Designing a High School Swim Team Season Training Plan for Swimmers

Coaching a high school swim team can be a challenging task. One way to make it easier is to use a season training plan. A swimming season training plan provides ways to maintain a swimming program direction of continued development, forecast and prevent potential difficulties from occurring, forecast weaknesses, and establish a way to overcome those weaknesses. Designing and implementing a single season swim team training plan should take into account, among other items:

  • the current level of the athletes
  • the resources available
  • the previous season
  • the desired outcome at the end of the current season

While using a plan does not guarantee a successful season, it does make success a more likely occurrence.

Using a plan to ensure the season progresses in a controlled, sequential manner for the team and its athletes is important. It provides a direction to the program from beginning to end, decreasing the chances of teaching skills out of order or before necessary earlier skills have been learned. It begins with the current ability and fitness level of the team, then proceeds to build upon it. The swimmers develop as the season progresses.

Forecasting and preventing potential difficulties and weaknesses requires the inclusion of preliminary evaluations of the team, the environment, and the competition. Determining the current skills and fitness level of the team allows a certain level of accuracy in predicting team improvement during the season.

When the team's evaluation is combined with an inventory of the facility, budget, coaching staff, and related materials, the development of a plan that is both accomplishable and appropriate in scope is possible. When the team's competition is considered, areas of potential competitive weakness may be apparent.

This allows the coach to either be prepared to accept those weaknesses or to establish a way to overcome them. With the knowledge garnered from the evaluation process, it may be possible to include elements in the plan to decrease or eliminate the impact of those weaknesses on the team.

Planning the training program for a high school swimming season requires the completion of several steps. Those steps, and factors involved with them, must be determined and identified to be included in the planning process. Some of the items to examine include:

  • the athletes
  • the environment
  • the competition (a specific element of the environment)
  • the length of the season
  • the team's starting and ending points

Each of these will affect the construction of the plan and can affect the execution of the plan. It may be necessary to adjust the plan based on changes in any of these factors before or during the season.

For planning purposes, the season starting point will be several weeks before the first allowable day of coached practice for a team. The ending point will be several weeks after the final day of the team's competition.

Training Categories

A list of modified training categories can be used to construct the plan:

  • REC is recovery work, where effort is undefined and the swimmer's exertion level is very low.
    • Intensity Level Undefined - Easy
    • Total Duration of Work Undefined - Any
    • Duration of Repeat Undefined - Any
    • Duration of Rest Undefined
  • EN1 is base endurance work, with a low to moderate effort level from swimmers.
    • Intensity Level Low to Moderate
    • Total Duration of Work 15 to 60 Minutes
    • Duration of Repeat 5 to 60 Minutes
    • Duration of Rest 10 to 30 Seconds
  • EN2-3 is fast endurance work, with the swimmer exerting moderate to high amounts of effort but still able to sustain the same speed for the duration of a work set.
    • Intensity Level Moderate to High
    • Total Duration of Work 8 to 30 Minutes
    • Duration of Repeat 2 to 20 Minutes
    • Duration of Rest 15 to 60 Seconds
  • SP1-2 is sprint work, with the swimmer going as fast as possible, even if it results in a decrease in speed during a work set.
    • Intensity Level Maximum Effort
    • Total Duration of Work 3 to 12 Minutes
    • Duration of Repeat 20 to 120 Seconds
    • Duration of Rest 1:1 to 1:8 Work:Rest Ratio
  • SP3 is power work, with the swimmer exerting a maximum effort, but with a short duration of work and a long duration of recovery.
    • Intensity Level Maximum Effort
    • Total Duration of Work 1 to 2 Minutes
    • Duration of Repeat 5 to 20 Seconds
    • Duration of Rest 1:8 or Higher Work:Rest Ratio

Natural Limitations of a Swimming Training Plan

When preparing a training plan for an athletic team there will be limitations to what can be accomplished or achieved. Planning will be limited by the environment and by the athletes. Limits from athletes will include the actual physical capacity for work and skill improvement. The team's ties with a school could limit the program; if the school has extremely rigorous academic courses it may not be feasible to expect the same level of time commitment from athletes as might be found under a different setting. Working with high school athletes might result in disciplinary problems due to a lack of maturity on the part of the athlete, decreasing the effectiveness of the plan.

If all the athletes in a program are at a relatively low skill level, a greater amount of time will need to be spent on teaching skills, which could result in less development of physical performance capabilities. A history of success (or of a lack of success) can effect the mental state of the athletes in positive and negative ways. Many high school athletes take part in many activities, perhaps preventing a better level of success at a few of those activities. Athletes' illnesses and injuries may also alter the plan’s execution or attainment of pre-determined levels of success.

The length of the season, defined by school or conference rules, may dictate a specific first and a last day of season. There may also be rules regarding number of allowable practice hours per week, which could limit swimmer development. An overcrowded school might have a split schedule system, making it more difficult to assemble all athletes for a group practice at the same time.

Other limits can include the available workout equipment, and the condition of that equipment.

