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March 7, 2024

Is Swim Technique More Important than Swim Volume?

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Coach Dave Sheanin discusses the importance of balancing volume and quality in swim training. He emphasizes that frequency is key for newer swimmers, rather than focusing solely on high volume. The approach to training should vary based on the swimmer's skill level and available time. Dave recommends prioritizing technique and form improvement before increasing volume. He also suggests incorporating speed work for more experienced swimmers. While training tools can be helpful, they should not be relied upon as a substitute for proper technique. Open water training and straight swims can provide valuable opportunities for continuous swimming and stroke refinement.


  • For newer swimmers, frequency is more important than high volume.
  • Technique and form improvement should be prioritized before increasing training volume.
  • Speed work can be beneficial for more experienced swimmers.
  • Training tools should be used sparingly and not as a substitute for proper technique.
  • Open water training and straight swims can provide valuable opportunities for continuous swimming and stroke refinement.


Mike (00:00.79)
Hi, Coach Mike Ricci here from D3 Multisport, the D3 Multisport podcast. And this week I have Coach Dave Sheanin with us. Dave is a long time D3 coach, a long time coach of national champion team, um, University of Colorado, Buffalo's. And, uh, actually Dave was awarded with the, um, USAT coach of the year for the impact community award. Dave is an amazing volunteer on so many levels. Uh, but beyond that, he's an amazing coach. Um, I always go to him for ideas on swimming and one of the topics that him and I have always talked about even, and I think we see eye to eye on this, but we'll see if we can contrast a little bit today, volume versus quality. And I think this is a big thing for people that, you know, they tend to think, okay, I see the fast guys are swimming 4,000 yard sets three times a week. I need to do that. But sometimes they do it lousy form, right? So let's get Dave's take on this. He's nodding already. I can see that.

Let's break it down, let's break it down like a front pack swimmer, mid pack swimmer, and a back of the pack. And let's say I'm a beginner track athlete. I just started swimming on back of the pack. I'm swimming 230, 100, right? Like that's right, I'm on some breaststroke, I'm some, you know, form of freestyle. I'm getting through it at two and a half minutes. And that's way more common than we think. How do I get to two minutes, 100? How do I get to 215? Is it volume, is it quality? What's your take on it, David?

Coach Dave (01:25.742)
Sure. Hi, Mike. Thanks for having me. So I think that there are multiple factors here that we want to consider. And for the most part, if you're a newer swimmer, the frequency is going to be important. And so it's not so much banging out 4,000 yard workouts. It's can you get in the pool five, six days a week in order to make that improvement? And the way I think about sort of the answer to this question about volume versus quality is, you know, two ways to think about this. The first rule is always quality - just always quality. And even when you're putting in higher volume, when you get to the point where you can handle that, you still want to have that quality mixed in. And then the other thing that I'll just sort of present for thinking is like, imagine a two by two matrix here, right? So we've got like on the one axis, the up and down axis, let's say, you've got your front of the pack swimmers in the top and your mid or back of the pack swimmers on the bottom. And then across that bottom axis, we've got how much time you have to give. So if you've got just a little bit of time or you've got lots of time to give. And that creates four boxes here. Three of those four boxes, it's really gonna be quality, is what I'd be recommending for the workouts that you have. So when you're in this first side on the bottom axis here, where you don't have a lot of time to train and you're only gonna be able to get in the water two or three times a week because that's what's available to you. Whether you're a back of the pack or mid pack or a front pack swimmer, the answer is quality is what you should be focused on. So technique, get that perfected before you really start putting in volume. If you're over here and you have lots of time and you're in that middle or back of the pack swimmers.

It's a mix, but it's still a quality focus. And I would say, you know, maybe 60, 65% really focused on technique. And then the other third or so you might add some volume. So maybe one volume swim a week or something along those lines. But you really don't wanna be swimming enough, so much volume that your quality drops off. And that's the important thing. If you're a front of the pack swimmer who has lots of time, that's the sweet spot box that everybody wants to be in, right?

