What to Do When You Are Having a Bad Swim Practice

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

Frustrated with the way training is going? Here is a 3-step plan for battling back from your next bad swim practice.

You’ve been there. I know you have.

No matter how hard you try, the water just doesn’t seem to want to work with you.

The warm-up felt labored, your stroke feels off, everything feels harder than it should, and you just stubbed your finger on the lane-rope for the second time. You ponder throwing your water bottle across the deck but you know it won’t make you feel any better.

So instead, you consider getting out of the water. Giving up.

How do I know you have been there? Because I have as well.

Yet Another Bad Swim Practice

How do we react in these moments, when the we are struggling to pull anything meaningful from our swim workout?

Sometimes we will blindly throw more effort at it, further increasing the feeling that we are spinning our wheels. Or we’ll sulk and float through the workout, doing everything at half-effort and half-focus. Or on the really bad days we’ll completely give up.

These feelings are understandable, and not uncommon, but if you are serious about improving your performance in the water you will have to learn to make the most of every session in the water.

Does this mean changing up your expectations? Yes. After all, that blistering speed that sees you nearly break a PB in practice won’t always be there. But does that mean the practice should be discarded? Of course not.

How to Reset Yourself During a Bad Practice

When you feel the workout getting away from you, or the walls are beginning to close in, and you feel like throwing in the towel, try this 3-step “reset” plan.

While it won’t always make up for the broader reasons you are having a bad workout—terrible nutrition or lack of sleep, for instance—it can help you to refocus and wipe the slate clean. And sometimes that’s more than enough to turn you around mentally in order to salvage the workout.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Get back to basics.

On days where I feel like I am fighting the water it is almost always because I am rushing my technique.

Instead of locking in the fundamentals and mechanics of my stroke to swim fast I throw round after round of effort and intensity at my swimming in a hope to muscle my way through the bad workout. And while swimming with high effort may give you a great workout, if you aren’t swimming with killer technique you aren’t becoming a better swimmer.

The secret behind why focusing on your technique is so powerful is that it allows you to focus on the things you control.

You can’t always count on feeling great in the water, or not being stressed out, or having a great night of sleep. But being able to swim with good mechanics is something you do have control over.

2. Hit it repeatedly.

One lap swum with great technique will give you a boost. But a whole bunch of lengths completed with great mechanics will turn that bad session around in a hurry.

Swimming with great technique brings with it greater rewards than just having a more mechanically sound stroke. Beyond becoming a more efficient swimmer, swimming with sultry technique over and over again provides you with repeated exposure to success. Which will help talk you down off the ledge of wanting to give up on the workout.

Doing something well, and doing it over and over again will provide that sense of control and achievement we are looking for. You can’t help but feel pretty good about yourself when you are displaying overt excellence regularly.

A more efficient stroke and a renewed sense of optimism regarding our swimming? Yes, please.

3. Ramp up the effort.

Now, when your mechanics have been dialed in, and you are comfortable doing it with some measure of frequency, it’s time to ramp up the effort again.

Don’t feel the need to dive back into 100% effort. Build into it if necessary. All that focus on technique work is pointless if you revert to poor fundamentals.

I understand the desire to want to get back at it right away. Effort is the easiest way to measure performance and progression in the water. After all, having great technique is tough to develop, and even tougher to accurately measure.

But if you manage to keep the gains from your technical work, and apply it to your high effort swimming, you will double up on improving.

In sum:

Technique, repetition, effort.

Swimmers measure their practice in terms of progression. When they lift themselves out of the water at the end of practice, and are mentally going over their workout, the one question that dictates how they decide whether the session was good or bad is a form of:

“Did I become a better swimmer today?”

When you apply this 3-step plan to your workouts (even the good ones) the answer will inevitably be yes.

When in the throes of a terrible workout dial it back. Focus on the fundamentals. Hit it repeatedly. And then re-introduce effort and intensity.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES & CLUBS: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which includes a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.

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Anyone know if this lochte photo is from an actual race??

It is.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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