Masters Swim vs Swim Lessons

>> Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here's an e-mail I got from someone named Amanda last week:

Hey Steve~

I've been reading your blog for awhile now and have a question. I've been a running for pretty much my whole life and my goal is to start doing triathlons this summer. The only thing that has held me back in the past is swimming. I can swim but I've never been able to figure out the breathing thing. I've had friends try to teach me but I end up getting frustrated after about 3 strokes because I'm gasping for air. So my question is, do you think I would be better off taking a Adult Swimming lesson class or do you think a few private sessions would be best? My form could definitely use a lot of work too. I'm just trying to keep the cost down, I don't want to waste my time in a swimming lesson class if the first few sessions are basic get used to the water stuff, ya know. Any suggestions you have would be great. I appreciate it! Also if you know of a great place to take lessons let me know.


Happy Holidays and Happy Training!!


PS Henry's pretty damn cute!

First of all: Yes. Henry IS pretty damn cute. See?

Doing some light calisthenics and stretching...
it's how we start every morning.

Second, I'm MAYBE not the best person to ask for swimming advice. Sure, my name IS "Steve in a Speedo," but I've only swam twice in December for a total of 3200 yards. And in the last 4 months, I've swam... wait... really? Well, I guess I've swam twice for a total of 3200 yards. Since mid-August. Yep.

So swimming advice from me? No.

Baby-making advice? Come on over. I'll give you some pointers.


But because you asked, here's my short answer: do both, but start with the private lesson.

I've had 3 private lessons from the swim coach at the Y in the last few years. They each cost $16. The first 2 were about a month apart in 2008 so I could do what Amanda is talking about: work on my breathing. I did my first 2 years of triathlons (including my first Half and Full Ironman) by rolling to my back every-other breath so I could breathe for longer. Really! Having those 2 lessons with the coach at the Y were GREAT! At the first lesson, she assessed where I was and what drills I could do to get better. At the second lesson, she confirmed that I was doing everything right, and then gave me a few more drills to take it one step farther.

Then I had my 3rd lesson about a year ago where I had her look at my kick. My kick sucks (like most age group triathletes), and it really could be improved. Again, she gave me some drills to work on making it better.

I've never taken a Masters class. I know it's about time I do. But it's intimidating! If you only really need to know freestyle, do you really need to take the time to learn 3 other strokes? (Which are commonly taught at Masters.) I've heard 2 different people talking at my Y after a Masters class that went something like this: "I was a swimmer in high school / college, but this is too much - I thought I'd give this a try, but I'm not ready for this."

But honestly, I think I SHOULD start taking Masters classes. They're free at my Y. Maybe they could help with my stroke. Maybe I'd push more in a group setting. I need the kick-in-the-pants. I'm about 3-4 seconds slower / 100 than I was last year. (Now I'm around 1:43 / 100 during a 1500 swim, and last year I was under 1:40 for a similar swim. If you're faster than me, you're thinking "that's no big deal." If you're slower than me, you're thinking "that's no big deal." If you swim very comparable times, you're thinking "yeah, that's a decent difference - get swimming, Steve!")

So my advice for Amanda is this: If you can find a Y or a gym that offers one-on-one classes, take one and schedule another for 6 weeks later. That person should be able to easily "find your flaws" and give you tips / drills to work on that. You should learn a lot. After that, consider a Masters class. But I'd recommend getting your stroke looked at first so you aren't just making it worse by pushing real hard in a Masters class.

In a sightly related story, the most recent "Swimsuit Issue" of Triathlete Magazine (the one with a Minnesotan on the cover) contained an article regarding training ALONE vs IN A CLASS. This ISN'T exactly what Amanda is asking about, but it's related. Here's a back-and-forth from pro triathlete / swimmer Sara McLarty and level 3 USAT-certified coach Greg Mueller:

Sara: I am a strong proponent of swimming with other people as often as possible. My Masters swim group trains with 4 to 5 people in each short-course lane, and the pools gets a lot choppier to simulate race-day conditions. People get to practice drafting, sighting, passing, and bumping other swimmers in the pool - I rarely have any athletes freak out when they do their first open-water swim.

Greg: I feel strongly that most triathletes need to be less overwhelmed in swimming preparation so that they can focus on their stroke. By jamming people into a lane, I see many newer swimmers getting lost in the mix. I also think that the drafting effect can give false fitness confidence.

Sara: The group dynamic of training is an easy way to work harder. There's nothing like taking a breath to the side and seeing the guy in the next lane ahead by half a body length. Even if athletes come to practice tired, when they jump in the water with their peers, all their excuses are left behind and they just work hard.

