How Swim Training Programs Work

These swimmers practice in lanes to work on their form and their times.
These swimmers practice in lanes to work on their form and their times.© Getty Images/Thinkstock

We humans have loved the water since the beginning of our existence -- why else would we pay twice as much for a lakeside condo, spend millions of dollars putting fountains in front of buildings and go to the beach every chance we get? Swimming is a wonderful way to enjoy ourselves, get in shape, increase our endurance, compete against each other, meet other people and even recover from injuries. Water is much more to us than something pretty to look at, and swimming lets many of us spend time getting soaked and loving it.

With so many reasons to swim, instructors work hard to keep up with the demand for specialized training. The growing popularity of triathlons -- with even J. Lo participating in a well-publicized postpartum tri -- adds a new wrinkle to the training dilemma. Some swimmers prefer private, one-on-one lessons, while others opt for group classes. Some classes work on getting beginners used to the water and preventing drowning, others run drills of the four main swim strokes -- freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. Still others focus on the minute details of each stroke to maximize speed and efficiency. Besides the strokes themselves, swim training can teach you skills like sighting, drafting, starting and turning, which you can use in a pool or in an outdoor environment like the ocean. Who knew that moving through the water could be so complicated?


So where do you fall on the swimming spectrum? Could you give Michael Phelps a run for his money, or are you struggling to master the doggy paddle? Is your goal to compete, or do you just want to get in better shape and meet some new friends? The type of swim training you choose depends on what your skill level is now, and what goals you have for your swimming. Once you have a handle on both of these, and you know what your budget is, you're ready to start looking for the right program for you.

Read on to learn about three options for your swim training.


Masters Swim Sessions

U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), the national governing body of Masters swimming, provides swimming workouts, competitions, workshops and clinics for members. Masters swimming programs are a good choice for swimmers who are 18 or older, already comfortable in the water and looking to improve their speed, endurance, efficiency and technique. Some USMS members go to classes to stay in shape, while others compete at USMS-sponsored swim meets. Swimmers can join USMS online or through their local branch. The registration cost for 2009 was $30 plus a Local Masters Swimming Committee fee of $5 to $25. Some branches require a club fee up to $15, while others don't [source: USMS, How to Join].

Masters training sessions are done as a group, and swimmers of similar speed and skill level practice together. Masters training focuses on the four legal competition strokes: backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle and butterfly. Coaches observe swimmers and correct their technique, and they design workouts to improve specific skills, like kicking.


Masters swimming started in Texas when Navy doctor Ransom J. Arthur decided it would be a good idea to have swim meets for adults. He thought that some publicity might help get more people interested in swimming and improve their fitness and health. He brought together former Olympians and retired competitive swimmers for the very first Masters swim meet in May 1970. As of 2006, Master swimming organizations were active on five continents, and in 2010, there were more than 50,000 members in the U.S [sources: Lucero, USMS, Frequently].

According to USMS, fewer than half of their members choose to compete in their swim meets. Masters swimmers who do compete, though, take it very seriously. Masters organizations put together more than 500 competitions in the U.S. each year, and USMS keeps track of all the records set at official competitions in a database that is available online [source: USMS, Competition]. USMS holds many pool meets, including two national championship meets, each year. Additionally, they hold open water meets, postal meets and long-distance competitions. Each season, USMS makes top 10 lists of the best times in USMS pool meets by age, sex and course, so check out their Web site and see how you measure up.

Next up is a swim training philosophy that's more about Zen than about a win.


Total Immersion Swimming

Total Immersion (TI) swim training looks at the shape of the human body as it moves through the water, and instructors teach students to pass through the water with comfortable, graceful movements while swimming intelligently. TI instructors believe that swimmers' speed and efficiency will naturally improve as they learn to "swim with the effortless grace of fish by becoming one with the water" [source: Total Immersion, Philosophy]. TI teaches the four legal strokes -- backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle and butterfly -- and swimmers go through a series of drills to teach them both the mechanics of a stroke and how to swim the stroke better [source: Total Immersion, FAQ].

Total Immersion swim training is a school of thought that sees swimming as a source of well-being that will strengthen the mind-body connection. TI subscribes to the Japanese idea of kaizen, or continuous improvement: No matter how good you are at swimming, you can always get better. TI has a philosophy similar to that of martial arts training because of the "patient precision" that it teaches, where swimming is "a practice -- in the same mindful spirit as yoga or tai chi" [source: Total Immersion, Philosophy].


So how did this Zen-like technique begin? Swim coach Terry Laughlin was inspired by Bill Boomer, swim coach for the University of Rochester, at a coaches' clinic in 1988. Instead of focusing on the movements of a swimmer's arms and legs, Boomer talked about "the shape of the vessel" (the body) as it moved through the water. Boomer said that swimmers could improve their speed by swimming more efficiently rather than swimming harder. Laughlin, who had been interested in swimming form for many years, started offering new "Total Immersion" workshops for adults where they learn the right way to move their cores while they swim, instead of just focusing on the limbs and repeating laps [source: Laughlin].

