“I Work Hard at Practice… But it Feels Like I’m Not Improving.”

Here’s a chart-topping classic that I get emailed all the time:

I work my tail off at practice, but it doesn’t seem like I am improving that much.

The origin story of why your swim practices are yielding unsatisfactory, boring, or even backwards results could start in a lot of different places.

But while there is an endless variety of reasons why things have stalled out for you in the water, there are a handful which happen more frequently.

Let’s get after those bad boys in this post, and afterwards if you still haven’t found a way forward with your training, I’d like to hear from you.

Let us be getting after it with four questions:

1. Are your expectations of faster swimming realistic given how often and how hard you are working at practice?

Working hard a couple times at practice and then expecting to be a significantly better swimmer is unrealistic.

And yet, we are all subject to this kind of bias when it comes to our swimming.

We throw down a couple whammy workouts and then get confused why we haven’t dropped five seconds on our 100 free PB.

Look back at your training history (you are tracking your workouts…right?) and see how consistent you’ve actually been in the pool.

Rip through the pages of your recent workouts and get a bird’s eye perspective of your training.

Stepping back and detaching yourself from the highs (or lows!) of your most recent practices will help you develop more rational expectations about your swimming.

2. Is a somewhat diminished performance “normal” given the training load you are currently under?

This was a hard one for me to fully grasp as an age group swimmer, and there are moments today (still!) where I struggle with it.

Training is hard, and even though you might feel mostly recovered the day after a hard workout, that fatigue and stress accumulates. There are things you can do to help flush the fatigue (more on that later), but as you stack and stack all that hard work it’s putting your body under an accumulated amount of stress.

Here’s the best example I can think of to illustrate what I am babbling about.

Let’s say that you are in the first few weeks of a heavy aerobic-focused cycle. You are putting in heavy mileage in the pool, putting up some of the biggest numbers of the season.

All the distance work.

At a random practice, your coach decides to have you go off the blocks for a few sprint efforts. I got this, you think to yourself. I’ve been training like a monster and should be able to whip on my practice best times.

But when you launch yourself off the block and dive into the water, your stroke isn’t as “speedy” as you are used to.

Your catch, pull, and even your kick… They all feel like you are swimming/fighting through a big tub of Jello pudding.

By the time you huff and puff into the finish you’ve swum a time that is far slower than you’d hoped, and even slower than what you’ve done before for a similar effort.

Does this mean your work until this point has been for nothing?

Of course not.

The goal of this particular part of the season is to give yourself a bigger foundation for the speedier and more intense work to come later.


Do your expectations line up with where you are at in your training cycle? In your season?

The frustrating part of this scenario is that you are doing all the right things.

You are showing up, crushing the meters and yards, and not immediately reaping the benefits. Which can seem totally backwards.

But as long as you are sticking to the process, those improvements will blossom in a violent way later in the season when you get some rest underneath you.

Okay, now that we have dealt with managing expectations, let’s get under the hood of your process.

More specifically…

3. Are you progressing with your process?

“Working hard” is a fairly vague term.

I can jump in the pool and spin my arms as fast as I can the length of the pool, which technically is a hard effort, even though I performed the lap with brutal technique and form.

Kind of a goofy example, I know, but hard work isn’t just straight-up physical effort. It’s the mental focus that you bring with you to practice each day.

If you are feeling stuck, and you aren’t improving as fast as you’d like, hit up other areas of your swimming where you can be better today.

This goes back to the recent newsletter where I discussed overcoming the frustration of not hitting your race pace targets in practice.

Find something else to improve on.

Such as:

  • Stroke counts. Do each 25/50/100 with a couple less strokes. The fastest swimmers are the most efficient swimmers. You can be a little more efficient today by maximizing each stroke you take.
  • Dolphin kicks. How many dolphin kicks are you doing per wall? Add just one to each push-off and turn. Over a 4,000m short course workout, that is an extra 160 dolphin kicks. Over a week of practices that is well over 1,200!
  • Technical awesomeness. Swim every lap—from warm-up to warm-down, with the best stroke you can muster on that give day. From streamline to flip-turn to kicking through your hand entry. Be a technique assassin.

There is an important distinction between working hard and working hard at being better.

It’s easy-ish to go to the pool and try hard.

It’s another to try hard while also trying hard to improve all the technical aspects of your swimming.

The good news about being this kind of focused in the water is that you will never run out of opportunities to improve.

