“Pain management;” she said, “I don’t want y’all to like me at the end of this set.”


I remember my first masters swim session. Coach M on deck seemingly pulling these magical sets and reps out of thin air that then flowed through her mind and out onto the whiteboard while being screamed across lane lines. Not only was there intimidation from just getting in the pool as a non-swimming triathlete, being forced to be watched by others and pray of not getting lapped, but I discovered that swimming had it’s own language.


“On the top.”

“60 second vertical kick…haha…no, no fins.”

“No walls.”

“There’s nothing to build fitness faster than hypoxic sets.”

If you’ve ever been a competitive swimmer or been to a masters session, that h-word in the line above has indeed been transformed into a four-letter word. Every time I hear something about, “…every __ breath…”, I die a little inside, fittingly because that’s exactly what these sets feel like. But if you’re one of the athletes reading this who’ve never had the *HA* pleasure of being in a team-esque swim practice, and the quoted lines do seem like another language, fear not. That’s exactly what this post is for. I’m going to list the more common, and maybe a few not so, terms and phrases heard from the pool deck or read in swim sessions. Then I’ll give you my favorite swim set that will help you across all distances. There’s a lot, I tried to pull the most relevant terms from my own brain and several websites, but there’s a touch of humor in mixed in as well. Let’s start with one of the most common ones you’ll hear in a masters practice…and yes; there will be at least one crazy person. You’ve been warned.