If materials need to be replaced, but there are not enough funds to acquire new items, then the team or school budget becomes a planning limitation.

The presence of non-school swimming and diving teams in the area, from which swimmers can gain additional in- or out-of-season experience, can have a large influence on the success of a swimming team. Swimmers that practice year-round should have higher experience and skill levels than those swimmers that only take part in swimming during the high school season. This should result in those more experienced athletes achieving a relatively higher level of success as individuals and as a team. The lack of a year-round program can limit the level of success for the team. In some cases, a year-round team could compete for an athlete’s time, forcing them to make a choice between taking part in high school swimming or skipping the high school season to stay with the year-round team.

The Planning Process

A single-season training plan for a high school swim team requires pre-planning work to insure the planning process uses past and current data. The planning process begins immediately following the conclusion of the previous plan, and should be essentially completed before the season begins. There will be on-going modifications to the plan based on its effects on the athletes as the season unfolds as revealed through objective measures and subjective observations.

A plan of this nature should include at least four training phases:

  • preparation
  • endurance
  • specialization
  • taper

It should also have methods integrated into the plan to develop skills and conditioning specific to swimming. Besides the essential strokes, starts, and turns, the plan should include sport psychology, team building, and academic elements.

A plan for a high school season is not simply laying out a series of time blocks; those periods must be filled with work to develop the athlete. The balance between physical development and technique refinement is not solidly predetermined, but is modified if needed through a season. If athletes in a race are at the same level of fitness, the results of a race could be changed dramatically if skill elements such as starts and turns are changed between swimmers. While physical conditioning and technique improvement are important, training plans are incomplete if they do not consider aspects beyond physical conditioning.

Skill Development

Proper mechanics must be developed early in the training season, and steps should be taken to maintain good technique for the remainder of the season. Using stroke drills to emphasize smaller elements of a full stroke is an effective way to build technique. These drills can be done as unique sets or combined with other sets.

Conditioning Development

  • Training Zone Parameters
    • REC
      • Intensity Level = <80% of Threshold
      • Sample Set = 200 Meter Easy Swim
      • Rest Between Repeats = None
      • Shorthand Effort Level = EZ or 1
    • EN1
      • Intensity Level = 80% to 95% of Threshold
      • Sample Set = 12 x 200 Meter Swims
      • Rest Between Repeats = 20 Seconds
      • Shorthand Effort Level = MOD or 5
    • EN2-3
      • Intensity Level = >95% of Threshold
      • Sample Set = 6 x 200 Meter Swims
      • Rest Between Repeats = 60 Seconds
      • Shorthand Effort Level = FAST or 8
    • SP1-2
      • Intensity Level = Maximum Effort
      • Sample Set = 4 x 50 Meter Swims
      • Rest Between Repeats = 120 Seconds
      • Shorthand Effort Level = MAX or 10
    • SP3
      • Intensity Level = Maximum Effort
      • Sample Set = 4 x 15 Meter Swims
      • Rest Between Repeats = 120 Seconds
      • Shorthand Effort Level = MAX or 10
  • Fitness should be built progressively, moving from general development to specific racing needs. The basic variables involved in conditioning are:

    How can the coach determine the correct intensity level for each swimmer? One objective way to assign effort levels to training sets is by determining a training threshold level of effort, then defining other levels of work from that level. Testing of an athlete’s training and performance results can be used to measure the response to a training program. A simple test to use is the T20 test.

    Below are examples of workout sets from each training zone or category with effort defined by the results of a T20 test (which gave a calculated threshold pace for each swimmer):

    1. Intensity of Work
    2. Duration of Work in terms of both total work and total individual bouts of work and rest
    3. Duration of Rest
    • T20 Test
      1. An athlete swims at the fastest possible sustainable speed for 20 minutes
      2. Record the distance covered
      3. Calculate the average pace for that distance to determine the swimmer's threshold pace for that stroke

Sport Psychology

Some of the mental skills or tools a coach should teach their athletes include goal setting, visualization, relaxation, and arousal control. All long-term plans need to include mental, emotional, and attitudinal training that is essential for the athlete’s performance and time should be included in a training plan for regular mental skills practice. Relaxation, arousal control, and visualization are also important to a successful taper.


While swimming is primarily an individual sport, being part of a team can make the high school swimmer's experiences more rewarding. It can raise the ability of an individual to a level that was not reachable as an individual, and this in-turn can raise the level of the team. Various methods are available to enhance team unity, from social gatherings to practice design, such as mixing athletes of differing skill levels together to assist each other in completing portions of that practice.

Athletics and Academics

When a high school student joins a school swim team, their schoolwork must not suffer. Maintaining open lines of communication with faculty by contacting them to request that they keep the coach abreast of their students classroom progress is one way to keep the athlete's school work on track. If a student is having difficulty in class, they may be restricted from team competitions or practices until that schoolwork reaches a satisfactory level.

