Woman in mid-stroke in pool swim lane

6 Workouts for New, Intermediate and Advanced Swimmers

No matter how experienced you are with swimming as cross-training, you can always get better—and these workouts can help.

Woman in mid-stroke in pool swim lane

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Looking to add some cross-training to your weekly workouts? Consider scheduling a little pool time. Not only can swimming be a fantastic recovery activity for runners — especially if you log a few laps holding a pull buoy between your legs, allowing your arms to do the work while your legs float behind you — but it’s also a great way to build stronger muscles and better cardiovascular endurance without additional impact on your knees, ankles and hips.

You don’t need to be hot on Katie Ledecky’s heels to benefit from a swim workout, so don’t worry if you’re a relative rookie. As long as you’re comfortable in the water and able to swim at least a few consecutive laps, you can dive into one of the workouts below, adjusting the distances and rest times to suit your current abilities.

If you’re not ready to be a lap swimmer, don’t worry—we have tips to get you going, too.

Tips for Testing the Waters

If you’re not yet comfortable in the water, find yourself struggling to make it from one wall to the other or simply want to improve your swimming skills, Holly Neumann, U.S. Masters Swimming manager of Adult Learn-to-Swim and Foundation Programs, suggests seeking out a certified coach or instructor — ideally, one who’s educated in methods that work best for adult athletes, like those listed on the USMS Adult Learn-to-Swim website. A coach or instructor can help you build the confidence and skills you need in order to swim laps safely, and can also provide feedback on form, breathing and even be a great resource when it comes to figuring out what gear you need and where to get it.

But coaches aren’t only for those who need help staying afloat. They’re also invaluable for swimmers of all levels — and you don’t necessarily need to shell out for one-on-one instruction.

Neumann, who is also the coach of Sarasota Tsunami Masters Swimming, recommends those who are water-competent find a registered U.S. Masters Swimming Program, where, if needed, they can start in the beginner lanes. “The swimmers in the beginner lanes tend to have more time on the wall because there is more stroke instruction and more explanation of general terms and set goals,” Neumann says. “The side bonus to this added coaching is more rest, which newcomers to the sport need.”

Typical Troubles for New Swimmers

Brand-new swimmers also tend to have just one speed and tire out quickly, whether they’re trying to swim fast or not, Neumann observes. “But that improves quickly,” she says, “and then it’s time to start playing with speed and tempo.”

Runners in particular often deal with challenges like sinking legs, inflexible ankles and difficulty breathing regularly through their mouths. “Swim fins are a runner’s best friend,” Neumann says. A few sessions with a coach or instructor can go a long way in helping you understand how to overcome these troubles, because in swimming, efficiency is of the utmost importance, and that comes from improving your form — something that’s hard to do without feedback from the pool deck.

Finding the Right Workout for You

There are several aspects to consider when choosing a workout.


At least to start, it’s wise to begin with a time goal, like 15 or 20 minutes, rather than distance (although you will want to note how far you go in that time so you can track your improvement). As you get stronger, you can increase both how far you go each time without taking a break and how long your workout lasts overall.


Keep in mind that, unlike a long, slow running workout where you might plan to run at a steady pace for 30 minutes or more, in swimming, workouts pretty much always incorporate rest. You might swim 100 yards (which, in a typical 25-yard pool, is down and back twice), then rest a few seconds — not because you’re gassed, but because that’s how the workout is designed. In the beginning, your rest times will make up a decent percentage of your workout, but as you improve, you’ll reduce your time hanging onto the wall.


As Neumann noted, most new swimmers have a hard time finding their different gears, so your initial workouts will likely be at more or less the same speed. As you develop a better feel for what “easy” versus “hard” feels like, you can add harder efforts and even sprints into your workouts. You’ll want to add more rest time after these efforts — just like at the track when you’re doing speedwork — but you’ll cover more ground (err, water) in less time as you become capable of increased intensity.

“Go-to sets for swim rookies include things like ladder sets, which can be easily remembered and can measure improvement over time,” Neumann says. “Maybe someone starts with a ladder swim of 50-100-150-100-50, with a minute or more of rest between each. As they keep coming to swim practice, the distances can be increased, and/or the rest decreased to track improvement.”