Greg: But anytime you put highly competitive athletes in close proximity to each other and "challenge" them, you get exactly what you described: hard swimming. Most triathletes lack simple aerobic fitness, bilateral breathing, bilateral strength, and pacing skills. I don't believe a group is the best atmosphere to foster proper swim development.

Sara: I strongly agree that technique is the most critical aspect of swim training for beginner triathletes. I work with countless swimmers in private sessions, clinics, etc. When they are ready to make the next step, I encourage them to attend group workouts. If it's organized correctly, the newer swimmers will be grouped with people of similar ability, where they have an opportunity to practice their skills but also get the hang of swim "practice" and not just swim "laps."

Triathlete Final Thoughts: Most people swim harder in a group, similar to speed work for running. But if your technique could use some work, make sure you get in "you" time to focus on your stroke without outside pressure to keep up.

So I guess I have 2 questions for you all:

1. What thoughts do you have for Amanda? Am I leading her in the right direction? Help her out!

2. What are your thoughts / experiences with 1-on-1 lessons vs Masters "group" classes? I haven't taken a Masters class before, so I KNOW I don't have all the info. Help ME out!

Good luck Amanda! Thanks everyone for your thoughts! I've got something else swim-related that I'll be posting next week, so check back.


Jenny Davidson 8:48 AM, December 21, 2011  

I think 2-3 one-on-one lessons are a great idea, though I am startled that they can be had so cheaply - in NYC it is more like 100-125 for one lesson! NB most masters workouts are not "classes" as such, more like an organized group workout with assigned sets and sendoff times for different lanes. The masters team may also organize stroke clinics, for swimmers who want to work on specific strokes, but it wouldn't necessarily be the case that there was much stroke coaching during the workout itself. I definitely encourage finding a team to swim with, as it's fun and motivating, but if you don't already know the other 3 strokes, it probably makes more sense to concentrate on freestyle only for now. (A lot of the less experienced people at masters swim do free, back and breaststroke but no fly, and you can certainly easily substitute free for fly at a workout of that sort, but I would think it stops being fun if you really don't know the other strokes and keep on getting given IM sets!) You can also keep an eye out for "clinics" or group classes, often directed towards triathletes, that will improve your freestyle stroke - ask at local triathlon store whether they know of anything. 2 best things you can do: swim 3x week, even if it's truly just for 20 mins (swimming is a technique sport, and it's hard to develop "feel for the water" without frequency); and sign up for an open-water swim race next summer before your first triathlon, so that you can acclimate yourself to the things that are different about swimming in a lake/river vs. swimming in a pool.

Emily W 9:16 AM, December 21, 2011  

I agree with Jenny that Masters is not a "class" and might be a bit beyond what she needs right now. Although I do think you should go, Steve.

I would recommend that she ask locally for suggestions from other triathletes. I learned that a well known Masters program near me has a technique class that you can sign up for seperately. Also, like suggested, there are occasionally clinics that come up.

If she has access to an Adult Swim Class, as it seems, I wouldn't discount that. I might try to get in touch with the instructor to ask what the format is. If she's at the point of struggling with breathing it might help, even if she has to sit through some boring stuff.

I took a few Total Immersion lessons and that, plus just plugging away in the pool, got me going.

Theresa @ActiveEggplant 9:46 AM, December 21, 2011  

I learned how to swim in Jan 2010 by taking a couple free lessons at the YMCA. While I definitely didn't get any earth-shattering advice, I got some tips that made swimming/breathing SO much easier for me! I would like to take some more advanced classes/lessons and have someone critique me now that I've been swimming for a couple years though.

My advice for Amber is to see what your gym/YMCA offers - even a little bit of coaching will make a HUGE difference! (At least it did for me anyway.) At my Y, if there are people of varying abilities in the class, the coach will give each student drills do to based on what they can handle, so she'll likely come away with tips she can use even if there are others in the class that can't even get their face wet yet.

Happy Swimming!

p.s. that onesie Henry is wearing just might be the most awesome onesie on the planet!

SwimBekiSwim 10:11 AM, December 21, 2011  

I'm a learn-to-swim instructor and lead an "adult coached lap swim" once a week for my local community ed. Our adult beginner classes usually only have one or two people per session so they end up being essentially private lessons and our coached lap swim is usually very flexible. I end up givng the people that want workouts a fexible workout for the day and then help the others that want more stroke refinement. I'm not sure if the swim program I work for is unique in this or not, but I'd def check out some community ed programs, I would be VERY surprised if the adult "beginners" classes weren't as flexible and personalized as ours are.

I also frequently swim with my fellow tri-buddies and help them out with their stroke/technique/endurance. I really think the biggest part of swimming is sticking with it. Learn to love the beauty of the swim and it will be easy in no time!

