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Is Swim Golf the best swim set of all time?

Use this "game" to improve your speed and efficiency in the water

lane swimming Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

It is the ongoing dilemma in swimming: do you train for efficiency and technique, or do you train for fitness? Common training logic says that you have to pick one or the other. But what if you could break the paradigm and do both at the same time? Swim golf is chance to do just that.

What is swim golf, you ask? There are many ways to implement it, but the way that I have been using it in the groups I coach is as follows:

  • The set consists of 10 x 50m repeats. The rest between repeats is at least equal to the time it takes you to swim the repeat (i.e. if it takes you 50 seconds to swim the repeat, then you must rest for at least 50 seconds before you do the next one).
  • On each repeat, you are swimming hard, and I mean hard – 95% of your max effort or harder. (At this point, many of you will be asking how you can possibly work on technique when doing this.)
  • Not only do you swim really hard on each 50, but you count the strokes it takes you to do each 50, get your time for each repeat and add up your total. This is your swim golf score.
    For example, if it takes you 50 seconds to swim the 50, and you take 24 strokes on the first length and 26 strokes on the second length, then your total swim golf score is 50 + 26 + 24 = 100.
  • The score you get on your first interval is considered your “par” score.
  • For the next 9x 50 you are trying to beat your “par” score each time. The only way to beat par is to go faster or to take fewer strokes for the 50, or both.
  • By placing the intensity high, but giving you a concrete way to evaluate your efficiency, it makes it possible to work on both fitness and technique at the same time. It also puts the control in the athlete’s hands as to what element of technique they would like to work on. Do they want to work on a high elbow catch as a way to take fewer strokes? Or have they been working on the amount of hip and shoulder rotation they are using? An athlete could even try out several things during a set of swim golf and see what works.

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Swim efficiency

Having this focus on overall score, instead of just on time for the repeat, also helps many athletes become aware of what happens to their efficiency as they try to go faster. Maybe an athlete can go one second faster, but to do so they must take three extra strokes for the 50. In that case, their golf score will go up despite the fact that they sped up. This set also provides feedback to athletes as to what happens to their stroke as they get tired. Maybe they are able to do every 50 at the same speed, but as the set goes on and they get tired, it takes more and more strokes to keep that same pace as each stroke gets shorter and shorter, making their score go up. Both of these are things that many athletes have trouble noticing during a “normal” workout, but since swim golf focusses explicitly on the interplay of speed and efficiency, it narrows their attention to these changes. Once an athlete is aware of what is going on, it is possible to do something different.

This is also what makes a swim golf set better than the “SWOLF” metric that many swim watches have. Yes, this SWOLF score is essentially the exact same variable – time to complete a distance + strokes to complete it. The difference is that in a swim golf set your exclusive focus is on getting that score as low as possible for each 50, compared to a SWOLF score, which is usually something that you look at when a session is over. This gives you minimal opportunity to make real-time adjustments to your swimming during a workout and seeing how those changes affect your performance in the pool.

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Practising good technique

The intensity of a swim golf set also makes it different from most other technique work that is done in the pool. Typically, that work is done at a low intensity. This is great for learning technique, however, when it comes to race day, we usually want to be swimming pretty hard AND doing it with good technique. This means that you need to practice hard swimming with good technique. Swim golf gives you a chance to take that technique for test-drive at high intensity and see how it plays out.

For all these reasons, swim golf is a staple of my swim training programs. So, get ready to say “Fore” the next time you hit the pool.

Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto. Read more about Darian here or email him at darian@teamatomica.com.  You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.