Evaluation of the Plan

To determine the effectiveness of the training plan requires some objective measures. One of the more practical ways to measure the plans success is based on the number of attained goals set at the beginning of the season. From the outcome, steps can be taken to adjust the next season's plan and goals.

Using this system of setting goals and noting their successful attainment can be used throughout the season to determine the plan's ongoing results. If needed, changes can be made, based on the evaluation, to the current training plan. In-season goals for measurement should be included for each training factor of strength, power, flexibility, endurance, speed, technique, strategy, and pacing.

Calendar or Schedule

Initially, a season training calendar or schedule must be established to serve as a template. The first consideration for building the season training schedule is the time of the season; the starting and ending dates. Next, determine intermediate dates, such as final exam dates, class-wide testing (such as achievement test or college placement exams), school-wide social activities (such as a homecoming dance), and any holidays. Finally, determine the dates of all competitions: intra-squad, dual, multi-team, invitational, and championship meets. Competitions are generally scheduled by the athletic directors. If the coach is responsible for scheduling competitions, all dates except competition dates should be established, then conference schools should be contacted for scheduling, followed by non-conference schools. Often the state athletic association will release a list of schools that have open dates if more meets are desired.

Resources and Abilities

The resources available must be evaluated, including the practice facility, its available days, hours, and the inventory of practice equipment. Knowing the pool availability and size will determine how daily practices are planned. Knowledge of the available inventory might affect, for example, kicking or pulling sets and the progression of those sets through a season.

The availability and experience level of the coaching staff must be known so decisions can be made on the scope of the plan. If the coaching staff is inexperienced, then the division of the team into practice groups might be handled differently than it would if the staff were more experienced. If a limited number of assistant coaches are available, it will also similarly limit some of the things that could be done through the season. Determine the number of assistants, their experience level, and decide if, at their current level, they would be allowed to coach an entire practice without supervision, with limited supervision, or would not be allowed to coach an entire practice.

Coaches that can manage an entire practice could be assigned to work with groups of athletes unattended, while the less experienced staff members can be used to assist the more knowledgeable coaches. Practices can be divided differently based on these assignments. It might be possible to have several different activities in different areas of the facility simultaneously if there are enough qualified staff. If not, then the plan must be tailored accordingly. An example that could take place when staff is experienced and plentiful is simultaneous sessions in both a weight room and the pool, and in the pool having several stations in a circuit, ranging from teaching certain skills to specific fitness sets.

The athlete’s skill level should be determined to both steer a portion of the goal setting process and to determine how staff may need to be assigned to the athletes, limiting some of the possibilities of simultaneous sessions. Returning athletes' abilities should be known from the end of season evaluations from the previous year. Incoming students can be queried via telephone calls, mailed questionnaires, or during the first few days of practice. A group that is comprised of primarily highly skilled athletes will require different planning than a group that is primarily inexperienced.

Review of Prior Season

The end of season evaluation should be reviewed for methods and procedures that worked and that did not accomplish their objectives. Note what types of sets and practices swimmers mention as good or bad, and if noted, why the swimmers felt that way about those sets. Did the taper seem affective at making the swimmers perform at an optimum level? Use the results of the evaluation to decide if there are things that will be changed for this season.

Swimming Season Goals

The training plan should be goal driven. Some goals will come from school administrators, such as grade requirements. Other goals might come from the athletic director, such as a certain placing at a conference championship or a win-loss record goal. Other goals will come from the coaches and the athletes. Each must be evaluated and, if merited, steps to help achieve the goal must be included in the season training plan.

Initially, only non-athlete-derived goals will be used to build the training plan, since the athletes may not be available to determine goals during the plan building process. Once the athletes establish their sets of goals as the season begins, additional modifications can be made to the plan, if needed, to facilitate achieving those athlete goals.

The first goal of a training plan is to increase fitness and skills to promote a successful performance; beyond that, goals that are more specific can be established that will require the inclusion of certain elements in the training plan. If a goal is to have swimmers finish races stronger as demonstrated by specific limitations of drop-off times in race splits, then workouts designed to help accomplish this must be part of the plan.

Goals that should be determined by the coach include: end of plan goals, general to specific athlete goals, general to specific team goals, and general to specific competitive season goals. Athlete determined goals should include general and specific individual athlete goals, general to specific team goals, and general to specific competitive season goals.

While attainment of some goals will be affected by competition or the team member's incoming ability and skill levels, some goals that should be included in the plan that are not dependent on other team's or specific skill levels are physical, such as building greater fitness and developing or improving technique. Others are psychological, like developing athlete's peak performance skills, helping the athlete strengthen their sense of self-worth, and developing the value of sportsmanship.

There are also social concerns that should be addressed in the plan. Swimmers should become part of a cohesive team and develop a positive interaction pattern with other athletes. The swimmer's scholastic responsibilities must be appropriately emphasized and supported. Finally, the plan should be devised with the goal of providing a challenging, rewarding activity that the swimmer could continue for a lifetime.

Constructing a Season Plan for High School Swimmers - Build the Plan