Team Detroit Aquatics
Beginner’s Guide to Team Swimming
Version: April 2007
Beginner’s Guide to Team Swimming
Every activity has its own jargon, conventions, even its own etiquette. While, not quite as
bad as golf, team swimming is no different. If you’re confused by what you see and hear
during practice, ask! We’re friendly and willing to help. If you’re shy or just want to
know about what to ask in the first place, this guide should help. Please feel free to
suggest additions or changes to this guide.
Some terms that are used on the workout or that people may throw around occasionally.
You will too one day. Lots of these will be discussed in more detail later.
Pull: Swimming only using your arms, without kicking. You may use a pull
buoy to keep your lower body from sinking when you don’t kick. A
pull buoy is a foam floating device that you put between your legs,
typically made of two cylinders connected with strings or a solid
piece of foam molded into a shape easily held between your legs.
Pulling helps you focus on your arm stroke and isolate the upper body.
Some people also use hand paddles, flat pieces of plastic strapped to
the hand; it emphasizes the feel of the pull. They’re like fins for
your hands. Pulling also makes it easier to breathe because kicking is
a very oxygen consuming activity since you are using the largest
muscles in your body.
Kick: Kicking without stroking/pulling/using your arms; you often use a
kickboard to keep your upper body afloat. Lay the board out in
front of you, lay your forearms over it, and grab the leading edge or
grab it from the sides or back edge and hold it out in front of you.
Don’t climb on the board or put it under your chest, it doesn’t work
that well that way.
Usually kicking is done with the front of the body facing the pool
bottom but sometimes it’s done with the front of the body facing
the side of the pool or the ceiling.
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Swim: Normal swimming using both arms and legs.
Free: Short for Freestyle. In competition, swimmers in a freestyle event
may technically use any stroke to compete. However, freestyle has
become synonymous with the front crawl (or just crawl) stroke
because crawl is one of the fastest, most efficient and seemingly
natural strokes. Freestyle is often the first stroke that swimmers
Interval: The time allotted to finish a given non-stop swim. For example, the
interval for a 50 yd (2 lengths of a 25 yd pool) swim might be 1
minute. If you’re swimming the right workout for your ability, the
interval chosen should allow you to finish the swim and get a bit of a
rest before going to the next item. Usually, the longer the length of
the swim (e.g. 200 yds vs. 50 yds), the longer will be your the rest
time. These will be explained in more detail later when you learn how
to read a workout.
Flip turn: A quick way of turning when you reach the end of the pool using
some sort of somersault or tuck to kick off the wall and reverse
direction. There are different versions of flip turns depending on
the stroke you’re swimming and some strokes don’t allow flip turns at
Touch turn: A simple, above the water turn. Touch the wall and just start
swimming in the other direction. Again, some strokes only allow
touch turns and have specific rules during competition. This is also
called an open turn.
Stroke: While there are 4 strokes in swimming (freestyle/crawl, backstroke,
breast stroke and butterfly), sometimes people use this term to
mean “anything but freestyle” when talking about competition or
Stroke work: A set that concentrates on improving your swimming form rather
than how hard you’re swimming: technique instead of exercise.
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Sprint: A short, fast swim very close to your
Warm-Up Easy sets or swim done at the
beginning of practice, to get your
body prepared for the workout and
lessen the chance of injury.
Cool-down: Easy sets done at the end of the
practice to bring your body down
slowly from a high level of exertion.
On the top: Refers to starting a swim when the
pace clock reaches the sixty-second
mark; the top of the clock for an
On the sixty: Same as “on the top”
On the bottom: Refers to starting a swim when the pace clock reaches the thirty-
second mark; the bottom of the clock for an analog clock.
On the thirty: Same as “on the bottom”.
Starting blocks: Raised blocks or platforms at the end of each lane of the pool. You
dive off these to get a fast start during competition.
Almost all pools we swim at are 25
yards long. A 50-yard swim is two
lengths (to the end and back). 100
yards is four lengths, there-and-back-
and-there-and-back. 500 yards is 20
lengths. Rarely do people use the term
“laps” except as a verb.