  • 1-2-3 Drill – Like one-arm drills, but you alternate arms. One stroke with one arm, then two with the other, and three with the first.
  • 4/6/8 Kick Drill – Done with either 4, 6, or 8 kicks, the idea is to complete one full stroke, to the point where the arm is outstretched ahead, and then complete that number of kicks while on your side.
  • Band – In the water, it’s a large rubber band put around ones ankles that forces the swimmer to swim from the hips. Or drown. Whatever. Often paired with the pull buoy to keep the former from happening. On dry land, they’re bands used in strength training.
  • BB – Band and buoy. Drill used to force a swimmer to use their whole body, swim from the hips. It makes it quite difficult to swim with poor form, using just your upper body, using these.
  • BBP – Band buoy and paddles. Form and strength building drill.
  • Bilateral – Talking about breathing here, and the ability to be able to do so while holding form to either side. Seeing as your neither fish nor Aquaman, you should master breathing on each side as race day conditions may force you to breathe to the non-dominate side.
  • Build – You build your speed/effort across a set.
  • Buoy/Pull buoy – Foam tool that sits between your legs in the same position a bike saddle would. Forces your hips up, improving your body position, which is paramount to swimming fast and efficiently.
  • Butterfly Kick – Obviously the kick that goes with butterfly. Knees and ankles together, moving from the hips and using the whole body. I call these dolphin kicks because secretly I’m a 6 year old.
  • Cap – That rubber thing you see that makes swimmers all look like they’re bald, but with neon colored skin. Not to be confused with the actual shower cap you’ll see the experienced swimmers wearing while doing some strange hybrid stroke, and taking up a whole lane to themselves.
  • Catch – Beginning of underwater portion of stroke where you catch the water, beginning to move forward.
  • Catch-Up Drill – When you begin the entry portion of your stroke, you leave your hand out in front until the other reaches that point in its stroke. Then switch. Used to feel gliding through the water. Sometimes done with a  board or stick held in the outstretched hand, and then switching grips when the ‘catch up’ is done.
  • Circle Swim – When sharing a lane, especially with more than one other swimmer, practice of everyone swimming on one side the way down, and the opposite the way back, in order to avoid collisions. Works best when lanes alternate clockwise and counter-clockwise, yet I’ve never seen that anywhere in the States.
  • Clinic – A bit like swim camp, all squeezed into an hour or so. Focuses on teaching swim skills like form. GO TO THESE.
  • Cruise – Pace that can be held comfortably for an hour or more. It’s a bit like a base pace.
  • Deck – The dry part surrounding the pool the taskmaster coach walks around on during practice, while swearing they’re trying to make you better, though it feels like drowning.
  • Deep Water Start – Where an event starts with one already in water deep enough you can’t stand, forcing you to tread water, or maybe you get to hold onto a dock. I hope you’ve been practicing no wall sets. Sometime, but never that I’ve heard a race director use, called a floating start.
  • Descending – You get faster. ‘4 x 100 descending’ means each 100 is faster than the previous. Very very helpful skill, especially as you move to longer events where pacing is paramount.
  • Drills – Any ‘swim’ set that forces you to address the weaknesses in your stroke. Not uncommon to do with fins or buoy in order to move properly through the motions. See below (all for freestyle).
  • Dryland – Strength and other aerobic exercises done by swimmers to help the discipline. Core. Lots and lots of core…
  • Every __ Breath – It means you breathe every _ number of strokes. These are when sets begin to become hypoxic, without oxygen, and produce the feeling of drowning. They do amazing things for your swims. Or maybe that’s just the lack of fresh gases to my brain…
  • Fingertip Drag/Ski – Dragging your fingertips across the surface of the water during recovery. Forces a high elbow.
  • Fins – Kinda self explanatory. Different lengths to address different things, like long fins to build kick-specific strength. Plus they make you go fast, even more so when paired up with the next pool toy.
  • Fist Drill – Clench your hand and swim. There really should be a small difference between swimming this way and with an open palm. Try it…You haven’t been using your forearms in your catch have you..? Sometimes down holding tennis balls, or if your especially lucky, soup cans. Yes; the full unopened kind.
  • Flags – Those pesky plastic pennants that are set at each end of the pool that signify you’re near the wall. Set about a body length + an outstretched arm away from the wall. Some say these flags continually get further and further away when doing hard sets or unfamiliar strokes.
  • Flutter Kick – The quick back and forth/up and down kicks used in backstroke and freestyle. And vertical kick drills. As triathletes/open water swimmers, used more for balance than propulsion. Sometimes called scissor kick, but only when you’re doing it wrong.
  • Goggles – Really…
  • Hand Entry – How your hand enters the water. See those bubbles streaming off your palm? Those are bad. We have drills for that.
  • High Elbow – Idea to keep you elbow high, above your hand, through the duration of your stroke.
  • IM – It means ‘individual merely’, but in a masters setting means that your going to swim the rep or set in IM order (butterfly/back/breast/free). Sometimes just called medley.
  • Kick board/Board – These signal recovery sets!! YAY!!! No; just me? You know what these are.
  • Long/short course meters/yards (LCM/LCY/SCM/SCY) – Describes the setup of the pool length. Makes a different when calculating intervals, I promise. Often shortened to ‘long course’ or ‘ short course’.
  • Masters – Post high school group swim practice that in fact does not have anything to do with a ‘mastery’ of the sport. Usually non-professional swimmer. Usually.
  • Midline – Sagital plane. Imaginary line running from tip of head, between eyebrows, and down body, splitting it into mirror images. We don’t cross this is swimming. Well, we aren’t supposed to.
  • No walls – No flip turns or touch-and-go turns where you push off the wall. Special skill for those deep water race starts where you go from treading water to swimming in the normal prone position.
  • Non-Free –  Swim any stroke that’s not freestyle. Something about symmetry and being well-rounded. Does freestyle with fins count as non-free?
  • On the top/bottom – This means you, or the lead swimmer, starts the set when the second hand hits the 12 (top) or 6 (bottom). Common idea when you’ve lived in the pool as a competitive swimmer, but not so much as a newcomer. Less so when the pool clock is digital.
  • On x:xx – Each rep of a set takes a total of this x:xx interval. For example, 50 on :50 means covering 50 yards/meters in 50 seconds, including rest, before starting the next rep. Also called an interval.
  • OneArm Drill – With one arm outstretched in front/hand placed as if in a pants packet, swim using only one arm. Good to see where your ‘dead spots’ are in your stroke.
  • Paddles – These often [oversized] dinner plate sized flat plastic sheets rubber banded to one’s hand. Builds swim-specific across the upper half of your body. If you’ve never used them, imagine taping a frisbee to your hand and then sticking it out the window on the highway in an attempt to catch the wind. But really…these are one of those must have tools.
  • Pull (of stroke) – After the catch phase, sometimes split into pull and push phases of the stroke.
  • Race Pace – The pace you’d swim your next race at. Little known fact, you’ll swim whatever damn pace the lane leader’s next race is at.
  • Recovery – Area of stroke where an arm is out of the water. Fun fact, when swimming, you should never be able to see your hand during this phase. Or when talking about a set, it means you get to swim easy and not gasp for air. Take these sets seriously, because they come at a price.
  • Sighting – The quick glances up to make sure you’re still swimming straight. Without that nice black line in the pool, it’s a pretty safe bet to say you’re not. Sight quick and often, or that 1500m international distance race swim will quickly become well over a half distance swim leg.
  • Snorkel – Similar to the thing you used as a kid or on that tropical vacation 5 years ago, but in swimming these are normally mounted in the front, running between your eyes. Used to REALLY focus on specific areas of one’s stroke.
  • Split the Lane – When sharing a lane with a single other person, one gets one side, and the other gets the other. It’s fine, until someone starts doing breaststroke, or worse, butterfly.
  • Stroke/Choice of stroke – The set is done using any stroke you want. Freestyle, backstroke, breast, or fly. Even kick sometimes, like the cool down.
  • Swim Golf – The idea is to get across the pool in the least amount of strokes possible, like golf. Hence the name. Distance per Stroke is often heard with this.
  • Underwaters – You know that really cool butterfly kick you see swimmers do underwater after making a turn? Yeah; that’s what these are. If you wanna go super swim geek, they’re called undulations.
  • Vertical Kick – *uggggh* Like treading water, but you kick in the same flutter style as in back/freestyle stroke v eggbeaters like when you were a kid. Take it from someone who didn’t grow up on swim team, these will always be at the end of practice, and they will always suck.
  • *Touching Feet* – While not a term you’ll hear usually, more of a conduct rule. In the pool (while circle swimming) or in open water, after two times touching the swimmer’s feet in front of you, pass them. Preferably at the end of the lane for pool swimming. That is of course unless your swimming behind a water hog Beeson, who moves over every time you try to over take them even when you have THE WHOLE RIVER TO SWIM IN!!! Drafting in the swim is important, but if you keep touching feet, you need to find the next swimmer.


I know that’s a lot, but at least now you should have a better grip on what the on-deck coach is screaming in the morning. And here’s the swim set, one of my favorites, that incorporates a lot of the new terms. Just don’t send me any angry emails afterwards, just the ones that say how it helped your next race. Try this once every week, skipping one week after three.

Warm Up (all on :30 rest between):

  • 200 Easy/Cruise
  • 200 Build
  • 2 x 100 alternate 25 drill/25 swim
  • 100 Kick with fins/board
  • 3 x 100 descend

Main Set:

  • 4 x 600 with (:60 rest between) as:
  • #1 – Alternate easy effort and hard effort by 50
  • #2 – Build to race pace each 100, making sure to hold that pace the last 25
  • #3 – BBP
  • #4 – for time. Cover this as fast as you can at a pace sustainable for the duration.

Cool Down:

  • 200 Non free (fins optional)
  • 100 kick

Total: 3700

Joshua Stephens
USAT/USAC Certified
Peak Racing Coach
TeamUSA & Rev3 Athlete
SneakerSavior Founder