Girls Run the World open water swimming coach, Kelly Gentry shares 5 great ways to get the most out of your swimming workout from warm-up to cool down.

woman in wetsuit getting ready for a swimming workout
Pic credit: photo by Susan Flynn on Unsplash

As busy women, we want to get the most out of our time in the water. How do we do that? Avoid garbage yardage! Swimming a designated time or distance without choosing a focus or varying what you’re doing can often prevent you from gaining the benefits of your time and effort.

Break your workout down into achievable segments. Avoid focusing on what is ahead in your training. Swimming takes constant conscious, mindful effort. Be in the moment and keep only the thought that what you’re doing at that moment will help what’s to come later in the workout. Below is a breakdown on how to structure your next swim. While designed as a pool workout, you can still structure your open water swimming similarly; temperatures, conditions, and personal safety permitting.

(based on a 45-60 minute workout)


Duration: 10-15 minutes

Our goal is to prepare our body for our swim workout. Your focus is to control your breathing, lengthen your muscles, get the kinks out. Start slower than you think. 

  1. Stretch out, stay long, kick in various positions. Pay attention to what muscle groups are feeling “stuck” or tight. Repeat.
  2. Incorporate non-free to help balance other muscles and get an actual full-body warm-up.
  3. Do some shorter test lengths and build-up to faster speeds to determine what else your body may need to feel ready.
  4. Every woman varies in the time it takes them to feel ready. Sometimes longer than 15 minutes, sometimes less. Don’t decide how the remainder of your workout will be through this warm-up. We will still use the next segment to prepare ourselves further.

Pic credit: Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash


Duration: 10-15 minutes

Swimming is a technique-limited sport, where technique is another word for our muscular endurance and is the combination of where we place our body combined with the timing of our hands, arms, hip rotation, and legs. Poor technique can lead us to injury, reducing our ability to swim longer, faster, stronger, or even at all. A great swimmer will hold their technique/form as they become tired, whereas the average swimmer may resort to rushing through the motions or “muscle” through things which may potentially cause injury.

  1. Build and focus on 1-2 micro-actions within your stroke while completing the sets. For example, the “catch” position, head position, timing of your breath, kick, etc.
  2. Choose applicable drills to reinforce the muscle memory around this skill. These drills help us build strength and prevent injury.
  3. Perform the drills slowly and with purpose. Drills are not “busy work” they are the foundations of our technique!

Consciously focus on the feeling of these smaller components of your stroke and try to incorporate them into later sets once you’re swimming normally (not performing a drill).


Duration: 20-25 minutes

Use this time to test your technique and challenge your body by building distance, speed, and endurance. The goal is to increase your heart rate, push your muscles through exhaustion, and challenge your mindset when the swimming starts to feel tough. Keep in mind that we always maintain technique before speed, so if the rate you’re attempting to work at throws your technique to the side, slow your pace rather than eliminate your technique focus.

  1. Vary your speed work and distances using various effort levels (ex, fast, sprint, steady pace, easy, rest). Aim to maintain technique and then speed. We are trying to get our heart rates higher, but not at the expense of our technique.
  2. Pay attention to a clock/watch and use intervals to help regulate your pace and rest. Knowing how long it takes you to swim a specific distance combined with resting a particular amount of time keeps us accountable. It is valuable information that shows where we are currently and may show where we need to make adjustments in the future.
  3. Rest is just as important as “work” when we’re following a set. We have different energy systems we are trying to train, so sometimes shorter or longer rest has a purpose. The difference in rest is called anaerobic (low oxygen) vs aerobic (high oxygen) training, and is the work that makes your swimming better in the long run.
  4. When choosing intervals or your specific speed, it’s better to complete the set as close to its design as possible, even if you need to go a little slower. If you can do one repetition ten-seconds faster, but the remaining seven reps are slower, sluggish and without form, start slightly slower and try to maintain a closer average across the repetitions.


Duration: 5-10 minutes

Maintenance time! Nearly the reversal of your warm-up. Your body should now be tired, but we want to be sure to bring your breathing and heart rate back down to an aerobic level. Meaning, swim slowly, comfortably, stretch out, and again slower than you think. 

  1. Use the warm-down time to reflect on the set you just completed. Did you have any struggles? What felt great? Could you have done more or tried parts of the set at a faster/slower pace?
  2. While your body is exhausted, continue to think about and repeat the technique work you did earlier. Complete a few lengths of that same technique work to build that conscious muscle memory – eventually, it will lead to subconscious movements.
  3. Listen to your breathing. Continue to swim leisurely using various strokes or non-free to help bring your breathing rate down to a comfortable resting rate.
  4. When you think you’re warmed down, do another two lengths of anything you want (bobs, underwater swimming, dog paddle, double-arm backstroke, etc.). Keep it fun and creative to end your workout on a high.
Pic credit: Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash


Every workout is a small test of where your swimming is currently, and we want to use the information gained from it to help you progress in the future. Record what sets you completed, the number of repetitions, the intervals you attempted to hold and the actual times you performed. Log how you felt with various parts of the workout. Maintaining this simple, useful tool showcases your effort in the sport and potentially brings to light any holes affecting your swim progress.

For more training advice and resources, sign up for a free 14-day trial membership to access premium content, online training programmes and more.

Use the code GRTWTB to get a lifetime 30% discount on the membership after the trial period has ended.