You can also add intensity to parts of that ladder workout by incorporating builds (for example: starting with 100 at an easy effort and going faster so that you’re ending at maximum effort) and descends (starting at a hard effort and slowing to easy). “I also like for my swimmers to have at least one ‘second stroke,’ to alleviate boredom and prevent overuse of any one muscle group,” Neumann says.

6 Swim Workouts: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

Use the following workouts as guides, adjusting as needed. All swimming distance measurements are in yards.

Beginner Workout 1

  • Warm-up (200 easy swim, 100 kick)
  • Repeat 100s: 6 x 100, odds are easy, evens are moderate effort (or a build from easy to moderate). Rest 10 to 30 seconds between each.
  • Cooldown (200 easy swim)

Beginner Workout 2

  • Warm-up (200 easy swim, 100 kick)
  • Ladder: 50, 100, 150, 100, 50. All at easy to moderate effort. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between each.
  • Cooldown (200 to 300 easy swim)

Intermediate Workout 1

  • Warm-up (300 easy swim, 100 kick)
  • 4 x 50 build
  • Repeat 100s: 6 x 100, odds are easy, evens are hard effort. Rest 10 seconds after easy efforts, 20 seconds after hard.
  • Cooldown (200 to 300 easy swim)

Intermediate Workout 2

  • Warm-up (200 easy swim, 100 kick)
  • 4 x 25 build
  • Ladder: 50, 100, 150, 200, 150, 100, 50. All at easy to moderate effort. Rest 10 to 30 seconds between each. (Option to add second stroke of choice on fourth 25 of each set.)
  • Cooldown (200 to 300 easy swim)

Advanced Workout 1

  • Warm-up (300 easy swim, 200 pull buoy or second stroke, 100 kick)
  • 3 x 50 build, 3 x 50 descend
  • Repeat 100s for time*: 8 x 100, odds are easy, evens are hard effort.
  • Cooldown (200 to 300 easy swim)

*Your time should be very close to the time it takes you to swim that 100 at a nice, easy pace—maybe just a couple seconds more. (So, if swimming 100 yards at an easy pace takes you 1:57, you could round up to 2:00.)

For hard efforts, use that same time, but note your actual time to the wall on your first hard effort and try to come as close to that as possible on every hard 100 to follow. The remaining time is your recovery before going into the easy swim. (So, even if your hard effort gets you back to the wall in 1:30, you still won’t leave for the next easy 100 until the clock hits 2:00.)

Advanced Workout 2

  • Warm-up (300 easy swim, 200 pull buoy or second stroke, 100 kick)
  • 3 x 50 build, 3 x 50 descend
  • Ladder: 50, 100, 150, 200, 300, 200, 150, 100, 50 as follows (rest 10 seconds between each)
    • 50 hard
    • 100 build
    • 150 moderate, add second stroke every other lap
    • 200 moderate, with sprint every fourth 25 (so, 75 moderate, 25 sprint)
    • 300 easy to moderate, use second stroke every fourth 25
    • 200 moderate, with sprint every fourth 25
    • 150 moderate, add second stroke every other lap
    • 100 descend
    • 50 hard
  • Cooldown (200-300 easy swim)

Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up

Whether hitting the pool on your own or in a group or with a masters swim club, it’s not uncommon for new swimmers to feel a bit intimidated by swim culture. But don’t let that hold you back.

“Trust me: No one is really looking at you, but people tend to be self-conscious at the swimming pool,” says Neumann, who offers the following advice for feeling more comfortable and confident. “Ask questions about how to swim with others in a lane. Pay attention to what other swimmers are wearing, and ask them where they bought their swimsuit. Ask to test the goggles in the lost-and-found box before you spend too much on a pair you don’t like. Learn how to put on a swim cap.”

Many of these things you can research online or ask the lifeguard about if the thought of approaching the other swimmers makes you squirm, but Neumann insists that you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out. “Swim people are among the nicest around, but they spend a lot of time with their eyes underwater, so unless you speak up, they might not notice you need a tutorial.”

Kristen Seymour is a certified USA Triathlon coach and a U.S. Masters Swimming Adult Learn-to-Swim instructor.

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