How To Read A Swim Workout

To seasoned swimmers, this may be second nature. However, not too long ago I was a swimming newbie and looking at a swim workout might as well have been reading hieroglyphics. What are all of those symbols? What does that abbreviation mean? We all have to start somewhere, so let’s not let reading a swim workout scare anyone.


Thus, I thought I’d break down how to read a swim workout in the easiest way possible. To start, let’s take a look at a workout from my coach:

2 x 50 FORM (10″RI)
4 x (25 DRILL, 25 EASY) 15″RI
2 x (50 KICK, 25 EASY, 25 BUILD) 15″RI
4 x (25 FIST, 25 BUILD) 15″RI

4 x (200 FORM, 100 MODERATE, 100 BUILD) 30″RI

2 x 50 Non-Freestyle (10″RI)

Before we dive into the details, let’s make note of some of the basics:

  • One length of a pool is usually 25 yards or 25 meters. You can ask the lifeguard or gym team, but 9 times out of 10 when I have asked, they all look at like a deer in headlights. I usually end up shaking my head in pure disappointment.
  • Given this equation and basic math, you can easily calculate the distances that you hear swimmers refer to so often: 50s = two pool lengths, 100s = four lengths, etc. Easy shmeezy.
  • = minutes
  • = seconds
  • RI = rest inbetween
  • Drill = Drills are specific exercises used to improve swimming technique. Very often, workouts will just read “drill,” and it’s up to the swimmer to decide what drill to use. Ideally, pick a drill that will help improve your technique weaknesses. Not sure what drill to do? Google and YouTube are your friends, but here are some drills to get things started.

Now lets look at the workout:

The workout consists of a warm up, a main set and a cool down. I may be known to skip out on the cool down, but no, not you, you’re a good swimmer and always do all three parts.

Looking specifically at the warm up, the workout consists of swimming 50 yards, two times, focusing on your swimming form. Between each set (each 50), you would rest for 10 seconds. Thus, it would look like this: swim up and back, rest for 10 seconds, swim up and back, rest for 10 seconds. Move on to the next set. Swim one length of your chosen drill, then easily swim the other length back. Rest for 15 seconds. Do it three more times (for a total of four). Moving down the workout “fist” is a specific type of drill and “build” is where you start out swimming easily, then build your pace up.

As you get to the main set and cool-down, the same logic applies. Once you learn how to read a swim workout, it really is quite easy. It’s just that first jump from swimming neophyte that takes a moment of getting acquainted.

If you’re wondering where to even find workouts, I highly recommend the Speedo Pace Club app. It’s the app I used when I was first starting to swim and has everything from beginner to advanced workouts. Also, Google is your BFF here. I’ve never used them, but this site seems to have a good variety of workouts.

Another lifesaver tip, write down your workout and put it in a plastic baggie at the end of the pool. It’s water-proof, it floats and it’s cheap (no laminated swim cards needed).

What’s your favorite swim tip for newbie swimmers?

What other swimming questions do you have (warning: I’m no pro)?

Happy Running (and Swimming)!


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9 Responses to How To Read A Swim Workout

  1. Molly says:

    aww This is making me nostalgic for my high school swim team days! We used to put the paper on top of a kickboard and put water on top to make it stick. Memories!

  2. Rhea says:

    What a great idea! I’ve never seen that anywhere before. That’s simple and cheap: a post-it in a ziplock bag. Do you use a lap counter? I remember you posted about a special watch that you bought a while back. Do you use it in the pool?

  3. Sarah F says:

    I thought of you and your blog last night when I did my swim work out because low and behold I’m not a big swim fan either. However, last night I went swimming with the finnis mp3 player. Whoaaaah, I have to say that swimming didn’t suck so bad when I could listen to my pumped up playlist. Anyway, just thought I’d share as you might be interested! Happy swimming.

  4. I do the note card/scratch paper/post it in a plastic baggie too. I used to swim in college (long time ago) and even if I was the slowest person on the team, I enjoyed it. The drills were hard but there was fun in it to.

    Swim tip for newbies: start slow and then build up the length and duration of the swim.

    After months of not being in the pool for drills, I feel it. It’s hard getting back into the pool and lag so bad, but rebuilding that base is important and I know I can only improve the more often I go.

  5. Michaela says:

    The first time I took a masters class, I was so confused. I had no idea how to use the clock or what “50 on the 1:25″meant. It takes awhile to decipher swimming!

  6. Ashley says:

    I’ve found that if I write my workout in Sharpie, I can dip the 3 x 5 card into the pool water (and Sharpie won’t run), then lay it on the deck. When the card is wet, it sticks to the deck, so I never have to worry about it falling in the pool or getting kicked around.

  7. Beginner swimmers do not like to practice because they are not “good” at it. The more you practice the better you will get. Don’t be intimidated going to a masters swim! There is always a slower lane and you will get the hang of it!!

  8. Anita says:

    Great post!! You’ve inspired me to look into triathlons and this post helps sooo much with the swim workout…I never understood the ‘language’ when you shared your swim workouts and now I do!

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