Coach Dave (03:41.582)
So there are kind of two ways to go on that. And maybe this is where we'd have some disagreement Mike. So in general, I would say you can go high volume and have a mix. But maybe it's more like two thirds volume and one third quality, but you always wanna be thinking about that quality. But if you're in that position, a front of the pack swimmer who has lots of time, you might think about backing off the swimming one or two days a week, and then put that time into your limit or sport, whatever that is, swimming, or rather cycling or running.

or focusing on transitions or something along those lines to try to get more bang for your buck. Cause there's really not that big a difference between someone who swims a 70.3 in 30 minutes or 28 minutes as an age grouper. And so, you know, how much time is it gonna take you to get those extra couple minutes? I'd rather maybe give that athlete an extra run workout a week or an extra bike workout each week. What do you think?

Mike (04:32.654)
Yeah, so if you say, you know, you said five or six times a week, how many weeks am I doing that for? Are you saying that's a block of six weeks, nine weeks, 12 weeks, six months? I mean, what's, you know, and when, and when do I, do I look at it? And here's my second two, you know, question one B, do, am I looking at it to say, okay, Dave, I'm two 30. I've done your five days a week for six weeks. Say now I'm down to two 20. Do I get to increase the volume or do I keep doing what I'm doing to keep?

Coach Dave (04:43.48)

Mike (05:02.038)
that form getting better, even though I'm only swimming, you know, relatively easy, but all form and technique work.

Coach Dave (05:08.066)
Yeah, there's probably not, of course, the answer is it's gonna depend, right? So there's probably not a hard and fast rule on this. I guess if I had to sort of, you force me into a box to make a call for the masses, I would say until you're under maybe 150 pace per 100, 150 to two minute pace per 100, that you can comfortably swim with your good form, such as it is, I would go high frequency, low volume at that point. And I say low volume, it's low volume per workout, right? So...

Mike (05:12.693)
Right, of course.

Mike (05:37.01)
What is low volume for workout? Are you saying a thousand, fifteen hundred, forty five minutes?

Coach Dave (05:40.514)
It's time. I mean, it's time to exhaustion. Yeah. It's probably 20 to 30 minutes. Yeah. It's how long can you swim and still hold good form? And so if at 20 minutes, you start to fatigue to such a point where, your stroke count increases by two or three strokes per 25, or you can just feel yourself getting sloppy, then you've gone past the point where you're doing good work. And again, this is for someone who's more, beginner back to middle back of the pack.

Mike (05:45.247)
Okay, okay.

Coach Dave (06:10.034)
kind of situation. If you are an elite swimmer, you may, you still want to keep track of this sort of thing, but you're not going to be your strokes not going to deteriorate at 20 minutes in it might deteriorate at 90 minutes in or two hours in or something along those lines. But, but once you're once your stroke starts to deteriorate, for the most part, I don't think you're doing good work at that point, it's time to get out of the pool and then come back the next day or in two days.

Mike (06:33.674)
Okay, that's great. Now, what about, now this is something I add in with my beginners all the time, and I agree with you on the frequency. I think that's important. You know, it's always, you know, literally time is always the issue with people to get in the pool five days a week, which is why I've recommended a Vasa to them or different things to get them, you know, band work or whatever, just continually working on that high elbow and that catch and understanding, engaging the lat and all that stuff. It's not, you know, you're not pulling with your hand and all this other, you know, stuff that people try to do as new swimmers.

But one thing I do incorporate, and I do this on the bike and I do this on the run as well, but I make sure people do speed at some level, even as a beginner. So let's say, not somebody who can swim 100 yards, but someone that can swim three to 500 yards relatively well, even if it's 230 or 215, 100, it doesn't matter. I have always felt like just doing some fast 25s with a lot of rest, forces your body into that position that your body will figure out what the fastest way through the water is, what the most efficient way is.

through the waters. Do you agree with that or is that something you would have to take on a case by case basis as you see it?

