Understanding The Masters Swim Session

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  • Published May 19, 2010
  • Updated Feb 11, 2011 at 12:42 PM UTC

Walking into a swim club Masters or triathlon club swim session for the first time can be an intimidating and confusing experience. Coach Cliff English helps to ease fears by decoding the Masters swim session.

Written By: Cliff English

Fear rises in you as you stroll across the deck, working your way through the gear and fit bodies to a crowd standing around a dry erase board. As you peer through the crowd, you realize you have no idea what the fellow dressed in the Speedo polo shirt with a whistle and stopwatch is saying. You are even more confused when you glance at the board and see nothing but brackets with numbers and letters. What is going on here?

Ideally, when a newbie inquiries about joining a swim club, the coach provides a quick personal orientation session and thus spares him or her much of the potential stress of that first workout. But it doesn’t always work out that way, so here is a different sort of orientation to help you decode the swim workout.

The language of the swim workout is fairly simple and basically made up of abbreviations, numbers and a few terms. While most of what is written on the board will be fairly consistent among all coaches, there will always be variations, and it will still take a week or two to get to know your coach’s swim set language.

FR = Freestyle stroke

BR= Breaststroke

BK = Backstroke

Fly = Fly

w/ = With

Dr = Drill

EZ = Easy

w-up = Warm-up

c-d = Cool-down

RI = Rest interval

PP = Pull + paddles

Here are some less common terms and abbreviations:

IM = Individual medley (all 4 strokes swum in the order of Fly/ BK/ BR /FR)

Lung busters entail purposely restricting the number of breaths you take while swimming. For example, “breathe 5 or 7,”  would mean, “breathe once every 5 strokes or 7 strokes.”

SG = Swim golf, a fun drill in which you add your stroke count for a given interval (say, 50m) to your time for the same interval to generate a composite score

Band = Band only, a strength drill where one wears a band around his or her ankles to limit the kick

DPS = Distance per stroke, a drill where the swimmer tries to get as much distance as possible out of each stroke, usually measured by counting strokes for 50m

(-) = Negative split, where the second half of the distance is swum faster than the first (e.g. (-) 100m)

“Descending” and “ascending” refer to swimming increasingly fast through a set (descending) or starting fast and then getting slower through a set (ascending).

There are quite a few swim drills, as well, including sculling (Sc), fist, head up (h-up), drag finger tips (dft) and one arm. These drills work mainly on “feel” for the catch and pull phases of the stroke.

After you’ve learned the basics, the next step is learning to read a swim set. Swim set descriptions are usually fairly clear. Sometimes, however, as in the world of academics, where it often seems the professor is either trying to confuse his or her students more or just impress them with his grasp of the English language, the swim coach can get carried away as well. The bottom line is that we are just describing a workout. Sure, it can be creative, but it should make sense and be simple enough for people to remember.

For example:

2x (4x50m FR 1-4 on :45 / :55 / 50 choice ez :15 RI )


2x 4x50FR 1-4 on :45 / :55
50 ez :15 RI

These two sets are identical and show that there are a few ways to write the same thing. This set reads as two sets of 4x50m with 50m swim choice in between. There will always be a few monster sets with brackets within brackets, and then you will have to rely on your old college math and physics classes to help you make sense of them.

I also threw in a send-off time. That’s the part that reads “on :45 and :55”, which means that if the 50m took you 38 seconds, you then have seven seconds of rest left before you have to go again in the case of the 45-second send-off and 17 seconds of rest if you go on the 55-second send-off. For 100m sets you will have  send-offs of 1:15 , 1:20 /, 1:30, and so on.

The entire swim workout is comprised of sets. Usually the coach will start everyone off with a warm-up and then maybe a little drill set followed by perhaps another little pre-set with some descending 50’s to get the swimmers ready for the main set. After the main set, it is pretty common to go right into the cool-down, but you never know what kind of mood your coach will be in. You may find yourself having a kick set thrown your way before it is all over.

I hope this little lesson helped you make some sense of what is on the dry erase board and ultimately avoid any possible personal embarrassment.

Coach Cliff English has more than 15 years of experience coaching athletes ranging from age-groupers to Olympians, first-timers to Ironman champions. For more on coach Cliff’s coaching services or 2009 training camps visit

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