Swimming "Controlled Descend" Sets

Dec 22, 2005
Swimming "Controlled Descend" Sets

In many of our practices, we utilize "descend" sets. This simply means that the swims at the end of the set are FASTER than the swims at the beginning of the set.


Descend sets are valuable in many ways: 
 They allow the swimmer to dial in their stroke as they prepare for the faster swims.
2. They allow for the swimmer to warm-up as they prepare.
3. They allow for the swimmer to loosen down AFTER the fast swim.
4. They ask the swimmer to use a planned, stepped, and thoughtful approach to the set, rather than just getting through it.
5. They help you develop a sense of PACE -- starting conservatively and building with control to a fast effort.

A simple example of a descend set would be:
12 x 200 on 3:00, descending 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12. This means that #4, 8, and 12 are as fast as possible (or to the coach's discretion as to how fast)...but they're the fast efforts. Numbers 1, 5, and 9 are the slowest and are used either as warm-up (#1), or loosen down (#5 and #9).

Less experienced swimmers use the 'hunt and peck' method of descending their time. Many times, swimming as easy as possible to give themselves room to go faster and faster. More often than not, they'll either go too slow and miss the interval, or will make #2 or #3 too fast and have a hard time making significant improvement on the last one. In other words, it's more of a guessing game. Nothing wrong with that, and this is how they'll learn, but it's just as fun to watch a young swimmer trying to figure out the times -- and effort -- needed to go just a bit faster, as it is to watch an elite swimmer chop systematically down on the time.

The CLOCK becomes a very important tool in a descend set. Checking the clock during the 50, 100, and 150 turns is commonplace. Making sure you're 'on track' is part of the game. This also helps to teach swimmers how to grab a quick snapshot of the clock, and figure their splits on the fly. Reading the clock is imperative to improving as a swimmer and, let's face it, once you reach a certain level, the clock is looked at all the time. Many will say this slows the turns, which it certainly has a tendency to do, but there is also a mental factor that figuring your times while you're swimming helps with. I think it all washes out in the end. You're more intrigued as a swimmer when you know what's going on. And when you get good at reading the clock during a turn (or just before or after), checking the clock doesn't take any longer at all.

Using a more systematic approach to these sets begins to expose a more experienced, and more knowledgeable, swimmer. We call these sets, 'planned descends' and nothing is left to chance.

An example of the above set as a 'planned descend' would be the following. If I want the swimmer to finish the 4th 200 at 2:15, and we have four 200s to do that in, we'd back off five seconds for each 200, and start #1 at 2:30, or as follows:
#1: 2:30
#2: 2:25
#3: 2:20
#4: 2:15

We can continue the challenge by asking the swimmer to finish at 2:10 in the second set:
#5: 2:25
#6: 2:20
#7: 2:15
#8: 2:10

Finally, the swimmer progresses to 2:05 at the end of the third set:
#9: 2:20
#10: 2:15
#11: 2:10
#12: 2:05

This descends not only the individual 200s, but also the SETS of 200s, progressively making them faster overall.

In swimming a set like this, it's very important that the swimmer doesn't leave anything to luck, or chance, but rather is ALWAYS in control of the situation. With this in mind, encourage the swimmers to TAKE OUT the 1st 100 even on the easier swims. What this means is that in order to accomplish the 2:05 on the final 200 of the 3rd set, the swimmer will have to take out the 1st 100 in about 1:00. With this known at the beginning of the set, all of the 200s of the 3rd set should be swum with the 1st 100 at or about 1:00. This begins to set up the pace, but at the same time, allows the swimmer wiggle room on the 2nd 100. Being AHEAD of pace means that they can shut down the effort on the 2nd 200, and actually begin their rest prior to making it to the wall.

I do also understand that many times, the 1st swim after the fast swim is VERY slow, almost used totally as a recovery swim. This is fine if the fastest swim was all out. In a controlled descend set, don't allow too much flexibility right after the fastest swim. Maintaining control while tired is also a key component of great swimming.

Too many swimmers try to chase down times, or competitors. This concept of trying to get ahead of pace, or ahead of other swimmers, gives the swimmer more of a sense of control and confidence. Not only that, these sets demand the swimmer is always paying attention.

Failure to descend can mean the demand was too high, the swimmer couldn't figure out the equation or lost focus, or...they just weren't into it. Most of these can be dealt with through repetition, while the last one may have to be dealt with with pushups. After a couple 100 of those, they'll start to focus. :)

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