Coach Dave (07:38.646)
In principle, I guess I agree with the idea that you'd be recruiting more, you know, more of your muscle fibers as you're kind of working your way through. I think it depends on the swimmer and where they are in their journey. Honestly, I think that if you take someone who's really like an adult on set learning to swim, you know, in that first block or the first couple of blocks of trying to get it figured out where they can swim pretty good quality for a 25, but they can't hold that quality for 100, let's say.

Mike (07:59.426)

Coach Dave (08:04.598)
Speed work is not what that person should be working on. If they're at a point where they can comfortably swim a 300 or a 500, yeah, for sure, mix in some speed work by then. That person may not be mid-pack yet, but if they've got the endurance to go that long, then yeah, sure, I agree, let's put some speed work in. I will say that what I see a lot when sort of left to their own devices, swimmers and triathletes.

when asked to sprint, their stroke will really break down. It's just, it's a lot of effort and fury and straight arms and splashing and hard kicking and so on, but it's not necessarily the best form. And so one of the cues I'll always use with athletes is to say, never outswim your form. So even when you're sprinting, you don't wanna go faster than your form can handle. And that's most important as a beginner. If you're an elite swimmer, you're a former college swimmer, you've swum.

you know, 10,000 yards a day for years and years and years. A little breakdown in a, you know, in a 50 free for glory at the end of workout or whatever, that's fine. But if you're training for triathlon where a sprint is not a 50, it's 750 meters, you really, I still think that focus has gotta be on form, just because you can do a fast 50. I would expect that form is gonna break down.

over some series of sprinting, that it's just not gonna be as helpful for you as you think.

Mike (09:31.446)
Okay, so let me ask you this then, and I have my own opinions on this. If you get an email from somebody and they're like, hey, I'm swimming two and a half minutes, 100, what can I work on? What can you help me work on before you even see me swim?

Coach Dave (09:48.006)
two and a half minutes, a hundred. It's gonna be body position. So head and body position, which probably incorporates a lot of kicking. And then it's gonna be the shape of the front end of your stroke, basically setting up a catch to be able to pull through, yeah.

Mike (09:56.995)

The front end of the stroke, right? Yeah, okay. Yeah, that's what I've always recommended. I mean, you know, and you know, we both have seen a lot of underwater, you know, we've done a lot of underwater videotaping and all kinds of things like that. And I've said this for years, anybody that's over an hour in an Ironman, and I even mean an hour one, hour two, hour five, 100% I know exactly what their problems are, right? The head is up, the hips are sinking, and they're not getting a good catch, right? At some point they're dropping their elbow.

And it's funny when I communicate with people through email and they're like, Hey, I'm doing this. I'm like, well, you know, film yourself. I, you know, this is the one thing that's probably happened. Like they come back, you know, a couple of days later, they film. How did you know that? I'm like, well, you've seen enough people swim, you know, like what the, the issues are. Right. So.

Coach Dave (10:40.898)
Yeah. You could, Mike, you could probably save them some time and just send them the assessment before they film at that point.

Mike (10:48.354)
That's right. That's right. Now somebody who's swimming, you know, 52 minutes, it's one to swim 50 minutes. That's another issue altogether, right?

Coach Dave (10:55.578)
Well, you know what's funny about that is that like, so when I'm working with CU, we'll have eight lanes of kids going. And so if I'm pulling a kid from, we call it the fast lane to the fastest lane, right? So the fast lane is lane seven, eight, something like that. I wanna pull a kid up to the, walk them on deck and say, take a look at what a kid's doing in this particular lane.

