In the last NISCA Journal I wrote a piece titled, “Successful Swimming with Limited Pool Time.” One of my suggestions was to incorporate mental training into practice. I defined mental training as involving sets that challenged swimmers mentally as well as physically by incorporating drill work, stroke changes, and focused interval swimming. Mental training, while especially beneficial to short practices, also enhance longer training sessions.

My favorite mental training sets combine vertical and horizontal descending swims where an athlete must not only descend from one swim to the next, but also descend “across the set.” For example, on a set of 9 X 100, descending 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9, the swimmers must also descend the final swims of each circuit, or swims 3, 6, and 9. By swimming to descend “across the set,” swimmers must pay particular attention to their pacing and effort. Requiring swimmers to recall their times when the set is over further enhances the mental aspect of the set.

Incorporating drill work adds an additional mental component to the set. For example, the 9 X 100 set noted above can be modified to 9 X (50 drill/100 swim). As in the first example, the set is broken into three descend circuits. In each circuit the 50 drill has a particular emphasis, such as the “catch” in freestyle. During the swim, the swimmers must focus on that particular aspect of their stroke emphasized by the drill, while also descending down and across the set. A visual example is noted below; the descend “across the set” swims (repeats 3,6,9) are highlighted:

Circuit 1 (Descend 100s 1-3  Circuit 2 (descend 100s 4-6)  Circuit 3 (descend 100s 7-9) 
 50 Drill   50 Drill   50 Drill
 100 Swim  100 Swim  100 Swim
  50 Drill   50 Drill   50 Drill
 100 Swim  100 Swim  100 Swim
  50 Drill   50 Drill   50 Drill
 100 Swim  100 Swim  100 Swim

Here, swimmers encounter the mental and physical challenges of the descend, and then gain additional mental training from focused technique work.

Some coaches avoid descend sets because swimmers sometimes demean the intention of the training by starting out too slowly and effortlessly. Establishing base times for initial swims is one way to avoid the problem. An easy way to create base times is to establish the base from an effort percentage measured against a swimmer’s best time. For example, I will often use 75 percent, 80 percent, or 85 percent effort measured against best time as a base swim. If I set the initial base swim at 80 percent effort in the set of 9 X 100, descend 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, a swimmer whose best time is 1:00 in the 100 free style must complete the first swim in each circuit at or faster than 1:12, while descending swims 3, 6, and 9. The times for this set might look as follows:

Circuit 1 (descend100s 1-3)  Circuit 2 (descend 100s 4-6)  Circuit 3 (descend 100s 7-9) 
 1:12 (80% effort)  1:12 (80% effort)  1:12 (80% effort)
 1:10  1:10  1:10
 1:09  1:08  1:06

Note that the swimmer descended within each circuit and that the first swim of each circuit stayed at 80 per cent effort measured against best time. The swimmer also descended “across the set” by descending the final swim of each circuit.

An even more creative approach to the descend set is to change the initial base time for each circuit while also including a descend “across the set.” Again using a best time of 1:00, the first swim of the first circuit must be faster than 75 percent, or 1:15; the first swim of the second circuit must be faster than 80 percent, or 1:12, with swim 6 faster than swim 3; and the first swim of the third circuit must be faster than 85 percent, or 1:09, with swim 9 faster than swim 6. The times for the above set might look as follows:

Circuit 1 (descend 100s 1-3)   Circuit 2 (descend 100s 4-6)   Circuit 3 (descend 100s 7-9) 
  1:15 (75 % effort)  1:12 (80 % effort)  1:09 (85 % effort)
 1:13  1:10  1:08
 1:11  1:07  1:07

Unlike in the first example, where the base swim for each circuit remains constant, in the above example the initial base time for each circuit changes. The swimmer must achieve a progressively faster base goal for the first swim of each circuit, and also attained the descend goal within each circuit. Finally, for a third dynamic, the swimmer must also descend “across the set.”

A third, and even more challenging example involves setting the base time for the initial swim in the first circuit, and then requiring a descend “across the set” at each level of the circuit. In this set swims 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 are descended, and swims 1-4- 7, 2-5-8, and 3-6-9 are also descended. The times for the third example, again using 1:00 as the best time, might look as follows:

Circuit 1 (descend 100s 1-3)  Circuit 2 (descend 100s 4-6)  Circuit 3 (descend 100s 7-9) 
 1:12 (80 % effort)  1:11   1:10
 1:10  1:09  1:08 
 1:09   1:07  1:06 

Even though the set looks like an ordinary descend set, establishing the initial base time ensures appropriately challenging descend times. By including a multilevel descend “across the set,” the swimmer is fully engaged in the practice, both mentally and physically.

For me, the above two examples, accompanied by focused drill work within the set, represent the epitome of mental training because of the various levels of thinking required by each athlete. The swimmer must concentrate on pacing, effort, and stroke mechanics in order to successfully complete the set.

The above examples are just a limited sampling of the type of mental training sets that incorporate descending “across the set.” For longer sets, the number of repeats per circuit can be expanded or the number of circuits increased. The basic model is also easily adaptable to race distances and stroke combinations to create dynamic practice sets that challenge your swimmers physically as well as mentally.


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