4. Is your hard work being matched by “hard” recovery?

Are you recovering as hard as you are training in the pool?

Okay, so I know that you work hard. And you work hard at being a better swimmer, too.

Are you extending that focus and commitment to how you recover outside of the water?

Working hard from the time you get into the water until the moment you *mostly* complete the warm-up is awesome, but if you are treating your body like a dime-store light-saber, thrashing it all hours of the night, never giving it a chance to recover and grow stronger away from the pool, it’s not realistic to think that you are going to be improve.

Here’s a sneaky fact about improvement: It starts at the pool but happens outside of the water.

Those little performance upgrades are lost after practice when you don’t warm down or stretch. At night when you should be sleeping but you are playing around on your smartphone. When you bypass healthier eating options for something convenient and sugary.

Often swimmers will think that they are over-training, when in fact they are under-recovering.

There is a huge difference between these two things.

If you work super hard at practice each day, but aren’t feeling the effects of it (i.e. faster swimming, larger capacity for training), take a serious look at what you are doing between workouts.

How well am I sleeping, eating and hydrating outside of practice?

Sure, you spend two hours pushing yourself at practice, but what are you doing with the other twenty-two hours?

Eating junk food?

Not getting enough sleep?

Staying up late?

Not managing stress?

Spinning your social media feeds like the Wheel of Fortune?

I know…

It’s easier to tell the story that you are “over-training” or that you have irrevocably plateaued because it means you don’t have to take a critical eye at how you are taking care of your body outside of the pool.

It means you can tell yourself the story that you worked so hard that it’s too hard. That you red-lined your Lambo of a body to the point that it reached its capacity.

But the more likely reality is that you drove that sports car like a maniac without proper maintenance, sub-par fuel, no oil changes, and whatever other automotive analogies you can think of.

Taking better care of yourself outside of the pool is a mindset and a set of habits in themselves. It’s looking at each decision you make over the course of the day with a side of, “Is this helping or hurting my performance?” and picking from the help column more often.

Some swimmers live their day with the thought of “refilling the tank” motivating everything they do, from meal choices, to trading in sodas for water, to getting to bed an hour earlier.

These things aren’t crazy-big in themselves, and that’s why it can be so easy to shrug them off as inconsequential. But those micro-decisions compound quickly.

Tell yourself that you are over-training, and you can keep skating by with crappy lifestyle and nutrition habits.

But if you are frustrated with not improving at practice, make sure that you are recovering as hard as you are training.


We covered a lot of ground here.

There might be a few of you who believe they are on top of these four things, and are still struggling with a capital S-T-R.

If so, holler at me on the Twitter (or via the newsletter if you don’t want to broadcast your struggles) and let me know what you think is the cause of your performance struggles.

I’d love to hear from ya.

For the rest, here’s a quick set of questions to wield when you aren’t improving at practice, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are my expectations realistic given how consistently I have been working hard at the pool?
  • Are my performances in practice more indicative of where I’m at in the season?
  • Am I progressing with my process? Am I swimming with a focus on becoming a better swimmer or am I just flailing through practice?
  • Am I recovering with as much intensity as I am training? Am I taking care of my body with the same ambition that I have for my goals in the pool?


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 PoolHe’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.


Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

This is exactly what I’ve been looking for thanks Oliver for writing this. Motivation in the pool has been tough recently with having less practices a week.

1 year ago

Adding dolphin kicks off a wall (more than you’re used to) is real. I’m in my 40s, and after 20 years away from the pool I’m a recent master’s swimmer. Dolphin kicks off the wall while swimming freestyle just wasn’t much of a thing in my highschool 25 years ago. For me, on a distance set – 2 dolphins per wall is still a big effort, and I feel the lack oxygen, but 2 is more than I’d do last year. Improvements sometimes feel slow, but they do come.

3 years ago

this really helped. thank you! 🙂

3 years ago

This article will be mandatory reading for my swimmers! If they don’t get instant results or drop times, they are demoralized. They don’t think about (1) the number of workouts they missed due to injury or illness, (2) the number of times they stopped during the main set because of equipment failure or not feeling good, (3) the number of times they stayed up late to watch videos, look at Instagram, chat with friends or play video game, (4) their lack of follow through on technique changes they know they need to make or working on streamline and/or underwater kicks off every wall. just to name a few things I see on a regular basis that impede progress. I try… Read more »

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  owcoach
1 year ago

Or the number of times they were overtrained.

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 …

Read More »