Kelly 10:28 AM, December 21, 2011  

I swam on a Master's swim team last year. This particular team had competitive, fitness, learn to swim and triathalon groups. The triathalon group trained primarily freestyle, with emphasis on form and building upper body strength (so you could "save" your legs for the run & bike) and they also had organized runs & bike training you could join in. If you joined on the tri side of the team and found you really loved the swimming, it was easy to train with the competitive group once in awhile to work on other strokes. If she could find a Masters program with that kind of diversity it would have everything she needs.

Steve Gupta 11:11 AM, December 21, 2011  

I got into back into triathlon in 2009 with a weak swimming background.
I took a couple of classes through the rec center that were not helpful.
I did a swimlabs session where they video tape you and give you drills and that was OK.
I have been swimming with a Masters team for about 2 years and that has been incredible. I think it is coach dependent and my coach will give me pointers from time to time that help a lot. I have learned backstroke and breastroke, but my butterfly is not there. I have also started learning flip turns. Being part of a masters team has increased my time in the water and is very motivating. My freestyle times have improved from 2:30/100 to under 2:00/100 and I am much more efficient.

Laura 11:29 AM, December 21, 2011  

I think Master's swimming may be a bit premature. I think you need to be comfortably swimming 1000 yards before you're ready to start in with the group.

When I was learning to swim, I used the "Total Immersion" book. I know you can go to their clinics as well, but they're expensive. I just did the drills in the book, on my own, and it got me ready for my first swim with no back stroking necessary.

Steve Stenzel 11:45 AM, December 21, 2011  

Great tips everyone!

Laura, I used Total Immersion too. It got me "comfortable" in the water, but I never got the final "breathing" step down that well. I recommend TI to people who need a lot of freestyle help.

Kelly, I'd LOVE it if our Masters classes had a "triathlon-specific" group! That's awesome! You're lucky!

I like what people are saying about swim frequency. I really like Jenny Ds last 2 points: swim 3x / week (ALWAYS good advice), and sign up for an OWS race before your first tri (that's not something I'd thought of before).

Thanks everyone! Keep your thoughts / experiences coming!

Jeremy 12:08 PM, December 21, 2011  

I think a good masters program will be great!

In my experience the master's group will have a huge range of abilities. So if you're just getting into it you will be grouped with people who are similar. A good coach will be able to give you pointers, and will probably be willing to spend a little one on one time.

Also, most masters program have a visitation deal. Call up the coach, and ask if you can just stop by and try a workout one day. They'll be able to gauge your level and you'll know approximately what you're signing up for.

When you graduate from learning to breath efficiently there is plenty of room to grow, if you become the fastest person in your masters group, you're probably also pulling the fastest times in your swim legs during triathlons, time to work on the bike :)

For people in the Minneapolis metro area, I definitely recommend the Hopkins masters group (, fantastic group of people with a wide range of abilities, and an awesome coach.

M 12:31 PM, December 21, 2011  

Much like Amanda, I was a runner who made the transition. I took a couple months of swim lessons from my gym (Lifetime Fitness), and I attended a few clinics from local triathletes. With all that combined - and lots of OWS practice - it finally hit about 5 months ago. If anything, Amanda just needs to learn lots of patience and be willing to stick with it!!! I cried in my goggles nearly every swim for at least the first month or so :-s

Jamie 1:14 PM, December 21, 2011  

As an Eagle Scout that didnt even get his swimming merit badge I can relate Amanda. I had learned enough not to drown and last year I took a Comm Ed swim class....not helpful! But I decided to do the LTF Triathlon so I needed to start swimming. I found a Begineers Master's class at my Lifetime Fitness, and that was the ticket for me. Form, breathing, drills tarught by Coach Teresa who is awesome! She focuses on your skill level. The group classes are great and its a 8 week program that you can take multiple times (3x right now, and I am going to take the Master's in Feb, yikes!). When I first started I couldnt even breathe and would go all the way down the pool without breathing. Now I have got the breathing down and I am working on my form/kick. Try to find a begineers Masters class if you can, they are great! Plus my coach has open water swims that she supervises in the summer for all her swimmers who are doing triathlons and thats a great experience to have!

coach dion 1:37 AM, December 22, 2011  

in the old days I could only make it across the pool because I could hold my breath... but I love the water and in my 20's I hit the pool on my own till I could breath on one side. Nothing fancy, just every stroke. It took time but I was confortable with it, and I evern swam a mile race, then years later I did an Ironman! But both swims were slow and I swam all over the place, so I started again. this time just breathing on the other side. to start with I was tired after 1 lap, but it got beter and beter.