I never have them look at lane one. Those are your lifelong swimmers. They've got all kinds of little quirks and bad habits and what have you that are there. It's the lane two kids that they work their way up there. Those are the kids who tend to have the better stroke. And so it's not your, you know, if someone is looking to get to be a 50 minute swimmer, I probably wouldn't have them look at the 50 minute swimmers. I'd have them look at the 55 minute swimmers to get a sense of where their bodies should be in space in the water.

Mike (11:20.182)
Yeah. Yep.

Yeah. Right.

I agree.

Mike (11:38.154)
Right, that's right, that's right.

Mike (11:43.71)
Right, one of my biggest influences in swim was my friend Rick Fee who swam in Maryland. And I would swim with him a couple days a week and he'd write these crazy workouts, we'd go swim them. And this guy swam with like, he crossed over his center line on his pole, his ankles crossed over, his head was up, his whole body was submerged under the water and he swam like a 920 for a thousand in college. I mean, that's 50 something seconds. And I would look at that and go, how does he go fast? But it's just years and years of being efficient at a bad stroke.

Right? I mean, there's no other way to say it.

Coach Dave (12:13.366)
Yep, that's right. Yeah. And a little luck in the DNA lottery is as you say. Yeah.

Mike (12:17.706)
Little luck in the DNA lottery, right, exactly. Okay, awesome. Anything else you'd wanna add from someone that's going from that 230 to two minutes to get to that 150, and we talked about, a little bit about form, we talked about frequency in the swim, quality swims, we're not advising people to swim past the point of stroke breakdown, right, that's important. Anything else you can think of with that? Should they use toys at all? Should they?

Should they use a pull buoy when their legs start dropping or do they need to get the feel of keeping their legs up?

Coach Dave (12:48.658)
So yeah, I'm generally anti-toy. I'm pro tool, but anti-toy. And I think that most people use buoys and paddles and so on, especially at the early stages of learning, more as toys, or you'll see a lot of like, hey, I can't make the interval that the coach is calling for so I'm gonna put on fins or paddles or whatever. And my preference is either go with the back or drop a lane but figure out how to get your body in that right position.

Mike (12:51.691)

Mike (13:14.796)
Right, okay.

Coach Dave (13:14.978)
rather than relying on something else in order to accomplish the time interval. That said, like a snorkel, if you're working on a particular part of your stroke that doesn't involve the breathing, that can be a really helpful tool. You don't wanna rely on it all the time, of course, but to work on something specific. And to the first part of your question about what should somebody be thinking of trying to get to that.

get to that 150 range where really starting to put in some speed work is gonna is gonna start paying off because you can hold form going fast. The advice that I would give is that think of literally every time your hand hits the water, every element of your stroke, every time you've got a stroke rotation, you are thinking about something that you're improving or some element or you're just checking in. I mean, even if you're a 115 per hundred swimmer, you should still be checking in on, oh, did my hand hit the water where I wanted it to hit?

get that elbow up quite enough. But literally each time your hand hits the water, you have an opportunity to get better. And the metric is not how many yards did I swim at the end of the workout. It's, I mean, not that we would be keeping track of this, but it's like, how many times did my hand hit the water the way I wanted it to hit the water versus how many times did it not? And getting that percentage up as close to 100% as you can, that's what's gonna make you faster.

Mike (14:33.71)
Perfect. Yeah. I mean, one of the things I think about as I re-enter swimming at times, I think about, okay, how many times did I actually think I had a breakdown in my stroke? Right? And did it happen at one point and it continued or was I able to fix it? But you're right. Every time you go in, I look at bubbles, right? How many bubbles do I see? What did my catch feel like? Do my lats engage? Am I tired from that swim? Do I get out of the water and just not even feel tired and realize I never engaged my lats? I just got through it, right?

There's always, you know, the more you know, the more you know, right? I mean, that is the, that is the big thing. Okay. So last question on this, we've talked about this, you know, the fast swimmers, I guess you would say, people that are the two 30, we're going to go to the faster people at one 45. So now is a chance where you can add in a little more volume where you think it would help. Does that mean, you know, if I have an hour a week to swim three times, so I have three hours a week to swim, am I shooting for, you know, that 3000 to 3500 an hour?

