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.