25 yd pool
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These distances and number of lengths will become second nature after a time; you won’t
have to do the math in your head, you’ll just know that a 150 is 6 lengths. Other pools
vary; they could be 25 yards, 25 meters, 50 yards or 50 meters.
Some pools are configurable to be both 25 and 50 yards or meters by using moveable
A “long-course” pool or meet usually refers to 50-meters. A meter is 9.3% bigger than a
yard. This translates to an extra seven feet from a 25-yard to a 25-meter pool. What
that translates to in time depends on your speed.
How to read a workout
We try to write the workout ahead of time and put a copy in each lane for you to use
during practice. It’s arranged in a grid; each column represents a level of expertise or
speed. An example is shown below.
Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5 Level 6
Warm-up 200 ea: 200 ea: 200 ea: 200 ea: 200 ea: 200 ea:
Pull, kick, swim Pull, kick, swim Pull, kick, swim Pull, kick, swim Pull, kick, swim Pull, kick, swim
(second) 5 x 100 free 5 x 100 free 5 x 100 free 6 x 100 free 6 x 100 free 6 x 100 free
Warm-up on 2:00 on 2:05 on 2:15 on 2:20 on 2:20 on 2:20
7 x 100 7 x 100 7 x 100 8 x 75 8 x 75 8 x 75
75 swim free 75 swim free 75 swim free 50 swim free 50 swim free 50 swim free
25 kick choice 25 kick choice 25 kick choice 25 kick choice 25 kick choice 25 kick choice
on 1:45 on 1:45 on 1:45 on 1:45 on 1:45 on 1:45
All Free All Free All Free All Free All Free All Free
2 x 200 on 3:30 2 x 200 on 3:30 2 x 200 on 3:30 2 x 150 on 3:30 2 x 150 on 3:30 2 x 150 on 3:30
2 x 150 on 2:50 2 x 150 on 2:50 2 x 150 on 2:50 2 x 100 on 2:50 2 x 100 on 2:50 2 x 100 on 2:50
2 x 100 on 2:20 2 x 100 on 2:20 2 x 100 on 2:20 2 x 75 on 2:20 2 x 75 on 2:20 2 x 75 on 2:20
2 x 75 on 1:45 2 x 75 on 1:45 2 x 75 on 1:45 2 x 50 on 1:45 2 x 50 on 1:45 2 x 50 on 1:45
2 x 50 on 1:15 2 x 50 on 1:15 2 x 50 on 1:15 2 x 50 on 1:15 2 x 50 on 1:15 2 x 50 on 1:15
adjust times if adjust times if adjust times if adjust times if adjust times if adjust times if
needed needed needed needed needed needed
6 x 50 choice 6 x 50 choice 6 x 50 choice 6 x 50 choice 6 x 50 choice 6 x 50 choice
on 1:20 on 1:20 on 1:20 on 1:20 on 1:20 on 1:20
200 free easy 200 free easy 200 free easy 200 free easy 150 free easy 150 free easy
3600 yrds 3600 yrd 3600 yrds 3150 yrds 3100 yrds 3100 yrds
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Read down the column for the level you’re swimming at (fastest in the left column, slower
in the columns to the right). Each row represents a set. Generally, different levels do
mostly similar sets, but with different distances & times, but we’ll break this rule with
the beginner lanes if we want to spend time teaching a stroke or something.
The first set is always the warm-up. It’s meant to be swum easily, and loosen you up.
It’s also done on your own so it’s usually a pretty simple set; get in and do it without
waiting to be told. It’s often just a couple of hundred yards swim, another couple of
hundred pulling, then maybe a couple of hundred kicking.
There’s almost never an interval associated with it, just jump in and do it at your own
pace. If you finish before the coach calls “Hold up”, just keep moving to keep yourself
loose. If you don’t finish before the coach calls the stop, no big deal. Just make sure
you do something to warm up before you start swimming hard.