Total Immersion is for people of all skill levels, from 6-month-old babies to expert swimmers. Those who want to compete in Masters swim meets, school meets or triathlons can use TI as a way to add to their training, and Total Immersion, Inc. offers open water camps and freestyle clinics several times a year. The cost of TI training varies, depending on the type of training:

  • Books and DVDs are mostly in the $15 to $35 range.
  • A weekend-long freestyle clinic in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010 costs $255.
  • A 5-day open water camp in the Bahamas costs from $1,295 to $1,495, depending on the season.
  • Individual TI lessons are based on each instructor's rates.

[source: Total Immersion, Open Water]


JackRabbit Swim Training

JackRabbit swim training includes open water triathlon practice.
JackRabbit swim training includes open water triathlon practice.

Triathlete Lee Silverman opened JackRabbit Sports in 2003 in Brooklyn, New York, and this swim training is especially geared towards triathletes. JackRabbit sold triathlon apparel, but Silverman and his staff noticed that lots of customers were asking for help with their training. There wasn't much training out there that really put swimming, biking and running together, and JackRabbit responded to this demand. The company started offering classes in running and swimming and opened two more branches in New York City [source: JackRabbit Sport, Inc].

JackRabbit swim training is perfect for triathlete swimmers. Although about half of the swimmers in JackRabbit classes are triathletes (or want to be), non-triathlete swimmers are also welcome and can gain useful skills from this training. Dedicated to helping swimmers improve their times, JackRabbit training focuses on the freestyle, or crawl stroke, that triathlon swimmers use. The swim training has three main levels:


  1. Learn efficient technique
  2. Develop technique and endurance
  3. Increase endurance and speed

JackRabbit is right for triathletes, swimmers thinking of trying a triathlon and swimmers who want to improve their speed, efficiency and endurance in freestyle swimming. This training doesn't introduce non-swimmers to the water. Instead, it takes people who are already comfortable in the water and trains them to step up their game [source: JackRabbit Sport, Inc].

Swimmers improve their skill through work in groups with triathlete swim coaches and work in the pool in small groups with others of a similar skill level. JackRabbit also offers several open-water swim workshops during warm weather to give triathletes essential practice in a natural environment. Swimmers learn many triathlon swimming techniques, including the following:

  • To sight (look where they're swimming)
  • To use outdoor landmarks to track progress
  • To swim in a straight line in open water
  • To deal with waves
  • To "draft" like racecar drivers do
  • To signal for help
  • To stay relaxed

[source: Oldiges]

Swimmers often participate in triathlons, and JackRabbit offers indoor triathlons during the cold time of year. Indoor triathlons are competitions that use the pool, treadmills and stationary bikes to make a triathlon course inside. These give New York area triathletes the chance to keep competing without fighting the cold. Indoor triathlons also give new triathletes the chance to get their feet wet, so to speak, in the sport before taking it outdoors [source: Oldiges]. As of 2010, a 10-week indoor training course costs $200, and a 1-day outdoor swim workshop costs $55.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • JackRabbit Sport, Inc. "About Us." [Aug. 8, 2010]
  • Laughlin, Terry and John Delves. "Total Immersion: A Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier. Revised and Updated." Fireside. 2004.
  • Lucero, Blythe and Cornelia Bleul-Gohlke. "Masters Swimming: A Manual." Meyer & Meyer Sport Ltd. 2006.
  • Oldiges, Doug. Program Director, JackRabbit Sports. Personal Interview. Aug. 13, 2010.
  • Taormina, Sheila. "Propulsion vs. Glide: Does One Come at the Other's Expense?" Active Network, Inc. 2010. [Aug, 7, 2010.]
  • Total Immersion, Inc. "FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions." 2007. [Aug. 8, 2010]
  • Total Immersion, Inc. "Philosophy." 2007. [Aug. 8, 2010]
  • Total Immersion, Inc. "The Total Immersion Open Water Experience." [Aug. 8, 2010]
  • Total Immersion, Inc. "Total Immersion Swimming." 2007. [Aug. 8, 2010]
  • U.S. Masters Swimming. "About USMS." 2010. [Aug 9, 2010.]
  • U.S. Masters Swimming. "Competition." 2010. [Aug. 9, 2010]
  • U.S. Masters Swimming. "How to Join U.S. Masters Swimming." 2010. [Aug 9, 2010]
  • U.S. Masters Swimming. "USMS Frequently Asked Questions." 2010. [Aug. 9, 2010]