vs. fatigue I stop.

  7. John Ashley says:

    My swimming is improving each week, especially Freestyle. I’m doing 3km in my lunch break (1 hour). A good improvement considering 200M would have turned me blue and gasping a few years ago (though only allowing myself to improve by 1/3% each day). Swimming laps is never boring as there is a lot of technique and form to systematically improve. Breathing used to be uncomfortable and short, but now I forget about breathing and feel comfortable — mostly. I’ved used TI DVDs and books, analytical thought processes, KAIZAN and lots of revision. I asked a guy in the next lane if he was racing me, he said “yes, but I can only stay next to me for one lap – you just keep going.” Thanks TI and thanks Terry.

  8. Veronica Riley says:

    This is really useful, this new idea of mojo and one swim thought but ……Help! I swim in an Endless Pool. I don’t have lengths to complete. When should I start asking more of myself, how do I measure achievement?
    63 year old English recreational swimmer

  9. Laurie Kelly says:

    Terry, a very insightful post as always. This very concept is why I avoid masters swimming groups and “coached” group swim workouts in general. I’m the only one that can sense my “mojo” and its counterproductive to have someone pushing me to exhaustion – and hence, reinforcing “struggle”. Interestingly, as I’ve been in offseason training for triathlon, I’ve cut down my swimming to just one day a week, in the pool (open water season doesn’t start here in Colorado till May). And I’ve noticed that my technique, speed, and endurance have dramatically improved over how I was swimming last summer, when I was doing two pool sessions and one open water session every week. For me (TI swimmer since 2005) it seems that quality vs. quantity definitely holds true.

  10. Laurie. Like you I’ve stopped swimming with Masters groups (though I love swimming with like-minded partners in open water). I found that the WORKOUT goals of Masters coaches and groups had grown too far out of alignment with my PRACTICE goals.

  11. Kevin, We’re on the same track. Read my two latest blogs about speed “happening” and pain threshold.

  12. mark says:

    My chiropractor recomended that i look at your information. I have a bad back (herinated disc) I want to use swimming as a cardio replacement to help me loose a few lbs…I would be a new swimmer and usually only swim 25m before i need to stop and catch my breath. What do you suggest? Is it total time, or laps that i should try to focus on, and are extended breaks ok? Thank you for the information.

  13. Mark The key to healthful swimming is to extend the distance you can swim without stress or distress. Adjusting your rest breaks are one way, but ultimately the only dependable way is to improve your efficiency. I can give you a quick hint here, which is that the most dramatic impact will come from reducing drag or water resistance. It makes a far bigger difference, and has a far lower energy cost, than increasing propulsion.
    That’s why our Easy Freestyle DVD teaches balance, alignment, rotation, etc before it gives much focus to the pull and kick.

  14. Phuket villa says:

    I just started swimming again and I love it. I swam point to point at bondi beach which is about 1km. I’m pretty unfit tho so more work needed!

  15. Marwan says:

    In my opinion, swimming is not by quantity, it is by quality. A swimmer can swim 10 kilometers everyday but still not improve like the swimmer who swam 2 kilometers efficiently and with the correct type of training. A swimmer must focus more on drills to help his technique instead of a huge main set that could tire him but not improve him. Swimming drills are extremely essential to help improve the swimming technique. Once a swimmer has the perfect technique, all he needs to have is the Strenght and endurance and he would be unbeatable.

  16. Marwan says:

    I agree with you. Most swim coaches make the mistake of giving their swimmers long trainings and practices that are sometimes meaningless and worthless. A swimmer should feel like swimming from within, otherwise he won’t improve and that training would also be worthless. Swimming is not only a physical sport but also a mental one. The mentality of a swimmer can greatly affect his or her swim for better or worse.m

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