Often the next set is an interval set and is sometimes called the second warm-up. Swim
this set easy… you are probably still warming up.
Sets are almost always designed to do a specified number of repetitions of a certain
distance on a certain interval. The format most coaches use for sets is ‘number of
repetitions’ X ‘distance’ ON (or @) ‘interval’.
Example: Let’s look at the Level 1 set (2nd warm-up) shown above: 5 x 100 on 2:00.
This means that you’re going to swim 100 yards (four lengths) five times on
a two minute interval. In other words, you’ve got two minutes to swim each
four-length swim and whatever time is left in that 2:00 is your rest. You
wait till the time has expired before starting your next repetition.
If you swim the 100 yards in a 1 minute 45 seconds you get 15 seconds rest. You’ll do this
5 times for this set. You don’t stop, apart from the rest between each swim, until you’ve
done all five.
The coach may help you with the start times for each
repetition, but don’t count on it. They may be busy
helping people with their stroke techniques and/or may
lose track of when everybody on four or five different
time intervals is supposed to start. A waterproof
sports watch with a stopwatch function can be handy.
Pay attention to the coach!
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The clock times are for the first person that leaves the lane, usually the fastest person.
Usually, each following person leaves about five seconds after. The coach may call out
“second swimmer, GO!” or “third swimmer, GO!” if he or she is not busy helping another
Don’t wait for the call; just go ahead with the next swim if you don’t hear anything. The
only exception to “Don’t wait for the coach” is the beginning of a set. Don’t start a new
set on your own. The coach will typically spend some time explaining the focus for the
next set, and then start everyone at once.
In some workouts you will see a number or couple of numbers; in parenthesis after the
set. These tell you the yardage for the set and total yardage swum so far.
Other terms used in describing sets:
Descend: This means make the repetitions faster as you go along. 8x50 @ 1:00
descend would mean: swim eight 50 yard swims trying to make each
50-yard swim faster than the previous. Since the intervals stay the
same, this means you should get a bit more rest on each one too.
Negative splits: Similar to descend, but you speed up within the same repetition or
swim, rather than between successive swims. Swimming a 100
negative split means that the last 50 yards should be faster than the
first 50 yards but you don’t stop between the two fifties. So how do
you tell if it’s faster if you don’t stop? You might do a touch turn
rather than a flip turn between them so you can look at the clock
really quick. Or you can just concentrate on swimming harder the last
half and not actually looking at the time.
Breathing Sometimes special breathing patterns will be specified. When you
first learn how to swim, you’ll probably start by breathing every two
strokes, always on one side. Some sets specify breathing every three
to five strokes rather than every two. The odd number means that
you will be breathing on alternate sides, and not breathing as often.
Alternating breathing helps even out your stroke and can help avoid
back or neck problems sometimes caused by favoring one side. Some
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set focus on breathing less often in an effort to improve lung capacity.
These sets are also referred to as hypoxic sets.
Drill These are specialized ways of swimming that are intended to improve
technique or performance. Drills focusing on technique typically
emphasize a certain aspect of the stroke such as body roll, the follow
through, hand position, etc. Technique drills typically exaggerate a
particular part of the stroke to emphasize the correct form.
Performance drills emphasize challenging your body to achieve greater
capabilities, such as lung capacity, cardiovascular strength, flexibility,
etc. These sets often get your heart pumping.
Swimming with others – some guidelines
If there are only two people in a lane, you can generally split the lane; one person swims
on one side and the other person swims on the other.
More than 2 People/Lane
When there are more than two people in a lane, we swim
in circles; swim down one side of the lane and back on the
other in a counter clockwise direction.
Stay to the right, not the middle of the lane or you’ll
collide with the person coming back. You leave one after
the other with enough time to safely turn at the end of
the pools and clear the next swimmer. Fastest swimmer
swims first. Swimming with Others Helps
Keep your Workout on Track
Who goes first?
If you’re not sure who the fastest swimmer is for the set, just someone, anyone go.
Within a few lengths, you will know if someone is tickling your feet that you need to let
the person behind you go first.