I'm still a slow swimmer and if I do Ironman again I would like a couple of lessons to fix my strokes. I don't think you need a squad, just lessons. I will knock up the miles and train myself.

Good luck

Beth 8:21 AM, December 22, 2011  

I usually swim alone because other people distract me and/or get in the way of my workout. I do think I might push myself harder if I swam with others, but I get in a better workout overall by myself. However, I am already a strong swimmer and have the discipline to really really push on hard sets. For a beginner, a combination of alone and in a group is probably the best plan.

Jamie 2:24 PM, December 22, 2011  

I second your advice about individual swim lessons. Specific problems (breathing) need specific solutions.

If she was just trying to figure out the whole freestyle stroke, that would be a different story.

Carolina John 7:33 AM, December 23, 2011  

I still think joining the Masters team was the best thing I ever did. I get plenty of form correction and drills from the coaches, the workouts are way more interesting and longer than anything I would do on my own, and the social aspects are legendary.

Adding other strokes besides freestyle gives you a muscular balance that you can't get from swimming free alone. Learn the other strokes well and it will make you a better freestyler. Just like regular bike riding makes you a stronger and faster runner. You want the balance.

Erin 8:13 AM, December 23, 2011  

I started at pretty much the same place this time last year. I took a few individual lessons that helped at least get me a couple laps before feeling like I was going to die.
There is no masters swimming in my area so I can't speak from experience, but I think you would probably want to hold off on that until you can breathe somewhat comfortably.
Other things that helped me were the Total Immersion books and videos, and a triathlon swim clinic at a nearby college.
I know it's hard, but try not to get frustrated. You will get it figured out. Good luck!

Triathlete Steph 2:09 PM, December 26, 2011  

Some great advice! I absolutely love Total Immersion (TI) so if you haven't checked it out, it's a great (& free) place to start. The youtube channel is tsiwim.

It's all relative obviously but here is my story:

In 2010 I entered a few triathlons after pretty much having trained myself, particularly in the swim (as I had little to no background).

Since then, I have joined a tri-squad and taken a 6 week Swim Correction Course. I also still swim with the Beginner group as I feel I get so much more out of it (at this time of year as we're mid-season in AUS), rather than just smashing the kms without any focus.

I have now cut 4 minutes off my race time and feel almost recharged after the first leg rather than bloody exhausted due to ineffieciency (i.e. energy wastage).

I went to one Masters class, but just felt like I was imprinting inefficiencies (as they were too fast!). This may not apply to you, if your times are comparable to who you are swimming with, but remember swimming is ALL about technique and if you follow the TI theory (how good is it Erin?!) sustainability not velocity.

SO, here's what I think any beginner should do.

1. Start building your confidence solo in the pool, practicing bilateral breathing and focusing on the key techniques: high elbow, finger tip drag, constant pressure on the water, hand entry at 11 and 1 o'clock...
2. Find a Beginner Course: a 6-8 week progressive course should only cost ~$100 and should teach you some valuable drills, particularly in regards to breathing (do you keep your head high in the water and roll with the shoulder to breathe? Is your body rotating to breathe or are you just lifting your chin/moving your head?)
3. Practice, Practice, Practice!
4. Start to get the kms in! 3 swims a week - 1 recovery (perhaps after a big weekend of training), 1 drill-based (i.e. use pool aids!) & 1 distance based (aim to add 200m/session).

I hope this helps! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

P.s. check out my blog: and follow me on Twitter: triathletesteph

Sara McLarty 6:22 PM, December 27, 2011  

Hi Steve and Amanda!
Steve tweeted this blog post to me and asked that I comment.
First, I'm so happy to see that Amanda is looking for advice and has received a lot of feedback. Triathletes are a community that shares their experiences freely!
Second, from my coaching experience, I highly recommend what Steve has suggested: take a private lesson with a knowledgeable swim coach. He or she should provide you with a few major corrections/tips that will make your breathing and form more efficient.
As with Steve's experience, I have my athletes come back between 2-5 weeks later (depending on their availability and weekly swimming frequency). At this second session, we asses the changes and look for a couple more improvements and drills to send you home with.
Finally, a Masters swimming group can be a positive or negative experience based on the coach's method of coaching. If the group has a high percentage of adult triathletes that are learning how to swim better, then the coach will be familiar with your circumstances and look to help you rather than just spit out a workout and let chaos reign. I can only speak for my Masters group when I say that I provide a workout for the INDIVIDUAL rather than the GROUP!
I wish you both the best of luck as you continue your triathlon journey. If you are ever in the Central Florida area, please let me know and I would love the opportunity to work with you in a private swim session at our beautiful pool in Clermont!
Have a wonderful New Year!

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