And how do I know if I should be doing hundreds or 500s? Should I be mixing it up? And what's your take on all that?

Coach Dave (15:36.11)
Yeah, well, what are we training for, right? So if you're training for... Okay, so mid distance. I think that, yeah, I think if you're looking to race, yeah, about 2000 yards for the race, being able to put in quality in the like 200 to 500 range is a pretty good thing. So you wouldn't do every swim with 500 best efforts or so on, but 500 repeats, I know my athletes love it when a workout says, four by 500 or whatever.

Mike (15:38.282)
Yeah, so Olympic distance to 70.3, let's say. So that's a, you know, 2000 yard swim at the top end.

Coach Dave (16:04.826)
But four by 500 at pace is the kind of thing that's gonna definitely get you there. You're not gonna wanna start there, but some really fast 50s and hundreds, and then some pace work at the two to 500 range, I think is gonna be a key quality workout for an athlete looking to max out that 70.3 down to Olympic distance. Okay, another last question. Say it again.

Mike (16:27.338)
Awesome. Okay, so I've got another question for you. Do you believe in straight swims? So would you have an athlete ever do a... Yeah.

Coach Dave (16:36.282)
Sometimes like a postal swim, something like that, sure. Yeah, sometimes I think those are in the pool. I think those are more or less kind of special occasions sort of swims. That said, if you have access to open water, then the straight swims I think are great. And the way I'll program straight swims or open water swims, it may be a straight swim, but it'd be like 150 left-hand strokes at...

Mike (16:46.378)
Yeah, yeah.

Coach Dave (17:03.366)
pace and then 50 easy and then, you know, repeat that through or buoy to buoy, you know, on off that kind of thing. But when you think about like if you do have access to open water and you can just swim out there, there's no wall to hang on to that you're not really stopping so much. So the idea of a straight swim in open water is with a mix of a variety of pace is that's an awesome opportunity in the pool, just sort of practically speaking, it's kind of boring, honestly.

And so I do like the idea of, you know, a postal or a half postal swim, how far can you go in an hour or how far can you go in a half hour? But if you program too much of that, your athletes will rebel even if it's good for them. So that's been my experience. Okay.

Mike (17:42.158)
All right, so here's my counter on that because I do program that almost weekly for my athletes. And the way we do it is we do a 500, no toys, 500 pull buoy, 500 pull buoy paddles, and they have to descend the set. Not every week, but you know, on and on. But the one thing I find is that, you know, a lot of these guys go to masters and all that stuff. And when they do a swim like that, they almost find it meditative to be like, I can just go swim for 30 minutes to get my 1500 in and not think about anything. They know that every 20 lengths, they put a toy on or whatever, but.

Coach Dave (17:54.062)

Mike (18:10.982)
It's good to know in a relaxing way and I can just say, hey, work on the catch for this session or work on your kick or work on your turn. So I think, yeah, it's good to mix it up like that because they don't ever get it. Think about it, they get out of the water, open water in October, they don't get in until May again. I mean, that's six, seven months of non-continuous swimming. They go to masters, a bunch of 50s and hundreds. Great, I'm fast at 100, but I haven't connected it in months, right? So that's my take on that.

Coach Dave (18:36.962)
It's a fair point. We should get some more athletes in Florida where they can swim in the open water year round or something like that. Yeah, yeah, it's interesting. Well, see what happens, Mike. See if you start programming in 30 minute best efforts once a week and see if they can continue to go further every week and how soon you start getting complaining. Ha ha ha.

Mike (18:40.514)
There you go.

Mike (18:53.562)
All right, well, awesome, Dave. This is a great topic and appreciate you coming on. All right.

Coach Dave (18:56.89)
Thanks, fun times, thanks.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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