If that happens offer to let the person behind you go first at the next repetition, or
simply, hold up at the end of the pool, and allow the swimmer behind you to pass. Make
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sure that if you hold up at the end of the lane, that you move to the side so that the next
swimmer can do a flip turn.
If the person in front of you is affecting your turns or causing you to slow down,
complete the repetition and before the next one starts, politely ask: “Can I go ahead?”
Do not attempt to swim around the swimmer. Trying to pass in the middle of the pool can
end up in a head-butt.
Are you a Tortoise or a Hare?
Who is the fastest may well vary as the workout goes on. Some people are fast at the
start but slow down as the practice goes on. Some people are relatively slower at the
start but are able to maintain a steady speed and lead at the end of the practice.
Swimming stroke affects this too. A fast freestyler may be a very slow breaststroker.
Adjust the swimming order during the workout as you need to. It’s not a big deal and
people won’t get offended. Keep in mind that the coach may reorder a lane at anytime if
he or she sees that someone’s workout is being affected by another swimmer.
Running out of Steam
When you stop at the wall at the end of a swim, move out of the way so that people
behind you can finish completely, swimming all the way into the wall. Likewise, if you
stop to take a rest or hold up to let someone pass, make sure you are not in the way of
people still swimming. Everyone deserves a great workout!
What Lane do I Swim?
It is important to swim in the appropriate lane. Unfortunately, this is sometimes hard to
determine. If you get to the pool early, you can ask your fellow swimmers what their
average time is for a 100 yd easy freestyle. Compare this to your time and pick a lane
There is also the trial an error method… If you’re trailing everyone in your lane badly or
you’re still swimming the first repetition when the second one starts, move down to a
slower lane. If you’re lapping everyone in your lane or if you’ve finished the swim way
before the interval is over, move up to a faster lane. If you adjust according to your
ability, the coach doesn’t have to move you.
Swimming Backstroke with Others
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A few hints about swimming backstroke. Since you’re on your back, you can’t really watch
where you’re going and hence more likely to collide with other swimmers.
- Watch the ceiling tiles to keep in a straight line and keep from wandering into the
center of the lane.
- When swimming outdoors or in a pool without visual indications on the ceiling, you align
yourself with the lane divider. Be careful not to lift your head up to high or this will
affect your body position. You can often get a glimpse on your proximity to the lane
divider out of the corner of your eye.
- Watch the backstroke flags at each end of the pool to keep from hitting your head or
hand on the wall or gutter. In all competition pools, the backstroke flags are five
yards from each end of the pool. Count how many strokes it takes to reach the wall
once you pass the flags.
Good news. Swimming is a cheap sport. All you really need is a towel, swimsuit and a pair
Don’t try to be macho, get goggles. If you wear contacts, goggles are fairly safe. If you
wear glasses only, certain stores carry prescription goggles. Some goggles have plastic
seals, some have foam.
The most important factor in choosing goggles is how they fit and do they keep your eyes
dry. Different goggles fit different people’s faces differently. Pricier is not always
better. It just depends on what fits your facial structure best. If the store lets you
take them out of the package, press them to your face without putting the band around
your head. If they stick for a second or so before falling off, they’re a good fit.
A Speedo-type suit is the fastest, but lots of people swim in jams or even swim trunks.
Jams are made out of the same Lycra, stretchy material as Speedos, but they cover more
of your body. Men and women wear jams. Lots of people start out swimming using the
loose style trunks and transition to the stretchy types over time.
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Other fun things are Zoomers, the short fins lots of people use when kicking or even
sometimes swimming. These are a legitimate training aid that can sometimes be used in
various portions of a workout.
The pools we swim at are usually well equipped with kickboards and pull buoys. But if you
want to buy your own, feel free.
Most sporting good stores have a lot of stuff for swimmers, but lack expertise to help
with questions. There are specialized swimming stores in the Detroit area where you can
get hard to find, discounted items or special customer service.
Underwater Video Analysis of a TDA Member’s Swim Stroke
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