Four steps to a faster swim (part 2)

Seven-time world champion Richard Stannard shares his essential swim sessions and shows you how to build up to them...


If you’ve already read my previous article in which I share my four tips for a faster swim, you’ll be ready to jump in the pool and start to working towards seeing those improvements.


Here are my three essential swim sessions and how you can build towards them:

Session one

This session works on endurance, so is done below race pace.

My session:

  • 60 x 100m leaving every 1:20mins (when fit 1:15mins). I will aim to complete each 100 in 1:15secs (and when fit 1:10secs)

How to build toward this:

  • Start with a short warm up of 200m to 400m
  • Main set 20 x 100m leaving off at a time which gives you 10secs rest after each 100m. You should be swimming comfortably and only begin to fatigue in the last few repetitions (i.e. 17th to 20th repetition), but still leaving on the same time

Each week add five more reps to the main set, so for example in week two go for 25. If you miss a week, go back and repeat the previous week’s set.

As you progress, the times you can achieve will begin to improve with no extra perceived effort on your behalf. As this happens lower the leaving time by 5secs so you still only get 10secs rest per 100m.

Session two

This is a threshold session, so should be done at or just above race pace.

My session:

  • Warm up 1km-1.5km
  • Main set (100m, 200m, 300m, 400m, 500m, 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m) leaving on (1:25mins, 2:40mins, 3:50mins, 5:10mins, 6:15mins, 5:10mins, 3:50mins, 2:40mins, 1:25mins). Times I will aim for on each rep: 1:05mins, 2:14mins, 3:24mins, 4:37mins, 5:50mins, 4:36mins, 3:22mins, 2:12mins, 1:04mins
  • Short swim down of 300m, followed by a good pull set of 1,000m to 1,500m with band and paddles and then a swim-down to finish

How to build toward this:

  • Warm-up of 400m swim, 300m pull, 200m kick and 100m swim
  • Main set: (50m, 75m, 100m, 200m, 100m, 75m, 50m) once or twice through depending on your level. With regard to leaving times this is very individual, but you should aim for about 20secs to 30secs rest between each rep. It is vital to try to get slightly quicker in the second half of the set and to avoid the most common error of starting too fast and slowing or stopping before completing the session
  • In the above session, if Q is your 100m time in this session then each rep’s target (aim) time will be a reflection of this time, as follows: (Q/2), (Q/4)x3, Q, (Qx2) + 4secs, Q, (Q/4)x3, Q/2). If you work out my 100m splits in my session above they are 1:05mins, 1:07mins, 1:08mins, 1:09mins, 1:10mins and then a slightly quicker in the second half of the set

Session three

Finally, I’ve included a speed session which should be done above race pace.

My session:

  • Warm up of at least 2,000m with reducing set 8 x 50m, with 1 to 4 and 5 to 8 getting faster to a flat-out sprint on reps 4 and 8
  • Main set: 30 x 50m sprint as three blocks of 10 x 50m with a 100m easy swim between each block. First 10 leaving on 60secs, second block leaving on 55secs, third block leaving on 50 secs. I will be aiming to beat 30secs for each of thirty 50m sprints
  • Swim down of 1km to 1.5km after the set

How to build toward this:

  • Warm-up: 500m to 1,000m depending on your level. Do a reducing set of 6 x 25m reducing 1 to 3 and 4 to 6 during the warm up
  • Main set: 10 x 50m sprint leaving off a time approximately double your 50m sprint time (if this is 40secs then leave off 1:20secs)
  • On the set aim to hold your form throughout the whole set with a good strong leg kick. As you get fitter add in more blocks of 10 reps
  • Swim down easy for 500m to 1,000m mixing up the strokes if possible

Jargon buster

Yup, a few terms here could be confusing to the newcomer. Here are the key ones…

6 x 25m – six 25m reps.

Reps – short for repetitions e.g. 10 x 100m reps.

Reducing set – a set of work where each repetition is faster than the previous one, often finishing with a sprint.

Leaving times
– the time from when you leave the wall for one rep and leave the wall again to start another rep.

Negative split
– swimming the second half of a rep or set faster than the first. e.g. 400m swim in 5mins (with the first 200m in 2:31mins and the second 200m in 2:29mins).

Threshold – a pace at or just above 1,500m race pace that can be held for the entire set of work (allowing for a small negative split).

 – an old piece of inner tube used to tie legs together.

For a demonstration of good freestyle swim technique check out this video:

For more advice from Richard, check out part one of this article here, where he shares his four tips to help you swim faster for triathlon.

We joined Richard at one of his front crawl swim clinics. For more information visit his website

Upcoming dates are: 17 Jan, 24th Jan, 14 Mar at London Aquatic Centre and 24 Jan at Academy Sport, Reading. 

Richard also runs lake sessions throughout the summer, see here for details.


(All images: Jonny Gawler)